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.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Value Of Talking Aloud

Still working with some depression.  I say "working with" instead of "struggling with" on purpose.  Struggling just worsens the depression.  When I struggle I think negatively, but when I work on a problem, I get into a meditative state.  And so the last few days I've been drawing and the drawing takes my mind off negativity and onto the problem at hand.  I've been using the Pitt markers that I bought this past Fall.  I draw a square or a rectangle to frame my work.  Then I face the empty space inside the frame.  I use one marker that is not a Pitt marker; it's two sided, one side chiseled to make thick and thinner lines and one side with more of a medium sized pointed tip.  Today I did a small sketch before I started the more committed work, so that I could get a sense of the design and structure of the work to come.  It also takes some of the pressure off facing the empty space inside the main frame.  It allows you to visually ruminate and try different approaches out to see which one might be a successful skeleton, the basis on which to add new and colorful elements.

So I've been drawing because I don't want to give up on on art, just as I don't want to give up on writing or making up songs.  Though I turn 50 this year, that doesn't mean that I have to give up on continuing to try to do artistic work each day.  I have heard of many cases of people turning into artists as they get older.  Maybe I'll be one of those people.  I was talking to Sam about how I see myself as artistic and multi-talented, but not as an artist because I get serious for several months and then switch to some other creative endeavor.  She said I was a "binge artist".  I thought that was funny and true, too.  I could also be called a "binge writer" and a "binge songwriter".  And they're all different languages though related.  But I don't like thinking of artistic creativity as an addiction because it really isn't.  If anything, self expression is a treatment for mental illness.

Last night I was watching a DVD my brother made up for me in 2008 called "Out of the Shadows", a documentary on Depression aired on PBS about that time.  At one point in the film certain experts were saying that medication combined with talk therapy was 70% to 80% effective in treating depression in many people.  They also said that there have been studies proving that talking affects the brain and brain chemistry for the better by reducing stress.  I know this for a fact because I've been talking into my audio journal since the end of 2006 around the time I began this blog and it does reduce anxiety, but you've got to be very honest with yourself and you've got to treat yourself lovingly.  It's also good practice for talking/writing to others with honesty.  Most human beings respond positively to upfront, honest individuals because they have a certain balance between presenting their strengths and their weaknesses.  They are interested in peaceful communication and not in preserving a false image of themselves.

The first thing an addict has to do in order to survive is to get honest.  That's also true for those of us who have fallen into severe mental illness.  When I became delusional and paranoid in the Spring of 1998 I was not being honest with myself.  I took reality for granted and didn't stop to reality check.  I made huge assumptions.  Worse, I was not appreciating the reality I was living in.  I wanted to be somewhere else, in another life.  I had delusions of grandeur.  The reality is that most people work to find success, but I was still working with the "lucky break" attitude.  I was being a gambler.  I was relying on magical thinking.  Very dangerous to an already isolated person with self-esteem issues and a past history of being abused.  I sank into delusions and paranoia as if I were sinking into quicksand with seemingly no branch to reach for to help pull me out of the pit.  But all the while I was seeing myself as a victim too and a kind of anti-heroine, an underdog figure.  I knew "The Truth" and some group was trying to suppress the truth, but I firmly believed that "The Truth" would prevail and I would be vindicated and consequently elevated to some higher status.  But the core of "The Truth" was the main delusion and I held onto it as if it could save my life, when it only pulled me down deeper.

I talked a lot out loud to myself and the voices during my three and a half unmedicated years of acute psychosis.  I really had to.  I was deluded and paranoid and I was in pain.  Talking aloud gave me back some control and released anxiety.  I also wrote in a journal, which again gave me a voice to vent my frustrations.  I thought I was being very honest when I talked or wrote, but the only real reality check I had was when I went to therapy each week.  I was too sick to give myself a reality check; I needed someone outside of myself to point out the flaws and inconsistencies of my basic delusory beliefs.  But first I needed to be in a safe position where I could confidently assert my delusion.  My therapist was not always challenging my beliefs.  She let me have my say and I needed some of that.  She gave me some room to move about.  And I imagine that a mental health support group could also provide that safe place to reveal one's illness to others and to listen to useful feedback through personal stories.  I didn't and don't have that yet and so I had to learn about being honest with another person mainly through my therapy sessions.  I think a support group could have helped me to come to recovery more quickly than I did without it.

