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, April 30, 2007

Why I Am Not A Christian

A large part of why I am not a Christian has to do with my parents, my uncle and my brother who all do not believe in God, let alone the Christian God. My parents and my mother's brother grew up Catholic and disliked it so much that almost before they reached adulthood they became atheists. They disliked the ritual of confession of sins, they disliked the emphasis on hell and guilt, they thought the concept of eating the body of christ and drinking his blood was barbaric. I'm sure there were many other reasons why they could not embrace Christianity such as the history of violence that came along with it, but they didn't tend to go into it. Occasionally they bad mouthed the church but not Jesus in particular. Jesus they seemed to accept as an important teacher (but not the son of God) and even read books about the historical Jesus trying to understand more deeply who he was and what his culture was like. While they may have been fascinated by the man Jesus, they did not trust organized religion. And again, they didn't talk to me about it much one way or another. It was just assumed in our household that God did not exist. The path they laid out for me was one of intellectual rationality and moral responsibility devoid of the trappings of religion. I was to go to school and learn and I was to treat people with courtesy and tolerance but there was to be no religious training on their part.

We stopped going to the Unitarian church on Sundays when I was very young and after that only went to the Candlelight Service on Christmas eve. Their closest friends were mostly non practising Jews (except for holidays) also primarily intellectual and rational. They were well educated professionals who were more interested in politics and culture than religion. To this day I am pretty unfamiliar with churches and church groups. When I was a teenager one of my closest friends began becoming interested in Christianity after reading Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (and because she was interested in a boy who was Christian...). But my memory of it is pretty dim and we stopped seeing each other sometime in college. So, the people who were in my life were not church going Christians. During college I took several art history classes on the art and architecture of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. That was the first place I began to see Christian imagery and learn Christian concepts. I also took a class in the history of Christianity which I found very interesting though again I've forgotten most of it.

So, though I was partially educated about Christianity in college, I still had no Christian friends and never went to church. And being me, I kept to myself and my family. I didn't think about it much. It was only after I moved far out into the country that I realized that most of the people who lived around me were Christians of some sort or another. I began to realize that most of the people in the U.S. were Christians and that going to church was the norm. But it wasn't normal for me. My brother's closest friend here turned out to be a Born Again Christian and he introduced me to a young woman who tried to convert me. But her faith was so intense that all she did was scare me. I absolutely could not accept the Born Again belief that those who didn't believe in Jesus would go to hell forever. I still think that is an arrogant and heartless belief. But she and my brother's friend and family were the only Christians I've ever known here. And I'm afraid I didn't trust their religious beliefs and even now many years later still don't though I definitely care about them.

It was during my tumultuous relationship with Brendan that I began to believe in God and began to pray. But my beliefs and prayer had little to do with Christianity. The Al-Anon books encouraged me to have faith in a higher power and to cultivate a relationship with that power through meditation. So I guess I developed a sense of spirituality more than a belief in the precepts of Christianity. Then I left Brendan and three years later became psychotic. During the three years before I became psychotic I was moving in the direction of Buddhism as my spiritual practice but the voices put an end to that. They bombarded me with Christian imagery and ideas, seemingly out of nowhere. One intense night it was as if I was surrounded by archangels and they were telling me I was a holy woman. It was a frightening and humbling experience and I resisted it. Then the voices said I was Jesus reincarnated as an abused woman. I was so psychotic at this point and so harassed by the voices that I didn't know what to believe and so I rode the delusion out.

I bought a study Bible and began reading the New Testament but I didn't get very far. There were too many layers to the delusion and I got lost in it. I knew I didn't really want to be Jesus and I certainly didn't want to have any special powers. So the voices flipped the delusion and began saying that I was the Devil incarnate which was absolutely terrifying. They said I had hurt everyone I had ever known and that I would have to apologize to all of them and that they would never forgive me. I remember arguing against it, saying it wasn't so. Then the voices said I was Jesus and Kate and the Devil all in one and that Jesus and I were to help the Devil. We were to try to bring the Devil into recovery, trying to get him to "turn around." The voices called this "Lucifer in Recovery." Going from one extreme to another made me very disoriented and ill but ultimately I had to believe in my essential goodness. In order to prove my worthiness the voices said I had to get a therapist, go to support group meetings and help people in my community. Amidst a lot of torture that's what I did. I found a therapist right in town, went to Al-Anon and a support group for domestic violence victims, became friends with the women in that group and began to act as a lay social worker. These women were very kind to me and shared their homes and families with me. I was grateful to them but still none of them were practicing Christians. The only place I tried to talk about God and encourage other people to talk about God was in the Al-Anon meetings. I even went to a couple of church services but was too ill to cope with it and not ready to admit that I was suffering from schizophrenia. Even in the midst of people I felt like an outsider, too psychotic to really bond with anyone.

While I was still psychotic (not taking the anti-psychotic meds) I returned to finish my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. I was required to take a year long class called Western Civilization. By the end of the first semester we were studying about Jesus and early Christianity. I had always believed that the New Testament was written by men who were followers of Jesus (though it appears that none of them knew him personally I think) and because they were merely men and not divinely inspired there were inconsistencies and contradictions within their gospels. I did believe that some of their portrayals of Jesus were correct and some were manipulations of the truth. Then I discovered that at the time that Jesus was preaching (a mere three recorded years!) and for several centuries afterwards there was a popular cult among the Roman soldiers and slaves called the Cult of Mithras. It was based on the Persian religion Zoroastrianism. The parallels with Christianity are striking: Mithras (the Christ figure) was born of a virgin on December 25th, he had 12 followers, there is a baptism (blood instead of water), a Last Supper, his death to redeem mankind, a resurrection on the third day after his death and a Last Judgement. I was shocked. This meant that the writers of the New Testament several decades after Jesus' death were purposely interweaving the story of Jesus with this popular cult (so popular it rivaled Christianity for the first two hundred years).

Around the time I discovered this I was on the verge of a psychotic break and I began to see and believe that the Bible, though filled with truths and beauty, was man made and not divinely inspired and that the real Jesus was only partially revealed. I also saw parallels between some of Jesus' teachings and Buddhism, which originated some 500 years before. It made me see that Jesus in his own day was very sensitive to the people and cultures around him and that his followers used his sensitivity to their own advantage, molding his story as they saw fit. Unlike Buddha, Jesus was not alive to guide the early church. The Christian movement that developed after his death was therefore suspect, as fallible as the men who created it.
Luckily, I believe that there is enough of Jesus' actual teachings to make the New Testament a very valuable book and I was intrigued to know the real story of Jesus, but then I had my breakdown and afterwards I was so frail that I put the study of the New Testament aside. Perhaps now I can return to it for further study, gleaning the truths from the half truths in my limited way.

And so, I find Jesus a compelling and problematical figure in history, problematical in that I don't think he was accurately portrayed or only partially so. The Christianity formed in a large part by Saint Paul I did not necessarily see as a reflection of Jesus' true beliefs. Who Jesus was really is still somewhat of a mystery to me. But some of the sayings attributed to him are so powerful and revolutionary that I can't help but feel drawn to him. While I don't believe that the Bible is God's truth, and I don't believe that Jesus was the son of God (he often refered to himself as the son of man, not God, as if to make the point that he was not divine), while I'm skeptical of Christianity because I'm not sure it was what Jesus intended, I still am drawn to Jesus primarily because of some of the things he is said to have preached. The whole concept of loving your enemies, which is still not embraced and practiced today, I find deeply moving and I see it as a path that could heal the world if people would but take it.

When I think of God, I think of one God for all people. I think it is the arrogance of man that presumes that some people are chosen by God and others are not. To my mind, there are no chosen people because every single one of us is chosen by the very fact that we are alive. I dislike intensely the divisiveness that religion causes amongst the people of the world. We all share a common humanity and yet we fight and fight and fight. Why? It is not God who tells us we must do it, it is mankind.
Religion is the creation of man and while all religions have their inspirations and revelations they also are imperfect because we are imperfect. What is perfection? As far as I can tell perfection is love. When Jesus exhorts people to love their enemies, he cites this as an example of perfection. He concludes: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matt. 5:48) Love is all inclusive as God is. No one religion can be all inclusive and therefore it is not a perfect system. But the goal is to strive towards spiritual perfection, love for all, even if we keep falling short of it. And that's why I will continue to look for truths in all religions, for the things that unite us instead of divide us.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Pacifism of Jesus

I don't know the New Testament well, but there is enough in the Sermon on the Mount from the gospel of Matthew for me to conclude that Jesus was a pacifist. In the Beatitudes he says that the meek "will inherit the earth" and the merciful "will be shown mercy" and that peacemakers "will be called the sons of God." None of this is said lightly and it has to give us pause as to what kinds of people he was encouraging to come forward. To be meek is the opposite of being assertive. Was he saying all assertive behavior is wrong? No, I don't think so but he's stressing that gentleness is the preferred quality. He certainly wasn't saying that aggressive behavior would be blessed. He certainly didn't say blessed are the warmongers. To be merciful is the opposite of being cruel. Was he saying that all cruelty was wrong? Yes, I think he was saying that. To be aggressive, to be cruel is to go against God. Is war aggressive and cruel? Well, absolutely.

