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.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Up All Night

It's almost 8 am and I still haven't been able to fall asleep. This is unusual for me. I took the Risperdal at 10:30 last night and that usually makes me comfortably sleepy by my bedtime at 1:30 am. But not this night. Yes, I was thinking but not obsessively and I tried several times to relax enough to fall asleep. After about three hours of this I decided to get up. Hopefully I will fall asleep soon. It will upset my daily pattern but I think sleep is incredibly necessary for anyone who suffers from schizophrenia. I know now to pay attention to changes in sleep. It's funny but the smallest things can be an indication of either a problem or a need for some kind of change. We are not static beings. A prescription for health at one point in our lives may not continue to work indefinitely, hence the need for alterations and new strategies. I may or may not be at that point, it's too soo to tell but at least I'm alerted by this change to pay attention to myself during the next couple of days. I know it's probably nothing too serious.

I remember the nights I used to stay up till dawn when I was actively psychotic. I had little understanding of how best to take care of myself, instead I rode on the waves of my delusions and paranoia until I was exhausted and HAD to sleep. But there were many times when even exhaustion didn't matter. I've said that in my first year of insanity it felt like I was in a psychic boot camp. There was no place to really rest, not even in my dreams which were always overwrought. The voices hounded me and tested me and manipulated my perceptions and brought me towards the brink of annihilation. They'd attack, ease up, attack. They pulled me into hell on earth and guided me out of it too. I think for the longest time I was controlled by a deep seated fear of them that I tried to defuse at every opportunity. It was too overwhelming to realize that for a time they had control over me and my actions, that I was caught like a small animal in a trap and that's why I can feel sympathy for those of us whose mental illness leads towards harming ourselves and/or others. It makes me think of a quote by Graham Greene: "Insanity is a kind of innocence." There is innocence because the sick individual is too far gone to realize that he or she is out of control. And there's the innocence of being lost in some kind of fictional story line. I was a true believer in my delusions and paranoia and no one could convince me otherwise.

Now I am a true believer once again. I believe in keeping myself down to earth. I believe in acknowledging my illness and questioning my perceptions. There is a great sense of security for me when I take care of myself. Now I know how to whereas before I really didn't know. I stumbled and fell a lot but I also kept getting up. In my way, I worked a program, with the help of Al-Anon, myself and some of the voices. I feel as if somewhere along the line I signed a peace treaty with these mysterious voices and part of that treaty is to continue to take good care of myself while wishing that they do the same. And I believe that God has guided both of us towards a deeper belief in the essential goodness of all beings, a goodness that can overcome any adversity if we set our hearts and minds to it.

And now it's time for some sleep...

Reading Lolita In Tehran

Recently I have been reading two books, Karen Armstrong's The Battle For God (about Jewish, Christian and Islamic Fundamentalism) and Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita In Tehran: A Memoir In Books. Karen Armstrong's book is very interesting but more slow going as she's covering a wide range of history. Azar Nafisi's book is also very interesting and easier to read because she's only covering relatively recent history. Her book takes place primarily in Tehran, Iran from approximately the time of the revolution in 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini and his religious fundamentalists took over the country till about 1997 when she left to live in the United States. She taught foreign literature classes, mainly American and English, at the University of Tehran until she was expelled for refusing to wear the veil in the early 80's. Later she returned only to resign. During the last couple of years that she was in Iran she gathered together six of her best female students and had them come over to her house every Thursday where they discussed such works as Nabokov's Lolita. The books they read were considered forbidden and decadent and so they had to be circumspect about their meetings and discussions.

Ms. Nafisi creates a compelling portrait of what life was like in a post revolution Iran for an intellectual woman who is not anti-American/Western (having lived for 17 years in the U.S. when she was young). She begins her book writing about her Thursday meetings and the young women who came to her house and then jumps back in time to her return to Iran after a long absence just around the time of the revolution. She returned to Iran when she was thirty and began teaching at the University of Tehran. This was a time of much social upheaval and violence. Bookstores closed, censorship prevailed, women were required to wear the chador (a piece of clothing that covers the entire body except the hands and face), the legal age of marriage for women dropped from age eighteen to age nine, women were stoned for committing adultery, and as a woman you could not wear make-up or jewelry or even allow your hair to be seen. As far as I can tell these restrictions are still in place. There are also "morality police" who patrol the streets and enforce the laws particularly on women. The atmosphere at the University was tense with many meetings and demonstrations, the growing ferment of fundamentalism working its way into the school systems. Despite this Ms. Nafisi continued to teach English literature with dedication and passion. She even had her class put F.Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby on trial to prove that it was not a decadent book about adultery but a book about the beauty and complexity of life. Some students supported her, others held to a self-righteous Islamic fundamentalist perspective.

Considering the totalitarian state she was living in, it's amazing that she was able to teach her subject at all. But teach she did. In her way she was subversive, not willing to blindly accept the rules and regulations being forced on the populace. Teaching her six students in the privacy of her home where each chador was removed to reveal an individual, she finally allowed herself and them the freedom that they were daily denied--to look as they chose to look and to read what interested them, to be a group of intelligent women with no laws to forbid them their chance to speak out to each other. Certainly this is an inspirational book or should be to all of us who take our freedoms for granted. I have been so unintentionally ignorant of the world and now that I'm starting to open my eyes I see that so many people are suffering due to religious fanaticism. I know the U.S. isn't perfect but I thank God that at least we have some checks and balances to power. In the Bill of Rights there is the freedom of speech, religion, press and the right of assembly. The Constitution supports the separation of church and state which in itself protects people's right to worship as they choose. If, as in Iran, 99 % of the population is of one religious faith, and church (mosque) and state become one, all other religions are excluded. Take away this one freedom and mix one religion with ruling a nation and many of the other freedoms become sacrificed as well. How secure is the Islamic Republic of Iran if it has to turn out propaganda against the West (using its religion as a base) and restrict the personal freedoms of its citizens?

But then the present administration of the U.S. also has been trying to spread propaganda about "the axis of evil" (whatever that is) and its connection to the countries of the middle east and it also has been attempting to restrict the personal freedom of its citizens, so, in some ways, for now, we are mirroring Iran by having a fundamentalist president of our own.
But still, even though we do have a born again president our constitution is protecting the basic right to free speech, press and religion. But what is this fundamentalist trend? Where does it come from and why does it keep resurfacing? One of the main points Karen Armstrong makes in her book so far is that fundamentalists of any religion look backwards instead of forwards. She calls this "mythos" which she defines like this: "A mode of knowledge rooted in silence and intuitive insight which gives meaning to life but which cannot be explained in rational terms." It looks back to creation, to the myths of origin in any particular religion. It seeks to preserve or return to the root and is thus a conservative perspective. This is in contrast today with "logos" "rational, logical, or scientific discourse" which is future oriented and actively inventive and creative. Aside from fundamentalist Christians, much of the West is immersed in "logos" to the point of sacrificing some of the richness of the "mythos" mentality (and visa-versa). I have grown up in this Western culture and am biased in favor of reason over myth. Iran is an example of why to me, but that is not to say that I think the religion of Islam with all its history and beauty is at fault. It is the dogmatic interpreters of this religion (or any religion) that I find fault with. I am suspicious of those who seek unlimited power in the name of their religion. Moses didn't do this, or Buddha or Jesus or Mohammed. Seeking power and seeking to control others through religious intimidation is a perversion of any religion.

A few hours later..