It's ironic, but what I didn't like about the voices was that they could be manipulative, indirect and deceitful.  I thought that I was honest and upfront.  I wanted someone to literally knock on my front door in order to tell me the plain truth about what was going on, someone who knew these strange voices and had already been through their own trials and tribulations.  I searched and searched and waited and waited and no one came to enlighten me.  I remained in isolation, in delusion and paranoia.  In the interim, I had access to the internet and this helped to lessen some of the isolation though I also used the internet to try and confirm my delusions.  I wasn't yet taking responsibility for the fact that I was ill and needed help.  I wasn't awake enough to see that I was still lying to myself and still addicted to my delusions.  But during my last breakdown a little over ten years ago, I turned to the medications out of desperation and I followed the 12 step Al-Anon support literature to guide me back to partial balance.  I treated myself like the very sick woman that I was, with gentleness, compassion and tolerance for my slow progress out of acute psychosis.

So talking either from a delusional perspective or a "real" perspective is very important.  Talk to yourself, talk to a therapist, talk to your support group, talk to family members, talk to friends.  Don't be the strong, silent type.  Express yourself.  You can't move from a delusional world into the real world unless you do.

Marker Abstractions

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Fight or Flight Versus Mindfulness

Most of the people I know are affected by depression on some level. This past week I've been struggling with it too.  For some people it is a chronic low grade depression called Dysthymia, for others it is a cycling between mania and depression also called Bipolar Disorder.  There are many types of depression to fit many types of people and situations.  Unlike my schizophrenia, my depression is not chronic; instead, it comes and goes.  This Sunday I was depressed, Monday I wasn't, but Tuesday I was again.  When I get depressed I sleep during the day and into the evening and don't get anything accomplished.  And when I am awake and depressed I feel guilt over not wanting to get anything accomplished.  It's a negative cycle between sleep and aversion to activity.

I haven't been practicing Buddhism lately and I think that contributes to my dip into depressions.  Buddhism is about being awake in the present moment in either a non doing state or in some activity, especially basic activities like cooking, cleaning, bathing.  When I'm depressed, I'm not so much awake as caught in a negative dreaming state and in that state I label myself as bad and show to myself the ways that I am bad or at least lacking in the good stuff.  It's a self centered state.  I then review the past, noting my mistakes or worry about the future, but I avoid being in the present; I avoid cultivating a non judgmental state to be in.  Buddhism is about the nonjudgmental cultivation of the present moment.

I've wondered many times, why do I run from the present moment?  It's as if it is hardwired into me to run away and maybe it is.  Our instincts are to fight or flee when danger arises.  That's the way it was for us when we were more primitive animals and it is still true.  All of us can be on extra alert when we smell smoke in our houses or hear an unusual sound outside at night or when we drive or take a walk.  The potential for accident or violence can seem close at hand.  In many places in the world torn by war, starvation, disease or natural catastrophe, living with threats is common place.  I'm blessed to live in a peaceful, relatively safe place, but I act as if I need to worry and run.  Apart from sleeping to rest the body and spirit, sleeping is another form of running away.

Meditation is about redirecting our instinctual response to imagined threat; it's about a retraining of ourselves to keep letting go the worrisome thoughts or desire filled thoughts in a non judgmental manner.  Being non judgmental is the key point.  It's what allows you to let go.  And once you give yourself permission to be that way, it is such a relief.  Remaining in that non judgmental state is spiritual practice.  It doesn't usually come easily and that's why it's called practice.  Letting go is not rejecting.  Letting go in its earliest stage is sitting with and accepting first.  You won't be able to let go unless you sit and accept first.  So meditation is not about eliminating thoughts.  Meditation is not about war, violence, territory, conflict or subduing.  Meditation is about peace, but that doesn't mean that it is peaceful.  A roomful of people meditating can look very peaceful, but what is going on in each individual's mind and spirit can be both active and complex.