A bit further on Jesus cites one of the ten commandments: Thou shalt not murder. But he takes it much farther and says one should not even hold onto anger but should reconcile with others and "settle matters quickly with your adversary". So first we have blessed are the peacemakers and then we have don't even be angry with others, ALL others. He doesn't say, well, in some cases it is okay to murder, no, not even anger will be tolerated. This is powerful language and a powerful sentiment. But it doesn't stop there, then he says that retribution, an "eye for an eye", is no longer acceptable: "Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." What would President Bush make of this I wonder? Would he understand that Jesus meant no return attack? Not only, no return attack but incredibly generosity instead.I think many Americans would call what Jesus suggests cowardice but I see it as beautiful strength. The strength not to submit to violence by becoming violent oneself.

Ah, but still he persists: "You have heard it said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be sons of your Father in heaven." His logic is anyone can love their friends and family but "what reward will you get?" That is, being like everyone else will not get you to heaven, you have to "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." I think this is absolutely extraordinary. Love your enemies? Can you imagine President Bush saying that he loves Osama Bin Ladin? And yet that is just what Jesus would say. Jesus is no wimp here, he is very strong. He is demanding nothing less than perfection and perfection in his eyes is to step away from the crowd and actually love your enemy and then encourage others to follow you. I would say it's hard for most Americans to even imagine that each terrorist is loved by someone, that each terrorist is still loved by God, let alone even considering the idea that they could care about them personally. We shut our minds and hearts down. But Jesus says No to that, no to the easy response. No to tit for tat.

But he still doesn't stop there: "Do not judge, or you too will be judged....Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?....You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye." Refrain from saying you know enough to judge others and focus on yourself (or your own country) and your blindness. Only once you have done your work on yourself will you be able to help another (not murder him). So what is Jesus saying? Be meek, be merciful, be a peacemaker, do not murder, do not even hold onto anger, no more "eye for an eye" retribution mentality, love your enemies and do not judge them.

There are so many Christians in the world but how many really listen to what he's saying here? He says it extremely plainly and very forcefully. How many people are willing to risk further attack? How many are willing to forgive their enemies and treat them as brothers and sisters? What kind of world would it be if we did? Jesus walked the walk and he was crucified for it. That's how brave he was and that's how strongly he believed in peace. He didn't fight his accusers and he didn't run away and he died. Are we willing to risk what's most precious to us, our lives and our homes to follow Jesus? I'd have to say, as a whole, no, we are not willing. We are not willing to love our enemies and we are not willing to forgo war when we're attacked. We are not willing to be meek or merciful (think of the children killed and maimed in Iraq). We are not willing to stop murdering. We are not willing to let go of our anger at enemies. We do believe in retribution and we do judge others.
Two thousand years have passed since Jesus gave his sermon of the mount and what a sad state of affairs we find ourselves in.

I know about violence, the worst kind, violence from someone you love. And I learned through the violence that it is possible to turn the other cheek, that it is possible to love your enemy and that it is acceptable to walk away from the violence. To not engage, to not fight back. I could have mirrored Brendan's hatred but I chose not to. I saw how very sick he was and now see all forms of violence as varying degrees of mental illness. But this is not the mainstream view. The mainstream view is that violence is acceptable. What would Jesus do if he were alive on earth now? I don't think he would be a nationalist choosing one country and culture over another. And I don't think he would support war. Would he be killed for that again?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

On Blogging and Foreign Policy

Not sure what to write today, just know that it's important that I get something down. The discipline of writing each day has lifted a lot of my depression but I worry that I'm forming opinions about issues too quickly. And that's why any comment is most welcome, especially one that disagrees with whatever position I take in my blog. I still might not agree but the exchange stimulates me to reflect more deeply and slows me down. I do reserve the right to change my view on anything I write in this blog. I think our spirits evolve as we gather more information and experience. Right now, my experience with the world is limited and I am quite ignorant. The more I study, the more I know this. It's a process to learn which initially requires having some kind of opinion about whatever daily topic presents itself. Taking a position involves the risk of being wrong but it's a risk I know I have to take in order to keep seeking the truth, as far as I'm able to distinguish truth. And I say as far as I am able to distinguish the truth because the Truth with a capital T can be elusive and often a subjective perception. Hence my truth will not be someone else's truth.

In this blog I am free to express opinions in a way that I don't do with others. My family in particular are so articulate and knowledgeable that I will second guess my thoughts because of my ignorance and wind up saying very little. This was particularly hard when I was most psychotic and I was not able to converse almost at all with them. These past couple of years I've felt well enough to engage in conversations, saying a little here or there, but most importantly, able to follow the conversation. The voices no longer forcibly intrude themselves on my thoughts and distract me. This is a great relief. Also a great relief is to not be controlled by delusions. Finally, I can think without being lost in the twilight zone of false beliefs. When I was delusional most things related to my primary delusion and I had little room to move. Now I feel the freedom of free thought and free speech in a way I haven't for a while and I feel grateful.

Apart from medicine, therapy, the support of family and friends, a practice of gratitude is what directed me towards this new freedom. To me, the daily practice of gratitude is a form of prayer. I'm grateful to be alive, grateful for the food I eat, grateful for the people I know. When a car passes my house I'm grateful for whoever is in the car and send out a prayer that they be well. I've come to even be grateful to the voices for their ideas and companionship. I detach from them but I don't reject them and I wish them well also. All this gratitude grounds me and keeps my perspective more positive than negative. And it places me in the larger context of the world, it helps me to connect with others if only indirectly. It strengthens my belief in a higher power that witnesses and listens and guides all of us. So I believe even for those like my family who don't believe. But still I think they do, they just call it by its other names: goodness, justice, tolerance, intelligence,etc...



Just today I started listening to an audiobook by Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state under Clinton, called The Mighty & The Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs. I've only listened to part of the first cd so I'm not yet able to comment on the book, but I will comment on what was said on the back cover of the jacket: "She offers a balanced but, when necessary, devastating analysis of U.S. strategy, and condemns those of all faiths who exploit religious fervor to create divisions or enhance their own power. In this illuminating account, Albright argues that, to be effective, U.S. policy makers must understand the power and place of religion in motivating others and in coloring how American actions are perceived. Defying the conventional wisdom, she suggests not only that religion and politics are inseparable, but that their partnership, when properly harnessed, can be a force for justice and peace."

Separation of church (or rather religion) and state is the position the United States has taken in its own government which finds its roots in the First Amendment to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Hence there is no state religion enforced, instead people are free to believe (or not believe) and worship as they choose. It seems to me, that this position has served us well over the years. The problem that Madeleine Albright addresses is the rise of the Christian right through George W. Bush and the blurring of lines between church and state, especially with matters of foreign policy, specifically the Iraqi war. President Bush's initial goal was to bring "freedom and democracy" to Iraq while searching out and destroying any terrorist threat to the U.S. in the region. But his greater goal seems a belief that the U.S. has the God given right to bring its idea of "freedom and democracy" to the entire world, the Middle East for the time being. All this without fully understanding the cultures they wish to revamp.
The result: Bush and his administration has alienated the U.S. from other foreign powers, allowed for the death of thousands of Americans and put us in the midst of a civil war with no wish to finally pull out. He will not admit defeat.

So I'm a believer in God but I do not believe that my belief should be everyone's belief, in fact I love the diversity of religious beliefs in the world. I also appreciate atheists and agnostics. What I find hard to tolerate is the fundamentalist belief that one's own religion is the only real religion and the rest should be either eradicated or somehow held in submission. I do believe in the First Amendment right for everyone. The basic human right to worship or not worship as one sees fit. That's an idea of freedom I've acquired from the Constitution. On the other hand, I am woefully ignorant of Muslim culture, especially in the Middle East. I am partly an ugly American because I've ignored much of the world and I'm afraid many Americans still remain ignorant of Muslim culture (along with many other cultures). Why so ignorant? Why was the President so ignorant when he took us into war?! Do we think we're better than everyone else? Perhaps some of the most patriotic people do feel this but how can they when many of them have never even left the country? Well, President Bush has left the country many, many times and has been exposed to other cultures and yet he still comes across as the worst kind of patriot, the kind who think the U.S. is the best, so good in fact that it should have controlling interest in the rest of the world. The kind that won't admit to past mistakes and won't apologize.