"We in ancient countries have our past--we obsess over the past. They, the Americans, have a dream: they feel nostalgia about the promise of the future." Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita In Tehran, p. 109

Nostalgia is a tricky word to use. Definition--noun: "a nostalgia for tradiional values" REMINISCENCE, remembrance, recollection; wistfulness, regret, sentimentality; homesickness. I think what she meant was that while many Iranians obsess about conforming to the past, Americans dream about a better future or are sentimentally attached to this dream. Do I agree with this? I can't speak for Iranians but as an American I'd have to say we are a society with big business conglomerates and being business they compete with each other. Every year there are new inventions, new gadgets, new improvements, etc... In this sense I think Americans are used to newness of some sort or another and this newness is a pull into the future. Trends come and trends go but technology advances and permanently changes things. Without all this new technology we would probably be moving at a slower and more reflective pace. But this is really the Communication Age--computers and cell phones are again changing the world and bringing it into the future. In Iran I think it is still true that people are not allowed satellite dishes. At some point the police confiscated Azar Nafisi's satellite dish. People still have them but they try to hide them. I wonder if most Iranians have access to the internet?

It seems as if not only do those in power in Iran want to return to an earlier time period, but they want to block out the world. I don't think they can succeed with this. But praying five times a day must in some sense strengthen their resolve to adhere to their ways. Soon it will be thirty years since their revolution and the fundamentalists seem to be firmly in place as far as I'm able to tell so far. But what do most Iranians feel about their religious government? Their society seems closed enough that not many Westerners can have a glimpse at their truth. In an interview, Azar Nafisi said Americans shouldn't mistake the Iranian people for the Iranian government. I also hope that the Iranian people don't see Bush as representative of most Americans. But they get a lot of anti American propaganda pushed on them. From what I can gather not only do they paint American society as decadent, corrupt and full of temptation, it is the personification of evil. It would have to be that extreme a picture or you wouldn't have young men killing themselves in defense of their distorted ideal which they believe is being attacked from both the inside and the outside.

No matter how much one reveres the past, it is human nature to be curious. Curiousity and experimentation cannot be wiped out, nor, in my opinion, should they be. Growth depends upon those qualities or children would never grow up to become adults and adults would never learn from their own mistakes. Life happens to all of us, you can't block the world out and escape from harm. Everyone falls down, it's the getting up that's so important.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Some Thoughts On Mental Illness

It's after one am and I know I should be getting ready to sleep but I feel like writing. The switch from winter to summer has been abrupt. The heat has slowed me down during the day and made me perk up as the sun sets. Right now there is a cool and refreshing breeze that is accentuated by my ceiling fan. Outside it is a moonless night. When I was paranoid I wouldn't have been able to sit so peacefully before an open window. I would have been self-conscious, worried and even afraid. But I don't feel the menace in the night anymore as long as I'm safe within my house. And if someone were watching me, it would be a pretty dull show: middle aged woman staring at a computer screen, a tv monitor, a book...middle aged woman eating a bowl of cereal...middle aged woman smoking a cigarette and drinking hot decaffeinated green tea...I'm no big deal and it's a relief. If the rich and famous have felt some of the paranoia (though in their case sometimes justified) then I do not envy them their fame. It's a lousy feeling when you think that strangers are judging you and prying into your most private affairs. Though, of course, schizophrenia is much worse than that in it's acute stages. Then it's like having your mind cracked open like an egg with everything exposed both conscious and unconscious and the pain and confusion that ensues.

12 hours later...

I've been thinking about Pam in the hospital. Before she went in she said she was evil, "Satan's spawn" and that she had caused her dear friend Joe to become ill with a seriously debilitating disease. Why is it that so many people living with schizophrenia have voices that tell them they're evil? My voices also told me I was evil, not just evil but the Devil incarnate. I think this goes beyond a mere chemical imbalance and into a spiritual dilemma. When we feel like good people, despite problems, it's smooth sailing, but when we feel like bad people we are caught in a vortex of much of mental illness. Because the illness is so severe and emotionally overwhelming we are forced to listen to voices that push this idea of good and evil and natural and supernatural. In the midst of psychosis the two start to mingle and it becomes hard to distinguish what is what.

6 hours later...

Can't seem to get into a groove about writing about this. My personal belief is that the Higher Power does not just affect human lives but lives elsewhere in the universe and that some of these alien (to us) lives influence individuals on our planet, more specifically those who hear voices. There is no way to prove this, just as there is no rational way to prove the existence of God and yet this is what I believe, this is what I've experienced. It would explain a lot of things that so far not even the scientists can explain. In the past people with schizophrenia have been seen as either touched by God or possessed by the Devil. Now, the standard belief is that voices are the product of chemical imbalances in the brain. Sounds good but doesn't get at the heart of the matter. I do think that the chemical imbalance is part of what causes schizophrenic symptoms but I also believe that these beings can influence body chemistry, that they can, in effect, induce mental illness. But, if so, why? I think that they are ill themselves but beyond this they are different from us and will not explain their differences. So much of what their motivations are, are a mystery to me. But one thing I do know and that is that they have adopted our obsession with the good versus evil dichotomy. What we think matters and what we choose to do matters and they along with the higher power observe us and take note of which direction we're heading in, but at the times when God does not intervene, they do. For better and for worse, they are involved in our spiritual process. Some of them may be angels and others may be devils or at least devilish, most are probably a mixture like us.

Mostly when we think of aliens we think of monsters set to destroy us but the reality is more subtle and complex. I believe in life after death, perhaps even in reincarnation. I don't believe that this lifetime is all there is and perhaps this is why the higher power allows for painful lives, some that end early too. The voices used to tell me that earth was a school and a hospital. We are hear to learn and to heal our souls. Each life is filled with moral lessons and with mistakes that lead to revelation if we're willing to have the courage to look and listen and learn. The lessons are particularly hard for those put into psychosis and if you don't affirm your essential goodness and move towards positive change, you can get stuck or even worse put an end to your life. The voices/aliens can push us to the point of breaking and sometimes we do indeed break. If that were the end of the story, it would be tragic but as I said, I don't think so, it may be just the beginning.

Pam's case is particularly hard and heartbreaking because she was afflicted at such a young age, a mere eleven years old. Why are some forced into the psychosis so young whereas others like myself are spared till a later age? Again, I don't know. Pam was just a child, full of innocence and intelligence, it seems so unfair but then many things in life are unfair. Still the human spirit is very resilient. I've heard the saying what doesn't break you, makes you stronger and I think there's some truth to that. I wish I could show Pam how to believe deeply in her goodness. I think so much of her suffering could be averted if she could just stop putting herself down. And I know it's hard but you do have to fight against negative attitudes and perceptions in order to survive. But I can't get inside her head or anyone else's head and I don't know her underlying experience. Only she knows and perhaps her therapist. But I do believe that there is a way out of madness even for those who have lived in the grip of it for most of their lives.

Each of us afflicted with mental illness have to find our individual way towards peace. One way does not fit all people. My way has been through a belief in a Higher Power. That belief led me to compassion for myself and others and for them, the voices. I've learned to work with them instead of against them. I've learned to pray for them and to care about them, just as I pray for and care about myself and others. I no longer suffer much. The paranoia is gone and with it the pressure and the delusions are gone except for occasional twinges that I'm able to overcome relatively easily and with their help. I have voices but they are no longer intrusive and abusive. I am not yet recovered but I am well into recovery and hope has replaced despair.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Pam Is Safe

I wrote to Pam's sister Carolyn today voicing my concerns about Pam and her apparent relapse. I'm sure she won't mind if I reproduce her email to me here:

"Dear Kate,
I can't thank you enough for your email -- you are one of several people who have kept up with Pam's blog who have written me about her and expressed concerns. What a wonderful community of caring you all are and it is so helpful to know that so many people care enough to write me to make sure Pam is getting the help she needs.

I will reassure you as I have the others that she is in the hospital where she needs to be, safe and seems well taken care of. Several people have been able to visit her including our father even though this time I have not been able to make the trip yet.

