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.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Our World Still Turns

The world did not end yesterday; we have been given a reprieve.  How shall we spend it, in denial or in action?  With global climate change, near economic ruin, continuing wars, people (children!) starving and persisting diseases, it is not too far fetched to consider that our world is dying and mainly because of us and our chosen lifestyles.  In these challenging times, some claim that they have woken up into an enlightened consciousness and way of being.  Eckhart Tolle, who wrote a very popular book called The Power Of Now, in 1999, is one of that group.

I have read over half of the book.  I connect with some of it; that connection might be because a part of me really wishes that people as individuals are having a positive change of consciousness that will direct them away from business as usual on this planet.  I believe our survival depends upon it.  But at the same time that I welcome Mr. Tolle's assertions that enlightenment is accessible in every passing moment, I feel wary of anyone who achieves fame and monetary success through such assertions.  I believe that such success can overemphasize the importance of one person over others and can lead to a kind of corruption of spirit and message.

And so, as they say in 12 step groups, I will take what I need and leave the rest, which is what I hope all of us do.  It does no good to totally accept or reject one person's ideas.  No one can live our lives for us, nor learn our lessons; we have to do this ourselves now and always.  What I take from Mr. Tolle is what I have taken from other spiritual teachers and that is that it is not the past or the future that matters so much as being aware, and therefore awake, in the present.  It sounds so simple and, if you are willing to stop and look about you, it really is simple, but so often we go about in a dream of non mindful doing caught in the trap of questionable thinking.

Mindful action and the ability to watch our thoughts, respect them, but not necessarily engage in them, I believe is what Eckhart Tolle would describe as a "portal" to a higher consciousness.  This consciousness would be one that would be beneficial to ourselves, towards others and towards this planet.  The more people that tap into practicing mindfulness, the greater our chances of making deeply beneficial changes in the short run and the long run.  It takes courage to remain open enough to be mindful.  Mindful people are not aggressive, greedy and because they let themselves be aware, they give themselves the chance to act responsibly, instead of reacting thoughtlessly and self-centeredly.

For everyone, self honesty needs to be the basis of the changes that must come.  We don't have the time to remain in denial.  If you can't sit with the truth at some point during your day, each day, you will remain unconscious and ineffective; perhaps you will contribute to the problems of the day rather than to the solutions.  My feeling is we need to pull together and the courage it takes to be honest does create the strong bonds necessary for us to do this.  Surely there are enough of us to change the world.  In the 1950s there were 3 billion people on earth -- now there are over 7 billion people.  We cannot go on indiscriminately procreating, acting as if we have the right to do as we please.

We have thoroughly tested out hatred through wars as a basis for supposedly civilized life, laying claim to imaginary, man made territories and rights.  It is my very strong belief that now is the time to embrace peace on earth.  What good can really be done without it?  The only way I see this being possible is if more people than not stand up individually and refuse to service and sacrifice themselves to the war machine concocted by various "nations".  It is simple:  if we refuse to fight, there can be no war, even drones need to be made, serviced and sent out by people.  The phrase "Just Say No" did not work on the "war on drugs" but it would work if people abandoned the military and put their energies towards saving this planet and the people and life on it.

Do you love this world with its oceans, mountains, plains, valleys, deserts, rivers, forests and streams?  Do you love the life that grows and moves across this earth?  Can you rise up to the challenge of loving those who it would be easier to hate?  Can you cross cultural barriers and rejoice in the wonderful diversity of all of us human animals?  Can you chip in and do your part for the love of it?  I, for one, have a lot of faith that you can.  Despite all the mistakes we've made, our essential spirits are solidly good.  I believe in the power of love to conquer hate and the power of love to move mountains if need be.  And I'm afraid it is needed, probably more now than at any time in our relatively brief history.  We need a global change of consciousness.  We need it now, in all of our present moments.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Post Thanksgiving Reflections

Thanksgiving went really well this year.  My brother gave it a B+.  We did our Thanksgiving shopping about a week ago, then I cleaned and organized the house and then at 7:30 am on Thanksgiving day I drove to my brother's house, just a couple of miles away, and picked him up.  Neither of us had gotten much sleep and yet we did get the work done.  So Rob put the turkey in the oven soon after he got to my house.  Our guests arrived soon after 3pm and they were my new, good friend Sam and her older sister and her sister's husband and one other friend.  My brother made sure to buy a big turkey, 28 pounds, so that everyone could take home leftovers.  Everyone was having such a great time that they stayed till after 11pm.  I was particularly happy to finally get to meet Sam's sister Anne.

Sam and her sister are very close and always have been.  Anne is four years older than Sam and before Sam was born Anne, at a mere three years of age, petitioned her mother to give her a little sister.  Luckily for Anne (and Sam) that's just what happened.  Even at such a young age, Anne's maternal instincts were strong and she became a second mother to Sam.  Sam was very bright as a little kid and she was always ahead of the rest of her class by a few years because Anne would teach her what she had learned in school.  And then they both had three older brothers that I'm sure they learned things from.  They lived in a big, old yellow house with a wrap around porch in town.  Their father was a professor at the university here and their mother had her hands full raising five children.

During dinner Anne sat down next to me and we began to talk.  There was something gentle, sweet yet also strong and very honest about her.  She had lovely large eyes and long, gray hair and she wore a pair of earrings that she had made out of colored clay.  The only rather minor problem for me was that she spoke softly and amidst the noise of the others talking and the background music, I lost some of what she was saying to me.  But not all, in fact mostly I understood her.  We talked for quite a while with me trying to be extra attentive and responsive to the things she was saying.  She told me some things in confidence about herself and I felt warmed by her quick trust in me.  I was under the mistaken impression that Anne would look and act like an older version of Sam, but this was not the case.  Anne was more feminine than Sam and it was obvious that Anne believed that Sam was smarter than herself and that might be true and yet Anne showed fortitude, caring and competence in getting her nursing degree and working as a nurse before she retired.  Now she is a serious craftsman and has her own studio space to work in.  She also has a devoted husband, who is a gentle person, too.

Amongst the five of us, except Anne's husband who was abstaining from alcohol, we drank four bottles of red wine.  The dinner, prepared carefully by my brother, was excellent and we had a great time.  Considering that I had gotten only a couple of hours of sleep the night before, I was in excellent shape. Pretty much all of my delusional thinking of the previous days evaporated when I set out to accomplish something and interact with others.  Though I did start cleaning only the night before, I found that my house was not in such bad shape and I could do the work without stressing out about it.  This is a positive change for me.  I still struggle with getting the cleaning done, but no where near as much as before.  I think that's because Sam visits with me for a few hours every week or so and this motivates me to clean and organize.  Really on many levels having Sam in my life has been a godsend that has finally broken through the isolation that I imposed upon myself for a long time, even after I had been in recovery for years.

Another positive change for me this year was that I was able to be social.  Last year for Thanksgiving we had only one guest, so that it was very mellow, but the year before I freaked out and stayed downstairs away from the party all afternoon missing out on dinner with everyone.  This year was different perhaps in a large part due to the presence of women in the group.  The other years it was just men and because I had been in an abusive relationship with a man years before, I still felt self-conscious and intimidated when left on my own.  This year I had emotional backup because Anne and Sam paid attention to me and we very naturally supported each other.  But it was more than that, it was something inside of me; I felt some confidence that within this small group of people I would be accepted.  I didn't feel weird and out of place.  That was particularly gratifying to feel in my own house acting as hostess.

And yet less than a week earlier I was getting pulled into delusional reveries about my supposed connection to some totally unapproachable famous man.  I think the reason I have come mostly out of those delusional thoughts is because I've been working on my psyche to do just that -- let go and redirect myself.  My obligation to host the Thanksgiving dinner gave me a ready opportunity to take my thoughts from the unreal and unknown to the real and known, to the here and now.  Plus, I actually care about a wider circle of people now and I wanted to make this a nice holiday for the few of them that came last Thursday.  I know my brother and I succeeded in that.  He worked on the dinner and I worked on my house and my mind.

I don't know if my mental sobriety will last, but I have learned that keeping various projects going helped me to stay focused on my small life.  Before Thanksgiving I was still creating songs, working on  reading my journals and collecting quotes to make into a book, and taking at least a day a week to focus on writing blog entries.  Last week I set up my portastudio in one of my back rooms which is something I have been wanting to do for at least a month.  Yesterday evening I ordered three real inexpensive instruments, a djembe drum, a mandolin and a ukelele (in honor of Eddie Vedder...plus I'm just curious).  I already have an electric and an acoustic guitar and Sam's acoustic guitar and her bass guitar.  I love the idea of collecting instruments and learning new ones.  I'm a bit stuck with my guitar.  I tend to go around in circles that I have trouble breaking out of.  I'm hoping that a new infusion of instruments that I have never touched, let alone tried to play, will spark my curiosity and get me to fool around and practice and really learn.  So I've decided that this winter I'm going to work on creating/practicing/recording songs from the last six years to make into another CD of my more recent work.  That's another thing I've been wanting to do for a long, long time.

I've had my journal book idea for many years, but was never quite strong enough to read my journals for an extended period of time and actually select entries based on certain themes.  Now I've decided that I want one of the themes to be my desire to follow a spiritual path which began around the time I went to the Al-Anon support groups just about 20 years ago.  This is a theme that definitely pops up in most, if not all, of my existing journals.  Just possibly, I can create a collection of excerpts around this theme dividing them up into sections following the stages of my adult life and prefacing each section with an informative and reflective essay.  I have a curious feeling that I might be able to do this.  I've already got most of the material.  It's a matter of selecting and editing it down and organizing it, living with it for a while in its nakedness, dividing it up and writing up responses to each section.  So that is another serious project I want to work on this winter into spring.

