My pain determined my lens

Posted by | Brandon Appelhans | No Comments

I believed that I was somebody. Or maybe I just thought I did.

In truth, for years I was haunted by the belief that I was never going to be good enough. I strove to make the people around me happy because I believed that I had to be good enough. I had to be the best worker around so people would believe in me. I had to be the best friend around so people would love me. In many ways I was extroverted and outgoing; all of it was a coverup. Inside I hurt because I fiercely believed I was unworthy of anything.

I was told that I was a beloved son. I was told that I was good enough. I was told that my life meant something. I never heard any of it. I was told a number of times that God had an opinion of me, and he was right. I heard the statements and understood them, but something kept them from sinking in. Something still made me think that I was nothing.

The lens I saw my life through was the problem. No matter what I heard, or what I saw, I knew deep inside that I was nobody. Why? Because deep inside I had a few core wounds that I had carried, which I saw the rest of my life through. I believed that I was a disappointment. Through that lens, no matter what I heard, all I actually internalized was, “you still are not good enough, are you? You are such a disappointment.”

As long as that lens dominated my thoughts and actions, I was always going to be nobody. I was always going to hurt. I was always going to feel chained to my own failures and losses.

Everything finally changed when I processed with my counselor, and the phrase, “Brandon, I am so disappointed in you,” came to the surface. It was the lens that I had seen my entire life through, but never known was there. The phrase had dominated my life without me knowing it. But now the lens was uncovered.

When I understood my lens, slowly I was able to hear more and more of the truth about myself, and allow myself to heal. I heard that I was a beloved son of God, and for the first time, could accept that love. I heard that I mattered, and for the first time, believed I was valuable. I was able to hear that I was loved, by God, by my friends, and by my family, and felt, for the first time, overwhelming love. The lens could not prevent me from experiencing life anymore. The subconscious cancer that had eaten away much of my life was called out. I could see myself through God’s eyes for the first time, because the lens that had dominated my own life had lost its power.

Freedom is something that happens when our lens is corrected. Before I thought that getting away from my pain would make it go away. Since, I have learned that running from my pain only gives it the space it needs to fester and grow. Pushing into my pain, beginning to bring safe community into my pain, and allowing that pain to heal, left it powerless. Soon my lens changed.

I am not alone in my pain.
I am not helpless.
I am not a victim.
I am a beloved son of a great king.
I have value and worth.
I am enough.
And I know this because my lens no longer rules over me.

We all have a lens. Most people I know, though, live their lives through a lens that prevents that from experiencing things like love and peace. If your lens is clouded, like mine was and still sometimes is, lean into it. There is so much more to live into.

And life went out . . .

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Today, my wife sent me a text about this season of life. She said, “Well, you and I aren’t in crisis, but it seems like everyone around us is. Eye of the storm or something, huh?”

In reality, not everyone around us is in crisis, but there are a few. For few people, we have been advocates, sometimes walking them through things so dark that nobody ever wants to be there. But someone has to, so we go.

It seems like we become a port of solace in the midst of the storm.

In those times, when someone desperately needs to know that things are going to be okay, and desperately needs an advocate, stepping in always costs me something. After the phone calls, the meetings, and then the texts and emails that follow, I always feel emotionally drained, but it is more than that. It feels like I gave a piece of my soul away through the process. It feels that in order to give them life again, I had to give them a piece of mine.

It reminds me of the story of Jesus, when a woman desperate for healing touched him because maybe, just maybe, she would finally be well. “And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my garments?’” (Mark 10:30)

In that moment, Jesus captures a feeling I have had so many times. After fighting for someone, it feels as though something has gone out from me. It is not just that they are better, but that the process of giving someone life has a cost.

First, I am not trying to compare myself to Jesus. Second, I am not saying this is a bad thing.
The emotional toll it costs to fight for someone you love is immense. But more than that, seeing that person come back to life is one of the greatest pleasures in life. I would do it for everyone if I could.