She says she's about to be discharged but from what I've heard from others I doubt it will happen as soon as she expects...but I would rather she stay as long as she needs.

In general I think you are right about the stresses on her and before she went into the hospital these were being dealt with, but life being what it is....well she's where she needs to be for now...

I'd be happy to write more later, but I gotta run now.

Best,
Carolyn"

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Bare Bones Recovery Support

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.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Mother Wasp

Winter is gone--only a few cool nights in the 30's. I do not sit outside (...yet) because aside from the neighbors I'm also afraid of wasps and hornets. I've had them in the house--several I have rescued and put outside using a thick drinking glass to capture them, usually on a window, and a firm but flexible piece of thick paper to slide under the glass--then I transport them outside to food and freedom. It's a transportation device. I remember a man I met during my overnight stay at the hospital, probably suffering from schizophrenia too. We were outside in a small group during a cigarette break and he started talking about wasps and how he had befriended them. He showed me by letting a wasp land on him. He was gentle and completely unafraid. I remember being impressed by this because I knew I didn't have his courage and still don't.

A wasp is building a nest in the corner of my front door. I've worried about this thinking that I must knock it down one cool night before it gets too big and becomes a problem. Several nights just before I was ready for sleep I told myself to do it and each time a mixture of fear and guilt prevented me. A part of me doesn't want to disturb the diligent mother wasp--the other part is just simply afraid of the wasp attacking me (which is her right). In this I lean towards thinking like a Buddhist--Can't I co-exist with this wasp and her children? Must I attack her and her nest? Most people I imagine would say, of course you must get rid of the hive. And they may be right--Afterall this wasp can find another home for her family, just not my front door. And if I'm afraid of one wasp, how will I feel about a bunch of them? I know, I know I'm not being sensible. I don't want to hurt the wasp, I just want to tell her to build her home somewhere else. The more I delay, the bigger the hive gets, the more settled she becomes, and the more potential guilt I will feel for destroying her work. But I'm still afraid. I've thought of asking my brother to knock the nest down for me--it really is quite small at this stage--but I feel badly about passing the dirty deed off to someone else. Such are some of my daily worries. Nothing major, just persistent.

Writing about hives makes me remember my voices deep revulsion of hives. I knew enough to be wary of them before I got sick, but afterwards the voices used the image of hives to attack my spirit, making a hive the symbol of their own sickness. I no longer feel their revulsion, just my initial wariness, but I vaguely remember how intense the revulsion was and wonder about it.

My encyclopedia says that some wasps are solitary and others are social. My wasp is solitary. Hornets are a type of wasp, but they are social. I believe I've had mostly hornets in the house. Once inside the house most of them are loyal to a window but a few venture farther. It is these hornets that make me nervous and I find myself fleeing the living room at least temporarily while I have a smoke and consider the problem. I return hypervigilant and try to spot where the hornet is hovering. If I don't find her (or him) I sit down and try to relax. That doesn't last for long and so I capture the small creature and place her outside. A month ago I did get stung but purely accidently. I was putting on a boot that some hornet had decided to sleep in. I felt the sting and knocked the boot and hornet off my foot. The hornet looked dazed and I left it alone. Then I put some cold water on my ankle/calf and hoped it wouldn't swell up. It continued to smart but no swelling and I felt relieved.

I think it's interesting that some wasps are solitary and others are social. I never thought about that before. Basically the same species but with vastly different orientations--genetics at play. Makes me wonder about me and my genetics. Has my very body programmed me to be a certain way? To be solitary instead of social? Ever since I was little there was always solitary time to myself either in the house in Brooklyn or outside at the beach during the summer. I lived part in fantasy and part in reality. Was I always a bit mentally ill? Did my genetic code decide before I was born or did environment play its part too? I'm sure that my environment did play its part but still there was an established tendency in me that just became more pronounced as I grew older.

Wasps help control the insect population though some feed off nectar and honey (or sodas and juice). What a world we live in--eat or be eaten amongst insect, animal, bird and fish life. Something is born out of something else and others die or are killed to keep others alive. The food chain with humans as the prime manipulators due to our larger and more complex brains. We manipulate nature's system through farming and animal husbandry (and murder). And we survive and multiply and multiply. I think there are about 7 billion people on the planet and the number keeps growing. Illness and old age cut our numbers down a bit and accidents and violence but it doesn't stop us. All species have their own predators, usually another species. We are our own predators which is a testament to some of our own immorality. There must come a time when we will have to limit the number of births (as they do now in China) especially if we become a peaceful society (I can still dream...). There is only so much room and only so many resources to sustain us.

I am very small compared to the world of human beings, smaller than the wasp is to me and yet I matter, at least to myself. Doesn't this wasp matter too in the larger scheme of things? If only I could have such a welcoming heart and not be afraid.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Democrats In The Running

A couple of weeks ago there was a debate between the Democrats running for president. Today my brother gave me a DVD of it since I missed it. First of all, it wasn't really a debate but more of a question and short answer set-up, a kind of introduction to the candidates. So far there are eight candidates. The front runners are Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. The rest are Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel. I thought they all came across fairly strongly and there was no fighting amongst them, but then, for the most part they agree on the major issues: withdrawal from Iraq, Universal healthcare, pro-choice for women, gun control (except Richardson). That's all I remember right now. Oh yeah, civil unions (as opposed to marriage) for gay couples. I agree with these positions too (though I think gay people should have the right to get married if they so choose).

I come from a family of dedicated Democrats (my brother would say he's also a bit of a libertarian) but it's only recently that I've become interested in politics. I always voted Democratic and I was pleased when Clinton won but I didn't engage in discussions about it. But as I get older and after experiencing the younger Bush as president I find myself more interested in the world at large, especially because of the horror of the Iraq war. Not only am I a democrat but I'm a pacifist. This is a recent realization. It's as if I'm finally starting to define myself in my middle years. I know full well that a true pacifist would never be elected in this country, not yet anyhow and not when there is all this concern over terrorists attacking us. And if a Democrat is to be elected he (or she) must be tough. For me right now, that's the most important thing, that a Democrat be elected president, preferably for the next two terms, to try to undo all the trouble that Bush and his administration has caused with their hard-line/rich folk, quasi-religious politics. Also, this will mean that the troops can finally come home (though hopefully before the elections) and we can return to fortifying our own defenses instead of wasting our resources (and lives and limbs!) in a country that doesn't even want us to be there in the first place.

I was listening to Madeleine Albright (former Secretary of State under Bill Clinton) read from her book The Mighty and The Almighty. She said many Muslims in the Middle East went from having a positive view of Americans to a very negative view of Americans after the U.S. invaded Iraq. They worry that the Americans will want to kill Muslims and control their territories. This is not such a far fetched assumption on their part though I pray that our leaders will, after Bush leaves office, correct this horrible idea. Bush and his fundamentalist allies desire to distance the U.S. from the United Nations and in many ways they have succeeded in doing just that. Foolish! In order to fight the insidiousness of fundamentalist terrorists we need to all work together. Alienating ourselves from the wise counsel and support of other nations is a recipe for disaster. What is the sense in that? Not only is it pig headed, it is arrogant. We are not the center of the world. And I still don't understand why it's okay for us to stockpile nuclear weapons while we tell other countries that they can't without serious reprisals. We are a country with high crime rates, people living in poverty, no universal health care, high addiction rates, packed prisons and the gap between the have and the have nots is growing. To many Muslims we are immoral to boot. We are certainly not the worst country in the world but we're also not the best and yet some of us act as if we are, ignoring the myriad of problems we face each day. What's wrong with a healthy dose of modesty and a respect for other countries and cultures?

