Where you been?

TL;DRI’ve been away for six weeks, healing from severe depression and suicidal thoughts. I’m back in Vegas now. If I see you in person and you want to know more about where I’ve been and what I’ve been going through, I’ll likely refer you to this post if you haven’t read it already. What I’m sharing here is best for me to express in writing and then discuss from there.

Dinosaur Jr - Where You Been cover

This is a difficult post for me to write. I finally decided to write it a little over a week ago after considering the fact that a post (I thought I deleted) went out for a period of time for all to see. That post was a brief goodbye note with an accompanied YouTube playlist. And when I say “goodbye”, I mean goodbye. Not to writing here. Not to social media. Not to the Internet. No, I meant goodbye to life.

As I’ve found myself warning people over the past month or so… It’s about to get dark. Real dark. (And long. Real long.)

A bad day and then some

On Tuesday, September 27th, 2016 I went hiking out to the mountains, loaded a 9mm pistol and had it pointed at my head. I came close to pulling the trigger. The only thing that kept me from taking my own life that day was the fear put in me from how incredibly loud my test shot into the nearby trees was. Hours later I was in a hospital ER room waiting to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The next morning I was placed in a psych hospital and spent two weeks there.

Knowledge can be a curse, especially when one feels unable to do anything constructive with the new found knowledge.

I’d like to say I had life scared into me once I was hospitalized but it was quite the opposite. I was completely broken and full of regret about not ending my own life. The only thing that made me determined was to get out of being locked up in a psych hospital where my internal hell became an external reality. There was no escape.

Once upon a time

Time for a little personal history. Unbeknownst to most people in my life, I’ve been struggling with severe depression and suicidal thoughts from about the first grade. That’s 30+ years of my life where I felt like I was either not meant to be alive very long or wanted to end my life to get some relief from the soul crushing sadness that haunted me on a near daily basis. I learned to hide this sadness behind laughter and a sense of humor that was sarcastic and cynical. That humor also helped me hide another reality I didn’t know about until my mid-twenties when our son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (now referred to as high functioning autism (HFA).) The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as I learned quickly while getting educated about my son’s diagnosis.

my dark inner voice
What you get when you ask me to draw my “dark inner voice” and me.

I spent much of my childhood feeling alienated from people. I also had some rather odd sensory issues. Just ask my parents and siblings about “crooked shoes” and “soft pants” for examples. I can remember throwing tantrums over seemingly slight issues. I had no idea why. I spent a lot of time “running away from home”, which meant heading out the door and hiding out somewhere not far from home for hours until I calmed down. When I wasn’t freaking out I could be found pouring myself deep into one interest or another, often alone and without a care for the world around me. At some point I wanted to be “normal” and rid myself of all these limitations as much as possible. I didn’t know what was causing me so much agony looking someone in the eyes, have severe anxiety in social situations with more than a person or two, struggle with reading body language or picking up social cues, and feel like I wanted to crawl out of my skin when certain sights, sounds, and physical touch were present. All I knew was that I wanted to deny it all and power forward, trying desperately to be more like everyone else – whatever that meant. This denial became the status quo and it caused me to hate parts of myself that I viewed as severe defects. What followed was a vicious cycle of hating myself more and more, even as I appeared more successful in life as time went on. In between all that “success” were suicide attempts. Once as a teenager, then again in my mid-twenties. I continued on a sneakily destructive path, denying I had deep rooted issues to deal with. Sure, I saw therapists and psychiatrists from time to time, tried various antidepressants, but I was unwilling to completely accept myself, both strengths AND limitations.

Was I addicted to the thought of suicide?

Finding out that I had high functioning autism was partially a relief. I finally had some research behind the way my mind and body worked. However, I didn’t find it all that comforting. For as much as I found myself nodding my head as I learned about Asperger’s, I couldn’t come to grips with accepting what that meant for me. After I’d spent so much time desperately trying to be someone else, I didn’t want to face myself and accept that the way I was wired meant some things were out of bounds for me. Knowledge can be a curse, especially when one feels unable to do anything constructive with the new found knowledge.