This blog, of course, is important to me.  My music and my journal book are for now my private space where I can work, but this blog is for public viewing and public sharing.  It's an open journal of my process and progress over time.  It's where I keep in touch with my Buddhist practice and reflect upon what I've been learning.  It's where I can write about my mental illnesses and others mental illness discovering strategies along the way for how to cultivate more mental health in all of our lives.  It's a place where I can test out my commitment to being an honest and giving person.  I guess I'm hoping to set a good example here for maybe a few to follow, that it is a good thing to share your story in an open, honest way.  Some people, maybe many people, feel that openness is good with close friends and family or support groups, but that otherwise it is best not to admit to too much.  I've found, at least on this blog, that I need to share my perspective.  It's my way of contributing to the world around me.  It's all the more important to come across as thoughtful and articulate because I live with mental illness and I think communication is the main way to fight stigmatization.  I think stigma has more to do with ignorance than with a deep seated ill will towards the mentally ill and ignorance can be dispelled online in blogs, on message boards, at home, in school and even, for some, in the work place.  It all depends.  But the more of us can come out of our hiding places, even in small ways, well, that's the way to start to change the world view on what exactly it means to have a mental illness.

Monday, November 5, 2012

US Elections 2012: Please Vote!

This is such an important election.  Every vote counts, which is why I am urging you to accept the responsibility of casting your vote on Tuesday.  We need to know how the majority really feels.  Do we want to go backwards or do we want to go forward?  Do we want to return to a time when women's rights were more restricted?  Do we want to continue promoting wars abroad at the expense of the men and women who fight them?  Do we want our health care system to be run like a business instead of like a social service where millions of people are excluded from coverage?  Do we want to reward the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us when so many people are struggling just to get by?  For those who are Christian, do you want to be Christian in name only and not in actions?

Barack Obama is not a demi-god; he is a human being.  And as a human being he has done a pretty good job, considering the economic upheavals within the US and the world these past three years.  To lay blame on him for our poor economy, ignoring those who acted irresponsibly in the previous administration, and ignoring the ensuing economic meltdown which has been compared to the Great Depression of the 1930s, is to ignore too many facts.  Mitt Romney is running his campaign on the pledge to create more jobs, to somehow boost our economy by protecting the wealthy while cutting much needed social services.  My good friend Richard, who I know is voting for Romney, said something the other day about how starting another war would be good for our economy.  I don't understand the logic of this.  Men and women are getting killed and maimed and psychologically scarred, but if it's good for the economy, it okay?  When did the state of our economy become more important than the value we put on human life?

I love Richard.  I know he is a good man by his actions.  He is hard working and loyal and generally very decent to everyone he encounters, but his views on the Christian religion (he is Born Again) and his views on politics leave me disturbed and deeply puzzled.  And I know many people in this country believe at least some of what he believes and will vote for Mitt Romney.  Why?  I think really because Romney is a very rich man and for too many financial success is a measure of self-worth and value to one's family and community.  Rich men are smarter than the rest of us.  They are obviously blessed by God.  The irony is that Jesus did not hang with the wealthy so much, but with the poor, disabled, sick, mentally ill, with the people who desperately needed help.

So there is this growing divide in this country.  Most people are already decided.  Whoever wins tomorrow, there will be many, many disappointed people.  How do we heal the US?  It's not just about money and who can generate jobs; it's about social issues and foreign policy.  This is why the divide is so great.  Obviously, I'm a Democrat, but I live in a mostly Republican area, and I know that the people who live here are good people; they are mostly white, poor to middle class and Christian.  We all live amidst the wide open countryside relying on cars to get us around.  There are not a lot of available jobs and some of the younger people join the military because they just don't have the choices that their wealthier counterparts do have.  So many people around here, in support of members of their community who are putting their lives on the line, also support the military.  They are invested in the nationalistic idea that the US must use its armed forces to defend against its enemies in order to secure freedom at home.  And so, war has become a necessary evil and the sacrifices being made are, in their eyes, for a noble reason.  In terms of foreign policy, I would have to say that the people here believe in preserving a large and strong military machine, believe in being tough and punishing towards any threat to the interests of the US.  This means they are committed to starting wars abroad.

To me, being a pacifist, this is a strange and terrible cycle and yet I can understand the logic behind it. There is also logic in Christians believing that abortion is morally wrong, and yet the desire to legislate making the choice for others is also morally wrong.  What I find in much of the Christian Republican perspective is fear.  Fear of "enemies" be they terrorists in foreign lands or socialists at home or moral degenerates who believe that gay couples should have the legal right to marry.  All this fear, all this not turning the other cheek, all this not loving your enemy, all this scorn towards the peacemakers is so very unChristian.  I can't help but look around me and think that too many Americans are hypocrites.  They talk the talk, but when it comes down to the nitty gritty, they don't walk the walk.  But, of course, this is not how they see themselves.  I believe in their minds they see themselves as righteous.  Which leads me to the uncomfortable thought that I'm not the only one who falls into delusional thinking.  The difference for me is that I remain vigilant; I look to spot the flaws in my thinking and feeling.

So here I am encouraging you to do the same.  Delusional thinking can be seductive, can pull you into a world view that seems so real, but is not.  And mass delusional thinking, as I believe we are seeing here in the US, can lead to, in a worst case scenario, a holocaust.  I don't use that word lightly.  I truly believe that much of Christian Republican world view is a symptom of mental illness and that those who are seriously ill should not be in positions of power.  Right wing Republicans try to paint Obama as a flaming liberal, but he is not, as can be seen by the criticism that lefties have laid on the President. Obama moves towards the middle, whereas Romney moves towards the extremists.  I believe this country needs to stay in the middle, which means most definitely caring for the welfare of the middle class and the impoverished, the disabled and the addicted amongst others.  Dismantling the Affordable Care Act, setting women's rights back decades, increasing the military but neglecting veterans, slashing social services and other very important issues are not the way to heal the troubles in the US.

I'm giving a shout out to women, to so-called minorities, to veterans, to the gay community, to the middle class and to the impoverished, to the mentally ill, to the sick, to the old, to Christians who still believe in lovingkindness, inclusiveness and generosity.  Please vote in the election tomorrow.  Stand up and be counted.  Walk the walk.  Let the country as a whole know and the whole world know that we believe in recovery, not just for some, but for everyone.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

This Sacred World

From when I was little up until my late teens, I knew the world was sacred.  I think many of us do at that age.  The power of youth lies in part in its intensity.  It doesn't matter what your life circumstances are, everything is new, fresh and alive.  Your mind and heart are awake and you are only tentatively conditioned by the society you live in.  Later on you will armor your heart, thereby dulling your mind, and accept your place in society but without the intensity of the young, wise heart.  As you grow into adulthood, you will take on more and more responsibilities.  These widen your skills and allow you to live independently.  They also numb your sensitivity to the fact that your present moment is sacred.

I grew up in New York City.  During most of the year I lived in Brooklyn and went to school in Manhattan and during the summers I lived on Long Island on the beach.  I got to experience city and country life, to taste the rhythms of both.  In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, there were tree lined streets and a large park nearby.  Nature seemed to survive fairly well in an environment of car exhaust, many houses, apartment buildings, stores, schools and a moderate number of people.  I was lucky to have that park nearby.  Any open spaces, including the sky and the sky line, in a city as large and complex as New York City, are truly valued and needed.  It's a kind of balance to the stress of living amongst so many people.  But that city environment and all its multi-cultural inhabitants are a large part of what makes city living as sacred as living close to nature.

It's not just that the environment we find ourselves in is sacred, but we ourselves are made up of subtle and obvious, intricate and plain sacred stuff.  I got to experience people as sacred on New York City streets and subways.  The obvious and plain sacredness of the people in this city is in their wonderful diversity.  I realized later on that a lot of people just don't get to experience this and are possibly afraid of all the differences in humanity.  But for me living in the city at the time it was the natural state of affairs.  And amidst that throng of people, there were truly acts of random kindness that defied the stereotype of cities as large and hostile places.  Yes the city was large and in certain places, at certain times hostile, but for the most part the life within the city kept moving.  More people followed the rules of coexistence than didn't.  Courtesy, tolerance, patience, generosity, humor and even joy circulated throughout city life.

The subtle and intricate side of the sacred in the city had to do with the darker side of it.  The traffic, the car exhaust in the air, the dirt, the noise, the extreme poverty of homeless people, the threat of misunderstandings turning into altercations or even violence, the fast pace, all of this interwoven into the pulse of the city.  How can dirt, noise, poverty, violence be sacred?  Because it is part of the whole scene and it offsets the harmony and beauty which is also to be found there.  This duality in us between the light and dark aspects of ourselves is the playing field for the sacred in our lives.  Success and failure, beauty and ugliness, peace and violence, it's all very rich and messy stuff and it's all we have to work with as we each go through our particular journey.