To be in a peaceful state is wonderful, but that is not the real point of meditation.  The point is to accept what is, whatever that happens to be, without reacting in the typical, habitual pattern.  When I was very psychotic the voices instructed me to sit with the question, instead of jumping to find an answer.  Just sit with your discomfort.  The habitual response is to run from discomfort.  Addiction is about running from discomfort.  Using the drug or doing the activity masks the discomfort temporarily, but it always comes back and the negative cycle continues just the way the negative cycle of depression continues.  Every time you engage in addiction or a negative thought pattern, you reinforce the behavior and thoughts, making it stronger, harder to resist.  Meditation is a gentle way of saying NO to addiction and negativity, to this deep pattern we've been taught and have taught ourselves.

Artists and other very creative individuals know about meditation intimately, though many don't call it that.  Artists sit with the present moment and make something while they sit.  They are in love with the moment.  They suspend self-hatred and worry because if they don't it will rob them of their ability to create.  They get down to the business at hand--the words, the paper, the colors, the sounds, the shapes, the hidden and obvious meanings.  Being and doing melt into each other.  Meditation as non doing is very important.  It's important to stop for artists and for all of us, to regroup, to absorb, to intuit.  But when we go, meditation is also important.  It is doing meditation or mindfulness.  Mindfulness means putting your heart into your practice, be it sitting practice or doing practice.  When you sit, you sit and when you act, you act.  You need some discipline and dedication in order to be mindful.

When it comes to being honest with myself, I have some discipline and dedication.  I am mindful of the words that come out of me.  I don't write my blog entries casually and quickly.  I go slowly and it can take hours.  Generally, I'm not depressed when I write my blog entries.  I'm too busy paying attention to what I want to write.  It's that way when I draw or paint too.  Or lately, when I cook.  Or when I spend time with Sam, Rob or Richard.  Songwriting and singing are more problematical because I have to face my limitations in my ability to sing and play.  Sometimes I play and/or sing badly and I get discouraged and give up.  I've found that when I push past my discouragement and commit to the song I'm singing and experiment that I not only enjoy myself more, but I sound better.  It's common sense that insecurity leads to poor performance and confidence often to good or better performance.  And practice leads to mastery over time.

When I get hung up on my insecurity and my lack of mastery, I get depressed.  I've wanted to be an artist since I was young, but artists are artists because they practice their art.  Writers write, painters paint, musicians play, dancers dance, etcetera.  I am multi-talented, but not committed to one practice on a daily basis.  I keep switching activities, so I master none of them.  I am artistic, but not an artist.  I deeply value my creativity, it might have saved my life.  I strongly urge everyone to stay in touch with their creativity on a daily basis, especially when dealing with mental illness.  Generally, I do something creative every day.  I would say that I am in touch with the artist within me.  That's a good place to begin.  I believe if I were to cultivate the discipline and dedication to mindfulness, I would develop the confidence and mastery that I yearn for.  I would re-train myself away from the negative attitudes of depression and towards the positive and accepting attitudes of mindfulness.  Art is a good tool for practicing mindfulness, but the real gem is mindfulness itself.  Mindfulness is a way of being in harmony with self and others.  If everyone practiced mindfulness I truly believe there would be no war and not much depression.  Actions would not be done reactively and mindlessly, but slowly and consciously with discipline and care and love.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Value Of Reaching Out

I have been telling myself to write a blog for a couple of weeks now, but I just haven't felt like writing much, though I'm still talking into my tape recorder daily.  Anyone who reads this blog knows that I do this, make an enthusiastic start in one creative direction and then go in another direction.  Often I return to what I left off, but that can take weeks, months, even years.  When I do pick something creative up again, I'm in a stronger position most of the time, as if the inactive time was laying the foundation for another active time.  The learning process is always going on because changes, subtle and not so subtle, continue from birth to death.

