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, September 30, 2010

Autumn Choices And Time Will Tell

It is a very wet and dreary day here. It has been grey for what seems like weeks and as soon as I sniffed autumn in the air (and I did that in the last week of August when the temperature dropped and the students returned), I began sleeping late. When I did wake for the day, sometimes in late afternoon, I felt distinct touches of both depression and anxiety. I woke to a perpetually messy and dirty living room (dining area, kitchen, library, bathroom, etc...) with piles of books around me and eight cats curiously living their cat lives. The living room depressed me; the books both gave me an odd mixture of anticipation, comfort and anxiety, and the cats lessened my discomfort by being friendly and lovely to touch. That the living room depressed me and that the cats lifted my spirits made perfect sense, but what was this book anxiety? It has to do with choice.

I have a large collection of books on a wide variety of subjects: novels, history, plays, poetry, essays, self-help, philosophy, short stories, memoirs, religion, visual arts... You name it and I probably have something to represent it. I began collecting books by keeping the ones that I read for high school. Books by Hemingway, Freud, Maya Angelou, Shakespeare and many others. In college my book collection expanded even more and covered a greater depth of subject matter and I began buying books for the pleasure of it instead of only for classes I needed to pass. I read a lot and enjoyed myself; I wrote interesting papers and discussed what I read with my boyfriend. After college I continued to read and collect books.

There were two lulls in my reading career, one was when I was with my alcoholic and unfortunately abusive boyfriend and the other was after I became acutely psychotic with schizophrenia. Both times abuse, one external and one internal, stopped me from settling into a good book. Once I entered into recovery from the most dire aspects of my illness, I, once again, reached out to the book, but I didn't commit to daily reading. Now within the last 2 months, 12 years after I became acutely psychotic, I am back to daily reading and daily writing. The writers I've read who have written about the writing process generally agree: if you want to learn how to write, you have to read. So I picked out books to look through from my library and brought them into the living room just by the couch (which is where I sleep and work when I am upstairs). I would read one book and the author would refer to another author; I would get curious and look to see if I had any writing by that newly referred to author. Often I did and so I'd carry the book into the living room to be closer to me as I worked. Within a week of doing this, the piles of books increased and spread, some that I had wanted to read getting lost under a new group.

With the proliferation of choices of what to read I developed "reading anxiety". Every time I woke up from a long sleep, often restless due to pressing and strange dreams, I would look around and see books. Though I kept certain key books in view (books on writing, several memoirs, short short stories and a book or two on feminism...) they and all the other books were not organized. I remember when I was acutely ill, I would go from one book to another reading little snippets trying to find some kind of guidance for this mental upheaval in my life. How lost I got! To the point where I stopped turning to books for any length of time. But now I am no longer acutely ill, but still my illness leaves me this anxiety about setting priorities and making choices.

After surviving the judgmental nature of my voices, I learned that I had indeed made many bad choices in my life. I had hurt myself, my family and my abused and abusive lover. I began to see that the choices I made went to form the life I lived. Poor choices (and bad karma) pulled me into more poor choices, until I scraped the bottom. At the bottom I looked into my own mortality and decided I wanted to fight to live. The first time that happened I had to reject my lover and the second time that happened I had to reject my delusions and take my medications. After each crisis and partial resolution, I have been left with myself and with a new set of choices. Invariably I wound up wandering from one thing to another. I dabbled, but did not commit.

So seven weeks ago I chose to return to daily reading and writing. Several weeks into it I set a goal -- to stick to this routine for 12 months and not return seriously to painting or songwriting. Next week will be my 2 month mark and it's an important one because it is usually around that time that I shift my focus. This time I will not. But still I have the anxiety over what to concentrate on each day. I have dipped into feminism, existentialism, US history, into memoirs, essays, prose-poems, flash and sudden fiction (which are short, short stories), and so much more. And I've been writing down memories for my memoir, poems and prose-poems, the beginnings of several short stories. As usual, I am going in many directions at once, tasting, testing, letting new or revisited ideas sink into my unconscious and then re-emerge into my writing. What I'm learning is that writing, with the intention of writing at least one book, is all about being willing to go into a mysterious creative process. The process requires a certain amount of surrender. I tell myself when I don't want to write -- Just Do It! Write anything, but commit!

