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How Therapy and Self-Care Helped Me Navigate Autism, Alcoholism, and Caregiver Stress

“My therapist, an amazing fellow, helped me untangle the knot of grief, anxiety, and self-neglect, offering a safe space to process the emotional upheaval. Remember, seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a courageous act of self-care.”

Hello! Who are you?

My name is Chaz Stevens, a 59-year-old South Floridian who thrives on wearing many hats. From scaling corporate ladders to launching ESADoggy, a tech company offering remote animal-assisted mental healthcare, my life has been a vibrant tapestry woven with threads of activism, art, technology, and pain. 

My professional work has taught me amazing personal life lessons – it’s where I learned the power of truly listening, not just with my ears, but with my heart.

Holding back and letting others fill the silence became a tool for building trust and understanding, and most importantly, it awakened a deep well of empathy that I didn’t know I possessed.

These lessons have become cornerstones of my relationships, both inside and outside of work, and I’m forever grateful for the unexpected wisdom my career has bestowed.

Outside the office, my passion for social justice and freedom of speech burns bright, earning me labels like “enigma” and “rebel” – badges I wear with pride. My work in this arena has graced headlines across the globe, fueled by an obsessive personality, further accentuated by my being on the autistic spectrum.

Growing up on a farm instilled in me a deep love for animals, evident in the three rescues who share my home along with my partner, my bedrock of emotional support.

Am I happy? On the surface, absolutely. You’ll find me radiating happiness, joy, and conviviality. But beneath the surface, the constant churn of life’s pressures can bring its fair share of struggles.

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What is your struggle and when did it start?

Even though I built a mental health company, it took me years to finally see the need for a clinician I’d preach about from the rooftops. Just didn’t realize the personal benefit. Running into that same brick wall of self-doubt, one faceplant at a time, finally convinced me to seek outside professional wisdom. And boy, was it the best decision I ever made.

Therapy has unearthed the buried treasure of self-understanding. Turns out, Generalized Anxiety Disorder and the autism spectrum were just part of my story.

Painfully shy, armed with an IQ exceeding my shoe size, and tripping over social cues like a newborn giraffe, school wasn’t exactly a cakewalk. Having never fit in, I began to drink at age 9, eventually developing full-on alcoholism that took me deep into later life to conquer.

Raised by a Vulcan with a PhD in stoicism, empathy wasn’t part of the curriculum. Instead, I honed my wit until it could deliver one-liners sharper than a samurai sword. And with a parent whose mental gymnastics could win Olympic gold, well, let’s just say my life was…colorful.

This cocktail of quirks, and the many cocktails in my belly, taught me to bury my needs under layers of self-reliance, swallow emotions like box wine, and become the hero in everyone else’s story while my own script remained blank.

But I’m finally cracking the code. I’m learning to untangle the knots, face the monsters in the shadows, and maybe, just maybe, rewrite my ending.

How did this struggle make you feel at your worst moments?

If there’s one thing I could impart, it’s this: the insidious part of toxic relationships is how they make the absurd feel commonplace. I remember Mom guilt-tripping me to avoid a two-day road trip to see a dying friend – as I’m told she’s also dying. I went, tears drying on my cheeks, somehow finding the courage to finally stand up for myself.

Dealing with Mom’s narcissism meant I was always pouring, never refilling. It wasn’t just about material things or time; it was my emotional energy, constantly siphoned to fuel the fire of her needs. This pattern, sadly, spilled over into my adult relationships. I found myself drawn to, and even attracting, people who craved validation at my expense.

Along with false idols, beware of false friends, business partners, and lovers.

“When Mom’s unhappy, everyone’s unhappy,” my internal mantra whispered, echoing the warped reality of my childhood.

But here’s the kicker: “everyone” turned out to be a select few. My own happiness, the very oxygen I needed to thrive, became an afterthought, easily tucked away under layers of self-sacrifice, whiskey, and doubt.

Unraveling this tangled mess hasn’t been easy, but with therapy and a personality turbo-charged by OCD, I’m learning to listen to my inner voice, the one that whispers, “It’s okay to prioritize your own needs.” It’s a slow climb, and I hope there’s enough time remaining on the clock to get the job done.

2019 simmered like a noxious stew – stale silence punctuated by Dad’s confused shouts, and the omnipresent tang of antiseptic. Moving back to care for my ailing parents (cancer and Alzheimer’s), what was meant to be a six-month sprint turned into a marathon in slow motion, courtesy of COVID’s unwelcome intrusion.