In the mix was my faith. I grew up in an evangelical Christian home. I confessed the truth of 1 Corinthians 15 along with the Bible as a whole, yet I found little peace and joy aside from the thought of being in the presence of God sooner rather than later. To say I wrestled with God over the years would be an understatement. It was probably closer to mixed martial arts. Fortunately, I know who wins that match – every single time.

Fast forward

The last two and a half years have been rough for me. I was hit while riding my bicycle by the driver of an SUV who ran a stop sign. I left a job earlier this year that I previously loved and still love many of the people who I once had the privilege of working with. I was falling into the deepest depression of my life and I didn’t even realize it until suicidal thoughts came creeping back with a vengeance. Hope faded fast. I tried to get some help but wouldn’t admit how bad of a condition I was in. Eventually, nothing felt real. The feeling that nothing was real started after I was hit, but I didn’t realize it until I was so disconnected from everyone and everything that it seemed far past the point of no return. By then, purchasing a gun and heading out to the mountains to kill myself seemed like the most rational thing to do.

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 1 Corinthians 15:10

Two weeks in a psychiatric hospital has a way of humbling a person. Perspective is gained. I was blessed to have an excellent psychiatrist and social worker assigned to me. Both listened to me and helped me move from the psychotic unit to the detox unit. The agreement was that I had to participate in the chemical dependency groups. At that point I would’ve participated in group shock therapy sessions if it meant getting off the floor I was on. I’ve always had a great deal of respect for those who get help with an addiction. Even still, I couldn’t help but feel way out of place in the chemical dependency groups. I listened to people talk about addictions to alcohol, painkillers, heroin, meth, etc. Then there was me. I was the guy who kept trying to kill himself. I guess I said enough to get the attention of the counselor leading the sessions. During one session he called me out and said, “You know, you sound just like an addict. Instead of an addiction to alcohol or oxy or some other drug, you’re addicted to this thought of suicide. You want instant relief, just like an addict.” I shrugged it off, but the thought bothered me. Was I addicted to the thought of suicide?

In order to get out of my own little prison (aka the psych hospital) I had to have a plan the psychiatrist, my wife, and the social worker could all sign off on. This was no small feat, mainly because my wife knows me too well. She knew that if I went to a fairly standard outpatient treatment program in Vegas I would likely fake my way through it and be back in the same place shortly thereafter. She searched high and low for a place that would treat me holistically and found one near the ever gray and dreary Seattle, WA area. I was less than thrilled with the thought of spending a month there, but I didn’t have much of a choice if I wanted out of prison…err…the psych hospital.

Welcome to The Center

I’d love to say that my discharge from the hospital and my immediate flight to Seattle was the mark of a bright and cheery new beginning. Alas, no. I packed my bags and flew to Seattle with my wife serving as my escort. No one involved in my case trusted me to make it to Seattle on my own. A wise intuition on their part. The trip to Seattle was me stewing over the thought of being somewhere I didn’t want to be, in a setting (intensive group and individual therapy PLUS various doctor visits thrown in for good measure) that made me ridiculously anxious. I was breaking down in every way imaginable. By the time we reached the hotel that night I felt much like I had when I was a child – inconsolable and unreasonably stubborn. I told my wife I wasn’t going to admit myself into the program. Quite the argument proceeded between us. To her credit, my wife didn’t cave in. She was adamant I had to go. After a lot of back and forth, I gave in. I figured if I could survive two weeks at that hospital, I could withstand four weeks in a substantially more open environment. My wife left for Vegas early that morning. I woke up later, grabbed breakfast at the hotel and waited for my ride to The Center. Yes, “The Center.”

Text to my wife about orientation at The Center
A text to my wife during orientation at The Center before I had to turn in my phone. Going clear.