Foreign policy should be about working well with other countries and cultures. There should be no agenda for various forms of world domination be they religiously motivated or economically motivated or both. The best way to avoid that attitude is to know and know well the nature of other religions and cultures, to get inside that culture's perspective and to take a good look at ourselves as well. This is the way to create an open dialogue. In the spirit of understanding and with the common sense approach of compromise, deep wounds can be healed and the nations of the world can truly be global and not fragmented. But this perspective doesn't take into account the many pockets of terrorists spread throughout the world. Nations can have dialogues but how do you reason with a terrorist who is perfectly willing to die for his fundamentalist beliefs and is willing to take as many people as possible with him? I guess I'd say what I said before--study the terrorist's religion and culture and try to see how he is looking at us, try to see ourselves through his eyes. Find the weaknesses in his arguments against us and the strengths. Learn to identify with him. Understand him more than you fear him. That's the way to find a bridge to communication and communication has to be the goal. If there continues to be no communication the conflict will just escalate.

Two thousand years ago Jesus said love your enemies and to this day Christians do not embrace it. It was a revolutionary idea back then and it still is today. I wish we had the guts to practice what we preach. What would Jesus do if he encountered a terrorist? What would he tell us to do? Love the terrorists, don't hate them. Understand them, find a bridge and cross it. Be peacemakers not warmongers. Share what you have. I'm not saying it's easy to love those that hate you but you have to begin somewhere. And what's the alternative? Hate for hate, war for war and terrorist attack for terrorist attack?
I don't think that's smart, I don't even think that's grown-up. If people stop believing in hatred I think there would be so much less of it in the world. Stop believing in the necessity of violence and war, act as if and you move towards making it so.
I think Jesus had it right.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

[APPETITES]

I just finished reading Caroline Knapp's memoir [APPETITES] in which she tries to analyze her struggle with anorexia. This book, though very well-written, I found difficult to read. It is not a straightforward account of her eating disorder and how she overcame it, though she does touch on this throughout the book. Instead it is a decidedly feminist critique on popular culture. First of all I had to confront whether I could call myself a feminist. The answer was a decided yes and a qualified no. Yes, in that I believe women should have the same rights and opportunities as men, yes in that I believe there should be equal representation of women in positions of influence (like the Congress and the Supreme Court) but no, in that I haven't participated in the feminist inclination to emulate successful men, that is have a family and a demanding career, and to transform into a sort of Super Woman. The truth is I've been too sick most of my life to even try.

Caroline Knapp did not get married and have children but she still had her career as a writer. She wanted to be attractive, to have a wonderful boyfriend, to be competent and competitive at work, to have a lovely home and many nice things. Like a young unmarried man, she wanted to have it all. These desires don't seem so unreasonable. What lacked reason on her part was the ingrained belief that in order to have the boyfriend, career and lovely home, she had to be attractive. This is a common misconception and is truly an anti-feminist sentiment to base your life on. It was just not within her realm of understanding that a woman could have it all and not be particularly attractive. But I agree with her that modern Western culture spoon feeds us this idea that above all you must be attractive or you will not succeed. It's not the truth but many people promote it as if it were.

For Ms. Knapp and so many others, being attractive meant being thin, no visible fat. The basic requirement became, above all, to stay thin. How to do this translated into a drastic reduction in food intake along with excessive exercise. Logical right? Actually yes it is all too logical but once engaged in as a way of life it becomes pathological. But the pathology starts with the belief that being thin is something more than just desirable but essential to human happiness. Not thin meant not fulfilled. One would be blind not to know that a substantial chunk of the media fosters this idea. Thin, especially for women, is stamped with cultural approval. Almost unconsciously I accept this too. I am overweight and I have no boyfriend, no career and my home is a mess. I say to mysef, "when I lose the weight then..." A part of me wants to starve for a few months just to see if I would lose the weight. But I don't really want to starve, not literally the way Ms. Knapp tried to do, I want to lose my appetite and not need to eat much. I've toyed with this by skipping meals but I've never taken it to the extreme, I always return to moderate eating. I don't obsess about my weight and closely control my behavior. But I could and many people do. Why? Because we fall for the trap of believing that what you weigh must be directly linked with your measure of happiness and your lot in life.

Ms. Knapp stresses that not only is fat, or the lack of it, a feminist issue, but all women's appetites, or rather the frustrations that accompany trying to satisfy those appetites. Even decades after the feminist movement of the 60's and 70's women want to be attractive, want to attract a mate often submerging their personal desires for the desires of their significant other. Sexually women are still more likely to try to please than to get pleasure. Women want to be loved but seek it vicariously through food, shopping and sex. But the addictive quality of all this seeking does not bring true satisfaction. True satisfaction comes from places that go deeper than the instant gratification encouraged by our consumer culture. True satisfaction has more to do with honest and caring relationships than with a piece of chocolate cake and a new pair of shoes and an excellent orgasm. I think most people would probably agree with this but the cake, the shoes, the orgasm are all so much quicker and easier. It's hard work culling meaning out of everyday experiences but it's work that ultimately has to be done by each of us.

How far have women come since the sexual revolution of the 1960's? After reading [APPETITES] I would say only parital progress. Eating disorders that fixate on appearance seem like a definite backlash against some of the freedoms garnered by those 60's and 70's feminists. Women, in some cases, have moved into positions of power while others, many single mothers, barely get by. But in both groups there are problems: addictions, stress, depression, eating disorders. Even the women who are paraded in feature articles as examples of success have their share of personal struggles. It's the human condition. But nothing will change unless women themselves change what they want and what they believe. If we continue to fall for the illusion that to be thin is to be powerful and loved, we miss the point. If we keep choosing appearance over substance, we sabotage our own happiness. Attractive appearance should be the by product of a useful, healthy and happy life and not a substitute for it. So why do so many of us still care so desperately about staying or getting thin? The definition of what's attractive has got to change. The truth, so selectively hidden for reasons I do not understand, is that there is a wide range of beauty all across the world. Beyond the stereotypes there lies a rich tapestry of humanity. So why do we settle for so little, when we could have so much choice?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Thoughts Before An Al-Anon Meeting

I go to an Al-Anon meeting tonight. I haven't gone for a couple of weeks due to bad weather but today the weather is lovely.

The meeting lasts for about an hour. Someone starts the meeting with a welcome message, then we read the 12 steps and 12 Traditions and then we read the meditation for the day out of two of the daily readers and discuss them. Today, from the first reader, One Day At A Time In Al-Anon, the reading starts: "Among the many weapons we use to castigate the alcoholic--or other people we disapprove of--is sarcasm." The reading goes on to say that sarcasm is not a good reaction to difficult problems. It does much more damage than good.

I don't think I've been a very sarcastic person and I don't remember being sarcastic with Brendan, but with Brendan there was always the possibility of punishment or even violence. I learned to stuff my feelings and be submissive to his moods. But I was sarcastic within my mind towards him when he was behaving particularly hatefully. This might have been basic self-preservation and an act of defiance within my mind when I couldn't speak my mind aloud. There was a point where I was hating him this way but I couldn't live mirroring his hatefulness and so I stopped, tried to detach with love when possible. Because I was so inextricably linked to him, when he suffered more, so did I, not just on occasion out of empathy but because he would act his frustration out on me.

It was Brendan who was the sarcastic one and his sarcasm hurt me so badly. I think I vowed in a way to never be like him when he was most full of hate. He badgered me with his anti-semitism, homophobia and sexism and I feel a kind of pride that I did not accept his prejudiced views even when he was threatening to kill me or kill people I loved. But a part of me knew that his sarcasm was a part of his sickness, a frustrated way of acting out and to return his sarcasm with my sarcasm would only make both of us suffer more. But unlike living with an alcoholic who is non violent, living with one who is is a much greater challenge. Gentleness, kindness and tolerance given to a non violent alcoholic can lead to positive changes. So Al-Anon teaches and I believe. But when an alcoholic turns violent the whole emotional dynamic changes. Then the relationship turns into one of a victimizer and a victim, a study of tyranny, a private hell. When you're alone with a drunken maniac and ruled by fear what can you do to defuse the situation? At those times, even my kindness was looked upon with suspicion by Brendan. I still don't know what one can do when endangered by an alcoholic partner. I managed to survive those times. Eventually I had no option but to escape and turn my back on him.

Even now, eight years after Brendan's suicide, I wish he had embraced some of the 12 step program. When I was most psychotic (after the voices told me to get in touch with him) I remember encouraging him to go to AA meetings. I even gave him one of my Al-Anon readers. I really thought he had it in him to turn his life around despite his addictions and paralysis. I fantasized about him becoming a speaker who could warn other people against the path he had taken. But it was too soon and he was too wounded and caught up in his addictions.