Four years of unrelenting care wore me down like sandpaper on driftwood. Mom’s falling and dying at my feet left a hollow crater in my chest, not the expected sob storm, but a numbness that refused to thaw.

Dad’s descent into dementia felt like watching a ship vanish into a thick fog, piece by piece. Dementia is a ghastly disease, whiting out a soul in the most dehumanizing of ways. Each memory lost, each confused accusation like a shard in my heart.

“Yesterday,” they say, “was the best last day for one suffering from dementia.”

With GAD already gnawing at the edges of my sanity, these past years felt like a high-wire act over an abyss. Sleep became a stranger, my chest a drum solo of racing anxiety.

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Was there a moment when you started to turn things around?

For a decade, my sisters lifted not a finger in help or support, leaving me to fend for and tend to the mess.

October stole Mom with a bang – an actual bang as her head hit the tile floor. Her passing didn’t bring tears, but a relief. Dad’s dementia had already cast a long shadow, yet his January departure, three months later, felt like a cold, starless night.

In May, I found myself in the sterile embrace of the ER, my heart battered by anxiety’s relentless storm. ObamaCare, bless its bureaucratic soul, was the lifeline that pulled me back from the brink.

A constellation of medication, and heart surgery, along with the unconditional love of my rescues and the unwavering support of a true friend, became my scaffolding back to life. Each day, I chipped away at the debris, taking tentative steps out of the rubble.

No more dodging airborne diapers, no more tiptoeing around emotional landmines. With Mom and Dad gone, space bloomed for my own needs, a concept that had felt unthinkable before.

Dad’s voice, faint but insistent, whispered his mantra through the fog: “This too shall pass.” It wasn’t just a platitude; it was a life raft. One shaky step at a time, I clung to it, navigating the choppy waters of grief and healing. Today, the sun finally peeks through again on occasion.

What steps did you take to overcome your struggle?

Overcoming the emotional turmoil and physical toll of caregiving for my parents, coupled with my own anxiety struggles, wasn’t an overnight feat. It’s been a gradual climb, a journey paved with small steps, hard-won lessons, and all-too-often setbacks.

For years, I didn’t realize wearing a “Perfectionist/No Complainer” cape meant shouldering responsibilities and emotions alone. That nearly killed me. The turning point came when I admitted my limitations, accepted my vulnerability, and reached out for help. Lean on your support system, be it family, friends, or professional therapists. 

My therapist, an amazing fellow, helped me untangle the knot of grief, anxiety, and self-neglect, offering a safe space to process the emotional upheaval. Remember, seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a courageous act of self-care.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the thought of admitting I needed help choked me like dust in a dry throat. The unrelenting need to find personal fault, a stubborn weed, had rooted itself deep.

But in the face of my therapist’s unwavering support, and remembering Dad’s whispered “This too shall pass,” I finally pulled it up, root and all. Reaching out felt like stepping into sunlight, blinking away years of self-inflicted shadows.

My PsyD, bless his insightful soul, didn’t just hand me a toolbox; he showed me how to use it. Mindfulness, that fancy word for “pay attention to your now,” became my shield against anxiety. It was in those quiet moments, eyes closed, breath steady, that I began to accept the kaleidoscope within me.

Why was I so different? Why did social cues dance like fireflies while others waltzed through them? Layer by layer, I uncovered the reasons, the hidden melodies beneath the noise.

Turns out, my hyper-empathy, the very trait that nearly drowned me in caregiving was also my superpower. It allowed me to connect with animals and people on a level most couldn’t fathom, and now, it fuels my work at ESADoggy.

Being neuro-divergent isn’t a bug; it’s a feature, albeit one that comes with its own quirks. Like that time I wore mismatched socks to a conference, convinced they were twins separated at birth. Yeah, that’s my brain on parade.

But here’s the thing: these “quirks” also fuel my creativity, my art, my humor, and my fierce determination. Accepting them wasn’t just surrender; it was a victory dance, a celebration of all I am, weird socks and all.

As Oscar Wilde once said, “Be you, since everyone else is already taken.”

Love yourself.

Putting myself on the back burner for years had depleted my emotional and physical reserves. Healing required a shift in focus. I started small: nourishing my body with healthy meals, carving out time for quiet walks around the neighborhood, and practicing mindfulness exercises.

These steps, seemingly insignificant, were the foundation stones of my recovery. They reminded me that I wasn’t just a caregiver; I was also a human being deserving of love and care.

I was never taught nor shown the need to love myself; just breaks my heart to look back at the acid I was encouraged to throw on my soul.

