I was 17. My sister, Suzannah, was 15. My brother, Aaron, 11.
It was just like any other day. Get up. Go to school. Get back on the bus. Get off the bus. Talk to Mom. Get a snack. Play. Do homework.
It was just like any other day…except that it wasn’t…
When we walked into our home after school, instead of being met by mom’s everyday question “Come in and tell me about school today”, we heard nothing.
Then, we heard crying…even, begging…
So we followed the sounds. To the bedroom.
There she was. Mom.
On the bed.
Sitting beside her was our stepfather, Mark.
He was holding a gun to her head.
Fast forward. A few hours later, the special police unit took him away to what we called “the mental hospital”. Mom was alive. So were we. For a while there we thought we’d soon be dead.
How did something like that happen? Mark was a man who had a successful career. He was smart. He had the best wife and companion I could imagine – my mom.
He lived in a lovely home. He had a wonderful dog. We were good kids.
It made no sense.
Later…a while after he was gone – out of our lives – and the dust had settled, and we were living in a different town (away from the gossip), I asked Mom, “How do things get so bad?”
She told me his story. She said that it began with the terrible anxiety that started when his x-partners double-crossed him. The betrayal caused him terrible financial problems, too.
His coping strategy was to smoke marijuana. He smoked it every day. For a while, it seemed to work.
When the weed no longer did the trick, he asked his doctor for help.
The doctor prescribed a drug. Sometimes he felt better. Sometimes he didn’t.
After a while, the doctor told him he had a mood disorder, then gave him a new drug.
Something about that drug caused him to suffer insomnia. So, the doctor gave him a drug for that.
Pretty soon, the doctor told him he had depression. He got another drug.
The drug combination caused stomach pain and headaches. He still had anxiety.
But, by then, he really didn’t know what he had. It had become so complicated.
Was it his brain? His mind? A disease? The drugs?
He didn’t know. He only knew he was unwell, and getting worse by the day.
She said that it had happened slowly, over time. He used to be normal. It started off as stress. She didn’t realize how bad it had become. If only she had been able to help…
Mom wasn’t telling me a story of a life so much as a story of doctors and drugs and questions left unanswered… It was the story of a man who was a lab rat. Try this drug. Try that drug. Use this drug to counteract that drug. What? You don’t feel good? Well, here’s another drug…
Traditionally, my mother opted for no drugs for our family. She preferred natural solutions.
If we had a fever, she gave us water and soup, then put us to bed.
If we had a cough, she gave us homemade syrup.
If we felt unwell, she encouraged us to give it time.
Drugs were not something we readily turned to. So, I listened carefully when she recounted Mark’s history of doctors and drugs, then I asked the most innocent question.
“Why didn’t the drugs work?”and “What kind of doctors were these people? Did they just give up?” Back then, my expectations of medicine were still so high. To me, it had to work. The doctors had to keep trying. They had to care! Otherwise, it was just a story of recklessness and abandonment.
Why didn’t the drugs work?
He took all of those drugs for so long, yet he still went from stress to anxiety to depression to bipolar disorder…to sitting on the bed holding a gun to my mother’s head…?
Where were his doctors?
Didn’t they take an oath to help someone who suffered so much?
My mother still loved him, she said. She cried for him. She cried for herself.
He was the love of her life.
Those years living with my stepfather’s problems were a fast and furious course in stress, anxiety…mental health…for me. Back then, I didn’t know anything about the brain or mind or health, but I knew that I believed there was a solution. I didn’t believe someone could be so helpless or hopeless.
It’s been decades since that chapter in my life. Yet, even now I often reflect on the dramas that revolved around Mark’s anxiety and illnesses. The truth is, he was abandoned by medicine.
The pharmaceuticals failed him, yes. But more than that, his doctors did.
He was a curious, inquisitive man. An entrepreneur. He liked solving problems. If Mark knew how the stress originated…if he understood why the anxiety happened, I know he would have done whatever it would have taken to stop it.
He was a smart man. He would have used his own mind to help his brain because he did not want to live with the pain his own brain caused him. But…he just didn’t know how to do it. He couldn’t get an answer…from anyone.
I don’t believe for one minute that he was doomed to spiral downward as he did.
I don’t believe anybody has to suffer like that, ever.
Yes: Feelings, emotions, moods…the consequences of stress happen, and will always happen. But, no one has to be haunted or burdened or troubled by how his brain reacts. He didn’t. I don’t. You don’t.
- Your brain is an organ that has a function.
- It has predictable reactions that make you feel either safe or unsafe, good or bad, threatened or soothed…
- You can stop your brain’s stress or anxiety reactions when you want…if you know how.
You can observe the function of your brain. You can make adjustments.
Just like you can observe the function of your heart – by taking your blood pressure or your pulse – and make adjustments to reduce both if they are high…or raise both if they are low.
Your mind is a bigger thing than your brain.
- It’s the YOU who observes yourself.
- It’s the YOU that can observe and take control over your brain.
If you’ve never stopped to consider the difference between your mind and your brain, maybe now is the time. It’s your mind that is the seat of your power. Your brain is simply a tool for your mind.
It’s your birthright to know how to use your brain so it works for you; not against you.
It was my stepfather’s right to know. The thing is, there was no one there to tell him, or show him. And, so he got sucked into the downward spiral of stress and anxiety. It ended his life.
If there’s one thing that I could assure you of today it’s that your mind has more power over your brain then you can probably imagine. Research about the brain confirms this truth, and teaches us more and more about it every day.
Your brain is an incredible tool. A TOOL. It can work for you. Or, it can work against you.
It’s for you to know how to use it…or it defaults to the basic function…and that leads to a life filled with the stress of survival.
I wonder what life would have been like for my Mom if she were growing old with the love of her life. Had my stepfather, Mark, known how to use his mind to be the boss of his own brain, I think they would have had a happy ending. Instead, it remains a sorrowful ending. The gun was the proof of how badly pharmaceuticals and doctors failed him. Mom had escaped it. But, there was no escape when he turned it on himself.
Imagine the psychological agony I experienced when I started to feel unmanageable stress; when someone told me that I had anxiety! Are you kidding me? The whirlpool of hell I saw Mark get drawn into started to drag me in. It was awful.
But, some stories do have a happy ending. And, mine is one of them. I was lucky enough to have some fantastic advisors, mentors, and teachers to show me the light. I even had a couple of good, old fashioned doctors – docs who were not professionally trained pharmaceutical salespeople, but who really believed they were there to help me heal…not to label me and leave me to rot, as Mark’s doctors did to him.
You do not have to suffer with stress and anxiety. You don’t have to try to find your way through the pharmaceutical jungle in a system of medicine that profits from your misery. You can feel the way you want. You can have a great life without perpetual stress or anxiety dragging you down. It starts today with the simple truth of recognizing your brain is a tool. And you get to use it. It does not get to use you.
This one realization can change your life, forever. I am going to say it again:
You get to use your brain. It does not get to use you.