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.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On Lovingkindness And The Trip North


“We may look for that which is stable, unchanging, and safe, but awareness teaches us that such a search cannot succeed. Everything in life changes. The path to true happiness is one of integrating and fully accepting all aspects of our experience. This integration is represented in the Taoist symbol of yin/yang, a circle which is half dark and half light. In the midst of the dark area is a spot of light, and in the midst of the light area is a spot of darkness. Even in the depths of darkness, the light is implicit. Even in the heart of light, the dark is understood, acknowledged, and absorbed. If things are not going well for us in life and we are suffering, we are not defeated by the pain or closed off to the light. If things are going well and we are happy, we are not defensively trying to deny the possibility of suffering. This unity, this integration, comes from deeply accepting darkness and light, and therefore being able to be in both simultaneously.” Sharon Salzberg , LOVINGKINDNESS -- THE REVOLUTIONARY ART OF HAPPINESS, p. 11-12.

Light in darkness and darkness in light. I’ve found this to be true. Without the perfect balance that emanates from the yin/yang symbol, there is suffering, but not just suffering because I think all of us shift in and out of a kind of perfect balance. There is joy when there is balance and suffering when there is not, but each state is not totally separate. I’ve heard Buddhist teachers say repeatedly that one thing is certain about human beings, we all want to be happy. Is it possible to settle into being happy knowing that the future is uncertain and that death awaits all of us? Is it possible to be happy when we know that we will continue to intermittently suffer? I believe it is so, but it requires a dramatic shift in point of view.

“Everything in life changes.” The trick is to go with the flow, to ride the wave. When we were children, my brother loved to ride the ocean waves in the summer, but I couldn’t do it. I asked him to show me how and he found he couldn’t explain it in words. It was something you had to do for yourself, something you had to feel out and practice. The Buddhist teachers I’ve listened to are trying to explain how they have learned over time and with much practice, to ride the wave of life. Listening to teachers like Sharon Salzberg is comforting and helpful. She comes across as a person willing to learn the lessons of life, but even more importantly she is willing to repeat the lesson to others.

The lesson I’m trying to learn is loving kindness or metta towards myself. Ms. Salzberg and other Buddhist teachers say that this is the foundation for loving others. I have practiced for several years sending metta towards other people, including strangers. Towards myself, there’s been a lot of silence. Why? Because it’s difficult. Not only have the voices said disparaging things to me over and over, but I’ve taken up the negative mantra and said the same things to myself. I do it unconsciously. So every time I turn to the spiritual guidance of established teachers, I give myself a new opportunity to wake up to the fact that I am a good person who deserves happiness. In order to feel some of that happiness, I have to give myself permission: “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.”

********************************************************************
This past week I spent with my family mostly in Canada. We went to the Shaw Festival in Niagara On The Lake. It was generally assumed, considering my parents are in their 80s and my brother doesn’t drive, that I would do all the driving. And I did. I also did a lot of praying while driving. My favorite prayer is “May I not hurt any living being on or off the road including myself and my family.” My parents had rented a small cottage nine blocks from the main drag of the town. The cottage was great, but the distance walking a little too far for my parents and so I drove us into town so that we could go to the theaters and eat out. For the most part we set the pace slow, taking long naps in the afternoon and eating some of our meals at the cottage. My family often watched the Olympics in English and French while I read a novel by Ursula LeGuin called THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. We went to see four plays, two by Shaw, one by Lillian Hellman, and a musical by Stephen Sondheim. I enjoyed all of them, especially since I rarely get to go to the theater. My mother stubbornly refused to bring her hearing aids on this trip and had trouble hearing some of the actors and actresses. Still, she and my father and brother all seemed to have had a good time.

