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.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Next Stop -- Chicago.


I picked up a cold from my brother a few days ago and spent Sunday and Monday trying to sleep it out of me. It’s made me feel delicate. I even cried today. That’s something I haven’t done in a long time. I was watching a movie and at the point where the main character’s mother dies I began thinking about my own mother (who will be 80 in March). And suddenly I felt very sad thinking that I never did the things she had hoped I would do -- had a career and a husband, maybe a family of my own. When I cried I felt that old familiar bittersweet feeling from when I was a young woman and even the shocked hurt feeling from when I was a child. I don’t feel that very often. Why? I’ve lived through trauma in a relationship and in my mind and my reaction to it is to go numb. But then it also could be the result of the medication. And also just the negative symptom of the schizophrenia itself. Whatever it is, I don’t feel the way I did when I was young. Perhaps that’s just part of getting older too.

(Next day...) I wrote yesterday that the crying was bittersweet and that is true. Deeply sorrowful yet tender, open, even innocent. But I didn’t dwell too long there. I’m not sure that I could even if I had wanted to. I think I did want to stay there longer just to remember who I once was and who in some ways I still am. I’ve lost a lot of my memories due to this illness. Value your memories and the feelings they bring up because they make up who you are. I feel a little shadowy, a little thin. I wish there was some kind of memory therapist I could go to to retrieve my life. Sometimes I think I should spend some time each day just trying to remember. I do get the outline of a memory but much of the emotion is gone.

I rely on the anti-psychotic medications to keep me stable and they do, but what else are they doing to my body? I don’t really know. What I do know is that I don’t want to be lost in delusions and paranoia. And so I’ve made a compromise. Without the medications I would have an imbalance in my brain chemistry, with the medications I have less of one but still it is no cure. I have to face the hard fact that I have a mental disability. Why am I having trouble facing this right now? Perhaps it is because I am going to visit my uncle in Chicago starting on Monday for a week. That and getting this cold which has made me feel more vulnerable than usual.

My family is very small, just my mother and her brother, my father and my brother. The last time I saw my uncle was just about a year ago at my parents’ apartment in Florida. I don’t see him much at all but he wanted me to come visit him this year. He’s the first person, other than my parents and my brother when he lived in North Carolina, that I will be visiting since I got ill nine years ago. And I haven’t visited him in Chicago since I was 14 years old and that was when he had moved into his present day apartment (31 years ago!). Of course, I’ve seen him over the years but we’ve never been very close. We email each other but that’s as far as it has gone. This is an opportunity to deepen our connection and I worry I won’t be up for it.

My uncle, like my parents and brother, is a very bright, knowledgeable, and verbal person. He’s a retired English professor, loves city life because he’s so into architecture, classical music, opera and theatre. He actually has taken people on guided tours of Chicago for years now. He knows his stuff thoroughly. According to my mother, he is very fond of me. I think this has to do with his mother (my Nana) who I got close to towards the end of her life. He has told me that I remind him of her sometimes. I can’t see the connection right now but I feel honored by the comparison even so because I loved her too. She had a great sense of humor, was very honest and loved to read. She was perceptive and good with her hands (during the Depression she made all of her children’s clothes). But she, too, was reclusive, especially after grandpa died. I felt comfortable with Nana because she made me feel comfortable. Anyway, she doted on her son.

I hope I am up for the trip though. I should look at it as a small adventure. I just wish I was in better shape both physically and mentally, but I’ll have to make do and look on the bright side. The bright side is Chicago is a wonderful city and my uncle is a kind and capable man who will treat me well. He is already treating me extremely well: he’s gotten me a suite at a hotel near to his apartment. I will have time to myself each day (and he to himself) and I think that will really help me stay in balance. Though I won’t be able to go online, I’m bringing my computer because it has my journals, my encyclopedia, some music, an audiobook (Madeleine Albright’s The MIghty and The Almighty), poetry readings, and a course in Spanish. Also I can play DVDs. It will be like bringing a piece of home with me and that will comfort me. I know I’ll need that comfort. I’m used to staying in one place but this year I’ve been traveling more.

