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, February 23, 2008

Nature Up Close & At A Distance

I give the birds and squirrels and deer a little treat each day just after I wake up: sunflowers seeds, peanuts, corn and a few apples. Today was the first time the deer came out to greet me. From my front steps I threw the apples to them and they didn’t run away. One deer sort of danced around a little almost showing off his white behind, but not running away. So I stayed still for a while and watched them eat the apples. They are lovely animals, more graceful than the mule deer out west. Usually I watch them from my window. I noticed that there is one deer without a front leg that seems to manage to survive despite her handicap; she is accepted and therefore protected by the herd. It is amazing and reassuring to think there is a precedent in nature for taking care of the handicapped. It is also a tribute to the resilience of that particular deer that she is still relatively strong and healthy. May she live long and prosper.

The birds are not so happy that the deer have discovered my little oasis, more competition for them. Yesterday, as I put out the food mixture, the chickadees fly close by me to get to the food. Their favorite? The peanuts. These birds are so small, yet so brave. Perhaps their smallness adds to their agility which is why they are the only ones to have the courage to approach me. And there are so many of them this year. One after another comes towards me, almost landing on me. Some make their chicka-dee-dee-dee warning sound; always there is the gentle whir of their wings. These last couple of days there has been the added blessing of blue skies and sunshine and I had the thought that I should bring a chair outside to sit on after I put out the bird seed. I live in the country and yet, except for feeding some of the wildlife, I keep nature at a distance. This puzzles me because I feel a heightened awareness, a heightened sense of being alive when I’m out of doors, especially when the birds, squirrels, and deer are around.

I watched a PBS program that compared the intelligence of apes, primarily chimpanzees and bonobos, to the intelligence of children. It was fascinating to witness some of these apes understanding and responding to numbers and verbal language. It seemed so obvious to me that these animals are our relatives. One experiment, first with chimpanzees and then with four year old children, showed how our intelligence differs. A box was brought out and an adult human showed a chimp what she had to do in order to get a treat from the box: first take a stick and rub it here and put it in a hole there and then go to a different spot and pull out the treat. Well, this is what the chimp did. Cut to a room with an adult human and a child, same box and same procedure. The child did as the chimp had done following the procedure and then taking the treat. Next part of the experiment: a new box was brought out, but this box was made of clear plastic and the treat was clearly visible. The chimp cuts to the chase and goes right to the treat. When the clear box is brought out to the child, instead of doing as the chimp had done and going for the treat, he follows exactly the same procedure as in the first experiment and THEN takes the treat. The fact of the matter is that the procedure has nothing to do with getting the treat and yet the children follow the ritual because that is what an authority figure taught them to do. Who is smarter--the chimp or the child? And why do we slavishly follow what we’ve been taught without using our innate intelligence to solve obvious problems?

Why? Because we are taught as small children to be conformists. And once children are taught, they proceed to teach each other over and over again. Children are very quick to point out when another child is doing something “wrong”, that is, differently from the way they’ve been taught. The child who is individualistic will too often be ridiculed by the group as not doing things in the “right” way. This pattern of group think is the pervasive pattern in the world. And it has its uses, say, in people following traffic signs when walking or driving. If we didn’t follow some rules as individuals in a group, there would be no doubt accidents and fatalities. Learning rules and following them requires patience and a basic awareness. The problem arises when a new way is introduced or a new solution. Once we’ve learned something, there is a great resistance to changing the procedure, no matter how sensible the change is. In our culture conservatives want to stick with what has worked in the past and progressives want to introduce change and this creates one of many basic conflicts in society. The old versus the new. I think most of us are more conservative than we can freely admit. We follow what we’ve been taught and don’t question.

