What do you do when an online friend who suffers from schizophrenia is having a relapse and has stopped communicating? Aside from sending emails to voice your concern and sending out prayers for her recovery there isn't a lot that can be done. She has to reach out for the help that's available to her as we all do when we're in trouble. I learned this the hard way during the beginning of my psychosis. It was some of the voices that tormented me into reaching out to others in a place where there was no local support group for mental illness. I called my parents and told them I was hearing voices that were saying I was evil. I checked myself into a hospital, got a psychiatrist and a diagnosis, found a therapist, resumed going to Al-Anon and started going to a domestic violence support group. I called people up on the phone and tried to be supportive of them. I got involved in my community. And all during this I felt overwhelmed and unable to talk about my illness to most of the people I met except my therapist. I stuffed it inside, went through the worst of the psychosis on my own while continuing to be there for other people. They all knew I was damaged in some way but that I had a kind and generous heart and so, without their even knowing exactly how I was damaged, they were there for me as well. Just being around them and listening to their joys and troubles made me not quite as lost in my own. But, of course, I wasn't around them full time and would return to the solitude of my home and the continued intensity of my psychosis. And I felt my isolation from them even so.
I think it was going to therapy that gave me a game plan. I tried to show my therapist that I was willing to do my part to combat this illness. The only thing I really didn't do, though she often urged me to, was take the anti-psychotic medicine. I was fearful and I was stubborn. But by the third breakdown in three years my stubbornness was broken and I began to give in to reason. I took the meds faithfully. The delusions and paranoia faded and the depression intensified, for a time. I could see how important the anti-psychotic meds were but the depression taught me that the meds alone are not enough. I had to cultivate a positive attitude especially when I became desperate. Making up gratitude lists in my mind helped me on numerous occasions. I'm not saying it washed all the pain away but it pulled me towards hope and faith. Gratitude lists became a form of prayer for me, a prayer about peace. My gratitude towards my family deepened. I knew despite my illness that I was very fortunate. I had food and shelter, the comfort of my cats, a family who were kind to me and people who were willing to be my friends. What I didn't have and still don't have is a support group for people in my area who also suffer from mental illness.
I think besides having a therapist and psychiatrist to see, going to a support group for those with mental illness should be part of the bare bones of recovery (and relapse) support. And yet I've found online and offline that this is not as common as it should be. Nor are there enough people in therapy. The only things that are thoroughly pushed are the anti-psychotic and anti-depressive meds. Obviously for psychiatrists these are the tools of their trade. For many therapists it is just common sense to encourage their clients to take the meds and many people (if they are insured or if they can afford it--two BIG ifs) do take them...many do not, or do so erratically depending on what stage of the illness they're at. But meds, as I said before, are not enough. I don't think people realize how incredibly isolating schizophrenia and other mental illnesses are. That may be why some people keep returning to the hospital because it has a structured support system, but I know very little about hospitals. From an outside perspective it seems as if hospitals don't allow for enough personal time alone which is also essential to recovery I believe. Balance is health--time with others and time alone. But time with others who are going or have gone through what you're going through seems like more common sense. Why doesn't it happen? Because people living in a community who suffer from mental illness tend to withdraw from contact with most others and noone else is willing to organize a group.
This is where the mental health system: the psychiatrists, the therapists, the hospitals, are failing people with mental health problems. Offering a time and place for people with mental illness to socialize and work on their recovery should be basic healthcare practice at least once a week, preferably more. The professionals waste the wisdom of the people they are supposedly working for. AA and Al-Anon call this wisdom "sharing hope, strength and experience". We, as sufferers, need a little help, just a time and a place to meet and yet this bare bones idea is not embraced by the mental health system. What's the big deal? And if only I had some of the spunk I had when I was deeply psychotic so that I could start advocating for this in my community! But I'm one of the sick ones, one of the ones who withdraws. I fight it but I don't know if I have the courage to start a group without some help. Who's help do I need? My psychiatrist's and my therapist's help and yet I feel too inhibited to ask them. They won't help to encourage a community meeting because of privacy rights. And yet they could arrange a place and a time and they could tell their "clients" that if they choose to get support from others like them then they can go there. Or they could contact a local hospital and have them set up a support group meeting and then tell their patients about it. They've invaded or betrayed noone's privacy by doing that and they have more of an authority to do it than their patients do. I'm just bitching. It all seems so stupid. Such a simple, basic, human thing--a group of people to turn to for support who've been there and have learned many lessons to share.
I learned about support groups from going to Al-Anon (which I went to again last night). I learned that some of both alcoholics and the people who love them continue to go to meetings even after the crisis is over. They go to the meetings to help maintain a mental/emotional, and for the alcoholics, physical sobriety. They share in the strength of fellowship. The only place I've found some fellowship with other people who suffer from mental illness is here online and that has been excellent but sometimes, especially during a relapse, you need face to face weekly support from members of the community who suffer from mental illness too. I am looking forward to the day when I can help to make that happen in my community and that is what I wish for anyone who is suffering, friends to turn to and to support. Psychiatrists and therapists can help only so much, the rest is up to us it seems. The person who started the Al-Anon meeting I go to several decades ago at first showed up week after week to an empty room but eventually she got it going and others took her place. I wish that could happen all over the world. And given more time, maybe it will. So for those of you who know of a support group, go to it! and for those of you who don't, think about starting one as a community service.
A Recovery Blog
This blog is about my continuing recovery from severe mental illness. I celebrate this recovery by continuing to write, by sharing my music and artwork and by exploring Buddhist ideas and concepts. I claim that the yin/yang symbol is representative of all of us because I have found that even in the midst of acute psychosis there is still sense, method and even a kind of balance. We are more resilient than we think. We can cross beyond the edge of the sane world and return to tell the tale. A deeper kind of balance takes hold when we get honest, when we reach out for help, when we tell our stories.