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, February 25, 2007

No Shame, But Endurance

Just about two weeks till Daylight Savings Time and I am looking forward to it. It's almost a quarter after six now and the light is almost gone. That extra hour will mean that I can go to my Al-Anon meeting in daylight which will help so much since I'm not that happy anymore driving at night. But mostly it will help to lift this lingering winter depression. I stopped exercising again which is foolish because it improves my mood as well as takes care of my body. I haven't been cleaning the house though I've made a date with myself to clean all the dishes on Tuesday. I did get out yesterday with my brother. He treated my to lunch at a Chinese restaurant and then I took him shopping. I held back from doing too much shopping because I'm a little tight on cash right now but I did manage to get bird seed and suet cakes so I have enough for this week to keep the birds fed and happy. I felt good yesterday. Good to be around my brother, good to get out of the house and good that it was a beautiful though cold day.

Tomorrow I go to a new general doctor for a preliminary visit. It's been over four years since I've been to one, so, at my age, it's long overdue. Even so, I'm not going to have myself thoroughly checked out until June. I'm going to use that as an incentive to lose weight. I won't be able to get to an ideal weight by then but I'll get a lot closer. I know I'm at risk for having diabetes because my mother and brother have borderline diabetes and also because I took the anti-psychotic drug Zyprexa for several years. Zyprexa which is known to cause people to put on a lot of weight (and I did) is also now known to be a possible factor in causing diabetes. Of course, I'm praying that I don't have it but ignoring the possibility is just plain dumb. For now, I'll see this new doctor, get a referral for my therapist so my insurance will cover my visits with her and make an appointment for mid June for a thorough exam. I'm a bit nervous about going but that's pretty normal with first visits. I will be open with this doctor about my schizophrenia not only because I need a referral but so that he can have some understanding of me.

I'm not ashamed or embarrassed about my illness anymore. I know that it is not my fault and I believe that I should be treated with a certain amount of compassion because of it. I told the Al-Anon group that I suffer from schizophrenia and instead of people pulling away from me one woman said her daughter also suffers from it and another said her mother was in and out of psychiatric hospitals suffering from bi-polar while she was growing up. That two people out of such a small group could have been personally affected by someone with mental illness made me feel less isolated and I was grateful to them for sharing. It helps me to look at schizophrenia as a biological disease, there's less stigma attached to it that way. I know it's not quite as simple as all of that but it's a good base to work from. And when it comes to dealing with doctors, it's the best way to approach it.

Christina has said that she does not like being called a schizophrenic because that implies that her identity is somehow diseased perhaps and I've been careful not to call people schizophrenics because of that but really, for now, I don't mind. This illness is a major part of why I am the way I am. I used to feel ashamed and now I'm strangely proud of the fact. Proud that I survived, proud that I still have a lot of hope for myself and grateful that I didn't succumb to negativity. I want people to know that I suffer from schizophrenia because I believe that's my way of fighting what stigma remains against the illness. I believe I am an essentially good person and I have worked hard to reach towards recovery and people should know that the mentally ill are not "freaks". We look just like "normal" people and mostly act just like "normal" people. If anything our insights might be just a bit more insightful because we know what it's like to be out of control or overtaken and we know what it's like to struggle back towards reality.

I am amazed at the endurance of the human species and deeply respectful towards anyone who struggles with mental illness. Most people have little idea how hellish it can get and that hell is hard to describe. The closest I can come to it is that it is like a waking dream/nightmare. An alter reality within reality. For me everything became more symbolic--signs, images and people's attitudes and actions, all layered with additional meaning, fraught with it. Along with this is this feeling of being watched, listened to, talked at constantly with no break, not even in dreams. Too many people take mental privacy for granted but imagine if one day it was just gone. Of course people begin to speak and act strangely. I found that in some ways I had more privacy when I talked aloud to myself than when I remained silent listening to the voices overtake me. At least I had a choice as to what I wanted to say and no voice had the power to take that away from me.