I'm not saying that Democrats are perfect (no one is perfect) but at least they stand for the common man over the wealthy man and at least they follow a practice of diplomacy when dealing with the rest of the world. These are two things sorely needed, one at home and the other abroad. If we are ever to steer muslims away from violent fundamentalism we have to set an example of intelligence mixed with tolerance and we have to stop pretending we are the be all and end all of things.

End of rant.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

This Past Week

My clothes arrived this past Thursday and they all fit except for a jacket which I will return for a refund. When I tried them on I had to face the fact that it's past time to lose the weight I've put on. So for the past four days I've been exercising on an inexpensive version of a stairmaster and have been cutting back on how much I eat. So far I've lost two and a half pounds. I want to continue exercising daily till I leave for my five day trip to Charleston, South Carolina on June 4th. During the trip I know we will be doing a lot of walking, so that will help me, though I know I will eat a good dinner each night, even dessert as a treat. I'm hoping that after the trip I will continue to exercise once a day. Christina once told me that if you want to make an activity a habit, do it for twenty one days straight. Well, I should hit that mark before I leave. So far, I've been enjoying the exercise. I watch DVDs and that helps the time go by more quickly. I work out soon after I wake up. I find my appetite has diminished too.

I had my eyes tested last Wednesday and picked out a frame. I've noticed within the last six months that my eyesight has gotten worse. I have trouble reading the menus on my satellite programming even when I'm a few feet away from the screen. And night time driving, which I dislike anyway, has become more difficult. I had my eyes tested a little over two years ago and didn't need to get new glasses, but now these glasses, which I've had for many years, are starting to fall apart, so I decided this time I would get new glasses. The examination didn't take long and my eyes, though a bit more near sighted, are fine. I was told on my last visit two years ago that sometime in a person's forties the eyes start to get noticeably worse. Well, I've hit that mark. I can't complain because my eyesight has been fairly good, now I just need to wear the glasses for distance viewing. I can read the computer screen just fine and also have no problems reading books and magazines without glasses, so I don't yet need bifocals.

I went out with my brother on Saturday night to see someone named Bill Kirchen and his band play at the Creative Arts Center in a nearby town. The Creative Arts Center just opened sometime last year and it's been doing really well. They give classes in painting, drawing, pottery, cooking, craft making, writing (that's where I took the writing workshop). They have a large coffee shop where there are music performances on Fridays nights(local bands) and Saturdays nights (national bands). They also have an amateur night once a week and a movie night too though I haven't been to either. A few weeks back they had a poetry slam. Now that the weather is so much better I'm going to try to get over there every week or so. Aside from the university, there's a dearth of cultural activity so this arts center is a real boon. And the performance on Saturday was excellent. I found myself yelling out shouts of appreciation along with other people in the audience. That felt good. We got there early so we could get good seats. I got myself dinner: a red pepper/mozzarella panini sandwich and a cafe mocha. Then the band played two sets. All in all we were there for about four hours heading home around midnight. At first I thought I'd be nervous being around people but the atmosphere was so relaxed and welcoming I felt as if I fit in too. When I got home I turned on my small amplifier and started playing my electric guitar and singing for around an hour and a half. I discovered a couple of weeks ago that a very good local guitarist is giving guitar lessons. I'm going to email him and see if he has any time available.

Today I put on some of my nice clothes and went to work at the local library. I was surprised by how good the clothes made me feel. They're not fancy or anything but comfortable, presentable and well made. The artist in me liked the feel of the clothes and the colors. I even put on an inexpensive necklace and earrings to complete the outfit. I think my mother will be pleased with the choices I made when I see her in June. They only needed me at the library for an hour and a half. They have a rotating collection of audiobooks. The librarian had me pack up each audiobook, checking them off a list as I went along so they could send this bunch out and receive a new bunch. The director of the library wants me to be more familiar with their collection and layout before I start shelving books. I'm going to go in in a couple of days and thoroughly check it out. It's a small library, only two rooms but they have quite a good collection. There's an interlibrary loan system with fifteen to twenty libraries participating in this area. I can go online, pick out a book and have the town library order it for me. The one library card is good in all of the libraries too and I can return what I take out to any of the libraries. It's a really good system which I haven't yet taken full advantage of (but I will). The people who were working there seemed pleasant and capable. There was some good natured joking going on. I especially like the director who was friendly and patient. I think I'm going to enjoy working there.

Tonight I went to the Monday night Al-Anon meeting still wearing my nice (not yet covered with cat hair) clothing. Someone asked me to chair the meeting so I did since we all take turns. One of today's readings was about the difference between submission and surrender. The first of the twelve steps goes like this: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable." This step implies surrender to something beyond our control and a realization that we need help. This surrender leads to a gradual acceptance of the situation. In contrast, when we submit to our powerlessness we don't really accept it and we still want to control it through self-will. As it says in this reading, we want to "play God", we want to have power over others so that we can change them to fit our specifications. Al-Anon teaches again and again that we don't have the power to change others, only ourselves and so the focus should be on ourselves. This doesn't mean we can't offer support to others, but it does mean that when we want to start controlling others behaviors that we should stop and take a good look at ourselves instead. Why can't we let go? Why do we have to insist on our own point of view? I know I personally am finding this hard to learn. A part of me wants to insist on my own point of view but if my point of view is hurting more than helping another, then I want to stop my unmanageable behavior. I want to surrender to the fact that I don't have all the answers.

I feel good about what I accomplished this week. I got myself out of my house and engaged in the life around me. This week gives me hope that I'm progressing in my recovery from schizophrenia.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

One God For All & Paul Barrett's AMERICAN ISLAM

Yesterday and today I've been reading a library book called AMERICAN ISLAM: The Struggle For The Soul Of A Religion by Paul M. Barrett (a former reporter and editor at the Wall Street Journal). This book is temporarily taking the place of Karen Armstrong's book, The Battle For God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, because it is overdue and I have to return it. (I do that, bring home three or four books that look interesting and then leave them lying around, reading a little here and there and then bringing them back late--but not too late.) Armstrong starts her book in 1492 in Spain with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (Catholics) taking over Granada "the last Muslim stronghold in Christendom" and then signing "the Edict of Expulsion, designed to rid Spain of its Jews, who were given the choice of baptism or deportation." (p.3) She goes on to write about the insane prejudice against Jewish people, including the Spanish Inquisition as well as what Jewish people did (convert, leave or die) and what philosophy they held onto during all of this. And I imagined how horrified Jesus would have been to see these "Christians" attacking his own people. And I also thought the God of the Jews is the same God of the Christians, common sense says that that should act as a bond and balm but NO, it is selectively ignored and instead of brotherhood there is enmity. So many Jews fled and where did they flee? To Muslim countries where they were treated civilly.

Then I read in Mr. Barrett's book, which takes place within the last few years primarily, that many Muslims, American and otherwise, despise Jews because of the formation of Israel. These Muslims are openly, almost proudly racist which is NOT to say that many Israelis aren't just as prejudiced in return. (Somewhere in the night I hear two raccoons fighting...) And I keep thinking with such frustration: "ONE GOD" Just as the Jewish God IS the Christian God, so the Jewish God IS the Muslim God. It's the Judeo/Christian/Islamic God. Jehovah and Allah are one, just as all people are one because we all share the exact same humanity. But again, selective ignorance prevails. Can all this be about territoriality and tribalism? This is MY land and MY people and MY God, these are MY rights and the rest of you can (literally) GO TO HELL! In this context love your enemies doesn't fit does it? No, not at all. Good guys and bad guys and little in between. But what's the truth? Isn't it that we all have our struggles between being good and being bad? Jews aren't pure, Christians aren't pure and Muslims aren't pure. We are fallible, everyone of us. There are no gods among us.



