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, April 21, 2008

Taking Stock On The Path

Just begin. Today is a warm day, but not oppressive and I remain inside, away from nature. Ozzie (my cat) is drinking water beside me and it is quiet, there’s a hush in the air. I kiss Ozzie. He pulls his face away from me and I think it’s funny. I’m looking at my woodstove. I haven’t used it in years. Recently I turned it into a shrine for the Buddha, but not really. I don’t worship Buddha, instead I respect and admire Buddha and people who strive to follow Buddha by being compassionate towards themselves and others. I placed a small bronze statue of the Buddha on the woodstove. Behind the statue I’ve put an image of a Celtic cross that my mother bought for me when we were in Ireland a few years ago. The Celtic cross predates Christianity. I see the cross as the meeting of heaven and earth and then there is a circle surrounding the meeting.

I remember painting a large painting...I just took the painting out of a back room and am looking at it...I painted it as I was having my last psychotic break. There’s a tilted cross painted on a canvas the size of large door. In the center of the cross is a yin/yang symbol. Above the horizontal of the cross is the sky with what looks like a star that shoots orange rays out of it (the star of Bethlehem or a symbol of life on another planet). The rays break through the cross, yet the cross remains intact. Beneath the horizontal is a triangle of green, I guess representing the earth. Then comes a lot of red. There is a portrait of a baby putting putting his foot in his mouth, a peace sign crowns him, but surrounding the peace sign and the baby are two guns and a hunting knife. Below the baby in the far left corner in a black triangle is part of a red cross with a white circle in the middle and a black swastika inside it. What was I thinking as I made that painting? I was having an elaborate delusion about the sexual abuse of children and teenagers. I’d like to redo the painting. Remove the weapons, the baby, the swastika and the peace sign. Make it more abstract, less obvious. Though maybe the baby and the swastika should stay as a symbol of innocence and hatefulness. But really I embrace the innocence of children and have great trouble believing in the hatefulness of some human beings. Why should I have trouble believing that human beings can be hateful? I’ve encountered the hatefulness personally and in my mental illness. I just put the painting away. It disturbed me as it should coming from a time when I was so sick and so lost.

Someone on the NAMI Schizophrenia message board asked the question if you could erase the illness from your life, would you or do you feel schizophrenia has added meaning to your life? I feel ambivalence. I can’t remember the worst of my illness, though I know it was hell on earth for a while. During that period I was desperate to be free of it, but I knew I was trapped. The voices told me that in time things would get better and they did get better, mainly after I started taking the anti-psychotic medications. Also I worked hard through my misery to cultivate a positive, grateful attitude. Now I am no longer miserable and I know I have a lot to be grateful for and always will, but I still wish that I could fully recover.

The woman who asked the question considers herself recovered; she has a job, friends, lots of healthy activities. She decided to gradually come off the anti-psychotic medicines and so far she’s been doing well. I don’t have the confidence to even think about not taking my medications. I’m still very scared of the psychosis returning, but then I do not consider myself recovered. For a while there I knew I was recovering and now I’m hoping that I am. I should take stock of my situation, the good and the bad. The bad is that I still hear voices. The bad is that though my positive symptoms (delusions and paranoia) are mostly gone, my negative symptoms (self-isolation, poor self-care) remain. The good is that my voices are more supportive than destructive. They’ve changed over time. Early in the onset of my psychosis they turned from romantic into sadistic, but never purely sadistic, there were always good voices getting me through the worst of it, but then after I started taking the anti-psychotic meds, after the paranoia and major delusions stopped, they began to recede somewhat. Lately I’ve been alternating between thinking of the voices as ill (which allows me to be compassionate towards them) and thinking of them as teachers/guides. When they get negative and call me or themselves or all others evil, I acknowledge that they are sick and I soften. Much of the time they are not negative, but supportive, even protective of me. They tell me they love me from time to time.

