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.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Spring, A Time For Work

A little over a week ago we had a snow storm but this week the temperatures have risen and nearly all of the snow is gone. Today it's reached 70 degrees. I haven't opened a window or stepped outside. There's a hawk in the area and most of the birds have gone even though I continue to feed them. I miss the raucous bluejays. So Spring may be here and it's time to switch from hibernation mode into awake and motivated mode. My depression still lingers even though I've gone out several times this week. I have to give myself a few days to readjust to warmer weather and then I have to get myself to sit outside. All this makes me think of the bear I saw at the end of last summer. I wonder where she is now and if she's fully awake after months of resting. Or is it still too soon? Is there another snow storm on the way? I'll enjoy the warm weather while remaining skeptical for another couple of weeks but really Spring is just about here. The hundreds of daffodils my brother planted a couple of years ago are pushing up from the earth and I feel hopeful. Time for new beginnings. Will I have the courage to rise above my circumstances this year?

I've begun my Spring cleaning in the kitchen. Washed and scrubbed the counters and dishes but there's a lot more to do. I start and stop and start again. It's hard for me to put in continuous effort towards anything. I resist labelling myself as lazy and know this is the result of a low level depression. It's up to me to have the courage to change myself a little at a time. I know there is nothing really holding me back from housework and creative work and yet I fall into a kind of inertia, a numb state. I get overwhelmed by how much there is to do and how little there is of my desire to do it. I'm still caught in a childish pursuit of instant gratification when in my heart I know that hard work is much more satisfying. I think the core of the problem is low self esteem. I don't yet have the confidence I need to succeed. I look back on my life and see so many opportunities dismissed. Instead of having the courage to face life, I've usually withdrawn.

After college, I didn't get a job, instead I took art classes. Then I moved to the country and got involved with an abusive alcoholic, still no job, no external focus, little responsibility. Then I returned to taking art classes. Then psychosis. I got my art degree but still no work experience. I've always been ashamed that I haven't worked. This shame has held me back. I need to be part of a program for the mentally ill that can prepare me for work but there is no program near me. And so, what I think I will do in the next month is find some volunteer work. If I can successfully fullfill that responsibility maybe I will be ready for part time work. God, I hope so. You have no idea what it would mean to me to earn a paycheck. Right now I feel foolish and impotent because I'm unable to do what most people take for granted. But if I can commit to a volunteer work schedule I might be able to strengthen my confidence in myself, so that I can push on.

I have so much and so little at the same time. My family's money has saved me from an abusive relationship and allowed me to live independently through my psychosis and I will always be grateful but it has robbed me of a sense of true independence and personal purpose. I am a spoiled individual but not irretrievably so. I still believe I can change. In fact, I know I have to change or I will be forever stuck in immobility and depression.

Friday, March 16, 2007

A Residual Delusion

I can pinpoint entering into psychosis to a few days after I mailed an audiocassette of myself singing a few of my songs and then talking to a somewhat famous rock singer/musician/songwriter. It was the end of May 1998. Before that moment I may have been withdrawn, still suffering from the aftershock of abuse, but not psychotic. The psychosis came upon me quickly in the form of a pleasant (at first) paranoia which led to the formation of my most enduring delusion: that this famous person was attracted to me and either having me followed or following me himself. I ignored the fact that this was extremely unlikely since I sent the tape with no return address, not even my first name.

But why did I send a tape to this person in the first place? I first heard him singing his songs seven years earlier when I was a couple of years into my relationship with Brendan. Brendan played the band's first album over and over again, often when he was drunk. I responded to the music and to the singer. During the abuse I found myself thinking about this man. He seemed like someone who would protect me if he could and that was a comfort to me. Over the years I listened to his songs. He often wrote about his conflicted relationship with his long time girlfriend (and later wife). It sounded like an abusive relationship to me and I sympathized with his situation. After I left Brendan I began writing songs and recording them on an 8 track cassette recorder. That's how I kept busy the first year I was free and during this time I fantasized about sending this songwriter a few of my songs and maybe talking to him about the abusive relationship I had been in. It was a passing fantasy.

