Stephen Albi Archives - My Quiet Cave Inc.

Open Thank You to Co-Founder, Stephen Albi

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Three years does not seem like that long a time, but it is enough time for the world to change.

Three years ago, My Quiet Cave was a dream, carried by a few ambitions individuals crazy enough to believe in it. No lives had been changed. There was no website. There was no board. There were no volunteers, promotions, materials, programs, or donors. There were just a few mad men, and a dream.

Stephen Albi was half of the team that has made My Quiet Cave what it is today. After hours scrounging through IRS policy turned into weeks and months, and after one mentoring meeting turned into years in some cases with mentees, Stephen made a huge difference with My Quiet Cave.

This is an open letter of thanks. Stephen is getting married this summer, and is pursuing his dream of being a pastor. He is no longer around the day to day operations of My Quiet Cave and is taking a break to make sure he is not given his full time job back, now as a volunteer.

In light of all this, I wanted to say thanks. Thank you Stephen for believing in me, and in a crazy dream that people like you and I can and do change the world. Thank you for spending hours in coffee shops working through paperwork. Thank you for hundreds or thousands of hours spent with mentees. Thank you for working to get websites, operations, boards, policies, and everything into place for My Quiet Cave. Thank you for working long hours for no pay, hoping that this dream would all come to something, and thank you for being faithful and allowing it to come to something.

More than all of these things, thank you for being a great friend and a great person.

If you know Stephen, please wish him well as he pursues his dream, and thank him for all of his time spent trying to paint a brighter picture of the world with My Quiet Cave.

So from all of My Quiet Cave to you, thanks.

Paralysis by Analysis

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Recently, I read an article about choice.  It’s overly academic sounding title (False Freedom and the Slavery of Autonomy) caught my eye and as I read further, I noticed connections to the world of mental health.  You can read the entire article here http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2013/09/03/false-freedom-and-the-slavery-of-autonomy/.

With the entire world’s information available at our fingertips, we can often become so consumed with the choices we have that we never actually choose. Take medication for example.  Even people who do not avidly read medical journals are able to know the side effects and clinical trials done on any medication with a few keystrokes and a mouse click.  Many of us mentally graph out every option and seek out the advice of everyone from trained professionals to the blogosphere.  We read reviews on every medication and see if the complaints about side effects are outmatched by positive posts, thumbs ups, and “likes.”  When faced with everything available to us, we can often get paralysis by analysis. There is so much information available that we cannot make any choice. This leads to an inability to choose that plagues this modern generation.

We question everything, even the answers we are given.

I used to think that not being able to choose was an isolated problem, a product of my overactive mind, but this article reminded me that it is an issue with everyone, especially my (millennial) generation.  I see now that this inability to choose is caused by too many choices. Eventually, we all need to take a leap of faith.

I have noticed this pattern in some of my mentees.   The bevy of information about paths to wellness is so overwhelming that we feel like we need all the information available to us before we can act.  As stated in the article, we fear that we may miss out if we start taking one route over another.  We fear that we may be settling and that it will be very difficult to switch (for example) from natural remedies to pharmaceuticals. This fear of making the wrong choice often leads to a desire to make no choice.  We recognize that dealing with the illness is better than taking the wrong prescription or supplement.

This is where it is easy to fear getting hurt.

I know.  I was tired of trying to figure out what was going to happen and just took a medication my psychologist recommended the first visit.  It was the wrong one.  But now I know.  I know what happens when a person with bipolar takes an antidepressant.  I know the mania I experienced and the withdrawal I endured after.  I hope to share this information with all who will listen.  It made me find a better one, and the reaction I had to it helped guide my doctors to the right combination of meds and supplements.

What is it that keeps you from seeking help?  Are you afraid that the diagnosis is a death sentence? It’s not. Are you afraid of having a diagnosis and the alienation it can bring? It’s difficult, but our loved ones are there for us, regardless of the illness or suffering we endure.  Are you afraid of making a choice of one route over another because of numerous unknowns? We are here to help, as are the health professionals in our resource list and those around you.  Maybe the time for analysis is over and now is the time to act.

Just Show Up

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The more I see God work in the lives of our mentees, mentors, and staff; the more I realize how little I really bring to the table.  I want to take some credit for their growth, but I cannot.  Every time I see growth, I am tempted to think, “They came to that realization because of what I said!” Yet, other questions arise, “What lead you to say that?” or “How did you come to know that?”

My experience is similar to Charles Spurgeon when he recounts his experience of conversion in “A Defense of Calvinism,” (It is a great article, regardless of your theological background. You can find it here: http://www.spurgeon.org/calvinis.htm).

