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 21, 2008

Taking Stock On The Path


Just begin. Today is a warm day, but not oppressive and I remain inside, away from nature. Ozzie (my cat) is drinking water beside me and it is quiet, there’s a hush in the air. I kiss Ozzie. He pulls his face away from me and I think it’s funny. I’m looking at my woodstove. I haven’t used it in years. Recently I turned it into a shrine for the Buddha, but not really. I don’t worship Buddha, instead I respect and admire Buddha and people who strive to follow Buddha by being compassionate towards themselves and others. I placed a small bronze statue of the Buddha on the woodstove. Behind the statue I’ve put an image of a Celtic cross that my mother bought for me when we were in Ireland a few years ago. The Celtic cross predates Christianity. I see the cross as the meeting of heaven and earth and then there is a circle surrounding the meeting.

I remember painting a large painting...I just took the painting out of a back room and am looking at it...I painted it as I was having my last psychotic break. There’s a tilted cross painted on a canvas the size of large door. In the center of the cross is a yin/yang symbol. Above the horizontal of the cross is the sky with what looks like a star that shoots orange rays out of it (the star of Bethlehem or a symbol of life on another planet). The rays break through the cross, yet the cross remains intact. Beneath the horizontal is a triangle of green, I guess representing the earth. Then comes a lot of red. There is a portrait of a baby putting putting his foot in his mouth, a peace sign crowns him, but surrounding the peace sign and the baby are two guns and a hunting knife. Below the baby in the far left corner in a black triangle is part of a red cross with a white circle in the middle and a black swastika inside it. What was I thinking as I made that painting? I was having an elaborate delusion about the sexual abuse of children and teenagers. I’d like to redo the painting. Remove the weapons, the baby, the swastika and the peace sign. Make it more abstract, less obvious. Though maybe the baby and the swastika should stay as a symbol of innocence and hatefulness. But really I embrace the innocence of children and have great trouble believing in the hatefulness of some human beings. Why should I have trouble believing that human beings can be hateful? I’ve encountered the hatefulness personally and in my mental illness. I just put the painting away. It disturbed me as it should coming from a time when I was so sick and so lost.

Someone on the NAMI Schizophrenia message board asked the question if you could erase the illness from your life, would you or do you feel schizophrenia has added meaning to your life? I feel ambivalence. I can’t remember the worst of my illness, though I know it was hell on earth for a while. During that period I was desperate to be free of it, but I knew I was trapped. The voices told me that in time things would get better and they did get better, mainly after I started taking the anti-psychotic medications. Also I worked hard through my misery to cultivate a positive, grateful attitude. Now I am no longer miserable and I know I have a lot to be grateful for and always will, but I still wish that I could fully recover.

The woman who asked the question considers herself recovered; she has a job, friends, lots of healthy activities. She decided to gradually come off the anti-psychotic medicines and so far she’s been doing well. I don’t have the confidence to even think about not taking my medications. I’m still very scared of the psychosis returning, but then I do not consider myself recovered. For a while there I knew I was recovering and now I’m hoping that I am. I should take stock of my situation, the good and the bad. The bad is that I still hear voices. The bad is that though my positive symptoms (delusions and paranoia) are mostly gone, my negative symptoms (self-isolation, poor self-care) remain. The good is that my voices are more supportive than destructive. They’ve changed over time. Early in the onset of my psychosis they turned from romantic into sadistic, but never purely sadistic, there were always good voices getting me through the worst of it, but then after I started taking the anti-psychotic meds, after the paranoia and major delusions stopped, they began to recede somewhat. Lately I’ve been alternating between thinking of the voices as ill (which allows me to be compassionate towards them) and thinking of them as teachers/guides. When they get negative and call me or themselves or all others evil, I acknowledge that they are sick and I soften. Much of the time they are not negative, but supportive, even protective of me. They tell me they love me from time to time.

It will be just a decade since I became psychotic. It was Spring of 1998, two weeks to a month after my 36th birthday, just after the end of my second semester at art school. I began communing with a voice that called itself Darius. I had had voices off and on since my mid twenties, but they never identified themselves and they never began telling me my future. This voice deliberately fed me delusions and I fell for it and lost touch with reality. Or rather I still had touch with reality but I also had budding delusions that began to color the way I looked at the world around me. I got insular and obsessive and withdrawn. I pulled the blinds closed, turned up the music and danced. Then I would get in the car, turn up the music and go for drives, talking aloud to my delusions (those people following me in other cars). Meanwhile the delusion just got more and more elaborate and frustrating and I sank deeper into something I couldn’t get out of on my own. The voices then were manipulative and deceptive and they manipulated and deceived me. After they really hooked me, they turned out and out abusive.