Now that I've adjusted to the medications and lost most of my delusional thinking and all of my paranoia, I rarely speak aloud. Now though the voices are still with me there's a kind of buffer that protects me from them. I can hear them during my waking hours but I am not longer threatened by them. I've come to accept them and even love them but if that buffer were removed I don't know if I'd have so much strength. And so I continue to take the meds and might for the rest of my life.
But if I were to return to the madness I believe my hard won experience would guide me in my weakness through it yet again.
Without the shame, I would reach out for more help and with the endurance, I would continue to survive.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Intimate Subjugation

Last night I went to an Al-Anon meeting. One of the readings for the day was about domestic violence and whether an Al-Anon member should give advice. The Al-Anon policy is to never give advice. You can share your "experience, strength and hope" but you should not tell another person what they should or shouldn't do. The ultimate decision is up to the individual. In afterthought that sounds sensible but my initial response to the reading was disagreement. I thought that violence should never be acceptable as part of an intimate relationship. Once it is accepted, the dynamics of the relationship changes. It is no longer one person being controlling of another, it becomes one person dominating the other, one person taking away basic inalienable rights from another. The right to privacy, the right to free speech, the right to free movement, the right to free association with others, and especially the right to personal safety. The violence and injustice of the world is brought inside the home. Over time this creates an incredible emotional, mental and spiritual malaise over the victim to the point where rational judgment is not freely available.

But most people don't realize this, that domestic violence is torture. I don't use that word lightly. It is not enough to turn the other cheek, to love your abuser. In order to return to reason you must detach from the torturer because if you don't the abuse spirals out of control even to the point of death. The abuser must take responsibility for his actions if there's going to be any positive change. If he (she) doesn't, then there is no relationship just a drastic imbalance of power. So, when is it okay to intervene? If someone came to me and confessed that he/she was being tortured by his/her lover, I don't know if I could just stand by and say "Do what your heart tells you to do." I would probably say call a hotline, find a shelter, get legal advice, do something to give yourself more options. Don't despair, believe in your goodness, believe in your right to exist.

At the same time I believe there should be options available for those who are abusive. They, too, should have somewhere to turn to get help, to salvage their relationships if possible. But when it comes to healing domestic violence, the very first step to my mind is separation along with individual counseling and support groups. It takes time for a victim to heal and time for an abuser to realize he/she needs help. For those abusers who refuse to get help there is little hope, all the more reason to support those who admit to their faults and get help. They set a good example. Just as victims who take back their autonomy set a good example for other abuse victims.

I don't mean to imply that any of this is easy. I was fortunate in that I had no children with my abuser and had my family's financial and emotional support. But many have children and are not financially independent. They may not have the support of their families. They may be so isolated that they have no friends to turn to for help. If they are to get the help they need, they have to take the risk and reach out for it and this reaching can be very hard in itself. All the more reason when someone comes to a meeting and admits abuse to stand by that person in whatever way possible. It may just be a phone number and a place to keep extra keys and money for an emergency or a temporary place to stay. It may be the use of a phone or a computer. Something, anything that allows the victim a sense of extra options and security, a sense of community support, an end to the isolation.

Too often, people withdraw from abuse victims instead of embracing them. I believe if more abuse victims were welcomed into other people's lives, there would be a substantial drop in the violence against them mainly because they'd have more choices as to how to handle the situation. More people to call, more places to go, more ways out instead of back. And why shouldn't the community provide ways out for victims of domestic violence?
And I don't just mean the police or domestic violence shelters but anyone who knows anything about the situation. If people joined together to intervene wouldn't it send a message out to abusers everywhere that abuse is everyone's concern, that you can't hide it anymore and continue the abuse. And wouldn't it give the victim the kind of support he/she deserves?

I wish someone had intervened in my case, not only because it may have saved me a whole lot of suffering but also because it may have given my abuser (who I did love) an opportunity for change as well. An intervention would show the abuser (in a non abusive way) that the secret is out and that is half the battle. Put a stop to the isolation and to the shame of it all and the negative dynamic will begin to change towards the positive. Support both the victim and the abuser (together, then separately) for both are suffering from mental illness and deserve guidance and compassion.

Having said all this I still question myself. The Al-Anon program stresses self-responsibility and self care because many spouses, lovers, friends, family, etc... try to control the problem and keep their focus on the alcoholic/addict--judging and blaming them while trying to take care of them. And I believe there is much truth in this. When in doubt, keep the focus on yourself, work your own program, if possible, detach with love from your alcoholic abuser. But still there is this big BUT in me that says once a line has been crossed it's time to prepare to take some action. As an individual, to take care of yourself and as members of a community to take care of that community.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Judge Not

I am not a Christian and yet when I recently read a critical comment it is Jesus' words that came to me: Judge not lest you be judged, turn the other cheek, love your enemies, and you who is without sin, cast the first stone. It's ironic but it is precisely those who use words as weapons that rouse my compassion. And I wonder, what pain are they going through or what pain have they lived through to get them to this point? I feel sadness. And I feel hurt and also annoyed. But I fight the annoyance, the desire to shoot an arrow in return. The person who tries to start a fight wants a fight in return, so turn the other cheek. The person who hates wants hate in return, so love. It is so simple and yet can be so hard to do.

