Cage Fight

It’s about to get dark y’all – click away if you’re looking for ‘chill vibes,’ the keystrokes that follow aren’t for you. For those who remain, I write to release. Buckle up, keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle, and let’s see if we can’t extract something helpful.

It’s the weekend and this is the story of how the pressure pummeling my sinuses since Monday transformed from physiological to spiritual and nearly suffocated my soul in the process.

Last chance to turn back, no apologies, you’ve been warned.

Monday: wake up, no alarm, 5 hours sleep, walk the dog, read two chapters of Great Expectations, 10 min workout, cold shower, coffee, work by 6. Open the lobby door with a smile, hit the floor with intent, lead meetings with purpose, rewrite strategy, engage, motivate, empathize, energy, email. Power thru a sinus infection. Leave when the work is done, not earlier. Puppy to the park. Cook dinner. Couple hours on my MBA. Can’t sleep. Read. Twitter. Wake up, no alarm, 5 hours sleep…

The descent started Friday night. Or was it last week? My therapist tells me the ascent – when we climb carelessly – is the beginning of the fall. Balance, he cautions, is the key. Easy to say, but harder to practice when you’re managing bipolar disorder without meds.

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From your side of the screen this routine might throw some flags, but I hardly notice, I feel good. On Tuesday I take a small risk and ask a girl to dinner. She accepts. On Thursday, over salmon specials, we chat for three hours, part ways with a hug and talks of round two. Excited. Can’t sleep. Journal. Wake up, no alarm, 5 hours sleep….

Friday feels fine, mostly. Take one extra energy supplement to be sure. I need to finish the work week with a bang, but I can’t shake a swirling undercurrent of fatigue and it starts to show.

I snap at my boss in the morning team meeting when I feel slighted. Moments later, I direct lingering frustration towards two co-workers when I learn I was left out of a problem solve.

Smile. Everything’s ok. Apologize and keep moving. Reflect on the week, plot the course ahead. Call it quits after only 10 hours. Hit the pool for some self-care.

Wiping a bead of 93 degree sun-screen infused sweat from my brow, I brush the corner of my eye. At the same time, a painful thought bubble bursts in my brain. The simultaneous sting strikes my conscious like a Mike Tyson uppercut. I don’t know if I’m crying from physical or emotional pain, or both. Toweling the sun screen from my left eye, I regain sight but can’t shake the thought – all this and I’m still alone.

Edge of the deep end

It escalates quickly; of course you’re alone you phony, who could ever be with you, you’re unloveable, you’re intolerable. That was 17:03 Friday afternoon.

I leave the pool for safer surroundings. I prop myself up on the bathroom sink but can’t raise my eyes to the mirror. I pace in my apartment, mind racing. Looking for an escape, I cycle through available options:

  • try to land a second date?
  • write it out over a beer at the bar across the street?
  • keep it lite, watch the World Cup
  • power thru some studies
  • light some candles, take a bath, slit my throat

Wait, what? Where’d that come from? It’s just a thought, it’ll pass. It doesn’t mean anything, I’m fine, get back to the list, find something to do.

Second date isn’t an option, football doesn’t interest me, I can’t focus on my studies, or anything for that matter, writing is off the table. WTF is wrong with me? Suicide hasn’t been in play for years now, I thought I beat it.

Need more options. Are there any strip clubs in Paris? Where’s the nearest cash machine? I need to slow down, open a beer. Need something stronger, stores are closed. Maybe I’ll drive to Tulsa, connect with old friends. Bad idea, too much temptation.

I’m afraid

I feel boxed in by frantic thoughts on the offense. I’m fighting them off, but then, suddenly, utter exhaustion smashes thru like the Kool-Aid Man. I collapse on the couch, it’s 20:00, everything stops. Self-loathing wears me like a body suit.