I wasn’t suicidal entering The Center, but I was ambivalent about whether I wanted to live. I went through orientation and felt like it might be the strangest place I’d ever been to. Everyone seemed happy – too happy. I had just come from crazyville and somehow felt like I may have ended up somewhere even crazier, complete with wide smiles and plentiful laughter. Regardless, I conceded that I needed help and was tired of fighting the obvious.

Beginning to see the light

Much like the 76ers, my time at The Center was a process. Trust the process. The approach is holistic, which means looking at every aspect of a person, not simply relying on therapy and medication, but including full medical, nutritional, and spiritual care as well. I could write many words about this process but think it’s important to note some of the key elements and moments.

Trust the process

Medication. After telling the Center’s psychiatrist my story, he wanted to treat me as bipolar since: 1) antidepressants on their own clearly weren’t helping near enough 2) my struggle had been so severe and for so long 3) I displayed some signs of bipolar II. This was the first doctor to take this approach with me. Sign me up. I was his (willing) lab rat from there on out. It wasn’t easy, as my body tends to react drastically to medication, especially when I’m suspect to any of the side effects. I didn’t let that deter me. I stayed with it, making changes and adjustments with the doctor as needed. I think I’m finally getting the right combo now. My overall mood has improved and stabilized in the past seven days or so.

Resilient people get help.

Physiological. My discharge from the hospital left me with a surprise result from my blood work – my thyroid was high and needed further follow up. One of The Center’s naturopathic doctors saw me and did another blood test that showed that my thyroid was going up and down drastically and that my thyroid antibodies were high, which indicated I had Hashimoto’s disease. Guess what one of the symptoms of that is? Yep, depression. To add to the fun, my testosterone is low and my cortisol levels are spiking during the afternoon. Naturally, both of those can contribute to depression as well. All this information was good to know (and is being followed up on) but also led to some unpleasant discussions about my bike riding habits. Averaging 150 miles per week on the bicycle was not helping me. While I enjoy riding, the amount I ride is likely putting too much stress on my body. All this new medical info was helping me understand a bit more about why I (very often) feel wiped out after riding. I can nap for hours without any issues sleeping at night on the days I ride my bike. I’m still following up on each of these medical issues, so it’s too soon to say what the final verdict is on my riding habits and other areas of my life I may need to make changes to like nutrition, etc.

No, not Quasimodo, Hashimoto.

Radical acceptance.The Center strongly advocates and teaches dialectical behavior therapy (DBT.) One of the key elements of DBT is “radical acceptance”.

So what’s Radical Acceptance?  What do I mean by the word ‘radical’?  Radical means complete and total.  It’s when you accept something from the depths of your soul. When you accept it in your mind, in your heart, and even with your body.  It’s total and complete.

Always the optimistic sort, my initial impression of DBT was that it was likely endorsed by Tom Cruise and John Travolta. The truth is that DBT is focused on some critical life skills that most of us are never formally introduced to. Radical acceptance for me wasn’t optional. I needed to accept who I am and stop trying so desperately to be someone else. That alone wouldn’t solve all my problems, but it would go a long way to me healing and being able to manage my life in a sustainable manner. In particular, I needed to accept my high functioning autism and the wide variety of emotions I’d spent so many years trying so hard to deny. Along with that would come acceptance of the truth, which ultimately leads to God in Christ. His truth is objectively true regardless of what the moment may tell me. To get to this point of even considering radical acceptance, it required help from a lot of different people at The Center. Some of it came during groups, other parts during one-on-one sessions, some from talking to my most amazing housemates, some from talking to my wife, some from reading J.I. Packer’s Knowing Godsome from reading the Bible, some from taking long walks and not trying to do anything more than take in the scenery of Edmonds, WA.

Edmonds, WA

Opposite action. Another concept in DBT is “opposite action,” which George Costanza may have invented.

OK, maybe not. Opposite action:

The idea behind this technique is that it can help to deal with distressing emotions by setting into motion an action that is helpful, not harmful. Doing this counteracts the suffering you might otherwise feel because of the distressing emotion.

