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Finding Peace, Part 1

by Selina Uglow

My childhood experiences were challenging, but afforded me a great sense of compassion for people. When I was a child, I attended something like fifteen different schools by sixth grade and grew up much sooner than I should have. My mother was an incredible woman with a lot of demons, an alcohol problem and a circle of friends that didn't help either. She was, however, the most giving individual I will ever know.

When my mother was sixteen years old, she became pregnant with me, and dropped out of high school. My mother didn’t talk much about her childhood, but she did say that she had done better than her own mother and her grandmother before her.

I do know that my grandmother had left her children when they were very young, and that my mother and her two brothers had been raised by my grandfather. When I was growing up, family members told me that my mother had been molested as a child. For my entire life, she had battled with alcoholism, and while I don’t have much information about her childhood, I can only imagine the things she was trying to forget.

After I was born, it didn’t take long for my parents’ relationship to come to an end. My mother was young, and although she participated in many programs from Alcoholics Anonymous to Serenity, she struggled with her own insecurities and alcoholism throughout much of my youth. Over the years, we relocated several times to different places in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio for many reasons, including broken relationships, lack of money, or lost jobs.

My mother seemed to choose partners who had substance abuse issues or who were physically abusive towards her. When she was single, she often tended bar or took jobs as a caregiver and we would live in places where someone was close by for daycare or available if I needed something during the night.

I spent a lot of time as a kid in situations that involved drugs and adult circumstances. I remember one incident very vividly. My mother’s husband at the time made me sit in a chair and watch as he kicked, hit and threw my mother down a flight of stairs, threatening to kill her if I moved. The beating she got resulted in a broken jaw and damaged ribs. My memory is a bit spotty, but I have many small recollections like that of growing up.

As a rule, I’m pretty good at letting things go. I was told once that this beautiful gift is my way of coping with the challenges that have been thrown my way.

Please understand that my mother was not a bad mother. She did a great job with the tools that were at her disposal. She was a very caring and generous individual, often opening our home and giving her last dollar to help another person. It was not uncommon for me to wake up to a stray animal or a new person in our home that my mother felt needed help.

My father was a spotty presence in my childhood, but he worked hard to do the best that he could. I remember that he would pick me up and take me to the Peninsula. We would go swimming or he would teach me how to spot deer. My father was very young at the time, and my mother didn’t exactly make it easy for him to be a part of my life.

Today my father is a union representative who is an advocate for good pay and for the fair treatment of employees. He carries the weight of the world on his shoulders and is always seeking ways to make a difference for others.

Both my parents set a great example for me in what they did and didn't do.

*****

In some respects, I made the same poor choices in relationships that my mother had made. I sought out people who at first made me feel that I was valued, but then quickly walked all over me. Like my mother, I fell in love and became pregnant with my first child, Christopher, when I was a teenager. I was insecure and immature at the time, and I felt that my child’s father would much rather be with his friends than with me.

Three children and two broken relationships later, I found myself in my second marriage at the age of twenty-six. My husband at the time was very abusive towards me. Because of my lack of self-esteem, I was convinced that I simply needed to be a better wife. Because of the choices I had made, I felt that I had to make this relationship work for my children.

Standing at 5’2”, my husband was two inches shorter than I was, but this didn’t prevent him from contributing to my feelings of worthlessness. He had assured me that our marriage could only end in a pine box, and I didn’t feel that a lot of other options were available to me at the time.

And then a miracle happened.

I was diagnosed with colon cancer.

*****

During a regular checkup for my youngest child, I decided to ask the doctor a question. I had been experiencing slight abdominal pain that was becoming increasingly worse – which I had attributed to having being punched in the stomach. I asked the doctor if this could cause scar tissue. In response to my question, the doctor ordered a battery of tests.

The tests came back negative, but my symptoms continued.

When I had my first colonoscopy, I awoke in a room surrounded by my physician, my husband at the time, and my cousin who was a nurse at the facility where the procedure had been performed. I knew something was wrong because I was well aware that post colonoscopy, I should be sitting in a room with a bunch of other people waiting for flatulence. Instead, I was in a private room, and my physician was telling me that I had to go directly to the hospital, that I needed surgery, and that part of my colon would have to be removed. He told me that in most cases, what they removed was cancer.

I put everything on hold, went home and prepared for surgery. After all, I had to make arrangements for my three children, and I was working as a manager for a major landscaping company. We were in the middle of a busy season.

*****

Two days later, I smoked my last cigarette in front of the Metro Health Center.

Thanks to the colonoscopy, the doctor had discovered that a tumor was blocking my colon by 98% and that it had broken the colon wall to enter the lymph system. After a resection was completed, I met with the surgeon who gave me a straight up answer to a straight up question. “What could I expect?” I asked. The doctor replied, “Go home and plan for five good years.”

When I heard these words, I realized that my children needed me in their lives. The choices I had made in the past had not necessarily equipped them with better opportunities. I was regretful more than anything else, and I was determined to set things right. I was in a marriage with a man who has since been diagnosed with Bi-polar Disease. He was unloving and abusive towards me, and I was doing everything I could to hide my situation from my children. So I said to those who were providing me with medical care, “Tell me what I need to do to overcome my illness.” I didn’t decide to change my life then and there, but when my sentence was handed down, I decided that from that moment on, I wasn’t going to let anyone put limits on my life.

For my first course of treatment, I tried an experimental drug. I didn’t want statistics. I just wanted to do what was necessary to raise my children. One week after I was released from the hospital, I went back to work. I was determined to live.

There was an irony to all of this. On the same weekend I prepared for the colonoscopy, I attended a Christian marriage retreat with my then husband because I thought things could get better between us. But following my diagnosis and well into treatment, I realized that things were not getting better. In fact, they were getting worse. I was tired from all the chemo, and according to my husband, I wasn’t there for HIM. So when I found out that he was sleeping with another woman, I knew that this would be the final straw.