Thin black shell

This is why you’re alone, who could ever be with you like this? All the work you’ve done? Pathetic. You might as well spend your whole paycheck at the strip club, that’s the closest to love you’ll ever get. Do yourself a favor and take that forever bath, wash the stain that is you off the face of the earth.

Despite being twenty pounds lighter this year, my body presses into the sofa with all the weight of the universe’s Biggest Loser. Paralysis keeps me from taking action, consciousness fades in and out. Wake up, no alarm, uncertain sleep….

I breathe in, rise, feet on the ground. I’m still here, the fight continues. Rely on my routine. Walk the dog, read, 10 min workout, cold shower, coffee. It’s not enough, the assault continues. It’s only 06:30. Headphones on, Kanye at volume. Writers block, can’t study, it’s 08:00. Text kids I love you, check IG. Get some calories, start laundry. It’s 10:00, pool’s open, seek sunshine.

But the sun bakes me blacker, I can’t escape, I phone a friend. The message comes back from my therapist as a question; ‘can you love yourself, even now?’ I bury my face in my towel as a tear rolls from my left eye. My suffocating soul gasps for air, I catch my breath, I whisper, ‘I love you.’

My soul, sensing safe harbor, lends me strength to stand. I know what to do for the first time in 24 hours, it’s time to write.

And here we are, the pressure vessel that was my mind has mostly released and I feel calm. Clarity seeping back in.

Three things before I wrap up with a final thought:

  • Don’t try this at home. If you are suffering from bipolar, depression or similar disorder, seek professional help. I’ve been through several rounds of medication in the past and have a decade of therapy under my belt. I’m not playing at hero and you shouldn’t either.
  • When I say I’m ok, I mean it, this isn’t a cry for help. I write to document a reference point if I should ever go thru this again, and, hopefully, to encourage others in a similar struggle.
  • I understand that this level of authenticity is not only tough to stomach but also could be weaponized against me for a variety of unsavory reasons. The only thing worse would be my voluntary silence. My truth is my strength and I knowingly speak it into existence.

Final thought:

The demon is your defense, he warns of danger and will be heard. The cage is your real enemy and is entered by choice with closed ears

Let me know if you’d like to talk, I’m here.

Father Formation

The Gang, Red River Valley Veterans Memorial, Paris, TX

Everything in life is a lesson. We either learn what to do, or what not to do. Take the twin sons of an alcoholic as an illustration:

About two decades ago, long before I encountered the tale of twins, I had pledged to break the cycle of dysfunction in my family tree, to internalize what not to do, and do it. As a young man in the making, I felt mostly anger and resentment towards my father and set out to use these emotions as fuel – the span of experience between then and now could be surmised as follows:

Do not forget what you are for, lest you become what you are against

Lesson #1

Today, Father’s Day 2019, I invite you on a journey with me through the tunnels of time and back again in an excavation of my Father Formation.

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I didn’t have a Dad like the most Americans. Rather, I had a Pops or, until we moved to the ‘burbs, a Papa. Dad was too impersonal, he argued. As I grew older, the dichotomy between word and deed hardened my love for him like Hiawatha Falls in the deep of winter.

Intimate in title only, Pops held his affection at the precise distance of my next achievement; his yardstick moving proportional to my progress. Thus, my striving appeared to have the effect of increasing his disappointment and, in time, folded in on my sense of self-worth like one of Escher’s famous staircases.

To compound the issue, Pops harbored several demons of historical heartache who would sporadically erupt in fiery fits of rage. Cooling just as unpredictably, Pops would explain his volcanic behavior as short circuits, by which I took him to mean something like faulty brain wiring. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I worked to harness his meaning in an effort to prop up my then crumbling self esteem. But, try as I might, I was unsuccessful in warding off the belief that his tirades were anything other than my fault. A vicious cycle of striving and retreat ensued which materialized into a festering, subterranean bog of anger and resentment by the time I turned 18.