I tried to get my life in order, so I began taking a few classes. Then I started work on a portfolio and applied to an art school nearby. I was accepted. Then I went to school the next year and really enjoyed myself. I thought of the songwriter off and on. I was still attracted to him but I didn't take the attraction seriously, it was too superficial. A year went by and I had a crush on my painting teacher who was happily married. So I tried to distance myself from him. I did this by turning my focus back on this songwriter. I had been making up songs all along. Singing had given me a release that I badly needed but I didn't share my songs with anyone. So I had this not so brilliant idea that I should make up a tape to send to him and after the second semester ended that's what I set about doing. It only took me a couple of days and it felt good to make it and it felt good that this person might hear it.

For years I had heard voices but they were barely conscious and when I was aware of them, they were like friends and even teachers. Perhaps I was psychotic and I didn't even know it because the psychosis was not yet delusional and paranoid, that is, not negatively interfering in my life. But after I sent the tape one voice came forward and identified itself as a being called Darius. This had never happened before, the voices had always remained anonymous, barely visible. This voice began telling me that the songwriter had heard the tape and responded strongly to it and that we would get married some day and have a son together named Christian. At the time I thought this was ridiculous and I fought against it. But then the paranoia took hold and I thought I was being followed and spied on. This was oddly flattering but also very disturbing. I knew that if this man was following me,etc... that it was bad behavior on his part and that I should detach but I found myself unable to do so and got pulled deeper and deeper into a proliferating delusion.

The delusion quickly became elaborate and I was quite lost in it. I thought this man and I were telepathically connected against both our wills. Gradually he morphed from a deranged Gnostic cult leader to a serial killer. That was when the paranoia was at its worst. I lived with this shadow who seemed to want to rape, torture and kill me for a couple of years. It was like not only being in an abusive relationship but totally living inside one with no escape. All day, all night, every day, every night. It was horrible. I had three psychotic breaks during this time and after the last one in December 2001, I began taking the anti-psychotic meds every day. At some point I stopped believing in the delusion and the paranoia faded away. I fell into a deep depression but got through it as my psychiatrist kept increasing the anti-psychotic meds. After that I avoided listening to the songwriter's music. Meanwhile he got divorced, he got remarried, his wife had a child and life went on. I was so grateful that I never did anything to interfere in this man's life.

But every now and then I fall into thinking about him again. I no longer see him as a serial killer which is such a relief but I can't help but wonder who this man really is and why I became so obsessed with him. This Monday I slipped and watched him on VH1 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions. I had a mixed reaction to him, moderate attraction to near indifference. I taped him giving his speech even so but then didn't look at it. I felt disturbed again and knew intellectually that I should avoid anything to do with this man, but emotionally I still felt this ambivalence. I went online and read an article about him. Then I stopped and reflected. Should I be doing this? The answer was still no.

Yesterday I talked with my therapist about it and told her that it felt almost like an addiction. Something I nearly felt I had to do but knew without a doubt that I shouldn't. My problem and my responsibility. Though the experience left me unsettled, it also showed me how far I had come that I could identify the problem and could resist getting embroiled in it. And lately I've been remembering my initial delusions and have been able to see more clearly than ever that they had no basis in reality. For years I wasn't able to do that, I really believed the delusions. So, while I'm not happy with the fact that I'm still mentally ill, I am happy with the other fact that I have the ability to get better through my own self-awareness and perseverance.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Loneliness

I grew up priviledged. I had my own room on the top floor of a three story brownstone in Park Slope Brooklyn. From the age of four on I could always withdraw from my family and retreat into my room. As the years passed I got used to relying on myself to take care of myself. Yes, I would talk with my mother and brother and yes, I would have friends over but I also spent a lot of time alone in that room. High school was emotionally stressful and each day when I got home I would fall asleep for two to three hours till it was time for dinner. Then when I was seventeen I found myself with a boyfriend and he began living with me in my parents' house. Over the next five years we adapted to each other. I studied at Barnard and Columbia and he studied at Columbia and we lived in my parents' house. He became a part of my family. Now I was in a relationship and couldn't just retreat to my room when I felt like being alone. For a while it worked. Then when college ended for us we went our separate ways and I began, once again, spending a lot of time alone in my room.