(Next day...) I saw my therapist today and found the visit reassuring. Except for a two year break I’ve known her since the first few months of my psychosis. She’s respectful, supportive, kind and smart and when I talk to her I generally feel bright and articulate. But around other people, including my brother and parents, I feel awkward often and a bit dumb. I’ve been worrying that I’ll feel this way with my uncle but talking to J. gave me some confidence. Back to looking for the positive instead of dwelling on the negative. I may not be as bright and knowledgeable as my family but I still have good qualities. And as J. pointed out, I do have two college degrees and I do know something about art. But the main thing is to have a good attitude, open and grateful. I will get to know my uncle better while he guides me through the city he loves. Instead of bringing myself down through worry I will stay hopeful that all will work out well. And it will be an adventure.

I also talked to J. about the message board idea. I was almost afraid she’d reject it but she didn’t. She’s a cautious person and she gave me tentative approval for it. Not that she has to but I would feel better if she supported the project. It felt good to air the idea out to another person and made me re-commit to the process of getting it started.






Saturday, September 22, 2007

A Community Within A Community


I apologize to everyone who’s been stopping by that I haven’t been writing. Fall depression appears to be settling in and I’ve been sleeping more. I’ve also been trying to practice what I’ve been preaching--gratitude when things get negative. So far, it’s been helping.

I am 19 days, 20 hours free of cigarettes. I’m still eating too much and not exercising enough which is part of the depression pattern but I haven’t felt many extreme urges to smoke. Such a relief.

A week ago I invited my brother and his friend (who is an out spoken, kind hearted lesbian, a Democrat in a vast land of Republicans) to see a band in a nearby town. Despite my depression I managed to be social for a night and it felt good. At one point while the band was taking a break, my brother and I’ll call her Sam started talking about their mutual friends in town. One of the people they brought up was a 24 year old graduate student. She had told one of their friends that she was hearing voices. My brother and Sam both agreed that she seemed a bit mentally ill and that it didn’t really surprise them. But it did surprise me. In fact several people seemed to have emotional/mental problems in town and I found myself wanting to help this young woman. When I got home I thought about her. I remember how isolated I had felt when I first heard abusive voices. I wanted so badly for someone to tell me what was going on, someone who had experience with hearing voices. But there was noone and I withdrew into the illness.

I realized that I was assuming that this young woman was suffering from schizophrenia. Then I thought she could be suffering from bipolar disorder where hearing voices I’ve heard is also common. Regardless, I, the recluse, had little idea of how I could get in touch with her. I knew from my brother that she hung out at the bars but I had little desire to go do that because I have negative memories of drunkenness, because I’m very awkward socially and because I know I would want to smoke. Should I have my brother give her my email address and phone number? Would he be willing to do that? And what would I say to her if she did contact me? Then I went online to the NAMI schizophrenia web boards where someone had answered one of my posts. Something someone said there made me have a great idea: could I have my own message board for my town dedicated to mental health? If I did, I could put up the address around town and see if anyone would show up to post. The idea of generating a community within a community was exciting. I began to imagine creating a support group from there if there was an interest in it.

So I researched online to see if I could get a message board and found that there are lots of them. Too many, in fact, for me to deal with. I finally settled on a site called Delphi Forums. I could get a multiple message board for free but with advertising, which I decided that I didn’t want. So I went with Delphi Plus for $5 a month where not only could I have message boards without advertising, but I could also have a blog and a chat room. The problem is I did this on impulse and to host this forum takes more expertise than I have at the moment. I will have to go through all the help pages and figure it out. It will take me a few weeks, maybe a month before I can start to advertise the site to people in the community. So this is a project for me. But what does it entail? I will share that I suffer from schizophrenia with my community and I will offer a place of support for people to connect with each other online. Do I have the courage to be so open about myself with my town? My real motivation is to find support for myself and to give support to people in need. But am I ready?