Why do people balk at the truth that we all share in the same humanity? All of us have laughed and cried, felt love and fear, all of us have made mistakes. We are brothers and sisters and yet many of us are like Cain to Abel. Or more like Cain to Cain. We resent each other for one reason out of many and will not forgive. Until one day we go too far. From minor resentments brews hatred from hatred, violence and from violence to war. Everything escalates from small beginnings such as an insult thrown casually at an easy target.

Jesus councils on how to stop the cycle, through love and generosity, through focusing on our own faults rather than those of others: "first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye." Don't point the finger, work on yourself. Buddhists work on themselves by following what they call The Noble Eightfold Path. Three of those paths fall under Right Thought, Right Speech and Right Action. To change anything one must go to the source and the source of the contention here is in the thoughts. So, in this instance, I have been working on my thoughts, thoughts that want to strike out instead of understand. I encounter hostility in another and I want to respond in kind, but I don't. I work with my thoughts. I water the seeds of understanding instead of the seeds of anger. I stop being a mirror and begin to change my position. Only through Right Thought can you get to Right Speech and Right Speech is so important because words can be cutting and therefore destructively powerful. Words should not be spoken or written casually but with some forethought, with a sense of personal responsibility. And as we become more responsible about the quality and direction of our thoughts and speech there is the hope that this will begin to guide our actions.

And Jesus says to those that want to stone a woman to death for her adultery: "If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." One by one the men leave until it is just Jesus standing before the woman. And Jesus says to the woman: "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She responds "No one, sir" So he says "Then neither do I condemn you, go now and leave your life of sin." Jesus' Right Thought: Judge Not. Jesus' Right Speech: "If any of you is without sin..." And Jesus' Right Action: To not throw a stone. If anyone could have thrown a stone, it would have presumably been Jesus, and even he didn't. His thought and his speech set a good example and others followed him on to Right Action by walking away from judgement and condemnation.

But not all will walk away as is so clearly shown by the crucifixion of Jesus and is shown all over the world still in violence and war. Even dying on the cross Jesus asked God to forgive those who participated in his crucifixion: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." To the end, he practiced what he preached. Forgiveness is more than just good, it is essential, a powerful medicine.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

A Stranger In Town

I got a phone call from my brother early in the morning after Superbowl Sunday. He called to tell me about a stranger who had been in one of the town bars, a seemingly sociopathic stranger. He said this man was "creeping out" everyone in the bar. At first not drinking, then drinking heavily, hovering over people, acting inappropriately, becoming incoherent, spending a lot of money. At first my brother and his friends thought the man was coming on to the college girls but then the man turned his attention on my brother. This definitely unsettled him and made him cautious.

Turns out this man might be a pedophile. Someone said they saw him on the internet. He's moved into a local hotel but has been kicked out of two bars, a coffee shop and a unimart. The local police have been alerted but everyone is now nervous. My brother stayed away from the bars Monday night and will stay home tonight as well. Hopefully, this man is just passing through. But what if he's not?

While I'm unsettled by his presence in our safe little town (I've locked all the doors...), I also can't help but wonder: what can people do to help a man who is a social pariah? The man sounds isolated and psychotic and I know what that feels like. I've been very fortunate that my illness never led me towards hurting others but I can see how it could happen. Don't potentially violent people need therapy and support groups, even more than those who are ill but not violent? Don't we owe it to our society to take care of those who threaten it? Prison doesn't work, it just creates more of a problem, it strengthens a subculture and doesn't address the humanitarian issue of underlying mental illness.

But few people want to deal with sociopaths or psychopaths. I can't blame them for that because these sick individuals are manipulative and potentially dangerous. Regardless of that, they need to be helped. But I have trouble envisioning a Sociopath/Psychopath Anonymous group starting to spring up across the country. And I have trouble imagining my therapist treating this man...but she did treat me when I was deeply psychotic and I bet she could. I don't know the answer. But there needs to be an alternative to prison. I could see closed therapeutic communities but there's got to be therapy, individual and group therapy. Which means there needs to be trained therapists and support group facilitators along with rules and restrictions.