But what was I? A self absorbed, self centered woman who became an egotistically deluded woman. The switch went fairly smoothly from one to the other. Beyond embarrassing and humiliating, it was vicious. But the question that still haunts me is, did I deserve to be abused either by my ex boyfriend or by the voices? Am I, as they say, evil? I’ve found that when I move towards the negative that I become sicker and when I move towards the positive I get healthier. If I believe that I am essentially bad, I lose my way, but if I believe I am essentially good (though quite imperfect) I find my way. But I’ve been taught by the voices and by myself, to extend this belief in my essential goodness out to include them and their essential goodness. What that means is they cannot be “the enemy” or “evil”. They can be sick and deluded sometimes and mature and healing other times, but always essentially good. That’s how I try to see myself and so I extend it out to them and all beings. Well, that’s the goal. In down moments I fall short of the goal and start to worry, but the worry doesn’t last. I shift back to the positive. I think the medicine allows me to make that transition; it gives me some space to move. The voices back off. There are more workable boundaries.



“When the world is filled with evil, transform all mishaps into the path of the bodhi.” Lojong slogan

Before I knew anything about lojong, I was cultivating a spiritual path. I was afraid of the voices many times, annoyed and frustrated too, but I wouldn’t hate them. I wanted them to “turn around” towards balance, health, “God”. Having some faith in them helped me to have faith in myself, faith that I, we, could get better. I did turn the other cheek, turning foe into friend, well, some of the time. They are still sick and so am I, but we a light years beyond where we once were. When I have my down moments, I need to remind myself of this.

My therapist believes that I have a bio-chemical disease. She doesn’t think that I deserve it and she doesn’t think I deserved to be abused by my ex-boyfriend. She regularly points out my good qualities. Now, I, too, believe I have a bio-chemical disease, but it’s more than that--it’s a spiritual challenge.

“Be grateful to everyone.” Lojong slogan

Everyone who challenges you is your teacher. My tormenting ex-boyfriend who loved/hated me was a great teacher. He taught me tolerance from his intolerance and so have the voices at their most cruel been great teachers. My mother taught me courtesy by being a courteous person, but she also taught me patience by being impatient and she taught me to hold my tongue by not holding hers.

We are controlled by our dependence on language and language exists because of opposites. In order to teach the meaning of a word we are given synonyms AND antonyms or in other words, what the thing is and what it is not. In terms of morality we want to do the right thing and be good people and so we find examples to follow, but we also are shown by our families, friends and people in general examples of wrong things and negative ways of being, just as we reflect those same good/bad qualities. But it gets tricky because who is to say what is good and what is bad? Sometimes the lines blur or we are blinded by circumstances and other times we are just different with different needs.

“Always meditate on whatever provokes resentment.” Lojong slogan

When you see/feel good i.e. a baby smiling at you, you take it in and hold it for a moment and reflect the harmony back to the child. When you see/feel bad i.e. a family member or a lover grimacing at you and putting you down, there is the natural tendency to get hurt and then resentful. The seed of discord gets passed on from that person to you if you hold onto the hurt and resentment; that turns into a potential whirlpool, an abusive cycle. But what if you identified the hurt/resentment and then really looked at it? You would see the trap. Then what? You would disengage, let go, move on. But how do you do that? By realizing that you don’t want to be a part of the negative energy and by realizing that the person is actually hurting and deserves some compassion. That’s moving from the small, myopic, self-centered picture to the bigger, more tolerant picture.








Friday, April 11, 2008

Fish Out Of Water


Last year I downloaded an episode from a radio show called This American Life which I recently listened to; the episode was called “Godless America”. The bias of the show was obviously towards the left and the initial topic was on separation of church and state. The host of the show interviewed several people, some conservative Christians, others moderate Christians. At one point the host asks a conservative Christian: “Do you believe we can be a moral nation without being Christian?” and the man answers, “Long term morality, without God, is a myth.” My family believes that not only can people be moral without a belief in God, but that some people’s faith in God causes them to act immorally. They abhor the idea of a union between church and state. This is the classic left-right battle going on in the U.S.