Then, with all the fortitude and grace of a piston firing, I graduated high school, moved away to college, launched my career, got married, started a family of my own, and rekindled my Christian faith. It was in community at St. Dunstan’s church where my spirit started to shift from anger to empathy. The new messaging I was hearing informed me that:

“If you do not transform your pain, you will transmit it”

Father Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation

This new spirit labored tenderly within to soften my heart, beckoning me to cross over the bog high upon a bridge of forgiveness. I was persuaded, and willed my heart upward on the promise that my soul would follow suit and we would, together, rise to new heights. I hadn’t yet learned that there is no such thing as a shortcut, but it didn’t matter, it was time for a different approach.

Gradually I learned to look past Pops’ anger – as well as my own – to pain, sorrow and regret. With new eyes, and my young family in tow, I set out to attempt the bridge with a dream of multi-generational reconciliation . Well intentioned to be sure, I had no idea what demons I would rile along the way.

The two things they don’t tell you about forgiveness are:

1. it can not be willed

2. it can only come from one who first loves himself

Lesson #2

Regardless, this new chapter started well enough. Pops and I began to speak frequently over the phone, willingly travelled 750 miles 2-3 times a year for various family gatherings, grieved together over the loss of Anarae, and even exchanged occasional I love you’s. Forgiveness was working like a facelift, yet as attractive as we appeared, the bog yet festered below.

I started to find myself choking on words I yearned to speak and spewing vapidly for no reason in particular. My wife would tell me I looked angry and that she was often afraid of me. I was frustrated at work, struggling with even the most menial of tasks. My spirit was rebelling and, like Gandalf in the first LOTR movie, it forbade me from further passage.

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Neither my faith nor my family withstood the rising tide, and subsequently those old familiar feelings of anger and resentment grew even stronger – I was back where I started, now with a vengeance. They got me off to a good start, I thought; anger is strength and strength will keep me safe, I thought. I was mad at everybody, especially Pops; this was all his fault I mouthed to the shadow in the mirror.

As you might well imagine, things got worse before they got better. I had forgot what I stood for. I was blinded, first by rage, then, in turn, shame and regret.

Finally, the transformation was complete, I had become everything I pledged not to – my personal ground zero.

But, as you know, my story wasn’t over, not by a long shot.

By then I was no stranger to adversity and the great thing about destruction is the opportunity it creates to rebuild, alive again with new knowledge. This, too, I’ll share with you:

when darkness swallows you whole and despair becomes your only companion, and when you perservere, how precious the daylight! how sweet an embrace! how hospitable the truth!

My next move was to apologize to my children. The words came effortlessly and without shame. They, ages 5, 7 & 10, gathered together, eyes wide, bodies still while I spoke, maybe two minutes, moving my eyes from one to another throughout but never looking down or away.

What happened next was true forgiveness. It started in their eyes, briefly scanning for authenticity, then moistening slightly in the corners when discovered. Their ears, initially taught and attentive, relaxed into the moment. This ease then slid down their jaws, tugging ever so slightly at the corners of their mouths as I finished speaking. And then, not a moment later, an embrace a thousand years in the making. My first taste of fatherhood.

Another new thought entered – if my children could forgive me, they who did not choose to be brought into this world, they who have not transgressed, they who are worthy of my love and yet not the recipients, then, surely, I could forgive both myself and my Pops.

This is not the point in the story to inquire about timelines or request more details. This is when only one thing matters:

Pops, I forgive you. I love you. I’ll see you soon.

your son, Ty-der-ly-tup-o-los

Happy Fathers Day.

Dreams of a Prodigal Spirit

My sister Anarae, Queen Spirit set free

On 9/22/2013 my spirt was set free. And, as any creature let loose after years in captivity, it had to re-learn the hunt before it could feast.

That Sunday morning over 5 & 1/2 years ago was the day my sister Anarae, age 20 at the time, was brutally murdered by Anthony Lee Nelson with the help of Ashley Conrade, both now serving time in the Minnesota prison system.

