5 Steps to Overcome Life's Obstacles
If I may, I’d like to start by embarrassing your acting dean, Brother Matt Tittle. We used to live in the same ward and both had callings with the youth. One year we had our youth conference in Star Valley Wyoming. Anyone here from Star Valley? It’s beautiful there.
In the mountains of Star Valley is a gorgeous place called Cottonwood Lake. The parking lot is at one end of the lake and it’s at least two or three football lengths to the other end. While we were there, someone dared Matt to hit a golf ball into the lake. He had brought along some clubs and balls. Right as he was teeing up a young man started paddling a canoe toward the other end of the lake. Not wanting to accidently hit the boy, we waited until we thought the boy was out of Matt’s range. “No, he’s too close,” Matt said. So we waited until the boy was half way across the lake. “You can’t hit it that far,” we chided him. “No way, he’s still too close,” Matt insisted. So we waited even longer. Finally, when the boy was nearly to the opposite end of the lake we said, “You’ll never get it that far.” “Alright,” Matt said. He teed up, took a couple of practice swings, and then nailed that golf ball. Sure and straight, it flew and flew and flew. Finally, it splashed down just a few feet away from the startled young man in the canoe. We laugh about it now, but what if it would have hit the boy? Then it wouldn’t have been very funny – unless he turned out ok, then we’d be laughing about it even more today.
Isn’t it neat how over time we can look back at scary or painful experiences, realize everything turned out okay, and have a good laugh about them? This is also true with the extreme manic breakdowns I suffered. Yes, I really thought an airport toilet was a baptismal font and played in the water. Yes, I really did bite my mission zone leader on the leg until it bled. I’m still in touch with that zone leader; he is now a mental health therapist. We laugh and joke about how even now, almost 20 years later, the scar my teeth dug out in his leg is still there. At the time there was nothing funny. It was very serious. Now, it’s almost comical to remember how bizarre things got. But let me back up and tell you the story from the beginning.
Here’s the setting. I had just turned 20 years old. I was on a mission in Taiwan. Extremely hard work and dedication had given me the respect of my fellow missionaries and the mission president. He had sent me way down to the southern tip of Taiwan. Besides my companion, the closest missionaries were an hour’s train ride away. There were only five active Church members who cared about the Church and the young missionaries there. With the Branch President bordering on inactive, it was my job to run the branch.
My companion was new on his mission, and was still struggling with the language and the missionary discussions. My responsibilities were huge and my ailing mental health started to give in to the overwhelming pressure.
One morning the intense pressure combined with unidentified bipolar disorder caused me to literally lose my mind. You know, a lot people joke around, saying, “This homework is driving me crazy!” Or, “My boyfriend is driving me crazy!” When you came here today you didn’t realize you were going to hear from someone who really has gone crazy, did you. Everyone wants to know what it’s like to go crazy, but no one dares to ask. Today you get to find out and let me tell you, it isn’t fun.
When I got out of bed at 5:00 A.M. that morning, I didn’t know if I had slept or not. All night long my mind had been turning over and over the theme, “What is truth?” I pulled out my journal and for many hours, scribbled words and ideas down trying to make sense with a mind that was quickly losing touch with reality. My conversations became consumed and confused around the “truth” theme. Finally, when my companion told me, “I’m sick of this truth thing,” I verbally let him have it. After an intense argument, he stormed into the church, and I took off to a nearby arcade. This was the point when I completely lost control of my thoughts, words and actions.
When he came back from calling for help my companion found me talking to the arcade owner telling him I was God. In the next several hours, the insanity got worse and worse. Other missionaries arrived to help out until the mission president could drive down and get me. During those long hours was the time I bit one of the other missionaries on the leg as hard as I could. At times I punched, kicked and clawed at them. Other times I laughed, cried, screamed out prayers, tried to cast a missionary I thought was the devil away, and then hugged and kissed another missionary I thought was Jesus.
Around midnight the mission president finally arrived. Seeing the severity of my condition they drove me to a psychiatric hospital. The kicking, thrashing, and shouting insanity became so serious it took all four of them to hold me down while the doctor administered tranquilizing injections. It took three separate injections to finally put me out. They used so much medication I didn’t consciously wake up for a whole week. When I finally did wake up, I found myself back in the States in a hospital in Provo. This is just a brief summary of the breakdown. I have written detailed accounts in my books, “Bipolar Disorder in Truth,” and “Into My Manic Mind.”