I think more people associate the sacred with nature, rather than with city life, and I was privileged enough to experience that also in what started out as a very small beach house on Long Island during the summers.  My upwardly mobile parents, who worked their way up from fairly poor beginnings, determined to get this house on the bay side of the beach for about $9,000 in 1958, the year my older brother was born.  They never regretted it and my brother and I got to experience nature up close.  Compared to the city, there wasn't the dirt, noise, poverty or potential violence at the beach.  Instead there was the luxury of unpopulated open spaces where nature thrived.  I remember the smell of the ocean, salty and mildly sulphuric, as my family got out of the car, and how quickly I took off my shoes and socks to feel the sand between my toes.  Soon after that I would check on the bay behind our house and then walk across the road and up a dune to see the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.  It was like greeting a long, lost friend.  My family also brought our six cats with us and set them free during the summers; they were beautiful to watch and so happy in their freedom.

I moved away from both the city and the beach when I was twenty seven, moving far into the country of Western New York, which is closer to rural Pennsylvania than to the metropolis that I grew up in.  Predominantly white, Christian, Republican, often poor amidst the open beauty of the countryside, a very different setting for me.  Ironically, I had to come deep into the country to encounter prejudice, violence, addiction and abuse that I somehow mostly avoided in the city.  But I also found the solace of living in the country in relative privacy in my own home for the first time in my adult life.  Everything was new, the countryside, the roads, the towns, the stores and the people.  I still had some of the flush of youth in me then and I was curious.  I was also sick and quickly committed myself to someone who was also sick, a victim of prejudice, abuse and addiction.  He tried to pass on the cycle of abuse that he had endured and rebelled against to me.

The cycles of abuse in our culture are also a part of how we learn about what's sacred in our lives.  One of the drawbacks of living in the country is the isolation because isolation can breed abuse.  A sick, tyrannical, addicted boyfriend or husband living in an isolated house with his girlfriend or wife and possibly children as well, can reek havoc in that little home virtually unchecked.  Worse, the suffering abuser will go on to teach how to perpetuate the cycle of abuse especially to the children.  People who become the victims of abuse have two choices, either to continue the cycle or to end it.  It sounds like an easy choice, but it is not.  The pull to feed into resentment, whether it's an abusive person blaming those around him for his troubles or an abused person blaming his or her abuser, is what keeps this virus alive.  I guess this is why I tend to stress the fact that abusers are not bad, evil people, they are incredibly sick people who most likely have been abused themselves at a young age.  And the abused, after years of it, are mentally ill as well.  This is what cements the cycle in place -- when the people in the relationship are both sick, how can they possibly get well?

Too often they don't get well and spiral downwards.  It takes at least one person in a deeply sick relationship to reach outside of the confines of that strange partnership towards help.  I tried to do that by going to support groups and counseling, by studying literature on addiction, codependency and domestic violence, by secretly writing in a journal.  My attempts to continue with support groups and counseling were blocked by my sick, abusive partner.  But at least I gave him the opportunity to stop the abuse by setting a good example.  I knew that I was very ill, so instead of blaming him, I was trying to take care of myself.  I invited him to do the same.  In his attitudes and actions, he refused and I began praying for the courage to leave him for good.  And I did.  One of the reasons why I could was because I didn't have a child with him.  There are countless women out there who cannot leave their abusive partner so easily because of the children involved.

So the darkness of the city is also the same darkness of the country, the setting is different but the substance is the same.  I consider the years that I spent living with my lover/abuser as sacred years.  I feel the same way about the years I spent in acute psychosis.  Just because it is dark, dirty, smelly and painful, doesn't take away from the fact that there were profound lessons being taught.  You can be very sick and yet very alive at the same time.  Again, the sickness highlights the way back to health through negative example.  If you can acknowledge your sickness and study your habitual triggers and reactions, thereby increasing your awareness level or your mindfulness, you can heal.  But you have to take responsibility for yourself and put not harming yourself and others at the top of your list.

Regardless of whether you live in the city or country, whether you are young or old, you always have access to what's sacred.  It's in every moment; you carry it around with you and you move through its space.  It's there every time you meet another human being and it's there when you are alone.  It's particularly evident when you cultivate awareness of the moment you are in through self-reflection.  Self-reflection is at the heart of the sacred.  It is honest mindfulness of the heart, mind and spirit; you are the witness to your own life.  This is why it is important to stop what you are doing each day and sit, either in formal meditation or in informal meditation.  This stopping is just as important, probably more important, than somewhat blindly doing all the time.  If you have a lot of responsibilities and are active most of the time, it is essential that you take time for yourself to value just being.  Turn off the computer, your phone, the TV, the radio and go sit quietly for at least 20 minutes.  Do it now.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Mental Illness Awareness

This is the last day of Mental Illness Awareness Week, but for me everyday is a day for mental illness awareness.  It should be obvious that awareness is the key ingredient for beneficial change, first in attitude, through gaining knowledge, and then through speech and action.  But how do you get people who are unaware to the place where they can wake up to the fact that mental illness is a part of the human condition?

Those of us who have not fallen into acute mental illness still have personal experience with depression, anxiety and irrational thinking during stressful times.  We've all touched into mental and emotional imbalance.  Perhaps that is why the stigma against mental illness is so great -- it's too close to home.  People want to foster the illusion that "crazy" people are different, other, the enemy, out there somewhere.

I'm doing what many people who suffer from mental illness are doing, I'm writing in a blog with the intention of helping myself and others to understand the nature of mental illness, specifically and generally.  Specifically, through relating personal stories, and generally, through reflecting on those stories and bringing in a bigger picture.  It's an education process that in some ways is very old and traditional, very human.

Before the invention of writing, there was a serious oral tradition that was passed down from generation to generation. People got together and told each other stories.  Many stories were forgotten, but some lived on.  Those who learned and told the stories were skilled performers and sometimes stories were modified or embellished and the initial story began to be transformed.  This mixing of fact and fiction is a part of what it is to be human.  We're drawn to tales and drama and confessions.

For me, I work hard to keep fact and fiction separate.  I think many other bloggers with mental illness try to do the same.  Our stories still have some drama and some confession in them, but I think that has more to do with where we went astray with our illness, where we tried to transform fiction into fact.  The lure to turn fiction into fact is in the way we entertain ourselves with books, television, movies, video games and popular music.  The internet can used this way too and yet it is also a library and a communications center, a place where with some determination you can gather some facts and express your views on what you've found.

Bloggers who write about their mental illness are reporters and witnesses.  The more honest and articulate they can be, the more the shroud of stigma gets reduced.  This is what I've been witnessing these last six years that I've been blogging.  There still should be more of us writing about our struggles and successes, but there are enough to reach a solid percentage of people surfing the web. The illusion that those of us particularly with psychotic disorders are always on the borderline of having a violent outbreak is just beginning to diminish.

Slowly major depression and bipolar disorder are becoming accepted by the general population, as are anxiety disorders, but schizophrenia and schizo-affective disorder continue to be much maligned.  That's one of the reasons why I write to show that I am as human as anyone and not some kind of freak or monster.  I also write to show that those who are psychotically ill and have been violent towards others are also human and deserve compassion.  They are not monsters, they are very, very ill human beings.

There are no monsters; there is no enemy, there's just us and we are complex psychological beings.  We share the same stuff.  In order to survive we need to be inclusive and not exclusive.  In the human race there should be no gated communities.  We share everything, our mental illness and our mental health. But the more aware we can get of being side tracked by mental illness, both great and small, within "crazy" people and "normal" people, the more we can understand its dynamics and re-direct ourselves towards mental health.  Awareness and understanding go hand in hand and make us wiser.

Friday, October 5, 2012

What Is Ego?


According to the Buddhist perspective clinging to our egos, which is a form of bondage, is the root cause of all suffering.  But what exactly is ego?  I associate the word ego with egotism and imagine an individual who is conceited, self-serving, unbalanced, using language filled with I, me and mine, a person who is so full of themselves that they can’t empathize or connect with other people.  An egotist is a person who is mentally ill because he or she has an overblown sense of self.  An egotist is deluded.  And yet we all have egos; we all at times exaggerate our own importance, clinging to definitions of ourselves as more important than that of other people.  Ego comes into play when people really like us or really don’t like us or when we feel we’ve been wronged by someone or some group and foster this pervasive sense of resentment.  So ego is about how we perceive ourselves and how we think others perceive us, about Self and Other.  It colors our moments.

Anger, hatred and violence are expressions of ego; even minor annoyances and impatience show where we are holding on to our own self-importance in relation to others.  Cravings and desire, anxiety and fear, withdrawal and indifference all circle around our sense of self, what we want and what we don’t want.  None of us can say, even the most spiritually well trained person, that we don’t encounter some of these elements in our daily lives.  Ego oriented thoughts come into our awareness a lot of the time.  They are part of what makes us human and fallible.  But when we are in the grips of these thoughts and feelings we lose our balance and our happiness.  Neurotic or psychotic we fall in and out of deluded perspectives.  Most of us don’t challenge ourselves to question our reactions, we just accept the reaction, feel the feelings and stay stuck inside the anger or desire or fear.  In this way, we give permission to our egos to stay in control of our lives.

Each moment we have a choice to be ego or self centered or to be other centered.  Even when we’re alone we can be other centered, realizing that we are interconnected, a part of the web of life.  I still spend much of my time alone.  Part of that is due to my sickness; I pull into myself and block out having contact with others.  I mistakenly think that I am protecting myself.  But more often I spend my time alone because I want to work at my spiritual practice by listening to spiritual teachers, taking notes, writing, reflecting on what I’m learning in an audio journal, reading and making up songs.  There is a Buddhist mind training slogan that goes, “Liberate yourself by examining and analyzing.”  I take that slogan (many of the slogans) seriously.  I don’t see it as being self-centered and self-absorbed; I see it as being self-reflective in order to free myself from my ego so that I can reach out to others from a position of self-acceptance or lovingkindness.  Helping others starts with helping yourself and that takes the discipline of self-honesty.

