One night, as I was walking through the valley of the shadow of death, I considered that there must be a better way of trying to handle all of the problems I was experiencing in my life.My health had crashed almost two-and-a-half years earlier and I was feeling miserable and depersonalized. Who I was had vanished into the ether. My life, as I knew it, had ceased to exist, and what was left was a dry husk. In addition to this, three of my kids were also having health challenges. One had been having arm and back muscle pain that was getting worse.Another couldn’t eat anything without feeling nausea. A third had a benign tumor in her left tibia that was causing a lot of pain. How could I possibly help them, when I didn’t know how to help myself? We were quickly going back into debt with all of the medical bills, after having completely paid off all of our student loans, car loans, and credit cards through the sale of our house at the peak of the housing bubble three months after my health crashed and just before I became disabled from work. My oldest son was in his junior year, and starting to take on the unhealthy traits of burning the candle at both ends, like I had previously done. My career was stagnated because of my constant pain and fatigue, as well as lack of purpose on my part. My wife and I were struggling in our marriage under the sheer number of problems, our poor family communication, and lousy interpersonal skills. A negative mood had permeated our household and settled on my children. On top of all of this, our landord decided he wanted to renovate the house we were living in, and so found an excuse to try and force us to leave. And these were only the worst and most urgent problems.
This night was the culmination of years worth of over-working, over-indulgence, and over-doing. I had been burning the midnight oil for years leading up to my health crash. At one point, I had three jobs, one full-time employment as a project engineer, one as an adjunct professor teaching four nights per week at a local community college, and one as a free-lance textbook writer and editor for educational publishing companies. In addition to this, I was actively involved in supporting both with my time and my money the numerous activities in which my five children were engaged. I was simultaneously a stage hand in a local community theater group, the executive director of a new community orchestra, and a driver to all of the lessons and activities. Add all of this to the normal weekly routines of home, school, and church life, which, as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is quite a lot in and of itself, and what I had was a personal perfect storm. My boat was taking on water, and I was in danger of being capsized by the next big wave.
That big wave came on Friday, June 3, 2005. I was on a field trip with my oldest son. His band had a competition, after which we were all heading to an amusement park, me being one of the chaperones. Two days earlier, I had an MRI of my brain to look for any possible causes of why I was having some minor but strange nerve twinges. Coming out of the MRI, my neck started to hurt. I figured it was just from lying in a constrained position for an hour. Later that evening, while at a band concert, I started having the very odd sensations of a lump in my throat and an inability to get a full breath of air. Just the weekend before, my oldest son and I had lifted a very heavy refrigerator out of my truck and carried it about twenty feet. Upon setting down the fridge, I figured my back was going to make me pay later for it. Was the muscle tightness I was feeling at the concert caused by my lifting of that refrigerator? Just a month before that, I had been on an antibiotic for a chronic sinus infection, and had a bad muscle reaction to the antibiotic. What was going on with my muscles and nerves?
There I was, at an amusement park with a bunch of rowdy kids, a challenge in its own right. During the bus ride, I had been reading an article in a church magazine about unfortunate souls who have chronic diseases and how such people can live positive lives in such circumstances. Suddenly, the anxiety started. It is difficult to explain abnormal anxiety to someone who has never experienced it. It is not like the kind of anxiety you have before a final exam. It is not even like the anxiety you have on the day you are getting married. It is a feeling that something life-threatening is about to happen and you have absolutely no control over it. I managed to make it through the rest of the day without falling completely to pieces and without losing anyone at the amusement park, thanks to my wife on the other end of the cell phone who had to keep talking me through each surge of anxiety.
Following the band field trip, I did my best to keep it together over the weekend. I had a lot of difficulty sleeping. I had started considering that all of the odd symptoms must have something to do with whatever the doctor was going to find in that MRI. I woke up Monday morning in horrible pain. However, I was not scheduled to see the doctor until Wednesday. I did not want to wait. So I had the MRI results emailed to another doctor friend of my mine. The radiologist had written multiple sclerosis in the MRI analysis. That was all I needed to hear to make my entire world shatter. I normally would have been a lot more under control, but at that moment, I just didn’t handle it well. Good thing I was in the office of a friend. My doctor friend told me that he thought something was wrong with the radiologists analysis and that I should not assume anything at that point. He was right. However, my personal fog was so great at that moment, I couldn’t see my way through it.