Every time he would attempt to take credit for his own conversion, he was always pointed back to God and His sovereign grace.  Similarly, every time I am tempted to take credit and boast in my own power to change others, I am reminded of the power of God.  Only He can really change people.  He gave all of my gifts to me. There is no separation between so-called natural ability and God-given ability.  Are not all of our abilities given to us by The Creator?

Some will suggest that my cultivation of my skills through learning and practice should be praised in me.  Again, I am always pointed back to God’s work.  He empowers my practice and use of my gifts.  The Holy Spirit gives us gifts apart from our recognized abilities (such as healing, tongues, prophecy…) to be used at certain times, however; He also empowers us in the use of our intrinsic abilities.

Therefore, God has given us all our gifts and empowers their use.  Is this in tension with God’s call for obedience?  No, for God even empowers our obedience.

I am reminded of a story from my studies at the Art Institute.  A project was due and some students had not finished.  Instead of facing the professor, they decided to skip class.  The professor told us this story.  “When I was working for a design firm, we had a major presentation to a large client.  We were excited to pitch our ideas and spent much time on our boards and presentation materials.  When we got to their office, our hearts sank.  We had forgotten our presentation materials.  It was too late to run back and get them so we had a choice: Run and hide, or go into the presentation anyway.  We chose to present anyway.”

He continued to say that the client respected that they still attended the meeting and thanks to some great salesmanship; they landed the contract.  All because they showed up!  The same can be said for my experience with mentees.  I would worry that I had not prayed or prepared enough.  Sometimes, I just didn’t want to go.

Almost every time, I showed up… and that was enough.  I have never regretted showing up, but have always regretted not going. God grants recall of how he has helped me, brings up Scripture that will speak to them, and will empower even casual conversation to bring healing.

There are times when we all fear that we are not gifted enough, experienced enough, or have nothing to say that will help those we know.  Just show up!  Put your arm around your friend, family member or whoever, and let them know you are there for them.  Our God is powerful enough to empower it all.

Thankfulness

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Amid the work we do to support and mentor people in their war with a mental disorder, I was struck recently with a sense of immense thankfulness.  In this post I would like to affirm the high value of support and divine intervention in my own life.  By doing so, my hope is that others will find strength and encouragement in my story–and the stories we all share.

My experience with bipolar is different from that of many others. Though our backgrounds are unique, I believe we often become so absorbed in other stories that we fail to realize the work of God in our own lives. I have never been hospitalized for a mental disorder, nor put on a 72-hour suicide watch. I have not hurt myself or others. Though I may not be as successful as some people, I am thankful to be more successful than others.  In many of our stories, we each can see the redemptive thread, that things are not as bad as they could (or maybe should) be.

My story is more about spiritual cultivation. For while I wondered why God spared me pain in some areas, I questioned why He allowed me to endure bipolar disorder. These questions have some validity as I process the events in my life. As I seek to help others and establish boundaries in their lives, I can see how certain divine boundaries have protected me.

This processing may become “navel gazing,” where I become so absorbed in my own journey that I fail to look outside myself. As Tullian Tchividjian illustrates in his book Glorious Ruin, when we focus on the “why’s” of our story, we fail to understand about the “Who.” God is present in every aspect of our lives. He is there in our joy and in our suffering. I do know that God is present in all of my journey.

I am reminded to be thankful. When I look back at wonderful times, I thank and praise God for them. When I look back at difficult times, I say with confidence that God was present and working.

Throughout Scripture, we read about experiences of suffering and trial. Often these experiences are followed by evidence of God’s work. Paul, for example, describes his affliction in Asia (2Cor. 1:8-9), then reveals that God used that suffering to generate more trust. I am convinced that my experience with severe bipolar disorder was the way to get help and become stable. Through it all, God cultivated a deep desire in me to help others and to remain ever dependent on Him.

When we consider the redemptive thread running through our stories, we can be wholly thankful for what God has done.

 

Lessons from Nebuchadnezzar Part 2

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There are often times when it feels like everything has collapsed.  It seems as though all upon which we have built our hope has crumbled beneath us; that all support is gone. This, more than ever, is when we need God.  He is our rock and fortress, an ever-present help in trouble (Ps. 46:1).

Yet suffering is never that easy.  We may understand that we need to rely on God, yet even when we cling close, suffering still hurts. We raise questions and search for meaning, assuming that information can bring us comfort.  “If I only knew why…” or “What is the reason for…” come to our minds. I have never found comfort in information for information cannot heal. If I had a solid concrete reason for my suffering, such as “the chemicals in my head are out of balance, thus causing me to feel the same chemical effect as guilt, fear or depression” my condition and experience of symptoms would not change.

