Firearms, Fear, and Mental Health

A bullet hole in your wall is never a good sign, unless you look at it right. Not acknowledging it is foolhardy, obsessing over it is debilitating. These sides of the teeter totter must be balanced when the hole is really there. What to do when it’s not…well, that’s what this is about.

Firecrackers and rifle rounds, these are the sounds of my childhood. In an early exercise of modifying childish behaviors, my mother had me light a full box of kitchen matches one at a time and let them burn down to my fingertips. It was supposed to cure me of playing with matches. I was three. My brother Eric, who was ten at the time, told me decades later that the look on my face said mom miscalculated. She didn’t cure me. She made me. I remain a functional pyromaniac to this day.

So, perhaps it’s not surprising that fear and firearms aren’t coupled in my psyche. What firearms I have, I own out of prudence, not paranoia. I’ve been on the wrong side of a gun (you can read about that here). I have also used firearms to procure food. For any who have not ventured into the woods and come out with meat to feed their families, you’ve missed something in life. Politicians and popular culture make apologetic room for the American firearm fascination with lip service to the sport of hunting. Watching children eat meat you harvested isn’t sport. It is a central reality of man stretching back for millennia. It is the same reality that caused men to take up arms and defend their home and person. Making it about the weapon misses the point.

Supporting the Second Amendment in its original frame calls for intellectual honesty regarding its consequences. Malice, negligence, and accidents are a reality. Years ago, I was in charge of a waste hauling operation that could see up to sixty trucks on the road at any given time. We functioned under the mandate of a zero-accident policy. The policy was understandable, admirable even. But there were those among us who held to the philosophy of it being possible. To be fair, it was possible—simply so. All I had to do was ground the fleet. No movement, no accidents. No guns, no death and maiming by firearms.

A bullet above my daughter’s headboard. Wounded sheetrock in my boy’s room. The former resulted from a neighbor in emotional distress and contemplating suicide. The later, a negligent discharge from a guest who knew better. Nobody died. I repeat, nobody died. This is where fear and mental health enter the picture.

The spirit of man is invested with the capacity, the drive even, to dream. We were created with the ability to see the impossible, to call out things that are not and strive to make them be. The same mechanism that got us to the moon lets us stress about near misses as if they were catastrophes.

In life, I’ve found stressing over non-events isn’t just a waste of energy, it’s also debilitating to mental health. A near miss is a near miss. Going into adrenal hyperdrive at that moment is understandable and desirable. Carrying the fight-or-flight past a reasonable calming period is self-destructive.

Worse than being wrapped in the trauma of a near miss is the upset over possible catastrophe when the near miss never happened. This is what happens when we imagine what someone might have done to or said about us and we get upset as if they did. Call it delusional trauma, pain caused by the ghosts of our own imagination. When we trade the wonder of imagining what could be for the fear and regret of what may have been, we are poorer for it.

Holes in walls, happened. People dead, didn’t. In both instances, my mind was fully capable—without any prompting from me—to envision a new reality in light of the non-event of catastrophic loss. I had a choice at that point. I could imagine the tragedy of a lost child and allow my limbic system to light up as if it had already happened or admit it didn’t happen and behave accordingly. One would leave me toxic, the other thankful. A bullet hole in your wall is never a good sign, unless you look at it right. The holes in my walls were evidence of God’s protection in grace in the face of the carelessness of others. When I think of them that way, I stay in a much healthier head space.

Cancer Five Years Gone

According to, Victoria is the 26th most popular baby name for girls in 2018 so far (#45 overall) and Victor rings in at 214th place for boys. I did a search for the name “Survivor” and received the following pop-up message:

“Sorry, we didn’t find any names that match your criteria.”

Are you surprised? I didn’t think so. After all, have you ever met someone named Survivor? Me neither. The implication of “survivor” is a death narrowly avoided. Victors win; survivors only manage to make it out alive.

