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.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Peer Support

I'm back home from spending a week with my parents and brother in Florida.  The voices were mostly quiet, but I did experience some restlessness, which is like a lesser form of anxiety.  I loved seeing my mother and father (though my father was rather quiet this trip) and my brother's company is mostly quite welcome (except when I need a break from talking).  I think some of the stress I felt was due to not having a room of my own to retire into.  I slept in the living room and often had some time to myself there to finish reading Adyashanti's book, which I did.  I meditated a couple of times and just pondered space, asking the questions -- Is this space aware and alive? and What am I really?  It was good to do some reading and meditating, it renewed me so that I could be attentive to my family when we joined up again.  Basically, all went well, and I felt confident that all would be well at home with my seven cats because Sam was there to take care of them.

I'm resigned to the fact that I can only see my parents for two weeks out of the year because we live so far away from each other.  It's not the way I want it; it's just the way it is.  So I now call them once a week and let them know that I love them.  Being consistent with that is a new thing for me.  Usually I've withdrawn into myself, isolated myself, forgetting to stay in touch.  I attribute my new behavior to Sam's good influence on me.  Little by little she is teaching me how to take care of myself, my home and my family better.  I feel grateful to know her.  She is  becoming a part of my extended family.  Yesterday she picked me up at the airport and drove me home; then we sat outside and watched my cats wander around the cat pen.  That sounds so ordinary, but for me it was rather extraordinary.  I never sit outside, though I live in the country and so I never let the cats outside, though Richard built this spacious, sturdy cat pen with enough room for them to run around.  Sam says I need to soak up some nature, sit outside, go for a walk in the woods, do some gardening, just get out of this house so I can actually connect with something larger than my living room.  By right away letting the cats outside when we got to my house, she's gently pushing me to change my ways.  And small changes can lead to bigger realizations.

Then she left to go back to her home so she could work in her garden; the first thing I did was round up the cats and bring them indoors again.  I got a little paranoid sitting outside alone.  So what am I finding?  That I can't change overnight, but that working on changes with another person that I trust I can gradually come out of my shell.  It's amazing what just one thoughtful, hardworking person can do for someone like me.  I welcomed her into my home and she's been nothing but gracious and generous in return with not any condescension.  While I was away she did one thing that especially touched my heart -- she cleaned up most of my loft space.  What had been up there?  A couple of kitty litter boxes overflowing with turds, bags and bags of used kitty litter, heavy and hard to get down the small spiral staircase.  I have been ashamed about not taking care of that space, of being too depressed and lazy to deal with it.  Sam did the dirty work that I had no motivation to do.  Is that fair?  No, but God was it needed.  She also suggested that I buy the more expensive clumping litter because it is much, much easier to clean a little at a time instead of throwing out pounds and pounds of used, cheap kitty litter.  I felt so relieved and so foolish that I hadn't thought of that before.

One of my points in appreciating Sam is that people who suffer from mental illness and live alone need at least one person to come into their living space to teach them some very practical things and approaches.  This special person (or people) needs to be a trusted friend or family member.  Many of us who suffer with the symptoms of schizophrenia intentionally isolate ourselves.  It's going on fourteen years since I became acutely ill and it is only now that I am letting one person get close to me.  I believe my recovery would have progressed much more quickly if I had had access to mental health support group geared towards people with psychotic disorders.  Local, easily accessible support groups should be dotting the countryside as well as the major cities.  People learn from people who've been there.  These are people who have not only survived the acute stage of psychosis, but who have embraced some form of recovery in behavior and attitude.  Acutely psychotic people are typically not going to trust family members and doctors as much as someone who has walked in their shoes.  I turned for support from other people with psychotic disorders here in this blog with other bloggers and on online forums primarily for schizophrenia sufferers and sometimes their caretakers.  The internet has been a godsend for me because I live in a poor, rural part of the state with few services.

