Suicide

I do not like telling stories about myself. It isn’t that I think people should not tell stories about themselves generally (though memoir is one of my least favorite genres of writing) – if you have a story to tell, more power to you. I just feel like…the stories I have to tell are about other people. Mostly made up people, if you get down to it. Make of that what you will.

I don’t think my life is particularly interesting, and I also have a really bad memory. I don’t remember whole swathes of my life, for reasons I can only guess at and don’t want to get into. Suffice to say, in the rare event that someone tells a story of something they remember me saying or doing, especially years ago, there’s a good chance I’ll have no idea what they’re talking about. They say that people with depression have smaller hippocampuses, and maybe that has something to do with it, I don’t know.

But I listened to Mike Perna’s episode of Bard and Bible a few days ago, and I decided, OK, I’ll tell a few brief Doug stories. These stories are about suicide, so if you don’t want that, now you know to skip this post. (These are not all of my stories about suicide, but they are the ones I’m telling today) I respect your time, so I’ll keep them as brief as I can while still maybe making sense.

First, I’m perpetually the New Guy, and before that, was perpetually the New Kid. I counted, and I’ve moved 24 times in my 37 years of life. No, I’m not a military brat or anything like that. I’ve just moved a lot – with my family as a kid, then as an adolescent, then as an adult.

As the perpetual New (Fat, Nerdy, Short) Kid, I had to sharpen my natural defenses. The key was always humor. After being pretty steadily beaten up and bullied and made fun of up through elementary school, I put together that if I was able to be consistently funny I would generally be safe. Not all the time, but most of the time. Being my dad’s fifth child and my mom’s third child meant lax parenting, so I watched a lot of late-night TV even as a kid. I watched a lot of comedy specials, and as much as I could, I’d absorb them, and then replay them at school with my own spin in order to shield myself with laughter. By Middle School I had a pretty solid repertoire of Robin Williams and Richard Pryor, among others, and was always someone who was trying to be funny. All this to say, Robin Williams in particular saved me from a lot of ass-kickings. Beyond that, he always seemed like an amazing person. He’s a lifelong hero, the kind of rare, wild genius that I feel privileged to have shared the world with.

Next, I’m a teenager and I have a crush on this girl. She and I are really close friends, actually. We hang out a lot; when I sneak out, it is to go hang out with her. She knows I have this boundless teenage love for her, and she does not feel the same way, and we’re both aware of all of that. It was what it was. But I’d take what I could get, so we spent a lot of time together.

One night, I’m dropping her off at home (I had an early birthday and was an early driver among my friends), and she tells me that she’s going to commit suicide. I beg her not to, but she has made up her mind, tells me goodbye, gets out of the car and goes inside. I’m just sobbing in this Chevy Blazer for I don’t know how long. Eventually she comes back out, gets back in, and tells me that she won’t. If I’ll stop crying, and go home and go to sleep, she promises she won’t.

Then she does.

Next, a year or two later, I’m in my dad’s office. It’s very late, and I’m so depressed and upset and angry and sick of the shitshow of being alive that I have taken down the case where he keeps a revolver. Six bullets shine in little shaped holes like board game pieces. (Not a simile I thought of at the time) With shaking hands I open the mechanism that lets the cylinder fall to the side and I start putting a bullet in each chamber. Why more than the one bullet I’d be using? I have no idea. Symmetry, maybe.

I remember the nauseating weight of it in my hand.

I hold the gun, hands still shaking, feeling like I’m going to throw up a clot of darkness out of the pit of my insides; thinking about whether I’ll feel the impact of the bullet to the side of my head, or just feel a hot dry shove and then nothing, or what. Will I go to Hell, or just fall and never hit the bottom?

I would love to say that Jesus came to me then, or that I thought about the people who loved me and how I’d hurt them, or what it would be like for my dad to wake up to a bang and find my brains all over his shelves. I thought of those things, but I had already thought of those things, and yet there I was in that room, in that moment, weighing whether to end everything because that would also end the pain of being. I knew I would hurt people, but I thought they were misguided. They didn’t understand, would be better off without me.

What happened was, I hit bottom. Whatever step there was before the very last step – that’s where I stopped. I felt like I had fallen a long way, but had slammed into a cold concrete floor, and would not fall any further. I would hurt horribly, would be miserable, but I would not fall farther than that. Not now, anyway.

Feeling like I was going to pass out, I put the gun and bullets back exactly as I found them, went back to my room, told no one. I’d continue to fantasize about killing myself for the next fifteen or so years, but never did it. Obviously.

