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.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Value Of Reaching Out

I have been telling myself to write a blog for a couple of weeks now, but I just haven't felt like writing much, though I'm still talking into my tape recorder daily.  Anyone who reads this blog knows that I do this, make an enthusiastic start in one creative direction and then go in another direction.  Often I return to what I left off, but that can take weeks, months, even years.  When I do pick something creative up again, I'm in a stronger position most of the time, as if the inactive time was laying the foundation for another active time.  The learning process is always going on because changes, subtle and not so subtle, continue from birth to death.

Changes.  The change of the moment for me is a change of taking on more personal responsibility with the people in my life.  Sam had to give up her truck because she couldn't afford to fix it, so I am continuing to share my car with her, which means I see her once or twice a week.  Richard has been feeling ill and so I've asked him to come over to my house on Saturdays to have a home cooked meal and some Sangria with me.  My mother has been feeling uncomfortably dizzy of late and she experienced a sharp pain in her side one day a couple of weeks ago, so I've set up a day and a time each week to give her a call, something I was not doing.  My brother I see once a week, sometimes to go out to lunch, sometimes to shop for food and supplies.  My old friend Rita and I keep in touch by phone and email and my other old friend Amy (who I haven't written about yet) I write to (most of the time) on Friday evenings.

I continue to find that I must have time alone, but as long as I do, then I think I am up for cultivating relationships with the people I care about in this world.  I find that increasing some of my face to face contact with people, especially during the holidays, has meant that I have spent less time on the computer interacting with my online friends (especially Karen and Jen who I can count on to leave wonderful comments on my blog).  I think this is okay for now because I need to get used to being with others in person.  I've spent so much time online over the last 10 years, but not much time with offline friends because I didn't really have any other than my brother and sometimes Richard.

Ten years ago I had my last nervous breakdown; I mark my decision after that to commit to taking the anti-psychotic medications the beginning of my road to recovery.  A decade of recovery, a decade of being on rather high doses of anti-depressant and anti-psychotic medications, a decade of being obese, a decade of creative pursuits in art, music and writing.  Recovery is a mixed bag, then again, life for most of us is a mixed bag.  Now I have a couple of friends who have either stopped taking their medication or are gradually weaning themselves from them.  They are trying to redefine recovery or at least testing whether they can still be in recovery and not be on the medications.  I am not brave enough to do that.  I am in recovery, but I continue to feel the power of my illness on certain days.  Honestly, it scares me and I don't know if I could remain relatively balanced in the face of it without the help of the medications.  Also, I feel myself opening up to having connections with others.  For me that is a rare and precious thing that I couldn't do if I were mentally unbalanced and self-protective (i.e. withdrawn).

I've written about my self-imposed isolation and I've written about how I see schizophrenia as a form of ego imbalance.  Pema Chodron has said that we need people in our lives to point out where our blind spots are.  For someone with schizophrenia, blind spots are the heart of delusions and paranoia.  Other people can see more clearly than we can where our prejudices about ourselves and others lie.  Whether they succeed at showing us this depends on our willingness to search for the truth and our willingness to listen closely.  I think I've had the willingness to look for the truth but I haven't given others the opportunity, until recently, to share their versions of the truth, which is, in effect, not giving myself the opportunity to listen closely to others and to learn.

This tendency to strongly withdraw from others is typical for people with schizophrenia.  I used to think it was an instinct at both self-preservation and preservation of the species by not passing on the genetic information for developing schizophrenia through procreation.  The instinct for self-preservation is sparked by the traumatic injury of acute psychosis.  What do wounded animals do?  Withdraw until their wounds heal.  I've been sick with active schizophrenia for close to 14 years.  The first three years were the hardest:  three breakdowns, little use of anti-psychotic medications.  That was a traumatic time for me and though the voices directed me to be around people, I still couldn't confide in any of them what I was experiencing within my mind.  I put on a helpful persona around people and did help them, but at the same time I was in need of help myself and felt I had nowhere to turn except to my therapist.  She did help, but I needed more help than that.  I couldn't find that help in my community (no mental health support groups around here still) and so I decided to go back to art school.  I thought the art community around here would give me some pleasure and purpose, maybe even a sense of belonging.  Then I had my breakdown at the end of the first semester back.

