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.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Choice

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?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Happy In Spring: On Writing & Reaching Out

I know it's just about spring because I caught the first wasp of the season in my house. Of course this one was large and active and I was grabbing my six kit-kats and stuffing them into the bathroom and the bedroom to keep them away from the critter. It took me a while, but I got him or her out of the house. I love the end of winter and the beginning of spring, except for the wasps and bees that get into the house and with all these hyper kitties, it's challenging.

Yesterday I went out in late afternoon to the local coffee shop and ordered a large Cafe Mocha and a cheese focaccia sandwich. I considered it a treat for getting out of the house. I brought my journal with me. Writing in the journal was more the purpose of the trip than the food and coffee, though the combination was good. I wrote for about 45 minutes. Nothing profound. I was writing to write. I've been going through Natalie Goldberg's books on the craft of writing. Her most famous book is called Writing Down The Bones: Freeing The Writer Within. It was published in 1986 and until now, I had never read it. She's a Zen Buddhist as well as a dedicated writer. She writes short chapters touching on different aspects of her writing practice and weaving in some stories from her own life. Her goal is to encourage others on the writing path. Well, I'm one of those people who needs the encouragement and I found her approach and her style comforting and challenging at the same time.

This is her formula for a good writing practice routine:
  1. Keep your hand moving. (Don't pause to reread the line you have just written. That's stalling and trying to get control of what you're saying.)
  2. Don't cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn't mean to write, leave it.)
  3. Don't worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don't even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.)
  4. Lose control.
  5. Don't think. Don't get logical.
  6. Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy. (p.8)
Ms. Goldberg's idea of writing practice is to fill up a spiral notebook each month for a minimum of two years before even thinking about publishing. That's why it's called writing practice. She firmly believes that the more you practice, the stronger your writing will become. She also says that you should not be afraid of writing the worst stuff in the world, just continue to write, return to it after a few weeks or months and underline the parts that have the most life to them, maybe use them as jumping off points for further writing.

Presently, I am writing both her way (fast, uncontrolled, using writing prompts to get me going) and the other way (slow, controlled, following a topic of my choice). They each have their merits, so I think I'll continue with it. It's been almost two months since I began taking my writing seriously. I started out, in my usual fashion, gung-ho for trying to write articles/essays for magazines, but was drawn away from that towards work on my memoir. First I was doing research on my great grandfather who came to New York City with his poor family from Ireland when he was a child and became a police officer working under a corrupt Tammany Hall police chief. He retired in his mid 40s to become a bookie, worked at that for 20 more years and then grew old and ill and died. Part of my research was going over my father's genealogical research and then emailing and talking to him. This was a very nice arrangement because it brought me closer to my father and stirred up enthusiasm in me to keep pursuing the story.

Then I set aside that research and took the plunge and got in touch with an old friend from grade school and junior high school on facebook. I told her that though I suffer from schizophrenia, I am in recovery and am working on a memoir. She was pleased to hear from me and said that she had even tried to find me on facebook a few months ago, but had no luck. She's been busy teaching, but we've managed to pass some memories back and forth. It's quite a step forward for me to reach out to her and I'm considering contacting a few other people along the way. Facebook could turn out to be a wonderful tool for reconstructing the past and reconnecting with people who meant a lot to me growing up. After I left New York City in 1989, I cut myself off from a past that I am only now trying to reclaim. But it takes a certain courage to admit what I've done or failed to do in my life and to reveal my diagnosis to others. I am firmly entrenched in middle age now, as are all the people I have known who have survived. I have a healthy respect for that survival instinct in us all.

So my writing practice has meandered from a time before I was born, to my childhood and youth and then has skipped ahead to my time with Brendan and later to my experience with schizophrenia. I've also written a few poems, begun a couple of short stories and continued transcribing my journals. I haven't been able to write every day, but I am writing. These next two years will be about generating raw material to rework and mold. And then there's getting back into just plain reading, both books on the craft of writing and memoirs, novels, poetry and articles in magazines.

Otherwise, my life has been quiet and fairly uneventful, but I am trying to sponsor a wonderful, but presently miserable, young woman who suffers from schizoaffective disorder. She is smart, artistic and hardworking and I believe she has the stuff to get through this hard time and into better times. I think, with the right kind of support, we can all get through our hard times. I've decided to offer my friendship to others in need on a site that Chris had mentioned a while ago called NoLongerLonely.com. It's a friendship/dating site for people who suffer from all kinds of mental illness. I tried to join last May, but couldn't log on and forgot about it till they recently sent me an email saying that they had just upgraded the site. I checked it out and was pleased to find that they have provided sections to post personal artwork, stories and poems, blogs as well as having a forum and chat feature. There are people there from all across the U.S. and from England, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and perhaps other places as well. If you're interested, here's the link: nolongerlonely

Sunday, March 7, 2010

I Do Not Deny The Negative

It's true, I don't. I know that people are suffering every second of every day and night; I know that I dip into suffering throughout the day/night. I wrote this song a few months ago (don't know what it's called yet) and these are the lyrics:

I've been crazy,
Down on my knees and begging,
Paranoid and isolated,
Out of my ever loving mind.

