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, June 7, 2012

For Those Whose Voices Remain

It's a fact that some people have voices in their minds from an early age until they die.  I think I might be one of those people.  I take my medications because they reduce the intensity of the voices.  This gives me room to do some of my own thinking and feeling.  Without this cushion life would be much harder.  It also makes it easier to work with the voices instead of judging them or trying to block them out.  I've noticed that a lot of my peers, who take the medications but still hear voices, try various ways to keep the voices at bay such as, listening to music, watching television and movies, playing video games, doing craft work and art work.  Ultimately none of these things entirely remove the voices, but they do give much needed pleasure and in some cases allow for creative self-expression.  My worry is that too many people are overlooking the benefits of working with the voices and co-existing with them.

My impression of the people I've met online who suffer from schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder is that they mostly view the voices as negative, something to run away from or block out.  That's a natural pattern, run away from pain and grasp on to pleasure, but it is a pattern that causes a lot of suffering.  Studying Buddhism, especially from the Tibetan perspective, has shown me that this pervasive pattern needs to be reversed; people need to move closer to pain in order to understand and accept it as a part of life experience and people need to let go of clinging to pleasant experiences and even offer them up to the benefit of others.  I know a lot about avoidance and running away from pain, but it doesn't work.  Eventually I return to my starting point, back to pain and the voices and to a lack of resolution.

I don't believe that my experience is unique.  I can't be the only one to have noticed that the voices are a mixture of positive and negative even during the most acute stage of the illness.  When things are painful, it is too easy to generalize one's experience and the voices as being entirely negative.  When we do that we place the blame on them and avoid self-responsibility; we breed resentment and we stay stuck and so we run away again and again.  Perhaps we convince ourselves that these voices are the result of having a biochemical glitch in our brains and that our only responsibility is to take the medications to try and correct that glitch.  I think biochemistry is definitely a factor, but it is not the whole picture.  Taking the medications is a good start for many who have chronic psychosis, but there remains much more to be done and experienced and reflected upon.

If you decide to try and work and co-exist with your voices, the first thing you've got to do is to acknowledge that they are real for you, that they exist in your life and that sometimes you have no choice but to interact with them or be influenced by them.  You grant them the dignity and responsibility of existing.  Telling yourself that they are not real and trying to block them out when you can leaves you in a cycle of avoidance and denial.  It doesn't solve the root problem.  After acknowledging that they are real, you can begin to move closer to them so that you can study them.  See and experience both their strengths and their weaknesses.  If you dwell upon their negativity, you distort the truth and lose your balance.  Conversely, if you train yourself to see the positive in them, you begin to move back towards balance.  It's just common sense.

Voices in order to be voices have to have some inherently good traits.  They have mastered language and are intelligent, they are creative because language demands that you be creative in order to express your intent.  There are also several voices coming from different places and perspectives.  This means that they are versatile and can take multiple points of view and so they are expressive.  They are capable of strong emotion, making them more like us than different from us.  And so, at the bare minimum they are intelligent, creative, versatile, expressive and have the ability to feel.  They can also use all these gifts to behave abusively.  They can lie, manipulate, intimidate and go so far as to punish and yet the basis for this bad behavior is still good.  They couldn't lie unless they could identify the truth; they couldn't manipulate unless they first knew how to be creative, versatile and expressive.  The good stuff comes first for them and for us.

I'm not denying, especially during acute psychosis, that the bad stuff is really bad.  There's no doubt about it, it's there and in your face sometimes 24/7, awake or asleep.  Of course I can see why people get into the habit of generalizing their experience with the voices as just bad, but that feeds back into   delusional thinking, because it is just not the whole truth, it's not reality.  What's worse is if you believe the Judeo-Christian idea that we are essentially sinful, you can easily get pulled deeper and deeper into delusional/paranoid thoughts.  I was very fortunate in that I believed in my essential goodness even during the worst parts of my life and when I began studying Buddhism and came across the concept of Buddha Nature in everyone and everything, I felt some of the weight of my unresolved illness lift off of me.  As I learned more about the essential need for compassion for myself and others, I knew I had to extend that compassion to the voices that had hurt me so badly.  I had a lot of resentment to wade through to get to that point, but I kept my spirit open to the possibility that Buddha Nature and the practice of compassion were not just Buddhist concepts, but the basis of what we experience as reality.