Short of an address to a group of grieving loved ones at a memorial service (see Part 1 from 12:19 to 23:18) and a 76 min 1:1 phone call with Stephan Molyneux, I haven’t spoken about Anarae’s murder. I haven’t know what to say.

Now, however, nearly 6 years on, my nights are again alive with dreams which have illuminated a truth worth telling yet otherwise lost deep inside my dark night of the soul.

My spirit, it appears, has discovered its way back home, well fed and looking to share in the bounty. He speaks in fragments, flashes & bursts, piercing sweaty sheets in the wee hours of the morning, leaving me to weave scant, small truths together in time, much like a fog inevitably lifted by the rising sun.

Continue below to discover tastes of what I have unearthed thus far, including backstory you haven’t heard before.


Anarae and I have a checkered past, not absent of fondness, but I wouldn’t describe our bond as close in the sense I now use the word. We were more like fellow competitors in a race for the respect and admiration of others, most notably our parents and peers.

I taught her to play chess at 6 – she taught my son at 3 and then went on to compete nationally. I was junior class officer, football captain and graduated high school with a 3.93 GPA – she went on mission trips, was first chair in band and graduated with a 3.98. I went to a top 3 engineering college and accumulated massive debt – she was accepted to NYU and opted to attend U of MN on scholarship. I taught basic computer skills to inner city Detroit youth – she tutored struggling Minneapolis teens in mathematics. I was a student of von Mises – she a disciple of Marx.

On and on like this – shooting stars, alone in the same sky.

To be fair, she was 10 & 1/2 years younger than I and, where age wasn’t enough of a barrier between us, geography filled in. At 18, I catapulted myself 750 miles from home and never really looked back; she was in 3rd grade. Even so, we had so much in common, so much to gain from a richer relationship – what really kept us apart? The haunting reality of the answer is small truth #1:

you can’t love in another what you hate in yourself

Anarae at a Twins game in 2012

In our case, we both hated how we looked in the mirror, although we coped differently. Undiagnosed, but akin to Body Dysmorphic Disorder, she fought against internal pressure to look differently where I submitted to vanity. Both approaches lacking, we couldn’t even make eye contact without facing unresolved trauma. Let me explain.

I remember crying repeatedly in elementary school after being labeled the fat kid and later wrestling with anorexia before discovering the weight room. Even after years of hard work and developing, by objective standards, a highly desirable physique, I’ve never been comfortable shirtless at the pool.

Similarly, Anarae struggled with her weight from a young age, which morphed into bouts with bulimia by her early teens. Where I escaped to the weight room she stared into the mirror – practicing positive self-talk by reciting affirming mantras to her naked reflection in the basement of our parents home. Her messy hair, minimalistic hygiene and less than inspiring levels of physical activity were, to her, acts of spiritual resilience designed to be a sort of exposure therapy. For me, there was something both inspiring and unsettling in her approach.

Looking back, our common insecurity might well have served as fodder to fuse us together, instead it detonated, forging a chasm much more disparate than geography and age.

Next question: why did it detonate? Digging on, I arrived at small truth #2:

healthy relationships are a cyclical process inclusive of self knowledge, open dialogue and shared experience

Excuse the crude graphic, I only have so much patience for detailed design

Had we rightly been able to identify the angst we saw in each other’s eyes as our own we would have stood a chance at diffusing the tension and healing historical wounds. Speaking for myself, I lacked sufficient self-knowledge; translation – I had secrets from myself and therefore struggled with open communication. Hence, we could be in the same space and feel isolated; reference the shooting star analogy.

For more on my struggles with healthy connection and how it ties back in to a childhood mostly devoid of the experience, read my previous post here.

As it pertains to Anarae, when she needed me most, I couldn’t be there for her, no matter how I hard I tried.

