A Recovery Blog

This blog is about my continuing recovery from severe mental illness. I celebrate this recovery by continuing to write, by sharing my music and artwork and by exploring Buddhist ideas and concepts. I claim that the yin/yang symbol is representative of all of us because I have found that even in the midst of acute psychosis there is still sense, method and even a kind of balance. We are more resilient than we think. We can cross beyond the edge of the sane world and return to tell the tale. A deeper kind of balance takes hold when we get honest, when we reach out for help, when we tell our stories.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Imperfect Sanctuary

I live in a house that's too big for me, filled with mess and clutter. For years now, since soon after I became ill, I stopped sleeping in my bedroom and began sleeping on the living room couch. Though messy and cluttered it is the nicest part of the house. It's a fairly large room because there is no division between the dining area and the living room, with a loft (that is wastefully used to house two kitty litter boxes and yes, you guessed it, clutter!) and a Cathedral (I think) ceiling that has a ceiling fan. There is also a woodstove that I haven't used in years. The reason I haven't used it is part psychological and part laziness. The psychological reason is that Brendan, my abusive, alcoholic ex-boyfriend (now dead) loved it and was in charge, for the most part, for keeping the fire going. He would go outside and chop wood and furtively drink while I was warm inside. I liked the fire too. There was nothing like a fire to really feel the pleasure of the heat when the rest of the house was cool and the outside was frigid. For the most part my memories of Brendan and the fire are good and that may be why I have avoided using the woodstove, that and I can't chop wood even if my life depended on it. I guess I haven't wanted to miss him and so I just have shut the memories of him out of my head.

The reason I'm writing about the woodstove is that yesterday morning I woke up to the sound of a bird trapped in it. This happens every now and then because there is no screen around the opening on the roof. I keep meaning to have someone fix that but never get around to it. One Fall I had a bat in the house. It was quite an experience getting it out of the house, though I did find the creature hanging upside down on some curtains fascinating to look at. Other than that one time with the bat, it's always been unfortunate birds that fall into the wood stove pipe. My ritual to get the bird out of the house is to put the cats in a back room and proceed to open up most of the windows and doors. I also turn off the ceiling fan. Then I tentatively open the woodstove and wait for the bird to fly into the house. It always startles me when it does. This time the bird didn't come out right away and I waited wondering if I had made a mistake. Then suddenly it flew out, a grackle I think and very fortunately flew out the door. Other birds have not been so fortunate, flying into windows and damaging their beaks, even bleeding but this bird got out without a scratch and I heaved a sigh of relief.

For the few moments when the windows and doors were open and the sound of the birds outside came into the house along with a breeze, I thought how strange we humans are to want to block nature out of our houses. At the same time I was worrying about another bird flying into the house while I waited for the one in the woodstove to fly out, I was enjoying how liberating it was to have an open house. My fantasy house would have a center courtyard complete with a tree or two and a garden, a welcome place for me, my cats, insects and any brave bird. I could sunbathe there in complete privacy and feel the thrill of being outside in any season. Instead I have a back porch which I rarely sit out in, still nervous about the next door neighbors seeing me. Very irrational of me as I know I have every right to enjoy sitting outside just as they do, but I'm shy and when it comes to my neighbors I feel guilty. I haven't been a good neighbor all these years. Only their oldest daughter has actually come into my house several times, the rest of the family I've never invited inside. It's really shame that has held me back from being a good neighbor. First the shame of domestic violence and addiction and then the shame of mental illness. I'm a mess and so is my house and I don't want my neighbors, so close to my imperfect sanctuary, to know how I actually live. And so I forgo knowing them and how they live, forgo the possible friendship and support we could have shared all these years.

I think some of this has to do with growing up in Brooklyn. So many people were living so close together that most of the people on my block my family and I didn't know. People kept to themselves and so I learned to keep to myself also. When I moved six hours away far into the country, I had only one neighbor close to me. I was 27 at the time and (once again) ashamed of myself because I wasn't working. So I felt shy about getting to know these neighbors and I mostly kept to myself. Very soon after that Brendan began living with me and he, too, had reclusive personality traits and we kept to ourselves most of the time. Not healthy but that's the way it was.

It's this idea of the preciousness of privacy that has gotten to me. In the city where there are millions of people all around, it's natural to value privacy or in Brendan's case he grew up in a wealthy suburb where neighbors and mothers kept tabs on everything that was going on and created an oppressive social network. Both of us had reasons for not being neighborly. Neither of us really knew how I think. We needed to be invited and encouraged, brought into the fold so to speak and that just never happened. Instead I've kept my distance and so have my neighbors. Sometimes I pray for their well-being especially after learning that the husband had cancer (though he appears to be well now). It's ironic but my brother knows more about my neighbors than I do because the three daughters have all hung out at the bars in town just as my brother has for the past twenty years. Occasionally he mentions the oldest daughter who is now about the age I was when I first arrived here. She now is married and lives in town and she's friends with my brother. But no matter how much I'd like to pry, I don't. But I told my brother that it was okay for him to tell anyone that I suffer from schizophrenia. I guess I want my neighbors to know that I'm sick and not arrogant, want them to know that there are reasons why I'm socially withdrawn.

Still, because no one shows up at my doorstep, I have this sanctuary feel about my home. I disturb no one and no one disturbs me. It's peaceful here, even with the occasional bird stuck in the woodstove and I value my life. But I do wish that someday my house will be clean and organized and I can willingly invite people into my home and share some of myself with them as friends do with one another. I do believe I will...someday, maybe sooner than I think.

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