So I am presupposing two things, that the voices are real and that the voices are essentially good and not evil.  That makes it sound very clear cut, but it is not.  When you work with the voices, you are working with not only their faults, but your own.  I want to stress that when the voices are behaving abusively, do not follow them.  One of the overriding lessons I've learned from them is that when people (or voices) act out, you must return the focus to yourself and do what you need to do to take care of yourself.  People have a lot of trouble with this because you have to love and care about yourself in order to take care of yourself.  The more ambivalence you feel towards yourself, or worse dislike, the more the voices will step up their attack.  Self-denigration for many Westerners is our Achilles heel.  In our culture there's a lot of emphasis on the power of romantic love to heal everything, but what really heals individuals is the extent of their love for themselves first and foremost.  Once you can establish love and trust within yourself, then you can extend it outward to other people.

I know I was feeling a kind of detached self-hatred after I left my abusive boyfriend and from that platform the voices took over my life and I entered into the world of acute psychosis.  So I wasn't sure if I liked myself and the voices took that weakness of mine and forced me to look at it.  They showed me that I had used fantasy like an addictive drug in order to avoid facing reality.  They showed me this by taking the germ of one of my fantasies and blowing it up into an elaborate delusion, a delusion that I blindly followed for a time.  Delusions hinge on the individual having an ego imbalance.  That is, delusional people see themselves as either more important than they actually are, sometimes vastly more important (delusions of grandeur) or drastically less important or inherently bad.  The voices took my tendency to either over or undervalue myself and let that fuel the delusion keeping it alive and me trapped inside of it.

People who love themselves have a realistic view of themselves; they accept who they are and their place in life.  They are protected by this from getting pulled into serious mental illness.  But people with low self esteems are very vulnerable to praise and/or criticism.  If you base your worth on something or someone outside of yourself, you are then subject to all kinds of fluctuations which leads to a lack of personal integrity and emotional/mental instability.  For several years I had an on again off again fantasy about a rock star.  I invested him with a lot of status.  I thought he was very talented and hard working and attractive.  In my mind then he was someone who had become successful.  After I fell into the delusion that he was following me and was attracted to me, I began to look at myself critically.  I wanted to be with the rock star, but I didn't feel worthy enough.  I swung from overestimating my power of attraction to underestimating my essential worth as a human being.  The voices took that polarity in me and blew it up hugely.  They shaped me into a version of Jesus and once that took hold, they took that away and told me I was the Anti-Christ.  Then they made a compromise; I became a composite of myself following Jesus and the rock star as an Anti-Christ like serial killer.  The rock star was not really me, but he existed in my mental space and I couldn't get away from him.

Trying to be like Jesus, I had to love the serial killer I believed was a part of my mind.  In a sense, it was as if Jesus was helping Lucifer to embrace recovery from his self hating and other hating addictions.  In trying to love someone who I was also deeply afraid of, I had to face my fears over and over again.  Without the benefit of medication, this led to repeated breakdowns.  Perhaps I had to go through this as a kind of catharsis for my failed relationship with an abusive addict.  I didn't heal the serial killer, but I did prove to myself that I had a good and trusting heart.  I had come to believe in the value of loving this enemy who really wasn't an enemy, but a lost, sick soul, the part of myself that I had been rejecting.  When I finally asked the voices after my final breakdown if I could let go of the rock star, they said it was about time.  That's when I committed to taking the medications.  That's when I started loving myself the right way.

If I learned this major lesson, why do I still have voices?  Why do I dip into delusional thoughts and paranoia sometimes?  And why does the thought of this famous man being a secret serial killer still haunt me?  I think because I haven't learned the lesson that I can't be a savior to another person.  In the beginning I tried to be that for my boyfriend and then I tried to be that for my primary delusion.  The only person I can save is myself.  Yes, I can be supportive but I cannot take on the responsibility for living someone else's life.  I still have the dregs of romance addiction in me, which is what got me into trouble in the first place.  Addiction is not love.  And in order to have a loving relationship with someone else, you have to love yourself and respect your loved ones boundaries.  People have to be free to make their own discoveries and their own mistakes.

When you become willing to love yourself and take care of yourself, you enter into recovery.  Part of loving myself has been learning to love and appreciate the voices.  They challenge and guide me while I continue to learn old and new lessons.  If you can change you attitude of them from negative to positive, you can change your whole world.  For those of you who have voices I'm here to encourage you to try.

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