Almost two-and-a-half years later, there I was, out wandering the streets of my neighborhood late at night. I was back to work after having gone into deep debt from lack of income with ongoing medical bills and living expenses for a family of seven, no longer being able to afford being out of work, no matter how sick I felt. I was miserable, I couldn’t sleep, I needed a way to regain my sanity. I had been doing a lot of reading of self-help books, desperately looking for any insight. Books about stress reduction. I had put out a large effort in trying to reduce the number of stresses in my life, as well as learning to respond in a more healthy fashion to stress. Books about learning how to be happy. Making headway.Books on healthy eating. Check. However, everything I ate gave me severe pain, regardless of how healthy it was. Books on organization and productivity. Got it. Books on becoming a better husband and father. Great stuff! Books on positive thinking. My efforts on being positive were being overwhelmed by the sheer number and severity of the problems I was confronting.
I had begun to seek out guidance on setting and achieving goals. My goals were obvious. Feel better. Get my kids feeling better. Eliminate my debt. Find a new rental house.Fix my career. Launch my oldest son onto a good career path. Restore my children’s outlooks.Repair my marriage. All of these problems, and my lack of truly making progress in resolving any of them pointed at a deeper problem. All of the books I had read were excellent. However, I was lacking in figuring out how to apply what I had been reading. I needed something to help me fix my problems.
I new all about S.M.A.R.T. goal setting: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely. I had used it for years at work. However, I had a difficult time applying it to my personal life. Many of my problems defied specifics. I was sick, and I didn’t know why. Regaining my health was not a very specific goal. And was regaining my health even achievable? And how long was it going to take? Timely for me would be next week, but some of these problems might take years to resolve. In the end, was it realistic to expect that any of these problems would go away if I just put in enough effort and positive thinking. All of the effort and positive thinking isn’t going to change the orbit of a planet, and all of my problems felt just like that.
I also had personal experience with S.A.F.E. goal setting: see it, accept it, feel it, express it. This type of goal setting gets into the motivation of the goal. What is going to make you motivated toward that goal. It focuses on the dream of what you will get upon achieving the goal. Have you ever had a problem that was so bad that it provided its own motivation for getting rid of it? When you are sick, getting healthy again is almost ALL you think about. It fills every waking thought of your day. Yes, motivation is important, and the mental exercises associated with S.A.F.E. can be used to get off of the dime. However, my experience with dream building is that it is not sufficient. There must be visible results that demonstrate that you are moving toward a goal.
These thoughts were bouncing around in my head as I wandered the streets that night.Set a goal. Great. I got that part down solid. How do I achieve these goals? I needed something that was useful and sane, as opposed to academic and dreamy. I was up a creek without a paddle and heading into the rapids. I was tired and was beginning to realize that I would have to accept that I did not have control over some things. Accept that my children, wife, and landlord are going to make their own decisions. Accept that there might not be a known cause for our health problems or a known cure. Accept that I might just have to stay in this dead-end career path that at least gave me a paycheck until after other problems were resolved. At that moment, I gave in, and I accepted. Maybe it was an increase in endorphins I was getting from my walk, but the sudden feeling of relief was palpable. It dawned on me that I had two pieces to the puzzle. Set a goal and accept what you can’t change. However, just sitting in the boat, calmly accepting that I was heading down rapids did nothing to help me avoid the large rocks that could be my early downfall. Now, I just needed something to help me negotiate my way past the rocks. And then came my second epiphany. Every goal was different and might require different things to achieve it. I did not need to achieve it right away. What I needed was to work on achieving it. Seek out the knowledge, tools, and help I needed to resolve each problem.Negotiating the rapids was a perfect analogy to what I would have to be doing. Then, once I got past the rapids and to my goal, my journey could end and I could get out of the river.
It all came together in that neighborhood night out. I was looking for sanity in a sea of chaos, and I found it: S.A.N.E.
In the chapters ahead, you will learn about my pursuit of this sanity I so desperately needed, and how it lead me back to the person-hood I had lost, to sense of stability in my life, and even to a measure of happiness. I will provide examples from my life and the lives of other people I have helped with this knowledge. I will provide real tools that you will be able to use to solve your own intractable problems.
If you wish to read more, please consider donating to this cause. I have set up a gofundme site where I am raising money to pay off the significant debt I have built up in resolving the numerous medial issues of me and my five children. I will add a new chapter to this book at this blog for every $10,000 that I raise.