Despite Brendan's abusiveness, I saw a lot of good in him. While I was with him I held onto that goodness as long as I could. He loved nature and animals, even children though he wouldn't admit it. He could be very respectful towards others and he had the capacity to appreciate honesty and be honest himself. But he wouldn't take responsibility for his actions and he wouldn't ask for help which kept him stuck and spiralling downwards in his addictions.

It is possible to love those who have abused you. Possible to forgo all sarcasm and forgive. I'm grateful that I could do this with Brendan. It made me realize that I did the best I could and that the rest was up to him. Al-Anon has taught me that the only person I really have control over is myself. In the beginning I thought I could heal Brendan but then I became sick and finally I realized that I was part of the problem and not the solution. And so I left. I prayed for Brendan to be helped, wished him well and let him go. His fate was a harsh one and I can't help but regret and wish that we had broken out of the cycle of addiction and violence together and changed the direction of our lives early on. But I could only do my part, I couldn't do his part too.

Going to Al-Anon meetings helps me to remember Brendan and the lessons I once learned in Al-Anon but have forgotten. I've blocked out a lot of memories due to trauma both with Brendan and in psychosis but I want to remember my life now. Remembering my life means remembering what's been important and why. It also means that I might be able to help other people just as other people have helped me.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Dodging the Mainstream

When I was a teenager I got a subscription to SEVENTEEN and GLAMOUR magazine. Magazines designed to draw girls just my age towards the mainstream ideal of young womanhood. The magazines played it safe and were quite superficial. I found the fixation on external appearance off putting and I soon lost interest in them. When I went to college occasionally I would look over various "women's" magazines and be appalled by how repetitive and predictable they all were. The hot topics never changed (not to this day even): weight loss, make-overs, tips on sex and a female celebrity interview of some sort. I felt insulted. Where was the intellectual challenge? Why was I being directed over and over again to focus on my physical appearance? And why were women being homogenized into a particular model type that we all were supposed to aspire to? One of the most frustrating things I found about many of the magazines was that they were created by women and many women obviously loved them. Why? To this day I have trouble even looking at the covers of these magazines, the pull of them can be intense, saying "Be like us. Do what we do." But I just don't want to.

But obviously, many women do not feel as I do. Women's magazines are flourishing as they have done for decades. But I am very out of touch with both the women who buy these magazines and the magazines themselves. I live on the perimeter of society rather than in the mainstream. But even I am aware that too many women suffer from eating disorders in a large part due to striving after some physical idea of perfection. The logic seems to go: "If I look a certain way, then I will be accepted and praised." The problem is it's a false logic. Being accepted and praised, being loved has little to do with appearance and I think deep down most people know this. Human beings are a motley group, no two look alike and most are no where near looking like magazine models. We come in all shapes, shades and sizes. And yet, there is beauty in us, even the homeliest person on the planet has something attractive in his or her expression, voice, hair, walk, eyes or the various combinations thereof. To judge each other, in all our wonderful variety, by some static ideal would be not only insane but impractical. We have to get along with each other in order to live our lives. We try to take people as they come, hopefully trying to minimize fixating on each other imperfections. This is called being a decent human being, accepting people not for what they look like but for who they are.

This fixation on appearance is especially intense for girls. My impression is most eating disorders first form around the age of twelve when girls are just entering puberty. It is the age of raging hormones when breasts and hips begin to transform one's shape and there is a deepening interest in sexuality. I remember things felt pretty intense for me starting at age twelve. I had gotten taller, put on a normal amount of weight, began menstruating. I had a clique of friends and we obsessed about "the guys". I was as self-conscious as the next girl but I don't remember worrying much about my weight, there was no change in my eating patterns, which I'd say were pretty normal. Occasionally a few of my friends would decide to get dressed up and go to school but I always opted out of that. I wasn't a tom-boy but I also wasn't interested in drawing attention to myself using young and awkward feminine wiles. I guess, even then, I wanted "the guys" to like me for myself and not the dress I wore or the attitude I took.

After going to a public junior high school in Brooklyn, I went to a private high school in Manhattan. Even between the two boroughs there was culture shock for me and I did not like my new and much smaller school so far away from all my friends.
I was the Brooklyn girl with the Brooklyn accent, an accent I quickly outgrew. I mostly kept to myself though I did have one other friend that first year at school. We were misfits, not interested in following the popular girls but not quite confident enough in ourselves as we were. It was around this time that I began feeling emotionally disturbed. I just didn't want to fit in to fit in. Sure, I wanted to look nice but it wasn't the most important thing in my world. I missed my friends and I missed "the guys" and I had little desire to make new friends and adapt to this foreign private school. It was around this time that I got and then discarded SEVENTEEN and GLAMOUR magazines. I still wanted to have a boyfriend but I felt too shy to socialize and find one.

Perhaps I was fortunate in some ways not being pulled into the world of "normal" girls who cared more about their appearance than their school work. Who cared more about seducing boys and messing around. Who liked reading the magazines and going shopping. Those girls who had little ambition outside their relationships. I was more introspective, my inclinations more artistic. I had no older sisters and my mother was not overtly feminine. I didn't attach to any female role model for beauty and success. As high school progressed I found a couple more friends who were all creative. We talked about art, books, society and each other. We didn't have boyfriends. We focused on each other instead. I cut my hair short, in typical adolescent fashion, I began wearing black a lot. I was rejecting the feminine stereotype of beauty and following more of a counter culture attitude. I flirted with the idea of becoming a lesbian but I really didn't have the courage or enough of the inclination to embrace that lifestyle. I remained a frustrated heterosexual who emotionally relied too much on her friends for support. Then, in my senior year of high school I began going out with Saul. By the end of the school year we would both no longer be virgins and I would enter into a five year relationship with him.

But I would lose something in the process, some sense of having an independent spirit, some sense of personal power. And I would lose my two best friends who had come to mean a lot to me. We were growing up and growing apart from each other. Ironically, because I was in college (well, actually three in succession) I was sucking up a lot of knowledge and feeling greater confidence in my ability to reason and write. I entered the mainstream, I had a steady boyfriend and I was going to a good college and I was doing well there. I was in the up and coming generation of young college educated women. But I still stood aloof from my peers and acquired no female friends and no female role models. Still on some level I felt weak and ineffectual. Saul was my steady companion. He was smarter than me, better read and more competitive and I think I placed myself beneath him in the scheme of things. I adapted to what he liked but found myself liking what he liked so it wasn't much of a problem. The problem for me at the time was that I didn't have much ambition to do anything with my life and so I drifted along beside him.

There is no good manual for becoming a healthy woman, you live with your good luck and your bad luck and you learn through trial and error. But the message being sent out to women through the media is still way too superficial. Look good. Get rich. Be a star. Marry a star. It's a portrait of a society that is out of reach and full of itself. It doesn't give much needed direction to women's lives. It has little substance and quality. It is still exclusive and stereotypical. To find the substance and quality women need you have to do some research. It's out there, it's just not what's most popular.

Believe it or not, I worked on this for over five hours and I'm still not satisfied with it. There's the temptation to delete it or leave it as a draft and not post today but I have to remember the work I've been doing here lately is not about perfection, it's a weblog, some daily thoughts, a first draft. I wish I could write a polished essay each day but I'm too much of a novice. And in some ways keeping this daily appointment to write here is the most important thing. It's been about a week so far and I've been really enjoying the discipline of writing every day. I hope I keep it up.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Cho Seung-Hui

Cho Seung-Hui killed 32 people and then himself on Monday at Virginia Tech. He was a victim of mental illness that didn't get treated. He was an example of one of the instances where someone who shouldn't be able to purchase guns was able to. In fact, he fell through the educational system, the mental health system and the governmental system. There were enough warning signs to get him help before the tragedy but noone took on the responsibility of taking care of him. And so he spiralled deeper into his psychosis and became a danger to himself and others.

How responsible is society to the mentally ill that are violent? Many people are inclined to call Cho Seung-Hui a monster and take no responsibility but I don't believe he was a monster. He was a deeply disturbed young man nearly completely out of touch with reality. I and many other mentally ill people have been so fortunate that we haven't become violent as a result of our illness but anyone who has ever been lost in psychosis knows that there was always the possibility of hurting oneself and/or others. It could have gotten that bad. There's a saying, "There but for fortune go you or I." Cho Seung-Hui was a human being, he was one of us, and he was ill. He had a mother and a father, maybe siblings and over the years he had some friends. He felt sadness, fear, anger and joy just like any of us.