AMERICAN ISLAM is divided into seven chapters with each chapter following a particular person in a particular role: The Imam, The Activist, The Webmaster, The Publisher, The Mystics, The Scholar and The Feminist. So far I've only read about an African American Imam named Siraj Wahhaj and an American Indian (as in born in India) Muslim feminist, Asra Nomani. An Imam is a revered preacher and Siraj Wahhaj is a very popular American Imam who operates out of Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn but travels all over. Mr. Barrett seems to try to portray the Imam as impartially as possible but in the end judges him for the fundamentalist streak in his sermons, attitudes and associations. Aside from the fundamentalist streak Mr. Wahhaj preaches against using drugs: "'Some brothers here used to sell drugs,' he said. 'It's better to be a poor man!'" He encourages a philosophy of self-help. He deplores homosexuality: "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!" And he sees adultery as worthy of stoning. On the other hand he welcomes male polygamy.

The role of women in most American mosques appears to still be minimal which is why Asra Nomani challenged the male authority in the mosque at Morgantown, West Virginia by refusing to pray in the women's out of the way section. As a journalist she wrote several pieces on the injustice of the male domination of the mosques and organized a protest gathering other female Muslims from different parts of the country. But she did not seem to elicit the support of the local Muslim women and the resistance to her ideas was great in her community, especially, not surprisingly, from the men. What is the logic behind the separation of the sexes during religious services? The logic is that the men feel they would be sexually aroused in close proximity to a woman praying. But all of this seems to be thinly veiled sexism. One member of the mosque said: "' A woman's honor lies in her chastity and her modesty,' he declared. 'When she loses this she is worthless.'" He also said, "Allah created women sensitive and emotional, especially during her menstrual period." But in the case of women praying in a mosque it appears that it is the men who are "sensitive and emotional", unable to control their desires.

In keeping with this theme of sexism I watched a film called NOT WITHOUT MY DAUGHTER with Sally Fields and Alfred Molina. At the opening of the film Sally Field's character has been married to an Iranian doctor living in the U.S. for seven years. They have a five year old daughter. When the doctor encounters discrimination on the job he decides it's time to visit his home in Iran and talks his wife into going. Soon after they get there the husband tells his wife that they will be staying there for good. He takes away her money, has her watched continuously, allows her no phone calls home and even locks her inside on several occassions. The film is based on a true story but the bias is in favor of the U.S. and against the oppressive rule over women in Iran. But the truth is that many, many women, including female Muslims in the U.S. abide strictly to the rules, keeping themselves covered in public and before men that are not part of their families and allowing men to take precedence over them. Change may come but only with the help of Muslim women like Asra Nomani willing to challenge deeply held cultural beliefs about the rights of women. Right now fundamentalism is on the rise and the liklihood of lasting change appears fairly dim. For those women in fundamentalist Muslim cultures there is the threat of domestic violence, violence that is supported by the general population. Fighting such a system seems to me to be nearly impossible,
but my ignorance about Islam is vast and so my ideas are tentative. I'm hoping that Karen Armstrong's book on the origins of fundamentalism will help to clear up any of my misperceptions about Islam. Several months ago I bought a Koran. Maybe I'll find some answers there.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

NAMI And Al-Anon

I'm sitting here watching through a window as a raccoon is systematically devouring a suet cake I left out for the birds a few hours ago. Ah, he or she just took off after inadvertently opening the suet cake holder. I haven't seen a raccoon in quite a while and it was a pleasure to spend 20 minutes watching him or her. I resisted going outside knowing that the animal is feral. It may look cute but it is not. Around here raccoon's can be rabid though I don't think this one was. That bear that I saw last September is most certainly out of hibernation and enjoying the excellent weather we've been having. There are some perks to living in the country.

Christina sent me an email about the support group she goes to for people who suffer from mental illness. I think the one she wrote about is a NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) group and this got me thinking again about starting a group in my town. I went to the NAMI website and got some information on how to start a NAMI affiliate on the campus here. If I organized this I would become a mental health advocate. I sent an email to NAMI explaining my situation and asking if I could start an affiliate as an alumni instead of as a student. I found out from the information on the website that I would need a minimum of five organization members to start an affiliate. This is difficult for me since I don't know any students but my therapist and her husband are psychology professors at the university and perhaps they could help me or become members themselves (if that's permitted) or even both. My brother also knows some students and I might enlist his help as well. I have the whole summer to work on this but if all goes well then I should be able to organize a weekly meeting on campus by early September when the Fall semester starts. That would be excellent. I think this could be an opportunity to really help people in the community. Hopefully, NAMI will get back to me this week or next and I'll have a better idea of what all this will require. I also have to build a case for it to present to the university to see if they'd be willing to sponsor this. After the massacre at Virginia Tech perhaps now is a good time to ask them, a preventative measure.

(A few hours later)

I went to the Monday night Al-Anon meeting. I'm starting to feel more comfortable at meetings, more willing to share my story and give my perspective. Plus I like everyone in the group and it's nice just to be around them though I'm still not very good at socialising just after a meeting. I have to work on that. I do have most of the members telephone numbers and one woman who has been going to meetings faithfully for years gave me her email address when I asked for it. She's someone I'd like to get to know outside of the meeting. She's wise, honest and kind. If I felt I needed a sponsor, she'd be the one I'd ask.
I think I almost did once but didn't follow through with it. As far as I know, a sponsor is someone you can call when you're stressed out, someone who's well versed in practicing the 12 steps and who can help you, someone to go out with somewhere every week or so. Basically, a friend who's sharing her program with you. The other alternative is to just start calling someone you like in a meeting and gradually become friends with them regardless of the program. This is what several of the women have done in this group which helps to add a relaxed atmosphere. Ah, but I've never been brave enough to make a friend there. Making a friend is one of this year's goals. And, once again, in order to make a friend I have to make an effort to reach out and to share myself. This sunny Spring weather is getting to me. I feel as if I can actually begin to change for the better. I must take advantage of the rest of Spring and Summer and Fall and get busy. Hopefully next year's winter won't be quite as blue.



From one of the Al-Anon books, today's reading: "Al-Anon's main purpose is to help those who are living in an alcoholic situation. To this end we share experience, strength and hope with each other. What we don't do, and should not do, is to share one another's burdens, whether financial or emotional....This is not being helpful. We help best by inspiring people to think through and solve their own problems. Otherwise we deprive them of the opportunity to develop experience and strength from working things out for themselves."

Once several years ago while I was psychotic and not taking the meds I invited a young woman and her baby to live with me for a while. Her boyfriend was an alcoholic and sometimes he was a little rough with her. He also couldn't keep a job and they were very poor. I think she talked him into going to find work in another state while she stayed with me. Then she asked if a male friend could also stay at my house. I was naive enough to agree. Then she broke up with her boyfriend over the phone while he was in another state and started to sort of take over the house. I felt sorry for her boyfriend thinking this was kind of a dirty way to break up. He asked me to send him a couple of hundred dollars via Western Union so that he could return home. The pressure was so great on all sides that I entered into a psychotic break just as I was picking him up from the bus stop. Meanwhile the young woman got a job in another town and went to work and left the baby with me. I brought the baby (his baby) with me. Yes, I strapped her in securely in her car seat in the middle of the back seat but I was in no condition to take care of a baby or even drive a car by that point. I picked the boyfriend up planning to take him to my brother's house to stay (my brother was away) till things cooled down. The boyfriend seemed as psychotic as I did and I don't think he was too pleased with the part I involuntarily played in the whole drama. For a couple of hours we talked both of us very unhappy and sick. The baby began crying. She needed to be changed and fed. I knew I had to bring her back to my house where the young woman's "friend" (more like body guard) was who was not psychotic and could take care of her properly. So that's what I did. Soon after that in a blaze of psychotic anger I went back to my house and told the young women that she and her friend had to leave. I even pushed my fist against her face to emphasize the point, not a punch or a slap but still an act of violence. I was too far gone to really know what I was doing. After she and her friend left the house I installed the boyfriend in my house and went to stay in a hotel room for four nights while he worked through his feelings and while I went crazy. The young woman had me arrested because I hit her and then got an order of protection so that I would stay away from her. In retrospect I can see exactly why she did that, she was afraid I would bring her boyfriend to see her (he didn't have a car) and she was afraid of him. The reality was that I wanted nothing to do with her so the order of protection was more for her peace of mind than because I was a threat to her. (Later we would make amends and be friends again for a short while) After the four days in the hotel room I brought the boyfriend back to his hometown where a friend said he could stay. I gave him my guitar and maybe even some money. I haven't seen him since.