It will be just a decade since I became psychotic. It was Spring of 1998, two weeks to a month after my 36th birthday, just after the end of my second semester at art school. I began communing with a voice that called itself Darius. I had had voices off and on since my mid twenties, but they never identified themselves and they never began telling me my future. This voice deliberately fed me delusions and I fell for it and lost touch with reality. Or rather I still had touch with reality but I also had budding delusions that began to color the way I looked at the world around me. I got insular and obsessive and withdrawn. I pulled the blinds closed, turned up the music and danced. Then I would get in the car, turn up the music and go for drives, talking aloud to my delusions (those people following me in other cars). Meanwhile the delusion just got more and more elaborate and frustrating and I sank deeper into something I couldn’t get out of on my own. The voices then were manipulative and deceptive and they manipulated and deceived me. After they really hooked me, they turned out and out abusive.

But what was I? A self absorbed, self centered woman who became an egotistically deluded woman. The switch went fairly smoothly from one to the other. Beyond embarrassing and humiliating, it was vicious. But the question that still haunts me is, did I deserve to be abused either by my ex boyfriend or by the voices? Am I, as they say, evil? I’ve found that when I move towards the negative that I become sicker and when I move towards the positive I get healthier. If I believe that I am essentially bad, I lose my way, but if I believe I am essentially good (though quite imperfect) I find my way. But I’ve been taught by the voices and by myself, to extend this belief in my essential goodness out to include them and their essential goodness. What that means is they cannot be “the enemy” or “evil”. They can be sick and deluded sometimes and mature and healing other times, but always essentially good. That’s how I try to see myself and so I extend it out to them and all beings. Well, that’s the goal. In down moments I fall short of the goal and start to worry, but the worry doesn’t last. I shift back to the positive. I think the medicine allows me to make that transition; it gives me some space to move. The voices back off. There are more workable boundaries.

“When the world is filled with evil, transform all mishaps into the path of the bodhi.” Lojong slogan

Before I knew anything about lojong, I was cultivating a spiritual path. I was afraid of the voices many times, annoyed and frustrated too, but I wouldn’t hate them. I wanted them to “turn around” towards balance, health, “God”. Having some faith in them helped me to have faith in myself, faith that I, we, could get better. I did turn the other cheek, turning foe into friend, well, some of the time. They are still sick and so am I, but we a light years beyond where we once were. When I have my down moments, I need to remind myself of this.

My therapist believes that I have a bio-chemical disease. She doesn’t think that I deserve it and she doesn’t think I deserved to be abused by my ex-boyfriend. She regularly points out my good qualities. Now, I, too, believe I have a bio-chemical disease, but it’s more than that--it’s a spiritual challenge.

“Be grateful to everyone.” Lojong slogan

Everyone who challenges you is your teacher. My tormenting ex-boyfriend who loved/hated me was a great teacher. He taught me tolerance from his intolerance and so have the voices at their most cruel been great teachers. My mother taught me courtesy by being a courteous person, but she also taught me patience by being impatient and she taught me to hold my tongue by not holding hers.

We are controlled by our dependence on language and language exists because of opposites. In order to teach the meaning of a word we are given synonyms AND antonyms or in other words, what the thing is and what it is not. In terms of morality we want to do the right thing and be good people and so we find examples to follow, but we also are shown by our families, friends and people in general examples of wrong things and negative ways of being, just as we reflect those same good/bad qualities. But it gets tricky because who is to say what is good and what is bad? Sometimes the lines blur or we are blinded by circumstances and other times we are just different with different needs.

“Always meditate on whatever provokes resentment.” Lojong slogan

When you see/feel good i.e. a baby smiling at you, you take it in and hold it for a moment and reflect the harmony back to the child. When you see/feel bad i.e. a family member or a lover grimacing at you and putting you down, there is the natural tendency to get hurt and then resentful. The seed of discord gets passed on from that person to you if you hold onto the hurt and resentment; that turns into a potential whirlpool, an abusive cycle. But what if you identified the hurt/resentment and then really looked at it? You would see the trap. Then what? You would disengage, let go, move on. But how do you do that? By realizing that you don’t want to be a part of the negative energy and by realizing that the person is actually hurting and deserves some compassion. That’s moving from the small, myopic, self-centered picture to the bigger, more tolerant picture.

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