Well, I’m going to keep questioning... So why do I keep nature at a distance when I live in the country? After all I am an animal myself. But that’s another taboo idea. It’s ingrained into the human psyche that we are greater than the animals, that we’re somewhere between animals and angels. Are angels so divorced from nature too? For me, a chunk of my belief in the existence of a higher power goes right back to nature. God is on this planet and in the universe, in space and in the atmosphere, in the soil and in the trees, and in every living creature. But there are also contradictions in nature as in human life. Nature fosters life and robs life. There are natural miracles and natural disasters. And there is the food chain, predators and prey. Did God create that and if so, why? Humans are predators to other animals (including, of course, other humans) and yet, unlike the tiger or the shark, humans seem unique in their ability to torture. The tiger or shark is hungry, pure and simple, but the human does not have to be hungry in order to kill. In fact when humans kill other humans it has nothing to do with hunger.

This has little to do with feeding the wildlife outside my house or does it? The birds and squirrels and deer look at me with a great deal of caution, as they should, for I am a human and humans are unpredictable, generous and kind one day and out to kill another day. I, too, look at other human beings with a certain amount of caution, especially strangers near my home and even my neighbors. One of the reasons I don’t stay outside is because I’m nervous to be seen by my neighbors or people passing by in cars. But that is my own hang up really and I should get over it. I don’t think anyone who lives on my road wants to hurt me. It’s not that so much as I don’t want to interact with anyone. I don’t know what to say. But it’s different with the chickadees and the deer (or my cats indoors), I don’t have to say anything. I just have to be.

Krishnamurti And Thoughts On Thoughts

“Our chief concern is the transformation, the radical change, of the human mind....Unless that radical revolution, that psychological change, comes about, there will be no end to conflict, no end to suffering and all the violence that is going on throughout the world....This change cannot possibly be brought about without knowing oneself, self-knowledge....Unless one understands one’s self, the self of every day--what it thinks, what it does, its devotions, its deceptions, its ambitions, all its self-centered activities, its identification with something noble or ignoble, the state or some ideal--one is still within the field of the ‘me.’” ---Jiddu Krishnamurti

Yesterday I was reading bits and pieces of a book called God In All Worlds: An Anthology of Contemporary Spiritual Writing. I was trying to inspire myself to think more deeply about my belief in some form of higher power. Well, I wound up reading aloud into the tape recorder a quote by Krishnamurti. The quote begins: “Questioner: There are many concepts of God in the world today. What is your thought concerning God? Krishnamurti: First of all, we must find out what we mean by a concept. What do we mean by the process of thinking?....” And suddenly, I was caught up in his perspective. What is thought? After all I suffer from schizophrenia which is classified as a thought disorder and I’ve never really considered what a thought is. I promptly went to my collection of books and found a book called Total Freedom: The Essential Krishnamurti. A while ago, I think before I got sick, I picked up this book and read through parts of it, even writing in the margins, as I sometimes do. Browsing through the pages it was obvious that I had spent some time with this book, but that I had forgotten most of it.

Krishnamurti (1895-1986) was an Indian philosopher and writer who developed a substantial following. He believed that the root of human suffering lay in thoughts. The radical transformation he often talks about (that he certainly went through when a young man) turns on self study and understanding. And so he studied himself and discovered that all thought was divisive and created conflict within him. Eventually he came to this conclusion: “The chaos in the world, the misery, the starvation, the poverty, the brutality, the violence, the mess that is going on, the madness that is going on, is created by thought.” (p.273)

It is true we are conditioned by our families and friends, by the culture we live in. It is also true that we condition ourselves with our own likes and dislikes. We are taught or teach ourselves to think in a certain way depending on our environment and there are invariably others who think the opposite way. There is conflict and the potential for more conflict. We maneuver our way around it and through it. The mind seeks security through its thoughts, but, as Krishnamurti writes, “Security is an illusion.” Security is an illusion and you have to wade through danger to get to the Truth.