This blog in particular has boosted my confidence; I respect myself more and understand myself better for having stuck with this blog.  People I respect read my words.  People who have walked in my shoes one way or another and have suffered from depression, anxiety and/or psychotic disorders.  But recently a mother of a young man who suffers from schizophrenia started a blog called "Cracked To The Core" which you can find HERE.  She calls herself Juju and she writes with passion, sincerity and skill and I hope some of you check her blog out.  I've added it to my Blog List.  I'm glad she drew my attention to her blog because I don't have anyone on my Blog List to represent a caretaker's perspective.    Mostly I've listed blogs by people with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, but really it occurs to me that those of us with mental illness and our family and friends could benefit from widening the circle and sharing our perspectives with each other.  Our blogs are another form of support group where each individual gets to shine in writing.

Here's a suggestion that the voices just made to me:  set up peer run, Skype, one on one meetings for those people who have no access to support groups or for those who don't have the motivation (negative symptom of schizophrenia) but need contact with someone who is in recovery.  Here's some more of my own thoughts about that:  make it a non profit organization run by volunteers open to the public.  It would be like a video conference between a peer counselor (and potential friend) and an individual looking for some support from a safe haven.  It would take a somewhat structured approach I think similar to Al-Anon and AA and a daily reader for people who have suffered or are suffering from psychosis--preferably several of them.  The volunteers would be trained the way hotline volunteers for domestic violence and suicide are trained.  Imagine the confidence building capacity for both the volunteer and the person who reaches out to try to open our hearts enough to ask for help and give it.  Maybe there could be a online directory of the volunteers that shares their history with mental illness, their badges of endurance and courage and people could go to the main site, pick someone with similar interests, older, younger or the same age and request to set up a time to have a video meeting.  Maybe the volunteers have at least one person on duty all the time.  I would think that there should also be a written forum to go to to talk to other people, maybe to get referrals for which peer counselor to consult about a particular problem.  Say some  counselors may have strong experience with drug addiction or homelessness or severe paranoia or with living alone or in a family or halfway house or any number of life experiences both positive and negative.

It seems to me that if we all do some brainstorming like this, we can come up with treatments, maybe even solutions to all kinds of problems and struggles.  It takes good ideas and I think many people who suffer from psychotic disorders have good ideas.  What they and I need are people deep enough into recovery to have regained, or discovered for the first time, their motivation, even ambition, to commit to being those volunteer peer counselors.  One of the reasons I need several peer counselors is quite simply to gather in information about different people's experience with the voices.  I have not talked to a single soul face to face about their experience with the voices.  There are millions of us in the world and I have not had a close enough contact with my peers.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Reconsidering Adyashanti

At the suggestion of the Anonymous commentator on my last blog post, I downloaded Adyashanti's book "Falling Into Grace" and have been reading it; I'm almost halfway through it.  Adyashanti is a good, clear writer and I found myself drawn into considering his ideas about the nature of suffering and how to alleviate it.  One of the Tibetan mind training slogans is - "Regard all dharmas as dreams."  This essentially translates into regarding life as a dream.  Adyashanti writes about this as well.  Basically he is saying that because we attach so strongly to our thoughts, seeing them as solidly real and rather blindly following them, we misguide ourselves and often we suffer.  He asserts that thoughts are neither real nor the truth about our essential selves.

By holding firm to our thoughts and fueling those thoughts with feelings, we go through life ignoring that we are much more than our thoughts.  How can you sense that you are more than your thinking mind?  You sense it by sitting with your present moment experience and studying what happens when there are gaps in your thinking.  When I did this, I quickly discovered that without any words in my mind, while sitting still and looking and listening, I was still fully alive, actually more alive than when I was struggling with my thoughts.  I realized that this is the essence of mindfulness.

This silent, spacious place you find yourself in without thoughts is receptive yet energized and keenly, delicately aware.  It's a beautiful, peaceful, kind hearted place and though thoughts return to take us away from it, it is always present.  It doesn't ebb and flow, it just is, very present, very steady, very available.  For the most part I am caught in the common, human delusion that we are what we think, but even I know I can just exist in a peaceful way when I stop thinking and doing and rest in being whoever or whatever I am.  It's so simple: just stop.  Look around.  Breath.  This is Awareness with a capital A.  This is much larger than the small, tight circle of the thinking mind.  If we have the ability to see at all it's due to this spacious awareness and not due to thinking thoughts.  Thoughts are contained inside Awareness, and not the other way around.

