Sample Chapter From "I Don't Dwell" By Sam J. Shelley
Chapter 1: Growing up
When I arrived home from finishing first grade, I heard the ice cream truck with the familiar music they play. I did what most kids do, begged the folks for money and ran after the truck. After getting my ice cream and starting to cross the street, I was about halfway across the road, when I heard a loud rumbling noise and looked to my left. A van sped down the road. I was in shock and could not move, and the van ran over me. The van hit my left side. I was immediately knocked unconscious.
I remember waking up briefly. I recall being surrounded by a lot of people as the gurney I was on was heading into the operating room. I could tell that it was the operating room because there were a lot of bright lights and a lot of noise and commotion. I remember hearing a woman talking gently to me, although I do not remember her exact words. I felt her sense of assurance, and then I returned into my unconscious state.
The next morning I remember waking up with a lot of wires and tubes attached to me, along with the murmurs of the machines that were keeping me alive. Later in life, I found out that there was only a 50/50 chance that I would survive the next 24 hours. In addition to head trauma, I also suffered cuts and bruises, a broken left hip, and a compound fracture of the left elbow. I spent the next several months in the hospital, followed by living at home in a body cast for several more months. Rehabilitation took a long time as I had to relearn how to walk. I remember spending a lot of time in the kitchen with my mom doing exercises to rebuild my leg strength. She would put soup cans in a purse, and tie the strap around my ankle for the leg lifts. This went on for several months and I made a full recovery. The only physical reminder that I have today is that my left leg is slightly shorter than my right.
Due to the injuries, I missed most of the following school year and had to repeat a grade. During this time, my folks decided to move to a new neighborhood. When I returned to class the following year it would be at a new school with new classmates. Internally, the move was more traumatic than being hit by the van. I was deeply introverted and meeting new people was not something I enjoyed. I remember a lot of stress and anxieties. I saw the world as a very harsh place.
Growing up as an only child, I remember being very shy. I can still remember this vividly: an older cousin dressed up as Santa Claus and he came to visit one Christmas Eve. I remember being freaked out and hiding behind my parents. By then, I knew Santa wasn’t real and seeing him was too much. To calm me down, my parents had to explain to me that it was my cousin Jimmy. Being freaked out was a normal way of life. If I heard noises outside while trying to sleep, I would run into my parents’ bedroom.
As a young boy, my mom made me to go to church. When I was very young, I did not have an opinion about church and eagerly followed along. As I grew older, I did not like going to church. Going made me upset since a cousin close to my age didn’t have to. Also, my father did not regularly attend. It seemed like a requirement solely for me, which added to my stress. I would rather have slept more, or done something by myself. Religion was never explained—it was always forced.
The whole idea of God, Jesus, and the church tenets seemed foreign to me and caused a lot of confusion as to why some people attended church and why some did not. I often asked myself, if it couldn’t be seen, how could it be real?
By age twelve, it was time to leave elementary school and attend middle school. Changing schools created intense anxiety. I did not like going to school, and do not remember being friends with any classmates outside of school that year.
One year the anxiety was so bad during middle school that I lost a quarter of my body weight in three months. The family doctor checked me out and ordered some gastrointestinal testing. I had upper and lower GI tests done. Nothing was found, and he called it nervous colitis, or irritable bowel syndrome. Within a short time I settled down, but no attempts were made to find the root cause of the anxiety. I had a lot of mental issues but pediatric psychiatry was in its infancy in the 1970’s. I was frequently sick and missed a lot of time in school. My parents did their best, but they didn’t know what to do with me. I do not remember any conversations with my parents on how to cope with life. I remember trying to figure out life on my own.
By the time I was sixteen, it was time for another school, high school. To ease the anxiety about going to high school, I decided to spend a half-day there, and I opted to go to the vocational school for a half-day. A traditionally academic path didn’t sit well with me mentally. I was always curious about how things worked, and going to a vocational school for electronics seemed like a perfect fit. I missed little time in high school and vocational school, and do not remember being sickly during this time.
Tinkering around with electronics was a great solo activity. I would get different schematics and build various projects, from radios to clocks. I remember the heat of the soldering iron and the smell from the melting solder as I was building my latest gadget. It was very comforting. I seemed to find my calling with electronics—it was my nirvana. I found that learning electronics was very enjoyable and that kept me somewhat sane.