I stand with my family, but I appreciated this episode for allowing me to get a glimpse of the other side and for broaching the question of what it would be like to live in a religious (Christian), non secular country. The right to choose to terminate a pregnancy would be revoked and made illegal again, Creationism would take the place of the theory of evolution in schools, homosexuals would lose any chance at legalizing marriage and might find themselves punished in one way or another. Instead of diversity there would gradually be homogenization. But then in many places in the U.S. there is a white, Republican, Christian conformity. I moved from New York City to Western New York almost twenty years ago and that is what I found. There are good people here, but I don’t advertise my liberal Democratic background by putting a pro-choice bumper sticker on my car. After surviving severe paranoia, I don’t want to stand out. I know I’m in the minority here and it is a weird feeling, a feeling that is only reinforced by my schizophrenia.

Despite the fact that the college and university here provide an oasis for some liberal Democratic activity, I still feel like a fish out of water. I’m sure if there were no separation between church and state that that feeling would be strongly accentuated. It’s already a bit creepy to live where I do, but I can’t imagine what it would be like to have it spread to the cities. I think there would be some kind of social revolt. And I can’t help but think that if fundamentalist Christians took power that we would eventually have the kind of morality police that they have in Iran. I’m not against a belief in a higher power, I’m against enforcing that belief on others in schools and in the work places and in the very laws of the land.

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The university was on a two hour lock down a few days ago because someone reported that there was a man with a gun on campus. Turns out it was a student playing some kind of nerf ball game using a toy gun, but it just goes to show that the level of paranoia has increased even here. I am dismayed by the fact that there is no mental health support group for students. Yesterday I went to a presentation about the prevalence of students who harm themselves. Fifteen to twenty percent of the students (both male and female) say they have harmed themselves through cutting or burning. Quite a few people showed up for the presentation, students, teachers and members of the community. There were four speakers--a young man who is a counselor and three teachers. When I asked them after the presentation about support groups the teachers referred me to the counselor and the counselor somewhat lamely said there were no support groups except a grief support group that meets every other week and an AA meeting on campus with very low attendance. I got the courage up to say that I had thought of starting a group off campus, but silently I wondered if I would ever have the motivation to start the process. It did encourage me that people had showed up for this mental health topic and that many people asked questions afterwards.

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I saw my therapist this week. I told her how I’m becoming more conscious of the fact that I start things but don’t finish them, that I move from one thing to another. This is an old pattern from before I became psychotic. I speculated that it might have to do with not having any major responsibilities and therefore little structure. Most people have to work and so they follow through on their actions. I drift. The schizophrenia just makes the drifting take a stronger hold on me. J. said that I always have good ideas and that it’s good that I can get involved in various creative outlets. She said being involved in things helps to reduce stress. I know there’s truth in that and I’m glad I don’t just give up, but I also would like to accomplish more. I discovered that I stopped meditating when I encountered discomfort and that’s what I do with the projects I work on--when it gets harder, I pull back. I realize now that I need to stay with the meditation in order to learn how to sit with discomfort. Everyone has to learn this lesson that life is a mixture of pleasure and pain and that worthwhile endeavors require working through the obstacles.

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The iPod is still a trip. I also got an attachment so that I can hear local radio stations. Yesterday, after listening to This American Life, I checked out iTunes podcasts under Buddhism. I’m thinking about tuning into a podcast called Zen Punk Radio tonight. My connection is still very slow but I’ll probably be able to download it overnight. I have found that I can get spooked at night time listening to the iPod; it’s such an insular experience, sometimes a little too insular, so I unplug the earbuds from time to time and just listen to make sure everything is okay with my cats and in the house. Still, I love listening to music again, and to poetry and audiobooks. If I do get a high speed internet connection I will probably go wild downloading podcasts. I really appreciate that there are so many creative people out there communicating to the world.