This concept is particularly important for me to practice because of my susceptibility to addiction to thoughts of suicide. Yes, I’d come to terms with the fact that I had a legitimate addiction to the thought of suicide. At least two therapists at The Center pointed out that I sounded eerily like an addict in the way I talked about my suicidal thoughts and behavior. Less extreme, but nonetheless important, opposite action becomes critical when my mind becomes fixated on negative thoughts that put me in a position of stubborn unwillingness to seek out or accept help of any sort.

Moving forward

I was reminded more than once over my six week journey that one of the most dangerous thoughts a recovering addict can have is that he/she is cured. Once that thought sticks – lookout – a relapse is likely just around the corner, which is particularly problematic when you have a penchant for becoming suicidal. I’m on my third day at home as I write this. I feel really good, especially compared to how I felt six weeks ago. I’m in a much healthier state of mind and have doctor and therapist appointments setup to help me stay healthy. That said, the hard part has just begun for me. No, I won’t live with depression and suicide haunting me, but I also won’t pretend it’s not something I need to actively manage on a daily basis. I also won’t pretend I can do this alone. As I learned during my time at The Center, “Resilient people get help.”

I’m still processing a lot of what I’ve written about here, especially as it relates to my high functioning autism and the changes I’m considering making as it relates to my career and even my personal life. Unlike in the past, I’m doing my best to take everything as it is, reminding myself of the objective truth in it all rather than allowing my mind to wander into a spiral of negativity that leads to nowhere good.

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 1 John 4:10

It would be foolish of me to end this post without acknowledging the people who’ve gone above and beyond in helping me so far. First and foremost, thank you to my wife Kelly. She is my best friend and accepts me as I am. She has stuck by my side all along the way and that is no small feat. I love her dearly and am blessed to have her in my life. Jennie, Ken, and Chris, you are amazing friends who I had the privilege of meeting via work. You are much more than former co-workers. I knew that before and you all reminded me once again of your unwavering support for me and my family. Thank you to the many people at Spring Meadows Presbyterian  who prayed and provided support to Kelly and our kids while I was away for the past six weeks. Last, but not least, thank you to all who sent their well wishes via cards, text, social media, etc. I never doubted I had great people in my life and you all reminded me once more of just how blessed I am to have so many people who care deeply about me.

I’m (oddly) comforted by this passage from Ecclesiastes, a book of the Bible that probably best represents radical acceptance, never denying the vanity in life apart from the triune God:

Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low—they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets—before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8 ESV)

I’m thankful to be here, to be alive, to be where I am today. Please pray for me as the journey to this point has been anything but easy and I’m not expecting a smooth ride from here. But, for the first time ever, I can say that’s alright.

There but for the grace of God go I.

  • robin1473

    Thank you for sharing this Josh. I’m really glad the doctors at the center were able to diagnose and start treating medical issues that might help you manage your depression. It sounds like a great facility and that they helped you a lot :) I’m so happy.

    • Thanks Robin. The Center was terrific, if not a bit terrifying to enter the first few days. ;-)

  • Juan R Rios Jr

    Josh, Thanks you for being bold enough to put you self on paper,I am very proud of you!!!
    You are by far the best roommate I have ever had and I do consider you my brother & friend for life!!!
    Black beans,kiwi,smoothies and movies will never go with out thinking of you!!! LOL
    👐🕒🃏 HAHAHAHA!!!

    • Roughies.

      Thank you Juan. You made my stay at The Center better than tolerable and helped me heal. Thank you for your service.

  • susantdonovan

    What a beautiful post! Sounds like a stupid description, ‘beautiful’, but that’s what I kept thinking as I read.

    After finishing, I have a better understanding of what you’ve been going through, Josh.

    Please know that your church is praying for you and supporting you (and Kelly!).

    • Thank you Susan for the kind words, prayer and support.