What went wrong with him? Barbara Oakley, an Op Ed Contributer at the New York Times wrote: "We may not know precisely what set Mr. Cho off, but we are beginning to home in on the unusual differences in certain neurochemistries that can make people act in bizarre and dysfunctional ways." (4/19/07) Ms Oakley is probably right, Cho Seung-Hui may have had some chemical imbalance, a physical problem that created a psychological problem. This chemical imbalance could have been due to a genetic flaw. I believe his illness was so acute that he no longer became responsible for his actions. What should have been done with him before he got to this crisis point? He should have been committed, given medicine and therapy and guided back to a healthy reality. Many people are fortunate enough to survive their psychosis either in a hospital or outside of one with the aid of medicine, therapy and support groups without causing harm to themselves or others. But there are those who are not so fortunate, those who, like Cho Seung-Hui are timebombs ready to explode.

The deeper issue is what to do about the acceptability of violence in society. In the U.S. the police carry guns and as it instructs in the Constitution many people believe in the "right to bear arms" and own guns. By owning and carrying guns our society is saying that violence, under some circumstances, is okay. It also says that war is okay. But is it? Is it okay to tolerate killing? Shouldn't we be teaching that violence as an attempt to solve problems is no longer acceptable in any way? The children do not know this, they are not taught this. They are taught that the existence of "bad guys" means that there must be a hero and he must be tough. These heroes show that they are tough, yes and clever, but not smart. Smart is changing the "bad guys" into "good guys". Smart is seeing the bad guys as sick and in need of help rather than more violence.

Somewhere along the line Cho Seung-Hui was taught that violence was okay, that violence was the solution to an intolerable situation. Perhaps he played video games when he was younger, or watched action adventure films or just listened to the news. He knew when he bought the guns that violence was okay because he got easy access to them. Isn't this our problem, a problem of attitude? I have a button that I used to look at when I was struggling to stay in touch with reality. It says "Attitude Is Everything" And it is. If you hold onto negative, paranoid and violent attitudes about life, that's what you get. More negativity, more violence. More people who suffer from mental illness. But if you keep your attitude on the positive and non violent, that's what you draw into you.

The crime an punishment mentality doesn't work. When you call someone a criminal and lock them up and restrict their lives, most don't learn to change their attitude towards the positive. No, they just refine more of the negative, they learn to be tougher, they learn to be better criminals. Perhaps they even see themselves as dark heroes of a sub culture. But they are not, they are sick and lost and no one wants to deal with them properly. There's violence in prison and violence outside of prison. So why are we surprised by the violence that sprouts up all over the country? We allow the guns and the guns get used. Cho's delusional and paranoid and ultimately violent psychosis was not as out of place as we would have it. It was fed by the culture he lived in, our culture. We have to take our share of the responsibility.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Rights of Women

In 1973, the year I turned eleven, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Roe versus Wade that state laws could not forbid a women an abortion during the first three months of pregnancy. The reason for this decision was based on the the Constitution which protects the right to privacy even though there is no actual amendment to that effect. Interestingly the amendment that is most often cited to support the Roe V. Wade decision is the 14th Amendment created in 1868 to provide citizenship for former slaves and to give them full civil rights. In looking back on history it is no great leap to say that women have been treated nearly as slaves, if not actually so. It is important to note that women did not get the right to vote until 1920, a mere eighty seven years ago. The Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion throughout the United States gave women of childbearing years the personal and private right to choose whether or not to continue or terminate a pregnancy. Freedom of choice. Right to privacy. The basic right that a woman should be able to decide what is best for her own body and spirit, not the church and not the government or any combination of the two.

Abortion has been legal since just before I got my first menstrual period. And all this time it has been always within my power (assuming I'm not barren) to decide when or when not to have a child. As fate would have it, I never had a child and I was very fortunate in that I never had an abortion either. When I was a young woman I would worry from time to time if I were pregnant when my period came a few days late. With Saul I don't think I ever seriously considered having a child but the idea of having an abortion was as frightening to me as that of finding myself pregnant. The bottom line was that I didn't want either alternative. I wanted to remain pregnancy free. And so I used birth control. It was sometime during my relationship with Brendan that I finally confronted the possibility that if I got pregnant, I would have an abortion. I did not want Brendan to be the father of any child I bore, he was too sick and too abusive and at the time I felt sick also. To have a child would not have been fair to any of us, not as long as the situation stood as it did. I never had to make that choice, but if I had to, I could, legally and safely.

Okay, so obviously I'm pro-choice but the older I get the more disturbing I find abortion, especially as my body will prepare in the next few years for the end of my child-bearing years. I will probably never have a baby and considering my history of mental illness that may be just as well. And so I look wistfully at the babies I do happen to pass by when out driving or shopping. The ability to create new life is truly amazing. If I had been well, I would have tried to have a baby. It's only just now that I am slowly letting go of any such idea. And so I find the thought of abortion a bit painful because a part of me (even now) wishes that I could become pregnant. I don't like abortions and personally would only have one if I felt there was no other alternative and if I could do it right away, but then I never was in the position to make that choice. And now, if I got pregnant, despite my mental illness, I know I would want to try to have the baby. Perhaps not a sensible choice, certainly an emotional one. So I feel conflicted.

I value life and the thought of destroying life upsets me but I believe even more strongly in the right of each woman to make her own choices. It is not my place or anyones to tell a woman what to do with her body or to tell her the state of her soul. And I really don't believe that most women treat abortion casually. Pregnancy is a serious dilemma in many instances from incest and rape to extreme youth to lack of financial resources to a simple desire not to have a child (and there are women who never wanted a child and never will and that is perfectly okay too in my book). The resolution of that dilemma is, unfortunately, for some women an abortion. That is their right. The right to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

There are over 7 billion people in the world. Billion! It's okay not to have children. It's even better to adopt. Adoption is probably the most loving thing a person could do. If I were sensible I would say that when (and I'm being hopeful) I am fully recovered I would rather adopt a child than give birth to a child, mainly due to my age and the possible genetic predisposition to schizophrenia. I don't know the policy for adoptions or for being a foster parent. My history of mental illness might disqualify me for that too. But right now it doesn't matter, I am neither well enough nor do I have a partner. The next five years I will find out one way or another and make my peace with it.

What got me started on all of this was that yesterday I read in the New York Times that the Supreme Court had ruled in a 5-4 decision to ban a certain method of abortion starting in the second trimester. As far as I can tell, this is not a major blow because women in the first trimester are still legally free to have an abortion if they so choose. What unsettled me was some of the language used by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy: "'Respect for human life finds an ultimate expression in the bond of love the mother has for her child. It is self-evident that a mother who comes to regret her choice to abort must struggle with grief more anguished and sorrow more profound when she learns, only after the event, what she once did not know: that she allowed a doctor to pierce the skull and vacuum the fast-developing brain of her unborn child, a child assuming the human form.'" Instead of being a good judge, impartial and just, he is using a clearly biased and manipulative scenario to make his point. And he is one of the five judges who passed this decision, all of whom follow a similar logic. The other very disturbing issue is that there is but one woman who is a Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who voted against this ban). How can an issue so vital to many women's lives be decided by a majority of eight men to one woman?? Right now, the freedom of choice to have an abortion during the first trimester is intact, but such obvious bias and imbalance on the court may some day attack our basic right to privacy and our right to make our own moral decisions. I hope that day never comes.

The Daily Appointment

Well, this will be a short entry. Today I actually went out of the house. I saw my therapist and then stopped over at my brother's house. The temperature got up to the low 50's and there was even some sun. Very reassuring. I talked to J., my therapist, for 50 minutes. I hadn't seen her for about three weeks and told her how I had been struggling with depression but that writing daily in this blog had really begun to lift my spirits. What a wonderful turn of events. For some reason, making a daily appointment with myself to write for two to three hours in this blog most days has motivated me to actually do it, that and, of course, having you as readers. I really thank you for taking the time to read some of my entries. The possibilities for communication due to the internet is kind of thrilling especially for someone like me who is so reclusive. Till now, my writing has been a solitary affair. Just me writing to myself. Now, a few other people actually read my thoughts from time to time.

I know it's tentative, but there's a beginning of a sense of community, a sense I haven't had most of my life. No circle of friends, no co-workers, no church goers (or synagogue, temple or mosque). I've spent the last 12 years (for the most part) alone. But here, I can try to share myself in a way I'm not yet able to do in the "real" world. And honesty is a focal point. If I can just stay true to my wish to be honest with myself and others, I feel I will continue to learn and find vitality in even the mundane.