I am commitment shy with my work and with my friendships, afraid of intimacy and potential revelation, but this makes me feel ill, depressed and anxious. I am in the process, I am surrendering, but it will be uncomfortable for a while till I grow my roots. Each day I face my discomfort and I make decisions. Fall will shift into winter and I will have months and months of time alone in my house with my books and my writing schedule. The more time I put into it, the more material I will have to work with, especially by the end of a year's apprenticeship. The deeper I go into the process of gathering and growing words on a page, the clearer I believe my sense of direction will be, the less the anxiety, the greater the sense of purpose. I do believe, but only time will tell.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Shadows And Light

I just read a lovely long email by Karen Sorensen. Half way through it she writes that in her experience I am a rare schizophrenia sufferer. Some of those that she has had contact with are low functioning, have trouble using the computer or are struggling to survive in one way or another. I am what psychiatrists call a "high functioning" schizophrenia sufferer. I still have the basic symptoms like poor self care, social isolation and lingering voices, but I am alert, intelligent and creative, so I have more resources than others who suffer from the same illness. Karen reminds me not to lose sight of this basic fact.

In the past I have embraced the recovery model for schizophrenia, not wanting to acknowledge the harsh facts of life that we are not all created equal, that some are stronger, faster, smarter and more beautiful than others. That children are starving right now. That there are people dying miserable deaths after living miserable lives. Anything is possible, from the wondrous to the hellish, in this world. In the spectrum of things, I am somewhere in the middle, neither very fortunate nor very unfortunate. I still tend to think that the majority of people in the world fall into this middle category and that it is very healthy for all of us to count our blessings, such as they may be. Even people at the lower end of existence need to see and acknowledge what is good in their corner of the world. And there are good things like sunshine on a cool fall day, sipping a good cup of tea or coffee while reading, catching a child's smile directly at you while shopping in the grocery store and the list can go on and on.

The other day I was thinking about suicide after reading about a leading feminist's suicide in 2003 at the age of 77. She had said earlier in her life that she would consider suicide at a certain age after living a full and rewarding life. Her reasons for committing the act would not be mental illness or despair, but a desire to leave this world with a certain dignity instead of wasting away into old age and being a burden to her family. I might someday follow suit and do the same. I like the idea of making a decision, preparing for it and doing it, instead of living in the shadow of death. But later that day I was feeling poorly, wondering, as I do from time to time, what the point of my life was and my thoughts circled back to suicide. I lost sight of the sunshine, the tea and the child's smile. I felt stuck in my ever present isolation from other human beings, stuck in my aimlessness; I was getting sick and tired of myself. And yet still I reached for my tape recorder to talk to myself or talk myself out of my depression. What could I, as my only best friend, do to alleviate my discomfort but talk to myself and then listen back to what I had said that day only hours beforehand. It wasn't much, but it was something.

I don't really want to die just yet. My recent commitment to writing (five weeks and counting) is a daily affirmation of my willingness to keep trying. The feminist who killed herself was 77 and I am only 48. The feminist had lived a full and rewarding life as a writer, teacher, mother and wife. My rewards have been more modest; I still believe that my recovery can grow deeper roots, that I can learn to work more consistently and that that work can bear fruit. So I plod along each day writing at least 500 words whether I'm in the mood or not. The pile of books that I'm reading is growing around me as I awkwardly reach for self-expression. Right now I'm thinking of the song "We Shall Overcome" not in terms of the civil rights movement, but in terms of my own struggle to overcome lethargy and silence. I want to use my high functioning skills to speak out for myself, maybe speak out for others as well who can't speak so well for themselves. My fantasy, like so many writer's fantasies, is to publish a book that reaches people's hearts and minds. I want my story to matter to more than just me.