Having a breakdown while at school made me come close to leaving school.  Then I started taking the anti-psychotic medications along with the Prozac I had been taking all along. The delusions and paranoia began to fade, but I fell into a suicidal depression, which lasted for months while my psychiatrist gradually increased my medication.  Again I came close to leaving school.  But I didn't.  I stayed and did some uneven, sometimes mediocre, work and I withdrew from most personal contact.  I did my work, but missed classes and eventually I graduated.  I didn't find the sense of community I was looking for there.  And I still felt wounded.  It's important to note that any traumatic event in a person's life can take years to heal.  Trauma is a deep wound.  There is no way to heal quickly.  This is a hard lesson to learn for the new initiate into severe mental illness.  First of all, you will feel intense personal pain (that's the trauma) and then you will have to fight to survive it (over 10 percent don't survive this acute stage of the illness).  If you do survive the psychotic breaks, you will have to endure a period of severe depression as you wake up to the fact that you've been living inside a delusion, possibly for years.  Even with medication, the depression can linger for years, varying in intensity.

The next place I turned to for a sense of community was the internet.  I spent hours reading and posting on message boards related to schizophrenia and started to make a few friends.  Then I began this blog in November of 2006 and discovered other blogs by mostly women with schizoaffective disorder.  These were a very smart and creative group of people and I felt as if I finally had found a place to belong.  I was inspired to start this blog in the first place because I had found Pamela Wagner's blog (WAGblog) around the time I read her and her sister's book Divided Minds.  I was impressed and charmed by Pam's fresh intelligence and her insight.  Even better than that she allowed me to write to her directly and for a while we had an email exchange going on.  Through Pam's blog I believe I discovered Christina Bruni, another powerfully creative person who has survived the worst of this illness and has gone on to be amazingly informative and useful to the schizophrenia community online. Her website is www.christinabruni.com  Her memoir of her experience with schizophrenia will be published next fall and is called Left Of The Dial which is also the name of her personal blog.

Then there is Jen "Daisybee" and her blog Suicidal No More: Choosing To Live With Schizoaffective Disorder which has become very popular and for good reason.  Again, another very intelligent, creative, dedicated person who despite severe mental and physical illnesses has gone on to work at a part time job and go to school part time to get her Bachelor's Degree in Social Work.  She's also a dedicated feminist and member of The National Organization for Women (NOW) and an advocate for the mentally ill through The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).  I found her blog when she was down in the dumps:  no job, no boyfriend, severe depression, physical ailments and elements of psychosis.  She was in a lot of pain then and negative, but her intelligence and sensitivity shone through her writing and I kept coming back to check on her and give her some encouragement.  It was a pleasure to see her pull through the worst of it.  And now she is having a measure of success.  I believe she will attain some of her goals, to become a social worker for mental health and to write at least one book.

More recently I met another exceptionally bright, talented and dedicated woman who also struggles with schizoaffective disorder.  People who follow this blog know her as Karen Sorensen.  Her blog is Schizophrenia And Art and her artist website is schizoaffectiveartist.com  What strikes me about Karen and all these women is that they are not only highly intelligent and talented, they are very, very honest and very giving of themselves.  Pamela and Karen are both fascinating visual artists, admirably dedicated to their art work.  I think I could go so far as to say that they live to be creative every day.  They are both mastering their art following the old fashioned technique of hard work.  At the same time they are writers.  Their blogs provide a window into the ups and downs of an intelligent artistic life that has been affected by schizophrenia.  I'm drawn to Karen's blog in particular because there's an honesty and intimacy to her writing, that and I love seeing and reading about her process as a visual artist because I, too, have some interest and skill in the visual arts.

There are other people who belong in this group, but I don't have the time or space to include them.  I've chosen these four women because I highly respect all of them and because they all have active blogs and I want to draw attention to them.

I don't think I could have gotten to this point of making a face to face friend with another woman in my community without the help of these women online and the help of my brother, Richard, Rita and Amy over the last two years.  So far I've stepped up to being responsible towards Sam and I'm hoping over time we become close friends who support each other and others in the small community that lives here in Western New York.

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