Next, I’m working as a barista in San Anselmo, California, while going to seminary. I’m at Marin Coffee Roasters and in walks Robin Williams. My hero. The shimmering barrier of humor between me and innumerable ass-kickings. The guy who, for all intents and purposes, is the person I want to be. Yes, he suffers from depression, I’ve read all about that and his marriage troubles and his drug abuse and so on – but he does all of these things and is also world-famous for being hilarious and wonderful. Meanwhile, I’m a broke, depressed Seminary student. He did things in the world – I was just a fan. Yeah, I’d trade lives with the guy, no question.

He was a big bike-rider at the time, and Marin Coffee Roasters was kind of a bike hangout, so he comes in and orders a small mocha. I make him his small mocha, and he says thanks; shares a small smile. I am literally clamping down on all of the things I want to tell him, just boiling up inside of me, because honestly he looks exhausted and I don’t want to impose on the guy. Well, I want to follow him home like a whimpering puppy and hope he takes me in, but the mocha is all I give him.

Last, Robin Williams commits suicide on August 11th, 2014 – three years ago today. Three years later I’m still basically without words. He got to that moment, and bottom for him was just one step farther down than it was for me. He fell past where I stopped, and that was that. The person I desperately wanted to be for years was dead, and I was alive.

And then Prince, and then Chris Cornell, and then Chester Bennington, about whom Mike Perna spoke so eloquently on the Bard and Bible podcast, which set this post in motion.

If you want someone to talk to, I am always available, for this, for anyone, any time. I don’t advertise that, but maybe I should. I have talked to other people who have been in that place, and I have been there, or somewhere like it.

You can also talk to other people who want to help, and who want you to live.

I don’t have a conclusion for this. No summation, no lesson to walk away with. Just what I wrote. Just that and no more.

A General Theory of Love

I actually don’t recall when I first read this book – probably a few years after it was first published in 2001. I am certain that the science that this text draws upon has moved forward leaps and bounds from when this book was published, but what is cutting-edge about it is not the neuroscience it is rooted in (which I think is still quite valid) but rather the ‘general theory’ itself.

One of the reasons I remain a religious person is the experience, now and then, of convergence between what I learn about scientific discovery, and what I learn about people, and what I learn about God. For a long time now, my focus in religious life has been in cultivating wisdom. I think that we come to know God through wisdom, and that we come to know ourselves and our world by the same means. The same tool-box works for all of the above.

At least, I hope it does.

In A General Theory of Love, three mental health professionals with three different backgrounds present their convergent theory about how to help people. In brief, their theory draws on the fact that our brains have a section called the limbic system that is kind of what makes us mammals. We have a reptilian brain that handles our reflexes and some initial fight-or-flight responses, composed of things that reptiles also have in their brains. Then we have a mammalian layer that handles some of our social functioning and emotional life and instinctual care-taking behaviors called the limbic system. Last, we have the cortex, the top part of the brain that makes us people, which handles our thoughts and guilt and abstract reasoning and other fun things.

What the Theory of Love says is that the most important thing in a helping professional is their healthy limbic system. That if the helping professional is centered and responsive and loving, their limic system will talk to the patient’s limbic system and re-orient it over time toward mental and behavioral health. Our limbic system is the part of the brain that talks to other brains without us knowing it, picking up on subtle clues and body language and voice modulation, and it has some helpful mirror neurons. The limbic system is why emotions are contagious, whether positive or negative.

The big insight in this theory is that the important aspect of a helping professional is not their specific theoretical background or clinical training, though these things are helpful. Rather, what is key is a relationship with the person being helped which will enable the healthier limbic system to re-train the hurting one – and that this will happen almost entirely unconsciously.

Even since I read this book years ago, this has become the core of how I go about trying to help people, whether as a pastor or as a friend. It is my theoretical approach and methodology, and part of what I like about it is that it is paradoxically a non-method. The only thing I have to do is to build rapport, and care about the person, and remain self-aware with good boundaries in place. And then gradually, over time, the other person’s brain can learn from my brain. I just listen, and talk, and care – three things I’m at least OK at.

So we get back to the wisdom, because what I see as the way to become better as a helping professional is to grow in wisdom. I am probably not going to go back to graduate school and seek clinical training – I’d love to, actually, and it has been recommended to me, but I just can’t afford it. On the other hand, I hear loud and clear the admonitions that all clergy should hear that we must not “play doctor”, meaning behave as if we are clinicians. We are not. We are not psychotherapists or social workers or counselors. We take a few classes in pastoral counseling in Seminary, perhaps, but we are not qualified to do that work.

But, as clergy, as religious people in general, I think we are very much in the wisdom business. We are in the love business. We are in the listening business. And this theory of helping others that is laid out in A General Theory of Love fits very well with my other training, in theology and in contemplative practices, in ethics and, yes, in pastoral counseling. And so far, it has served me well. It feels like something that should be true about the world – love should heal. And my experience has been that it does.

