I remember clearly the moment I realized I had overcome my mental illnesses. One morning I looked in the bathroom mirror and saw spiders crawling all over my face. “There’s no spiders,” I said to myself.
“There’s no spiders.” When I thought that phrase without emotion, that was the moment when I realized everything had changed. It wasn’t that I stopped hallucinating. I still hallucinate. It was that the hallucinations no longer affected me emotionally.
Like I said, I still hallucinate. I still see things that aren’t there. Recently I was walking around Lake Washington at night, which is always when the visions are strongest. I saw a horse walking towards me on the path. Now the horse was surrounded by all sorts of weird, sparkling lights. Fairy lamps, if you will. I thought to myself, “Oh, hallucinations. You are not going to fool me this time. There are no fairies here, and there are certainly no gold, blue and pink fairy lamps. Enough of this.”
As I kept walking I noticed something strange. It took about two minutes, but I noticed that the horse was really silent. It’s hooves weren’t making any noise. I kept expecting to hear the “clop, clop, clop” sound but it wasn’t there. Finally, reality set in.
There was no horse walking towards me at all. There was nothing there.
I still maintain that I have overcome my mental illnesses, and I have. The key is the lack of emotion. And I don’t mean that I necessarily always can experience a hallucination with no reaction whatsoever. Sometimes I see things that will scare me for an instant. I will feel that immediate sense of fear.
For instance, recently, when I got in my car I saw a man dressed in red standing over me right outside of the driver’s side window. For all intents and purposes, you can just imagine that I saw Satan standing right next to my car, staring down at me. For an instant, of course I felt fear. Then I immediately recognized the emotion and deescalated in my head.
I was not always so good at deescalation. I often talk about my lost years, the 15 years that mental illness took from me. From about age 20 until about age 35 I was lost. I barely even have memories of those years. They are like a black hole. I have many vivid memories from my teenage years, and many vivid recent memories. But I only have a few memories of those fifteen years in the middle, and they are weak, diminished, flat, like a faded old photograph.
When I think about what went wrong during those lost years, the biggest difference now is that I am not isolated. I believe it is the isolation that gets us stuck in our own heads. Isolation feeds the escalating emotions of rage and jealousy , causing them to build on each other until foolish or disturbing actions result.
I remember once when I went to my band-mate’s apartment for a practice. I knocked on the door and he was not there. I heard a “v-shaw, v-shaw, v-shaw” sound coming from the apartment above his. I immediately became completely convinced that whoever lived upstairs had murdered my band-mate, and he was sawing the body into pieces.
So I went back to my own apartment, because my band-mate had given me a spare key to his own apartment in case he ever got locked out. I returned to his apartment and began rummaging through everything, trying to find evidence of a struggle or a murder. After about 15 minutes, reality set in.
We lived in a very busy, vibrant, crowded area of Capitol Hill in Seattle. The intersections are always packed with pedestrians. Whenever I thought about this story, one of the striking things about it is that, when I tried to remember the walk between our two apartments, I remembered the streets being absolutely empty. Of course, that’s impossible. And I think the fact that my mind created those empty streets is a powerful illustration of how isolation transforms mere hallucinations into something much more disturbing.
See the first step is that there is a hallucination. The next step is the emotional reaction to the hallucination, and whether or not that emotional reaction escalates. The final step is action. And if there’s anything that’s become clear to me these last few years, it’s that we all end up making decisions with our emotions.
Here is a story I have told hundreds of times, in every class on personal finance I have ever taught, and in more sermons than I care to remember. In the book “Descartes Error”, Antonio Damassio describes a man with a rare mental condition: he did not experience emotion at all. This man drove to a doctor’s appointment in an ice storm, and he was puzzled that so many people had skidded off the road. He was confused as to why people hit the brakes when they drove over an ice patch, since everyone knows you should accelerate through those patches. Then you won’t skid off the road.
This man with no emotions didn’t feel fear. So as a result, when he hit an ice patch, he just did what was purely rational. He accelerated.
