Would you like a cup of coffee? Regular or Decaf? Brewed? Lightly roasted?
Dark roasted? Drip? With milk, cream or whipped cream? Sugar, no sugar or sugar substitute? Large, medium, small? In a disposable or real ceramic cup? Starbucks offers 80,000 ways to order a cup of coffee!
What does that have to do with mental health? It’s all about choice. When we order a cup of coffee we are running through the available choices and choose one. Clinically diagnosed as having bi-polar, Christopher Parker Howard made a choice to face his situation, not deny it, and deal with it.
Christopher’s first memory of ideation of suicide happened when he was 5 years old. He was coloring upstairs and a crayon fell down the balcony with a clunk. He looked down the stairs and thought to himself if I jump, I’d probably die.
The thought of suicide nearly became a reality when he was in fourth grade. He had a plan and he wrote a suicide note that he thought would be found at a later date to explain why he did it. He tucked it folded into a library book which he returned to the library. The librarian saw something inside, took it out read it and contacted his parents. He had planned on hanging himself at his friend’s house because he thought that was the only thing he was capable of doing and the least painful. Christopher didn’t really want to die, he just felt that the world would be better off without him.
The stories we tell ourselves and the language we use, are repeated over and over in our brain and that becomes our reality. The negatives – I can’t do this, I don’t like myself, I’m a bad person, I’m not strong enough- fill in the blanks – these mold us into who we think we are. It doesn’t reflect reality. It only reflects the stories we tell ourselves.
Christopher’s mother and father had both been previously divorced. His father had a daughter and his mother had a son and a daughter that they brought to the new marriage. He was not connected to his half siblings and even feared his half brother. “I felt isolated at home and in school I didn’t really have friends because I was awkward. Most of the kids didn’t notice me and those that did notice me said, ‘That guy is kind of weird.’ I was deeply obsessed with Johnny Caron’s The Tonight Show, and black and white movies of stand up comedians instead of cartoons and sports.
“At about 13 I found a place I fit in – with people who didn’t fit in. I discovered skate-boarding. It was a sport, I did it by myself, and I thought it was artistic. All different types of kids did skate-boarding. They let anyone do it. We were all different, but we were all in this skate-boarding together. This was to shape my world, even my personal politics. I learned one can’t judge people until you get to know them. Differences actually make us better.
“Around then I discovered punk rock and started playing drums and joined a band. I had major social anxiety. I was afraid to go anywhere alone. I wanted to go to concerts, but the idea of so many people in one place terrified men. When I was on stage I was alright. I couldn’t go to movies, even though I love movies. The first time I ever sat as part of the audience at a concert was when I was 32.
“My brain would deliver the thought of suicide in some form on a daily basis. I went into psychiatric care and a couple of times I was hospitalized.
There were 3 or 4 more serious attempts at suicide, but thankfully, someone rescued me each time.
“At 16 I was hospitalized for the second time I realized then that the pills and the therapy were not supposed to fix me. I was supposed to fix me. The pills and therapy were supposed to help me do it. Once I realized this, I thought if I put the pieces together, I was done. But you’re never really done.
“I was on three different medications and I was in some type of a fog. Between ages 18 and 22 I thought I was okay. Then in 2004 I realized I was still suicidal. The idea that if I was on a desert island and did not have medication or a therapist that my thoughts would kill me, made me change my course. I did a ton of research and I thought if I could make the right turns in my head, like a Rubic’s cube, I’d be alright.
“What I discovered through talking to my psychiatrist and therapist was how to live with my illness. I weaned myself off medication under their care. Instead of denying my mental illness, I faced it and came to terms with it. Accepting the idea that I didn’t need something from the outside world to make me better, was the biggest jump. I learned to love myself, forgive myself if I made a mistake and just keep going . One cup of coffee at a time.”
The dark moments never go away, but Christopher has learned how to handle them. He examines every feeling as it comes and measures it against reality to see if it is true or just his brain sending false signals.
He second guesses everything and is hyper vigilant. He asks himself, ‘How likely is this to be real?’ If the darkness seeps in he knows it will pass and reverts to things which he has learned are good to do in the interim. He lifts weights, runs, or writes.
Christopher married in his 20’s and that marriage lasted 10 years. He is remarried today. His wife is a scientist. He has a belief in himself and knows that there are things he can contribute.
“Sometimes you are a burden to other people and that’s okay. This is part of being in a relationship with someone who has a mental illness. It requires you to communicate to your partner what you are going through. My wife can’t sympathize with what I am experiencing, but she can empathize. She tells me, ‘You just go ahead and do what you have to do. I don’t really know what you’re going through.’ One must be open and honest and vulnerable in the relationship. Our partners don’t have to fix us, because they can’t. They’re not qualified. I need to fix myself. They just need to give us our space and listen.”
Every now and then a new issue crops up and Christopher may go to see a therapist to see if there are new tools they can offer him. It doesn’t need to be long term. Once he learns the tools he can use them on his own.
“Coffee is a choice, how to make it and what to put into it. We also have the choice as to how we are going to live our day. The day is going to do what the day is going to do. The question is what you’re going to do with the day!”
If someone wants to discuss an issue with Christopher he can be reached on Instagram, Facebook, Spotify or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He’ll respond.
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