Ego is about self-deception; egolessness is about self-honesty.  Buddhists would say that if you are really honest with yourself, you would see that there is no self.  The ego and self are a fabrication of our thoughts and our thoughts have no substance.  They arise from nowhere, exist and disappear and arise again like clouds in the sky or waves in the ocean.  This doesn’t mean that we don’t exist, but our existence is more subtle and more connected to the environments we find ourselves in.  We are not separate, solid and fixed; we are interconnected, spacious and always in flux.  But inside the learning dance of everyday life, we deceive ourselves about important things using our egos.  I still succumb sometimes to the belief that I am isolated from other people.  This illusion of isolation breeds fear in me and my fear distorts my reality.

There is the pull in those moments to distract myself, to run away from my discomfort or to indulge in thinking about my fears and get pulled into a negative orientation.  For the last year I have trained myself to not do those things but to sit with my suffering and befriend it.  What I’ve discovered is that the suffering starts to diminish when I don’t act out or repress my feelings.  Of course the suffering doesn’t go away entirely, it returns, but then I return to working with it, thereby lessening it.  The change in me is in my attitude and my beliefs.  I believe that I am connected to others and not alone most of the time now.  This is an important shift that challenges the ego orientation that I am separate, solid and vulnerable to attack.  Because we are interconnected we support each other and are not as vulnerable as the ego would have us believe.  So we don’t need to keep armoring our hearts by listening to our misguided, self-protective thoughts.  The result is that we stay more open and responsive to ourselves and others and we begin to see through our more egotistical thoughts and feelings.  We become less reactive and more responsive.

The difference between being reactive and responsive is that when we react we don’t think, we are on automatic pilot, but when we respond we become more thoughtful, more gentle, more willing to work with the situation or person.  We have reinforced our reactive responses to external triggers all our lives; they are very deeply ingrained.  The likelihood is when someone or something triggers us that inside we will still react.  Cultivating the practice of self-honesty through reflection, which to me is the essence of spiritual practice, we slow the process down and allow for the room to respond.  We begin to transform aggression into peace in our daily lives.  When our egos are in control we react, get defensive, over or under estimate ourselves, lose a balanced perspective.  War and violence are the expressions of a fortified ego.  The ego depends upon an us versus them mentality.  When we stop clinging to our egos, we find many ways to be peaceful by acknowledging that we are all in this life together and that we depend upon each other.  We are one huge family and not a bunch of warring tribes.

That is not the way many people see it despite the globalization of our world.  This is because we each have to contend with our attachment to our egos, to our selves.  Our ego won’t just go away, just as our thoughts won’t just go away; we have to re-train ourselves through some kind of spiritual discipline.  This doesn’t have to be religious, it can be humanitarian such as in helping others through social activism.  Just seeing ourselves as part of something larger and greater than ourselves gets us back into a better balance.  Clinging to our egos does make us suffer, but letting go of identifying with our egos has to be a gradual process.  The ego is not the enemy, for really there is no enemy, but to over-emphasize it in our lives is to live inside an illusion.  Spiritual practice is about waking up from the dreams we feed ourselves and each other generation after generation.  Cycles of abuse can be stopped, but only through awareness.  We have a choice; we can fortify our ego and our suffering or we can let go of ego orientations and let go of so much unnecessary suffering.  This is some of what Buddha taught.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Making Friends With Ourselves

Maitri is a Sanskrit word for unconditional loving-kindness.  Pema Chodron writes:  "Without lovingkindness for ourselves, it is difficult, if not impossible, to genuinely feel it for others."  We're born, we live, we die and through it all we are always with ourselves, but we are not always loving-kind towards ourselves and this unfortunately often translates into not being loving-kind towards others.  When we were little, we all experienced someone else being unkind towards us; we might have acted out against the unjust treatment, but we still internalized the hurt.  When we were shamed, we fell into shaming ourselves and then we either repressed it or acted out in defiance of it.  Children imitate their parents and teachers, little girls scold and punish their doll babies and boys try to establish dominance in their games and contests.  Children learn to teach themselves and others through being taught.  To watch little children at play can be heartwarming and heart wrenching because they naturally imitate and follow the adults who can't help but reveal their own strengths, insecurities and prejudices.

We are imperfect beings.  We always have been.  I won't say we always will be because I am starting to believe that we are all moving towards eventual enlightenment.  But in the interim, that is in this present moment, we need to right that initial wrong done to us and stop shaming ourselves and others.  We do that by making friends with ourselves.  I know that that is particularly hard to do when you've been abused.  After I left my abusive boyfriend, I wrote in my journal about feeling this undercurrent of self-hatred.  On the surface I was okay, taking classes, being creative and then going back to school, but deep down I was not accepting myself just as I was.  I wanted to be different or to have someone in my life to make me feel happier and this led me right into the delusions and paranoia of my psychosis. I had been shaming myself for years; my abusive boyfriend just took that to its extreme.  Later I could see that he was doing the same thing to himself.  We were both caught in that negative cycle and what love we did manage to have for ourselves often turned out to be misguided or distorted.

When I left the abuse, I thought that I had liberated myself and was moving on to a fresh start, a new beginning, but I had internalized the shame that I generated for myself and that my boyfriend seemed to confirm in me.  My illness taught me that I wasn't being my own best friend; I was still buying into negativity.  I endured the onslaught of psychosis and it brought me even farther down than I had been before.  I moved from being externally abused to being internally abused.  There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.  The negative voices forced me to confront my darker side:  my prejudices, my resentment, my egotism, while the positive voices beckoned me to take care of myself.  In order to take care of myself I had to befriend myself, all of myself, dark and light and all the shades of grey in between.

When you really make friends with yourself labeling parts of yourself as good or bad doesn't work and labeling others good or bad doesn't ring true either.  We are all a mixture of many things and black and white thinking doesn't suffice when you are really trying to love yourself and others.  And yet people persist quite stubbornly in taking sides, in painting a picture of self as "good" and other as "bad" or visa-versa.  Doing this is being in the thick of an ego orientation and it is an illusion.  It would be truer to say that I am good/bad and you are good/bad and everyone on the planet is good/bad.  The loving-kind way to say this is that we are all fallible human beings.  If we take this to heart, we begin to realize that we are all part of the same family and this deepens the love.

There is just one world and one people on this world.  Again so many of us rely on the illusions we create.  We make imaginary borders that supposedly divide countries from each other.  It's not real and yet we all agree to abide by the fantasy and even structure our lives around it.  It's not real that there are good people and bad people because we are and always have been a mixture.  Yes there are evil intentions and evil acts, just as there are good intentions and angelic acts, but what we fail to acknowledge is that both can reside inside one individual.  We are complex and challenging creatures.
Pointing the finger at ourselves or at others goes nowhere; we have to befriend ourselves, each and everyone of us.  Peace is possible, but only if we each do the necessary footwork within ourselves.

The difference between an illusion and a delusion is that an illusion is shared by many and a delusion is just experienced by one individual.  It's a deep irony that people without serious mental illness look at those in the grips of it as if they were crazy, when, in a sense, we are all crazy.  We all allow ourselves to be controlled by our conformity to socially oriented illusions.  We think we've divided up the world; we think that we own things, that paper money is real, that the clock tells the true time.  And then there are the illusions we accept into our lives as a form of entertainment: tv, movies, books, games.  Buddhists say, look at life as if it were a dream and we should because that's the way we treat it.  How much are you taking for granted right now?

Sometimes out of the mouths of babes and other times out of the mouths of crazy people come startling truths, the truths we keep running away from.  Those same truths came out of the mouths of Buddha and Jesus and still we're running.  I'll probably keep saying this till I'm blue in the face but loving your enemies is the direct route to healing your heart and doing your part to heal the world.  And the greatest enemy we'll ever have is ourselves, especially when we're wasting precious time hating others along with ourselves.  The problem is not out there, it's in ourselves, in our attitudes and how we relate to pain.  This is good news.  We can't change other people, but we can change ourselves.

My brother and I were talking the other day about how so many people who claim to be Christians don't follow Jesus.  He was speaking in terms of intolerance and a lack of forgiveness.  I brought up how so few Christians practice loving their enemies.  He responded that that was a tough thing to do and I agreed.  What I didn't go on to say was that just because it is tough doesn't mean we shouldn't always work towards that goal.  The Buddhists before Jesus approached this practically starting with loving those who loved them to loving those they didn't know well to loving those they didn't particularly like to loving those they outright hated.  The foundation for all this love practice is loving yourself and not just the "good" parts, but the whole deal.  You can work with yourself on the spot anytime, anywhere.  We are our toughest judges, our own enemies.  If we can face ourselves with love and compassion, we can face anyone the same way.  No one is too bad to be part of the human circle and in realizing this, we can change the world instead of destroying it.  The voices once said to me, "Change your attitude and you change your behavior."  Too many of us behave very, very badly towards ourselves, others and the earth.  Is a change of attitude so much to ask?     

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Seeking & Giving Help

In the last two weeks I've been to two NAMI mental health support group meetings.  The group is small so far, just five people each time, including myself.  I'm coming in contact with my desire to show up and be of some help to the group members and also in contact with my own vulnerability and limitations.  At home I get so into expressing myself through keeping an audio journal, a written journal, blogging, making up songs and sometimes doing artwork that I've felt as if maybe I could teach some of what I've learned to others.  But going to this meeting is teaching me that I have a lot to learn from other people.