I am a cancer survivor. Admitting it is always sobering. Absent intervention, I would have been a statistic, a digit added to the death toll.

In the early months and years after my treatment was complete, I struggled with the “survivor” handle. I wanted to be a cancer victor, not a cancer victim. I eventually had to admit the validity of confessing that I was indeed a cancer survivor. I had made it through the fight, but at a cost. The admission still humbles me, leaves me feeling vulnerable and weak. But admitting weakness is a component of true humility. And humility is strengthens character.

My character is always in need of strengthening.

October 7, 2013 was the day I received my last dose of radiation for base of tongue cancer that had metastasized to the lymph nodes in my throat. The pain didn’t end on that day nor did the disease—the former was waxing, the latter waning—but I chose it as my touchstone because it is the easiest mile marker to read. After treatment, no one wants to say you’re cured. “In remission” is the preferred term. I like it less than “survivor.”

Five years ago I hung the plastic mask that held me down to the radiation table as a trophy on my office wall. I kept it there as I struggled through the severe pain of internal x-ray burns and the queasiness of radiation poisoning as a reminder that God had brought me through and would yet deliver me.

Today, it all seems like a memory from someone else’s life. As I type this, I am eating my dinner—a tasty combo of beef strips, mashed potatoes, and riced cauliflower—and am compelled to remember that not long ago I despaired of ever eating solid food again or of being able to taste any flavors beyond bland and sparky. Memory of the battle is my antidote for ungratefulness. I fail to dose myself far too frequently.

I am not the same man I was before the disease. In many ways, this is a good thing. Compared to the blessings I’ve received in this extended lease of my earthly life, the losses to the cancer and its treatment are minimal. Surviving has benefits to live for.

If you happen to be a cancer survivor like me, I would like to encourage you with a bit of etymology. The word “survive” comes to us from the Late Latin word supervivere, literally to “over live.” I prefer to cast the term another way. We aren’t just survivors, we are Super Alive—alive to grace, alive to the wonder of each new day, alive to love, and alive to give thanks for all we once took for granted.


Simple things should be celebrated; things like breathing. I am continually disappointed by how quickly I lose gratefulness for the mundane. I wake up. I stretch. I drink water without pain and think only of my thirst. I shuffle to my bathroom and manage to brush my teeth without fouling the sink with last night’s dinner and don’t give it a second thought. I met Jesus at my bathroom sink. He’s still there, I just forget to say hello far too often.

I celebrated my fifty-second birthday not long ago, marking another year in overtime since someone called the last quarter. Forty-seven has been the major mile marker on my road of life since I was thirteen. My father never made it to forty-eight. They carried him out of the house on a sheet twenty days before Christmas in 1978. It wasn’t until I reached 47 that I realized how young my father was when he passed away and began to sense a tinge of living on borrowed time. Then, in my forty-ninth year, I was informed that I had cancer already at Stage IV.

Beating dad’s longevity by two short years seemed a small accomplishment in the face of that diagnosis. My youngest hadn’t yet reached the age I was when I lost my father. I certainly didn’t want him or my other children to go through what I did as a child. I know firsthand what widowhood did to my mother. I couldn’t bear the thought of such a burden on my wife. So I decided to submit to the chemo and walk through the fires of radiation to see my way through. That’s when I met Jesus at my bathroom sink.

I’ve been a dedicate student of the Bible most of my life. In more than three decades of study, I had developed a fairly woven tapestry of theology. All of that went away at teeth brushing time. I would pray to the Lord not to throw up and then when I did, I would thank Him for carrying me through. I was especially thankful for the mornings I didn’t have to brush my teeth twice. When life is under that type of stress, one becomes thankful for the simple things in life. Each day is horrible, but you’re glad for it because it’s a day you’ve overcome. Redemption is another day closer. Sorrow only lasts for the night.