I was a nerdy outcast at the high school and only had a few friends there. By the time I was seventeen, I noticed that my thoughts were becoming more intense as I went through the daily motions of school. Some days, I would go from being a mild-mannered and very shy person to someone who would argue with a room full of classmates over something trivial. Mentally I was unwell, but there was no help coming to my rescue. One time, my actions got me sent to the vice principal’s office. He asked if I was on marijuana. When I told him I wasn’t (and never have been), he sent me on my way without further inquiry. The world continued to be a very harsh place, but I found things to keep me distracted as I tried to figure out life.
I never dated during high school. I was socially awkward around most folks, and dating would really be out of my comfort zone. I was happy being alone, and I didn’t feel the need to socialize. I had a few friends with whom I would do activities outside of school, but my primary companion was my dog, Dave. I would spend two to three hours each afternoon with him, frequently taking him for long walks in the park or teaching him many obedience skills. From all the daily practice he was the best behaved dog I ever knew.
After high school, I decided to get my associates degree in electronics from a technical school, since a traditional college looked mentally overwhelming. I did very well in school and was doing okay for most of it. The one part that became very stressful was what to do after school. Instead of diving head first into the last semester, I took a semester off. I don’t remember doing much with my time off. I needed some time to recharge and mentally sort some things out in my head.
While attending Tech school, I met someone, and we clicked even though we were almost complete opposites. We started to date. She is extroverted and was helping me figure out how to live in the world. Five years later we married, and over twenty years later we’re still together. We’ve both have had a lot of challenges in life, yet we find common ground and still get along.
After graduation from Tech school, I began searching for a job. The economy was in decent shape at the time, and there were several possibilities. I opted for a job with a local electronics manufacturer. The job was a lot of fun. I was moving through the company quickly until a particular point. I made it to the engineering department as an engineering technician, and it appeared that there was no place to go for a long time as the next job would have been an engineer and I would need years of experience before taking that role. Being me, I wasn’t satisfied and that I was “stuck” in the dead end job after a few years.
After being “stuck,” I started applying and interviewing for other jobs, and received an offer from a large Fortune 500 company. It was quite the shock to go from a place with 75 workers to one with thousands. I perceived this job to be very boring. In my prior job, I was moving through the company quickly and learning many different skills. In this new job I was limited to doing one main task. In the end, I wasn’t satisfied with the work. The job was not giving me the intellectual stimulation I needed, and I became bored.
During this time, I went from reading science fiction books to reading self-help books. These self-help books added to the nightmare of giving me more thoughts on how things should be. I went from being introverted and shy to suddenly driven to join the public speaking group at work because in my mind I needed to be a certain extroverted way. I was never satisfied with myself.
I was looking for another job after eighteen months. I saw a job posting for a sales and marketing representative. I took a day off from work and checked it out. I would need to work with retail stores, set up product displays and sell product. The only issue was that this was a commission-based salary. If I did well, the salary would easily exceed my current salary. So, I quit my safe, secure job and jumped head-first into this new job. I did very well in the beginning, but then after a few months I found it to be extremely stressful. I was always dealing with the store owners or the store employees along with the business quotas. This type of job required getting involved in small talk and other social activities. I liked being left alone to do my work but with this job that did not exist. I had lots of confusions about my life, primarily from trying to be something I was not. I quit the job without having another position lined up. I needed time to recover mentally. I was only in the sales position for six months, but it felt like years. At this time I was 24 years old and feeling much older from the stress.
A friend of a friend referred me to a psychologist because I was depressed. This was my first experience in therapy. I went for a few months, and my therapist noticed that I was still having major issues coping so he referred me to a psychiatrist. The first psychiatrist I saw gave me the diagnosis of major depression and prescribed some medicine. At this time my diet was poor. I wasn’t sleeping properly, had little energy, and was always unhappy. After a few months, the pills didn’t seem to provide much help. I grew impatient and decided to see another psychiatrist. He also called it depression and prescribed different pills. These pills helped enough that I was able to find another job back in the electronics field. I began to attend local support group meetings for depression and bipolar. I, along with a few folks there, felt the depression diagnosis was incorrect. They suggested that I go see the top bipolar doctor in Philadelphia, who was a world-renowned expert in his field.