What's the moral of this story? First, take care of yourself first and foremost. Second, don't interfere in other people's problems because you could become part of the problem. Yes, be kind and supportive but don't let people use you. I guess having been in an abusive relationship with an alcoholic I initially felt protective of this young woman and her baby but this all took place soon after Brendan's death and in my psychosis I did begin to side with the boyfriend. I saw that the young woman was more capable of taking care of herself and her baby than I was of taking care of just myself. Soon after that I began taking the anti-psychotic med, for a time, then stopped again only to have another psychotic break (my last one). Then I committed to taking the meds and have for the last five and a half years.

There's a twelve step slogan that applies here: "Live and Learn"

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Church

Well, I did it, I went to church, cowboy boots and all. The only thing that took some courage was going into church and leaving church. Otherwise I sat in the back and stood up at intervals with the rest of the congregation. From what I can recall, each Sunday people receive Communion (though I did not) but this service was longer than usual because several young people were being baptized. I had never seen a baptism (full immersion) so I found the process curious and simple at the same time. The atmosphere was somewhat casual (some people were wearing jeans) and comfortable. The minister began the service with a call for adults to "put away childish things" and go out and help others and she restated that idea several times during the rest of the service. I found this particularly pertinent to me, this idea that really growing up meant changing from self-centered to other-centered. The actual sermon was not very long, something about one of St. Paul's letters but I didn't absorb much of it. The congregation sang three hymns which I must say were dull, but the people all seemed nice, not at all putting on airs.

It shouldn't have surprised me but there was a lot of talk of the Trinity which I don't believe in mainly because I don't think of Jesus as divine. So I felt at a loss and once again felt that I was not a Christian. I realized that I didn't believe in Communion or Baptism or the Trinity, though I could understand why most of the people there did. I saw these sacraments as rites of passage for this particular community, a way of bonding with other people and their own sense of spirituality. What I find odd is that there was more emphasis on Jesus than on God and more emphasis on the sacraments than on the sermon. Though in all fairness the minister probably had to make her sermon short this time due to the baptisms. Still, all in all, while I thought the whole deal was comfortable and kindly done, I was not inspired. Perhaps that will come if I continue to go each Sunday. As I left a woman recognized me and smiled. She was the director of the library that I spoke to a couple of days earlier.

I did find some useful information on the back of the hand-out: the church's web address and the minister's email address. When I got home I went online and checked out their web site. I found a couple of fairly local volunteer groups that I'm considering joining. One is organized by a nationwide group called Faith In Action. Volunteers help people with Alzheimers, mental illness, the frail and elderly, the physically disabled, etc... by helping them to pay their bills, go shopping, do chores, transport them to doctor's appointments, make meals, do housekeeping or just spend some time in a friendly visit. Several years ago, when I was still too ill, I worked as a volunteer driving elderly people to doctor's appointments, so I'm familiar with that service. I'm particularly interested in meeting other people with mental illness as I know noone like that and I could be helpful to them, maybe even make some friendships. But first I'm going to see how I handle the library work in the next couple of weeks. If I can do that successfully, I might be able to take more on.

I hate to say it but going to church depressed me. On the one hand I felt good about doing what so many others do but on the other hand I continued to feel like an outsider. It made me wish that there was a Buddhist temple to go to instead. I guess for now I'm stuck between religions. I will most likely continue to believe in a Higher Power but may never actually commit to one religion or another. I'll have to see. But I did notice that before church service there is a Bible study for adults and that might be worthwhile to go to. It may be easier to join the community if I'm part of a class, but I have the feeling that I'll want to rock the boat through questioning and challenging, that is if I find the courage. I might send the minister an email describing my situation and beliefs and see what she has to say. I have to come to terms with the fact that I live in a small, rural community and that I can't pick and choose, instead I have to work with what's here.

Well, that's it for today. A good online friend sent me a book by Karen Armstrong called The Battle For God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam which I'm just beginning to read. Thank you, it's a perfect gift because even if I'm not a member of any religion I still have a deep interest in understanding religion and how it motivates us. I am especially interested in understanding fundamentalism as it is affecting our world right now so much. So I'm off to read...

Clothes

I spent several hours today ordering clothes online from L.L. Bean. I've ordered things from them before but not for a couple of years. Even so, they have inundated me with their catalogues. For the past couple of days I've been pouring over one of them trying to decide what to get and how much to spend. My mother encouraged me to go to an actual department store but because I am overweight I have little desire to see myself in mirror after mirror. I had to face the fact that I have not been exercising anywhere near enough in the past two months, hence my weight is still what it was then. But the clothes that I do have are so shoddy that I pushed myself to commit to getting some things. I know I will not look attractive but at least I'll be color coordinated and presentable and, most importantly, comfortable. I should have the clothes by the end of this week, so if any of them don't fit I'll be able to return or exchange them in time for the trip. I must admit while it lasted it was kind of fun to pick out clothes, to weigh which color and style I responded to, to make sure all the clothes I chose would go together.

Even when I was slim I never was very careful about what I wore. The main thing was always comfort. Once every year or so my mother would take me with her to Manhattan to shop at upscale department stores. She, unlike me, was careful about clothes and wanted to pass her love of good clothes onto me. I would go to please her but I remember knowing that I didn't want to become fixated on appearance. I would go but would grit my teeth in the changing room (she would often come in with me). I found shopping exhausting and really I think she did too, but the reward was the carefully chosen clothes we would come away with and a sense of accomplishment that we got through our personal disagreements and compromised. I think these outings were in some ways more important to her than to me.

My mother grew up pretty poor. Her mother made most of her clothes to my mother's dismay. Nana would be perfectly happy with a bargain from a thrift store (as would I) but my mother took after her father in this, they both admired fine clothes, store bought clothes. When my mother got older and began to work, she would go to her favorite stores and carefully select well-made, moderately expensive clothes, a little at a time. As she got older and my father made more money, she bought more clothes (and shoes). Sometimes I would sneak into my parents bedroom when they were at work and look through my mother's closet at all her brightly colored (but tasteful of course) dresses. Now she still has a couple of closets full of clothes but her style has changed. Much of her clothing is casual now that she's living in Florida. She often dresses up her outfits with fancy scarves or heavy jewelry, though on the whole she never overdoes it. I've come to respect her style. She always looks nice and comfortably so.