Today I meant to write about the Supreme Court decision to ban certain abortion procedures. I read two articles in the New York Times and did a little research on my computer encyclopedia. Abortion is a tough issue and I didn't have it in me today to discuss it. Guess, I just wanted a little time to think about it before I present my perspective. So that will be for tomorrow's (well, today's...) daily appointment.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Imperfect Sanctuary

I live in a house that's too big for me, filled with mess and clutter. For years now, since soon after I became ill, I stopped sleeping in my bedroom and began sleeping on the living room couch. Though messy and cluttered it is the nicest part of the house. It's a fairly large room because there is no division between the dining area and the living room, with a loft (that is wastefully used to house two kitty litter boxes and yes, you guessed it, clutter!) and a Cathedral (I think) ceiling that has a ceiling fan. There is also a woodstove that I haven't used in years. The reason I haven't used it is part psychological and part laziness. The psychological reason is that Brendan, my abusive, alcoholic ex-boyfriend (now dead) loved it and was in charge, for the most part, for keeping the fire going. He would go outside and chop wood and furtively drink while I was warm inside. I liked the fire too. There was nothing like a fire to really feel the pleasure of the heat when the rest of the house was cool and the outside was frigid. For the most part my memories of Brendan and the fire are good and that may be why I have avoided using the woodstove, that and I can't chop wood even if my life depended on it. I guess I haven't wanted to miss him and so I just have shut the memories of him out of my head.

The reason I'm writing about the woodstove is that yesterday morning I woke up to the sound of a bird trapped in it. This happens every now and then because there is no screen around the opening on the roof. I keep meaning to have someone fix that but never get around to it. One Fall I had a bat in the house. It was quite an experience getting it out of the house, though I did find the creature hanging upside down on some curtains fascinating to look at. Other than that one time with the bat, it's always been unfortunate birds that fall into the wood stove pipe. My ritual to get the bird out of the house is to put the cats in a back room and proceed to open up most of the windows and doors. I also turn off the ceiling fan. Then I tentatively open the woodstove and wait for the bird to fly into the house. It always startles me when it does. This time the bird didn't come out right away and I waited wondering if I had made a mistake. Then suddenly it flew out, a grackle I think and very fortunately flew out the door. Other birds have not been so fortunate, flying into windows and damaging their beaks, even bleeding but this bird got out without a scratch and I heaved a sigh of relief.

For the few moments when the windows and doors were open and the sound of the birds outside came into the house along with a breeze, I thought how strange we humans are to want to block nature out of our houses. At the same time I was worrying about another bird flying into the house while I waited for the one in the woodstove to fly out, I was enjoying how liberating it was to have an open house. My fantasy house would have a center courtyard complete with a tree or two and a garden, a welcome place for me, my cats, insects and any brave bird. I could sunbathe there in complete privacy and feel the thrill of being outside in any season. Instead I have a back porch which I rarely sit out in, still nervous about the next door neighbors seeing me. Very irrational of me as I know I have every right to enjoy sitting outside just as they do, but I'm shy and when it comes to my neighbors I feel guilty. I haven't been a good neighbor all these years. Only their oldest daughter has actually come into my house several times, the rest of the family I've never invited inside. It's really shame that has held me back from being a good neighbor. First the shame of domestic violence and addiction and then the shame of mental illness. I'm a mess and so is my house and I don't want my neighbors, so close to my imperfect sanctuary, to know how I actually live. And so I forgo knowing them and how they live, forgo the possible friendship and support we could have shared all these years.

I think some of this has to do with growing up in Brooklyn. So many people were living so close together that most of the people on my block my family and I didn't know. People kept to themselves and so I learned to keep to myself also. When I moved six hours away far into the country, I had only one neighbor close to me. I was 27 at the time and (once again) ashamed of myself because I wasn't working. So I felt shy about getting to know these neighbors and I mostly kept to myself. Very soon after that Brendan began living with me and he, too, had reclusive personality traits and we kept to ourselves most of the time. Not healthy but that's the way it was.

It's this idea of the preciousness of privacy that has gotten to me. In the city where there are millions of people all around, it's natural to value privacy or in Brendan's case he grew up in a wealthy suburb where neighbors and mothers kept tabs on everything that was going on and created an oppressive social network. Both of us had reasons for not being neighborly. Neither of us really knew how I think. We needed to be invited and encouraged, brought into the fold so to speak and that just never happened. Instead I've kept my distance and so have my neighbors. Sometimes I pray for their well-being especially after learning that the husband had cancer (though he appears to be well now). It's ironic but my brother knows more about my neighbors than I do because the three daughters have all hung out at the bars in town just as my brother has for the past twenty years. Occasionally he mentions the oldest daughter who is now about the age I was when I first arrived here. She now is married and lives in town and she's friends with my brother. But no matter how much I'd like to pry, I don't. But I told my brother that it was okay for him to tell anyone that I suffer from schizophrenia. I guess I want my neighbors to know that I'm sick and not arrogant, want them to know that there are reasons why I'm socially withdrawn.

Still, because no one shows up at my doorstep, I have this sanctuary feel about my home. I disturb no one and no one disturbs me. It's peaceful here, even with the occasional bird stuck in the woodstove and I value my life. But I do wish that someday my house will be clean and organized and I can willingly invite people into my home and share some of myself with them as friends do with one another. I do believe I will...someday, maybe sooner than I think.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Visitors?

For so long people on earth thought the sun revolved around the earth. We are an isolated species and therefore quite self-centered. People don't look up at the stars and wonder about life in other worlds, instead they (as I do too) keep their focus here on earth and ignore the as yet unproven possibilities of life elsewhere. As far as most humans are concerned, we are the only thinking beings in the universe. This is so very unlikely. Granted there are a minority of people who concede that there might be sentient life somewhere in the universe but that they are just too far away to make any contact. But why is it that so many can believe in God and angels and devils and spirits but not in another invisible life form? I didn't grow up believing in angels and devils and perhaps that made it easier for me to believe in "aliens".

I first seriously considered the possibility that aliens exist here and now after reading a book called COMMUNION: A TRUE STORY by Whitley Strieber. The book came out in 1987 when I was twenty five years old. Mr. Strieber wrote soberly, directly and honestly about his encounters with an alien life form he named "The Visitors". The account was fascinating and frightening at the same time and it made an impression on me. I began believing that there were people out there who actually had encountered these Visitors. I've never had an encounter experience of the kind described in Mr Strieber's book but it was soon after I read the book that I began hearing voices. The voices both felt like me and not like me. They were thoughtful and at times helpful and I didn't fall into psychosis, no delusions or paranoia. I was barely aware of these voices most of the time, but they remained with me benignly for another ten or eleven years. I believed then as I still believe now that the voices people hear, those with or without psychosis, come from an alien source. I've lived through delusions and I know their quality now, but this belief is not a delusion. I also have absolutely no proof of this, I just have my personal experience and consequent belief.

I know because I admittedly suffer from schizophrenia that I have very little credibility but I still have a need to define my experience to myself and to you, so bear with me as I try.

Who are these beings? Where do they come from? Why are they here? I just don't know. But my experience shows them to be sort of angels and devils. Not visible yet quite powerful in the psyche of humankind. And that's the playing field, the psyche not the material world. So what can they do? They can enter individual minds in a way that humans cannot do with each other and this is their greatest power I believe. Are they hostile or peaceful? That's a hard question to answer. I'm still not sure. Certainly they can be vicious and cruel but there are always voices of reason and kindness somewhere at hand, even I've found in the most desperate times. It truly is like living with both angels and devils. Perhaps they are just like us, some cruel, some kind. Or maybe they are buddhas sent to test us and wake us up. They could be either or both but I can't see them well enough to know. They hide, they are indirect, they are manipulative, they are intelligent and sensitive. They could be afraid. They could be following a personal belief system. They could want to keep us off guard. For whatever reason they do not want any free physical contact with us. Looking at it plainly I would say that they are hostile and sick, but looking deeper makes me think that the Higher Power is using us all for some great and good purpose. I wish that the purpose could be revealed but I guess that's the goal in living life's lessons, for each of us to find out for ourselves.

What started me on this today was an experience I had and have had several times before. Sometime during the night I start to come to consciousness but before I do I'm caught looking at delicate, almost sharp geometric patterns that move and within the shapes which are almost beautiful, there are scenes of life on earth, people, places, etc... The resulting pattern is alive with some kind of strange vitality. It is an intense experience and other worldly. At the moment I wanted to look away then the scenes took on a negative almost menacing personality and I began to wake up. The feeling was almost like a narcotic one and I fell back into sleep very quickly.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Last Judgement

I woke up this morning with a curious question in my mind: could the Last Judgement be real? ( I couldn't remember what I had been dreaming but I wasn't feeling particularly negative. ) In my ignorance of Christianity, I don't even really know what the Last Judgement is. I've never read about it in the Bible but I've seen many paintings of it and I know it is what it says, the day when all souls are judged by God as either going to heaven or going to hell. Before I became ill I'd never seriously considered it, I wasn't a Christian. I was trying to become a Buddhist. I didn't believe in the existence of hell but the illness itself, at its worst, had the feel of being a Last Judgement. I have one memory of actually being put in hell for a short time that felt like ages. It was absolutely terrifying, total torment. Other times during my psychotic experience came close to that time. The experience was so bad that I've blocked out most of the memory of it. I can't describe the hell that I lived through, even though several years have gone by since then, it's still too close. But I want to, I want to remember, to acknowledge what I somehow managed to survive and I want to tell people about the experience.