Changes.  The change of the moment for me is a change of taking on more personal responsibility with the people in my life.  Sam had to give up her truck because she couldn't afford to fix it, so I am continuing to share my car with her, which means I see her once or twice a week.  Richard has been feeling ill and so I've asked him to come over to my house on Saturdays to have a home cooked meal and some Sangria with me.  My mother has been feeling uncomfortably dizzy of late and she experienced a sharp pain in her side one day a couple of weeks ago, so I've set up a day and a time each week to give her a call, something I was not doing.  My brother I see once a week, sometimes to go out to lunch, sometimes to shop for food and supplies.  My old friend Rita and I keep in touch by phone and email and my other old friend Amy (who I haven't written about yet) I write to (most of the time) on Friday evenings.

I continue to find that I must have time alone, but as long as I do, then I think I am up for cultivating relationships with the people I care about in this world.  I find that increasing some of my face to face contact with people, especially during the holidays, has meant that I have spent less time on the computer interacting with my online friends (especially Karen and Jen who I can count on to leave wonderful comments on my blog).  I think this is okay for now because I need to get used to being with others in person.  I've spent so much time online over the last 10 years, but not much time with offline friends because I didn't really have any other than my brother and sometimes Richard.

Ten years ago I had my last nervous breakdown; I mark my decision after that to commit to taking the anti-psychotic medications the beginning of my road to recovery.  A decade of recovery, a decade of being on rather high doses of anti-depressant and anti-psychotic medications, a decade of being obese, a decade of creative pursuits in art, music and writing.  Recovery is a mixed bag, then again, life for most of us is a mixed bag.  Now I have a couple of friends who have either stopped taking their medication or are gradually weaning themselves from them.  They are trying to redefine recovery or at least testing whether they can still be in recovery and not be on the medications.  I am not brave enough to do that.  I am in recovery, but I continue to feel the power of my illness on certain days.  Honestly, it scares me and I don't know if I could remain relatively balanced in the face of it without the help of the medications.  Also, I feel myself opening up to having connections with others.  For me that is a rare and precious thing that I couldn't do if I were mentally unbalanced and self-protective (i.e. withdrawn).

I've written about my self-imposed isolation and I've written about how I see schizophrenia as a form of ego imbalance.  Pema Chodron has said that we need people in our lives to point out where our blind spots are.  For someone with schizophrenia, blind spots are the heart of delusions and paranoia.  Other people can see more clearly than we can where our prejudices about ourselves and others lie.  Whether they succeed at showing us this depends on our willingness to search for the truth and our willingness to listen closely.  I think I've had the willingness to look for the truth but I haven't given others the opportunity, until recently, to share their versions of the truth, which is, in effect, not giving myself the opportunity to listen closely to others and to learn.

This tendency to strongly withdraw from others is typical for people with schizophrenia.  I used to think it was an instinct at both self-preservation and preservation of the species by not passing on the genetic information for developing schizophrenia through procreation.  The instinct for self-preservation is sparked by the traumatic injury of acute psychosis.  What do wounded animals do?  Withdraw until their wounds heal.  I've been sick with active schizophrenia for close to 14 years.  The first three years were the hardest:  three breakdowns, little use of anti-psychotic medications.  That was a traumatic time for me and though the voices directed me to be around people, I still couldn't confide in any of them what I was experiencing within my mind.  I put on a helpful persona around people and did help them, but at the same time I was in need of help myself and felt I had nowhere to turn except to my therapist.  She did help, but I needed more help than that.  I couldn't find that help in my community (no mental health support groups around here still) and so I decided to go back to art school.  I thought the art community around here would give me some pleasure and purpose, maybe even a sense of belonging.  Then I had my breakdown at the end of the first semester back.