The first step is just listening with an open heart, being present while others speak with courage and share their stories.  I did this and found that some of the people in the group were struggling not only with mental disabilities, but physical disabilities, problems with housing, with finding paid work and taking care of a small child amongst other things.  I realized that though my problems with mental illness were certainly valid that I did not have as much of a burden as some of these people.  This made me feel very respectful towards the individuals in this group and towards the group as a whole.

I also felt some feelings of helplessness and a wish to come up with answers to try and "fix" their problems, but I saw that for many of their issues I didn't have the knowledge or the experience and I had to be quiet and let others offer their guidance and ideas.  But when it came to coping with mental illness, I did find that I could contribute to the group.  There was something very special for me about listening and talking and looking into the eyes of the people sitting at that conference table, something that I've been withdrawn from in my self-imposed isolation all these years.  It's been a long time since I've been to any kind of support group and now I see what I've been missing -- personal contact.

Yes, there's also a sense of vulnerability and personal limitations, but that is good, too; it keeps me in contact with a sense of humility and a wish to keep trying.  I think many people don't go to meetings because of that vulnerable quality, but in sharing your vulnerability and recognizing that we are all vulnerable, all in the same boat, there is a kind of liberation.  I'm not saying that going to a support group a couple of times is going to solve all your problems.  It won't, but, with a good attitude, it can help a lot.  Not only do you get the chance to learn from others' mistakes and successes, but you get to share your own.

Sharing in itself gives personal validation and possibly helping others raises the quality of your life.  Unless people come together either virtually online or in person in a group, the opportunity for solutions even little (or big) miracles gets lost.  People can and do change the world for the better despite those stuck in the cycle of blame and violence, but they have to get organized and come together little by little.

My goal for now is to commit to showing up once a week and to think about the people in the group and what I can do to help during the time in between meetings.  Helping also includes being honest about my own problems and open to asking for help from the group.  One of the reasons why I stayed locked into my illness for years was that I wanted to deal with my problems on my own.  I didn't want to bother anyone.  I found out the hard way that I had to ask for help, but I stubbornly resisted that; even now I am awkward about it.  When I did reach out, I found people who were willing to help me. In a sense, being vulnerable before people gave them permission to be vulnerable, too, and when we admit to our problems, we generate goodwill.  That goodwill keeps us afloat during the painful times and give us reason to rejoice during pleasant times.   Conversely, stubbornly refusing help and holding onto, even nurturing, our resentments just makes us internalize our own ill will and keeps us sick and miserable.

My voices did torment me in the beginning, but for a good reason.  They said that I had to be around people and help them even though what I really wanted to do was to crawl into a hole and possibly die.  They hurt me, but in some ways I asked for it.  Before the psychosis took hold of me I was mainly interested in myself and not oriented towards helping others.  As was my way, I pulled into myself, into self-gratification and fantasy.  I had been hurt badly, but I held only my resentment and it colored my world and led me more deeply into serious mental illness.

And that pattern of holding onto resentment repeated itself while I went through the early stages of my recovery and slowed down my progress.  I didn't regret the fact that I did help some people, but I continued to resent the voices' method of teaching me.  What began to change me inside out was the Buddhist practice of lovingkindness towards myself, the voices and the people I encountered.  That little shift in attitude that I cultivated on and off for years rescued me from my own self-centeredness.  It has taken a long time, but I'm in a much better place now and my attitude is good, is open and willing to keep trying to continue recovering and to helping others to do the same.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Cultivating Nirvana: Remembering To Remember

You've probably heard the phrase, "What's goes around, comes around."  This is the cyclical nature of karma.  Good will and good acts, and ill will and hurtful acts, will circle back to you, so you reap what you sow.  This is true for everyone.  But this pattern is not an expression of fate or destiny because you  have the free will to choose just what it is you want to sow.  This is where the benefits of waking up come into play and where the yearning for enlightenment takes root.  The more aware you are of your habitual patterns, that is, living on autopilot and thoughtlessly reacting to your environment, the more chances you get to sow the seeds of goodness taking the necessary steps towards enlightenment.

What is enlightenment?  That depends on you and what is most important to you.  I like to think that enlightenment must have the harmony of heaven.  We all want to be happy.  We yearn for heaven on earth and if we can't get it now, we imagine finding it in the time after we die.  I'm more concerned with cultivating heaven in the present moment.  Nirvana is in the now, even if you are tapping into the pain that runs through it or inside it.  The elements of happiness are already here.  This planet and the sun we orbit sustain our lives, and the life on this planet is a miracle.  That we breath in oxygen and out carbon dioxide continuously replenishing our blood supply is a good symbol of the harmony in every moment.  So people who practice awareness meditation of the breath focus in on that ever present harmony; they tap into a resource, into the perks of being alive.

Meditating on our breath lets us see how often we forget to notice our breath in the midst of being lost in thoughts and feelings.  In forgetting the breath, we forget our essence and the basic element of why we are alive.  We forget so very much.  I mentioned earth and the sun and the miracle of life here, but did you really stop and consider that?  Moments of appreciation and of awe we walk past as if we were wearing blinders.  I do this a lot of the time.  The voices used to say two phrases when I was acutely ill and they were "Forget to Remember" and "Remember To Forget".  If you forget to remember, it is understandable; forgetfulness happens and sometimes is necessary.  But when you remember to forget, you make a conscious choice to push it away.  I think we do both, forget and make a choice to forget.  I also think that we are aware and can make the choice to stay aware.  I see myself as this mixture of being partially aware and partially unconscious, sunk in amnesia.  I see my vulnerability and yet I am not as vulnerable as if I were totally asleep.  Within a speck of awareness are all the supports I need to keep practicing, if I can remember to not forget, not push away what is right in front of me.

But I do; I've trained myself since I was little to grab onto pleasure and push away pain.  Pain comes in many guises, from mild discomfort to torment with the whole range of intensities in between.  If we look honestly, we see that we co-exist with pain; it is part of the landscape.  It may be as simple as a sore back or a nagging worry, but the elements and potentiality of pain are close at hand.  Perhaps it is no wonder that we seek to distract ourselves with instant gratification.  We are still the helpless infant with the bottle or the breast.  Think about your beginnings, your infancy and childhood.  Think about your caretakers and the emphasis on learning and learning quickly, mostly through imitation.  And yet no one taught us how to crawl.  I remember taking care of a friend's baby when she was just starting to learn how to crawl.  I lay her on her back on a blanket on the floor, so there was no chance of her falling off anything, and I allowed myself the joy of watching her.  This particular baby had a lovely, open, cheerful spirit and she wasn't satisfied with just lying on her back staring up at the ceiling; she wanted to move.  And move she did, with the patience of a trained gymnast learning her routine.  But obviously she wasn't a gymnast and there were no rules, regulations or instinct for competition, there was just the simple yet powerful desire to move, to explore the world she found herself in.

I fell in love with the spirit inside that little girl and was grateful to be able to provide her with a safe place to experiment, practice and learn.  She was a good teacher, too.  A very mindful teacher.  She was in the midst of the joy of trying to learn something new.  She worked hard and gradually learned to crawl.  But a lot of our learning is not so natural, it is taught through the medium of a caretaker/teacher.  We have to learn how to pay attention, follow, imitate and interact.  Caretakers/teachers are human and were taught by other caretakers/teachers who made mistakes.  We learned good and bad behaviors from how other people behaved and acted around us.  Back to karma. But regardless of whether we behaved well or poorly, we got an abundant dose of instant gratification starting with the bottle or the breast and moving on to food, television, games, toys.  We were taught to seek out pleasure to cover up our uncertainty and pain, to pacify ourselves.  Distraction became a temporary antidote until there was a lull and the pain came back.

Maybe the underlying pain stems from the first few times we realized that we were helpless and that what we wanted most desperately was outside of us.  Born along with the sense of self is the sense of loss.  Yes and no are the first basic words we learn.  We said yes to being fed, held, cleaned and talked to, to being loved and no to the sense of separation and the ensuing insecurity.  Are the terrible twos terrible because that's when a child learns how to say "No!!" ?  When a child say no, it means so much more than just refusing to do a certain activity or task.  It's more a big NO to the human condition itself.  It's an expression of pain at the same time that it is a demand to stop the pain.  Unreasonable, passionate, expressive, this is what many assertions of self revolve around: the hurt, the anger and loss.

Cultivating nirvana in the present is about learning to let go of our reactions to loss long enough to realize that there is so much left over that is good.  The beginning of life for us all was nine months in the womb, sealed in, protected, well fed and one with our mothers.  Being born is a loss and yet what each of us gain is the world itself.  In order to survive we become explorers and every moment is a new frontier.  The baby learning to crawl has tapped into the joy of this.  She has her breath and body and the space to practice and learn.  As we practice, we make mistakes, but from those mistakes we learn even more than if we had done the practice flawlessly.  And sometimes mistakes turn into new discoveries.  Instead of doing it the "right" way, we do it another way that is just as right as the initial way.  That's a discovery in itself:  there are many ways to experience our lives and the choices make life workable.  We are not sealed up and dependent on one source of happiness as we were inside the womb.  We have freedom and many access points to happiness in every moment.