For me solitude is both a blessing and a bit of a curse. On the one hand, it allows me a feeling of freedom and gives me a good environment to be creative but, on the other hand, it naturally isolates me. I've been noticing this this week while I've been trying to pull up memories so that I can work on starting a memoir. First of all it's hard for me to claim my memories and then when I do it's painful to relive my life. Lately the memories are of childhood but they come from different ages. There is no neat linear progression to the memories instead they're scattered. It's like seeing my life spread all over the place and in effect that is where I'm at, unsettled and tentatively striving to organize my life, to make sense out of the chaos. So I'm discovering that it takes a certain amount of courage to face one's life and try to order it and share it. A certain amount of solitude is necessary for this process to unfold. But I have to be careful because I already have a tendency to isolate myself and too much isolation leads to depression and imbalance.

Today I went to the second writing workshop class, so I did spend a couple of hours around people but I knew that I wouldn't say much. So I listened and did the three writing exercises. This week our teacher had laid out another 18" x 24" paper with a circle in the center. She had us write our name in the center of the circle and then write the names of the people who have been closest to us in circles around the main circle. The farther away from the center the more distant the connection. And these people can also be people we've never met like a writer or singer. So, again, this is another way to visualize and organize our characters and our thoughts about them.

While I was doing this I realized that I had trouble after a little while thinking of people who have affected me. I came face to face with my own isolated life. I've mostly lived alone since I left Brendan. That was 1995 when I was 33 years old. It's going on 12 years now, the years most women settle down and have a couple of children or develop their careers. Me, no marriage, no kids, no career. Mental illness has taken a lot from me. Tonight I realized that I was lonely. It may sound strange but because I spend so much time alone I can't always identify when I'm feeling lonely or rather loneliness is just a part of who I am. I haven't had a close female friend since high school and after Brendan, no boyfriends. I decided soon after I became psychotic that I couldn't be in a relationship with a man until I got through the worst of it. Well, I think I have and I'm still not ready, but I'm getting closer to it. First, I need to find a friend.

Finding a friend means reaching out. This does not come naturally to me. I'm so used to hiding myself from others, so used to taking care of myself by myself (and not so well unfortunately). All through the worst of the psychosis I mostly lived alone and dealt with it by myself. That's what I know, so that's what I do. But I know it's not healthy and that I have to change. So I will continue with this writing course and take the next one they offer and I will go to Al-Anon (which I missed these last two weeks) and I will keep a look out for any potential friend. And then I'll do some rehearsing and call someone and ask to go out together for lunch or a movie. I haven't done that in such a long time.

The easy way is to not reach out to people but I'm finding that that is not really so easy. The deeper I dig my hole, the harder it is to get out of it. But there is still light visible and the first step is to call out for help and maybe start to dig out some steps to take me back up to the light. One step at a time. So, one goal is to keep writing my memoirs and another is to cultivate at least one friendship in the next 6 months. Spring is coming and that will help a great deal. Tomorrow is Daylight Savings Time thank goodness, a whole extra hour of light means I can go to my support group meeting in daylight. It's such a small thing but it means a lot to me.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Writing Workshop

Yesterday I went to the first of five autobiographical writing workshop classes. The instructor, a woman in her mid fifties, is named Linda Underhill and she's written a collection of essays (which I have not yet read) called The Unequal Hours: Moments of Being in the Natural World (1999). She was also the director of the creative writing program at the University of Pittsburgh for 12 years and has taught many creative writing classes. For this class she neatly arranged about 13 writing desks in a semi-circle. On each desk was an 18" x 24" piece of white drawing paper with line drawn horizontally down the length of it. There was also a standard sized sheet of paper with a list of what she plans to cover during each of the five classes. For yesterday's class she listed: "Timetables / Great Beginnings / Sense/Memory Exercises". The large piece of drawing paper was for the timetable.

Truly a great idea and I reccommend it to anyone who wants to write a memoir. At the beginning of the line you put your birthdate and at the end of the line you put the present date, then you divide the line into decades of your life. Above the line you list important facts and/or memories of your life during that particular decade and below the line you put list important historical/cultural/social facts for that same time period. So far I've found making these lists this way is visually pleasing and motivational. When I got home I continued working on this personalized timeline and did some research on the time period using my computer encyclopedia. I just never made the connection before between my life and the world at large, so this procedure is opening my eyes, drawing my interest and placing my life in a greater context all at once. And I thought about it some more that, of course, you'd need a large sheet of paper to do this. So simple yet quite effective. So this is my first thank you to Ms. Underhill.