The idea of hell is not very strange. There's hell on earth and has been hell on earth from the beginning barring some idea of an initial garden of eden. I think we all try to numb out the fact that people are experiencing hell every second we're alive. It's certainly not just the 45 or 50 million people suffering from schizophrenia who have experienced personal hell. I'm inclined to say that all of us at some point in our lives experience hell. Despair, desolation, terror, ours and others, is perpetual. Yes, that's not the end of the story. The other side is joy, hope and love. The heaven part to the hell part. But is there an actual place where all the torment experienced on earth gets concentrated? That is a truly dreadful thought but the voices have shown me that it's possible to squeeze all the heaven out of oneself, it's possible to be Godless. At some points I was nearly so, almost without love, almost in utter isolation with what I'd have to call a kind of evil. But I still felt fear and the fear ruled me. And in some way, I believed in my innocence. Also, always there were voices that helped me through the worst of it and got me back on dry land again after nearly drowning.

From my perspective life is not an either/or proposition as the Last Judgement implies. Life on earth is about the intermingling of heaven and hell and most of us are not at either end of the spectrum but somewhere in the middle. Life is not static, but fluid and we fluctuate over time, sometimes in heaven and other times in hell but mostly in a heaven/hell composite. But the goal we all want is heaven, isn't it? A place, an experience of harmony and balance--yin with yang. Everything in its proper place and no ill will and most of all, no pointless suffering for ourselves and all beings. Can such a place exist when there is so much suffering, or is it a place for temporary visiting, only to return like another Buddha to try to heal the world that's been left behind?

But back to the my initial question on waking: could the Last Judgement be real? All I can say is I hope not. I hate the idea that at the end of time (and I'm not sure what that means) some souls will be saved and others will be perpetually tormented forever. Forever! That is really a sick idea, worthy more of the devil than of God. It sounds like a tale to scare children (when that used to be the fashion) than a description of an eventual reality. I guess I'm a Utopian at heart. I want every single one of us to be saved with no exceptions. Punishment and hellfire is not the way to heal sickness and that's what I see evil as, sickness. I don't really believe in pure evil. I believe even in the worst situations and people, there's a touch of true goodness. I also want to believe that heaven will be brought to earth someday, through God and through persistent, good hearted individuals.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Prozac Nation and Memories

Watched a film last night called PROZAC NATION. It was based on the bestselling memoir by Elizabeth Wurtzel which was published around 1994. I had heard of the book years ago but had never read it. Because of the title I was under the mistaken impression that it was a nonfiction book critical of Prozac and people's growing dependence on anti-depressants in the U.S. Instead the film showed me that the book was about Elizabeth Wurtzel in the mid 1980's when she was going to school at Harvard. She suffered from mental illness, primarily depression which appears to have stemmed from her relationship with her mother and her absent and irresponsible father. Nonetheless, she is smart enough to get into Harvard and pursue her dream of becoming a journalist. Soon after she gets there she loses her virginity to someone she doesn't really care about, starts drinking and using drugs and sleeping around, acting out. Eventually her writing suffers and that's when she goes into therapy and later starts taking Prozac which allows her to start writing again.

The film was good but not as good as GIRL, INTERRUPTED which was also based on a memoir dealing with mental illness during early adulthood. But it did get me to try to remember me at eighteen and I, too, suffered from mental illness while going to college but unlike Ms. Wurtzel I didn't act out.

I lost my virginity to my first boyfriend Saul soon after I turned 18 in my senior year of high school. A few months earlier I had my first tongue kiss and found it revolting. We were both virgins, he a year younger than me and we went to the same school. I remember feeling very unhappy when he wanted to be sexual with me and I resisted it. The irony was that I knew perfectly well how to be sexual with myself but was at a loss with him. Him touching me and kissing me was like an invasion of my privacy. It was all too intimate and even at 17 I still didn't feel ready. But he pressured me and I gave in. I felt protective of him because he lived alone with his alcoholic mother in a small apartment. His father was mentally ill and had left years earlier which angered Saul who it was obvious needed a father figure in his life. So Saul threatened to act out and would share violent fantasies. This really disturbed me and I told him he was going in the wrong direction. He even had a gun which I managed to convince him to dismantle.

That fall I began college at Bennington in Vermont while he finished his last year of high school. But I didn't last there long, only one semester and then I left and returned home. At home I had a mini nervous breakdown which I hid from my family. I began spending a lot of time alone. Saul was busy with school, he was the lead in the senior play Inherit The Wind. I tried to write. I applied to New York University and got accepted. That Fall I told my parents that I needed to see a therapist, they directed me to our family doctor and he gave me the number of a therapist. I began to go to her once or twice a week. Meanwhile Saul had been accepted at Columbia University and we continued to see each other. My therapist was a petite blonde woman who basically listened to me. I don't remember much of it except that I didn't really respond to her, so I stopped going after several months. In retrospect that was probably a mistake on my part. If I didn't like her I should have found someone else to go to but I was adrift and didn't talk about my problems to my family or Saul. I don't think I fully understood that I was ill even then.

I didn't really enjoy N.Y.U. and made no friends. Just went to school, did the work, got mostly good grades, saw Saul. So I applied to Barnard College which was across the street from Columbia. I knew Barnard was a good school and I wasn't sure that they'd accept me, but they did and so the following year I went there and stayed there for three years. The very first year I remember checking out the school's counseling center but the woman I got I found so off putting that I never went back. Again I did well in school though I don't remember talking in class very often. Again I made no friends and kept seeing Saul.
I did a lot of reading and thinking and writing and discussing with Saul. Saul had become my best friend. We worked together and relaxed together. He began living with me at my parent's house and became a part of my family. Was I happy? Was I well? I'm not sure. But at least I was stable.

Saul and I stayed together throughout college, a total of about five years for me. I think we loved each other but we were so young and inexperienced. Unlike adult relationships, we had no mutual friends. We went out to eat, the theatre, the movies, museums, etc... but always just the two of us. He was somewhat social with people at Columbia but didn't introduce me to them. Maybe he just wanted some of his own space apart from me. It didn't bother me. I was too much the introvert to really care I guess. But by the end of college I think he began to feel restless for new relationships and new experiences and so we decided one day to separate. I don't remember that being a traumatic moment, perhaps because we remained friends to a certain extent until the day I left the City four years later. Later I would see us more as companions than lovers and that's why we could be friends even after we broke up.

We were, in a way, married to each other for those years and it was the best relationship I ever had with another person, but we weren't ready to be married and so it ended. Later, just after I left Brendan, I would see him again but he made it quietly clear that he was not interested in being my friend any longer. This was not surprising, quite a few years had gone by with no contact between us. We no longer knew each other. It still hurt though.

My mental illness was hibernating while I was with Saul. I was protected emotionally by him and my family and occupied by school but when school ended and then my relationship ended I began to withdraw more deeply into myself. Soon I would begin hearing voices which should have been a sure sign to me that I was indeed ill but since these voices were not intrusive and seemed to be helpful guides I just accepted them as a part of me and continued on with my life.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Depression, "God" and the Abuse of Women

Anonymous posted a comment saying this blog was "retarded" because I don't post very often and haven't been replying to comments. Though unkindly put there is some truth to what he/she said and I apologize to all who have been commenting that I haven't been more responsive. It is the depression. It's gotten worse in the past two weeks and I'm not sure what to do about it. I also couldn't get my anti-psychotic med Abilify and for several days went without it. The voices became more insistent and more negative. And so I've been sleeping alot. I went to the library two weeks ago and got out four audio books on cd all by women. I listen to the books and crochet. Or I watch films. I am not miserable the way I was when I was delusional and paranoid. The days pass. I still feel safe but my enthusiasm is greatly diminished. I believe this is temporary, well, I'm strongly hoping so. The tease of Spring lingers. It's almost here to stay but not quite. So I wait.

The first audio book I listened to was Karen Armstrong's memoir The Spiral Staircase. She was a nun for about seven years, left the order and became a scholar and then a writer. She's written fourteen books, most on religion though she herself no longer believes in the existence of God. While she was still a nun she began having fainting fits, later she suffered from hallucinations and loss of time. She thought she was losing her mind. I found her descriptions of this compelling and I sympathised with her experience wondering if this very bright individual had been suffering from psychosis. As it turns out her ailment was epilepsy rather than psychosis. Obviously this was a relief to her, especially since there were some drugs available to treat it. She didn't become miraculously well at first but she wasn't stuck with the still terrible diagnosis of psychosis.