When the meeting was over, the doctor asked him if he wanted to meet next Tuesday or next Thursday. He went back and forth between Tuesday and Thursday for half an hour, listing all the pros and cons of each day. (There was no reason to choose one day over the other.) He couldn’t decide. Finally, the doctor said, “We’ll meet on Tuesday.” The man said, “OK”, jotted the appointment down in his notebook, got up and left.
We’ve done studies on people with a similar condition, and they can’t decide between a blue pen and a black pen if asked to do a survey. They will literally spend hours debating all the pros and cons.
See, we all make decisions with our emotions. The primary elements of emotion are the energy they give us, and the motivation they give us. The feelings they give us are almost just a side-effect, which is why it’s so unfortunate that it’s the feelings we tend to focus on.
Once I truly understood that emotions drive decisions, I could figure out how to break the chain from having a hallucination, to experiencing an emotion, to actually acting on that emotion. And no matter what you suffer from, you can also learn to improve your decisions, your mental health and your state of mind by learning how to train your emotions.
One key is to remember that our emotions can always escalate or deescalate. And we can always stop the escalation. From whatever point we are at, it’s always possible to calm the emotional rhythms down.
The second key is that it’s much easier for emotions to escalate when we are isolated. For me, isolation is what transformed emotion into action. It’s when you get isolated that you get stuck in your own head. You start having these intense arguments with people, and you start to get really angry with them for what they said, but wait…
They didn’t actually say it. You just imagined it in your head.
It’s also isolation that leads to addictions of all sorts. Most of us probably remember the experiment with rats where the rats were given a choice between cocaine on the one side and food and water on the other. The rats chose cocaine. This was seen as evidence that cocaine is so physically addictive that rats will literally choose it over life and death.
But at some point, people realized the rat experiment had a problem. Those rats were in cages. What would happen if the rats were in a “rat park“, where they had other rats to socialize with, toys to keep them amused, and tunnels to run and hide in? Well, these rats who were not isolated didn’t choose the cocaine. They chose to live.
Folks, even rats need other rats.
We are all mirrors for each other.
How does anyone know who they really are? We know who we are because we see ourselves reflected in others. We can see how other people react to us. Whether we like it or not, other people tell us who we are, sometimes with words, sometimes with body language, sometimes with their actions. This is why an abusive relationship is so dangerous right? The abuser wants to isolate you, to bring you to the point where they are your only mirror. At that point, you will believe about yourself whatever they show you.
Isolation makes us vulnerable to abusers and con artists of all sorts. The primary reason reason some guy emails half his retirement savings to a Nigerian prince isn’t that he’s stupid. It’s that he’s isolated. And that isolation can become a vicious cycle, where you are spending your hours inside your own head, and the image you have of yourself becomes more and more distorted. In fact, speaking of con artists, when you suffer from serious mental illnesses like I do, sometimes the biggest con artist is in your own head.
How do you break the cycle?
If you know that you are caught in the downward spiral of isolation and mental illness, how do you get out?
You have to get out of your own head. And the way you do that is by connecting with others and taking action. Specifically, taking action that matters to others. And it does not have to be anything terribly complicated. I’m talking about going to see your friend’s performance, listening to someone tell their story, helping a neighbor out with some small project, visiting someone when they are sick. These actions can be very small. The point is to do something that another person values.
No matter how mentally ill I am, no matter how depressed I am, no matter how broke, lonely, or unhappy I am, my actions still matter. The way I treat other people still matters. Basic compassion, done without any clear idea of a personal reward, means that you always matter. This is the big lie of narcissism–that if you are great enough, if you are strong enough, if you win enough, then you matter. But no. Winning can feel great, but if you’ve got the wrong sort of “friends” it can also just make you lonely, and eventually isolated.
Connection, on the other hand, brings the opportunity for more connection. Just like emotions escalate so easily under conditions of isolation, connections escalate when you are mentally growing.