One question comes to mind “Do I have the life to give?” Because if I have it, I will give it away. That is the only thing I can do when life begins to boil up inside of me. But if I do not have it, I have nothing to give.

Jesus notes that “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” (John 7:37b-38)

Life has come from understanding who I am and the value I have. Life comes from knowing what it is to be loved and what it is to be enough. Life has come from being connected to the God who loves me and who continues to overflow with love for me. Sitting under a fountain of love, in that place, I have life to give away. In that place, when a piece of my soul goes out of me and when it feels like I am giving someone else part of my life, in that place there is more life. In that place, when I experience peace and solace because I am enough and I am loved, in that place I can offer solace to others, because I know that they are enough and are loved as well.

Part of the privilege of the Christian life means sometimes being the eye of the storm.

Learning from Depression

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I am a survivor. I owe my life to the grace of our Lord, and to the wisdom of a pastoral counselor, who knew what to do for me when my crisis exceeded his expertise. I live daily as a “recovering depressive.” That is not a sentence; it is a reality that shapes mindfulness about meds, exercise, sleep, and the like.

We are survivors; we have stared in the face of depression and suicide and chosen life. That choice is enabled by our faith, by the support of family, and friends, and by the community of others walking this way, helping each other over the hard places.

Mental disorders—clinical depression in my case—teaches us many things, and if I may, I would like to share several of my lessons.

• I am not perfect. I do not have to be perfect. The quest for perfection and my desire to impose my view of perfection on myself and others is counter-productive.

• Approval addiction is a dangerous, real narcotic. Over the years leading to my collapse, I became so starved for approval that I often manipulated people to gain their compliments and approval. I learned that I am worthy just because I am—created in the image of God.

• Adrenaline addiction is another dangerous addiction. Adrenaline addiction often forced me to live on raw energy derived solely from body chemistry not from health or ability.

• Emotional energy is not infinite. I have learned to choose wisely how and in whom to invest my finite emotional energy.

• Self-love is not evil. Before I became stable, I did not even like myself, nor did I understand how anyone else could actually love me. Self-love is not self-absorption or narcissism. It is an honest, full, free acceptance of who and what I am.

• Guarding my mind and heart is necessary for mindful well-being. That sense of well-being—that I had “grown whole in the world, at peace and in place”—was so long absent that I forgot what it was. Mindful well-being is the sense of wholeness and health as a constant companion.

• God accepts me as I am for who I am. Though his transforming work is ongoing, he is the one who made me and knows me like no other.

• Investing in family and friends has enduring value. Nurturing primary relationships is a way to have support throughout life and especially in times of difficulty.

• Clinical depression is not a death-sentence. Medications, talk therapy, and spiritual nurture allow me to live a mentally healthy life.

• Endeavoring to please others all the time is deadly. I cannot please everybody all the time. If I try to do this, I will please nobody any of the time—and I will make myself sick. I must strive to do my best in all situations, and allow the results to speak for themselves.

• When others are upset with me, I do not have to feel guilty. Yes, I do things that are thoughtless, and maybe even stupid. At times people are not pleased with me. But, their displeasure has nothing to do with me, but more to do with them.

The learning never ends. Certainly, I have learned other lessons along the way, but these form a foundation which I hope helps others.

World Suicide Prevention Day 2014

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Growing up, I always wanted to do things that seemed impossible. I spent hours in the backyard taking batting practice trying to become the next Ken Griffey Junior. I spent hours tooling around with my Swiss Army Knife to become the next MacGyver. I wanted to be an astrophysicist, a paleontologist, a race car driver, an engineer, a baseball player, a Corvette owner, and more.

All those times I wanted something: I wanted to live.

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. Today is a day when we remember that everyday, thousands of people take their own lives. Today is the day we remember that, for many, life is no longer about the dreams of doing something or being someone. Those dreams have faded away. Pain has blotted them out.

Suicide is a statement that life just hurts too much.