I get stressed out now. I worry. Will we triumph over the termites? Can I get my budget done on time? Will I parent well and help my children be successful? Are my brakes making noise, or is it just my imagination? Will folks at church get offended at me? Will we win that bid? What if I get fired? Silly stuff, really, because I’m alive. Every time I breathe without thankfulness, temporary pressures take on the form of titan troubles. He carried me through the fire, what is that in the face of a business budget or bad brakes? I am cancer free, thank God, but I need to remember the character that chemo taught me.

I do things now I wouldn’t have done three years ago; things like going to a hip-hop concert with my kids on St. Patrick’s Day. “Honey,” my wife asked, “you want to go to a Toby Mac concert with your kids?” Sure, why not? I’m alive, aren’t I? If they’re going to have fun, I’m going to join them in the experience. I hadn’t been to a pop music venue since 1979. Five minutes into the show, I remembered why. Hip hop isn’t really my thing. Through most of the sets, the visuals on the big screens were more a distraction from the music than they were an enhancement to the show. I say “most” because I was grateful for them when Matt Maher performed.

There I was, a recently minted fifty-two year old with his teenage and twenty something kids suffering through songs I didn’t know and words I couldn’t make out but glad my kids were enjoying themselves. Then, in the middle of the bedlam a worship service broke out. Matt Maher had taken the stage. Lyrics were on the screen and the songs had a melody I could follow. I came out to be with my children and have fun. I didn’t expect to wind up in tears.

“Amen, Amen
I’m alive, I’m alive
Because He lives
Amen, Amen
Let my song join the one that never ends

Because He lives
I can face tomorrow
Because He lives
Every fear is gone
I know He holds my life my future in His hands”

(“I’m Alive Because He Lives” by Matt Maher)

As I sang this song, I was overwhelmed with thankfulness. I’m alive. I’ve marked another year. My children are not orphans, my wife not a widow. I am the wealthiest man I know. And I am so because He lives. Simple things should be celebrated; things like breathing, even at a hip hop concert.

Food Fight: Battles in Thankfulness

Traumatic, both physically and psychologically. This is cancer and its “cures”. Pathologically, trauma is a physical wound. Psychologically, it is an emotional shock that creates substantial and lasting damage to the psyche. Battling malignant DNA gone rouge in your own body produces both. The toll of the trauma becomes most telling to me when I must interface with a basic necessity of life: food.

A year ago, I began my treatment for head and neck cancer: a seven-week course of chemotherapy and radiation. [1] The chemo set up a mind-bend on food as it left most smells faithfully resonating with my memory while playing sleight of hand with my taste buds (e.g., looks like potatoes, smells like potatoes, tastes like baking soda). Sights and smells cannot be trusted. No taste is guaranteed. But of the two, radiation has left the most damage in its wake as it wiped out the cancer. My voice is deeper, but my soft pallet is softer; and my throat and tongue are dry enough to strike matches on. The tumor on my tongue made eating difficult. The cure has brought its own host of challenges.

I have grown accustomed to the background tension present at every meal. As I stare at the food and try to determine the appropriate size for my next bite (always smaller than I think, even after I adjust down from memory), I find that my body has folded into a defensive position. My shoulders are hunched over. My brows are knit. My posture is bad. It requires a conscious effort to unwind myself and be open to the experience; to embrace the necessity of the contest. This has become a daily discipline.

Unlike eating, grocery shopping doesn’t happen every day. Furthermore, I am blessed with a wife that manages that function quite well and children who enjoy going along for the ride. I haven’t been bothered with it in a long while. A long while, that is, until a couple of weeks ago when we all headed out together for the grand tour of wholesale clubs, organic food grocers, and traders in tasty treats.

I was honestly looking forward to the outing. Like all growing children, my kids love food and aren’t shy about expressing their discontent when the larders are low.[2] Their excitement was infectious as they discussed what they would sample, buy, and bake. Heedless of eating having been a daily challenge for over a year now, I indulged in a case of temporary amnesia and waltzed into the organic groceries superstore only to be slapped rudely awake by the assault on my psyche in the presence of such beautiful produce and foodstuffs.

