This is part of a series featuring individuals who share their life experiences with mental health issues. Recently, I asked triathlete and teacher Tim Davis about his journey and his recent memoir. Here’s our interview:
DS: Tell us about when you first started becoming aware of concerns related to your mental health. How did these issues continue to affect you before you sought treatment?
TD: I first became aware that I might have mental health issues when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 27 (almost 20 years ago). It took a few years for me to really come to terms with this, and then to do all the things necessary to stay in recovery. I had recognized that I was an addict and alcoholic a couple years before being diagnosed and initially I didn’t want to believe that I also had this other problem – or that I was “crazy.” My thoughts of just wanting to be normal sort of fed my denial.
These issues affected me by slowing my path to recovery. I had a difficult time remaining med-compliant, and I relapsed a lot. I was often very angry – or restless, irritable, and discontent. This affected my wife and kids the most, as I often yelled at them in my anger about any things they did that I let bother me. This was very unhealthy and unfair to them – it took lots of treatment to help me learn to manage my emotions more like an adult instead of like a child throwing tantrums regularly.
DS: What was the turning point that led you to decide to seek help?
TD: The turning point came after I threatened to commit suicide when I was 27 years old. I had just gotten out of my third drug rehab stay and I was going out of my mind. Before I had gone into that rehab, I had been self-medicating with a lot of methamphetamine and other drugs. Things were really bad at home. I was kicked out of my house and living in my car before I finally checked into this drug rehab.
While I was in this rehab, I had major insomnia, racing thoughts, and rapid speech patterns. I didn’t realize it then – I thought these were just withdrawal symptoms, but it turns out that I was having a major manic episode.
After I got out of the rehab, my wife still didn’t want me to return home until I was really doing well in my recovery. I was crushed. The thought popped in my head: “I don’t know how to live sober, and I don’t know how to live not sober. All I do is keep hurting and disappointing all of my loved one, the world will be better off without me.”
I was in complete despair and couldn’t see any way out. After I threatened to jump in front of a train, I was picked up by authorities and taken to the psych hospital and put on suicide watch for a week. There I was evaluated by psychiatrists and diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
DS: What has your treatment consisted of, and what have you found that has worked well for you?
TD: My treatment has consisted of lots of therapy, seeing my psychiatrist regularly and remaining med-compliant, working the 12 step programs, and lots of exercising. I had a great therapist – he was like the Robin Williams to my Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting). We had an arrangement where I could not stop seeing him until I got a full year sober and in recovery. That took 4 years because I relapsed a lot.
In the beginning, I saw my psychiatrist 2-4 times a month for the first year or so, then eventually it became where I only see him once every 3 months now. I got a sponsor and worked all 12 steps and I continue to work the 12 steps as that is “free therapy.”
I also took up exercising a lot after I got about a year and half sober. I quit smoking cigarettes, started running every day, and lost over 50 pounds. I soon discovered triathlons and fell in love with doing them, and have been doing them for the last 11 years now.
DS: How are things going for you now? What challenges are you still facing? What have you learned that has helped you stay positive and healthy?
Things are going mostly well for me now. I have my routines that help me stay positive and focus on my recovery so that I can be a good father, husband, teacher, coach, and upstanding citizen in our society. That feels great, because there were several years when I wasn’t able to be all those things.
The challenges I still face on a daily basis are dealing with negative thinking and managing my character defects. I don’t know if it is because I am bipolar or because I’m an alcoholic and an addict or because I’m just a jerk sometimes, but many of my first thoughts about things or how to deal with things in my life are negative.
I struggle with lots of negative self talk in my head with thoughts like: “I’m a loser,” “I’m no good,” “I’ll never be good enough,” “Nobody really likes me,” etc. I hate that my default thoughts are generally negative thoughts and I really want to see the glass as half full – I really do. I wish I had more control over my thoughts, so that I just always had positive thoughts all the time.