You would think an experience like that would force me to admit there was something wrong inside my head and that I would look my illness squarely in the eyes, identify what it was, and find out how to deal with it. But I didn’t. Instead, I hated my psychiatrist for telling me that what happened was illness, not spiritual. When I saw that he had to give authorization to let me out of the hospital, I started playing mind games with the doctor. I pretended that the medication he prescribed worked perfectly. I told him his therapy and counseling fixed everything. I don’t know if I fooled him, or if I was just a fool, but a month later he signed the paper with the warning, “I’ll let you go, but I’m afraid you’ll end up right back here.”
Instead of allowing me to go back to Taiwan, the church gave me a new calling to serve in Montana. As I struggled with the culture shock of getting used to a completely opposite environment than I had grown accustomed to in Taiwan, the cold, dark days and nights of winter in Montana were nothing compared to the deep, dooming depression I felt inside. But I tried to keep my chin up and continue, as the missionaries in Taiwan sang: 前進, 永遠, 前進and as I now sang: onward, ever onward.
Just a week or so later, word came that the Elders in Helena were having a hard time teaching some Chinese investigators because of the language barrier. I received a quick transfer and began teaching them in their native language. Over the next two months my confidence and spirits picked up. The mission president gained confidence in me and sent word that I was to train a greenie, fresh out of the MTC. “I’m doing so good, I won’t need my pitiful pills anymore,” I thought to myself. Bad idea.
You can imagine what happened. As the medication left my body, the themes and obsessions with truth that caused the breakdown in Taiwan returned. Then, on a car drive to Bozeman for a combined zone conference I suffered another extreme manic breakdown. Totally convinced that my companion was God, I stopped the car, looked deep into his eyes, and asked, “God?”
“No, I’m not God! I’m your companion, Elder Robertson,” he said back. But I wouldn’t believe him. Since I was driving, my companion had to figure out how to get me out of the driver’s seat and give him the keys. I refused. Finally, he got out of the car and ran over to a pay phone to try and call for help. When he came back I knelt before him on the concrete sidewalk.
“Hogan, get up!” he cried desperately. Nothing. Finally, he said, “Elder Hogan, who am I?”
“Thou art God,” I replied with all the humility a mad man could muster.
“Then I command you to get up, give me the keys, and get into the car,” Elder Robertson replied using his deepest deity voice.
Playing God worked and he got me to the church. The good thing was that the mission president was at the church where the zone conference was being held. The bad thing was he had no idea how to help. Instead of rushing me to the hospital, he kept me at the church for the duration of the zone conference which was around three hours. Only one word can describe what happened in those three hours, “crazy.” Finally the conference ended and the mission president called my parents. They decided to put me on the next flight home. The mission president gathered up a huge Tongan elder, a state champion wrestling elder, and about three more of the biggest and strongest missionaries at the conference, told them to take their name tags off, and away we went to the airport. At the flight gate waiting area, after I started chanting and singing swear words at the top of my voice, word that a “madman” was getting on the flight reached the pilot. When he came to investigate and saw the condition I was in, the pilot refused to let me on his plane.
Finally, after all that, the mission president did the right thing and took me to a hospital. The doctor asked the missionaries to leave the room so the orderlies could strip me down and put on one of those hospital gowns that don’t exactly close in the back. Coming out the doors, being led by the orderlies I looked back and forth babbling to them in Chinese. The nurses replied, “Oh yes, that’s nice. Yes, everything is going to be just fine.” My companion later told me that right then I suddenly stopped, looked one of the orderlies right in the eye and with my rear end hanging out behind, asked, “Do you feel a draft?” He said they all laughed, but with heavy hearts, and the mission president’s wife said, “That poor, poor boy.”
Soon after, my actions got so violent they had to resort to sedative injections and a padded, locked holding room to regain control. The doctor told my mission president that “People in this condition usually take years to recover. In fact, Andy may never be the same again.” However, when I woke up from the sedative sleep, the mania had passed and I was in my deeply-depressed-but-sane mind again. When I woke up, my parents were there to bring me home.