I don’t say that with regret – I know I employed every muscle I had available to me at the time – nor do I blame others for not picking up where her and I fell short. Rather, I offer up this perspective as a beacon for my readers, lest you avoid the rocky relational shores in your own lives.

After all, what happened to Anarae was no freak accident – it was entirely preventable. Predators like Nelson draw their victims into thick woods of deception towards a live trap with shame as the bait. Self-actualized, well connected individuals don’t enter the wood alone, or at all, and are repelled by those who degrade as a means of predation.

To bring it home, less than two months before her murder, Anarae re-engaged with Nelson possessing full knowledge that, concurrent to their first round of dating, he had concealed an ongoing marriage and pregnant girlfriend. Not to mention it ended with him going to jail for another parole violation despite self-proclaimed efforts to clean up his act. Throughout the earlier relationship, and more so afterwards, I pleaded with her, as did many others, to get away, to seek help, to never return. She couldn’t hear us, she was in the woods on a solo mission, ensnared.

The rest is in the papers but the horrific details and flowery obituaries obscure the learning. Those of us who remember Anarae, who loved her or tried, deserve more. I don’t proclaim to have the answer but I will share with you what my prodigal spirit has been recently whispering into my dreams:

honesty, like love, can hurt, but without both, we are truly alone

Anarae Schunk, Burnsville High School commencement speech June 10th, 2011

Victimized by Love?

I walked out of my therapists’ office this morning with a new mantra:

“Don’t be a victim of love”

Andre Campbell

But let’s start at the beginning.

I stride in, all black threads, fresh from a cold shower and focused by fast-induced hunger only slightly subdued by 16 ounces of nitro. Think, Dark Night vs. Bane right before Bruce wakes up in the Pit.

I was prepared; had rose early to review my journal, collect my thoughts, and was ready to offer up a condensed version of the last 6 weeks for evaluation. But that’s not quite how it works in this office.

Cooly perched in his plush arm chair, Andre patiently notates while I cover my material – my first month back at school, my new job, my writings, my text exchange with my long-estranged mom…wait, let’s pause there. ‘Tell me more,’ he says. Then the dreaded, ‘how do you feel as you’re telling this story?’

But after 5 years on the adjacent burgundy leather loveseat, I see this coming; ‘ambivalent,’ I say through my teeth.

He counters, ‘Are you being honest with yourself?’

Persistent, I think before launching into a heady regurgitation of the carefully balanced pros and cons of meeting up with my mother after 5 years apart.

‘I don’t think she’s ready and here’s why,’ I conclude, pointing to the text where she indicates she wants to give me a hug.

She hasn’t even offered an apology; this hug – in my mind – represents a covering up of historical wrong doing – a far cry from the atonement I feel I deserve. Not to mention, the last time I went through this, she bailed at the buzzer.

I’ve worked too hard and have come too far – I tell myself – to go back to that place.

But you’re still there, Andre says with a look, and then, ‘it’s as if you’ve built a beautiful house, carefully manicured the lawn, but can’t go inside.’

I’m reeling, struggling to regain composure; the words cut deep.

He continues, calmly inquiring, ‘why are you playing victim to love?’

‘I’m not playing’….I trail off, my tongue goes limp, my vocal cords dry and taught. I assume a listening position while he explains how I’ve been here before, circling but never facing my real need: self-love.

He goes on. One who loves themselves with abandon – think child running arms open wide – cannot be victimized.

I realize I have been longing for my mother to provide this love since I was a child. I am now avoiding the interaction because I am afraid she won’t live up to my expectations and I’ll be hurt, again, as a result. The ‘house’ I’ve been building has become an icy monument to perpetual victimhood.

He reminds me that only I can give myself the love I’ve been both seeking and avoiding from her.

Time’s up.

He repeats the mantra and we schedule our next session.

