This is the transcript of the speech I presented on August 4, 2017 at the 5th Annual Suicide Prevention Conference sponsored by Native Americans for Community Action at Twin Arrows Casino to a crowd of about 200 people!
You are beautiful
We are beautiful
Our worth (yours and mine) is inherent. It comes from God, Spirit, Creator, Source – whatever you call it — and nothing we do can take it away.
When we know this in our hearts, life is a gift for us to unwrap. When we know this in our hearts, we know that the sun always shines, even when hidden behind the darkest clouds. We know why we want to live. We know that no matter how difficult today might be, tomorrow will come and with it, a chance to begin again.
When we forget that our worth is constant and unchanging, life changes. When we forget our inherent worth, the world gets smaller, we forget that the sun is always shining, and we begin to wonder if we want tomorrow to come.
Once upon a time, I forgot my inherent worth. I forgot that the sun always shines and that hope is real. Instead, I lived in the darkness of depression and hopelessness and I wondered if I wanted tomorrow to come. Then I got better. Then, several years later I went back into the darkness.
This morning, fueled by my passion to unwrap and share the gift of life with all of you, I intend to tell you my story – my struggle through two depressions to regain awareness of my inherent worth through the help of a specific form of listening called listening with heart.
My Left Ear
First, I’d like to talk about my ear. I was born with a different looking ear. Most adults don’t notice but I’m glad kids do. Each time an elementary school-age person sees the “sort-of” ear and asks about it, I get a chance to educate them about how each one of us is unique and valuable just the same.
The medical conditions that describe my different looking ear — names I just learned last week — are Atresia and Microtia. Atresia is the absence or closure of the external auditory ear canal while Microtia is a condition where the outer ear does not fully develop. In other words, Microtia means I have a “weird” looking left ear and Atresia means I have difficult hearing out of my left ear. So when you and I go to a movie be sure to sit on my right so you don’t think I’m ignoring you.
My mother was concerned that due to my ear, I might be bullied or made fun off. So she made sure that others wouldn’t see it. In the late 70’s with the hippy period not yet ended this wasn’t hard to do as you can see. That’s me in the middle with the stripes.
My mom’s plan worked! With my hair over my ears and with a good dose of self-worth, I fit in as a normal, happy-go-lucky kid who did the things kids do – running, playing, laughing, and learn.
At about the time this picture was taken, when I was in second grade, I had a revelation of sorts. I learned that there was a distinction between hearing and listening. I determined that hearing was a physical act where sound came into the ear and the brain somehow made sense of it. I knew, because of my unique physiology, that I would never be able to hear as well as my peers. I also determined that listening was very different from hearing. Listening was a choice. I could decide where I focused my attention. At that point, I decided that I would be the best listener I could be. For the last 40 years, I have been learning how to listen and for the last several years, through my business, Communicating with Heart, I have been teaching people how to listen effectively.
About 15 years ago, I first discovered a process called Compassionate or Nonviolent Communication that offered a new take on listening. I call these these skills: Listening with Heart. It’s wholistic listening (using the whole body) to listen to the other’s complete message – both what’s said verbally and non-verbally and what’s not said. It’s an active process of listening to what matters to another person. It’s a way to remind the other person that they have inherent world by pointing to what matters to them in the moment.
Before I learned how to listen with heart, I experienced depression. I forgot about my inherent worth. Because of how I was brought up, I learned that my worth depended on what I did – it was conditional, not inherent. So I did very well through high school — straight A’s. valedictorian, starting point guard on the Basketball team. I was a good, good boy and I protected myself from any type of conflict or disharmony in my relationships. I learned to protect myself from the pain of conflict by listening very closely to others. I develop an uncanny skill: I learned to please people – to guess what they – especially my parents – wanted and give it them before they even know that needed it. Yes, I was a people-pleaser. Any others in the room?
I was so busy thinking of what others might need in the moment that I lost connection with my own needs. This very tenuous world view barely got my through high school but then I went to college…
My house of cards fell — I had what’s called a walking depression. I was able to motivate myself to get out of bed and go to class and eat but I experienced a barrage of negative thoughts saying that I was stupid, that I wouldn’t be successful, and other more biting thoughts. Though I maintained my grades, I had great difficulty relating to others. I was working to graduate from people-pleasing, but I didn’t have the confidence to make many relationships work.
My depression was cyclical – I’d feel okay for 5 or 6 months, then the depression would return for 5 to 6 months. I saw a number of therapists though college to help me understand what I was experiencing.
After I graduated from college in Colorado, I moved to San Diego. Knowing no one in town and in the deepest depression I had been in, I got help. I thought about suicide, but I decided I want to live. I called for help. I called my brother and went to a doctor.
I was put on a medicine called Lithium usually prescribed for bipolar disorder. I’m not bipolar but I think my doctor might have thought I was. The medicine worked! I was not depressed! After 15 years on lithium (I had taken more than 16,000 pills) my kidneys were damaged so my doctor too me off
THEN At the age of 38, having been depression free for 15 years, I plunged back into depression. Back into cylces with 4-6 month cycles of lethargy, negative self-talk, isolation, and sadness then 4-6 months of feeling okay.
The first year after getting off lithium was very difficult. It became clear to me that Lithium creates a ceiling and floor of emotions. It didn’t allow me to feel depressed – this is good – and all my feelings were blunted. So when I began to experience anxiety again – it scared me to the bone. So much so that I didn’t fully trust that I could manage it. Combining intense anxiety with lack of sleep led to a very precarious situation. At the depths, when I consider suicide again, I again chose life. I went to the emergency room where doctor’s admitted me for a 3-day stay in the hospital in the mental health wing.
In the mental hospital, I had time to think and greatly reduced stress. I noticed that the people around me had much, much more intense mental illness than I. When in that place, I had a turning point. I decided to commit to listening to my heart at all times. This meant translating my negative self-talk into what matters to me.
By reminding myself of “what matters” each time I noticed a negative thought, I could turn it around. I found the need underneath the thought. When a thought said: “That was stupid,” what was important to me was competence or effectiveness. When a thought said: “You’ll never amount to anything,” what was important to me was contributing to the world. Be repeatedly transforming my negative thoughts in this way, my depressing began to lift.
The next three years were much easier, but the final step in my healing was to fall in love with someone who reminded me of my inherent worth every day. I moved in with my wife Katie Pierce in 2012 and I have not been depressed since!
I am beautiful
You are beautiful
We are beautiful
Everyone is beautiful
When we listen with heart, we remind ourselves and others that our worth is inherent and cannot be taken away.
And when all of us live our inherent worth, conferences like this won’t be necessary. We will be able to spend our time celebrating the gift of life that is our birthright…