A part of me feels ready, almost eager, to reach out and connect with others and another part of me wants to continue hiding away. I do feel ashamed that I’m not “normal” but I know this is preventing me from recovering. I shouldn’t be ashamed that I have a mental illness and neither should anyone else in town or in the schools. How will the stigma ever be broken if there aren’t people willing to come forward and admit that they suffer from mental illness and are still good people? How can people get the help they need if there isn’t a place to go to ask for help? Especially for students living away from home probably for the first time. And shouldn’t students be able to help each other by forming a support network? The tragedy at Virginia Tech would probably never have happened if there had been something like what I’m proposing.

When I had talked to my therapist about forming a support group in town for mental illness, she said that the counseling center at school had tried to do that on campus but that students felt too self conscious to go to it. The beauty of a local message board is that you can remain anonymous if you want to and still make the connections you need to make and get the information that could really help. All it takes to make the message boards work is a hand full of regular posters, even if it was just a couple of people that I helped that would be fantastic. But really I’m hoping that people can help each other by talking about their problems and ways of coping with them. Now that I think of it part of the inspiration for this message board springs from a message board site I discovered online for people trying to quit cigarettes and stay quit. There are a small group of regulars, most of whom have been quit for anywhere from 1 year to 7 years, and they really hold everything together by being supportive of each others and newcomers like myself. One man named Kevin started the site when he was trying to quit and stay quit. He even includes excerpts from his journal of that time in another section.

But the main topic of my message board will be mental health which is pretty broad. I want people to feel welcome whether they are suffering from psychosis or depression or anxiety or any kind of stress. I don’t expect a lot of turn out at the start, so I’ll have to hold up the forum myself and reveal myself to others. I know about schizophrenia, depression, physical, emotional and sexual abuse, addiction. I have a foundation to work from to reach out to others. I have to figure out what I want to say to this town and say it and stand by it. Then I have to invite the community to make the message board work by sharing their experience. How I advertise this message board will be very important. I need to catch people’s attention and challenge them. I don’t know whether I want to just put up a page and have sections with the web address to pull off or to still have a page and include cards that people can put in their wallets. One way is informal and another way is more business like. I’ll have to wait and see. All I know is if I do do this then I’ve got to really put myself into it and do a good job.

Just writing about it here is giving me some confidence to do it. It will give me a focus and keep me occupied for the Fall and Winter and I might be able to actually help someone in my community. And I might find a friend or two. I could stay hidden forever but what good would that do? Recovery means reaching out, giving and getting support. I think isolation is one of the top reasons why people don’t recover. There is power in numbers and power in sharing honestly.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Place Of True Happiness (Gratitude/Modesty)


Satisfaction is not in smoking a cigarette or eating a piece of chocolate. I was aware of this when I smoked and I’m aware of it now when I eat sweets. I know I have to cut myself some slack about substituting eating some sweets for smoking a cigarette but I also want to look at the behavior because it’s the same addictive head set. I get more satisfaction out of drinking water, exercising and eating healthy perhaps because it takes some discipline and that’s also why I fall back into what’s easy and lose my way. I have to realize that I can’t just give in to instant gratification and expect to become happy and healthy. When I smoke or over indulge in food it’s a shallow happiness and it passes quickly. The final result is a sense of having let myself down. But where is that elusive happiness that I really want? I know it’s very close at hand and I know I turn a blind eye on it too often.

Today my brother was telling me about the troubles that some of his friends were having, couples breaking up, a friend having to sell his house to pay his taxes and other stuff. It was obviously starting to stress him out and I said to him “Try not to get too negative.” He said he was trying and then I said “Focus on the positives in your life.” And he said, “Don’t get New Ageish on me.” My response was “It’s true.” And I’ve found it to be so. When things get negative, I look to the positive. That was a lesson my psychosis taught me the hard way. I know how hard it is to look for the positive when negative thoughts and feelings are strongly present but that’s where real happiness lies. I know I have problems with mental illness, particularly withdrawal and poor self-care but when I stop and look around my living room I see/feel harmony everywhere, in the pictures on the wall, in the cats curled up and sleeping, in the bottle of water by my side, in the peace and quiet, in my essential goodness. Yes, I have made many mistakes but in this I am far from alone. Yes, there are still struggles to overcome but really I am okay. I’ve lived through hell and the relative calm of now is almost heavenly.

