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.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Untitled Acrylic Abstract Painting

I painted this 16" x 20" painting tonight.  It's been quite a while since I painted abstractly with acrylics.  This one came quickly.  I kept the palette simple.  After I had gotten a third of the way into the painting, I realized I needed a new perspective and so I pulled out a book of Kandinsky from my bookcase and opened it randomly here and there till I found a couple of paintings that I responded to.  I wanted to use bold, bright colors the way he did.  I appreciated how he varied his marks.  I let his visual voice wake me up a bit.  So he helped me to paint this painting.  I'm not sure what to call it.  I have to live with it, see what it looks like in daylight.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Bittersweet Success

Yesterday I was trying to write a blog entry about success, how to measure success when you have a serious mental illness.  I kept getting stuck and then negative.  What is success for many of us?  A loving partner, wonderful kids, a rewarding career?  How many attain all three at once?  I think some do, though the stories I've heard online and offline are that people struggle with their life situations.  People who live with chronic mental illness struggle even more.  I don't have or expect to have any of the three success elements, partner, kids or a career.  I've gotten past wanting a partner or a child and I don't want a career so much as regular, meaningful, creative work, but then I am almost 50 years old and not at the beginning of my life.  If I were in my 20s and into a recovery program, I might very well want to be with someone and have a successful career, maybe even a child.  I'd want to strive towards being normal and be able to see my progress, my successes.

I'm not normal, not even as a schizophrenia sufferer.  I am in the minority, but being abnormal is not being less of a human being.  I consider surviving a serious mental illness as a bittersweet success.  I am moderately proud to call myself a survivor, just as I am proud to associate online with others who have survived acute mental illness.  Too many of us don't.  And that is a measure of how hard the acute part of this illness is, hard enough to rob you of the will to continue living.  That schizophrenia strikes many in their youth and young adulthood allows for the resilience of youth to withstand psychological blows, but it is a time of great vulnerability.  It is a time when young individuals need guidance and direction, even if they don't have mental illness, but exponentially more when they do.

People measure success based on different things.  If you're young perhaps you want it all and if you're older perhaps you compromise.  Either way we need to work within our limitations.  If you're really suffering, take small steps.  Success for the day may be taking a bath or getting enough sleep or sticking to your schedule of taking your medications.  Generous thoughts and small actions do count for something.  Work with what you can handle because increasing levels of stress does act as a psychosis/anxiety/depression trigger.  Be kind to yourself and go gradually.  I'm saying this as much to myself as to you because I rush, looking for instant gratification.

In my mind I go back to the lingering after effects of psychological trauma.  I haven't heard this often, but I think people who have endured through acute psychosis naturally suffer from variations on PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) long after experiencing the trauma.  Trauma leaves deep scars, often buried in a kind of amnesia.  I remember thinking that what I was going through was like a daily psychic crucifixion and at the time I meant it, but now, years later, into a modest recovery, I can't feel it.  And yet I do feel myself shut way down whenever I hear people argue.  Even the hint of aggression and I'm back with my abusive boyfriend anticipating violence.  The other day my brother was giving an impassioned speech about the need for gun control, but I became threatened.  I stopped talking and I felt anxious.  But that's my normal response -- to shut down, blank out and get uptight.  It's just this time the thought about identifying it as PTSD came into my mind.

I guess one of my points is that schizophrenia is not just a youthful detour.  Anyone who's been through it knows that it is traumatic, but people handle the trauma in different ways.  Some get on the road to recovery right away and have access to several support systems, this support gives the needed guidance and direction, but it doesn't remove the trauma.  Not dealing with the truth of what has happened to you can be put off for a long time, but in some way it will block you from the success you want in life.  It's not always just about moving on and coping, not about doing things the "right" way and fitting in.  Sometimes you have to sit with yourself just as you are.

My bittersweet success is mainly the realization that acute insanity does not have to last forever, but what comes afterwards is still up to me to make or break.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Review Of The Film "Canvas"

"Canvas"(2006)  is a film written and directed by Joseph Greco starring Marcia Gay Harden as Mary, a wife and mother who suffers from schizophrenia.  The character is based on his own mother and the story is a re-creation of several months of his boyhood that he spent mostly with his father and at school.  Before she goes into the hospital, there are set-up scenes where she acts out in front of her family, the neighbors and the police which ultimately leads her into the hospital.  The reason the film is called "Canvas" is that the mother is a part time painter.