Krishnamurti did not believe in Jesus or Buddha or any religious figure; he believed in Reality or Truth. For him, that was the higher power. But he saw that the very process of thinking got in the way of experiencing Truth. He saw that many people mistook words and language for Truth or focused on the messenger of Truth (Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, etc...) instead of the Truth itself. But what is Truth? What is Reality? How do we distinguish day after day and night after night between what is real and what is false? I think it’s safe to say that everyone gets lost through mistaken impressions and misinformation, but most of us hold to the same basic reality. We all know that fire is hot and water is wet; we know that children grow up into adults; we know the difference between “yes” and “no”. In fact, we know so many things that if we stop to name everything we know we would lose count of it. But in that vast sea of known things I think we, perhaps out of a kind of necessity, start taking too many things for granted. We take language for granted.

How many of us can remember back to when we were children learning our native tongue? What were we taught first? Our names and the names of our family members. Language and identity became deeply intertwined. I’ve heard of the “terrible twos” when children learn how to how to say “NO!” Then language became about will and will power. But ultimately language is about naming things and thus dividing things up. This thing is not the same as that thing, just as I am not the same as you. And yet is that the Truth? We forget when we name things that everything in our world, perhaps in the universe, is made up of the same stuff. Certainly there are all kinds of variations, but the basic components are what they are. This is true for life experience. My life is not so different from your life. I have experienced sadness and happiness and everything in between; so have you. And yet we are quick to notice differences instead of similarities. And language serves to foster this divisiveness. We are human beings and we live on this one planet and yet we divide ourselves into separate nations with separate types of language and separate religions or philosophies. And those very distinctions lead to one of the most terrible human activities: war. If we worked as one unit, there would be no poverty, no starvation, no war, even disease would be greatly reduced or restricted.

Instead we choose through our language and actions to divide and conquer rather than unify and share. I remember when I was in high school I had a knapsack to hold my books and on it I wrote down a quote from a song by Crosby, Stills and Nash: “If you smile at me I will understand because that is something everybody, everywhere does in the same language.” That is a truism, a genuine smile can open the way to a real communion in a way that words cannot. I can say “Hello, it is very nice to meet you” but if I don’t smile when I say it much of the meaning of the greeting is lost. I’d take a smile over a word any day. A smile is from the heart and is intuitive. A smile is inclusive and not divisive. A smile welcomes instead of instructs.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Painful Legacy And Beyond

My father had a nervous breakdown in his mid thirties; I’m not sure exactly when, whether it was soon after my brother was born, or around the time that I was born several years later. I don’t know because my father doesn’t like talking about it and I’m uncomfortable prodding him. He said to me that his breakdown had nothing to do with my schizophrenia, but I disagree. Mental illness is mental illness and is part of both of our histories, like it or not. He spent two months in a hospital and two years in therapy, all talk, no drugs. Luckily for him, and the rest of us, that was enough to keep him stable and allow him to find a measure of success as a corporate advertising lawyer.

My brother showed signs of mental illness in his early childhood. As he got older he voiced his resentment at being forced to go to therapists; he thought, and probably rightly so, that his parents were the ones who should be in therapy. The truth is we all should have been in therapy because we were a moderately dysfunctional nuclear family. I say moderately dysfunctional because my parents were not physically or sexually abusive, though on more than one occasion my mother could be verbally abusive, in a knee-jerk unthinking way. Of course, she had her reasons. It was the 1960’s and she and my father were, in many ways, still ruled by the attitudes of the 1950’s. She stayed at home with the kids while he went out into the world and worked to provide for his family. It became clear to my brother and me that she pointedly resented being the primary caretaker. She wanted him to take on more of the responsibility.

My father’s breakdown must have set the stage early on. My mother was left to take care of my brother while my father stayed in the hospital. This was not what she had bargained for, but being dutiful and stubborn was part of her nature and she stood by her child and waited for the return of her husband. What did she think and feel during those two months he was away, knowing that their future was so uncertain? Once I broached the subject of my father’s breakdown (many years later when I was finally informed of it), but she stayed loyal to his privacy and chose to remain silent. But I know my mother well enough to say that she might have been more angry than sympathetic to his plight.

