As always, I love the podcast! It helps me tremendously and I look forward to it each week. I am a singer and an artist and I listen to podcasts like yours while mopping floors and cleaning toilets at my housekeeping day job.
I have been feeling pretty depressed and hopeless for the past couple of days. Today, as I finished a good hour or two of ruminating about the past and worrying about the future, I decided to try writing a letter of encouragement to myself:
“You are stronger than you know. You have been to hell and back and you are still moving forward. You have the ability to let it go, to let the past be the past and the future with all its unknowns be the future. You are here, now, in this moment, and you can use this moment to do good, provide service, create something beautiful, and enrich a life, whether it is your own or someone else’s. Share your gifts with the world around you and let the world within you grow.”
What I wrote made me feel so much better. I even printed it out and put it on my wall, but I had to share it with you, Paul, because I have huge issues with low self esteem and social anxiety, and though sharing my writing with you is a pretty big risk for me, I know in my heart that it is good and worth sharing.
Thanks again for The Mental Illness Happy Hour. It is truly a gift.
“Lillith” (not her real name) opens up to Paul about why she chooses to moonlight as an escort/prostitute, even though her day job pays the bills. She talks about living with a rapid cycling form of BiPolar type I, childhood sexual trauma, how her mania helped her excel academically and the myths and truths about having sex for money.
As a survivor of childhood leukemia (diagnosed aged 5) and living with a diagnosis ofhepatitis C since I was 20 (I was infected via blood transfusions during my cancer treatments in early adolescence, but did not come to find out until then), I’ve lived nearly all of my life well-acquainted with both the fragility and the resilience of the human body.
For much of my adult life, however, I was unable to fully take stock of how much my traumatic health-experiences had rattled my psyche, making me vulnerable to depression, agitation and anxiety that were, in fact, not unusual responses to those unresolved experiences of powerlessness and fear. For years, though, I tried to cope on my own, in ways both healthy and unhealthy. I knew I needed some kind of help but did not know how to make sense of my story, or ask for help with feelings of brokenness.
At the age of 33, life seemed to offer me one more reminder that my life was as precious as it was fragile, but this time the lessons of its experience would insist that I never again try to face it alone.
In the Spring of 2012, I had just returned from a five-week trip back to the United States, back again in my adopted home of Ireland. I landed back in Dublin, feeling a sense of confidence and clarity, looking forward to a summer job at a camp for children experiencing/surviving serious illness. During my time in Ireland, I had made progress towards understanding my story and the job at camp marked a sea-change in my clarity and confidence that I could improve the lives of children who experienced what I did.
Unbelievably, the summer was not to be so rosy, and not long before I began the job I fell ill with a fever. The fever began with light chills but quickly progressed to intense heat and a nauseous stomach. I thought it was some kind of viral stomach bug and decided to sleep it off. The next morning I felt a bit better but in the afternoon, confusion was setting in and my breathing became a bit labored just as the fever again began to spike.
Were it not for friends who insisted that I immediately present myself to a doctor, I would have continued to put off the possible severity of my situation and no doubt would have died. Going to a general practitioner, who had the wisdom to immediately refer me to the ER, I was soon diagnosed with streptococcal-A induced sepsis and spent the next 3 days in septic shock with failing kidneys and collapsed blood-pressure.
I was so dehydrated that I hallucinated that a Native American woman with blue hair was urging me to drink from a blue bowl! I visualized my own death and the birth and death of countless people happening all over the Earth, not as an end but rather as a dispersion of points of light across incalculable distances in deep space. I remember not being afraid, but I did feel as though I were slowly fading in and out. Eventually, I felt peace and renewal. I eventually awoke to my actual Mother standing next to my bedside, crying but happy that I was coming back consciousness.
Due to the diligence of the doctors and thanks to lots of oxygen, adrenaline, fluids, and antibiotics, I made it through the worst part of everything and was told that I was lucky to have lived. I ended up spending a week in ICU and then more than another week in normal-care.
Leaving the hospital, I was absolutely heart-broken and physically shattered. I had lost over 30 pounds and was an emaciated bag of bones. I had difficulty walking short distances, breathing properly, and my stamina had all but disappeared. Amazingly, I sustained no permanent damage to my body. The damage to my mind was another story altogether, however.
My summer aspirations were ruined and the highest inland areas of self, where I had been keeping the confidence and clarity I had felt, were completely swept away by the chaotic and churning waves of residual trauma. For several months I was a complete mess, prone to episodes of agitation, confusion, depression and fear that came washing over me without warning. I was simply scattered and missing from myself.
By three months though, due no doubt to lots of walking, rest and good eating, my body was coming back to normal. But after three months the real mental toll, while less acute, was announcing itself as more chronic. I tried to stick things out a bit longer, not asking for help with my feelings.
Eventually, due to the encouragement of friends and family, I realized if there was ever a time to ask for help, it was now. I’ve begun to see a counselor and while the work with her is just beginning, I am beginning to see how important it is to tell my story and to hear the stories of others who have had their brushes with death and feelings of loss. I am beginning to understand how there is no shame in asking for help and no more sense in facing mental anguish alone than there would have been sense in thinking I could have “slept off” the sepsis” and stayed away from the doctor’s office.