"Canvas" is a "nice" film, a family film that is more about a father and son's reaction to having their lives disrupted than about the interior life of a schizophrenia sufferer.  Visually it is pleasing as it is set in Miami near the ocean and the acting is good; it is the writing that leans towards the conventional.  By the time we see the small family, Mary has been diagnosed with schizophrenia for about 18 months and is only intermittently taking the medication.  Even when she does agree to take the medication later on in the hospital, she continues to hear voices and to act out during visits with her husband and son.  She paints when she's at home and she paints in the hospital saying that the voices go away when she does.  Considering it is early in her psychosis, at a time when the illness tends to be acute for many people, she paints pleasing "normal" paintings, portraits of her son and of the beach, that don't give even a glimpse into the turmoil in her mind.  Other than that she seems more eccentric than deeply insane, despite the  scenes of acting out.

From what I can remember of the acute stage of my own illness, I was deeply withdrawn from people.  I had great trouble concentrating when people did talk to me because the voices were so intense in my mind.  I couldn't watch TV or read or paint, though I did still do some journal writing.  When I was alone I talked aloud to my voices and to the people I believed had bugged my house and car, the people who followed me whenever I left the house and drove by my house regularly, sometimes beeping their horns to let me know.  Mary, in contrast, almost always makes eye contact, she paints, she cooks and from the state of their house, it looks as if she cleans too.  Yes, she appears to hear voices and is somewhat paranoid, but there is little indication of a deep disconnect with her surroundings, no extended monologues, talking to space, no disappearing for hours in the car, no obvious lack of self-grooming, no growing mess in the living space, no deep earnest confessions to family members of a conspiracy, no delusions of grandeur and no staying up in a manic state till the break of dawn, repeatedly.

When I got sick, I was alone.  Months later in desperation I called my parents in Florida and told them I was hearing voices that were telling me I was evil, then I went to a local hospital and had to convince them that I was in enough pain to warrant being checked into their psych ward.  My father arrived the next day and got me out, but only after I got the diagnosis of schizophrenia and a prescription for Prozac and Zyprexa.  My parents lives were disrupted for two months.  The first month my father stayed with me and the second month my mother stayed with me; my brother was living in another state.  Mostly my family didn't have to deal with seeing me out of my mind, but Mr. Greco, the director of "Canvas", must have seen his mother day after day in all kinds of states.  Obviously, the experience affected him or he would have never written the screenplay or directed the film.  It is unfortunate that he wasn't able to go more deeply into the experience.  Being alone and suffering from schizophrenia is hard enough, I can't imagine what it would have been like to be both a mother and a wife at the same time.  In the film I get the point that the father and son were upset by it, but there is no real going inside their minds either, it all too much on the surface.

I know it is a challenge to try and visually describe severe mental illness precisely because it is so much on the inside of an individual.  I'm also aware that making a film like this is a business venture and that the director probably had to please other people with his treatment of the story, but the film could have been much better.  The actors, Marcia Gay Harden and Joe Pantoliano, who played the mother and father, are good actors and could have been pushed further into their roles.  The son, played by Devon Gearhart, is a cute and likable actor, but cute and likable is not what's called for here.  The subtle bond between mother and son, and the mother's break with reality and with her son, is not realized, except in a conventional way.  Obviously, I am not a big fan of the conventional and safe, especially when it comes to depictions of mental illness because mental illness itself is not conventional and safe.  Mental illness is challenging to experience and to describe.  Still, this film could be a stepping stone in the right direction.  It does portray the mother as a sensitive and suffering individual and not some deranged monster, and so it puts a human face on a complicated illness.  I guess what I'm looking for is an insider's view of mental illness, or at least a close consultation between a "sane" writer and director and someone who has survived mental illness and is in recovery from it.  "Canvas" is not a bad film, it's just not a great film either.  You can judge for yourself by watching it for free on Hulu (with commercials) here.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Need For Mental Health Support Groups Is As Strong As Ever