I was an accident (again something I found out later), which makes sense because why would my parents even consider having another child so soon after my father’s breakdown? This was over ten years before Roe Vs. Wade made early abortions legal and my parents were nothing if not law abiding. Where my brother was hyperactive, I was affectionate. Where my brother was deemed “emotionally disturbed” and sent quickly from public school into a progressive private school, I was crowned “normal” and sent to public school. Other than the fact that I had the annoying tendency to whine, I was, on the whole, a “good” child; I did well in school and was part of a small group of friends and I didn’t get into trouble. This allowed my parents to focus more of their energies on trying to cater to my brother and treat whatever was ailing him.

What was ailing my brother was that he had an emotionally withdrawn father and a sometimes overbearing mother and a whiney sister. He felt like he was some sort of scapegoat for our personal faults, both hidden and obvious. And, in some ways, he was, which is why he turned away from his family and towards his grade school friends. By nine years old he was hanging out and getting stoned. Later he would graduate to harder drugs: downers, speed, cocaine. He was a child of the 60’s, immersed in the music and politics of the times. And he was very bright despite his spotty academic record. He learned to overcompensate for that by becoming verbally assertive/aggressive. His room invariably looked as if a tornado had struck it, but his mind had order and he prided himself on having a good memory.

What he wanted was an athletic, outgoing father. Someone ballsy and engaged. But our father was intellectual rather than athletic and more controlling than brave. But he was also smart, knowledgeable and interested in history and politics. This was the tentative bridge between them.

I was bright, but not knowledgeable, artistic rather than verbal. My brother chose to verbally compete with our parents, sucking up knowledge, but I didn’t even try to compete with any of them. I was the youngest in the family and intellectually the least confident, but I was perceptive. I was detached enough to see the family dynamic; sometimes I was the peacekeeper and other times a lay therapist for my mother and brother who had a kind of love/hate relationship. I also was the one who defended my father when my mother and brother jointly attacked him.


A few weeks ago I was talking with my father on the phone about his family and he mentioned that a first cousin of his probably suffered from schizophrenia. This cousin had threatened to harm his mother and then was hospitalized for most of his adult life. But that’s all the information that I got about him. My father then went on to paint a sensitive picture of his own Irish Catholic family where he had been, for the most part, the only child in a house full of adults. He even went so far as to talk about his father, who was both an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler. He said there was no liquor in the house, so his father would go out to drink and come home very depressed. The next day he would sleep a lot. My father and his parents lived in his father’s sister’s house along with other relatives and so there was a built in support system to take care of his father when he drank or gambled away money. My father said his family was warm and social but not overly intellectual. Still, despite my father’s obvious fondness for his family, he did not follow his Irish Catholic roots. Instead, he became anti-Catholic, intellectual and somewhat emotionally aloof. Instead of marrying a not overly intellectual woman and having a brood of kids, he chose an intellectually bright woman and had just two children. And instead of inheriting his father’s addictions, he had a temporary nervous breakdown and unwittingly may have passed on the traits that led to his children’s struggle with mental illness.

This is a lopsided portrayal. My father had his burdens to bear and he did bear them; he also did take care of his family and does to this day. My mother and brother might still argue with him over the way he takes care of us, but they can never say the his intentions were meant unkindly or that he’s a lazy, good for nothing bum. My father is a good man, just as my mother (who I have yet to discuss more fully) is a good woman. The mental illness in the family never interfered with them handing down to my brother and me a desire for honesty, intellectual curiosity and kindness. The drawbacks that we have inherited or acquired have not stopped us from being good people, thanks in a large part to our parents.