My AA sponsor often reminds me that “We are responsible for our second thoughts, and our first actions.” So as long as I don’t act on the negative thoughts that pop into my head, then I am doing okay. I have been doing really at well at not doing that for the last 13 years that I have been in recovery now, but it is not easy – it’s a daily struggle. I wish “normal people” could really understand how hard it is for people with mental health issues to lead “normal” lives. It’s no small task.
DS: You’ve been active in mental health advocacy and social media. Tell us about your involvement in those activities.
TD: I’ve only recently started opening up about my mental health issues in the last year. Up until them, I still had lots of shame about it, and I only told family members and close friends that I had bipolar disorder. As a high school teacher, I felt it was important to keep my anonymity there as I feared that I might be discriminated against or even fired, and that my students might not respect me or just call me crazy and stuff. In this last year, I decided to write my memoir and share my story with the world in hopes that I might help and inspire others to find recovery for their similar issues if they have them.
DS: Tell us a little about your new book and how you came to write it.
TD: The name of my book is TRIPOLAR: The Story of a Bipolar Triathlete. I came to write it over time. I first thought of writing a book after I completed my first Ironman triathlon back in 2010. Then again, I thought of it after completing a double Ironman triathlon in 2015. I have had so many people who know me tell me that I should write a book about all the things I have done.
In recovery, I really glommed on to triathlons and ultra endurance racing. Over the last 12 years, I have completed 12 Ironman triathlons, 1 double Ironman triathlon, 7 x 100-mile endurance runs, and tons of other races. In the last year or so, I’ve been dealing with multiple injuries and some OTS (Over Training Syndrome) which has forced to cut back on my exercise training programs, and thus gave me more time to finally sit down and write my book.
When I started writing it a little over a year ago, I knew I had to start from the beginning. I suffered a major trauma and physical abuse as a child. At age 13, my father died in a tragic accident while playing chase with me, and my older brother blamed me for his death. That thought caused me to become atheist and lost in drugs and alcohol for almost 20 years.
As I wrote the first draft, it was like a very long journal/autobiography. Then I learned that people only want to read autobiographies of famous people, so I hired an editor. With her help and my wife’s help, we were able to turn it into a memoir, with compelling narrative style that can appeal to anyone. I couldn’t have done that without those two, and I have learned that writing a book is a lot harder than doing an ironman or running 100 miles.
DS: What would you like to say to encourage others who are still working on their journey of recovery?
TD: READ MY BOOK! Ha ha, just kidding. As much I would love for many others to gain something from reading my book, there are many ways folks can work towards recovery. My message is this: recovery must be handled on a threefold front. We must take care of the body, mind, and spirit.
We take care of the body by exercising it every day, even if that just means walking around the neighborhood for 30 minutes or so. Those endorphins from exercise do wonders for my mental health.
We take care of the mind by doing what our psychiatrist or other doctors tell us to do, at least that is what I do. And I also read a lot of self-help books.
Lastly, we must take care of our spirit. Our spiritual life must have purpose and meaning. For me, that means attending my 12-step meetings regularly, calling my sponsor regularly, continually working the 12 steps and being of service and lots of prayer and meditation. For others, that can mean going to church on Sunday or doing whatever it is in their spiritual or religious life that helps them connect to their spirit or a higher power if they believe in one.
Anyone can achieve recovery if they just have a little faith and take care of their physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.
“Ultra” Tim Davis is an avid runner and triathlete, and advocate for mental health, 12-step programs, and how physical training promotes mental, emotional, and spiritual healing. He has completed hundreds of marathons, ultramarathons, and triathlons. He lives in the Los Angeles area with his wife and 3 children. He has a BS in Exercise Science and a Masters in Education. He has been an athletics coach and science teacher for over 20 years. He is a 12-time Ironman finisher, one-time double ironman finisher, and a 7-time 100 mile endurance run finisher. You can connect with Tim via his website, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn.
Thanks so much to Tim for sharing his inspiring story of hope!
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