We see this illustrated in the movie Batman Begins.  The main villain, Scarecrow, has weaponized a compound that induces panic, fear, and hallucinations when inhaled.  That information brings absolutely no comfort when someone has this compound sprayed in their face.  Likewise, when we can trace the reason for our suffering to even the most plausible explanations, our suffering is not relieved.

What all this means is that it is ok to hurt. Those of us who often support others through suffering need to hear this.  Our role is not to provide information or speculate the why behind suffering, but to be a comforting presence.  Once the suffering has past, then we can start to process the “why” but only with permission from the afflicted.  We do not read much about Nebuchadnezzar’s suffering, except that it is exactly what the Lord said would happen.  Perhaps there is little detail about his suffering to keep the reader from fixating on it.

Nebuchadnezzar was told by God, interpreted by Daniel (Dan 4:24-25) that he would be brought low.  The information was given to him clearly yet it did not lead to a change in heart or action. He still worshiped himself and reveled in the glory of his own work and sense of worth.  So God brought the dream to reality. After his humiliation, we read a prayer that reveals a different heart.

“At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever,” (Dan. 4:34).  This idea was told to him from outside sources, but now it comes from within. He touched the stove and learned through pain that is was hot.  He continued in worship of himself, until the Lord brought him low.

A few things are brought up in this passage.

1. Suffering often cannot be relieved by information.

2. The best way to support someone going through mental distress is to be with them.

3. Only after the events have subsided, should we then look back and process what happened.

 

Lessons from Nebuchadnezzar Part 1

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We have discovered a dramatic lack of resources when it comes to a theology of mental health.  Why is this?  Do we feel like the Bible doesn’t speak to mental health because it does not have the modern medical precision we do today?  Are the characters of the Bible relegated to flannel gram caricatures or were they real people who experienced all the highs and lows we experience?  God’s Word speaks to our modern condition and our hope is to find where it speaks to those of us with central nervous system disorders.

One of our mentees has said he feels much like Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4.  He feels like this time of difficulty has come over him for some purpose, though he may not know what.  This scene is interesting no matter what our knowledge of Scripture.  Here we see a man whose hubris is clear.  As John Goldingay quotes in his commentary on Daniel, “The sense of achievement that Nebuchadnezzar here expresses is severely understated compared with that expressed in his successive building inscriptions in Babylon, which occupy 126 pages of text and translation in Langdon’s edition of them (p. 89).”  This man built his foundations on his own work and worth.  Our mentee is not arrogant like Nebuchadnezzar, but he has been noticing that much of his life has been in service to idols.  Yet, what is an idol?  So many of us think that an idol is a little figurine to which we give offerings.  However, it is much more foundational than that.  An idol is really anything to which we give glory and honor, which should belong only to God.

These good things in his life, even ministry and family can become ultimate things.  God is the only ultimate thing, and only He is worthy of our worship and praise.  We can do nothing without Him and nothing else will bring us the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23) we desperately crave.  God takes it so seriously when we seek fulfillment in something that is not going to provide it, that He must address it.  It is for our betterment and fulfillment to seek Him because nothing else will satisfy.  As Jesus said in John 4:13-14, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Remember these words when we ask God to tear down our idols.  More may be built on them than we realize. When we leave the well of false water, it may feel like we are dying of thirst.  Remember that this was done so that we would not rely on ourselves, but on God who provides living water through Christ.  Sometimes we even have to lose something good to seek something better.

My Bi-Polar Story

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Imagine not being able to trust your own feelings. Not knowing whether that rush of joy was caused by a pretty girl’s smile or a random rush of chemicals. Not knowing how long that feeling would last, or even whether or not you will be punished for this great feeling with crippling depression. Imagine what it would be like to be excited about a great opportunity only to question the feelings and shift to dread and fear in minutes, with no reason. This is what bipolar people go through daily. We are constantly a slave to our own irrational emotions and the only people who can offer solace are others afflicted with bipolar. It is my hope that through sharing our stories and lives, we can offer hope to the broken, those who live cycling between two extremes.

I started noticing the symptoms in middle school, and like many people with bipolar, I was diagnosed many different ways. At first, we thought I was just experiencing teenage depression so I met with a counselor and was prescribed anti-depressants. The problem was that I would have times where I felt limitless, everything came easy and life was sweet. I figured that the pills were working and stopped seeing my counselor. Then the depression would return, sometimes lasting a day, sometimes weeks. This was before the warnings about suicidal thoughts in teenagers were prevalent with this medication, and I almost threw myself out of a car once the highway. I decided that “now the pills aren’t working” and without any doctor’s suggestion, I stopped taking them. I experienced withdrawal symptoms so bad that I could hear my eyes move. I soldiered on and finally got off the pills. Interestingly, this was a time of great highs in my life and I didn’t feel the extremes of bipolar for quite a while. There were times when I would feel limitless and times where I felt limited, but I never felt really down. Unfortunately, as is the case with many of us, a tragic event spun me down, deep into depression and I paid for my year or so of feeling up with many months of low. During this time I wished for apathy, I was tired of my emotions and not being able to trust them. My wish was answered.

