Be A Friend, Listen, Believe, Show-up

Kevin (not his real name) is in his mid twenties. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 13. He hears voices, has a typical disorganized thought process, but is well-treated with medication.  He spent time in a mental hospital before placement in a group home. I’ve been spending time with him for about 6 months and thought I might share a couple of things I’ve learned.

1. Kevin needed a friend. He didn’t need a counselor, a psychiatrist, a nurse. He’s been surrounded by clinical folks for over 10 years.  He rarely has contact with family and has no long-term friendships. I’ve tried to do something with him every week for the last several months. Sometimes we just go to the coffee shop.  We hang-out. We talk. I don’t have an agenda. I don’t think he needs someone who sees him as a project. He’s a young man with an illness that limits him in various ways. Yet, like the rest of us, he needs to be known and loved, and in his own way he can know others and love.

2. Kevin needed someone to listen to him and take him seriously. He’s appeared unmotivated for years, unwilling to do much of anything except sleep, watch a little TV, smoke a cigarette occasionally. A while back I asked him what he wanted in life. Without hesitating he said he’d like to be either the president of the U.S. or the governor of Georgia. Why, I asked. Because the jobs look like they are not stressful, he said, explaining that the president or governor can always get people to do all the work. Hmm. He wasn’t unmotivated, he was just avoiding stress. Ok, I said, let’s work on a plan. Over the next few weeks we met and discussed his political aspirations. Finally, he determined that it would be best to become a state senator. I printed the paperwork and we met to talk about the qualifications. The obstacles were too great. But that wasn’t my call. 

3. Kevin needed someone to believe in him. Sitting in the coffee shop I tossed out a random thought. I wonder what it would be like to work in a place like this, cleaning tables or mopping the floor, I said. Kevin said nothing. He looked at me. He looked around. He looked at me again. I would like a job like that, he said. Really? Do you think you could do something like that for 30 minutes a week or maybe an hour, I asked.

Would you do it with me?
4. Kevin needed someone to “show up.” The owner was kind enough to let him give the work a try as a volunteer. We set a date for his first day of work. He called me several times during the week to make sure I would pick him up on time and that I was going to remain by his side.
On the designated day we went to work for an hour long shift. We cleaned the windows, took out the trash, and mopped part of the floor. I took a picture of him mopping. He had a big smile on his face. The owner asked if we’d like a muffin. She gave him options. He doesn’t do well with options. He was stuck on a decision between apple or blueberry. He chose blueberry, but second guessed himself over and over. Even driving back to the group home he said, That apple sure sounded good. Maybe I should have gotten the apple, but I got the blueberry.
I told the owner we’d be back the following week. But then I remembered a conflicting engagement. I told her we might not make it the next week and that I’d let her know. As we walked outside Kevin resolutely said, If we are going to do this job we need to do it every week. I thought for a second. Go back in and tell the owner we’ll be here next week at the same time, I said. Whatever else I had planned it wasn’t more important than washing windows and mopping floors with Kevin.
Pulling into the parking lot of his group home Kevin said, Well, that’s my first day of work. You did great, I said. And he headed for the door, still smiling.

Ben Overby

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Being a Paper Wad Can Be Good!


Looking back on the first time I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I can think of a lot of metaphors to describe the shock. Imagine a notebook. All the pages are normal, useful, where they should be. As you thumb through you find a page that doesn’t belong. Maybe the lines aren’t straight, or the wrong color, or the page has already been written on. You rip out the page, wad it up, and throw it at the trash can.

The diagnosis ripped me out of “normal,” twisted and crunched me and threw me away, over into the stack of others in the same condition. Its not easy to make use of a paper wad. Good for starting fires or throwing at someone. Not much else, right? Wrong!

If you decide you want to actually use the paper wad to write a letter, then you find it impossible to get it entirely smoothed out. The wrinkles will always be there, scars resulting from being thrown away. But you can still write a letter on it or draw a picture. The scars will even give it more texture. It might even be more valuable to the artist as a result.