Christina Bruni interviewed me on the telephone yesterday and she asked what helped most in my recovery from the worst of schizophrenia and I think I said aside from therapy, support groups and anti-psychotic meds that practicing gratitude has been so important. As I’ve said before I think practicing gratitude is a form of prayer. When you are grateful, you are automatically humble and that humble place is a place of true happiness. In the span of everything you will always be a small part whether you realize it or not, but the part you play is also essential to the whole. Each life has value. The I Ching calls this practicing Modesty and it is considered a great achievement: “ When a man holds a high position and is nevertheless modest, he shines with the light of wisdom; if he is in a lowly position and is modest, he cannot be passed by. Thus the superior man can carry out his work to the end without boasting of what he has achieved.” (Wilhelm)

When I was in the acute stages of psychosis the voices tried to convince me that I was greater than I actually was, greater spiritually (Jesus) or greater in evil (The Devil) but I was neither. My true place was and is with the mass of beings in the middle between good and evil. Psychosis forcibly humbled me to the point where I had to get past my pride and reach out for help. Severe mental illness is a traumatic thing to go through but I see myself and others finding the light within the darkness. Before I was deeply unbalanced, caught in the egotism of being either too good or too bad. But gradually I learned to find a balance and a lot of that balance came from cultivating an attitude of gratitude. We take so much for granted. Our ability to use our five senses--sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Really it’s some kind of miracle. But it’s so a part of our being that we don’t focus our attention on it. When Brendan became paraplegic I began to realize how much I took walking for granted. It’s when we lose an ability that we start to appreciate just how great and amazing that ability was.

While I was suicidally depressed after coming out of my major delusions and paranoia, I remember watching a short film on television. It was about a man who could neither see nor hear and so relied on touch and taste and smell to give his life meaning. He spent his time weaving beautiful baskets and he even travelled to visit friends in foreign countries. He had learned how to make and read sign language purely from touch. And I thought to myself, My God I have so much to be grateful for and Isn’t the human spirit amazing? His life, despite his handicaps, had more focus and meaning in it than mine did. All my senses were still intact but I was miserable. I was taking too much for granted.

I learned this Attitude of Gratitude from Al-Anon. Their daily readers are full of focusing on what’s right in the moment instead of focusing on what’s wrong.
When the leaves change color in the Fall and are so beautiful, it is important. The way a hot bath makes you feel when it’s frigid outside is important. A good meal is important. A kind word from a friend or stranger is important. Having a home is important. The list can go on indefinitely. Seek and you shall find. It’s all around you and inside you. It just is. Something good is always happening. Just being able to take one deep breath after another is a wonder. To be alive is a gift. And we all know the gift is temporary which is why it should be valued all the more. None of us will live forever and if we’re fortunate enough to make it to old age, at some point we will start to lose those precious senses. Things will have to slow down but even then to be alive is a gift.

Nearly every night I send out this gratitude prayer to the Powers That Be: “ Thank you for this day and this night. Thank you for my life. And thank you for the lives of my family and friends. Thank you for all our lives.” And right away I feel comforted and safe and happy. Saying thank you is a big deal whether it’s to other people or to your version of a Higher Power. It puts everything into its proper perspective and it leaves a lot of room for goodness to manifest itself. I know bad things, situations, experiences, people exist, but if you look closely there’s always some redeeming virtue. We are not lost in a world of total negativity except when we allow it by focusing on it exclusively. Negative things can offset positive things. Even in misery a ray of sunshine can become a holy thing.