I met with my doctor and I was formally diagnosed with bipolar-mania. I was put on a different medication and it took away most of my emotions. I felt neither highs nor lows. Nothing brought me down but I could not feel excited about anything. Though many of us may long for apathy, it is truly terrible, so I got off those pills too. I was relegated to a life of extremes, but I realized that I would rather suffer the lows in order to have the highs. Anything is better than apathy and indifference. I received the Call to ministry while in Mississippi doing Hurricane Katrina reconstruction. Honestly, I felt like Moses, asking God why he chose a broken unbalanced man like me to do his work. God showed me on that trip all that he saved me from. While low, the suicidal thoughts never turned into anything, the times of wrath and anger never put anyone in the hospital, and he spared me from self-medicating with alcohol or other drugs. Even when I didn’t want him, he was always there and he reminded me that his grace is sufficient, and his power is made perfect in weakness. He used my highs to fire me up for ministry, to encourage others and through those times, I created art and composed sermons. He taught me to trust him, since I cannot trust my emotions. He even uses my lows to remind me that I cannot do this alone and to seek comfort in Christ, Scripture and prayer.

It is a constant battle, and though I may never win the war, God has helped me through countless battles. I take a new medication that helps my lows, but allows me to still experience a normal range of emotions. I still cycle, but I am learning to realize my emotional state and alter my actions accordingly. Most people would not know I struggle with this illness, and that is my hope for all who read this story. May those of you who live between two extremes find stability and may those who are stable assist others.

Bad Days

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I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder only about four years ago now and it has been a difficult road.  Though I have come to a place of stability and seek constantly to grow, there are times when I am going to experience bad days.  No matter what steps we take to prevent it, what medications we take and how much counseling we go through, there will be times when life just sucks.  While my tendency is to just slap a band-aid on the issue, grit my teeth and soldier on, sometimes I just need to acknowledge that I still have bipolar and I can still feel its effects.  Bipolar disorder is not a death sentence, but a life-long battle.

The past couple of days have been bad for me.  Wrath and joy are intertwined and constantly switching.  In my joy I cannot laugh and in my rage I cannot cry out because I have no logical reason for either.  Because it is irrational and cycles so rapidly, I cannot see in the darkness and the light is almost blinding.  I can isolate a number of triggers in the forms of lack of sleep, stress, unwelcome criticism from others, and so forth, but I can also sense the irrationality of it all.  What I have to remember is that normal people have bad days, and the triggers I listed above are enough to make anyone irritable or grouchy.  The difference is the level to which that irritation goes.  With me, it becomes rage.  Instead of just being grouchy I am filled with an abhorrence of much and any other trigger becomes fuel for that rage.  This is going to happen; the important thing is what I do in that situation.

Over the past few years, I have already noticed a great change in my reaction to these feelings.  Instead of using this rage and an excuse to lash out, I have realized that this is irrational and though I cannot control my emotions, I can still control my actions.  However, I cannot do it alone.  In these times of rage I need support.  I need people to come around me who know what I am feeling and have my permission to help.  I need them to listen and not try to fix me.  If I need to explain to them why I feel this way because they cannot fathom the bipolar mind, I will probably get even angrier.

This is another reason My Quiet Cave exists.  It has been born out of the support two friends have been for each other.  It is the realization that platitudes will not suffice and comes from the frustration of ignorance.  I am afflicted by bipolar, which means I know very well the crippling darkness and blinding light.  I am open with my rage in the hopes that others will know I have been there.  We share our stories so that others may find hope.  I read others’ stories to be reminded that I am not alone.  We bear one another’s burdens through community.  We all have bad days, and I know I will have more in the future, what matters most is what I do in the meantime.  Do I build up my resolve through community and counsel?  Do I take care of myself so stress and sleep will not affect me as much?  Do I seek out others in the good times, or only call out in the bad?  All good questions to ponder.

Warning Lights Part 2

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Now that we have an established foundation regarding emotions in general,  we may understand that emotions are signals to underlying issues–much like the warning lights on the dashboard of a vehicle.  The warning light itself is not the problem.  I often joke that a warning light coming on my only be signaling that the warning light itself was broken (Is there a warning light for a malfunctioning warning light?) but I digress.

