Thank you Karen, for your thoughtful response to my last blog post. I can definitely understand how you could feel angry at your schizophrenic friend for committing suicide. Just about all of the people I've encountered online who have mental illness strike me as extraordinary and not freaks of nature. If anyone one of them were to kill themselves, I would be very upset because it would seem to be such a waste of rich, human potential. But, as you pointed out, it does take guts, strength and courage to survive and during our weaker moments sometimes we just give in and give up. My ex-boyfriend committed suicide in 1999 when I was still quite psychotic. My reaction then was shock and numbness. I knew he was overwhelmed by his circumstances (paraplegia and dual addictions) and so, for him, I wasn't angry, just very sad. I tried to put myself in his place and I realized that I, too, might have considered suicide.
You also wrote about how devastating family influence can be on those who suffer from serious mental illness. I hear that and know that there's truth to it, though it can also work both ways depending on the family and the extent of a person's illness. Some family members may be ignorant yet not abusive and generally well-meaning. I've been very fortunate in that my family has been that way. They provided me with a home and transportation and access to a therapist on a weekly basis. I went insane mostly on my own private turf alone. That was a blessing because I didn't pull them into my illness, but also difficult because I lived in such isolation. I've since almost come to terms with my isolation because I know I impose it upon myself in order to reduce stress in my life. People can be wonderful, can be stress reducers, but they can also create situations of daily stress. So you're right, I don't have to live up to other people's standards of what should be my normal behavior; instead, I decide for myself on a day to day basis. I also in turn give up most face to face friendships, have no support from a mental health support group and no place in my local community. Because I have the financial support of my family, I have made the choice to be a recluse. I know full well that many people don't have this ability, they live with their families and therefore the family dynamics come into play each day, each night.
When I compare the negative thought processes of mental illness to an addiction, I know I'm perhaps jumping to a conclusion, but, to me, it makes a fair amount of sense. I look at my journals from when I was very psychotic and my delusional thoughts are as pervasive as an addictive substance. I keep repeating the same pattern of thought over and over again and remained stuck inside something I almost wasn't willing to let go of. I had an obsessive need to re-confirm my delusion each day and didn't leave room for other, healthier perspectives. It wasn't my brain that was failing me so much as my own unshakeable attitude. You wrote that the anti-psychotic medications make you less suicidal and I believe that; they make me less delusional and paranoid, but the drugs alone are not enough to get through this life. You have to work a program inside your head, which includes monitoring what your thoughts are telling you and how it makes you feel. I do that when I talk into a tape recorder each day and then listen back to it. Or when I write in a journal and then re-read it. I do the same thing when I write a blog entry or send an email to a friend. Most often, when things go wrong for me, it's not outer circumstance and people, but my own mistaken assumptions and attitudes. This is very good news because it places the power to change negative circumstances in my grasp.
There's a Tibetan Lojong slogan that goes, "Drive all blame into the one." The one means into yourself. This is not an instruction to be a masochist, it's an instruction to realize just how much self-centeredness figures into negative circumstances. When you take on the responsibility of truly taking care of yourself, you realize that no-one has the ability to make you unhappy but yourself. To send the blame outwards is to give up control over your life. In my last blog I was being critical of the media, but really, if I am aware, it is up to me how I respond to the media, just as it was up to your friend who committed suicide how he responded to his family's shame. One problem is that we don't respond, we react and there's a big difference. A response is measured and thought out and civil, a reaction is unmeasured, thoughtless and often angry. My brother has called my mother a "reactionary liberal" meaning she doesn't stop for a moment to consider the other right leaning perspective, instead she gets indignant and the problem remains a problem. We all have a tendency to do this, but it is a tendency that can be arrested. In meditation that tendency is called practice and practice involves returning to the breath when you get caught up in self-centered thinking. You learn to let go of the reaction and allow room for the response. In addictive thinking my reaction to seeing someone smoking a cigarette is to want to smoke one myself, but if I interrupt that reaction and respond to myself with compassion, I can let the craving go. If I apply the balm, the wound begins to heal. The hard part is becoming aware of what it is you do, where the traps and triggers are and how to avoid them or override them. The next hard part is just not engaging in the addictive activity. Both are very hard to do, but it can be done, that's the main thing. It is not impossible or someone else's fault or responsibility. That's the thing about addiction, it's self-contained. It really has very little to do with other people.
I place psychosis and addiction in the same general category because they are both about physical illness and mental illness combined. Maybe the physical illness came first, but maybe not. Addicts talk about having an addictive personality, but lots of people who would not be called addicts have addictive personalities. We learn through repetition both positive behaviors and negative behaviors. It is fair to say that someone with an addictive personality will become an addict of one sort or another if he or she engages in risky actions. The mental illness precedes the physical illness (though not the genetic predisposition). And honestly, I wonder about that in terms of psychosis. Is it possible that our thought patterns could actually create physical imbalances/illnesses making a cycle, so that even if you took the anti-psychotic medications your thoughts could be working against your recovery? We too often overlook the mind/body connection.
My purpose in bringing all this up is because I care; I don't want to lose anymore people to suicide when I feel and believe that they can overcome some of their negative circumstances through working with the very mind that seems to be betraying them. There's a saying that goes, "Happiness is an inside job." Well mental health is an inside job, but no one outside of you is watching over what you do except yourself, which means you've got to be very honest with yourself and keep monitoring your thoughts and feelings. I will never say that it is easy. It is not easy. But it's worth it.
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.