You would think that after these two breakdowns I would be begging for help both from medical professionals and those who had been through this before. But no; I still refused to accept help from others, and I didn’t think I needed the pills the doctor prescribed. In my mind, the world needed to accept what seemed totally clear to me. How can a person make sense with a mind that is senseless? It’s a riddle I couldn’t comprehend.
After taking it easy at home for a few weeks I returned to Montana to try again, but after just a few days, came very close to yet another breakdown. Suffering the deep depression that followed the overdose of antipsychotic pills used to stop the extreme manic attack was more than I could take and I decided to call it quits and head home six months short of the two years I had originally planned for.
From that point forward, the bipolar cycle stormed through my emotions on a daily basis. Deep depression weighed me down the moment I woke up, and then morphed into mania in the evening hours. It was so hard to get out of bed in the morning that I just started sleeping in for as long as I could. Soon, sleep became an addiction. Mini manic breakdowns happened so often, I told a friend, “Going crazy isn’t that big of a deal. I just take a bunch of pills, sleep until evening, and then I’m ready to do it all over again.”
My emotions and illness were as out of control as a Rocky Mountain avalanche, but I still wouldn’t admit I was ill and needed help. Because I shut them out, my parents and other loved ones could only watch from a distance and wonder how low my life would have to fall before I would admit I needed help.
Rock bottom came when my high school sweetheart, the one I had kept in close contact with while in Taiwan and Montana, rejected my desperate proposal of marriage. I never asked her why, but I think the answer was pretty obvious. She was afraid of me with my uncontrolled, unacknowledged illness. That bitter cold day when she said “I can’t,” I didn’t think my life could tumble any lower. That was the time I finally stopped denying my illness and started accepting the help of those around me. Progress was slow, but change for the better started happening.
About ten years later, having found reasonable stability in my life, I decided to write my story. Three years later, I completed the manuscript and submitted it to several publishing companies. Millennial Press out of Provo called me back saying they were interested in my story, but they wanted more details of how I had learned to recover from the disorder, and less details of what happened. So I went back to the drawing board and wrote a new book titled “Bipolar Disorder, 5 Steps toward a More Peaceful Life.”
Writing this new book was a great experience because it made me really think back to the process of how I recovered from a cycle between debilitating daytime depression and nighttime mania, to being happily married, raising two healthy children, holding a steady, full-time job, and living a fairly normal life.
Since my books were published I have shared the five steps with many others. My goal was to offer hope for those suffering with mental illness. The feedback I received was that the five steps could apply to much more than just overcoming mental illness. The five steps could also apply other challenges and obstacles in life. So, for the rest of my time today, I would like to share with you the five steps I took to find a more peaceful and balanced life. I believe they can help you overcome obstacles in your life – even if mental illness isn’t the obstacle you face. The five steps are: Identify, Authorize, Understand, Control and Heighten.
Step 1: Identify the Real Obstacles in Your Life
Some illnesses, disorders or other obstacles in life are easy to identify. Others, however, require more investigation. Early on, the only thing I could see was what I have termed “surface symptoms.” Surface symptoms were the obvious problems that everyone noticed, but no one saw through. Let me give some examples to explain. As you listen, think of the obstacles in life you are facing. Maybe the problem you see on the surface is only an indicator of something deeper that you are missing.
My first and most obvious early surface symptom was an addiction. I used it from the minute I woke up until the second I fell asleep. What was the substance? Music. An experience with my grandpa sums it up well. One summer my grandpa wanted to teach my brother and I how to build a house. I remember blasting my boom box each day as we worked on that house. I just couldn’t function without my music. Twenty years later when Grandpa and I were
reminiscing about the project, he sighed and said, “You were so addicted to your music, you couldn’t learn a thing.” What my grandpa saw was the surface symptom – the addiction to music. What he didn’t see was the reason for the addiction. It was my self-prescribed medication for depression.
Taking the time to notice what you do and ponder why you do it is key in identifying the real obstacles in your life. If you only see and act on the surface symptoms, you could end up wasting years of your life trying to fix something that isn’t the real problem.
