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.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Maitri Practice


I have a bunch of cds by the American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron and I’ve been listening to one group called True Happiness. In the last cd she discusses something called Maitri practice. Maitri means loving kindness towards oneself or friendship with oneself and all living beings. But you start with yourself and gradually spread the loving kindness out to everything. Ms. Chodron encourages “this complete friendship with yourself that includes all parts.” She also says that it’s very common to feel a “barrier” against this. Getting in touch with this barrier is an important first step. “Just by seeing it, there’s the potential of it beginning to dissolve.” By seeing and feeling the barrier you step out of ignorance and into awareness. You make a change, disrupt the habitual patterns in yourself. The practice is to say “May I enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.” From there you say it for those you care for, then those you are neutral about and finally those who you feel conflict about. I find it’s easier to say it for others than for myself. And I do this before I go to sleep and I do this when a car passes by my house. It’s not the same as doing the formal practice, which I would like to start doing, but too often I leave myself out and I shouldn’t. The daily problems I experience are not due to other people but to myself and my circumstances. I really need to be better friends with myself. Yes, I care about myself but I’m also critical, ashamed. I feel the barrier every day.

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Insanity comes in varying degrees. Generally it’s not as simple as: you are insane or you are sane. People are a mixture of balance and imbalance. Some have more balance than others, but I would say it’s the rare person who hasn’t had any crazy thoughts. That’s part of what puts drama in the human species. Crazy ideas create crazy stories and crazy ideas also can contain sparks of inspiration and even genius. I think of Vincent Van Gogh or John Nash. One chose paint and the other chose numbers but despite the drawbacks of their own mental illness they surpassed most of us in creativity and intelligence. I’m not saying that mental illness is good but that good can be found within it because good can be found within the mind.

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Yesterday was my brother’s 49th birthday. We went to Rochester and ate out at an Indian restaurant which was a treat for both of us. Then we went to see the Simpsons movie which was a lot of fun and we did some shopping at a nearby Barnes and Nobles. I got three gifts for J.P. whose birthday is tomorrow and I got two very inexpensive audio books for myself: Michael J. Fox’s memoir Lucky Man and Thomas Moore’s Dark Nights Of The Soul (A Guide To Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals). Micheal J. Fox is an actor who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the early 1990s. He’s been struggling with the disease ever since, searching for a cure. I admire him and his attitude towards his illness and I know it will be good to listen to his story. Thomas Moore I don’t know very well. I picked up a book of his a while back but never read it. From the liner notes of the audio book I discovered he had been a Catholic monk for 12 years but later became a psychotherapist. I’m curious to listen to what he has to say. Maybe he’ll give me some new ideas to work with. As I’ve written before, I listen to the audio books while I crochet or exercise. I like to learn while I work. With some authors it’s a real pleasure to hear them read their own work.

The night before we went on our trip to Rochester the voices told me to check the oil level in my car which I dutifully did the next day and, yes, I was almost out of oil. I was very grateful to them for telling me because the car could have easily overheated on our drive to or back from the city. From now on I’m going to check the oil at least once a month.

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I won an award (along with Christina and Pam and several others unknown to me) for a top site related to schizophrenia. Very cool but I can’t put the award icon on my site. I’m practically computer illiterate. I don’t even know how to cut and paste. My own fault. I’m surprised to be selected but very pleased. And I send my congratulations out to Christina and Pam who thoroughly deserve it. It’s been a pleasure getting to know them this past year. Maybe this will draw more people to our sites.

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Obviously I’ve been writing sporadically this past week and I haven’t been posting it. What’s up? I’m not sure yet. There are the practical things I’ve done like celebrating my brother’s birthday, getting my acoustic guitar fixed, playing some piano, working on the afghan for my uncle and today I finished listening to an audiobook by a man (a minister) who was in a serious car accident. He was left for dead for 90 minutes and during that time he says he went to heaven. He became partially crippled after that and I think still lives with daily pain but he lived to tell the tale. It took awhile but eventually the experience strengthened his faith. He learned to share his story over and over again and people listened and were comforted. What didn’t comfort me was the fact that this man believes that there will be heaven for those who believe in Jesus Christ’s divinity but hell for those who don’t. He didn’t dwell on this, only mentioned indirectly several times but it struck me as soon as he said it. In my mind, if hell exists it is not created by the Higher Power. In my mind, God loves all beings. The more evil, the more sick, the more deserving of compassion. I think we are all chosen, not just one religious group or another.

While I was acutely psychotic I thought I was telepathically connected to a powerful serial killer, before that I lived with an abusive alcoholic and despite my deep fear I still prayed for them to be healed. I still believe it’s possible to heal the hardest of hearts and the cruelest of minds. Even Jesus said it’s no great thing to love those that love you (though it’s undeniably good), the great thing is to love those that hate you. In Buddhism this is maitri or metta practice. You cultivate the seeds of forgiveness and compassion. You try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. I tried to walk in the shoes of an imagined serial killer. I found suffering there. I witnessed the suffering of an abusive alcoholic and I endured the acting out. Yes, people can act like monsters but they are not evil in essence. In essence (the inherent Buddha nature) we are all equal and all good. The bad that accumulates come from habitual patterns usually established early and from negative influences. We start out innocent. All of us. When things start to go wrong, especially with children, there is some real reason for it. Abuse, poverty, emotional neglect, hostile environments, physical illness, something to account for negative behavior.

In my brother’s case it was a less dramatic reason. For himself as a little boy, he had the wrong father. Not a sexually or physically abusive father but an emotionally absent father, a father with no interest in sports. A father who had himself had a mental breakdown that landed him in a mental hospital for two months and in therapy for two years. My theory is that my brother was both smart and perceptive as a baby and he intuitively knew that something was wrong with his father even at such a young age. Obviously my mother knew something was wrong with her husband and she may have transmitted this to her son as well. We were all very fortunate in that my father’s mental illness did not become debilitating. He went on to have a successful career as a corporate lawyer but some scars were left even so. My brother, who learned to read and write in late childhood, did erratically in school, especially high school. Instead of finishing high school he got his GED. He went to three colleges but eventually dropped out of those as well. Once he moved away from home, he began to improve. He needed distance from his parents to finally realize that he was a worthwhile individual. He needed to grow up and get past his initial anger at his father and his grandmother (my father’s mother who was controlling).

I believe in the goodness in my family but that doesn’t mean we were exempt from having problems. Mental illness has shadowed us on one level or another. Shadowed me most of all. I have gotten quite a bit of distance between myself and my illness at its worst. And I am grateful to my family who have been supportive and accepting and to therapy, support groups, medicine and my own will to get better. And I’m grateful to some of the voices for seeing me through the worst and treating me now with kindness. Sorry if this entry was a bit all over the place. I’ve just been feeling a bit scattered lately.

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