The class is made up of 12 women (myself included) and 1 man. I'd say most of the women are in their fifties or older and the man is around that age as well. Ms. Underhill had us each tell the class our name, where we were from and what we want to get out of the workshop. I was the first one to do this and I was brief but many of the women were quite forthcoming about themselves and their writing experiences and hopes for the future. Several of them had done writing for children and wanted to write for their children and grandchildren the stories of their lives.

After our introductions, our teacher said that she would welcome people reading their work but that it wasn't a requirement. I know if I do read any of my work I will have to push myself because my tendency now is to hold back, especially in group situations. The class is just large enough though that there is not enough time for everyone to read their work and do the in class exercises at the same time. And I wondered, who will be willing to read? Well, we did two writing exercises and when the time came for people to share there were several woman who had no problems reading what they had written. One woman in particular wrote quite well about a particular memory and in such a sort time. I was fumbling with my own words and had little desire to share and so I didn't, but I was pleased that others were willing and I found what they had to say interesting.

Going to this writing class made me think of another writing class I took in my town about ten years ago before I became psychotic. It was much smaller (maybe six people) and more intimate and we each got to read our work aloud for others to respond to and critique. The teacher, also a published writer, was great and I had felt welcomed and comfortable. Of course, this class was held over the span of three months instead of just one which allowed us all to relax and become familiar with each other. In this workshop the dynamics will necessarily be different and I know I'll only get out of it what I put into it.

The teacher had recommended that we come with loose leaf paper, binder and pencils (or pens) which I did. This is the first time I've used an old fashioned loose leaf notebook in a very long time and I'm really enjoying it so far. It has two side pockets (where I put the three handouts she gave us) and it has a smooth hard writing surface like a clip board. What's cool about the loose leaf binder is that I can remove or add pages at will, something I can't do in a spiral notebook (which is what I have been using for years now). So the two new things, the timeline and the new notebook, are making an impression on me and I feel ready to continue working.

I did some writing today and began remembering people from my past who I haven't thought of for years. The process is not painless though because in retrospect I see where I made my mistakes and I feel some regret along with the pleasure. But now I have a lot of material to work with whereas when I was young I was sort of lost and inexperienced with life. The trick will be getting the memories down and trying to organize them. Ms. Underhill says that it's fine to start from anytime in your life, instead of the traditional start from the very beginning and work to the present. It's too soon to know which approach I'll ultimately take but it's good to know that there's no strict procedure.

All in all, a good first class.

Friday, March 2, 2007

The Weight Issue

When I was a kid I was skinny. At adolescence I became average weight and stayed that way until I became psychotic at age 36. I put on 70 pounds. Now I'm about 40 pounds overweight. Yesterday I decided to lose 20 of the 40 pounds within the next four months through diet and exercise. The deadline is a doctor's appointment at the end of June. If I succeed I'll be halfway to average weight again and then I'll work on the final 20 pounds. The last time I lost weight without exercising was four years ago. I ate one meal a day for four months and yes, I lost a chunk of weight. Not healthy and if I continued in that pattern I would have become anorexic.

It was my voices that warned me against self starvation as a means to weight loss. The implication was that it would change me in a negative way and that it would be hard to stop once I started. And so I got myself a treadmill, continued to eat and exercised 90 minutes four to five times a week and I lost 20 pounds. Then I stopped exercising and began to put weight back on, not a lot but enough to make me want to get back on the horse and try again. And that's where I'm at now. But there's still that temptation to drastically cut back on what I eat, to, in effect, take a shortcut. Intellectually I know that puts extra stress on my body and on myself. I know it is unhealthy. I know that is a paradox because what I really want is to be healthy. Emotionally I want fast results without having to work at it, just like a little child. I want that miraculous pill just like many other people. And emotionally I am also repelled by the idea of a diet pill because at the same time I don't want to work, I also want to earn what I get. I want my life to be meaningful rather than easy.