Let me give you an example of a funny experience to illustrate what I mean: One time my friend’s little brother went to his mom complaining of a headache. She gave him pain pills and told him to go take a nap. His head still hurt. Finally, after trying everything she could think of, she took him to the doctor. After a short exam the doctor said, “I think I found the reason for your boy’s headache.” The doctor then pulled out a pair of tweezers, stuck them far up into the boy’s nostril…and pulled out a small sponge ball. It’s a true story! What if the mom had continued to focus only on the surface symptom of the headache, giving the boy pain pills and just telling him to take it easy for a while and it would go away? Yes, looking past surface symptoms and identifying the true obstacle we face is very important. When we see others with obvious obstacles it would do us well to remember what we see is probably a surface symptom of something deeper. Maybe to the girl who is overweight, eating is how she handles the death of her mother. Maybe tattoos and earrings are surface symptoms of someone suffering from abusive parents. Surface symptoms are everywhere. It’s so important to see past them before we start recommending cures.
When I learned to look past my own surface symptoms and identify the root symptom to be mania or depression, I was finally able to correctly identify my bipolar disorder and start working on fixing the real issue. But it wasn’t as easy as pulling a sponge out of my nose. Knowing I had a mental illness and accepting it were two different things. In other words, I had to authorize my illness into my life. This authorization was the second step I needed to take to find recovery.
Step 2: Authorize Yourself as One with Obstacles in Your Life
I like to compare authorizing weakness into my life with my golf game. I told you about how far and straight Brother Tittle can hit a ball? I don’t have his game. I have a horrible slice when I hit long drives. I think I was in a duck pond looking for my ball when I finally identified my slice. At that point I had a choice to make: would I authorize myself as a person with a disabling obstacle and allow an adjustment to my golf game, or would I continue on wading in the weeds. I’m happy to report I made the authorization. Now, when I tee off, I turn my body 45 degrees to the left. My stance shows that I’m going to shoot it way off from where I want it to go. And yet more often than not, the ball slices hard and lands in the middle of the fairway. Every once in a while it goes straight, and then I’m in trouble. But at least my game has improved.
If life is golf, how is your game? Do you have a slice, or in other words a weakness or obstacle dragging your life downward? It may not be mental illness. It could be sin, an addiction to pornography, or other moral problems. It could be a boiling hot temper that is ruining your social life. Whatever obstacle you face, I hope you are able to recognize the root symptom, identify the true problem, and then authorize yourself as someone who needs help before your life tumbles as low as mine did.
Remember, until you make this authorization and allow help into your life, as much as they love you, others can only watch from the outside. I think this is the reason the Lord told Ether, “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then I will teach them how to hit the ball onto the fairway, and maybe even all the way to the green”…Well, maybe those are my words, His words are, “then I will make weak things become strong unto them.” We have to go to the Lord and let him show us our weakness. We can’t do that unless we first authorize ourselves as people who need help.
Now a word of caution. When I started to authorize myself as someone with a chronic disorder, subtle, almost subconscious excuses starting popping up in my mind. “If I know that feelings of happiness are controlled by chemicals in my brain, and depression is going to be with me no matter how I live, why should I bother trying to seek happiness by living a righteous life?” Excuses like this could have been devastating. I hope that in your life you allow others to help you find the balance between accepting the obstacles in your life and giving in to them. Good friends, parents, bishops, professional counselors, even your leaders here at the business college care for you and can help you – if you’ll listen to them.
As I carefully authorized myself as one with mental illness, my eyes were opened to many things. In other words, authorizing myself as one with weakness opened the door to understanding, not just about my disorder, but also about me. Gaining this understanding was the next step.
Step 3: Understand Your Life’s Obstacles and Yourself
When I first started writing my story, I didn’t really know why. I often asked myself, “What do I want to accomplish with this writing?” Then I had an experience that opened my eyes to the big motivator. I received a calling that required weekly early morning meetings. I told my church leader that my medication affected my sleeping schedule, and it was still pretty messed up. “I don’t think I can make it to the early morning meetings each week,” I said, trying to be honest. “But I’m willing to try.” The leader looked me right in the eye and said, “Do you know that when you said you didn’t think you can make it to the meetings that you had a dark countenance?”
The comment was very painful because it felt like he was saying, “You are only revealing the evil inside you to make up such a lame excuse.” I wasn’t trying to make excuses, I was just trying to be honest and let them know up front the reality of my situation. I knew the man was a good person who meant well, he just lacked an understanding of mental illness. What he saw in my face was depression, not the devil. Thinking about what he said over the next few months, the thought finally came to me: “Send him a book! Then he will understand.” Looking back, I can see this was the biggest reason and motivation for writing my books. I wanted people to understand what I was going through. When we’re trying to recover from stepping on life’s landmines, isn’t all we really want is to just be understood?