Healing Spiritual Wounds by Carol Howard-Merritt

Parts of this book were a little bit hard to read – but there are some stories that I’m just not going to tell because the people involved aren’t dead yet. When I am old, I will enjoy telling all the stories. In the meantime, I read other people’s stories. Carol’s story is evocatively written, moving, and sometimes quite surprising. Her prose is, as always, intelligent and approachable, and periodically poetic. Each chapter ends with thoughtful exercises that take the things Carol is writing about and makes them into concrete practices.

Anyone who knows me can probably tell you that I don’t usually read memoirs, as a general rule. Maybe it’s jealousy, since I haven’t lived an interesting life and don’t think anyone would want to ready my memoir. I’m neither old nor important, so it hardly seems like the time. While Healing Spiritual Wounds is not a memoir as such, it is framed as a reflection on Carol’s own life and experience that unfolds to include what she has learned on her journey that might be helpful to others.

The way that Carol writes is a sort of gestalt – you have to read through the whole book to get it. It isn’t one that is easy to review in the future by skimming notes or main topics, because it moves around in time and flows along the lines of Carol’s recollections from various parts of her life – as an adolescent, as a student at Moody Bible Institute, as a full-time pastor in the D.C. area, and so on. That’s why it isn’t a memoir, though it draws on memoir – the text follows the process of healing, drawn from Carol’s experiences of healing and then abstracted out a step in the hope that she can help others heal.

This book is therapeutic – I bet it was therapeutic to write, and it is intended as therapeutic, as a vehicle for healing. In my own case, my wounds are different. I don’t share the story of needing to recover from trauma at the hands of conservative Christianity that so many others have, a fact for which I am thankful. I still got a lot from reading Carol’s book – it was therapeutic to read. And from what I know of healing, I think that this book could indeed prove therapeutic to a wide variety of people in addition to its intended audience of people harmed by their religious past. Even if you are not seeking healing from spiritual wounds, Carol is an excellent writer, and in her story you might find healing for other wounds as well. Even if you aren’t looking for help in healing, Healing Spiritual Wounds is a well-written and thoughtful book that approaches painful experiences with grace, whether Carol’s experiences or your own.

(I know that I’m supposed to refer to authors by their last name, but Carol is my buddy. Don’t hold it against her.)

Buy Carol’s book.

Seriously, buy it.

Dungeons & Dragons & The Enneagram

Image result for the enneagram institute

Facebook friend and Christian anarchist Mark Van Steenwyk posted that he would love it if someone took the time to map D&D classes to Enneagram types, including all of the wings. I happen to be an Enneagram nerd and a D&D nerd as well as a little bit obsessive – the end result was that I did precisely that. Nine base Enneagram types with archetypes as wings. The Ranger was left out, because someone had to be out of 10 classes, and, you know…5E Rangers.

Enneagram Type D&D 5E Class Notes
1w9 Way of the Four Elements Monk with the focus on balancing extremes
1 Monk Rightness, self-discipline
1w2 Way of the Open Hand Some self-healing
2w1 Life Domain Warm, embodied
2 Cleric The caregiver, in most groups
2w3 Trickery Domain Giver, but status-seeking
3w2 Arcane Trickster Charming, ambitious
3 Rogue Achievement-oriented, highly skilled
3w4 Thief Individualistic achiever
4w3 College of War Imperfect 1:1, but some originality
4 Bard The artist!
4w5 College of Lore Cerebral creative
5w4 School of Enchantment Creative and provocative
5 Wizard All the books! All the lore! Thinking solves all!
5w6 School of Abjuration Protect friends
6w5 Oath of Devotion The guardian, idealist
6 (counter-phobic) Paladin Charge with me! Auras for allies, smite foes
6w7 Oath of the Ancients Guardian of joy, ‘fun’ paladin
7w6 Draconic Bloodline Another imperfect 1:1
7 Sorcerer Flexibility in all spells, zany bloodlines
7w8 Wild Magic Excitement! Impatience!
8w7 Path of the Berserker Power-seeking, smash the system!
8 Barbarian “Not afraid to be direct”
8w9 Path of the Totem Warrior Some delegation here; imperfect 1:1
9w8 Circle of the Moon Fighty druids
9 Druid Because balance
9w1 Circle of the Land Independent, philosophical, stubborn

Final Note on Rangers

Clearly, rangers are left out of this table, as some class had to be. But in discussion, I thought that rangers would make sense as the more phobic version of the 6, since the classic ranger response to conflict is to back up and shoot from range, so to speak, compared to the paladin’s charge.

What do you think? What would you change? 

Quiet

pixar-inside-out-trailer_5

I want to talk about a state that I enter into, which I associate with depression. I’m in the state right now, which makes it hard to think about and talk about, but I’m going to try. I call it Quiet.

The first way I know that I am in Quiet is that my mental monologue (and music tracks, and playback mode) quiets down. It’s the sensation of a turbulent sea become placid, or the ripples in a pond slowly disappearing. My skull actually feels like it is full of soft nothingness. Or it feels like the winter silence when you are outside and the usual noises are all muffled by falling snow.