Monday, April 7, 2008

Miscellaneous


This past fall I bought an iPod to reward myself for having quit smoking. Due to several computer problems I have only just been able to use it. It’s already changing my life: I have exercised for an hour a day for seven days straight and I’ve begun cleaning my house. I’m listening to music, poetry, Pema Chodron, Krishnamurti (I just got two CDs), Berlitz Spanish (I seriously want to learn how to speak the language) and comedy. I’ve even been able to transfer a couple of my songs and hope to make up a CD’s worth of them. I still don’t have high speed internet access, but I’m hoping that I’ll have it soon. And Spring looks like it’s at least trying to approach. Perhaps my months of hibernation are coming to an end. I have been more detached from people this year than I can remember and yet I am not particularly depressed. The iPod is bringing people back into my life via recordings and I am finally starting to listen more carefully.

I ordered three CDs of Krishnamurti and received two a few days ago and I took out a couple of his books from the library. At the same time I’ve been studying a book by Pema Chodron called Start Where You Are which explores the “lojong” slogans and the tonglen meditation practice. I have found that there is an obvious conflict between Krishnamurti’s ideas and Pema Chodron’s teaching on some Tibetan Buddhist practices. Krishnamurti did not believe in any form of religion, he saw them all as divisive. The recent Tibetan uprising against Chinese occupation certainly proves that even Buddhism, with its emphasis on compassion and nonviolence, has not brought about peaceful relations between the two cultures.

Krishnamurti also did not believe in following systems to gain self-knowledge. In fact, he thought that following a teacher/guru/savior was counterproductive to understanding the self:

“Authority prevents the understanding of oneself, does it not? Under the shelter of an authority, a guide, you may have temporarily a sense of security, a sense of well-being, but that is not the understanding of the total process of oneself. Authority in its very nature prevents the full awareness of oneself and therefore ultimately destroys freedom.”--Krishnamurti, The First & Last Freedom, p.47

I think Krishnamurti would have said that studying the lojong slogans was a waste of precious time. I can’t quite agree with him, yet he has planted the seed of doubt in me. The truth is that I have only just skimmed the surface of this Tibetan Buddhist practice, but I feel a strong pull to explore it. At the same time I feel a strong pull to understand Krishnamurti’s ideas.

Pema Chodron is a Buddhist nun, tied to a long tradition and committed to certain points of view. When I listen to her audio recordings, I find her honesty and humor charming and I want to conform to the belief structure that she is teaching on. I want to learn from her how to become more compassionate. I’ve even wondered what it would be like to be a Buddhist nun living the communal life, free of most personal belongings, meditating for hours each day, listening to dharma talks, helping people.

Krishnamurti was a free agent, not a part of any religion or organization. I listened to the two CDs I got and found him to be very different from Pema Chodron. The first thing that struck me was his great and earnest seriousness. There is some humor there, but nothing like Pema Chodron who at times fully interacts with her audience, mainly through self-revealing humor. Whereas Ms. Chodron keeps stressing the importance of a “No Big Deal” philosophy of lightening up, Krishnamurti stresses how important it is to be serious, especially about understanding oneself.

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Over two weeks quiet here...Once again I started and stopped four times. I envy people who can write daily entries in their blogs. I don’t have a talent for it.

Spring has been in this part of the country for a week now and the flowers are starting to show their heads. I hope it lasts. I’ve been out three times this week with my brother. We went shopping, saw two films and listened to a singer songwriter. I even had a beer with my brother at a local bar. The singer songwriter was named Chris Pureka and I thought she was very talented, but I found myself wishing that she would take more chances. If I had her skill, I know I would. I would be in heaven. I’m only just realizing that I have a bit of the punk ethic of rock and roll in me. I like some attitude and some rough playing as long as it’s honest. Songs can be too polished and lose that refreshing edge. But then this is coming from someone who doesn’t know how to play her instrument and is only just starting to approach singing after years away from it.

That night, after hearing Ms. Pureka, I came home to my guitar and croaked out a couple of songs. Yes, I thought, I envy all the time and hard work that she has put into her music, yet I still value myself and the little I’ve done. And I still want to keep trying to improve, to express myself. My best songs are from ten years ago, just before I got sick. So much has happened since then. I’m starting from a new, older, wiser? place. Today I sang a variation on Amazing Grace. Ani Difranco does an excellent version of it on her double album Living In Clip (which is a great collection of her work). My version was obviously more modest, but I was able to get into it. So much seems to depend on suspending critical judgement and putting some heart and soul into it. I listen to the iPod every day and I sing with the songs and believe me that counts as practice. That’s how I learned to sing in the first place when I was a teenager and young adult.