Because I am determined to go to church tomorrow I decided to look through the clothes that I do have to see if I could muster up anything half way decent to wear. I looked in a storage bin that I haven't looked at in years it seems. I found old but still wearable t-shirts and pants but nothing that could be considered even mildly dressed up. Then I looked in my closet and discovered I had some very nice things but all one to two sizes too small. I did find two long sleeved shirts, one of which I will wear tomorrow, along with two short sleeved shirts and two pairs of pants. The final thing to consider was what shoes shall I wear? Lately I only wear sneakers but under a pile of stuff in another closet I began pulling out shoes. A pair of cowboy boots that I bought out west when I was still in my twenties but didn't get around to wearing. I tried them on and they still fit and were comfortable. Two pairs of high heels (also from my twenties) that fit but happen to be the wrong color for tomorrow's outfit. Two pairs of moderately dressy boot/shoes, a bit scuffed, wrong colors and a very clunky pair of slip on shoes that I got at the salvation army sometime in the past six years. Not the greatest assortment. I'll be wearing pants so I think I'll try to get away with wearing the brown cowboy boots. Hopefully by next Sunday the L.L. Bean clothes will have arrived and I won't have to struggle so with all of this. I still need to get a pair of decent shoes to go with the new clothes which decidedly lean in a blue direction. For that, I will shop locally and if I'm lucky I'll find a moderately priced pair.

The final step will be buying light weight socks and some inexpensive jewelry, maybe a scarf if I can find one. I guess I'm set on changing, trying to put the bar a little higher. I really do want to recover and a big part of recovery is self-care. I want to reverse my reclusive tendencies by being more welcoming and more willing. Dressing decently says to people that I'm approachable. And I haven't dressed decently in a long time. I still have holes in my socks. I still will sleep in my clothes and not change them for several days. I still have to push myself to take care of the clothes I do have by washing and drying them and putting them away. I know all of this is a side effect of schizophrenia. I was several years into it, it's not surprising that it is taking me several years to get out of it. So I'm taking small steps.

Friday, May 4, 2007

A Short Update

I went to see my therapist today. I won't be seeing her for a month because she's having major surgery done on one of her feet and she'll be confined to a bed or chair for several weeks. I brought her two books to read that she had previously expressed an interest in, The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong. I also brought her a DVD of the film Babel. If you haven't seen Babel I encourage you to see it. It's not your standard fare and it's very well done. As the name suggests it's multinational. It takes place in Morocco, the U.S., Japan and Mexico and there are three interconnected story lines. Anyway, I had wanted J. to see it as she had heard it was good. She's dreading the surgery and also the month of having her foot propped up. I will miss her.

I told her how I had been writing a lot in this blog and that I sometimes got a little sick of myself, how I thought I was talking a good game but not putting my words into action. I mentioned that I wanted to go to the church across the street from her office on Sunday. Luckily she had met the pastor and said she was very approachable and encouraged me to try talking to her. Well, that was a bit of a relief and made me determine even more strongly to go this Sunday, if only just to hear the sermon. I have three reasons for choosing this church, one, it's right in town, just a few minutes from my house, two, I've been there once before and three because the pastor is a woman. I don't know if I'm a sexist because of it but I feel more comfortable approaching a female pastor. At least I assume I will. If I could have my way all my doctors would be female, too. So, I've kind of lucked out in this case. How many female ministers are there out there? Still, not enough I think but perhaps this is changing.

I decided yesterday that after my therapy session I would go to the local town library and ask if they needed any help. This library is quite small though not as small as the name of the library implies: Box Of Books, but they stay open now five days a week. Fortunately for me they do need help, so I will begin working there on Monday afternoons starting on the 14th. Then after that I can go to my Al-Anon meeting. I am pleased that I've taken the first step and I will be quite content to be around books, content to finally be useful. I notice on the NAMI message boards that a definite percentage of those suffering from mental illness work at volunteer jobs. Those people are an inspiration to me. And there are even those who work at paying jobs. It lifts my spirits to know this.

In a month I will go on a trip to Charleston, South Carolina with my family. Every Spring there is a two week (I think) festival called Piccolo Spoleto and it's lovely. We'll be there almost five days and four nights. There's music and theatre and art shows and good restaurants. This will be the first year that my brother's ever gone. I've gone about four times already and I've had an excellent time every time. I don't get to see my parents very often so this is a treat in more ways than one. So, I've decided to buy some new clothes for the trip. I've been putting off getting good clothes for several years because I was hoping that I would lose the weight I've put on. Well, I've lost some weight but still have more to lose but this year I'm just a bit too sick of what I usually wear. My mother is pleased that I will be getting some new clothes. She always dresses comfortably but with a lot of taste. I'm hoping to emulate her.

Not much more to say for tonight. Tomorrow is a shopping day with my brother which I know I'll enjoy, especially since I get to eat out at a Chinese restaurant. I hope you are all well (safe, healthy, happy and useful).

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Hoping To Walk The Walk

It struck me today that with all my talk about pacifism and practicing lovingkindness that I am talking the talk more than walking the walk. Yes, I am a peaceful person who wishes everyone well and I include prayer in my life, but I don't go out into my community and get to work helping others. It's strange because I was more active helping others when I was most sick, mainly because my voices tormented me into reaching out. Their method was horrible but the intent was still good. Unfortunately I associate being helpful to others with severe psychosis. I was in so much pain, all I wanted to do was hide in a hole. The voices threatened me with hell if I didn't help others. Helping others helped me for a time, got me to think outside the box of my illness. Then I returned to school and struggled with depression. Now it's been two years since I graduated from school. I think I've had enough time on my own to return to helping others. It's my own self-imposed isolation that bars my way and the only way out of that isolation is to reach out to others again. If I could do it when I was in so much pain, then I should be able to do it again now that I am no longer suffering so much.

I may have some big ideas (which I will probably push on you again) but in reality I feel pretty small. I'm just so used to being on my own, to hiding away, to bothering no-one and letting no-one bother me. When I was younger I was hyper sensitive to people and would feel exhausted after being with them for a few hours. At home with my family it was always understood that any of us could retire to our rooms when we felt like it. We had the luxury of living in a house with a lot of space. Now I still have the space but no family around me and I've grown accustomed to my solitude. But this solitude, which feels comfortable to me, is not really healthy. It's not enough to just not hurt others, I must do my part and be helpful. Pema Chodron, a well known Buddhist nun, calls the way I live living inside one's ego, shutting the world out and trying to make everything comfortable. But the world isn't always so comfortable and the point of life is not to be comfortable but to be good and to be good you've got to be giving. Generous with your time and resources, willing to take risks, to put yourself out there. Will I become willing?

Though I am not a Christian, I would like to go to church on Sunday but I am afraid to go alone. I'd like to go to church to listen to the sermon and then to talk to the pastor and see if there is any volunteer work in town. Why am I so afraid of people? My experience with people is that they've been kind and generous to me, but still I am too shy of strangers. I need someone to be a bridge for me, to guide me but because I am alone I have only myself. I have to tell myself that I have had the courage to return to Al-Anon and to resume therapy and that I can go on my own to church. Do any of you go to church?
What's your experience of it like? Were you first taken by a family member or a friend? It's hard for me to understand that for most Americans the idea of going to church is commonplace. My family's atheistic roots makes the idea of going to church a bit daunting. Even my parents for quite a few years after they moved down to Florida went to and supported a Unitarian church but then both my parents grew up going to church. My point of reference is pretty minimal. I have no sense of the community that is built up around going to church once a week. The only thing I can compare it to is an Al-Anon meeting. But an Al-Anon meeting is small and informal whereas a church meeting is larger and formal. It's funny but one of my worries is will I have anything decent to wear? But then I wonder, shouldn't it be okay even if I come in jeans and a T-shirt? I would like to talk to the pastor privately just to introduce myself and also to tell her that I suffer from schizophrenia but would be very willing to help out in any way I could. I'm scared to do that too... Ugh, I've gone down a hole and now I'm finding it hard to get out of it. The only cure for it is to dive right in. Do you remember what it's like to get into the ocean or lake or pool on a hot day, how it feels both good but shockingly cold at first. Well, that's how I imagine going to church. Cold in the sense that it's just very new.