But what to do about the stranger in town? Though I had an impulse to find the man, I will probably steer clear of him and keep in closer touch with my brother to make sure he and his friends are okay. But I have started to pray for the man. And why not? Why shouldn't I pray for a sick man to be healed? Why shouldn't I pray that he harms noone and gets help? I do believe in Jesus' command to love your enemies. How else will the world eventually heal unless we stop all this fighting and start going to work on healthy solutions? But the truth is, the man will probably be arrested for one thing or another but I don't think that will stop him from being psychotic or change his behavior much or even keep him locked up forever. His problem won't just go away unless someone actually deals with him as mentally ill.

I know it's hard for many people to understand but wouldn't it be better if people surrounded the man with concern rather than with fear and resentment. Fear rules too often and often sets up conditions conducive to violence. I've had the fantasy before of what it would have been like if I was a member of some Native American tribe a century ago or so. How did they treat mental illness, violent or otherwise? Did they shun and exile the individual or did they find a place for him or her within the group? In my ignorance, I do not know but I imagine that the tribe would shelter their own.

No one wants to claim this man, not even me but I'm not proud of the fact. And if there were a group willing to deal with the man, I think I would join in. On my own and with my own psychotic residue lingering I'm not strong enough to help this man. Maybe someday that will change.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Al-Anon

I'm going to an Al-Anon meeting in a few hours...if the group still meets. I'm surprised to say that it's been at least two years maybe more since I went to a meeting. I used to go to this meeting and sometimes another meeting on Wednesday nights (which I might also go to this week or next). The group I'm hoping to go to tonight was the first group I ever went to and so I gravitate towards it. The people there were warm and bright and always treated me with kindness. Because there were no groups that I knew of for mental illness other than AA and Al-Anon, I went to Al-Anon when I was deeply psychotic. Once I was almost having a psychotic break when the voices ordered me to go to the Al-Anon meeting. I went while I was in so much pain and the people there were supportive and I felt safe. Unfortunately, I knew they weren't capable of addressing my schizophrenia and I rarely talked about it. I wish I could have but everywhere I went, except with my therapist, it didn't seem an appropriate environment.

But Al-Anon and especially the daily readers for it that I bought (there are now three of them) helped me so much when I was psychotic and not taking the anti-psychotic meds. It wasn't a perfect fit but there was enough to benefit me and keep me heading in a good direction. Now I aspire to start a Schizophrenics Anonymous group in my area, so that I can help other people suffering from schizophrenia and so I can find friends who understand where I'm coming from. I wish there had been a group like that for me early on in my illness. That would have been heaven sent. But maybe I can make a difference. Now, all I need is the courage to form the group by calling the Schizophrenics Anonymous headquarters. It sucks, but I have real problems using the phone. I have to prepare before I make a call to a stranger. Even so, I can do this. I want to do this.

What support groups address is one of the most pervasive problems for those suffering from mental illness: isolation. Whatever problems we face, we need to have contact with others who are struggling with the same problems. We need to know that we're not alone. I did reach out to people but rarely for help with my schizophrenia. Being around other people and being supportive of them kept me afloat but it really wasn't enough. I needed to talk to someone about my delusions and paranoia. Someone who wouldn't just think I was crazy and leave it at that. So I talked to my therapist and that helped. I talked a bit to a young friend who also suffered from mental illness but we never truly bonded and we went our separate ways. And that was it for human contact dealing with schizophrenia, except for the internet.

This past year the internet has helped to ease me out of my self-imposed withdrawal.

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I went to the meeting, same place, different room and recognized two people there. It was a comfort to see and hear them again; they both had wisdom to offer the rest of us. It was all familiar to me: The Serenity Prayer, the introductions, the 12 steps, the daily reading from the readers, the discussion. What was different was me. I had changed. I was no longer deluded and desperate. And yet I knew that I was still sick just not as sick as I once was. And I knew I had more hope now and could once again be there for other people. And I felt a strong respect for those two people who had stayed with this meeting for all those years and were still dedicated to it. Gentle, kind, warm and sensible. People I can learn from and enjoy. By the end of the meeting I felt very welcome and determined to return next Monday.

There was one woman there who was really hurting and I thought, too late, why didn't I write down her number? I guess I was just getting my bearings again. I also didn't want to come on too strongly my first time there in years. But I am praying that she returns next week because then I will be prepared.