Having a breakdown while at school made me come close to leaving school.  Then I started taking the anti-psychotic medications along with the Prozac I had been taking all along. The delusions and paranoia began to fade, but I fell into a suicidal depression, which lasted for months while my psychiatrist gradually increased my medication.  Again I came close to leaving school.  But I didn't.  I stayed and did some uneven, sometimes mediocre, work and I withdrew from most personal contact.  I did my work, but missed classes and eventually I graduated.  I didn't find the sense of community I was looking for there.  And I still felt wounded.  It's important to note that any traumatic event in a person's life can take years to heal.  Trauma is a deep wound.  There is no way to heal quickly.  This is a hard lesson to learn for the new initiate into severe mental illness.  First of all, you will feel intense personal pain (that's the trauma) and then you will have to fight to survive it (over 10 percent don't survive this acute stage of the illness).  If you do survive the psychotic breaks, you will have to endure a period of severe depression as you wake up to the fact that you've been living inside a delusion, possibly for years.  Even with medication, the depression can linger for years, varying in intensity.

The next place I turned to for a sense of community was the internet.  I spent hours reading and posting on message boards related to schizophrenia and started to make a few friends.  Then I began this blog in November of 2006 and discovered other blogs by mostly women with schizoaffective disorder.  These were a very smart and creative group of people and I felt as if I finally had found a place to belong.  I was inspired to start this blog in the first place because I had found Pamela Wagner's blog (WAGblog) around the time I read her and her sister's book Divided Minds.  I was impressed and charmed by Pam's fresh intelligence and her insight.  Even better than that she allowed me to write to her directly and for a while we had an email exchange going on.  Through Pam's blog I believe I discovered Christina Bruni, another powerfully creative person who has survived the worst of this illness and has gone on to be amazingly informative and useful to the schizophrenia community online. Her website is www.christinabruni.com  Her memoir of her experience with schizophrenia will be published next fall and is called Left Of The Dial which is also the name of her personal blog.

Then there is Jen "Daisybee" and her blog Suicidal No More: Choosing To Live With Schizoaffective Disorder which has become very popular and for good reason.  Again, another very intelligent, creative, dedicated person who despite severe mental and physical illnesses has gone on to work at a part time job and go to school part time to get her Bachelor's Degree in Social Work.  She's also a dedicated feminist and member of The National Organization for Women (NOW) and an advocate for the mentally ill through The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).  I found her blog when she was down in the dumps:  no job, no boyfriend, severe depression, physical ailments and elements of psychosis.  She was in a lot of pain then and negative, but her intelligence and sensitivity shone through her writing and I kept coming back to check on her and give her some encouragement.  It was a pleasure to see her pull through the worst of it.  And now she is having a measure of success.  I believe she will attain some of her goals, to become a social worker for mental health and to write at least one book.

More recently I met another exceptionally bright, talented and dedicated woman who also struggles with schizoaffective disorder.  People who follow this blog know her as Karen Sorensen.  Her blog is Schizophrenia And Art and her artist website is schizoaffectiveartist.com  What strikes me about Karen and all these women is that they are not only highly intelligent and talented, they are very, very honest and very giving of themselves.  Pamela and Karen are both fascinating visual artists, admirably dedicated to their art work.  I think I could go so far as to say that they live to be creative every day.  They are both mastering their art following the old fashioned technique of hard work.  At the same time they are writers.  Their blogs provide a window into the ups and downs of an intelligent artistic life that has been affected by schizophrenia.  I'm drawn to Karen's blog in particular because there's an honesty and intimacy to her writing, that and I love seeing and reading about her process as a visual artist because I, too, have some interest and skill in the visual arts.

There are other people who belong in this group, but I don't have the time or space to include them.  I've chosen these four women because I highly respect all of them and because they all have active blogs and I want to draw attention to them.

I don't think I could have gotten to this point of making a face to face friend with another woman in my community without the help of these women online and the help of my brother, Richard, Rita and Amy over the last two years.  So far I've stepped up to being responsible towards Sam and I'm hoping over time we become close friends who support each other and others in the small community that lives here in Western New York.