I find that I notice a lot more, visually, and even about myself, when Quiet. I notice details of plants and animals around me. I see people, and I see myself, at a slight remove. Perhaps a half-step back, where I’m aware but not invested or reactive. It becomes easier to notice beauty, or to be briefly surprised but not distracted.

I find it harder to speak, and sometimes easier to write. Sometimes impossible. But the inertia I have to overcome to say something to someone increases – it’s like throwing off a heavy blanket every time, and I’m usually just as inclined to sort of stare at them, noticing something about them, even appreciating them in a new way, but without any words to go with it.

I feel immensely sad when Quiet. Sometimes I cry a bit. I feel immeasurable loss. At the same time, I don’t cling to the feeling or identify with it much. It’s just…there it is. In and underneath everything.

I am very accepting when Quiet. It’s probably a state that I wouldn’t mind being in when I die. Very much a sense of, “This is what it is.” Sad, morose, but not anguished.

There is a feeling of emptiness, in both the positive and negative sense, when I am Quiet. There is also a sense that I could feel this way forever – it doesn’t have the rising action, peak, and falling action that I experience in other moods. It’s just, oh, there it is. The Quiet.

I admit to appreciating Quiet, even though I wouldn’t call it pleasant. If I felt this way long-term, I might even harm myself with the same even-keeled aplomb with which I watch birds circle or squirrels tug on branches for acorns or someone face while they are talking to me.

From my study and practice of Buddhism, it seems to me to be something like a low-functioning version of satori. That makes sense of my own experiences of satori. It would be like comparing mourning with despair, or anger with hatred. It has some aspects in common, but doesn’t seem like what the Buddha had in mind.

I just wanted to write this out because I hadn’t before, and it’s interesting to me, the different kinds of experiences that fall under the umbrella of “depression” or “anxiety.” One of those is Quiet, and of the various things depression gives me, it’s one I feel like I can at least learn from.

I’m wondering if anyone reading this has an experience like Quiet.

Core Emotions

Inside Out emotions

I was recently listening to an episode of the Two Pastors Podcast dealing with fear, anxiety, anger and hatred, and it got me thinking. I really enjoyed Inside Out, in part because it very effectively and dramatically incorporated a lot of research on core emotions that I have been learning about for the last few years, particularly based on the work of Paul Ekman. (If you have ever heard of a “micro-expression” then you’ve heard something of Ekman’s work) In brief, Ekman and others have identified five (or maybe six) core emtions based on universal human facial expressions and bodily cues. In the context of Inside Out, there were five core emotions: anger, disgust, fear, joy and sadness. To this list Ekman and others might add surprise, but that isn’t an important one for what I want to talk about.

I’ve used ideas around these core emotions, and their healthy expression and function, in situations like pastoral counseling and the spirituality groups I led for the behavioral health program at a hospital in San Francisco. I’ve also used these ideas a lot in my own life, not only trying to increase my EQ but also better understand myself and better manage my own mental illness challenges (depression and anxiety).

I found this really cool matrix based on the Inside Out emotions online that show show these five core emotions can combine to create other emotional experiences. I liked it, but I didn’t think it was quite right, so I made my own:

Anger Disgust Fear Joy Sadness
Anger Rage Hatred Panic Triumph Grief
Disgust Hatred Revulsion Horror Morbid Fascination Loathing
Fear Panic Horror Terror Surprise Despair
Joy Triumph Morbid Fascination Surprise Ecstacy Nostalgia
Sadness Grief Loathing Despair Nostalgia Despondency

One of these that I think I need to explain is the combination of joy and anger, I decided to characterize as triumph. Previously, I had fiero and also righteous anger in that slot: fiero I get from Ekman – he thought there was a particular facial expression for the feeling one experiences in something like a crucial sports victory, and he didn’t think there was a good English word for that feeling, so he used an Italian one. But just imagine the exultant, gritted-teeth, clenched fist emotion someone might exhibit right after they score a goal. This emotion might be distinct from righteous anger, but righteous anger was another example of how I understand a combination of anger and joy. I decided to go with triumph, however, but I’m not as confident about that one as I am with others.

Another key note: of the five core emotions, each has a healthy and necessary function for us, even though we think of most of them as “negative emotions.” In fact, of those listed, the only obviously “positive” one is joy. But one thing I loved about Inside Out is that each of the emotions had their place in one’s health, and a person couldn’t get by without all of them. Just like in real life.

Where one emotion intersects with itself in the matrix, I just listed an extreme form of that emotion, each of which is probably less healthy in its own right. But how these various combinations map to “health” and so on is a whole other discussion.

For now, just check out the matrix and tell me what you think. For me, it was helpful just to write out, if nothing else.