I finally made the decision to leave.

I see now that my cancer diagnosis was my second chance.

*****

After meeting with the oncologist, to whom I am entirely grateful because he was a “No BS” kind of guy, I was set up for treatment. At the time of my diagnosis, there was an ongoing trial to test the drug Oxaliplatin, and I had decided that I would participate in this trial. My first appointment at the cancer center was an informative one. I found myself in a private room watching videos regarding my diagnosis and what I should expect from treatment.

Afterwards, a nurse came in to discuss my medication regimen. I explained immediately that I was not interested in knowing about the side effects or the statistics with regard to the success or failure of the drug. So, we proceeded. I remember that a warm blanket was placed on me beforehand, and that the medicine burned when it entered my body. It wasn't long before the toxicity of the drug treatment required that a mediport be surgically placed. I had hated needles prior to this treatment, but I had to get comfortable with them very quickly.

Truly, my mindset at the time was that I was ready to do whatever I needed to do to resume life as I had known it, so that I could be there for my children. I returned to work a week or so after I was discharged from the hospital. I wore sweatpants because staples were still holding my incision together, and my employer was kind enough to let me do what I could under the circumstances.

My chemotherapy sessions were set up on Fridays after my morning meetings at work. The treatment was administered over the course of a few hours, and then I would drive home where Little Caesar's pizza and my wonderful children would make sure that everything was low key. I spent Friday nights on the couch mostly. I really didn't ask about the efficacy of the trial until much later in November when I went to an outdoor shopping center and a gust of cold wind resulted in the temporary paralysis of one side of my face. After discussing the situation with him, my oncologist relayed that this could be a permanent side effect. He wasn’t sure.

By then, I had made the decision to discontinue the trial. I resumed a regular regimen of chemotherapy instead. My Fridays were glorious, sitting in a recliner at the cancer center meeting others who also struggled with their condition. I met some wonderful people, and came to know the staff. During these sessions, I learned that many relationships dissolved after a cancer diagnosis, simply because caregivers are either not acknowledged or because the stress is too much for them to handle.

My husband was my caregiver at the time, but I believe that he resented the attention and concern that others were showing me. The chemotherapy caused extreme pain in my hands, and he took advantage of this situation to remind me of my ‘bad behavior’ in public. He provided me with a cue to correct myself by reaching over and squeezing my hand, causing pain.

I knew I would leave my husband when I finally sustained a black eye after discovering that he had rekindled an interest in another woman. Later, he would stand in the cancer center during my treatment and make a scene, telling everyone that the only reason anyone cared about “this piece of shit” (me) was because I had cancer.

I decided that the next step in my life was to dissolve this relationship. Bernie Siegel's book, “Love, Medicine & Miracles” had given me the hope that I needed and the realization that my cancer had definitely been induced by stress. In order to fight it, I knew that I would have to eliminate the stress from my life.

*****

My husband had assured me that I would have to die to escape from my marriage, and so I set out to find the help I needed to get out.

But the night I left, my husband found me.

His intention was to kill me.

He was arrested.

*****

When I left my husband and my history of abusive relationships behind me, I also decided to make some immediate lifestyle changes. I addressed the following: 1. Honesty. I knew that I had to be honest with myself and others. I had to accept that I had made some poor choices in my life, but I could take pride in the fact that I had made some good ones along the way. 2. Stress reduction. I realized that it was time to reduce the stress in my life, particularly the stress that I had created for myself. 3. Weight management. I realized that it was time to take better care of myself, and to make better choices for my health. In the next six years, I would learn to read the labels on food packages, to prepare my own food, and to meditate.

I have always maintained a positive attitude in my life. It was the one change I didn't have to make, but it was probably the thing that saved me in the end. I have always worked to build people up and to help them see the gifts with which they have been blessed, regardless of their situation. A wise woman once said to me, “take the best, leave the rest,” and that’s pretty much how I have lived my life. I believe that every circumstance, even the ones we don't want to think about or remember, can make us better people.

Once my treatments were completed, I put the cancer diagnosis behind me. It took a year or so for me to regain my energy. Since then, my health has been great. I have some residual neuropathy, but several colonoscopies, two brain scans, and twelve years later, I’m feeling pretty awesome and am now considered ‘cured.’ I understand the value of holistic living. I eat fresh, enjoy the outdoors, and read everything I can about spiritual and physical wellness.

My entire life has been a journey of learning and growth. My diagnosis was definitely the “exit” I needed to take my life to the next level for myself and my children. Sometimes I feel my life would make a Jerry Springer special look mild, but I am proud of my ability to overcome.

(To be continued...)

To read Part 2, click here
http://thepeopleproject.com/healthy-people/category/people/finding-peace-part-2

*****

Image Credit: Used with Selina Uglow’s permission

Read more at The Healthy People

Tim Grill

Philadelphia-based stand-up comedian, Tim Grill, was born with Spina Bifida, and was told at an early age that he would never walk. Over the course of his lifetime, Tim has repeatedly defied the odds (and the medical establishment's dire prognosis) by living life to the absolute fullest while, in his words, "limping on stage" as "the Barely Can Stand-Up Comic." Equipped with an arsenal of material that fearlessly tackles and disarms currently held taboos and prejudices about physical disability, Tim's is an inspirational story of courage, resilience, and incredibly good humor - one that lends credence to the motto that "laughter really is the best medicine."

*****

Q. I understand that you were diagnosed with Spina Bifida at birth, and that you’ve undergone many surgical procedures over the course of your lifetime. Can you tell me about this experience?