(10 Days, 20 hours Smokeless and counting)

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Overcoming Temptation


There are heavy rains tonight and it is flooding downstairs and I am feeling stressed out. If I had a cigarette, I would be smoking it. It has flooded downstairs before because the outside drain in just not large enough to take a steady downpour for any length of time. And I know that I should call someone to help me with it but downstairs is such a mess and I feel ashamed to let anyone into the house. Self-defeating behavior I’m afraid. But for now, since it’s after 10 at night, I will shop vacuum the water up and pour it down the shower drain. This is going to take a couple of hours. I knew as my tension about it rose that it would lead me to thinking about smoking. And it did, so I stopped what I was doing and came back upstairs and decided to do some writing here to talk myself through this. I haven’t yet got to the point where I’m going to scrounge round the house to look for a spare cigarette that I forgot but I’m getting close to that. Right now, if I found a pack, I would start smoking again. And I’m almost into my 7th day of not smoking. Breathe Kate! Drink cold water Kate...suck on a tootsie pop, chew some sugarless gum but don’t smoke!

I’m reacting to stress but a cigarette will not reduce stress for more than a few seconds. I need to find better ways to handle stress.

I went looking and I found a cigarette. Twenty minutes I sat with whether or not I would smoke it. I sat in my smoking chair and held the cigarette, smelled the cigarette (not much smell, a very old cigarette), looked at the cigarette and said outloud a bit sarcastically, “Just one puff, right?” And that’s when I said no and headed to the kitchen sink with it. I put it under running water and pulled it apart and threw it away and went back to my water. Today I ate too much but right now I can’t go on a diet. I have to get through the next week. I can’t have it all, all at once. First, no cigarettes. I have been exercising the past three days and I want to keep that up. It relieves stress and cuts down the calories. But, wait a minute, I DID IT! I resisted a cigarette in my own home when I was under stress. This is a good thing.

What went through my head as I came to the decision to not smoke that cigarette by destroying it? I thought of my pristine quit and how I would feel honor bound to admit that I had slipped to others online and offline and how that would depress me and make me feel ashamed. I thought, it’s only been six days! I thought, I wanted to wait to smoke a cigarette when it would taste really bad and I wouldn’t want to smoke another puff and I was pretty sure that wasn’t now. I thought how I wouldn’t be satisfied with one and that would make me feel more stressed and maybe even spur me into getting a pack of cigarettes. I thought maybe I could save the cigarette for later. I thought that I would regret it if I destroyed it. But I don’t regret it...except that I’m eating again but better that for now than smoking.

I’ve got three index cards taped to my standing lamp. The first card says: I CAN QUIT SMOKING. The second card says: EASY DOES IT. And the final card says: FREEDOM.

Next day...

14th day on Chantix and 7th day without cigarettes.

Well I’ve made it almost through a week. Some of the online support groups refer to it as “Hell Week” but it really hasn’t been hellish, just a little tense at times. As the week progressed I began eating more so I decided to try to exercise once a day. The first two days I exercised on my stationary bike for 30 minutes and these last two days I’ve exercised for 45 minutes. I can’t get around it anymore. The liklihood of gaining weight when a person quits smoking cigarettes is high because you burn off about 200 calories (I think) each day smoking. So if I keep exercising for 30-45 minutes a day I should not gain any weight. That is if I don’t eat too much. The goal is still to lose weight but for the first couple of weeks of not smoking I know it’s not going to happen. So I will drink a lot of water and exercise daily and try not to overeat. If I can set up a good pattern, no smoking, exercise, eating healthy maybe I can really get healthy again. That’s one of the exciting things of trying to seriously quit smoking.

Went out to see a movie called KNOCKED UP with my brother today. It was really good, very funny but I felt a little sad at the end because I know I will never have the experience of being pregnant or giving birth. I made the decision when I was with Brendan not to have a child then because our relationship was so abusive and then I was too sick with schizophrenia and now, well, I’m not only too old but I have trouble taking care of myself let alone a child. It just is not meant to be in my case. I have to accept my own limitations and push on. I have to keep cultivating gratitude for what’s good and right in my life like a home of my own, a loving family, freedom from delusion and paranoia, my own artistic talents, the fact that I survived at all. When I think of all the suffering in the world, the wars, starvation, disease I know I have little to complain about. I’ve lived through some very hard times but so have many of us. I am not unique. It’s a shame that I didn’t lead a more “normal” life: husband, kids, job but that doesn’t make my life valueless either. I’ve learned to look for the positive in all situations and that hasn’t always been easy. Sometimes I just wanted to die but now I really want to live and hopefully will continue to do so for a while yet to come.




Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Smokeless


Almost 24 hours without a smoke. I guess the Chantix is working because I haven’t felt any major cravings but I do feel a bit strange.

(Next day) 42 hours without a smoke.

I’ve been preparing to quit smoking since I started taking the Chantix 8 days ago, spending a lot of time online going from one support group to another. Doing this helped me to get the courage to stop smoking cigarettes yesterday. Sunday evening I brought the remaining 7 packs of cigarettes over to my brother’s house for him to keep for the next couple of weeks in case I can’t pull this off. Someone online chided me a bit about doing this and he may be right but for now that’s how it stands. Close to 2 AM early on Labor Day I smoked my last cigarette, destroyed what was left of the pack by drenching it in water and pulling it apart and threw away my ashtray and my mug. Earlier in the night I had changed my position in the living room from my usual seat which I’ve sat in regularly for months and months smoking to a seat on the couch. I moved a standing light to that position and a small computer table for my laptop. On top of a storage bin acting as a table nearby I placed my pills, a quit smoking journal and two pens, audiobooks and my walkman, yarn and a crochet hook and suckers and sugarless gum. I don’t usually buy bottled water but for this occasion I decided to and put it in the refrigerator for the next day. People online said that I’d need to drink a lot of water for the first 3 days to flush the nicotine out of my system. Then I went to bed and slept.

The next day I woke up, made myself a cup of coffee ( I rarely drink coffee at home) and sat down on the couch and took all my various pills including the Chantix, now at a doubled dose. Then I ate a bowl of cereal (Chantix and my vitamins need to be taken with food or they won’t get absorbed into my body properly). Just sitting in the new spot and avoiding the old spot and just knowing that there weren’t any cigarettes in the house or car, made a big difference and I didn’t feel much of a craving to smoke. Nonetheless I did feel tense and I quickly got my bottled water from the fridge. Drinking water throughout the day whenever I felt tired or thirsty (and I found that I felt thirsty alot) greatlly eased the tension and kept it in check. Soon I was online and checking my emails. I got two emails from a couple of friends encouraging me on which made me smile and gave me some strength to continue. I alternated between doing extra sleeping and going online. Later in the evening I watched some television. It was a quiet day and I didn’t go out. The reason I didn’t go out or drink any sweet hot tea was because I knew they could trigger a craving to smoke. But all in all I didn’t have any strong cravings. I did feel sort of trapped in a zone, a no smoking zone that left me a bit tense. Today was similar only I felt less tense because I’d gotten familiar with the day’s position and rhythm and I knew I could get through the day without smoking as long as I stayed put. So I stayed put.

Tomorrow will be a test because I have to go out early in the morning and bring my brother to a nearby town where he takes a class for an hour. I will have to wait in the car and that’s where I usually smoke when I’m out of the house. So tomorrow I will bring with me my supplies: water, suckers, gum, audiobook, yarn, crochet hook and a book. I will keep myself occupied. I will not smoke. But I will be drinking and sucking and chewing a lot. There’s no doubt in my mind now that I am an orally fixated person which means that I have to watch what I eat and get some daily exercise. Still the priority is to not smoke, which means to reduce any kind of stress while I get through this first week. Eating does relax me but I don’t find that I’m eating that much more than I usually do, not yet anyway. I am, though, going through my sucking candy and gum and will continue to do so for now. And lots of water. I went into a chat room at one point and after someone asked if I had been drinking a lot of water, he/she asked if I was taking Vitamin C for my cravings. Well, I didn’t know that Vitamin C was a good antidote to cravings but I happen to take it several times a day anyway.

I am alone and I feel quiet. I know this is the right decision. After 3 months my body will really start to heal itself. Already the carbon monoxide is out of my system and the nicotine is on its way out. This is another new beginning. I do still feel the newness of this and it is a bit weird but I can get through the weirdness and into some better way of being. A cleaner, healthier, more focused way. I’m hoping this is one step in a series of steps towards a better recovery from schizophrenia.