I just listened to a 50+ minute National Public Radio show hosted by Diane Rehm on January 11th.  You can find the web page and audio link here.  The topic of the show was called "Serious Psychiatric Disorders Among Young Adults" and was aired in response to the January 8th shooting by Jared Loughner in Arizona.  For the past week I've been avoiding listening to or reading news reports about the shooting, but then I read Jen's Blog today and that got me thinking about the lack of basic services in this country for the mentally ill.  There's no doubt in my mind that anyone who wields an automatic weapon and fires on innocent and defenseless people is mentally ill.  I still believe that violence is a form of mental illness in anyone, but we live in a culture that defends certain forms of violence particularly by police officers and soldiers.  And I bet if we could get inside Jared Loughner's mind, we would hear similar justifications about why he resorted to violence.  But aside from some people's fixation on the right to bear arms in the United States, the real issue here is not only the need for gun control, but the need for a vast improvement in mental healthcare services in communities both large and small all across the country.

There has been massive deinstitutionalization of mental patients since the 1960s, the result being that many of those patients became either homeless or put in prison.  What was needed then and still is needed some 40 years later is a functioning community service system for outpatients which includes access to medications, housing, therapy and local mental health support groups.  Of all those things, the one thing that doesn't require much money is support groups, preferable groups for families and friends of the mentally ill and and groups for the mentally ill themselves.  Advocacy groups for and by the mentally ill like NAMI are doing a good job in creating a weekly 90 minutes peer led support group in some places, the problem is that there is both an application and approval process and a 3 day training program that must be gone through before a group can start under the auspices of the NAMI organization.  Unfortunately, the training programs are relatively few for the size of this country.  In my state of New York this past year were only about two.  NAMI is an important organization, but it is not large enough to supply the services that are needed, particularly in rural communities.  I believe that there should be other organizations that focus specifically on cultivating the wide spread of mental health support groups.

I have stressed the importance of support groups before and have even dreamed of starting a group in my town, but on my own and without help from others I am not strong enough to get the job done.  Initially there is the need for a couple of highly motivated people in the community to set up two groups, one for the family and friends and one for the afflicted.  These people need to be either mentally healthy or firmly in recovery, able to show up to the meeting place each week, rain or shine, regardless of whether anyone else shows up.  I base this idea on the Al-Anon group I used to go to where there were two to three people who showed up each and every week.  Their dedication made the group viable and welcoming.  And though I have never had a sponsor, I think sponsorship should be encouraged in mental health meetings that have people who are grounded in recovery and willing to guide a member who is less far along.  This is just common sense.  I also believe that every college out there should have at least one mental health support group organized by the counseling center or the students themselves.  The university in my town gave up on a group a few years back because no one was showing up.  To my mind that is not a good enough reason to stop.  The founder of the Al-Anon group I mentioned showed up consistently for months before a few people started to show.  A meeting place, preferably two people and consistency are key.  That should be doable, especially in a college.

It's so obvious to me now that those with schizophrenia go through definite stages, a "normal" stage, a pre-psychotic stage, an acute psychotic stage and, for those who survive the acute stage, a recovery stage which can be broken down into various other stages from mild recovery to strong recovery.  Those in the pre-psychotic stage or prodromal phase might get the help they need very early if family and friends and teachers, etc... are perceptive enough to notice and remark on certain behavioral changes.  I lived in an extended prodromal stage from my mid 20s to my mid 30s.  I was socially isolated.  I didn't get a job or leave home and I heard occasional voices which I didn't discuss with anyone.  By the time I was 27 I was in a relationship with an abusive, addicted and mentally ill partner.  It was only then that I began to admit that I was mentally ill.  It took three years out of that relationship before I showed signs of being delusional and paranoid.

The problem with the early stages of the acute phase of psychosis is that some of us are not ready to accept the label of schizophrenia and others aren't able to admit that they are ill, but it is then that an intervention can really do some good.  Jared Loughner acted out enough in school and in his YouTube video to warrant an early intervention, but the people in his life didn't take action soon enough to prevent him from acting out with an automatic weapon.  The people in my life didn't take action either, though, in retrospect, I wish they had; it might have led me into treatment much earlier, might have kept me from getting involved with an abusive person, might even have averted the suffering of acute psychosis altogether.  As it stands, I wasted a chunk of my young adulthood, hurt my partner by accepting his abuse, and endured a lot of psychotic pain.  Like most of the mentally ill, I didn't become violent, but I know that if the circumstances had been a bit different, I could have.

