The most thoughtful “no” I’ve ever received

Some of the simplest statements we hear stick with us for years. I heard this from my case manager when I was in rehab back in the beginning of 2005, and I’ve since imparted this pearl of wisdom to countless others: No is a complete sentence. He shared that with us and I’ve continued the tradition to convey the importance of boundaries. When we don’t want to do something unhealthy (e.g. drink, use drugs, hang out in toxic situations with toxic people), we don’t need to offer an explanation. If we’re going to say anything at all, it can be that powerful one-word sentence: No.

I encountered another profound example of the power of “no” while I was in treatment. For one of our movie nights we watched “Clean and Sober,” an 80’s flick with Michael Keaton playing Daryl, a real estate asshole of the cocaine and booze variety who enters rehab in order to escape legal trouble. Morgan Freeman fills in as Craig, the wise, been-there-before-myself counselor who has a fraction of the material wealth but way more happiness and serenity than Daryl. At one point he asks Daryl if he can guess an addict’s least favorite word. The answer? No. The message there touches on our inability to delay gratification and our poor impulse control, but as a person in recovery, I came to fear the word “no” for another reason.

As an aspiring author, you have to have thick skin, and I’ve that’s something I had to grow. No matter how many stories I’ve read about successful authors fighting through years of rejection before hitting it big, it’s still been hard for me to persevere. Sometimes I wish I didn’t even want to write so that I could just live with the more traditional disappointments of not getting into PhD programs or getting passed over for jobs (that still stings). Through the course of sending out query letter after query letter looking for a literary agent or a publisher, I came to look forward to rejection letters. At least I knew someone was getting my e-mails. Sometimes a “you suck” is better than hearing crickets.

Once I had enough of that shit, I decided to go through the similarly taxing gauntlet of a funding campaign. With the help of the people who chipped in on my request and those who networked on my behalf, the Kickstarter campaign succeeded, but not without taking me on one hell of an emotional rollercoaster along the way. So, am I finished subjecting myself to the turmoil I allow to take place in my head? Not just no, but hell no! Not to diminish anyone else’s dreams, but simply getting my book published was only ever meant to be the beginning. Now, if I really want my book to reach a larger audience, I have to network.

Kill me.

That was a joke. If anyone files a mental illness warrant for that I’m gonna be super pissed.

Speaking of dark humor about suicide, if that’s up your alley, then you’re either already aware of “The Mental Illness Happy Hour” or you’re missing out. A few years ago, Paul Gilmartin, who co-hosted TBS’s “Dinner and Movie from 1995-2011, started the popular podcast that, like he says, “is not a substitute for therapy,” but is more like a “waiting room that doesn’t suck.” Paul shares very candidly about his own struggles with addiction and mental health issues and reads letters from listeners, but the majority of each episode centers on a single interview. The guests range from professionals in the behavioral sciences to comedian/writer friends of his with similar pasts to ordinary people with extraordinary stories of recovery ranging from incest survival to Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly referred to as Multiple Personality Disorder). Some episodes are hard even for me to listen to, but they’re all oddly beautiful and empowering. At one point in the movie “Wedding Crashers,” Vince Vaughn’s character, Jeremy, visits Owen Wilson’s character, John, who is going through a rough patch. Jeremy tells John he’s getting married, to which John says, “I’m hanging by a thread. I’m reading ‘don’t kill myself books.’” Because of that, I affectionately referred to Paul’s shows as “don’t kill myself podcasts.”

Given the nature of “The Mental Illness Happy Hour,” I thought I would be a perfect guest. Never mind the fact that I’m not famous or necessarily all that accomplished in my field or that Paul records in Los Angeles. For those reasons I thought, “why me?” Then I said fuck it, “why not me?” I took great care in crafting an e-mail to Paul sharing a little about my personal story and my credentials as a professor and a counselor. I even told him about my nickname for his show. If I had to give just one word for his answer to my request to be a guest on his show?


But he said so much more than that.

I don’t want to ruin the moment by copying and pasting the e-mail, but suffice it to say he wrote it personally. He congratulated me on the work I’m doing and thanked me effusively for being a fan of the show. Although I’m ultimately disappointed with his answer, I’m thankful for the time he took to write such a sincerely gracious response. As I continue what I know at times may be a soul-crushing journey, I’ll always remember Paul’s e-mail. Hopefully someday I’ll be in a position where I’ll have to turn down those kinds of requests, and I’ll do my best to show that same level of care.

“No” can be the end of a sentence, but sometimes a few more words after than one can help us remember we don’t have to give up hope in asking.

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