The initial appointment lasted two-and-a-half hours. He asked a lot of questions about my life up to this point. No doctor had this much focus on my mental well-being. He ordered a few tests to make sure there was nothing else going on within my body. These tests came back negative. He diagnosed me with Bipolar I. The Bipolar diagnosis was a confirmation that I suffered a chemical imbalance in my brain, and medicine would be required to bring it back into balance. The first thing he did was take me off the anti-depressants as they were making me worse at that time. At this time anti-depressants were known to have a side-effect of causing a manic-like symptom of an elevated mood, which frequently resulted in suicidal thoughts.
When I received the diagnosis of Bipolar, I read everything I could about the disease. Like everything I did at that time, I dove right in. The problem was that I wasn’t quite right mentally, and it added to my already intense thoughts about everything. I believed everything I read would happen to me. In addition, my doctor had me fill out a daily mood journal with some questions to gauge my well-being. Some examples: How happy was I? What was my energy like? How much anxiety did I have this day? I become obsessed with the journal, which influenced my beliefs on how I was supposed to behave. If I noticed in the journal that I was not happy and my energy was low, getting out of bed was going to be a challenge. I was creating reinforcing thoughts that determined my outlook for the day.
The next few years would be a very dark time in my life. During this time I had no sense of mental stability. My mood would change frequently. I had two hospital stays for suicidal thoughts. I only came close to actually committing suicide once. I wrote a note to my wife stating that, “The pain was too great.” I was preparing an overdose of sleeping pills to take, when I heard a little voice in my head that said “call your wife and check yourself into the hospital.” Some sanity had come through at that moment.
During this hospital stay, my aunt and uncle came to visit. They both were evangelical ministers who decided I needed prayers and the laying of their hands on top of my forehead to cast the demons from my mind. To their beliefs, I was possessed. All rooms in the psych ward were private, so they closed the door and began their work of prayers. My uncle placed his hands on my forehead and began to speak very loudly for God to free me from the grips of the devil. That didn’t work to heal me. It only succeeded in adding to my confusion about religion.
In addition, I had difficulties with migraine headaches. I was also seeing a neurologist who specialized in migraines. The migraines were partially to blame for the suicidal thoughts, as I had a migraine at least twice a week during this time and grew tired of the pain. At this time there weren’t medications to get rid of the migraine—one was given painkillers to mask the pain from the migraine. After a few hours the medicine was no longer effective and the pain would come back. It was a vicious cycle until the migraine finally stopped of its own accord.
A few years after my diagnosis, I was asked my by doctor if I wanted to be interviewed by Brad Pitt for an upcoming movie. I said “yes.” My doctor was contacted by the movie producer. The movie 12 Monkeys now serves as a reminder of my early insanity. I was with a group of people that Brad talked to, except I didn’t just sit there and listen. I was borderline manic at the time, and got out of my chair and role played a scene with him. The scene was him giving a tour of the psych ward, and being possessive of his chair. It was an accurate portal of me at this time. While watching the movie a saw the scene and I was fascinating to see how the world perceived my inner world of chaos.
Over the next few years, I participated in a few clinical studies, and I felt like a guinea pig at times with the drug trials. I knew in my heart that I was helping someone in the future by being one of the firsts with a particular medicine. There wasn’t a lot of medicine at this time in the early 1990’s, and most of the medications prescribed were “off-label”, meaning the drug was not being used for its intended benefits, but instead for its side-effects. In the end, it took almost five years to get the combination of medications correct. After the medicine was correctly determined, I had a new sense of stability without the constantly-changing moods.
Looking back, I had all the classical symptoms of bipolar: overeating, insomnia, fatigue, loss of interest in hobbies that were once enjoyed, irritability, anxiety, grandiose notions, inappropriate social behavior, racing thoughts, and poor judgment.
I took this combination of pills for another ten years. I was fairly stable with no additional hospital stays. At times I would have issues with insomnia and the doctor would make a small temporary change to my medicine. I did have a sleep study done, and nothing out of the ordinary was found. What usually kept me awake were the racing thoughts in my head, usually from an event that had happened earlier in the day. This is one thing that I still remember clearly—the intensity of thoughts with a bipolar brain. Usually those thoughts were very self-critical, leaving no room for me to have compassion for myself.
Around my tenth year of mental stability, life decided to throw me another curveball and my life was turned upside down again.