I was born in Philadelphia in 1970, the youngest of four children – I have two sisters and one brother – and was diagnosed with Spina Bifida at birth. When I was one day old, I underwent major spine surgery to close the hole on my lower back that caused the Spina Bifida. I had nine more surgeries all before my tenth birthday, and then I had three more when I was twenty-seven.

I had several surgeries at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and I remember that I had to live at Shriners Hospital for three months. I was always scared before surgery, but technology has come so far since then. Surgery is a lot less complicated now than it was when I was a child. When I had the remaining three surgeries at the age of twenty-seven, I was still scared, but things were so much easier and my recovery time was so much quicker.

Q. What was it like for you at school?

I went to a school for disabled children until third grade, where there were children with all kinds of disabilities and various degrees of severity. My mom and dad could see that I was not getting the education they thought I deserved, so they made the decision to mainstream me into a Catholic school called St. Jerome’s. I went to St. Jerome’s from third grade to eighth grade. I was the only disabled kid there, but it was the best decision my parents could have made. It took me a while to catch up, but I got a great education and did not fall through the cracks, which is probably what would have happened if I had stayed in my previous situation.

Growing up with Spina Bifida was very tough at times because of the surgeries and because I was picked on at school by the other kids. I was the only disabled kid in my grade school and high school, so I stood out. When I was in grade school, kids picked on me by making jokes about my legs. They called me “crippled creep” and made fun of the way I walked. Thankfully, I had a very loving family who supported me and treated me as a normal boy. I played sports like baseball and basketball and rode my bike like every other child.

When I was in high school, I was picked on quite often and never had a girlfriend because I was afraid to talk and I was embarrassed about my disability. The kids would threaten me and say they were going to beat me up after school. I went to an all-boys’ high school and didn’t have many friends, but there was a core group of friends that I grew up with who had my back, so to speak, so they would come to my defense when I needed them.

When I was a teenager, I really started to feel ashamed of my disability. I wanted to play high school sports, but wasn't fast enough or strong enough. I always had a competitive streak in me and it bothered me that I couldn't play on the team with all of the "normal" kids. I always strived to be just like the other kids in my neighborhood, and I guess that gave me the drive to become a stand up comedian, because I knew I could do it and I also knew that most people couldn’t. I looked at stand up as a way to stand out and be good at something I could call my own. There are people I know from high school who come up to me now and say that they think it’s so cool that I can get up there in front of strangers and make people laugh and talk about my disability.

Q. What did you do to cope with the surgeries and with the bullying in high school?

I started playing guitar when I was thirteen and became pretty good at it. It made me feel like a somebody because the other kids couldn’t play. I would come home from high school everyday and just play my guitar, and that helped me get through the tough years. I was very quiet, so I would just hang out or play guitar in my bedroom, or play in a band with my friends. Music helped get me through those tough times.

Q. What advice would you give to other kids with Spina Bifida who are currently facing similar challenges in school?

The advice I would give kids with disabilities who are having issues at school is to hang in there because it does get better. There were times in high school when things looked hopeless and I thought that nothing would ever change. But as I got older, I realized that those times were only temporary and that things did get better. I like the place I’m in now and I am okay with my disability. I sometimes wish I could go back in a time machine and tell my high school self that everything will be okay and that I will be happy.

The other advice I would give kids is that they should find out what talents they have. Maybe it’s music or art or building things. Find a passion and learn everything you can about it and be the best you can be at it. It will give you a reason to get through the day. That's what guitar and playing in bands did for me.

I actually had a job at Shriners Hospital and worked there for six years. I met many kids with spinal cord injuries as well as kids with Spina Bifida. I would make them laugh, and I would tell them about all of the things that I went through when I was a patient there. I told them that everyone has different talents and that, despite their disabilities, they still had a brain and a mind, and that they could be creative.

Q. When did you decide to become a comedian? And what inspired you to become a comedian?

Ever since I could remember, I could make people laugh. I guess it was a defense mechanism against the disability - just my way of dealing with the feeling of being inferior. I wasn't able to play sports that much and I wasn't the smartest kid in school, but I could make my friends - and the girls - laugh with jokes and quick comments. Although it never stopped the kids from making fun of me, it taught me to have quick comebacks and it gave me the thick skin I needed to perform stand up comedy. It was training me for stand up and I didn't even know it.

As I got older, I was told many times that I should be a stand up comic. I had wanted to try it for a long time, but I was afraid to get up on stage and talk about my legs. But one night, I watched a DVD of Richard Pryor performing stand up, and he talked about his drug use, having a heart attack, and setting himself on fire in a drug fueled haze. He made all of these serious topics very funny, and I thought that if I could do that with my disability, then I could be a comedian and talk about anything I wanted.

I recently got to hang out with Richard Pryor's daughter, Rain Pryor, who's a comedian as well and a very, very nice person. I told her that story and she gave me a big hug and thanked me for sharing it. I was able to share with her how instrumental her father had been in my decision to become a stand up comedian.

Q. When did you start your career as a stand-up comedian? And what kinds of projects are you working on now?

I first started stand up when I was twenty-seven and performed for two years, but then I went back to college late in life and stopped doing it. I always had the itch to get back into it, so three years later, I started going back to open mikes. Since then, I have never looked back.

I perform every weekend now and have performed at the Comedy Store in LA, The Friars Club in NYC and the Comedy Stop at Trump Casino. I also filmed a TV pilot last year called “Graham Crackers” that is going to be shown on a new network called Launch TV, so hopefully, it will get picked up by someone. Currently, I'm looking for management and an agent so I can travel a bit more and headline bigger clubs.

Q. How does Spina Bifida affect your life today?

The one thing that sucks is that my disability and everything attributed to it is getting worse as I get older. I walk with a cane, which I started using five years ago. I deal with constant pain, as well as migraine headaches and arthritis, but I don't want my disability to define me or to be the only thing I talk about. I like to talk about my disability in my act, but I also talk about many other topics as well.