It comes down to asking yourself who or what you are.  I've been asking myself this question.  When I ask myself what is really real my attention immediately turns to what is right in front of me, the space I'm in, what I can see and hear and feel and smell.  When I stop to think if my thoughts are real, I hesitate.  My thoughts are all over the place and because of this lack of steadiness they feel unreal.  But somehow, through all their shifting movements, I feel tied to them.  On a closer look, perhaps even chained to them like an active addict.  Adyashanti says they are not real and therefore not the truth about us.  I'm hoping that he's right; I know I suffer because of the things I think about and if they are not real then I can keep returning my focus to the larger Awareness and learn to re-train myself to experience life on a more elemental level.  We are, after all, animals and the animals we interact with can teach us a lot about living in the moment, fully aware.  I'm in love with my cats, even when they are hunting mice in the house.  If a cat can be wondrous to me, how much more myself and other humans?

So are thoughts bad?  They can be, especially when we continually over emphasize them and reinforce them with repetition.  Then they mislead us, cause us to stay stuck in the dream of life.  But once we realize that we're imbalanced, we can learn to step back and see the broader picture.  In stepping back, we detach and take away some of the emphasis on the thoughts that continue to arise, while returning some attention to the space and silence in the present moment.  What we consider our natural state is most likely an unnatural state and our natural state is one we tend to ignore.  We're too busy in what Adyashanti calls an egoic trance.  Too much of the time we have blinders on, like the kind you see on city horses to keep them focused ahead and not distracted, but our blinders keep us focused on distraction after distraction and not on what is really going on in and around us.

It's strange to me that I could listen to over 7 hours of Adyashanti talking on the audiobook called "Spontaneous Awakening" and not get a feel for his message, but after reading 90 pages of his book "Falling Into Grace", where his emphasis is on suffering and alleviating suffering, his message is starting to get to me and with no psychotic overtones.  Little by little I'm going to apply his ideas to my approach towards myself and my life just to see where it takes me.  First I'm going to finish reading the book and then I'm going to read it again and take notes.  And I'll listen again to Adyashanti's audiobook to see if I can hear him more truly.  His book is providing a foundation for me to do that.  If I can hear, I can learn.  As for Nirmala, I will learn from him too.

Just to let you know, I will be away visiting my parents in Florida for a week and won't be online very much, but I'm taking my Kindle with me and am excited about opening to what could almost be seen as an adventure.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Learning From Nirmala

I first encountered a spiritual teacher named Nirmala (born Daniel Erway) on my Kindle.  (You can find his site here.)  I had been downloading books by Buddhist teachers and one day as I was checking out the Kindle storefront, I happened to look at their lists of suggestions.  There were several inexpensive books by Nirmala.  Most of the reviews were very positive and so I decided to buy one of his books.  The book I bought was called "Nothing Personal:  Seeing Beyond the Illusion of a Separate Self".  I found myself responding to some of what Nirmala was teaching.  I responded strongly enough that I downloaded the other three books, one of which is a book of his poetry.  I haven't read much of his poetry yet, but I have read his latest book called "That is That:  Essays About True Nature" and am in the process of reading the book that came out before this one called "Living from the Heart".

So I read "Nothing Personal" several months ago and wrote a blog entry called "Something Rich and True" on September 14th.  Nirmala, who may or may not be a Buddhist teacher, was asserting that Awareness is God.  This idea touched me on several levels.  It made me curious enough to begin to study my then present moments.  In his book, Nirmala kept inviting the reader to tap into present moment awareness, to test what he was saying out.  So from time to time I would put my Kindle down and just look around the open space of my living room and dining room.  I've lived in this house now for approximately 23 years and I continue to find the space interesting.  But perhaps it's not the space that is so interesting, but my awareness of the space.  Awareness is interesting.

On some level we are always aware, even when we're asleep some part of us is experiencing the dream state as if it were real, when it is not.  The idea that life is a dream is not a new one; it's deeply entwined in Buddhist concepts.  And yet, awareness of what is not real can be as interesting as an awareness of what is real.  Obviously this is so because so many of us are more aware of our thoughts, which are actually not real, and not aware of our surroundings, which are real.  Living on automatic, going from thing to thing while worrying, doubting, anticipating, is not being aware of the larger picture.  Our focus narrows, Nirmala would say it contracts.  We only see what is directly in front of us, often some worrisome thought, and fail to experience a greater mindfulness, a greater awareness of the moments that are always passing away from us.