The hard part for all of us is taking responsibility for ourselves and each other.  I think that when people act badly, it is because they feel badly.  So the loud, obnoxious, abusive people in this world don't need to be dismissed or put in jail, they need to be taken care of.  Suffering is expressed in all sorts of ways.  If violence was seen as mental illness, Jared would have been treated a long time ago.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Good Day

A couple of photographs from the Christmas holiday at my parents' apartment...

The portrait of Pema is only moderately good because it's the first portrait I've painted in months if not a year.  I painted it before I visited my parents in Florida and have it hanging on my living room wall behind my couch where I can see her when I meditate.

Today was a good day because last night was a good night, but before last night I was feeling that shut down isolated feeling.  I've been staying home due to the snowy weather for over a week now with no contact with other human beings.  Why was last night good?  Simply because I allowed myself to enjoy an episode of Saturday Night Live from December 1975 (with Richard Pryor and Gil Scott-Heron as musical guest) and to enjoy an old 1940 black and white film of Pride and Prejudice.  Why was this special?  Don't most people watch TV and DVDs?  Probably, but not me.  I haven't had satellite TV for maybe a couple of years now and I don't often watch DVDs though I like to.  I don't often watch DVDs, though I have access to many of them through my brother who is a collector, because I become anxious when I have to choose something to watch.  I get overwhelmed by the choices and worry that such and such a DVD will be too violent or negative for me to watch.  I also feel guilty about just relaxing and enjoying myself.  Lately, most of what I've been doing is studying Buddhist books and audiobooks, taking notes, reflecting, trying to meditate.  I enjoy doing that, but it's all a bit serious and I start to worry that I'm not a good enough person because I'm not helping enough people.

Pema Chodron has said that the greatest obstacle for Westerners on the Buddhist path is self-denigration or, in other words, putting yourself down.  I don't mean to do that, but ultimately I do.  Last night after I watched the DVDs I felt some liberation from my isolation, if only vicariously from watching other human beings acting.  I realized that I had given myself permission to be happy in a way that I hadn't done all week long.  In fact, I have unwittingly told myself that I have to be and act a certain way before I can be happy.  I've said to myself that I have to be a deeply compassionate person who helps others, a sort of bodhisattva in training before I can enjoy the fruits of my altruism.  Now, almost by chance, I am coming to understand that I should strive to always enjoy my life, through thick and thin, and that in enjoying this precious life I can become of more benefit to myself and others.

Buddhist teachers regularly say that all human beings have one thing in common -- they all want to be happy.  Pema Chodron's main teacher Chogyam Trungpa first taught that the basis for having compassion for others is to first practice deeply lovingkindness towards yourself.  It's taken me a while to get to this point, to just see that it is okay to pursue my own happiness each day and that the happier that I am, the more of a benefit I can be to others in the long run.  I have thought before that I am very fortunate.  I have food and shelter and a loving family, a few friends and a bunch of cats and a wide range of creative activities to partake of -- art, music, books, writing, etc...  

Studying Buddhism has put my life in a better perspective.  I feel more able to accept myself in my small capacity to do good.  When I was acutely ill I was under the delusional perspective that I was some special person.  Once I entered recovery that feeling that I had to be some special person lingered if only unconsciously.  I've had thoughts more recently that I should aspire to be a Buddhist nun, a bodhisattva.  Before that I thought I would become a published writer.  Before that I thought I was supposed to be a paid artist.  Before that some kind of famous singer-songwriter.  But the reality is that I am almost 50 years old and I am not meant to be particularly accomplished at anything.  This is a relief; it takes the pressure off me to be who I am, a small piece in a large and complex puzzle.  I am grateful that I am not special because if I were I wouldn't be able to handle the attention and pressure I would receive.  I am also in very good company with most of the rest of humanity.

But the delusional feeling that I need to be special can creep back into me and so I remain vigilant, more vigilant now than I have been in the past.  My new focus is to do what makes me happy and stop anxiously censoring my activities.  New mantra = have fun Kate.  There have been stories of angels who have become human and who savor each moment with all of their senses. I'd like to be like them, rejoicing in what's good. There is so much misery in the world, but with the right focus I can lessen that misery by becoming a happy person and encouraging others to do the same.  The trick is to count your blessings, especially during the tougher times.  The other trick is to rejoice when things are going well.  Today things went well because I've had a shift in my overall perspective.