The heart of all good stories, factual and fictional, is conflict and resolution. I resist the darker side of things. I want conflict to go away. I want recovery to be possible for everyone. I want us all to cease suffering and be forever happy in a nirvana-like existence. I'm like a little girl dreaming of a utopia. But most utopian stories don't make for good reading because that's not what we're experiencing in the real world. Instead we keep coming up against road blocks and detours and accidents. We keep losing our way and our balance...and then we get back on track due to our own resourcefulness or by luck or the grace of some enigmatic higher power. Conflict and resolution. Conflict is fraught with subtle meaning, shadows and light and we never stop yearning for the resolution of our temporary problems. But sure as one wave follows another, conflict returns. We can't just rest in the space between the waves. Life keeps pushing forward and the past keeps receding behind us.

The human condition is challenging for all of us, no exceptions. We can either step up to the challenge and live or make a final exit and die. Most of us step up whether we want to or not. We take comfort in what comforts are available to us. Maybe we won't all recover, but nothing should stop us from trying to improve our lot in life as best we can. And those that can, through their honesty and example, should help others along the way. For now, I'm going to keep trying, that's all any of us can do.

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Response To Isolation

I am having trouble staying in touch with new and old friends. One of them called me up and left an endearing message, another wrote me a great long email and others I just want to interact with again because they, too, are sensitive, creative and interesting people. Instead I choose to remain isolated. I do write my minimum of 1,000 words a day and that does takes precedence over writing to my friends, but I also think I use it as an excuse to stay pulled into myself. Is this strange social detachment, which I have gone in and partially out of for years, even before I became acutely ill with psychosis, the natural outcome of suffering from a "brain disease"? Is it not a choice, but my biological/spiritual fate? Will it only become a more pronounced way of life for me as I age? Except for contact with my brother, which I truly enjoy, and occasionally with my sometime friend Richard, I am a recluse, hermit and loner, but up till now I have been sociable online, in my blog and with online friends or on message boards. I used to spend five hours or more at the computer communicating with others, valuing their lives and contributing my thoughts and good wishes. Now I use the computer for word processing and research more and more and for communicating with others less and less.

The question--is it a stubborn will or is it a biologically supported fate, is an unnerving one. If I am being stubborn, I find that rather perverse and if it is biological, I find that scary. Perhaps it is a temporary dip into depression, which I have been going in and out of for years. I hope that's the explanation, but I really don't know.

And yet, I write. I'm writing here like a scientist at the the North Pole with a desire to share my discoveries and with a need to affirm my value as a solitary human being. Perhaps I'm calling out for help or maybe to leave a small mark that communicates, yes, I was here at such and such a time and place, like those ancient hand prints on cave walls. That a handful of people read my blog (sparse though it has been lately) is another reason I am motivated to write and post what I write. I want to appeal to your value as a solitary human being because I do believe that we are the only ones living our lives. No matter how close we get to other people we all return to a solitary space within ourselves. And in that space, we take the time to reflect on our days and nights. If we're fortunate, we learn something and pass it on to someone else.

I still have this urge to pass on something, to join the human circle or why write at all? I'm fostering this activity which is my writing process, so that I don't get sucked up into a void. I read for the same reason. I get to know other writers through what they write. I learn from them; it eases my solitary confinement and then I get inspired to write my version of a corner of my life. I want to stop blaming myself for being odd, as if my oddness were a bizarre willful choice. It's just possible that suffering from schizophrenia is my lot in life, a lot I can't change, the way a zebra can't change its stripes. I am not just my illness, but still my illness does set up some of my limitations and thereby defines me. I know there are those that disagree, who say "my illness does not define me," but I haven't found that to be the case. The illness is a handicap that I can live with, which doesn't mean I can't aspire and work to excel in whatever capacity is available to me. I have a need to be pragmatic more than I have a need to be delusional and that is an accomplishment aided by psychiatric drugs, therapy and my own dogged persistence of living day by day and night by night.

Something I do want to say to those of you who are my online friends, I appreciate you, your life and struggles, though I may not be able to tell you this as often as I'd like. You all give me hope with your intelligent creativity and general kindness that humans are not meant to be a lost species that winds up destroying itself. You reinforce for me the idea that we are all basically good (Buddha Nature). And so I want to thank you for reading what I write and for all the times that you have responded with words of wisdom and support.