Instead of remembering to forget the pain in life through distractions, we could remember to remember that there is so much space around the pain and in that space is harmony, nirvana.  Even the pain itself is instructional and because of this it is also part of the harmony.  The question we should ask ourselves is not "What is wrong with this moment?", but "What is right in this moment?"  This shift of focus is monumental; it is a shift away from the belief in original sin and the experience of hell on earth towards a belief in original goodness, also called Buddha Nature, and heaven or nirvana in the here and now.  But before you can get to the question of what is right in this moment, you have to sit with your pain, acknowledge it, respect it and what it can teach you.  Don't be afraid of the pain.  Fear of pain magnifies the pain and distorts the greater truth.  When you sit with it like sitting with an ailing friend you de-escalate the suffering and thereby give yourself the strength to continue sitting instead of acting out, running away or stuffing your feelings and numbing out.  And when you stop and sit you give yourself the chance to reflect with balance and ask the question "What is right in this moment?"

I really believe that transforming ourselves and the world we live in towards peace and harmony is very possible, but it requires this shift in attitude in every individual.  No one can do the practice for you.  Look at and reflect on the pain you encounter in your lives; don't be so quick to label it as "bad" and don't let that mistaken assumption color your world.  Pain and pleasure are just part of the landscape of our lives, but they are also the best teachers we'll ever have.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Balancing Act Of Yin And Yang



We are like this seagull:  we can find balance or we can fall or we can even, symbolically, fly.  Balance allows us to land and settle and balance allows us to take off and fly.  The experience of falling also has balance in it, the balance of letting go and trusting despite the thrill or the fear of it.  To me this photograph is a good example of actual and potential balance, yin and yang in action.

In Chinese the literal meaning of the word yin is shadow and the literal meaning of the word yang is light.  The yin and yang symbol is often illustrated in black and white showing the greatest extremes co-joined in a balanced duality.  The symbol is perfectly contained yet implies movement.  It is supposed to represent the elements of nature, opposing yet not in opposition, rather interconnected.  Human beings are animals and evolved from nature and have literal and figurative elements of shadow and light in their make-up as does everything in our world.  This experience of contrasts is how we sense, and make sense of, ourselves and our environment.  We see the difference between sunlight and shadows or we feel the difference between the warmth from the sun and the coolness of the shadows.  These contrasts, and all the subtleties between them, make for the profound richness of our lives.

Duality, then, is an essential and intimate part of all our lives.  The yin and yang symbol, though it uses the visual language of extremes, really teaches about moderation, balance and the perfect compromise.  So why are humans often immoderate, unbalanced and in conflict?  The balance of yin and yang is perfection, heaven or "the pure lands", yet there is always flow and flux to it.  There are innumerable combinations which allow us to become unbalanced.  But is that lack of balance a lack of perfection?  Or is it the perfection of a process that moves towards a larger view, a broader picture?  We too often label the low points in our lives as bad and the high points as good when really they are both just different aspects of a fertile and fully experienced lifetime.

I don't mean to minimize the intensity that our suffering can reach, but suffering never is or has been the whole picture.  If it were, we would have no means of surviving and certainly none of being happy.  It is when we are seeing black, really imagining that all is hopeless and dark, that we can make the biggest fall of all into aggressive acts against ourselves and/or others.  But before the act comes the thoughts and feelings, the reactions to the real and imagined pain in our present moment.  Always there is the touch of light amidst a black background, but when we focus on the darkness and even add to the darkness, we blot out the one door out of our prison.  Controlled by our imagination we think there is no door to freedom, to the outside.  I'm convinced that the reality is that there is always a door available.

There is a Tibetan lojong slogan that goes, "Train in the three difficulties."  The first difficulty is to recognize mental illness as mental illness.  Pema Chodron uses the word neurosis, but I have found that it applies just as much to psychosis, depression and anxiety.  Recognition is intuitive awareness and awareness is the first major step towards beneficial change in yourself and towards others, which leads to the second difficulty which is to do something different after you recognize your illness.  Doing the usual thing, the habitual thoughtless thing, leads you to reinforce the original illness.  Instead of finding some liberation from sickness, you settle more deeply into it.  The only way to find the door, the access to light, is to take the blinders off your eyes.  That's doing something different.  The final difficulty is to make this your life's practice.

Actually, I think the first and second difficulty are one in the same.  The act of recognizing is an act of doing something different.  The question is how to you get to the point where you are ready to become aware?  I've been looking back on some of my adult life, reading a journal from the early years of my recovery, and I see now what I was unable to see then, that I was harboring, even cultivating, resentment towards these mysterious and challenging voices in my mind.  I was full of questions and I chased the questions wanting answers like a cat chasing its own tail.  Some of the questions were understandable, but others revealed my particular bias towards blaming them for my own ills.  Interspersed in the resentment was the germination of a compassion practice towards them and myself because we appeared to both be ill.  That practice was enough for me to see the touch of light in the midst of my persistent depression.

It's been almost eleven years since I entered into recovery.  The early years, when I was struggling to get my BFA degree, were not easy.  Now I can see that I made them harder.  I was self centered, self isolating and resentful, but I was also curious, thoughtful and basically non harming.  I did return again and again to the practice of gratitude and lovingkindness however imperfectly.  Anyway, it was enough to get me to this point where I'm more ready to be aware than I was before.  A lot more ready.  It's only been since I finished reading "Dharma In Hell" that I realized that I do have a daily Buddhist practice.  I practice lovingkindness towards myself, the voices and everyone, but I came to the practice gradually.  A little bit here and a little bit there while going in circles and falling backwards.  I believed strongly in that little ray of light and when I could I nurtured it.  None of it has gone to waste and life on the path continues.  I am just beginning to enter into compassion practice which is harder than lovingkindness practice in that I will have to feel the pain in myself, others and the situations we get ourselves into.

Next Tuesday, on September 11th, I will go to my first NAMI meeting in a nearby town.  This is very important to me and hopefully to the other people who attend.  It will give me the chance to be of service to a few of the people in my community.  Early in the acute stage of my psychosis, the voices ordered me to be of benefit to my community and despite battling the delusions and my paranoia I did help a few people out.  Then I pulled back into myself and gradually I have started reaching out.  It took me years just to reach out to people online and then years of me wishing that there was a support group to go to.  The time has come.  I'll be nervous, but I will work to stay open to the opportunities that present themselves to me, opportunities to share my story and to listen and learn from other people's stories.  The flux and flow of yin interacting with yang has brought me to this place, a place where I can finally open the door.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Book Review: "Dharma In Hell" by Fleet Maull

"I'm thoroughly convinced after spending fourteen years in prison with murderers, rapists, bank robbers, child molesters, tax dodgers, drug dealers and every sort of criminal imaginable, that the fundamental nature of all human beings is good.  I have absolutely no doubt in my mind."
                                                                                                                   Fleet Maull

Fleet Maull started out a Buddhist practitioner studying with Chogyam Trungpa, Pema Chodron's root teacher, in the mid 1970s into the mid 1980s.  During this time he also became both an addict and a cocaine drug smuggler.  He lived two lives side by side.  After being under investigation by federal agents for a while, he was indicted in May of 1985 and following the advice of some senior Buddhist teachers, he turned himself in.  He got a 30 year, no parole prison sentence.  This was his first and longterm introduction into hell.

His years of Buddhist training gave him a spiritual and practical foundation, a focus and a purpose, which, despite the hellish circumstances, he soon put to good use.  Being in such close contact with all the men suffering around him and wanting to be of service as his teacher Chogyam Trungpa had taught him soon shifted his attention from his own pain to the pain of others.  Not only did he start a meditation group, but he also found a way to begin a prison hospice program and became a hospice worker for the rest of his stay in prison.  He was particularly moved by the isolation and suffering of AIDS patients during a time when the fear of contracting AIDS was at its peak.

Meditation practice was anything but easy in an environment of overcrowding, noise and potential violence, but Fleet Maull was not deterred.  He committed himself wholeheartedly and set an example that other inmates could respect, some even follow.  Meditation was his life raft, but his service work with dying inmates gave him the spiritual food and water to sustain him through the many years that followed.  In this way, virtual strangers became friends and the friendships he created gave meaning to him and to those he helped.  Of course, it was not easy sometimes, but even the difficulties became important lessons that helped him to continue with his important work.

In the first chapter of "Dharma In Hell" the author compares his Buddhist practice in prison to the Buddhist training gotten by serious practitioners in charnel grounds.  Charnel grounds are cemeteries for the impoverished; it is where dead bodies are left outside to be eaten by animals and to decompose.  A core teaching for Buddhists is the teaching on the impermanence of life and the fact that death comes for every living thing.  Accepting impermanence and death is an advanced yet effective practice, one that Fleet Maull embraced and through it all as his practice deepened, so did his moments of happiness.
Not easy, but a very useful and very honorable way to do time.

"Dharma In Hell" is a rather short book, but it is a good book to read to get some insight into life in prison from the perspective of a spiritual seeker and practitioner.  There is a Tibetan Buddhist mind training slogan that goes, "When the world is filled with evil, transform all mishaps into the path of the bodhi."  This is just what Mr. Maull did, he took extremely difficult life circumstances and turned them into a spiritual path.  This is good news, not only for other inmates who would like to do that same thing, but for all of us who have struggled with harsh realities.  The hells we face on earth can be transformed, if not into paradise, then into close approximations of it.  But it takes dedication to practice, it takes courage and it takes a willingness to open your heart to others.