I hope my comedy and talking about my disability can help people look at individuals with disabilities in a different light. I can’t tell you how many people come up to me after a show and tell me that their child or their friend’s child has Spina Bifida or some other disability. They say that I am an inspiration and that it gives them hope for their children. I always like to hear that.

Q. Do you encounter resistance or prejudice from others when you tell them you have Spina Bifida? Do you think that people’s attitudes towards disabilities have changed for the better?

Every once in a while, I will encounter some kind of prejudice from a club owner or other comic, but it doesn't happen that much anymore. When it does happen, I try to just deal with it and use it as fuel and inspiration to further my career, and to get better at comedy. I want to be so good that no one can deny me at a club or a show.

As far as attitudes towards disabilities are concerned, I think they have changed somewhat, but I still think people feel sorry for people with disabilities and feel that the subject of disability is taboo and should not be talked about. That's what I want to change. That's why I would love to be on a sitcom someday, so I can show others that you can talk about disabilities and that people with disabilities can be funny.

Q. How does it feel to be onstage and to make so many people laugh? Do you ever get nervous?

I love being on stage and rarely get nervous anymore, but occasionally, there will be a big show at a great club or a person in the audience who I know hasn't seen my act yet, and that makes me nervous. I try to remember that I’ve been doing this for a long time and remind myself of all the good shows I've had in the past. I try to relax, because if you’re nervous, you will forget certain jokes and rush through your act, and it will be a disaster. But if you’re relaxed, you will think better, you will pace yourself better, and you will have more fun with the audience and ultimately have a good show.

Q. How do you come up with the material for your shows?

The material comes from my real life. I talk about my disability, online dating, not being good at technology, being Irish, and growing up in the 1980s.

Q. I find it fascinating that so many people find the 1980s to be so humorous. In your opinion, what is it about this particular era that lends itself so well to comedy?

If you grew up in the 80's, you’ll know why it was funny. It was a great time to grow up. Everything in that decade was big, especially the hair. My sister used so much hairspray, her hair was bullet proof. The music was big, the fashion was big. The 80's were a fun and simple decade. It was the last decade before technology and cell phones were everywhere.

Q. Your material appears to draw on a lot of personal experience. Do you ever find it difficult to share so much of your life with your audience?

I don't mind telling jokes about my life and being open and honest with people. I think people can relate better when you talk about personal things in your life. Plus, I'd rather make jokes about my life than make fun of someone else and make people feel uncomfortable or hurt their feelings. As I said, I know what it’s like to be made fun of, so I don't want to do it to anyone else. If I can talk about my life and make someone laugh, it makes that person happy - which in turn makes me happy.

Q. Do you enjoy what you do? If so, why?

I love being a stand up comedian and hope I can do it full time someday, but that would require a manager and agent. I love traveling and meeting different people and making audiences laugh and hearing them say that I helped them forget their troubles for a little while. That's a nice feeling.

Q. Can you describe a typical day in your life?

A typical day for me is pretty boring. I work as a social worker at the Division of Disability Services in New Jersey and I live in Philly. They're about forty minutes apart. I then come home and play guitar and record, or write comedy and hang out with my girlfriend of two and a half years, and my cat. Then on the weekends, I perform stand up around the Tri-State area.

Q. What’s it like being a comedian on the East Coast?

It’s great because you can perform in many clubs or other rooms within a four or five hour drive. Between Boston, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Washington, a comedian can have many opportunities.

Q. What advice would you give to comedians who are just starting out?

The only advice I would give new comedians is to get on stage as much as you possibly can. You should also study other comedians and ask them questions, especially comedians who have been around for a while. As always, keep writing and trying to improve your act. And make sure you watch all kinds of comedians and get acquainted with the history of comedy. From Chaplin to Pryor to Louis CK. Learn as much about the comedians who have come before you.

Q. What is the secret to making people laugh?

I don't know if there is a secret to making people laugh. If there was one, I suppose everyone would be funny. I firmly believe that you can learn certain aspects of stand up comedy to a certain degree, but that ultimately, you are either funny or you’re not. I think people are born with a great sense of humor just like other people are born with great intelligence or are gifted athletically.

Q. What are your hopes and aspirations as an individual and as a comedian?

As a stand up comedian, I would love to perform on national TV someday, like on the Tonight Show or Letterman or Comedy Central or even have my own sitcom. I'm presently writing a show based on my life with a disability, called “Cane & Able.” I just want to show people that having a disability isn't the end of the world, and that people with disabilities can have a sense of humor, and can have talent. I’d like people with disabilities to be treated in the same way as everyone else and I’d like them to have the same opportunities. Maybe there’s someone out there who wants to be a stand up comedian, but they’re scared for whatever reason. Maybe they’ll see my act and realize they can do it too, or anything else for that matter.

I want people to see that laughter truly is the best medicine. Take it from a guy who's had thirteen surgeries. Laughter is free and easy, but it can make all the difference in the world.

*****

Image Credit: Used with Tim Grill's permission

Read more
at The Funny People

Living Among Shadows

by David Philip Norris

Lately, I’ve been watching American author and educator John Green’s “Crash Course: World History,” a series of forty-two videos that basically covers all the world history you should have learned in high school, but probably didn’t, in about eight hours. There are a number of different courses on this particular YouTube channel, ranging from psychology to U.S. history. One of these courses is on literature, and in one video, Green discusses the poetry of Sylvia Plath. I was particularly struck by the following excerpt, in which Green addresses the tragedy of suicide:

“Dear Suicide, you are a permanent response to a temporary problem, and you are a solution to nothing. I just want to say at the outset that there is nothing good or romantic about you, Suicide. You are a tragedy. You are also, in almost all cases, preventable… So, it’s very important to me whenever we talk about a writer whose life ended with suicide that we note that people survive depression—and also that Sylvia Plath wasn’t a good writer because she eventually committed suicide. In fact, her career was cut short, and I mourn all of the many wonderful books we might have had.”