I wanted to tell my story because I want anyone who has survived sepsis (or any other traumatic experience, for that matter) or who survives and now mourns one they lost, to know they are not alone and that help is there if you ask for it. True, other friends and family may never be able to relate to the trauma, they will not taste their mortality hopefully until the end of their natural lives, but nothing can replace the benefits of having an objective non-judgmental person who just listens and shares their observations. You may not need advice, but as is said, you can never see the back of your own head as someone else can. Sometimes all it takes is another perspective to re-hitch hope to a disconnected heart.
If you feel broken, confused, unsure about the future or just alone with your experiences, please reach out to someone! We may all have to face death on our own terms but we do not have to face life that way!
Despite everything I have been through, I am finding renewed strength in my vulnerability and I can finally see the possible resolution to so much that was long-un-resolved in my life. For better or worse, it was the lessons of sepsis that pushed me just a bit closer to the edge of discovery that I now willfully leap off into the faith for a more hopeful future.
My New Year’s Resolution
Got the holiday blues? Lot’s of people do. There have been times this season where I haven’t been into my favorite holiday – Christmas. I’ve watched all the movies, listened to the songs and drank lots of whiskey. What could possibly be the problem? So, I’ve been thinking how I can go into next year with a more positive attitude and I think I’ve figured it out. When people get depressed, those around them say, “count your blessings.” It’s good advice but blessings in a way are like bandaids. They cover up your depression for awhile but at the end of the day you have to love your life. I’m talking about life itself. Not the IDEA of life. YOUR ACTUAL LIFE and the fact that you are here on Earth.
This coming year when I get depressed and feel like listening to Croce so I can pretend I’m one of his tough luck characters and feel sorry for myself or when I don’t feel like writing or doing anything, I will think back to when I was a sperm. To be honest I have very few memories from that era. I probably tried to block most of them out. Those were tough times. Me and about two hundred and eighty million others fighting for the egg. Fighting for life. The odds were not in my favor. The chances of me getting to that egg were slimmer than winning the lottery. Some of those other sperm were pretty intense. It was like they’d been doing two-a-days in preparation for this race. But I won. Pete Schwaba was the best that day. Out of two hundred and some odd million sperm I was the top dog, the big cheese, the head honcho, a winner dammit! I probably had some of those other little bastards trying to give me the shiv or do the trick where one of them gets my attention so I don’t notice another sperm kneeling behind me so buddy could push me over. A very common trick in the sperm world but I was ready for it. Nice try, assholes. There were probably tons of cute female sperm that gave me the big eye or showed some tail to keep me from my goal. But I didn’t take the bait. I knew what I wanted. I wanted to get to that egg. I wanted life.
I was tired of just being a soul floating in nothingness where I couldn’t see beauty, taste pasta with garlic and oil, couldn’t feel another person’s flesh, couldn’t hear beautiful music or smell freshly cut grass, all the things that make life so damn special and amazing. And these senses are the things we are born with. It’s so simple and we make it so complicated. If you had no senses going to a place with rich thick soil, the warmth of the sun, blue skies and flowing water it would seem like heaven. You would think, “that’s all I need.” And as a young sperm, you’d fight like hell to get it. We all did. We are all here. We did it. No one had a rich friend that helped them, no one called in a favor or really had a headstart. Our parents, aside from consummation – I know, gross – didn’t do squat for any of us. They were partying while we were left to fend for ourselves. But I did it. You did it. And now we’re stuck with each other.
Despite the unspeakable acts we commit against each other on a daily basis, I am going to approach this year like I live in Heaven, because it can be. Earth could be Heaven. While living this way in the coming year I will try not to think of the Belinda Carlisle song “Heaven is a Place on Earth” but if I do I will try to make a connection with Ms. Carlisle or those credited with said song lyrics according to lyricsfreak.com – Shipley, Ellen / Nowels, & Rick. Wow. Four authors. Interesting. I’m sure they had good intentions and that is what’s important. That is how I will try to approach each moment of each day – with great intentions and just happy to be alive. I owe it to all those other sperm who didn’t win the lottery.
Pete is a comedian and writer and he recently launched the website www.shopforyourgirl.com
The groundbreaking and critically acclaimed comedian (Comedy Central Presents:, Comedians of Comedy, Sarah Silverman Program) and voiceover artist (Wordgirl, Adult Swim) talks about her lifelong battles with OCD, Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome, BiPolar II, and the recent hospitilization that probably saved her life. Sounds pretty hilarious huh?
This is from the Shame and Secrets survey. I thought what “Tasha” had to say is indicative of how hard reaching out for help can be, even if we know intellectually we need it.
The Canadian standup (Tonight Show w/Jay Leno, Just For Laughs) and author (So Recently Ancient, and Ventriloquism for Dummies: Life as a Comedian) opens up to Paul about his lifelong struggle to win his father’s approval and the resulting anger that has cost him friendships.