I crawled out of the black hole of my mental illness slowly but surely. I reached the depths of my illness while I was a musician still fantasizing about some fame and success story that would magically solve my problems. I was also working from home for a financial advisory, which turned out to be a terrible thing because it allowed me to go days without talking to anyone. I was actually better off mentally when I still had a day job at what was basically a fast-food joint.
Anyway, even during those darkest times, I did one thing right. I showed up. What I mean is that I always showed up to my friends’ performances. I did so constantly and consistently. No matter how depressed I was, I showed up. Maybe I didn’t talk to anyone. Maybe I didn’t even really want to be there. Sometimes I went to see bands that I didn’t even like that much. In other words, I often faked it. But I went, and it kept me from falling off the edge.
Then, after a disastrous attempt to live in the Mid-West, I moved back to Seattle. I started my own business and joined a network of financial advisers. Now these advisers were nearly all older than I was, and nearly all more conservative than any of my friends in Seattle. It was a second network. So I had all my bohemian musical friends, and then I had these financial advisers. The only reason I joined this group was that my associate in business, Curtis Erickson, was a part of that group. And we mostly only communicated online. Still, it was a connection.
As a financial adviser I soon learned that no one would become my client unless I listened to them. And I mean, really, listen. Maybe I didn’t always want to listen, but I learned to do it. This skill served me quite well as I tried to connect with other people, and I only learned it out of self-interest. I just wanted to get clients. Oh, and speaking of those clients, they became yet another group of friends.
Soon after starting my own business I joined the Washington Association of Accountants. I actually joined that group only because I had started doing taxes, and was hoping to find an accountant who would sell me their practice (which I incorrectly believed would be easier than getting a whole new book of clients). In other words, joining the Washington Association of Accountants was pure self-interest.
This group was, again, quite different from either my musician friends or my financial adviser friends. These accountants were exactly what you would expect accountants to be, let’s just say that. And learning from my experiences as a musician, I showed up. I kept coming to the monthly meetings. Soon, they asked me to be a vice president of the chapter, which was a lot of work. It was work that they all valued. Now my participation was not merely self-interested; I actually cared about the group.
Around that same time I started returning to Tacoma, working with my parents’ social justice connections on issues like education and incarceration. (My father was a pastor and my mother worked to help people with public housing). But the people I was associating with were younger than I was, and were pursuing different tactics than my parents had. These young professionals were both more practical and more radical than I expected. As I went back to Tacoma, I remembered why I cared about big issues like prisons. Eventually, I even started going back to my old church.
Now that church group was, again, totally different from my musician friends, my financial adviser friends, my accountant friends, and my young activist friends. The church group was all over the place politically, and nearly all older than myself. It really got interesting when my church decided to merge with the Cambodian church from whom we rented our space.
Now, with that Khmer church, I had a group of friends who had immigrated here from some place radically different from anything I had ever experienced. Verbal communication was often challenging. I had to learn how to listen and communicate in a whole new way. I had to learn how to deal with a culture that I did not understand at all. At first, that meant I often had to fake a connection until I could be around people long enough to figure out how to make a real connection.
Then I started dancing. At some point I joined the Shadow Shifters crew, a hip-hop street dance crew. These were artists, which I was familiar with, but artists from very different backgrounds than the mostly privileged musicians I was used to dealing with. For instance, the leader of my crew, Robin Rojas, is from rural Guatemala.
There are still other groups–my extended family, my old friends from the past, and so on. Today I have more groups of friends than I had friends in total during the depths of my depression.
And this means that the reflections of myself that I get back from others are less and less distorted. Let’s say Robin tells me I am disciplined. That may be true, but it is only one opinion, and a very biased one. Now if everyone in my dance crew tells me I am disciplined, there is probably some truth to it. But even if they all agree, that doesn’t prove much because they are not independent from one another. They share the same bias. They are all in the same crew.