It’s really nice when others care enough to understand the obstacles we face in life. Still, it’s childish to think that everyone will want to make the effort needed to understand all of our problems. A more realistic approach is to make the effort ourselves. For me, this wasn’t an easy thing to do. My early attitude was, “Just give me my pills and make it go away.”
The other night I watched the show “The Last Samurai.” (Please forgive me for using this show as an example in my talk. I didn’t know it was rated R until after my talk when my wife told me. I received the DVD as a gift from a friend in Taiwan who bought it there. The cover is in Chinese and doesn’t show the rating…and I never thought to look it up before I watched it. I encourage the students and everyone else who heard me speak to follow the counsel of our church leaders and not watch rated R movies.) It was about a troubled American army captain who was hired to train the Japanese imperial army. During a fight, the samurai captured the American and took him to their village far in the mountains. The reason they kept him alive was because the leader of the samurai wanted to understand his enemy. Over time, understanding each other changed the ignorant enemies into bosom friends.
Are you willing to understand your enemy? Maybe this is why the greatest Teacher of all tells us to love our enemies. When I finally came to understand my bipolar disorder, it was quite revealing. Suddenly I could see its influence in my thoughts, habits and emotions. As I came to understand how it influenced me, I found the ability to stop letting the disorder boss me around. Understanding my illness and myself opened the door to taking control of my life. This control was the fourth step I needed to take in my recovery.
Step 4: Control the Obstacles in Your Life
Taking control meant paying attention to my body and emotions and noticing what influenced and amplified my feelings of depression and mania. The other important thing was getting the right type and the right dosage of medication. I remember one incident that was pretty revealing of how important the right medication at the right time was.
I was on a date watching a “Disney on Ice” show. Watching the show sparked thoughts and panicked feelings from the same themes that caused my breakdowns in Taiwan and Montana. Suddenly, the muscles on the left side of my neck flexed tight, pulling my head to one side! I used my hand to pull my head straight, but the muscle wouldn’t relax. The funny thing was my date never noticed. She just talked on and on about who knows what. I was like, “Yeah, uh huh, Oh, look what’s over there…” Now I carry my pills with me wherever I go so that I’m always prepared for an emergency.
Taking care of my body and getting the right medicine at the right time were a great help in taking control of my illness. They were like a sturdy boat on an ocean of wild emotion. But in order to control where I was going, I still needed a rudder. The rudder I found was faith in God. As a child and youth, my parents hounded religion into my head. But it wasn’t until I really struggled that I finally came to understand and embrace the reality of the power of prayer. From large things, like finding an effective medication combination, to small things, like catching trout when no one else could, though it wasn’t always instantly, my humble and sincere prayers have always been answered.
When I set my rudder of faith toward the God of happiness, l found that dreams long since forgotten were beginning to come true and a higher life than I ever imagined was happening. Living this heightened life was the last step.
Step 5: Heighten Your Life
The obstacles we face in life can make it feel like dreams and hopes for a good life are snatched away. I’m here to tell you the dreams are not gone, it’s just your vision of them has been blocked. For me, there were years when I was satisfied to simply get through the day without curling up on the couch and crying away the miserable minutes and hours. Thinking about dreams was completely out of the picture. Now, after taking the steps of Identify, Authorize, Understand, and Control, the fog of depression in my life doesn’t feel so cold or so gray. Through the lightened clouds I can see that my dreams are still there in front of me, and have been the whole time. Though I still battle depression and mania daily, my life is rising higher and higher. Dreams I thought were impossible keep happening.
Like today, I have the wonderful privilege of speaking with you. You are so inspiring. Whatever obstacles in life you’re facing, no matter how hard it might seem right now, you can overcome. I know it; I know it. The illnesses, weaknesses and obstacles you face are tough. Your spirit is tougher. Don’t give up. When you think it’s bad, you can remember this talk and say, “Well, at least I didn’t bite anyone on the leg today.” And if you do bite someone, remember that Christ has the power to heal all wounds. He overcame every obstacle and challenge this world could throw at Him. He understands perfectly what you face, and He has the power and love to get you through them all. He is the Light and Hope of the world. This I say in His name, even Jesus Christ, amen.