I can identify with Fleet Maull's experience of prison, though I have never been inside a prison.  I've survived a domestic violence relationship and that had at times the extremely restricted feel that I imagine prisons to have.  And then there was me getting through the acute stages of mental illness where the paranoia, which is a deeply rooted part of the illness, left me feeling exposed 24/7.  I felt as if I were never alone and as if I could not escape to freedom, no matter how much I wanted it.  More than that, I felt the daily torture of it all and no matter how many people I was around, I still felt isolated in my misery.  The fact that people such as myself can feel what it is like to be imprisoned, while not being locked up in an actual prison, says a lot about the human condition.  But that the institution of prisons exists in the US for over 2 million people on any given day says even more.

It says that we as a culture do not want to deal with the fact that people are human, that they make mistakes, that they get addicted, that they get pulled into violence amongst other things.  Over 400 teenagers in the state of Texas alone have been sentenced to life imprisonment.  More than 70,000 prisoners get raped each year.  At least 50,000 men are existing in solitary confinement each day.  The US has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world.  To add insult to injury businessmen have turned making prisons into private business ventures.  This is the wrong approach; prison reform is desperately needed.  Convicts are so much more than what they are convicted of, they are human beings and the potential for healing their illnesses and reforming their behaviors is great, if they are treated with common sense and respect.  Give a man or woman who has committed a crime some respect and responsibility and let the transformation begin.

Fleet Maull founded the Prison Dharma Network in 1987.  You can also find out more about him on his website: http://fleetmaull.com

Sunday, August 26, 2012

John Lennon's Killer Denied Parole For The 7th Time

I feel honor bound to make note of the fact that Mark David Chapman, who has been incarcerated for almost 32 years for murdering John Lennon on December 8th, 1980, has been denied parole for the 7th time since the year 2000.  It is not surprising to me that he has been denied parole and I don't see him ever becoming a free man, unless they release him as a very old man.  Because he killed John Lennon, who was a beloved and iconic figure, and because so many people still revile Mr. Chapman for his violent act, he will be treated as a special case and be denied the opportunities that other men have been granted after spending over 20 years in prison because of having committed a murder.

The reason I feel honor bound is that I believe that Mr. Chapman suffers from elements of the same illness I have suffered from, namely schizophrenia and other related illnesses.  Though I am amongst the majority of the mentally ill who have not been violent towards others, under other circumstances it could have been me locked away in prison with little hope of getting out.  And for me it brings up the question:  how should mentally ill people who have been violent be treated?  Many say, keep them locked up for life and others say kill them, but I think that is an evasion.  I know from experience that one can become extremely deluded and paranoid and then come out of it and return to some form of recovery.  The difference between me and Mark Chapman is that he committed one act, the act of murder, that he can never take back.  But does he really deserve to be locked up in a 6' x 10' cell, mostly in isolation, for the rest of his days?

Many people say yes, including Yoko Ono, who fears that Mr. Chapman, if released, would go on to murder one or both of John Lennon's sons.  Truth is more likely that Mr. Chapman would be in more danger of being harmed than of doing the harm because, even over 30 years later, some people still want violent retribution for what he did.  What Mark Chapman did was the result of severe mental illness and easy access to a gun and to ammunition, but some elements of society that believe so firmly in retribution, are also mentally ill.  I've read numerous comments from people, including a 12 year old girl, wishing for Mark Chapman only torture and death.  Even if I weren't leaning very strongly towards Buddhism, I would still believe in the preciousness of compassion.  I have been influenced enough by Jesus' instruction to love one's enemies, forgoing judgment in favor of compassion, to know that I believe that hatred cannot conquer hatred, that only love has the power to deeply heal even the hardest of men and women.

From what I've read, Mark Chapman is neither hard hearted nor uncooperative.  There were a few instances of acting out during delusional episodes in the first decade or so, but there has been no record of misconduct from him since 1994.  He has been described as a "model prisoner".  He is kept from most other inmates because there is fear for his safety still.  He is a Christian, more specifically a Born Again Christian or at least he was at his last parole hearing two years ago.  I have no idea if he was or is being given therapy, but it appears he hasn't taken psychiatric drugs for many years.  Early on he said he disliked psychiatry and resisted being labelled a schizophrenia sufferer, but he did hear voices and was under the sway of delusional thinking off and on for years.  He chose to plead guilty to the charge of murdering John Lennon, instead of pleading innocent by reason of insanity, though many of the psychiatric doctors who tested and interviewed him asserted that he was definitely psychotic.  Regardless of this, he accepts the judgment handed down to him and knows he may never be free.  Part of what sustains him is his faith in a higher power.  Within the solitude of his life and in his heart, he believes that he has been forgiven.

What if Mark Chapman was your brother, son or husband?  How would you respond to him?  What kind of treatment would you want him to have?  There are millions of people with mental illness in the U.S. alone with a percentage that has fallen into violent attitudes and actions and there are millions of family members and friends who have been affected by the mentally ill.  This is true for those who are addicts as well.  The network of people affected by mental illness combined with those affected by addiction is vast, yet too many of us still remain silent.  There is too much stigma and shame attached to mental illness.  That's one reason why I write in this blog.  I refuse the stigma and I refuse the shame and I hope to encourage others to follow and share their stories.  Of course, we all have to work our process through gradually, but at some point I think we will be given the opportunity to be of help to others and to openly question the narrow-mindedness of stigma and the punishment that often follows.

Everyone of us has made serious mistakes in life, but when judging others who frighten and repel us, we often turn a blind eye to our own shortcomings.  And sometimes by doing that we transform into the very kind of being that we once condemned.  Judgmental, violent, mentally unstable, if not in action then in attitude and in intent.  In becoming hardliners we have to watch out about becoming hypocrites, too.  I know that I was at my sickest when I was full of resentment and judgment and that's what prevented me from starting to heal.  I was so involved in my own delusional story line that I wasn't able to see the bigger picture.  The bigger picture is so big because it includes everyone.  There really is room enough in all our hearts for everyone, but we have to turn our will towards it and cultivate it like we would cultivate a garden.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Change Of Diagnosis And A Response To Michael Moore's film "SICKO"

Several months ago at my psychiatrist's office they changed several things.  Now one must pay the copay upfront, prescriptions are no longer written out but called into one's pharmacy and each patient gets a print out that lists the diagnosis and current medications.  I noticed that my diagnosis was no longer schizophrenia, but schizo-affective disorder.  Just when my psychiatrist changed my diagnosis I do not know, but he never informed me of it and so far I haven't talked to him about it.  I've been so used to labeling myself a schizophrenia sufferer that it has taken me these several months to re-name my condition.  The truth is that schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder and bipolar disorder are all related, but for some reason doctors seem to need to separate us.  Just about all my online friends suffer from schizoaffective disorder and several of them said that they thought I might suffer from the same thing because I've struggled with a lot of depression.  It's not so clear to me.  Many schizophrenia sufferers also suffer from depression, so what is the big difference?  Many professionals are not so sure and often misdiagnose patients or, as is true in my case, see a change from one condition to another very related condition.

So what is the difference between schizophrenia, bipolar and schizoaffective disorders?  Schizophrenia is considered a thought disorder, bipolar is considered a mood disorder and schizoaffective is considered a combination of a thought disorder and a mood disorder.  I'm not sure if I've got my statistics exactly correct, but generally speaking bipolar disorder is the most prevalent disorder out of the three affecting perhaps 3% of the population; schizophrenia affects about 1% and schizoaffective about .5% of the population.  Despite people with schizoaffective suffering from the worst of both schizophrenia and bipolar, it also appears to have a better longterm prognosis.  Not sure why.  Maybe there is more of a chance for balance instead of being stuck in one camp or another.

I've also read that anxiety disorders are fairly common for people with schizoaffective disorder.  The irony for me is that my problems with anxiety seem to stem from my high dose of the anti-psychotic Abilify.  Did I become schizoaffective because I began ingesting this medication?  Do medications, depending on their dosages, actually cause mental illnesses instead of preventing them??  This is an issue that Karen has also been exploring as she lowers her medications because she's seen that she is much healthier and productive on a lower dose of the anti-psychotic.  And since I lowered my dose of Abilify, I have had similar results.  Sometimes I wonder about conspiracy theories about pharmaceutical companies misleading so-called "consumers", which by the way is a horrible word for people who suffer from mental illness I think.  But that's just how they must see us and so that is what they call us.  I often wonder too about the Republican orientation towards glorifying business and the potential riches that come to mere individuals from doing business.  Business at the expense of morality is not business, it is swindling.

My brother gave me the documentary by Michael Moore called SICKO.  I saw it several years ago when it came out and watched it last night again.  I'm thinking of lending it to my friend Richard, who dodges calling himself a Republican, but who, in his views, really is Republican.  I have some hopes that some of what's in this critical, but also funny, documentary might make him pause and reflect and perhaps change his opinion.  He is after all a rehabilitative VA nurse.  He knows up close about how people suffer and die.  We have agreed several times that euthanasia should be a legal choice for people who are slowly dying while in pain.  Of course, he can't say that openly, but to me he sees the compassion of an overdose of morphine in certain cases.  I want the right to end my life if I so choose if I come down with something incurable and if that is denied to me in the future, I will find a way on my own, but it would be nice to go with a certain amount of dignity and in the company of family and/or friends.

If you haven't seen SICKO, do try to see it.  Yes, Mr. Moore's point of view is definitely left of center, but he interviews real people both in this country and in Canada, England, France and Cuba, countries that have successful universal care, that is government run healthcare for all.  I know the United States is a much larger country in the literal expanse of the land and in population and that that may make the changeover to universal care more complicated, but I still believe in time that it can and will be successful and stop all the unnecessary deaths and illnesses and heartache of too many Americans.  I have health insurance (at over $1000 a month), but this film shows me that this does not mean that I have security if I come down with a more serious health condition.  Right now, I have access to my medications, as does my brother, who suffers from Type 2 diabetes, but I can't be sure that I will always be covered, unless the Affordable Care Act goes into effect in 2014.