We might feel thrown away in the beginning, and periodically throughout our lives. But we are not. Maybe after a while, we not only accept that we’ve been ripped from “normal,” but that we like what we’ve become as a result of the unexpected twists and turns, pain and suffering. Life can be good even with a diagnosis like bipolar. Not only can we be useful, we can excel. Different can be very, very good. Scattered around that trash can are the likes of Buzz Aldrin, Frank Sinatra, Jim Carey, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen Fry, Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe, General Sherman, and countless others.

You can fly to the moon with Buzz Aldrin or sing Fly Me To The Moon with Sinatra. You can do anything!

Ben Overby

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Diagnoses Inflation and Medication Over-kill

Diagnoses Inflation and Medication Over-kill.

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Diagnoses Inflation and Medication Over-kill

Dr. Allen Frances chaired the DSV-IV task force–the holy grail for psychiatrist in determining diagnosis.

Recently I read his book Saving Normal. It made a lot of sense. DSM-5 came out a couple of years ago and we experienced what he called “diagnostic inflation.” We’ve gone from a few mental illnesses to over 200! Part of his argument is that pharma (700 billion revenue per year) is driving much of the problem. The more illness the more prescriptions, and the more money for the doctor and the drug company. He suggests there are really just a handful of valid mental illnesses that need long term treatment.

So if he’s right in his conclusions, I believe it bolsters our role as Certified Peer Specialists all the more. People are going to have labels placed on them just like we’ve experienced. And we can support them as the navigate the troubled waters out of crisis and into recovery.

Notice this. If too much of pharma has filtered into DSM-5 and people are getting diagnoses even though they are actually otherwise normal, then the drugs will not help them. A person who does not have cancer is actually made sick by treatments that cure cancer. But there will be emotional side-effects of the label. Some of us know how crushing the diagnosis is. Where all the drugs in the world will not help a person in such a situation (someone who doesn’t actually have a mental illness), we can help them fully recover. Since we don’t deal with diagnosis or talk illness, we can focus on recovery and wellness, and people in this category ought to respond better than any other.

Ben Overby, Certified Peer Specialist and Life Coach

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Listening Session

There will be a listening session March 13, from 1 until 4:30. All are invited to give feedback to various groups that are influential regarding mental health services in our area. Ideas for improvement and your personal experience are welcome.

Call Ben Overby for more information. 706.457.3479

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Thomas Merton made the following simple observation in the initial sentence of The New Man. “Life and death are at war within us. As soon as we are born, we begin at the same time to live and die.” And then he writes, “In this most terrible of all wars, fought on the brink of infinite despair, we come gradually to realize that life is more than the reward for him who correctly guesses a secret and spiritual ‘answer’ to which he smilingly remains committed. This is more than a matter of finding peace of mind or settling religious problems. … religious problems become an unthinkable luxury.”

I think the person who is most dead is the person who doesn’t even realize he is in a war. His true identity is locked away inside a coffin which is locked safely inside of a vault, and then buried 6 feet under the earth. Such a place in safe. We are free from judgment; there is no fear that we will be found out or truly known by others.  In death there is no war. Or peace.To break free from that matrix, to be raised from the dead, requires that we escape the prison that we lock ourselves into. That we open the coffin from the inside, that we break free from the vault, and that we finally scratch and crawl up through the dirt until we reach the surface and take our first real breath of life.

For me, this is a constant battle. I can go for great periods of time doing little more than gazing at my navel, being introspective to the point that all arguments are with my self, all praise is for myself from myself; in the dark I can answer the questions presented by religious problems. But it is in that same space that I can suffocate, alone, surrounded by many.

We do not become enlightened, we do not live, as a one-off experience. Wouldn’t that be great? The innate  capacity for us to love, the intuitive need to both love and be loved, these are lines drawn in the sand. As soon as we reach for our capacity and follow our intuition the agony begins, like the first terrible choking breaths of a person revived from nearly drowning. But if we keep inhaling life long enough and exhaling love well enough, then I am told the war will subside.

Sometimes I love myself too much. Sometimes I love myself too little. It is an agony just to find balance. To love and be loved. To know and be known. To live. Truly live. We are all a mystery. 


Ben Overby

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contrary to my previous announcement, the meeting scheduled for February the 11th will be held on February the 18th. Sorry for the confusion

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