“These peaches are huge!” I’m not sure if they will taste like peaches. What if they wind up tasting like prunes instead? “Those spices smell marvelous!” Which of my two tastes will they trigger: salty or sparky? “Look at those baguettes!” Crusty-dusty, death-dealing wads of dough. How much water will I have to down just to swallow one small bite? “Buy this super-blender. You can liquefy your vegetables!” Thanks, pal. Bought one, live on that. Are we having fun yet? And this was only the first stop.

My brain beat on me aisle after aisle, store after store. It wasn’t until the final stop that I started to beat it back. There I stood in the painful recognition that I was not only distressed, but depressed as well. While my family scurried with joy to try treat after treat from the various sample servers in the mega-warehouse store, I barely avoided skinning my knees after tripping over my drooping lip. All I could see were things I used to enjoy that I could no longer eat. That’s when I gave my mind a piece of my spirit.

My counterattack began with a change of perspective. Instead of feeling down because I couldn’t sample the pastrami sandwich, I decided to be thankful that I was even around to look at it. It was a good place to start: I’m alive. Take that, depression! Next, I reviewed several of the items purchased that I consume on a regular basis: all beef hot dogs, coffee, cod, steak. Considering that drinking water was an excruciating experience a mere nine months ago, these were considerable milestones to be grateful for. And then there was the chicken, fresh rotisserie chicken about to come off the spit. No lack of saliva was going to keep me from it.

Like a crack-addict mouse hitting the button for another dose in the lab, I kept going back to the counter to see if they were done. Distress gave way to expectancy, depression to hope. As soon as the cook slid them down the display shelf, I snatched up two of them. I couldn’t get to it quickly enough. We pressed through check out. We pushed out the door. We rolled to the van. I grabbed one of the chickens and jumped into the shotgun seat. While the family loaded the rest of the groceries into the back of the van, I broke open the plastic container and tore a drumstick off the bird. I went after the tasty morsel like the Fantastic Mr. Fox.[3]

As I ate the chicken (chased by copious amounts of water), I reflected on how easy it is to sow the seeds of bitterness and discontent when we decide to only see the ground we’ve lost and none of the ground we’ve retained or regained. Nearly two thousand years ago, Saul of Tarsus wrote to his protégé Timothy that “…we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out…having food and raiment, let us be therewith content.”[4] Simple lesson, tough battle.

Our minds naturally work through a system of references. Intuitively, the measure of our qualitative state is determined through our frame of reference. For instance, is $25 per hour a good wage? It’s fantastic if you currently only make $15 per hour. If you are used to making $24.25 per hour, it only amounts to a cost of living increase. If you are used to making $100,000 per year, it represents a major cut in pay. But suppose you were accustomed to a six-figure salary, but had been unemployed for nearly two years and were facing the very likely prospect of being homeless? How would the $25 per hour job look then?

The answer may seem obvious, but in practice it is not. Taking a pay cut and staying employed presents the options of being thankful or dissatisfied. Resentment is easy in such circumstances. Loss of health exposes one to the same challenge. I’m better, but not as well as I was before cancer. What I decide to focus on determines the state of my soul. I can mourn the loss or count the blessing. Thankfulness is a battle that must be intentionally waged. And battle I shall.

[1] For more background, see “Dealing with a Death Sentence” from my February 2014 posts.

[2] One of their favorite refrains is, “All we have is rotten milk and eggs”; a reference, oddly enough to one of the main staples of my diet: a protein shake made with kefir and raw eggs.

[3] My previous disclaimer stands: no mention of a movie (or movie character) is an endorsement thereof. That being said, The Fantastic Mr. Fox has some very funny moments, this being one of them: Mr. Fox eating.

[4] 1 Timothy 6:7-8 KJV