You know, now that I think about it, maybe I should just try to go to church a couple times before I approach the pastor, sneak in somewhere in the back and slip out at the end of the sermon. Do this till I'm familiar with the place and let people get used to me too. I know it seems silly but I feel really self-conscious about going. When I first went to Al-Anon meetings, initially I just went and didn't speak and left. I did this until I was comfortable enough to say something. Okay, that's the plan, to go to church (even in jeans) this Sunday, enjoy the sermon and the service and slip out. There is a woman who I met at Al-Anon who goes to the church I'm planning to go to. I went to church with her once when I was still quite sick. Maybe I'll see her there. Okay, any feedback on this within the next few days would be much appreciated! Wish me luck.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Cultivating Bodhicitta

April 30th 10:50 pm

My 45th birthday is almost overwith and I haven't yet thought what it means to me. Will I be lucky like my grandmothers and live over 45 years more in relative health or will I disappear sooner? Either way may I live well from now on. May I appreciate each day and each night I live. May I do some good for someone else. May I strive to keep an open and lovingkind heart and mind. May I have faith in my ability to change for the better. May I never stop learning and sharing what I learn.

45 means I've survived some hellish experiences. 45 means I am settled in my middle age. There were times between the onset of psychosis at age 36 and now when I thought: "What a lousey way to enter middle age, in delusion, paranoia and humiliation, with no heart-to-heart friends, no lover, no children and no purpose in life." I can say gratefully that the delusions have faded, the paranoia and humiliation are gone. As for the rest I do not have them yet and I know full well it is up to me to seek them out. Despite everything, I really feel blessed. I have the love and support of my family and I have a home. I still spend much of my time alone but there's a difference now, I no longer feel desperately alone with tormenting voices. I can sit in peace and write or read or listen to audiobooks and music or watch a film and feel contentment. Now, thanks to people like you I feel like my life has some meaning. Your time is precious and yet you spend a little of it with me and that alone makes me feel like I'm a part of the human race. I have a memory from my last psychotic break. It was nighttime, pitch black outside, not even the sound of a car passing by and the voices told me all of humanity was gone and all that was left outside of my house was pure darkness and moving somewhere close by in that darkness was my nemesis who wanted to torture me. That was it, just this kind of blank horror that lay just outside my door with not a soul on earth to turn to. But now the darkness is no longer filled with menace and I feel like there are people I can turn to for help if and when I need it.

I think we all know about suffering and that is why it is so important to be respectful towards one another. Part of what got me through the worst of psychosis was this belief that most people are essentially good. Except for my relationship with Brendan, nearly all of the people I've met have been kind towards me and even Brendan had his moments of gentleness and good humor. I have been fortunate. But I know there are many people who suffer terribly at the hands of others. What can we do about the people who believe in their own right to be abusive towards others? Some people say kill them, torture them, some people say lock them up and throw away the key and others actually support them, seeking to gain personal power. But none of these "answers" ring true for me. The more desensitized a person is, the easier it is for them to abuse others (and themselves). Keeping the heart sensitive and responsive is keeping people from being abusive. The Buddhists call this cultivating bodhicitta, the awakened heart/mind. Jesus may have said to love your enemies but the Buddhists before him had several practices for actually doing this. The goal for a Buddhist is to feel lovingkindness for ALL beings. You start with lovingkindness towards yourself, then towards a friend, then towards a person you feel neutral towards and finally towards someone you do not like. You take it step by step gradually gaining the strength to direct your goodwill towards those you actively dislike. If you're not in conflict with any of the people around you, then you think of public figures you dislike and send a prayer out to them. I've sent goodwill and healing out to President Bush and Osama Bin Ladin. Not very often mind you but enough to feel that it makes a difference. My standard prayer goes like this: "May you be well, may you be safe, healthy, happy and useful." But when I say well I mean free of sickness. I see President Bush and Osama Bin Ladin as very sick individuals. When I wish them well, I wish them to be healed of their misperceptions and ill will. And if they become well, then so many others become well along with them.

But what good does good will do? Does it really change anything? For one, it changes the person who practices it. I'm nervous around the concept of karma but still I think I believe it: if you send out goodwill, goodwill will return to you. If you do a good deed, it will be done to you somewhere along the line. Softening the heart does not make you weak, on the contrary, I think it makes you stronger. For many people this goes against logic. Stronger means tougher, not softer. For some people this toughness has nothing to do with love but with justice and with others toughness has a lot to do with love.
So there's toughness for justice's sake and tough love. This kind of toughness may temporarily act as a make-shift solution but it doesn't get to the core of the problem. The Buddha said: "Hatred can never cease by hatred. Hatred can only cease by love. This is an eternal law."

May 1st

Ann Coulter, the notoriously conservative Republican writer, wrote a book last year called GODLESS: The Church of Liberalism which I am currently listening to as an audiobook. She is someone who would view the concept of lovingkindness and cultivating bodhicitta as more liberal propaganda and she would label and discard me and my views into her liberal losers trash can. I listen to her nonetheless because I want to understand her perspective. Engaging in discussions with only like minded people does not create an atmosphere of change. The hard part is crossing the political and cultural divide through listening, understanding and communication. This is the practice of lovingkindness, this is cultivating bodhicitta. Though I disagree with many of the things she says, I know Ms. Coulter has every right to speak her mind. Just as I have every right to speak mine or to listen to her or to disregard her. I value her in the sense that she gives me a window into a conservative Christian mind. She is obviously intelligent and has done a fair amount of research but her language reeks of her own brand of bias. Though a professed Christian she does not subscribe to Jesus' decree to love one's enemies, or to not murder or to not remain angry or to turn the other cheek in face of opposition. She is on the side of tough justice. And she is not alone. Many, many people also believe what she believes. Mercy is for losers. Lovingkindness is for wimps. More than that mercy and lovingkindness lead to a proliferation of criminals and terrorists.

But I do think much of her tirade against liberal attitudes has a lot to do with the very human instinct towards self-preservation. She wants to be protected from outside attack and protected from death. I think the reason she attacks liberals is because she sees them, in a very real way, as dangerous. But I really believe that fear is not a good motivation and that those who are fearful are not good judges. I know when I was with Brendan I was so scared of him sometimes that I wasn't able to calm down and be rational. And when I wasn't under attack I was in a defensive mode, anticipating future attack. That's one reason I didn't want a gun in the house because I was afraid that I would be irrational enough to use it to defend myself. But perhaps Ann Coulter would be inclined to say that using a gun to protect myself against my abusive boyfriend would be only logical. The problem was I didn't want to be responsible for another person's death. I didn't want that kind of power even if it meant that I would die. I wanted to revere life and not destroy it. We've come to take guns so for granted that we've stopped saying that human life is sacred. But not during any recorded history has there been a time of world peace, so perhaps it's not surprising that few people are willing to believe in the possibility of it. Instead fear is one of the great motivators for human action.

I think fear and anger are closely linked. What makes you afraid also on some level makes you angry. If you are attacked your initial reaction may be fear but often that fear turns into anger and acting out in response. But the amazing thing about love/compassion is that it neutralizes fear and anger. Yes, of course, if only a few people practice compassion daily, then the effect upon the world will be small but what if the majority of people changed their defensive and potentially aggressive stance to one of compassion? If you can't envision a better world from the safety of your home, how can you ever create it? For those who do practice compassion, be they Jewish, Christian, Muslim, HIndu or Buddhist, I do feel a sense of gratitude for I see them as being the glue that ultimately holds the world together. But, of course, Anne Coulter would probably see them as the opposite... Is it possible to compromise and reconcile?