*****
I live in the shadow of suicide.

My grandmother committed suicide in 1960. As a writer, I am aware of the corpses that litter the landscape of our profession: Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Yukio Mishima, Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, Sarah Kane. To most, these names represent words on a page, a collection of letters and dates. But each of these human beings lived entire lives between the bookends of their birth and demise, enduring what must have felt like an eternity of bleakness and torment before finally gasping out their last breaths, whether head first in an oven or staring down the barrel of a shotgun.

Up until a couple of years ago, I couldn’t fathom the idea of suicide. For one, it was—in my then Christian mind—an appalling sin, the ultimate act of rebellion against God. For another… well, I couldn’t even bring myself to prick my finger during the unit on blood type in biology class. Plus, it seemed like such a cowardly way out, an option for those who just didn’t try hard enough.

Somewhere in my adolescence, probably around the time I started to become aware of my sexuality, but possibly as early as the age of eight or nine, I found myself experiencing periods of darkness. As an Evangelical, I believed that these slumps in mood had a spiritual cause. The cure was more Bible and more Jesus.

It wasn’t until I took a course on psychology during my junior year in high school that I learned that my dark moods had a name: depression.

And it was different from “the blues.”*

*****
Most people associate depression with sadness, but it’s much more than that.

In a 2013 TED Talk, writer Andrew Solomon described his downward spiral into depression: “Everything there was to do seemed like too much work. I would come home and I would see the red light flashing on my answering machine, and instead of being thrilled to hear from my friends, I would think, “What a lot of people that is to have to call back.” Or I would decide I should have lunch, and then I would think, “But I’d have to get the food out and put it on a plate and cut it up and chew it and swallow it,” and it felt to me like the Stations of the Cross.”

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that depression is more than a condition. It’s fundamentally shaped how I view the world.

In addition to affecting my moods, depression alters my perceptions. The smallest setbacks are magnified into megaliths of personal failure, and tiny inconveniences set me off as if they are crimes against humanity.

It’s like having lenses in my eyes that pre-filter the light, dramatically changing how I see people and events. Everything is distorted, like in a funhouse mirror.

When I am in a depressive state, I feel worthless.

Powerless. Hopeless.

Disconnected from everything and everyone in my life.

Even happy moments are colored with gloom. The flavor of celebration comes across more like sand than sugar. Well-meaning friends try to cheer me up and lend support, not understanding that the problem is within, not without.

At its worst, it feels as if I’m shut up in a glass box, able to see everything going on outside but unable to touch or be touched by anything or anyone. Things that would otherwise bring me joy seem gray and uninteresting. I can’t concentrate on anything.

Even sex doesn’t interest me.

*****
In June of 2008, just months away from my decision to finally come out as a gay man, I abruptly began having random and intense thoughts about death. While sorting my recycling one afternoon, I suddenly realized that it was almost July, which meant that the year was nearly over, which meant that I was a quarter of a century old, which meant that I was going to die someday. Gradually, thoughts of suicide began to creep in. I would think of driving my car into oncoming traffic. Slitting my wrists while working in the kitchen. Overdosing on pills I’d take for a headache.

As an atheist, I have come to terms with the reality that death is merely the cessation of brain activity and that consciousness just fades. The more I struggle with the loneliness and exhaustion of dealing with the emotional minefield of my past and present, the more alluring these thoughts of suicide have become.

*****
Setbacks or disappointments that might merely discourage a non-depressed person appear catastrophic and calamitous to me.

For example, a few weeks ago I met a guy on OkCupid who seemed decent. We went on a date, had dinner and a wonderful talk. A few days later, we went on a second date that seemed to go equally well. After that, I heard from him less often.

Then on Sunday night, he explained that his ex-boyfriend had recently contacted him, and he was pondering whether they should get back together. I asked whether he missed him. He said yes. They had been together for eighteen months before breaking up.

I gave him a few days to collect his thoughts, and then texted him to ask if he’d come to any decision about whether he wanted to pursue things further. He apologized, saying that he hadn’t been ready to start dating again and really hadn’t thought things through when he first contacted me. But yes, for my sake, I should move on.

Now, here’s how a normal person might view this situation:

We went on two dates. It was fun, but it wasn’t meant to be. Just try again.

This is how it looks to a person who is depressed:

I am crushed. And disappointed. Not so much by the loss of a prospective boyfriend, but rather by a persistent and growing realization that this is how my entire dating life has gone so far, and probably will for the rest of my life—I meet a guy I like, and things might seem to go well for a bit, and then something like this happens.

Rinse, repeat.

So that night I made a decision—one I’ve contemplated many times over the years: “If I’m still single when I’m thirty-five, I’m going to kill myself.” Because, I reasoned, if I don’t meet anyone by then, there’s no way it will ever happen, and I don’t want to be one of those single, older gay men constantly getting passed over or used as a one-night stand.

Again—that’s the depression talking. It is frightening to think that after all of the years of struggling, the idea of simply not existing, of not having to worry about anything anymore, is so comforting.

Then my reason snaps into gear again, like a bucket of cold water to the face.

After all, who knows what tomorrow will bring? And the day after.

Maybe I’m about to meet my future husband.

If I kill myself, that future will never be written.

It’ll be like an O. Henry short story, where an ironic twist of fate causes two people to just miss each other at a train station.

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Depressed people do not kill themselves simply because they are sad. Depressed people choose to end their lives because they are tired—tired of waiting for things to get better, and of listening to friends and family members tell them that it will get better if they just hold on.

Tired of hurting all the time when everyone says they should be happy.

Tired of the guilt of feeling like a burden or drain to everyone around them.