Fifteen years ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I spent two years falling into the grey where hopes and dreams go to die. It is the space where nothing is good, nothing is bad, everything is pain. My family and I did everything we could to keep me from dying. I only now understand the time, energy, emotion, money, and commitment my parents sacrificed. But my parents and I did not fight to keep me from dying.

We fought so that, some glorious day, I could live.

For 2 years, all of the appointments, medications, therapy sessions, failures, brokenness, depression, and hopelessness were all put in context by one thing: one day the pain would not define my life. One day I would experience something beyond all of the pain, loneliness and sorrow. Some day, I would truly live.

World Suicide Prevention Day is about hope that we will all live.

I am never going to be Ken Griffey Junior, MacGyver, an astrophysicist, a paleontologist, a race car driver,or an engineer. But I am me, and today I live. Today I will work, seeing friends and family. I will go home and see my beautiful wife. I will go to sleep tonight without fearing the darkness because it does not dominate my life anymore.

Today I dream of helping people experience the hope of knowing that mental illnesses are not going to rule their lives forever, of helping people know their own value and worth, seeing them realize that fully, and discovering the love of God even when all they feel is pain.

If today hurts so bad that you cannot see anything past the pain, I understand. I have been there too. If today you watch your loved ones and fear going to sleep because you know that the worst could happen, I understand, I have been there too. If you feel like tomorrows are only an endless repetition of the hell that was today, I have news: This season hurts, but keep working and hoping and you will have the ability to truly live.

Remembering Robin Williams

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Last night Robin Williams died.

This morning I find myself mourning differently than I had thought. I want to remember a man who made me (and most people) laugh. I want to remember his successes and greatness. I want to remember Mrs. Doubtfire, Hook, and Patch Adams. I want to remember him in a good light.

Today, I have seen post after post, and tweet after tweet celebrating the life of Robin Williams. Looking around, everyone was celebrating the life that Robin Williams lived, and I found myself mourning the life Robin Williams could have lived.

What would his life have looked like if there had not been a tortured soul underneath the smiles and the laughs? What would his life have looked like if beneath all of the love on the outside, was an inside unwrecked by depression? What would his life have looked like if he was free from the terror in his own mind?

With Robin Williams passing, I find myself hoping that many others can use his life as a signal. Robin was the American dream. He was witty, quick, wealthy, charming, and loved. He was also depressed, and today he is gone.

It is not enough to have everything together on the outside. It is not enough to have everything that people around you think you need to have: to have the right car, the right house, the right spouse, and the right paycheck. It is not enough to be everything that people around you want to be: to be funny, witty, lovable, and charming. If it hurts inside when you are alone, it is not enough.

The last 15 years I have spent working to heal the terror I feel inside. After years with a psychiatrist, my brain is stable enough that it no longer hurts incessantly. It actually feels fine. After more years with my counselor, I have come to know my worth because of who God made me to be, and who he knows me to be. I can experience joy and peace now because I have accepted that God made me worthy of them.

I have shared something with Robin: depression. I have learned how to deal with mine, and continue to work on myself all the time to continue to experience life more freely and deeply.

I wish that yesterday, Robin had experienced belovedness because he is good enough. I wish he would have experienced hope and joy instead of depression and sadness. I wish he had been free to be the amazing man he was without all of the pain.

Today I pray that his death is a reminder that depression does not play favorites. It sometimes consumes the most amazing and compassionate people we know. It plagues the class clowns, the preps, the jocks, the intellectuals, the hipsters, the musicians, the poets, the construction workers, the CEOs, and everything in between.

To all of the people who suffer, depression asks “will you let me help you suffer invisibly, every day?” To those who suffer, I have to say that I have made it through my darkest days. I have discovered love in a sea of self hatred. I have discovered life in the middle of what felt like death, and hope in the middle of a space that defined hopelessness. I am not alone. You can experience life and love too.

Thank you Robin for a life filled with laughs and love. I pray that we remember the laughs and the love you brought to the screen, and the dread and the darkness too, because sometimes all of us need help.