No Man Is An Island

“1. A happiness that is sought for ourselves alone can never be found: for a happiness that is diminished by being shared is not big enough to make us happy.” Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island, p.3

Is this what I’ve been doing? Seeking a happiness just for myself? Maybe so. I have been pulling away from personal involvement in the last couple of months, but I haven’t been happier. No, my psychotic symptoms are slowly creeping back into my thoughts. I have also pulled away from a belief in a higher power, not totally, but enough to set me adrift. And I have stopped going to Al-Anon meetings due to anxiety about driving at night, especially in the winter. In addition, I have nearly lost two online friends from neglect. It has been a subtle process, but unintentionally inconsiderate. Not like me. My heart has become numb and my prayers for others all but silenced. Is this really the direction I want to take?

It took me over a month, but I read a book called Party Of One: The Loners’ Manifesto by Anneli Rufus. Around the time I decided not to visit my parents for the holidays, I was also trying to imagine myself as some well-adjusted loner from Ms. Rufus’ book. I thought that I would like to be her kind of loner: she is married to another loner and has a couple of close friends, but spends much of her time alone, writing. But then she began railing against the stereotype of loners as being crazy and violent. The violent, crazy loners she called pseudoloners. In her view these were people who really wanted to be social and part of the group, but were outcasts and angry about it. Then she had this to say about the mentally ill: “Unkind as it sounds, the mentally ill are not as a rule enjoyable or even easy to be around. So most people avoid them. The outlook of an unsound mind is so singular that it cannot really be shared by others....Homeless or not, harmless or not, outside of institutions the mentally ill are pretty much consigned to lives of isolation. Not by choice in every case. A schizophrenic living under a bridge who murders a hapless passerby, believing it will forestall Armageddon, is not necessarily a loner.” (pp. 197-98) And suddenly, I, a mentally ill loner, was shunted aside by the author as not worthy enough to be part of her group. In using a homeless, violent “schizophrenic” as her example she proceeds to invest in the same stereotyping she says she is trying to obliterate. She is satisfied that she has vindicated herself from negative loner status in her manifesto, only to scapegoat another group, a group I undeniably belong to.

I asked my therapist this week if it was okay for me to be a loner; she said no, that I should have a few friends. For over a year I have bewailed the fact that there is no support group for people with mental illness where I live. Why? Because without a support group I sink into isolation. When I first became psychotically ill I withdrew from contact with others for several months until I had a psychotic break. Then I got my diagnosis and the voices hounded me not to stay alone. I was to find a therapist right away and support groups and I was to keep myself busy helping others from those groups. This I did for three years despite severe psychosis. And then I went back to art school. By this time the domestic violence support group had disbanded and I stopped going to Al-Anon (which were the only groups related to mental illness that I could find); I gradually stopped seeing the women who I had become friends with, had another psychotic break, began taking the anti-psychotic meds, came out of my delusions and paranoia while falling deeply into depression. I considered dropping out of school, but didn’t. It took me another three and a half years but I graduated. I will be three years out of school this May and ten years into my psychosis.

Am I being a hypocrite when I tell people on the NAMI Schizophrenia board to find a therapist and a support group? Definitely not. Except for two years, I have been in therapy from the beginning. And going to the support groups has helped me a great deal. The domestic violence support group got me in touch with women like myself who had been abused and Al-Anon with people who were friends and family to alcoholics. But neither group could address my schizophrenia. So I did what many other people living out of touch with groups and services did, I looked for online groups. I joined a group called VoiceHearers and began emailing a few of the members of that group. Eventually I left to find the NAMI site but kept in touch with one young woman. She is one of my online friends who I have been neglecting these last two months and at a time of crisis for her: she stopped taking her meds and had a breakdown and was forced to go into the hospital. I have not been a good friend to her.

And I wonder, have I lost the capacity to be a friend? Recently I have been emailing someone from the NAMI site. He said he could tell that I have trouble making and keeping friends and I can’t deny it. Despite my good intentions, I am not consistent or dependable. And lately it feels as if I have dug myself a hole that I can’t get out of, which is why I am writing here to reach out and try to make contact with others by sharing my story. My tale is a cautionary one. Too much of anything, including isolation, is not healthy for most people. I have chosen the wrong way and am now at a crossroad.