As I write this, I am in the midst of a depressive episode that has lasted almost five months. On even the best of days, it can take an enormous amount of energy just to get out of bed in the morning. Deciding whether to leave the house or even to see a few friends is like balancing my checkbook, making sure there are enough funds in my emotional bank account to attend even a small gathering.

Most days I avoid seeing people because the anxiety about what we might talk about or what we should do or what we should have for dinner is overwhelming.

Even finding the energy to finish this article is exhausting.

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The best advice I’ve received for living with chronic depression is to chart my moods and look for patterns and cycles. This helps to remind me that, no matter how bad a depressive episode seems, it will eventually come to an end. When I am depressed, I am intellectually aware of this fact, but I still find myself thinking that the present situation will last forever.

No matter how much I remind myself that the light at the end of the tunnel will eventually appear, the depression is always there, casting its Edward Gorey-esque shadows over those hopeful thoughts.

I see the world as it is, but also a shadowy mirror version.

There’s a shadow double of everyone and everything—friends, family, strangers, billboards, television shows.

Even a potential relationship that fizzled out.

“Who are you kidding?” the shadows sigh, the sum of their voices drowning out the messages of the real world. “You’re holding out for a dream that might not ever come true. Your future husband or your future career could always be just beyond the next hill. Or the next one. Soon, you will be wrinkled and gray, and your whole life will have passed you by, and you’ll have nothing but white-hot regret to warm you…”

It’s like having a Dementor for a roommate.

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Over the years, I’ve learned an important lesson about depression.

In the words of Andrew Solomon, “Shutting out the depression strengthens it. Talking and writing about my own depression in recent years has taken away some of its power over me, and by acknowledging it I have been able to seek out help and support to manage my dark moods when they inevitably come around."

And yet, despite scientific evidence of the physiological nature of depression, there is still so much stigma in our society surrounding mental illness. We continue to stigmatize and alienate those people who are suffering from depression, who already believe that they’re alone, that no one cares, that they have no right to feel bad when they have it so good, that everyone will think they’re a failure, and that their friends will abandon them if they find out what’s going on.

A few years ago, I was with a group of people, and I mentioned that I was seeing a therapist to help treat my depression. One woman exclaimed, “I’m so glad you said that! I’ve been seeing a therapist too, but wasn’t sure if I could mention that here.”

I think we treat mental illness differently from other physical conditions because there’s no easy solution.

And that makes many people uncomfortable.

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In interviews, J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, has stated that the Dementors, the dark creatures that guard the wizard prison of Azkaban and feed off human happiness, were inspired by her own bouts of depression.

As fans of the books and movies will recall, the only method to repel a Dementor is by way of the Patronus Charm. In the third Harry Potter book “The Prisoner of Azkaban” we learn that this charm is cast “with an incantation, which will work only if you are concentrating, with all your might, on a single, very happy memory.” (Rowling, p. 176)

As events in the story unfold, we see that the Patronus charm is a difficult one to master, and at the end of this book, thanks to a plot twist involving time travel, Harry is gifted a second chance to cast the Patronus charm to save both himself and another character.

This is a scene I’ve been thinking about lately.

It is a reminder to me that the Patronus charm is an elusive one, that on some days I simply won’t be able to conjure a happy memory. On these days, I know that I’ll have to call on friends and family who love and care about me to provide me with the strength I will need to hold back the darkness.

It is a tremendous act of courage to call upon the people in your life for help, to tell them how you’re feeling, to defy those voices that tell you that it’s hopeless and that everyone would be better off if you were dead.

Our greatest strength is each other.

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I will close with one final quote from Andrew Solomon’s TED Talk:

“The question is not so much of finding great meaning and deciding your depression has been very meaningful. It’s of seeking that meaning and thinking, when it comes again, “This will be hellish, but I will learn something from it.””

“… I think that while I hated being depressed and would hate to be depressed again, I’ve found a way to love my depression. I love it because it has forced me to find and cling to joy. I love it because each day I decide, sometimes gamely, and sometimes against the moment's reason, to cleave to the reasons for living. And that, I think, is a highly privileged rapture.”

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*Note: Depression differs from “the blues” in one significant way: depression is persistent. Everything could be going perfectly for a person’s job, relationships, and personal life, but the ability to enjoy these things is impaired. The DSM-IV defines Major Depressive Disorder as: “Depressed mood and/or loss of interest or pleasure in life activities for at least two weeks and at least five of the following symptoms that cause clinically significant impairment in social, work, or other important areas of functioning almost every day.” These diagnostic criteria include symptoms like fatigue or loss of energy; feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt; diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness; recurrent thoughts of death; insomnia or sleeping too much; and diminished interest or pleasure in all or most activities.

Along with major depressive disorder, the American Psychiatric Association’s revised fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) outlines six other depressive disorders along with their subtypes. These include dysthymic disorder, bipolar disorder, substance-induced mood disorder, adjustment disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, schizoaffective disorder and schizophrenia, and anxiety disorders. From a clinical standpoint, all of these must be considered as possibilities when approaching a depression diagnosis.


References:

Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (n.d.). Appendix D—DSM-IV-TR Mood Disorders. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved June 28, 2014, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64063

Rowling, J. (1999). Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury.

Solomon, A. (2013, October 19.) Andrew Solomon: Depression, the secret we share. http://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_solomon_depression_the_secret_we_share/

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Image Credit: Istockphoto/sokolovsky

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Fair or Foul

by Dulce Morales

DISCUSSION TOPIC: What is your position on diving or faking fouls or injuries?

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The following was sent in by guest commentator, Dulce Morales:

On June 29, 2014, Mexico faced the Netherlands and lost.