The day hope died

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It was 15 years ago that I heard that my life was never going to be the same again, I had bipolar disorder. Those days were not filled with hope and joy. They were filled with dread and pain. They were filled with escapism and avoidance. I did not want this to be true. I wanted to be me before bipolar. I wanted to be free from mental disorders. I wanted to be normal.

Now, when I look back on the two intensive years of getting my bipolar managed, I can see the hope and remember that those terrible times passed. I can see the work I did and see the payoffs. I can see that those two years were only a season.

The temptation now is to look back on those times knowing the end of the story. I want to see the days throwing up because of the wrong medications and know it was part of a process. I want to see the times when I did not want to walk on this world any longer and tell myself that I always knew I could make it. But I did not. Some of those days, I did not know that it was going to be ok. Some of those nights, I just wanted the pain to stop.

I usually think about Good Friday in relation to Easter. Jesus’ disciples were counting on him to free the Jews from Roman oppression. He was their hope. Then Good Friday came, and he died. I know that Easter came. I know that he did not stay dead. But what was it like on Friday?

Good Friday is the day that hope died. Jesus was entombed; there was no hope. Nothing could get better again. I can imagine Peter speaking to the disciples, saying, “Jesus is dead. Hope is a luxury we cannot afford.”

I have spoken that sentence, that “hope is a luxury I can not afford.” I have seen hope as a commodity far beyond my own reach. How could I ever afford to hope? I would never be the person without I was without bipolar disorder. I would always have bipolar. What was there to hope for? 15 years ago, my hope died.

Between 15 and 13 years ago, I could not hear that there was hope for me, it was too overwhelming. I knew my own situation too well. At times, I thought I was not going to be able to do anything with my life. It was my Good Friday, no hope and a big mess to celebrate it.

Now seeing people everyday who are in the midst of mental disorder, I have to remember that my own hope died. I did not know if it was ever going to come back. The one thing I could hear was that someone else had made it. I could hear that, and maybe, just maybe, I could be there someday too, but there were times I could not believe that I could be better myself.

Good Friday is a reminder to remember the dark times. There are days when it feels like hope has died, and tomorrow can never be any better. There are days when life does not just lose its luster, but burdens us with the weight of living. There are Good Fridays.

There are also Easter Sundays, but who could see them from Friday?

On my Good Friday, all I could see was the pain, the hopelessness, the loss, and the failure. But something amazing happened: I found hope again. I got my bipolar managed. I learned to be whole. I experienced healing. In a way, I experienced Easter Sunday.

I have seen Good Friday. I resonate with it well. But if you are there, or are watching someone there, hope is still alive, and Sunday is coming.


Posted by | Brandon Appelhans | No Comments

Take a breath in. And a breath out. And again, but slower.

There is life to breath. I can feel a change in myself as I take the time to breathe. I can feel the air inflate my lungs, and then feel all of that escape.

There is something familiar about this in healing, this rhythm of getting something and then breathing it out. We take something in, and then give that thing away. In a way, we breathe in, and then breathe that same thing back out into the world.

I work helping people experience hope and love in the middle of mental disorders. I live my life breathing out. I breathe out my own experience, how God met me in the hard times and the healing, and how hope seemed elusive until it was not. I breathe out the belief that people can experience healing. I breathe out practical skills to stay stable. I breathe out hope that God does not abandon us in all of this.

But sometimes, I forget to breathe in.

Try breathing out, and keep breathing out. At some point, no matter the size of your lungs, even if you have a history playing a woodwind instrument or swimming, the air runs out. At that point your lungs feel compressed, yearning for something to inflate them again.

The same is true of hope. I have had the opportunity to breathe in hope time and time again. I have had my own life changed and had the opportunity to see others changed as well. I have learned to listen to my own value and worth, and learned to accept that I am worthy of love, and that I am.

But sometimes, I just forget to breathe in.

