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, June 29, 2011

Stop Living In A Dream

I've been meditating regularly for over a month.  I went from 30 minutes to 40 minutes of sitting meditation.  I don't sit on the floor anymore but in a chair because when I sit cross-legged on the floor my front leg falls asleep after 20 minutes, possibly because I'm obese, I don't know.  Anyway, the chair is fine.  I set up a small, round table in front of me and place on it in a semi-circle two Buddha statues, one a small, slim Indian style Buddha and the other, somewhat larger, of a very fat, smiling Chinese style Buddha.  I also have a meditation bell and a meditation counter which plays music when the time is up.  Technically, I'm supposed to sit up straight in an armless chair with my feet flat on the floor.  My chair is a fold-up lawn chair with arms and sometimes I sit up straight with my hands on my knees and other times when my back begins to hurt, I lean back into the seat and use the arm rests.  I rest my eyes on the objects on the table.  Sometimes I'm restless and shift my gaze from one object to another.  I have a mug of sweet tea beside me and I mindfully drink from the mug several times during the course of the meditation.  I start my meditation in early dusk and as the sun begins to set, I move more deeply into my meditation, listening to the birds singing outside my windows or sending out a prayer when a car passes by and if there's a breeze, I enjoy the breeze or the rain or the setting sun.

I'm not "good" at meditation the way I was years ago before I became ill.  Before I was slim and flexible.  I practiced yoga daily and at the end of my yoga session I meditated.  I easily entered into the zone which was set up by the yoga, breathing steadily and deeply.  I remained still and focused.  When the formal sitting meditation was over, I would be in a mindful state.  I brought mindfulness to my daily activities, especially eating and washing the dishes.  I also walked mindfully throughout my house, conscious of my breathing, in a peaceful, happy state.  The key to this happy state was in the breath, relaxing into the breath, into the body, slowly.  But now, my breathing is neither so deep, nor so measured and my energy is restless with moments of calmness and focus interspersed within it.  All this means is that I am a beginner and that I must persevere until the periods of calm become longer and longer, setting the stage for  insight to arise.  The interesting thing I'm finding is that even with my rocky, daily practice, I can feel a subtle shift in my general awareness.  For instance, I am more aware of the weather;  I enjoy it more deeply.  When it rains, I listen to the rain and when it is sunny with a soft breeze, I feel the warmth and the breeze.  I notice more.  I notice the beauty of my cats.  In the midst of my sitting, I watch them and reflect on how sensitive their five senses are, how alert and in tune to all the sights and sounds and smells.  I have the insight into the fact that I, too, am an animal very connected to my senses, but somehow I am not as aware or as in tune as my cats, though, with practice, I know I could be.

I'm learning that it is not about being good or bad at meditation, it's about accepting the moment you happen to be in, be it restless, calm, happy or painful.  I'm learning to accept myself and my environment just as it is.  This can be uncomfortable but not unbearable.  As far as I can see everything is in flux.  It's like being carried along by a river, sometimes there are rapids and the water is churned up and other times the flow goes by slowly, but either way, floating in the water you are continually pulled along by the current.  You can't stop it.  You can't get out of it.  You have to go with the flow whether you want to or not.  I'm finding that I really do want to go with the flow, but I have years and years of conditioning to resist pain and embrace pleasure.  When I resist pain, I resist the flow.  So now, I am turning that pattern around and just sitting with the pain, keeping it company so to speak.  I breath into my discomfort and do not reject it or run away from it or act out against it.  This is also called mindfulness.  People who live with chronic pain need to learn to apply the balm of mindfulness to their suffering.  And really, we all live with an on again, off again pain and so mindfulness can benefit everyone.  I think before people can get to the stage where they can embrace their enemies as brothers and sisters on this earth, they need to embrace their own suffering and stop pushing it away or off onto someone else.

I have been encouraged by the Buddha's example and by his many, many followers to see my life as one long experiment into the nature of awareness and existence.  So that's what I've been doing, both meditation practice and dharma study with Pema Chodron, Alan Watts and Thich Nhat Hanh.  I have quite a few audio programs and books on Buddhist practice on my Kindle.  I listen for an hour a day and then I read during the night.  When I finish an audiobook, I return to it and re-listen to it.  I'm trying to encourage myself to do the same with my Buddhist books.  Repetition and study, contemplation with an open mind and I plant the dharma seeds, water them with attention and wait for them to broaden my awareness, to wake me up.  I am already a little less groggy, a little less forgetful.  My experimentation gives me insight into the true nature of reality.  Buddhists believe, and I am on the road following, that most of us are living life in a bubble, in a dream.  We take appearances as reality and don't question the fact that appearances are often deceptive.  Right now, I'm more in the dream than out of it, but I've accomplished the first step which is a very minimal awareness that human make things up to make themselves feel more comfortable.  We invented language and the concept of time but language is an approximation and time is based on a clock, an artificial construct.  Intelligence is natural, language is not; it is taught.  We learn through imitation, but we are not always so careful in our behaviors and attitudes.  We can just as easily teach lies and be followed as teach truth and be followed.  Hence the need for each of us to question and experiment and not blindly follow.