When I finished listening to the book I realised that no, she wasn't a kindred spirit but her intelligence and her accomplishments made me want to read her work. Also this idea that one can be fascinated by religion without actually believing in any of it. For Ms. Armstrong, who started out wanting to dedicate her young life to God, man's idea of God, even after she stopped believing in him, still is the focus of her life. Her doubt about the existence of God made me question my own faith. Like my parents, who are also ex-Catholics, she is intellectual and atheistic. I aspire to be intellectual but really I am not and I believe in God. I am unlike my small family. My faith has gotten me through this baffling psychosis and so I'm not ready to just give it up. But I had to admit to myself that my faith though ever present is uncomfortably vague. I follow no religion, go to no church, synagogue or temple, do not discuss my faith with others. I believe but I'm not quite sure in what, just something. I don't know if I'm capable of embracing a religion, but then I've never earnestly tried. I do not know if I will try but I do know that whatever it is I do believe I want to go deeper into it.

The next audio book I listened to was Carmen Bin Ladin's Inside The Kingdom: My Life In Saudi Arabia. She barely knew Osama Bin Ladin but she did know his older brother, Islam, whom she married in the mid 70's when she was very young. She grew up in Switzerland, her father was Swiss and her mother Persian and she met Islam in Switzerland. Soon she was transported into the life and culture of Saudi Arabia, so very different from the European life style she was used to. Here's a quote from the back of the audio books cover: "In Saudi Arabia, she was forbidden to leave her home without the head-to-toe black abaya that completely covered her. Her face could never be seen by a man outside the family. And according to Saudi law, her husband could divorce her at will, without any kind of court procedure, and take her children away from her forever." She couldn't drive and even shopping turned out to be very difficult. She spent her life mostly inside her house taking care of her daughters and husband. She read a lot but, for the most part, she acquiesced to the culture she found herself in though there were vacations away from this oppressive atmosphere.

For the first time I began trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a conservative Islamic country and found myself deeply disturbed and angry. What drove men to codify their sexism and call it "holy"? It was bad enough for me when my abusive boyfriend tried to control me and routinely punish me for imaginary infractions, what would it be like if it were the law of my culture?! To me it would be like living in a nightmare, cloaked in black, forever restricted. Yes, I want to be respectful towards those who willingly accept such restrictions but I feel conflicted. I don't believe in war and I also don't believe in human rights violations in my country or any other country.

I rented a DVD called OSAMA. No, it's wasn't about Osama Bin Ladin, it was about a little girl in Yugoslavia who is made by her mother and grandmother to appear to be a boy. Why? Because the Taliban had forbidden women and girls to work. In the opening scenes you see a crowd of all women, covered head to toe, including their eyes running through the dilapidated streets carrying signs that demanded they be given the right to work so that they could survive. Then the Taliban come shooting guns and spraying water at them and trying to round them up. Definitely barbaric. In this culture a woman can't work, can't move from place to place without a male escort and if there are no men left in the family, the women are destined to starve. And I think I'm crazy! But what's most shocking is that this is not purely an imaginary tale, this exists right now and has existed for centuries. But me, in my American cocoon, I don't realize this. Or I do but I push it out of my head. I think, I've survived domestic violence and am surviving schizophrenia and I just can't open my heart up to the injustices in the world right now. But I know that's a cop-out. It does matter that women are still treated like property and prisoners, still seen as inherently sinful (unlike the men who commit so many atrocities in the name of God...). And that sexist mentality is still alive and well in the U.S. in the thousands (millions?) of cases of domestic violence.

I'm reading a book called Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran. This time in Iran, there are the morality police attacking innocent bystanders for what they wear or who they talk to. And I think, God I take so much for granted. The U.S. is full of blatant imperfections but there really are certain freedoms for the majority of the people. The reason I left my abusive boyfriend was so that I could enjoy once again those things I took for granted before I met him, the right to be who I am, see whom I want, go where I please without interference and worse. Well, all this is food for thought and I plan to continue studying Middle Eastern culture, especially as seen through the eyes of women. I can do no good unless I first eliminate as much ignorance as possible, sit my ass down and read and think and write. I may be depressed but this topic has helped me to take the focus off myself and onto more important things, like the rest of the world.


Okay Anonymous and everyone, I'm going to try to write something down here once a day. And I will commit to responding to comments. I may not write a lot but I will try to be faithful to it because I think it helps me get out of my funk. Forgive me if I begin to get repetitive. My life is quiet and reclusive. What I actually do is not so very interesting but maybe you'll find some of my thoughts interesting. I hope so. You've all been great to me, even you naughty Anonymous! (Sometimes I need a push...) Thanks. : )

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Skimming The Surface

Well, the snow and cold weather has returned for a few more days. I'm still waiting on Spring, still hoping it will give me a reprieve from my depression. For some reason I've been avoiding the computer. Online communication is the closest I come to having any heart to heart communication. And even this I withdraw from. A part of me is drawn to isolation like a moth to a flame. If I had some purpose like writing a book or composing songs, then the isolation would be constructive and the depression might begin to evaporate. I used to have a sort of mantra in which I said to myself: "motivation is mental happiness." I have more motivation than I did then but I'm adrift from the larger world. A self-made outsider. I blame no one for my condition. I am the one who is responsible for me but it's times like these when I almost wish for a touch of divine intervention. I want God to touch me with some magic wand and give me a purpose in life. The reality is that there is purpose all around me but the purpose doesn't take hold unless I'm willing to embrace it.

I just finished listening to Karen Armstrong reading her memoir The Spiral Staircase. She entered an English convent when she was seventeen and stayed for about seven years when she came to the conclusion that she did not believe in God and could no longer live the life of a nun. But she eventually continued studying religion and wrote a popular book (in the U.S.) called A History Of God. As far as I can tell, she still does not believe in God but is fascinated by the human urge to try to "know God". I can understand her disbelief in God because I grew up in a family of atheists. And I, too, am wary of organized religion. But I do believe in something I can't yet define, something the voices have taught me is out there and here at the same time. A compassionate intelligence that is too often beyond understanding. But why is it often beyond understanding? I just don't know yet.

I rail against the unknown because I want to know the truth. Why are we here? What is our purpose? Is there a God? The answers are elusive to me. And yet, like most people, I continue the quest to understand. It seems just a part of human nature to want to know why this or why that, human nature to seek a meaningful existence no matter how haphazardly. And I am quite haphazard. I know I have all the tools I need to construct a meaningful life but as of now I'm missing some essential ingredient. That could be community or it could be a clearer understanding of God. Either way I believe there is something I can do to change the course of my life. I think it requires persevering in my day to day struggles. I continue to cultivate patience and gratitude and both of these have served me well so far.

I admire Karen Armstrong for her intelligence, honesty and courage. She, too, often lives an isolated life but where my life is aimless, hers has direction and purpose. She studies and she reflects and she writes. I hope some day I can be a bit like her. Right now I skim the surface of things but turn away from deeper contemplation. But I don't want to turn away. Is it because of my illness that I turn away or is it some character fault that's become ingrained in me? That is to say, is it something beyond my control or not? I want to believe it is a character flaw that I can "fix" and not just my lot in life. If my lack of motivation is due to schizophrenia and depression and not to a character flaw, then what can I do? I can fight it by looking on the positive side of things. It may be my lot in life to suffer from mental illness but I don't have to give in to it.

Surviving domestic violence and surviving the worst of schizophrenia has left scars on my heart and mind. I am numb. I remember reading that however long a person has been in abuse that it can take the same amount of time to heal, maybe even longer. That's about ten years worth and I'm only a couple of years into recovery. Back to patience and gratitude. I pray that I won't always be so numb. It's been years since I had a good heart wrenching cry for myself and for others. What a gift to be able to freely express emotion. My voices don't torment me the way they used to but they are an added presence in my life and infuse themselves into it. I am more cautious now than I ever have been, cautious with my thoughts and feelings. I wonder about each thought and emotion...is it okay? I had a dream where I was helping a woman who lived in a small room and never went out. It was only later that I realized that this was a dream of me trying to help myself.

I haven't consulted the I Ching in ten days and it's time to ask another searching question, but, as usual, I'm stumped as to what question. Perhaps, what can I do to reawaken my heart? I believe my closed heart keeps me from the motivation that I think would be so precious. I know one thing I could do and that is meditate each day, open my heart slowly, gently. First opening to myself and then to others. Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, has some great teachings on using the raw material of one's life as a basis for meditation. The key point in Buddhist practice is compassion for ourselves and others. Instead of rejecting what's unpleasant you embrace it and then let it go and imagine that what you suffer someone else is suffering from the same thing right now. This softens the heart and may even end that pervasive feeling of isolation.

But I don't know. I haven't opened the door yet. I touch the door handle but won't turn the knob. I'm still afraid. Maybe it's time to start facing my fears. Breathing in the pain and breathing out the healing while realizing that I am not alone. All change starts with the self.