Throughout the game, Dutch player Arjen Robben repeatedly threw himself to the ground claiming that a player from the opposing team had hurt him. Finally, with the score tied 1-1 very late in the game, Robben threw himself to the ground claiming that Rafael Marquez, captain of the Mexican team, had tripped him, causing him to fall.

The referee blew his whistle. We knew that our team and our country were going to suffer.

A penalty shot was awarded to the Netherlands - which is never done in overtime.

We, the fans, were upset. We began to pray and hope that the same miracle that made the referee call that ridiculous penalty shot would also help Mexican goalkeeper Memo Ochoa stop that goal. But that ball went in through the arcs, giving our team only a minute to try and score a second goal for our country.

Before we knew it, the referee blew his whistle one more time, and the game was over. The score was 2-1. The euphoria we had felt was stolen from us in the last minutes of the game. Anger filled our lungs but all we could exhale was sadness. We had been eliminated by a penalty shot that should have never happened.

Later in the day, Robben admitted to diving in the game (though not on that particular play).

The referee awarded a penalty shot to the Netherlands team, and gave Marquez a yellow card. This means that Marquez will not be able to play the next game.

The world could not have known a sadder day.

We gave it our all. We played a fair game.

Ironically, our opponent team did not and by doing so, won the game and cheated us out of our happiness.

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At the following link, you will find information about the alleged foul and dive. We’ll let you guys judge for yourselves.

Many thanks to our guest commentator, Dulce Morales, for her opinion and insight. Your comments are also welcome. Please send them to our editor at susan@thepeopleproject.com.

http://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2014/jun/30/arjen-robben-dive-holland-mexico-world-cup-2014

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Image Credit: Associated Press/Wong Maye-E

Description: Netherlands' Arjen Robben, center, goes down to win a penalty during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between the Netherlands and Mexico at the Arena Castelao in Fortaleza, Brazil, Sunday, June 29, 2014. Netherlands won the match 2-1.

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Terri Kelleher

Visual artist and children’s book illustrator Terri Kelleher was born and raised in the United States, but has lived in Galway, Ireland for the past nineteen years. Terri is a busy stay-at-home mom to her four children, and is the author of several children’s books, including her most recent work entitled “Where Do Monsters Hide?”

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Q. When did you start creating art? And why?

I have been drawing since I was very young. When I was six or seven, I remember reading through a book my mother had by Betty Edwards called “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” and trying out the exercises myself, especially the one where you look at a photo of something and turn it upside down - so that your brain doesn’t label the parts – and try to draw it just as a series of lines. That was really the earliest memory of my interest in trying to create art. When I was ten, the teacher introduced the class to art history by teaching us about a new painter every week and showing us photos of their work. That was my first experience with art history and art appreciation.

As far back as I can remember I have been drawing and painting. My family was always very encouraging of my artwork, and I used to love to visit my two grandmothers’ homes. One of my grandmothers was a nurse, and the other was a music teacher, but both created art as a hobby. My mother's mother only had a couple of her own paintings on display in her home, small still life paintings in oil, but my father’s mother filled her home with framed paintings she had done and sculptures her sisters had made. I remember that a lot of her paintings were of botanicals in watercolour. I remember that I loved to just sit and look at a few of my favourite pieces. I suppose in that way, both my grandmothers were very inspirational to my own pursuit of an artistic career.

Q. How did you learn about art?

The only ‘teacher’ training I had in art was what I had in high school. I chose an art class for each of my four years, so that included art history, painting and drawing, commercial art, and advanced studio art. When I left school, I took one watercolour painting class that was one evening a week for six weeks. Everything else, I learned from reading. I have read many art technique books, art history books, compilations of artworks, etc. Also, I loved books as a child and have bought and kept some from my youth, which I purchased because I loved the illustrations. Now, I have many books that are specifically about children's book illustrations.

Q. Do you earn a living with your art?

I have been freelancing mainly children's book illustrations for the past eighteen months and have been fortunate enough to have had consistent work in that time. This kind of work does allow me to express myself and create art with imagination. Sometimes, it can be more difficult than just painting a series of paintings for myself, as I often have to make alterations or small edits to suit an author, whereas if I were just painting for my own project, I could do it however I wanted.

I also do the occasional portrait or one-off commission, as well as the odd interior mural. I am a stay-at-home mother as well, so hopefully in time I can devote more and more of my day to painting, but presently, there are huge demands on my time and the only real time I get to work on art is in the evenings and at night. I would like to become more involved in my community, but as I have so many demands at home at present, it just isn't something that I can do now. In a few years, I would expect to have more time on my hands.

Q. How did you first obtain work as a children’s book illustrator?

In my final year of high school, I had to do a project of my choice as the final exam, and I chose to create a children's book. This was my first real taste of illustrating a story and although I kind of rushed through it, I did enjoy it. A few years later, when I was at home with my two oldest children – who were toddlers then - I wrote and illustrated my first book. I sent it to many publishers only to be rejected again and again. Finally, I was accepted by an Irish language publisher. I met with the owner of the publishing company and he said he was going to translate the text to Irish. Time passed and nothing was happening with the book, and after a year of little communication and no publication, I took back my artwork and told him to forget it.

I had more ideas for other books, but after that experience I was a little disillusioned. I got a little job making a few small illustrations in a couple of issues of a local magazine. Then, I did some commission work for paintings from photos, and wall murals for interior design projects. Finally in 2012, somehow, I came across an ad on the Internet for a self-publishing company that was looking for new illustrators. I just filled in the application, not really expecting anything from it and actually forgetting about it all together. A few months later I received an email telling me that they liked my work and wanted me to illustrate a book for them.

I was really excited and I did the illustrations. I absolutely loved the job, and knew at that point that it was the career path I wanted and needed to follow. I thought that they would contact me regularly for more work, but they didn't. That was when I decided that I was going to pursue my career on my own, and I started writing my own books and building my portfolio.