I get caught in the breathing out. I get caught sharing all of the things that I have experienced without taking the time to heal myself and learn myself. In those times, what is left in me? I have no breath? I have the story of what God has one in my life, but when I forget to breathe, sometimes I even forget that.

Breathing in represents the exercise of growing and learning. It represents the long hours I have spent trying to hear and know my own value, only to hear that I am more than I thought. It represents the time I have spent working to decompress my own soul and figure out what is going on, only to learn that it is constantly more complicated and more healing than I would have expected. It represents time being personally healed. It represents peace in my soul.

When I breathe, sometimes say to myself, “breathe in peace, and breathe out mission.” This means that my mission is to breathe the peace that I experience back into the world.

If I am breathing in, I begin to heal and experience hope and healing in new and fresh ways. When I am breathing out, I am sharing all of that with the world. When I forget either, though, it does not bode well.

So, I type while taking in air, breathe.

Open Thank You to Co-Founder, Stephen Albi

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Three years does not seem like that long a time, but it is enough time for the world to change.

Three years ago, My Quiet Cave was a dream, carried by a few ambitions individuals crazy enough to believe in it. No lives had been changed. There was no website. There was no board. There were no volunteers, promotions, materials, programs, or donors. There were just a few mad men, and a dream.

Stephen Albi was half of the team that has made My Quiet Cave what it is today. After hours scrounging through IRS policy turned into weeks and months, and after one mentoring meeting turned into years in some cases with mentees, Stephen made a huge difference with My Quiet Cave.

This is an open letter of thanks. Stephen is getting married this summer, and is pursuing his dream of being a pastor. He is no longer around the day to day operations of My Quiet Cave and is taking a break to make sure he is not given his full time job back, now as a volunteer.

In light of all this, I wanted to say thanks. Thank you Stephen for believing in me, and in a crazy dream that people like you and I can and do change the world. Thank you for spending hours in coffee shops working through paperwork. Thank you for hundreds or thousands of hours spent with mentees. Thank you for working to get websites, operations, boards, policies, and everything into place for My Quiet Cave. Thank you for working long hours for no pay, hoping that this dream would all come to something, and thank you for being faithful and allowing it to come to something.

More than all of these things, thank you for being a great friend and a great person.

If you know Stephen, please wish him well as he pursues his dream, and thank him for all of his time spent trying to paint a brighter picture of the world with My Quiet Cave.

So from all of My Quiet Cave to you, thanks.

Healing Tears

Posted by | Brandon Appelhans | No Comments

This weekend I cried. My wife and I have been working incredibly hard, and this weekend we got the opportunity to share life together. We stopped, and the tears came.

I have cried a lot over these last few years. There is an ongoing joke at my house that my kryptonite is Disney movies. For some reason, I work with people in dark places all of the time, but when the Disney movies come on, there is no stopping the tears. Everytime we begin a Disney movie, I believe that this time is going to be different. I get set, enjoy the movie, and then the tear-jerking scene begins as one of the characters does what they never thought they could.

In that moment, I am silent. My lips begin to quiver, the tears begin to form, and I cry.

Now I cry, but for years, I did not. I was, at the time, impervious, and I thought it was glorious.

For years I had fought against my own inner demons. I had fought shame and guilt and had lost. I had raging bipolar disorder, a very unhealthy self-hatred, the hormonal instability only puberty could bring, and no control over my tears.

I was in high school, and the one thing I wanted most was to be in control of my emotions. I did not want them to flair up uncontrollably. I wanted to be okay. Instead I ended up in the bathroom after 2nd period every day. I either needed to puke because of the medications, or I needed to cry. Either way, I locked myself in one of the stalls because I wanted no one to see the torture I was going through. Whatever pain this was, it was mine, and the rest of the world could not know.

After 2 years of that, I found the right concoctions to stay stable. I could smile again. I could walk from 2nd period to 3rd period without making a beeline to breakdown. I felt happy and I felt free. But I forgot how to cry.