I suffer from depression and anxiety.  My experimentation with meditation and mindfulness is showing me that I have a choice, to follow or not to follow.  The negative has a pull to it, is seductive, worries breed more worries and yet it is easy to fall into it and stay lost with it.  To not follow means to not judge the bad as bad, but to let it be.  That's hard because conditioning runs deep.  To not follow means to stop what you are doing and just sit.  How many of us just stop?  I look at myself when I'm resisting stopping and I see that I have an aversion to it.  I've labelled it "bad" for so long, bad to just exist.  I think I have to have a purpose, that I need to keep busy.  Slowly, oh, so slowly, I'm seeing that to be mindful of my present moment has plenty of meaning in it.  I don't experience true mindfulness a lot, but when I do I can recognize it as some kind of magical gift.  Instead of life being a chore, it becomes a miracle and this little miracle is available 24/7.  It defies description, except to say that it is like a heightened awareness, a subtle adrenaline rush and yet cleaner, purer infused with a sense of completeness and well-being, health, balance, intelligence and peace.  Mindfulness is all about wholesome happiness.  It's always around somewhere, but you have to cultivate the awareness of it, which means you have to stop, stop living on automatic, stop moving along on a conveyor belt, stop living in a dream.

Friday, June 17, 2011

High Expectations Versus Low Expectations For The Mentally Ill

Thank you for your comments on my last blog entry.  I really appreciate them.

Last week I saw my therapist and I read aloud my most recent blog entry.  Her main response was that I was a "high functioning" schizophrenia sufferer and that my route to recovery is not the way for everyone, especially those who have very negative voices.  I know my way is not the way for everyone.  Everyone of my friends who suffer from mental illness have their own unique perspectives, but I question the routine practice of separating those of us with acute psychosis from those of us who are in some form of recovery from psychosis.  I remember when I was in acute psychosis and couldn't read, write, watch television, follow a conversation or contribute to a conversation because I was so consumed with my voices, delusions and paranoia, certainly not "high functioning" at that point.  Then again, I have heard that there are schizophrenia sufferers who are both acutely symptomatic and functioning adequately in the world.  My basic idea is that schizophrenia and related illnesses go through stages, a pre-psychotic stage into often an acutely psychotic stage into the beginning of several recovery stages, if you are fortunate enough to survive the acute stage.  Within the recovery stage there is still room for relapse, which is why, for most of us, we need to reality check regularly, especially with a therapist and/or a support group.  By simply stating that schizophrenia progresses through stages shows that it is a dynamic, flowing pattern that is not static.  If this model of schizophrenia were scientifically accepted, it would offer hope to people who are severely ill, as well as those who struggle through the recovery stages.

I know that there are people who are severely ill and greatly incapacitated, but I don't believe that they are unreachable and I don't believe that they should be treated as if their condition is permanent and irreversible.  I actually believe that there should be a support group system in place in hospitals and in local communities that generally follow the sponsor system of 12 step groups.  What this would mean is that people who have crossed over into the recovery stages of severe mental illness would sponsor or be a special friend to someone who was still in acute psychosis or in the very early stages of recovery.  The sponsor, based on his or her life experience with psychosis, becomes a guide gently leading the way towards recovery attitudes and behaviors.  It's a simple, beautiful system of community spirit in action, one I wish I had in my community.  As it stands, I get most of my support from my online friends who blog about their illnesses; the problem with that is that I don't get to meet people in my offline community, nor do I get the opportunity to be a sponsor to someone.  And so I write in this blog hoping that someone who is acutely ill will stumble onto it and maybe get something from it.  Maybe they'll stop looking at themselves as if they have an incurable "brain disease" with no cure and dismal prospects.

I see those of us who are creative enough to start writing blogs about our illnesses as in the "high functioning" spectrum.  Perhaps my perspective is skewed by this.  I have not been around people when they've been going through acute psychosis; I've only been around myself.  The people that I've met online through blogging and support forums strike me as intelligent and creative.  I've puzzled over this.  Why do all these people suffering from serious mental illness seem, in a lot of ways, exceptional rather than mentally and creatively low functioning?  I think it is because they crossed a line in their illness which gradually led them into the recovery stages.  Part of recovery is reaching out to others.  The computer is an ideal vehicle for mentally wounded people to express themselves and support each other, though I still think face to face meetings are very important as well.  But who doesn't really get heard?  The people in acute psychosis who don't gravitate towards blogging and online and offline support groups.  The people who remain isolated in their delusions and paranoia.  The people isolated in hospitals, restrained with no computer access.  Because I live in a rural community with no mental health support groups, I don't get to see and interact with acutely ill people and those that I interact with online give me a lot of hope that people can recover.  And yet, my therapist almost dismisses me as "high functioning" and different from other more seriously ill people in hospitals.  I contend that most people who are "high functioning" were at some point "low functioning" and because of that there is an unbreakable bond between those who are acutely ill and those who are in recovery, a bond that should be encouraged to grow through interaction and not separation.  I have had the thought several times that I would like to go to a local psych unit and tell my story to the inmates, but that's as far as I go.  What I really need is for there to be community action that sets up support groups as well as brings people who are in recovery into the hospital system to give hope to those still caught inside their illnesses.

I can respect health professionals who have not suffered from mental illness up to a point, but I still say that those of us who have been through severe mental illness are a way underused resource to the mental health community.  My therapist was a bit upset trying to press her point that I was different from those who had to be hospitalized.  She said she knew because she had worked on psychiatric units and had seen people in the midst of acute psychosis.  I think her view of illness is flawed precisely because she has not lived through acute illness.  I know more about what a catatonic person is going through than she does, even though I have not been catatonic.  I know more about being a raving lunatic because I have been one.  My therapist is a good woman and a decent therapist but I trust my own experience and intuition more.  I told her that I thought it was time that health care professionals raise the bar on mental illness.  Low expectations produce poor results whereas higher expectations give a mentally ill person hope and goals to aim for gradually, over time.  Fewer and fewer mentally ill people are staying long term in hospitals.  Now they are back in their communities (if they are not homeless) which is why community services are so important.  Reintegration into society, however minimal, is a goal in itself and it is possible.  Asserting that a chunk of mentally ill people are too sick to get well is not a good enough solution anymore.