The theme of the mantra is simple:

internal strength built on a foundation of love and abundance can’t be compromised

– Me

To be continued…

NOT YET GROWN: 3 Things I wish I knew Earlier – A Birthday Reflection

me n chip

Despite turning 37 today, I am not yet grown. But it’s ok, I’m still looking optimistically towards my maturation horizon. Let me explain.

I live in a modest apartment, alone and in a small town in NE TX. Despite spending 50% of the last 15 years at work, my net worth is negative. Emotionally, I’m 12 years old, as my therapist often reminds me. I have an active tinder profile.

I could keep going but I’ll stop there; you get the point. Nonetheless, I believe in my trajectory; hence my optimism.

I’ll pause here and offer up item number one on my list of things I wish I knew earlier in life:

Where you are headed is more important than where you are

Short of an in depth analysis as to why this is true, I’ll simply ask you to reflect on your last hardship, mistake, misgiving – what got you through? I’m willing to bet it was something like the idea that it wouldn’t last forever and that things will get better. This idea is reflective of the fact that human beings are capable of, and highly motivated by, our own ability to shape our future outcomes for the better, regardless of the present predicament.

Take the last year for example – I launched a blog, made a couple positive moves at work, got a puppy, started an MBA program, took my kids on a vacation for the first time since my divorce, kicked a couple addictions and got out of a toxic relationship without sinking my own ship. This all on the heels of 4 prior years marked by divorce, depression, estrangement from my children, near joblessness and excessive legal and medical debt.

Still, one could argue that my recent accomplishments are trivial given I’m approaching 40, and I would be hard pressed to rebuke. Regardless, I have my story as to why (call it cognitive dissonance if you prefer) and I’ll share the high points with you here momentarily.

But first, learning number two:

Connection starts with me

Sure it’s cliche but it amazes me how much of my struggle can be attributed back to never really understanding this at a deep, something approaching a biological level, as well as an intellectual and emotional one. In fact I still often wrestle with healthy human connection in both personal and professional relationships. Let’s jump back into my story here for context.

I grew up in an emotionally volatile home with a family history of mental health issues, which might be best understood as bi-polar (although neither of my parents are yet to be clinically diagnosed as far as I know). As the oldest of three, I consumed the lions share of my parents focus and energy. On good days I felt like Superman, on bad days Lex Luther. On the balance I developed what’s know as an insecure attachment model.

The cliff note version of the clinical definition is that all children need to feel secure in their parental relationship. Children can handle some rejection, loss, injury, etc. but it needs to be consistently reinforced with a message of love and acceptance. If, however, the parental figure doles out love and acceptance one moment and rejection the next, without a consistent, clear pattern as to why – the child will become anxious and insecure, often manifesting these traits long into adulthood.

In summary the result was that, in my mind, other people became more important than me. My survival strategy was, ‘if I am perfect, I can make others happy.’ The reality, of course, is that we are not in control of others’ emotions any more than we are the weather. But as a young, developing child thirsty for secure attachment, I took every possible correlation as causation – when it worked, I felt like superman; when it didn’t…you get the idea.

Circling back, it now makes sense to me why I placed such a high value on relationships and intimacy even though they always felt so far away. The outcome of all this searching was that I never developed a relationship with, or even any real care for, myself. Going forward; connection starts with me. Or, if you prefer, in the sage words of an old friend –

“two things are most important and they must be done in order: first figure out where you are going and second, who’s coming with you”

-credit Alan B.

Sticking with cliche, I’ll wrap this up by leaving you with this final birthday nugget:

Emotions are temporary – don’t give your future to them

There is a difference between being informed by emotions and being swept away. Evolution didn’t accidentally devote 80% of prenatal development to your brain nor was the organ designed to be a single input / output device. Yes, feel your emotions, explore them, learn from them – and then choose your response based on what the best version of you would do.

Had I known this earlier, I mean really understood it, this post would have come out two decades ago and would be replete of much of the aforementioned heartache.

But, again, where I am headed is more important than where I am.

Let’s GO!