Tears are interesting things, because they convey the deepest levels of hurt and anguish, and the highest levels of elation and bliss. They are beautiful. But I was without them.

I have heard numerous times that emotions are like water faucets. They only have two settings: on or off. For years, I did not want to feel the hurt and the pain, so I turned it all off. I put on a smile, ran out the front door, and hoped for the best.

After years, I wanted more out of life. I wanted to experience the elation and love. I began to turn the faucet back on and it hurt. I had years of unprocessed pain and brokenness that had built up inside of me. I wanted to turn my emotions back off, but I knew I could not. If I was going to be myself, I had to let the pain do its work. I had to mourn.

In the middle of the pain I found myself crying again during Disney movies. I loved to see characters overcome all of the odds and be somebody in the face of everyone who told them they could not. I saw myself in them. I knew that I was one of those characters who was told they were never going to make it, but was still celebrating at the end of the film. My soul resonated with the frequencies of love, hope, and fear conquered. My soul would rattle, and the tears began to flow.

This last weekend was a reminder. 15 years ago I shut off all of my emotions because, at the time, I could not handle them. They were far too big for my high school self to deal with. But when I shut down the emotions of pain and loss, I lost the others too. I lost what it was to love and be loved. I lost what it was to be free. I lost what it was to resonate with something so much that it made me break inside.

But then, after years of work, counseling, support and love, my heart has begun to heal. And now, I cry.

A Dandelion Perspective

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Last night I sat with 7 people who suffer from mental disorders. They were broken, questioning, and hurt. Some were hopeful, some were not. Some were just plain depressed.

This morning I got up and took a shower. I got ready to go, and felt really off. I felt hopeless. I felt gassed. I felt like the things that keep me going on a day to day basis were just missing in my life. It was almost as if I had been drained by last nights class, enough so that I had lost myself.

This morning I took some time to think through what was going on with me. I took time to think about the emotions I was feeling, and why I was feeling them. I came to the understanding that I felt in some ways like I had nothing to contribute. Like I had nothing to give. Like there was no point.

It scared me.

So I started looking back at who I actually am, and something came up that has not come up in years. I am a dandelion.

In college, I was asked by a professor to write a story about who I saw myself to be. I had to personify something that represented me, and explain why. Some people chose space ships because of their potential, but I chose a weed.

I have no affinity toward dandelions. I think they muck up my grass like everyone else. However, dandelions are resilient little things. I have tried to pull many a dandelion, and watched it regrow in a matter of weeks. I have tried to poison them only to see them brown on one side and continue to grow. I have even killed them, only to have them release hundreds of little seeds all over my yard before they died completely.

In my life, I have had the opportunity to grow quickly. That means life stunk sometimes growing up. I had to opportunity to to walk through trauma, through bipolar disorder, through family members having cancer, through friends passing, through hopeless days and nights.

I am still here.

Like the dandelion of years ago, I needed a reminder that I am not the most attractive, not the fastest, and not the best at pretty much anything. However, I keep coming back.

This morning I had lost hope because my life could not really make a difference, could it? Of course it can, and it does. Everyday, people I come in contact with are hopefully better off for having met me. My job now, with My Quiet Cave, is to bring light into dark places, and help people know that there is hope. That means my life matters dearly. My job is to help people experience freedom and hope for often the first time in years. That matters dearly too. My job is to help people experience that life and joy and love are all possible to every person. That matters dearly as well.

My life does not have meaning because of my story. My life had meaning because before there was a My Quiet Cave, and before there was my current story, classes, mentoring programs and the like, I did not give up. And you do not have to either.

Some days it feels like there is no hope. Some days it feels like tomorrow is just another day and it is not going to make a difference. But just make it through today. Maybe tomorrow is the same, make it through tomorrow. No matter the number of days or the depth of the hopelessness, you matter. I matter. And as beloved children of a God who cares immensely for us, we have the privilege, at some point, of sharing the hope that got us through with those who need it desperately. And you can make it through too. I’m not the only dandelion!