Rediscover your passion.

The past decade had shrouded my passions in dust. I’ve begun to brush them off, rediscovering the joy of writing, the comfort of Coltrane, and the thrill of red paint. Immersing myself in activities I loved reignited a spark within me, reminding me of who I was beyond the burdens I carried. Whether it’s painting, dancing, or playing an instrument, find what ignites your soul and fan the flames of your own inner light.

Learn to say no.

People-pleasing had been my default setting, leading to resentment and exhaustion. Setting boundaries, even with loved ones, became crucial. Learning to say “no” without guilt, and to prioritize my own well-being, was a game-changer. It wasn’t easy, but it empowered me to reclaim control and create space for healthy relationships, including the one with myself.

If you don’t set boundaries, you should learn how … they were so confusing to me at first, like what? Now, I can’t imagine life without them.

Power of forgiveness

Forgiving myself for any perceived shortcomings as a caregiver, and forgiving others for their roles in the situation, was a heavy weight lifted, and is still a work in progress. Holding onto anger and resentment only poisoned me further. Forgiveness wasn’t about condoning actions; it was about releasing the burden and freeing myself to move forward.

Remember, these are just the stepping stones I used. Your path might look different, and that’s okay. The key is to be kind to yourself, celebrate every small victory, and trust that within you lies the strength to heal and emerge stronger. Don’t hesitate to seek professional help if needed, and remember, you are not alone in this journey.

Have you shared any of this with people around you in real life?

Opening up about my struggles wasn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Sharing the depths of my emotional turmoil felt like handing out emotional hand grenades, and who to pull the pin on was a delicate choice.

My rock, unsurprisingly, was my incredible partner. She witnessed the unraveling firsthand, the tear-stained mornings and the anxiety-riddled nights. But she never wavered, a sturdy lighthouse guiding me through the storm. Sharing with her wasn’t a confession; it was a shared breath, a whispered vulnerability met with unwavering support.

If you find someone like that, hang on for dear life, as I suspect they are few and far between.

Friends, on the other hand, were a mixed bag. Some, the ones who’d seen glimpses of the emotional maelstrom beneath the surface, became confidantes. We traded stories of grief, anxiety, and the absurdities of life, finding solace in shared vulnerability. Others, however, remained comfortably on the sunny side of my life, the cheerleaders unaware of the hidden battles behind the smile.

As for colleagues, work remained a carefully curated haven. My professional mask stays firmly in place, any cracks meticulously hidden beneath a veneer of productivity and humor. Even though I’m surrounded by a large amazing team of licensed providers, my ethics demand silence.

Openly sharing mental health struggles is a tightrope walk, balancing the need for connection with the fear of judgment. It’s easier to wear a social mask, to project the “everything’s fine” persona – a rather difficult challenge for those on the spectrum, as those very rules seem impenetrable.

However, there’s a power in vulnerability, in letting others see the cracks and crevices in our seemingly perfect facades. It’s a gamble, yes, but sometimes, it’s the gamble that leads to unexpected support, shared experiences, and a deeper understanding of ourselves and those around us.

You are not the only one with problems, and through that, you might find a helping hand.

If you could give a single piece of advice to someone else that struggles, what would that be?

Find yourself a licensed provider, speak to more than one, and find one that is right for you. They are out there, as I’ve met amazing therapists who are even better human beings (yes, I’ve hired them! Smile) …

They might have your answers, they likely know the right questions to ask, and they’ve heard it all before.

I am alive today, writing these words, because of the care I’ve sought and received.

I hope my story and these insights offer a flicker of hope and guidance to anyone facing similar struggles. May you find your own path to healing, light, and a life filled with joy, love, and self-compassion.

You are worth it and deserve that and much more.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, YouTube channels, or other resources for you?

None. My podcasts are nerdier in nature, however, if you’d like to learn more about astrobiophysics, I’d be happy to have that chat!

Where can we go to learn more about you?

You can learn more about ESADoggy or me on Wikipedia!

💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, I’ve condensed the information of 100’s of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇

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This Cheat Sheet Will Help You Be Happier and More Productive

Thrive under stress and crush your goals with these 10 unique tips for your mental health.

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Hugo Huijer AuthorLinkedIn Logo

Founder of Tracking Happiness, with over 100 interviews and a focus on practical advice, our content extends beyond happiness tracking. Hailing from the Netherlands, I’m a skateboarding enthusiast, marathon runner, and a dedicated data junkie, tracking my happiness for over a decade.

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