Lucifer's in recovery
I was told.
Just be patient a little while longer
You'll be brought back into the fold.

Life's a struggle for everyone I know,
And everyone I don't know, I'm sure.
Just because you lost your mind along the way
Don't let it stop you from opening the door--
To the outside, to the outside, to the outside.

I've been crazy,
But never divorced from God,
I kept turning my cheek to the Devil
To see what was left inside.

Lucifer's in recovery
I was told
Just be patient a little while longer
You'll be brought back into the fold.

Well, that's the gist of it, just that even in the worst times, there was always a bit of light, but you had to look for it. I'm a bit amazed to hear people talking about the voices as if they were solely negative, with no redemptive quality because I have never found that to be the case. I have found that when some voices thoroughly attacked me, other voices worked damn hard to make sure that I kept holding on to what little positive I could find in the situation. Yes, there were times when I was overtaken. I especially remember being consigned to Hell for I don't know how long, could have been an hour or a few minutes, but it felt way too long and I was terrified that I would be stuck there forever. But even then I could tell that the Judges (there were a couple of them) were not fair judges, but judges corrupted by suffering. And I'd felt that before, as if I was connected to some being that was submerged in all the suffering in this world and I was there to share in some of his burden. A heavy, heavy burden indeed. But I knew then and I know now that it is not the whole picture. It was like looking at and experiencing life through the dark half of a yin yang symbol with just a touch of light and no more.

Negativity is part of life and some of it is probably essential to life, but negativity can be like a whirlpool, and once you're pulled into it you get sucked down into an abyss that is hard to pull yourself out of without some outside help and inside determination. Some suffering is instructional, some even akin to spiritual, but too much of it is just unnecessary. To say that people have suffered and are suffering right now is true. Suffering is pervasive. But to say that by noting the existence of suffering that you are being more realistic than some about the Truth of Life I don't think is true.

It sucks, but the negative is easier to embrace than the positive; we fall into patterns of it and get worn down by it. The negative has an unfair advantage. In its very nature it obscures the light, but that doesn't mean that the light doesn't exist and that it can't return to balance out the night. I freely admit that I am someone who was influenced by the 12 step literature in the group Al-Anon (a self-help group for people who are friends and families of alcoholics). I didn't really follow the steps very closely, but I did pick up on the idea of having an "attitude of gratitude" about difficult circumstances. I lived with an abusive alcoholic who very often saw life as the glass half empty rather than half full. His attitude coupled with his regularly abusive behavior towards me wore me down, but I didn't believe all the dark stuff that came out in his talking or yelling. I never embraced it. I didn't become anti-semitic, homophobic and essentially pessimistic about people and life, though I did get very depressed, just worn out waiting on him. So, though I didn't embrace his attitude, I still was deeply affected by it, to the point where I had to shut him out of my life.

In retrospect, I regret that now, but I also understand it. Without knowing it, I did suck up some of that prejudiced negativity. Instead of softening and seeing how close I was to hope, I shut down and got numb. I'm still not as sensitive as I could be, but I'm thawing out. And part of why I have been thawing out is because I practice gratitude. Just after my third and last breakdown in December 2001, I began instructing myself in my journal to practice recovery behaviors: take the medications, therapy once a week, read support literature, write in journal, get plenty of rest, eat regular meals, etc... I also wrote down warning signals of impending psychosis: any delusion, talking a loud too much, driving when in a delusion, paranoia, not sleeping enough or too irregularly, getting too tired after being around people for 4-5 hours, an inability to concentrate, etc... In effect, I was trying to work a program by loosely basing it on the 12 step program for co-dependents. It wasn't a perfect fit, but it was something to hold onto. I still wish there was a daily reader out there for people who suffer from any form of psychosis. For now, I still return to the Al-Anon daily readers when I get particularly stuck.

Okay, so the negative exists; people commit suicide or die young of disease or accident and ultimately we're all going to die. Being negative doesn't make the negative go away or lessen; it intensifies it. But being positive in the face of the negative does have the power to decrease it and sometimes even transforms it into happiness. I have often thought that the fact that I can use language to form ideas and express feelings is a wonderful ability in itself, even when I've had negative voices hammering away at my psyche. I've looked at the negative voices this way and have seen that despite their darkness they are creative, imaginative and intelligent. Most people look upon an enemy as the scum of the earth, not worth anything good, but there are some of us who can try to find the friend inside the enemy. Believe me, I don't always succeed. There are times when I succumb to my anxiety and fall back into my corner believing the conformist belief that some people are unredeemable, or worse, that I am unredeemable. I fight that. I hope I always will.