Here's a quick painting I did today of my young friend M. with a friend of hers. I sent a photograph of the painting to her to try and cheer her up because she's been struggling a lot of late. Here M., on the right, looks very happy and I want her to believe that she will be happy again. It was also good for me to paint because I haven't been painting or drawing for over a month and it's time to get back into it.
M. is 22 years old and she has suffered from schizo-affective disorder for around 7 or 8 years now, so she is no stranger to the rhythms of her illness. I have thought before that schizo-affective disorder is particularly hard because you get the worst of two serious illnesses--bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, so both moods and thoughts become affected. I know a bit about mania because I have lived through some of it during my repeated psychotic breaks. It seems to me to be terribly exhausting to go from high to low over and over again. At the high end of the spectrum you can actually get some things accomplished, but inevitably that doesn't last for long. M. doesn't like taking the medications and she stopped several months ago. Now she goes in and out of hallucinations and is not eating or sleeping very much. On top of that she is working full time. I have no idea how she does this, but she does. I have been encouraging her very strongly to find a support group to go to because she has virtually no support system. She has been keeping in touch with me through emails and I am very grateful for that. I want her to know that she can rely on me to be present for her, but I am just one person and that is not enough support, plus I live many miles away from her. I have found that while online support is definitely good, it can't take the place of a face to face meeting with either a support group or a therapist. There's some kind of great energy between people, both a vulnerability and an immediate connection. Listening to other people's stories, their struggles and their various attempts to surmount their troubles, makes the world a little friendlier, cuts down on this pervasive feeling that one is inside something that no one can understand. For myself, I have found talk therapy in support groups, with my therapist and with myself, almost immediately lightens my burdens. The ability to communicate is a powerful tool. Writing, too, is a powerful tool. But you have to reach out to it, it won't just come to you. And if you don't reach out, then you needlessly suffer.
Many people identify "crazy" people as the ones who are homeless and are having a constant dialogue with themselves. I've been blessed in that I've never been homeless, but I certainly shared the trait of talking aloud to myself. What "normal" people don't understand is that it is a positive way of coping with something overwhelming. It is a form of therapy because it gets some of the sickness that's stuck inside of you, out of you. I continue to talk to myself using a digital recorder because the act of talking and then of listening to myself releases and objectifies the problems I'm contending with, be they depression, anxiety or psychosis itself. Once the problem is out in the open, you can actually see the dynamics of it and begin to work on the solution. I have repeatedly been comforted by the fact that I don't sound anywhere near as psychotic as I think I sound when it's just stuffed inside of me. Generally I sound intelligent, honest and sensitive and not like some extraordinary freak of nature. There's also the discipline whether speaking aloud into a recorder or to another person or writing your thoughts down, to be very honest with yourself. This is quite important. Self-honesty cuts through the denial that keeps us stuck. It also makes us feel more responsible towards ourselves and towards others. We are actively participating in our recovery; we are acknowledging that recovery is possible even. We are not helpless victims of circumstance. We have the power to name things, to look at things and finally to change ourselves. But not if we stay silent and suffering all alone.
M. is highly intelligent, an excellent writer and an artist to boot. These are all very valuable resources. I am quite frankly amazed by how intelligent and creative the mentally ill generally are and that is why I don't think the outlook for people with mental illness is as bleak as it is sometimes portrayed. Most "normal" people at some point have to assess their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. It should be no different with those who suffer from mental illness. It goes back to the philosophy of seeing the glass as half full instead of half empty. Ask yourself what is right with this moment, not what is wrong. This is not a decision you make and then it's over with. This is something you have to keep reaffirming when things get tough. Talking, writing, creativity is more than therapy, it is a way of life. So is having an "attitude of gratitude". It sounds so trite, but I have found it to be vitally important, especially in the beginning stages of recovery. I'm not trying to imply that it's easy. It is not. But just as people have to train to become proficient at something, so do we have to train ourselves. It's not just new age bullshit, it's practical advice and given time, it works. I don't believe it works for just the select few. I believe it applies to everyone, but you have to work it. If you don't work it, then you stay balled up in your mute suffering. Or worse, you suffer so much that you act out, either killing yourself or hurting others.
I am not passively one of the lucky few to survive and find a measure of happiness. I worked at it for years. And yes, compared to the most well adjusted people out there, I am handicapped. But most of the people I have encountered are not so very well adjusted. We all struggle. Life is not a disney movie. For those who are very well adjusted and happy, that is a wonderful thing and something for us all to aspire to, but the truth is life is about change, about ups and downs and ultimately life is also about endings, our own and those we care about. We have to come to terms with the facts of life. Still, you and I are alive this very moment. So what are you going to do now? All any of us have is this very moment. Some of us have fewer choices than others, but we still have a choice, a choice of what to focus on. What's it going to be--positive or negative?