Mr. Moore's film has its funny moments certainly, but underneath it all it is very serious.  I think the humor is the sugar that makes the medicine go down more easily.  Humor is a bridge between opposing camps, at least sometimes.  Mr. Moore does mock the idea that the right holds onto like a dog with a bone that socialism is the anathema of democracy and capitalism.  He points out that we already have socialized institutions in place with the fire department, libraries, the police department, the postal service, etc... and our country has not fallen apart because of these public services.  If anything, we are more likely to fall apart without them.  Does the government need to be held accountable for infractions?  Yes, definitely, but so do private citizens who abuse their business privileges.  Health care for all should be a right and not a privilege for all people and without moral judgment against those deemed somehow unworthy.  Fact:  we are all going to die, many of us from sicknesses if not accidents and we must be compassionate about our eventual destiny and treat each other with dignity.  And yes, this does mean that those who have a great deal must contribute to those who don't.  The idea that people are superior because they are rich is to my mind a sick perspective.  They are not superior, they are damned lucky, no matter how hard they have worked.  People work very hard all over and most don't get a fraction in comparison.  This is not justice for all.  This is justice for some and that just doesn't cut it.

One Englishman that Mr. Moore interviewed said that the difference between his country and ours is that the English government is afraid when people protest, which English people have done over time with a fair amount of success.  He says poor Americans are disillusioned and instead of fighting back they are rather cowed into submission.  Many, too many, refuse to vote (like my friend Richard) because they've concluded that all politicians and people in government are corrupt.  And a lot are.  But that is not a very good reason to give up.  Maybe, with the advent of the internet and social networking, that is changing.  I really hope so.  The American frontier and farmer mentality of being the self made American and doing it on your own is outdated at best.  At worst, it degenerates into the ugly American view that many other countries have of us.  We can't do it on our own.  We are interdependent and have to care for each other, especially if we've been fortunate financially or otherwise.  Greed is a very ugly trait to encourage and develop and extol.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Visit From My Elderly Parents

My parents arrived at the Rochester NY airport 6 hours late due to bad weather at JFK in New York City.  The stress of traveling is hard on anyone, but especially on people who are in the 80s and so my parents were exhausted.  Of course, by the time they arrived it was nighttime and I had to drive them and my brother the hour and a half home back to our little college town.  I'm no longer very comfortable driving at night, but it had to be done and I did it.  We arrived at my parents hotel after midnight.  I left the Apple iPad with them and told them I would be over the following morning to give them some instructions on how to use it after they had had their breakfast.

I had done a lot of work beforehand scheduling daily activities for the week ahead.  I had also spent a lot of time learning to use the iPad because I really wanted my parents to get the most out of that device considering their home computer was practically defunct.  When I arrived at their room later that morning I was somewhat nervous about teaching them and curious about what their reactions would be.  I had planned to try and teach them for an hour and a half each morning and let them explore it on their own each evening.  My mother responded positively to the iPad, but my father was rather intimidated by all the information I was giving him about it.  He kept asking me how I managed to learn to use it and I kept telling him that I had had a month to learn it and that I learned it by exploring it, by making mistakes and trying again.  I told him that this is what he and my mother would have to do, too.

As the week progressed I saw that they were having trouble with the most basic things such as turning it on and off, adjusting the volume (my mother is hard of hearing) and charging it.  One thing I did try a couple of times was using something called FaceTime which is the Apple equivalent to Skype or video conferencing.  The FaceTime application came with their iPad and I downloaded the App to my Apple laptop.  Personally I found it very easy to use, but my parents struggled a bit.  They had to learn how to stand the iPad up in order to see the screen and to adjust the volume so that it was all the way up so that my mother could hear me.  Once we got it working, my mother was very pleased with it.  She does not really like using the telephone.  She likes to be able to see the person she's talking to and this program allowed her to do just that.  I told her that this would be great to use in the coming months instead of using the phone.  The only glitch in the whole thing is that the program takes WiFi and they do not have a WiFi hotspot in their apartment at home.  There are some WiFi hotspots in the elevator hallways and in the library at their retirement community, so they would have to bring the iPad there in order to make a connection with me until they got WiFi in their apartment.  I have my fingers crossed that they will go ahead and do that soon.

Otherwise, the week went quite well.  I took on most of the responsibility for taking care of my parents shielding my brother from some of the stress of it.  But I found that the stress was not so bad for me.  I attributed some of that to lowering my medications.  About three weeks ago I saw my psychiatrist and asked him if I could begin to lower the antipsychotic drug Abilify that I was taking at the highest dose, 60 mg.  He said yes and told me to halve it by taking one 30 mg tablet instead of two.  I was surprised by his readiness to reduce the amount by so much so quickly, but I was willing to give it a try.  One of the main reasons why I wanted to reduce the Abilify was that I had been having a lot of trouble with anxiety for several years since I had been taking the drug.  I found out that anxiety was one of the side effects of it.  I've come to conclude that this was the case because in the last three weeks my anxiety level has nearly disappeared to the point where I stopped taking the anti-anxiety medication Buspirone that I was supposed to be taking three times a day.  I didn't like that drug either, though it did help a bit, because one of its side effects is blurry vision and I noticed that that was happening to me after I took it.

What I'm finding, through trial and error as is the case for most of us taking prescribed medications, is that a higher dose of medication is not necessarily the best to reduce symptoms.  It is very hard to judge accurately because biochemistry varies from person to person.  The scientists/doctors do not know exactly how the anti-psychotic and anti-depression medications work, just that for some people they do work.  This is unsettling and means that each of us has to fool around with the guidance of our psychiatrists, trying different drugs at different doses.  Sometimes drugs that have worked well at reducing symptoms for years suddenly become ineffective forcing those affected to try different drugs.  And it all takes time, sometimes months to get to the right dose or combination.  On top of that again there is no guarantee that that will work for years at a time.  I am relieved that I can lower the Abilify, which has not only reduced anxiety but has reduced the frequency of the voices that I hear, because I was at the very highest dose with no leeway.

So at the lowered dose I was better able to handle the stress of going to the Grassroots music festival and of taking care of my parents while they visited.  This year has been one of the best years all around since I got so ill in the Spring of 1998.  I also attribute that to reconnecting with old friends online and to making a new in person friend (Sam) in my community.  For so many years I have lived in isolation, even before I became psychotic, and now I have rejoined the human race.  What a wonderful thing.  My circumstances have gone from truly desperate to very good, even joyful at times.  I am glad to be alive and glad to have the people I care about alive and well.

My parents had a good time.  We took about three road trips, one to a Subaru dealership in a suburb of Rochester.  My present car is about eleven years old and it is time to get a new one.  I found the car I wanted right away and will be getting it very soon.  I'm really looking forward to the peace of mind an all wheel drive car will give me during the hard winters we get here.  My mother said she was very happy and relieved that I would be getting this car because sometimes she worries about me.  A couple of days after we looked at the car at the dealership, my present car would start but not stay started and I had to have it towed to the shop I have gone to for several years.  Turns out there was nothing really wrong except there was water in the gas.  I didn't know this  but sometimes the gas you pump at the gas station has some water in it and causes this problem.  It's never happened to me before, but it firmed our resolve to go ahead and get the Subaru.

Because I wasn't exactly sure if my car was up to driving my parents to the airport, we asked our friend Richard to take us up.  Luckily it was a Sunday and he had the day off and could do it, so we all went up to Rochester.  We stopped off at a very good Thai restaurant and treated him to a good meal and gave him some extra cash for his trouble.  A couple of hours after I got home I got a call from my father saying that they were still at the airport because JFK was closed due again to bad weather.  I told him I would reserve a room for them at a nearby (within walking distance) hotel until they could leave the following day.  Normally I have a strong aversion to using phones; I get very anxious, but this whole trip I was able to use the phone to call my parents and make reservations.  I've been getting better and better about using phones especially since I started talking on the phone to my childhood friend Rita every week or so.  Thank you Rita!  Anyway, my parents did get back to their home in Florida the next day, thank goodness.

It was great to spend time with my parents.  Though they tire much more easily now, they looked great and I'm hoping they live in good health for a while longer.  My father has a rare, but treatable, form of leukemia.  Five years ago he went through chemotherapy.  The doctors said that he would have to be retreated in five years, so that what he did before he came to visit.  He responded to the treatment though he continues to bruise easily.  If all goes well and he survives, he will be treated again in five years.  Till then I'm hoping to stay in closer touch with both my parents using FaceTime once or twice a week.  That's another change for me because when I was sicker I was not good about keeping in touch, but since I started sharing my car with Sam, seeing her each week, I also started to call my parents faithfully on Wednesday evenings.

One last thing:  I found out last week that a couple who I met three years ago, who suffer from mental illness but are in a firm recovery, went through the NAMI (National Alliance On Mental Illness) training to start a mental health support group nearby.  It is scheduled to start hopefully in September.  I am excited about it and very grateful to them for having the stamina and dedication to do this for our community.  A month ago I was seriously considering yet again starting a support group in my town, but now I think I will dedicate myself to this new group.  Not only will I start to get the support I need, but I think I can do some good for others directly.  If after six months the group goes well and I learn the pattern and organization of a NAMI group, perhaps I will go through the training myself with someone I meet in the group and eventually start a group in my town.  We shall see.