Now if other dancers tell me I am very disciplined, that means a little bit more. But they still only see me from the perspective of dance. But if my congregation, my clients, my network of financial advisers and so on all tell me that I’m very disciplined, this is a little bit more trust-worthy.
When you go through life isolated or with only one group of friends, it is like you are trying to figure out how in shape you are by looking at fun-house mirrors that are all distorted in exactly the same way. You will look out of shape no matter what. And if you get isolated enough, your own mind will become that distorted fun-house mirror. At that point, it becomes hard to imagine that anything can really change for the better.
It’s all well and good to tell someone, “Just be yourself.” Or, “be confident, you got this!” Or, “just cheer up, look how good you have it.” But none of those tired slogans matter to anyone who is stuck in their own head. A person like I used to be, who is genuinely in bad shape, does not need slogans. I didn’t need miracle cures or self-help books or stupid catch-phrases. I needed to get out of my own head.
Here are the steps to overcoming mental illness that I believe everyone will have to take, in addition to whatever treatment or therapy is necessary. I also believe these four steps are the steps anyone needs to take if they want to change their mindset for the better. So even if you do not suffer from mental illness, please consider these four steps.
First, connect. You don’t just need close friends, you need all sorts of friends. Different groups of friends will help you see who you really are, and having multiple groups of friends also keeps your life on more of an even keel. Inevitably, one or more of my groups are consumed by drama and infighting. But because I have several groups of friends who don’t know or gossip with each other, I can avoid getting emotionally bogged down in the drama. In order to avoid isolation and abuse, you need more than one place where you can feel safe.
Second, do something that other people care about. At least listen to people. At least show up. You have to be honest here. Are you valuable to other people? Do other people care about what you do for them? Do they tell you so? Here’s a secret: If we hate ourselves, we hate ourselves because we don’t do anything that other people value. We are all mirrors for each other, and we know who we are because we see our reflections in how other people react to us. As a result, if I don’t do anything at all for other people, the reflection I see in their eyes is that I am worthless.
Furthermore, whenever you think, you are having a conversation in your head. What I have found is that, in those conversations, I talk to myself in much the same way I talk to others. See, in the end, we treat ourselves just as well or just as poorly as we treat everyone else.
Third, sometimes you just have to fake it til you make it. I hate this one. I really don’t like having to fake it. But it’s true. Sometimes, you have to fake it til you make it. If you don’t actually feel kind, considerate or compassionate towards others, fake it. Pretend to like people. At least pretend to not hate them. I will be forever grateful that for a few years I had a minimum wage food service job. It showed me that peoples’ attitudes will change when you smile, even if you really don’t want to smile. No one becomes good at anything without practice, and much of what we need to practice can’t be worked on alone. No matter what you are trying to overcome or recover from, you are occasionally going to have to be a little bit of an actor. Get over it and do it.
Fourth, never forget that no matter where you are emotionally, you can always escalate or deescalate. The option is always present. The most recent time I did prison ministry, a woman came up to me after my sermon. She told me that she had just been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. She said every time she hallucinates, she feels the fear. I said the fear will always come. And I meant that. But I also told her, “every time you feel the fear, remember that you can escalate or deescalate from that point.”
This is easy to understand but hard to put into practice, because our minds get into ruts. Once you’ve had a serious episode of depression, for instance, it becomes much more likely that you will have another serious episode. This is why professional treatment is necessary for so many of us. The way I put it is like this. I never started drinking, so it’s easy for me to not drink. It’s a lot harder for an alcoholic to not drink.
If you’ve never had a serious episode of any mental illness, it’s relatively easy to live life in such a way that you never do have a serious episode. But once you have had one, your mind is going to find sneaky ways to send you down that same path again. This is also why the only real progress is day by day, step by step.
I know that it’s one thing to understand all of this when things are going well. It’s another thing entirely to live it out under conditions of stress and conflict. But I hope reading this will give you an intellectual structure, a map for recovery, so that you can believe that there is a way out.
And there is absolutely a way out.