I came across a website for freelance workers and signed up. After writing and illustrating three of my own books, which formed the base of my freelance portfolio, I began applying for illustration jobs on that site. Within a couple of months of applying, I got my first freelance job in January 2013. Since then, I have illustrated twelve books for other authors. Some of these authors have written second and third books which they have asked me to illustrate for them. I have stayed in contact with the majority of the authors, but I don't like to seem too pushy or aggressive, so I usually let them initiate contact.

Q. Is it satisfying for you to see your illustrations in the pages of a book?

Yes, absolutely, it is satisfying to see the finished work. Some of the authors I have worked for have not published their books for whatever reason, and others have. Of the ones that have published their books, sometimes they send me a copy and sometimes I have to order it like everyone else, but I like to have the finished copy in my hand - like part of my portfolio.

Q. I understand that you have written a children's storybook called "Where Do Monsters Hide?" Can you tell me about this book?

This was the fourth book that I self-published. I wrote one for each of my four children using their first name as the name for the story’s main character. “Where Do Monsters Hide” was a fun book for me because, although it was for my fourth child, it was inspired by my second. When my son was young, about seven or so, he was a terror for getting out of bed after bedtime, and night after night, he would repeatedly come downstairs for an excuse like a drink or something. Finally, I got sick of this routine and told him that he’d better get back into bed because at ten o'clock monsters go around peeking in all the windows to make sure girls and boys are all in bed. I know this sounds terrible when I hear it now, as my son – who is now fifteen - laughs and recounts the tale himself. But that was the inspiration behind the story.

The book is written in rhyme, and it’s about a little boy who wonders where monsters are when he looks for them in the daytime, but can't find any. His mother tells him different places they like to hide, but that if he is a good boy and does all the things he is supposed to do, he won’t see them and the monsters will stay away. And if he is naughty, the monsters will come looking for him to take him away to their monster land.

The illustrations in the book are not scary, but light-hearted.

Q. Does the work of other artists inspire or influence your work?

M.C. Escher is one of my all time favourites of the famous artists, and was probably the first introduction I had in my life to illusions in illustration. My dad brought home a PC in the late 1980's. Microsoft Paint and some images had been pre-installed on the computer, and one of these was “Waterfall” by Escher, and I absolutely loved studying it. Then, a few years later, when I went to high school, two of my teachers had Escher prints hanging in their classrooms. One was “Reptiles,” which depicted lizard tessellations, and the other was “Bond of Union.” This one was in my English class - which I wasn't too crazy about - and I would spend a lot of time looking at the picture rather than paying attention in class, to my teacher's dismay. When I realized that both were by the same artist, I became very interested in learning more about him and his work.

Q. How about contemporary artists?

I love to look at the work of new artists. I find as much, if not more inspiration in their relatively unknown works as I do in the masters and the famous pieces. A contemporary artist that stands out in my head is George Callaghan whose work I had the pleasure to view on display here in Galway a few years ago. I first saw Callaghan's work about ten years ago when I was walking down a street in the town centre. I passed a gallery, and his work was in the window. I had never actually been in the gallery before, but I had to go in to see the painting on display, which I believe was called “Finnegan's Wake.”

The painting was stylistic and colourful, and there was so much going on with the characters. There was a corpse in the centre, laid out in the coffin with one eye open looking at the carry on of the others. There were people with pints and sandwiches and it was just one of those pieces I could spend hours looking at. Then, when I was inside the gallery, I saw the other work he had on display. There were fabulous landscapes with round trees and more stylized houses and colours, and they were just wonderful. I left the gallery and have never stopped thinking of his paintings, and from time to time I look them up on the Internet just to see them again.

Another new artist whose work I just adore is Connor Maguire. I only discovered his work recently - last year, but again, like with Callaghan, his work stuck in my mind. Not so much his realistic portraiture, but his stylized pieces especially. I love his charcoal drawing called “The Honest Banker.” I think this one is my favourite of his. Also, the vibrantly coloured oils like “Coming Home” and “Calm Before the Storm.” I just love the movement and colour in the work.

Q. What do you hope to achieve with your art?

I have found that creating art fills a place in my life that brings me peace and contentment, and if for no other reason than that, I would continue to paint. It is nice to have work and think that other people like my work, but ultimately I create art for me. What I mean by this is that I used to try to think about what other people would like to see or what might sell. I would do paintings of local landmarks and landscapes and try to create them with techniques that I thought people would like, but it wasn't satisfying to me as an artist because I felt that this kind of art wasn't ‘mine.’

When I decided in 2012 to follow the illustration path and write my own books, I decided to paint the illustrations the way that I liked to paint them, and to make people and landscapes the way I wanted them to be, not the way I thought other people would like them to be. This finally gave me satisfaction because I was creating art the way I liked. I know that means other people won't necessarily like my artwork, but that's finally okay with me because I know that I am creating in a way that makes me happy.

Q. How have people responded to your work?

Some people like it and some people don't. Frankly, I'm always a little bit shocked when someone says they like my work or chooses me to do a particular job. Of course it pleases me to think that someone likes it, but I guess I am always a bit skeptical that they are just being polite.

Q. What kind of equipment and materials do you use?

For the illustration work, I mainly use watercolour and acrylic inks on hot pressed smooth paper. For portraits and commissioned pieces, I use acrylic on canvas. I use the watercolour and ink for the illustrations as I can get a lot of detail into the pieces. I like the acrylic paints too because they give a different look and textured appearance which is fun for a change.

Q. What is the single most important piece of advice you would give to an artist who is starting out?

I would say create art in a way that you find pleases you. Don't get caught up in trying to please someone else. In so doing, you will develop your own unique style which is far more important.

To view Terri’s work, please go to: http://www.terrikelleher.com/

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Image Credit: Terri Kelleher

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