Part of the preparation is just reading the Al-Anon daily readers, just as I hope she's doing. It was taking the time to read my books and reflect a little each day that got me through some hard, hard times. What goes in conjunction with the reading is the opening of my heart. The more I can connect with the practical yet spiritual aspect of this literature, the more I can connect with other people using the literature as a kind of bridge between two perspectives. I think I'm ready now to start taking on some more responsibility. And that can be as simple as calling members of Al-Anon between meetings just to see how their day is going. That's what I used to do when I was deeply psychotic and if I could do it then, I sure as hell can do it now. A simple act of kindness can lift a person up and I want to start making those acts a part of my life. I want to start believing that I can make a difference in my community. Withdrawal may be safe but it is not challenging or inspiring, it's people who are challenging and inspiring whenever I get to know them. So now I will.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Friendship, Solitude and Internal Stigma

Elizabeth's gentle challenge that I should cultivate off line friendships has got me thinking for the past couple of days. I've tried several times to post but wound up deleting what I'd written. The truth is that I haven't had a close adult friendship. I've had boyfriends and I've had friendships that never developed into something closer. Since I became ill over eight years ago, I've spent huge chunks of time alone. Unlike many people who suffer from schizophrenia, I neither lived with my family or at a halfway house or in a hospital. Much of what I've gone through has been in solitude with few witnesses.

In the beginning of my illness surprisingly it was my tormenting voices that made me reach out to other people and also help other people. The reaching out and helping weren't the problem; the problem was the way in which the voices badgered me to stop my natural tendency to withdraw when wounded. Luckily the people I encountered, those who helped me and who I helped, were all good and kind people. So I made the transition from being out of my mind and alone to being still sick but balanced by being around other people.

I went first to Al-Anon meetings and then to meetings for victims of domestic violence because I had experience with both. I found people to help and be friends with there. Except for one young friend, I didn't admit that I suffered from schizophrenia to anyone. I just put on a brave and willing face and did what I could under the circumstances to support my new found friends and their families. The voices had called me evil but through being with others, I knew that I was not and that was an important lesson. Still, in most often putting to focus on other people I was neglecting myself. There was still unfinished business between me and my psychosis.

I decided to go back to art school and finish my degree. And so I did go back but suffered from another psychotic break. That's when I began to start taking the anti-psychotic medication regularly. I struggled through school and major depression for a while. I believe it was the depression that caused me to stop seeing people outside of school. That plus I started to put on a lot of weight and I felt unattractive and self-conscious. And so I did my work but I withdrew into my self. I'm sure if there had been a support group for mental illness on campus that I would have gone to it but there were none. Even so, the depression began to lift some and I did finish school.

That was a year and eight months ago. Though I was proud of myself for getting that degree, I was also relieved when I no longer had to go to school. But then my contact with people dropped dramatically. No school, no therapist, no support group meetings, no friendship. And that was all my own decision. I was not forced into solitude. I chose it. And despite the lack of a support system I was starting to feel better. I was enjoying being alone. I was free of any major responsibilities and for a time that has been good.

But time doesn't stand still and change is inevitable. It is not surprising to me that the depression has returned. I can be without people for a time with no ill consequence but only for a time. So now I'm back to seeing my therapist and I've decided to return to Al-Anon. I've found support groups a wonderful place to meet people. Many people meet other people in bars but I just don't have the stomach for alcohol anymore. I only wish there were more support groups available where I live. A goal of mine in to start a group either for mental illness in general or for schizophrenics in particular by the end of the Spring.

When I was in school I told several of my teachers that I suffered from schizophrenia and depression. It was awkward telling them but I wanted to dispel any stigma that is attached to the illness. I wanted to show that, in some way, I could contribute too despite having a handicap. But I also wanted that handicap to be acknowledged. If I didn't measure up to the rest of the class, I wanted the teachers to understand that it wasn't mere laziness on my part. Still, I carried within me an internal stigma and part of why that stayed in tact was because I didn't know anyone in my community who suffered from schizophrenia. I didn't know others who were like me. The isolation left a mark on me.

Now I have a desire to get beyond that internal stigma and a way to do that is to be open with everyone about my illness, to disperse the residue of the shame that I've internalized. Another way is to meet other people who suffer from schizophrenia and befriend them. The truth is that I'm curious to meet other people with schizophrenia. I really want to hear their stories and learn from them. And I want to realize that I'm really not living in a bubble.