Very rarely is it that our emotions are the problem.  Resolutions to stop being angry, or to be happier fail then because it is not the emotion that is malfunctioning.  Those, who are actually able to address a seemingly faulty emotion, need to check all the reasons that the warning light may be signaling.

In the world of emotional disorders, of which bipolar is one, these reasons are commonly referred to as “triggers.”  Everyone has something or someone, who will trigger a downward or upward cycle, or a rapid shifting between mania and depression. Numerous triggers have been identified, and even the seemingly random shifts in emotions found in bipolar individuals may arise from various triggers.  Bipolar symptoms are just that–symptoms.

The underlying cause for many of us with bipolar disorder is an imbalance of two or more brain chemicals, specifically norepinephrine, epinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin.  Most often dopamine is the principle factor in bipolar disorder.  Antidepressants usually deal with serotonin, so instead of addressing the issue, they destabilize the one stable chemical. Because of this, antidepressants often aggravate rather than alleviate the symptoms.  Other triggers exist that may cause bipolar-like symptoms.  These exist in some combination with each other: stress, relational issues, chemical issues (internal and external), drug usage, blood sugar and insulin issues, societal and cultural issues, and others.

It is in recognizing the array of issues in our lives that allows us to begin addressing each one as a means to understanding our personal warning lights.  Think of it this way: if a mechanic does not recognize all the reasons for a warning light, or is unfamiliar with one or two, a great chance exists that the mechanic will be unable to fix the problem.  We need to be aware of the complexity of emotions to help people effectively address them.

Assuming that we know that person is sad, the principle cause for sadness is most often a chemical imbalance magnified by a circumstance.  My initial advice to this individual would be to see a doctor or to suggest some remedies that have helped me out of depression.  If the sadness however is caused by a loss, a doctor’s visit or common remedies may be unable to mask the pain.  Neither will the individual be able to deal with the loss.  Though just an example, this scenario shows us that effectiveness in helping others dealing with emotional challenges, requires us to go deeply into both health and circumstantial issues.  We must be willing to ask questions and most importantly listen to the answers.

External noise vs. Internal ideas

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Every day we are bombarded with noise. We are told which products to buy in order to address fears and insecurities often created by the same advertisement. We are constantly told who we are and who we should be. This is not always malicious, as a vital part of our development from child to adult is driven by authoritative voices.

We are told not to touch the stove because it will burn us. Sometimes we listen and it is enough that a trustworthy source told us something for our benefit. Sometimes we don’t listen, and must experience the “why” behind the command. We question the authority that told us the stove was hot, so we touch it and get burned. We grow that day. We grow to recognize that sometimes a command is for our benefit. We recognize that other things may be dangerous and may now trust that if someone tells us to stay away, we should stay away. This is the power of personal experience.

As a mentor, I find this difficult. Sometimes I want to grab a mentee by the shoulders, shake them and yell, “Getting off your medication is a horrible thing! I’ve done it! Trust me; you do not want to experience what I have experienced! The stove is really hot!” But it feels like my commands fall on deaf ears.

Then I remembered a premise in one of my favorite movies, Inception. Not so different from mentoring or raising children, the theme of Inception is the attempted implantation of an idea into a person’s mind. The great difficulty is that a person can always trace the origin of a foreign idea. If someone tells you something, you will always be able to trace that idea back to that person. If I tell my mentee that they need to continue taking their medication, the best response I can get is, “Stephen thinks I should take my meds.” This statement then can easily fall into the background of noise we all hear, often buried under all the other “someone thinks I should…” statements. The idea can be traced back to me. While I hope rapport and trust will give my statements greater voice than a billboard, it is not often the case.

For an idea to take root and lead to change it cannot be traceable to someone else. It must come from within.  Personal experience is excellent at generating internal ideas, but this same knowledge can be cultivated by someone else. By asking good questions and really listening to a person, a mentor or coach can guide them to the right thought. I could ask my mentee why he wants to stop his medication, what happened last time he did this, or have him describe how he felt before. He will naturally have to think of the instability, severe depression, and host of other reasons to stay on his meds. The answers will come from him, and can only be traced back to him, since I only asked him to describe personal events.

The hardest thing for a mentor or parent to realize is that even with the best questions and internal ideas, sometimes a person must go through suffering. They have to touch the stove. It is painful but sometimes it is the only way for a person to generate the idea within themselves that hot things cause pain. Our experience and instruction can only go as far as a person will let it, but may we be there to comfort them and help them heal when they get burned.

PLEASE CONSIDER SUPPORTING MQC GIVE