When we contract, shut down, become myopic, we suffer.  Our awareness becomes limited, imagined problems grow large.  When we expand (again this is a Nirmala word), we open up and begin to see that there's a lot of space around everything and we relax.  Some Buddhists talk a lot about space, what they call Shunyata, also called emptiness.  One of the first things I noticed when I began to sit with my pain and look at it was that the pain was concentrated in one place, but became less intense as the space expanded around it.  I realized that the space around the pain was crucial; it gave me a choice.  I could focus on the center of the pain, weaving stories about the pain and feeling miserable or I could identify with the space around the pain and feel a release from some of the suffering.  So pain occurs within a large space.  Put in that context, our personal pain may be rather small, but only if we make that shift in our perspective.  That's hard to do because from childhood we have been taught to remain self-centered about our pain and the pain of those we care for.  We have been taught that pain is a Big Deal.  In making it a Big Deal, we magnify it and in magnifying it, we distort it and forget that the truth is much vaster.

I said that Awareness was interesting.  In the instance of me looking closely and impartially at my pain, awareness allowed me to consciously shift my attention away from my pain.  This shift left an impression on me.  I began to doubt that the pain I continued to feel off and on with my bouts of depression and anxiety was a solid and semi-permanent thing without much space within it or around it.    The space concept began to form an open foundation for further study.  I am also comforted by it.  The value of space shows me that there is always room to grow and that pain is just a smaller part of the landscape, not the whole picture.  Buddhists also say that there is no intrinsic self because what we are is spacious awareness rather than a body with thoughts.  This idea is a new one for me.  I still attach to myself as a body with thoughts, but not totally.  There's still room for the concept of spacious awareness as self to sprout and grow.

Mindfulness is Awareness practice whether you are meditating or going about your day and night.  You've heard something about mindfulness.  Really I think we go in and out of mindfulness all the time.  But what is it?  Awareness that is heightened.  Simple activities such as cooking,  eating, cleaning, bathing, driving as well as just being, stopping and looking around are infused with something special when you pay attention to either the details of the activity or the details of your surroundings if you're looking around.  And then there's sitting meditation practice where you identify thoughts as thoughts, return to the breath and let them go over and over.  The mindfulness lesson in that is that awareness gives you the power of having a choice, either to remain lost in the dream of thoughts or awake to the space of the present moment once the thought bubble has been popped.  Awareness of space is also awareness of self in space, hence the term spacious awareness.

From what I can see, Buddha Nature is what is intrinsic to spacious awareness, to Self.  Before the thoughts come and the judgments, there is unadulterated you, the essence of which is all good.  If space is the basis of everything and space is by its nature all embracing, accepting, non judgmental, peaceful, adaptable, essentially loving, even joyful, then we can heave a sigh of relief and train to shift our attention away from our preoccupation with the thoughts in our minds.  This is a radically different approach to understanding ourselves than the Judeo-Christian model which believes that our natures are fallen and essentially sinful.  Instead there is this idea that we never left the garden of eden, that we are still there in all our wonderful innocence, only we have fallen for the illusion that we are essentially bad and unworthy.

Living with acute psychosis telling me over and over again that I was evil, but never really believing it in my heart of hearts, led me to a compassion practice for myself and the voices.  Compassion practice led me to the idea of Buddha Nature.  Yes, people can and do do hateful, horrible things but the essence of the doer is not in the action, though many people appear to think so.  An "evil" action can brand the doer of that action "evil" as well.  I believe an evil action can produce some harsh karma; I think that what goes around comes around, but I don't believe in inherently evil people.  I believe in deeply ill people.  The harsher the crime, the greater the compassion.  Unfortunately, we are a bloodthirsty lot and behave towards offenders with as much illness as it took him or her to commit the act in the first place.  But our need for vengeful "justice" is mostly conditioning and still beneath that grisly veneer there is our essentially good nature and a way to get beyond our own brands of negativity.

I think it is fair to say that you can't recover from severe mental illness for very long if you continue to view yourself as essentially sinful and potentially evil.  The concept of Buddha Nature or the essential goodness in everything is a treatment for such a sick orientation.  It gives you permission to love yourself, love others, the whole world and beyond.