So there's this psychological struggle in me between action and inaction, between doing what's challenging and doing what's easy. But why should moderate eating and exercising be such a challenge to me? When I stick to it, I enjoy it. Then inevitably I fall victim to my own gradual lack of discipline and I slide back into a kind of inertia and from there I slide back into a low level depression that reinforces itself each time I decide to eat a little extra and skip exercising for the day. I can see why people go to training coaches a couple of times a month as a necessary kick in the ass, the motivational push to persevere. But I live alone and can change my daily standards at will and so I have to just push myself a little harder and keep going.

I'm minimally aware that I hide behind my weight. It reinforces my self isolation. I accept myself in all my middle aged lack of beauty by myself, for myself but avoid pursuing friendship and any potential lover. Again, intellectually, I know this is foolish and unproductive. Just because I'm overweight doesn't mean that I don't deserve friends and a lover. And really it's just an excuse to remain alone. I feel safe with myself and after all the pain I've been through loving an abuser when I was not psychotic and then the pain of psychosis just makes me settle into myself and not venture too far outside of myself. Again, it's easy and so that's what I do.

Eating. I'm not really an overeater, though I probably eat a bit more than I should each day, but I watch what I eat and avoid the usual suspects: pizza, wings, cake, ice cream, etc... I don't binge and I've never intentionally purged. I do enjoy eating. I say a prayer before I eat for those who are hungry, especially the children, that they be fed. This prayer gives me permission to enjoy my food without feeling guilty. I used to thank God for the main ingredients of what I was about to eat, it was sort of a Buddhist meditation practice for me. It's amazing how that pause before eating really does something to me. Deepens my gratitude, slows me down, makes me think of others instead of taking the food for granted. Food like water is precious and I want to remember that when I eat.

It's not food that such a problem for me, it's the lack of exercise. I am aging, my metabolism is slowing down, like many middle aged people I don't stay active as I did when I was younger and therefore I put on weight. I believe if I could again commit to daily exercise that that would be more than half the battle for me. I'm very fortunate that I do not have an eating disorder and should take advantage of that window of opportunity to get back on track. But many people are not so fortunate.

Pam was the first one to wake me up to the palpable reality of eating disorders. In her blog she openly discusses her struggle with anorexia. I feel protective of her and of all people who are starving themselves after they hit their healthy weight. There's so much media peer pressure to become emaciated like some models and there are so many famous women (and I'm sure some men) who are anorexic or bulimic. It is a serious social problem. And I admit, I have trouble understanding it. In my overweight condition I would be perfectly happy to be only ten pounds overweight. I have trouble imagining being underweight because that just hasn't been my adult (or adolescent) experience. Except for those four months of semi-starvation, I do eat and don't have a problem eating. So how do I relate to someone who either has no appetite for eating or who willfully won't eat, someone who has a deeply rooted fear of gaining weight? I'm an example of what they fear most. I am a fat woman.

I can understand why women (though I know eating disorders affect some men too) do not want to become fat. Of course I understand. I don't want to be fat either. Not only is it unhealthy but it is unattractive. And many of us have this horror about being unattractive because somehow it translates into being unloveable. But really, this fear of being unattractive and therefore unloveable is an illusion. Take a good look at the people passing by you on a street or in a supermarket and you'll notice most are not beautiful and yet they love and are loved. Standards of perfection are naturally imperfect and should be. It is not what you look like on the outside but who you are on the inside that is important. Most of us know this, we live this. If people were rejected based on appearance we would have a civil war on our hands.

I'm in the midst of reading a book called [ Appetites ] by Caroline Knapp. I bought it in response to learning about Pam's anorexia. The author describes her struggle with anorexia and goes on to analyze the reasons for it that are spurred by society. The book came out in 2003 and was a national bestseller. The shocking thing is that Ms. Knapp died at the age of 42 from complications of anorexia before the book was published. And I think about wonderful Pam and I don't want her to extinguish her own light through the not so simple act of not eating. I'm going to finish the book and write something about it and then send it to Pam. I'm hoping that it will help her in some way that I'm unable to.

So Pam and I are coming from opposites directions, she's underweight and I'm overweight. Either way our health is being compromised and we both need to do something to change our situations. Well, I'm on day two of my diet and exercise program and I'll keep posting about my progress during the next four months. Pam, the ball's in your court. It's time to take some action.