The voices were subdued for most of the week, but I did have several disturbing dreams. In one dream an ex-boyfriend was a serial killer, in another dream I betrayed my therapist and she wanted retribution. I slept deeply nonetheless. There were minor tensions in the family, but mostly we got along. There was a bakery a couple of blocks away and my parents made a habit of picking up bread and treats, so I wasn’t always eating wisely, but I did enjoy it. I got to tape record my family talking around the kitchen table. We talked about what it was like to summer at the beach, about the cats we’ve had and their different personalities and about remnants of a chimney blown off a house and into the bay by a hurricane before I was born. Another night it was just my mother and brother and me and my mother was playing a game with us. She read out clues to her crossword puzzle that she had already figured out to see if we could come up with the answers. It was fun and I’m glad I have a record of it on tape.

On the last day I managed to get us to the Buffalo Airport which I’ve never been to before. We ate lunch together and talked. My mother almost cried saying that we wouldn’t see them till Christmastime, which is true. This year I’ve only seen them twice. And now with the fuel prices so high it is getting too expensive to travel often. At some point my parents will stop driving and will be even more tied to their retirement community. These are just the facts of life, but I’m not used to it yet.

It was a mixed blessing when I got home. My house still a mess, but the cats were all right and I was relieved. Very quickly I started feeling stressed out about the various things I had to get done. I made a list and the list kept getting longer and longer and I kept getting more negative about myself. Then I asked for guidance from the voices and they suggested listening to Sharon Salzberg. I also started to re-read her book. One of the first exercises in the book is “Remembering the Good within You”. I thought about my first boyfriend who lived in a one bedroom apartment with his alcoholic and sometimes abusive mother (who slept in the living room). My boyfriend had needed the refuge of my home and my family. He became a member of my family for several years and I feel good about that. I should be able to collect good memories like fruit off the vine to bolster me up in times of suffering.
















Sunday, August 3, 2008

Affirmations


I received a call today from a woman who wants me to paint a portrait of her granddaughter. Actually she called several days ago and left a message. She left her number, but not her name. It took me about an hour to prepare to call her because I am rather phone phobic in the last few years. When I did get the courage up to call her, a different woman answered the phone and didn’t know who I was. Luckily today I was home and identified the woman’s voice and picked up the phone. She is going to send me several photographs so that I can get a feel for her granddaughter’s features, but there is one particular picture that she wants me to paint. I am looking forward to the challenge of this. I think this project will pull me out of some of the negativity I’ve been falling into. Practical work is good for the soul.

A few days ago I was feeling too detached, when Nancy called me on the phone. Despite my phone phobia, I quickly answered. She had called me once before, but I had felt too self-conscious to answer, but this time I knew I needed her help. She was warm and smart and funny and very willing to be my friend. She had cautioned me to follow the positive thoughts instead of the negative ones and she encouraged me to be my own best friend. She said she worked at being her own best friend using affirmations.

After we had ended our conversation, I lay on the couch and said aloud, “I am a good woman.” I felt awkward saying it, but I persisted. And for the last couple of days I’ve been saying this to myself throughout the day. I think the reason I have trouble really believing that I am a good woman is because of the abuse I endured in my last romantic relationship. I’ve been alone for so long now that I forget that I was an abused woman. While I praise others, I unconsciously belittle myself. I feel both guilty at not “saving” my ex-boyfriend and ashamed as if there is something inherently wrong with me. Years ago my ex-boyfriend one day would praise me and the next day might treat me hatefully. I knew he was sick. I knew I was sick, but I internalized some of the put downs he would throw at me. I learned in an abusive relationship that I wouldn’t be allowed to express my anger and so I stuffed it inside and started to attack myself unconsciously.

Three years after I left the relationship I was thrust into the world of schizophrenia. The voices became my abusers and I returned to being some kind of psychic victim. Sometimes it felt like forces greater than myself were struggling for ownership of my soul. I felt like a human rag doll. But there were always guiding voices. Yes, it felt like I was close to abandoned at times, but never completely. And to this day I find some communion with the voices. There is method in their madness and sometimes I get lost wanting to understand them. I don’t know if I can ever accept that these voices that I continue to hear are purely crossed wires in the brain. Many, many people believe in God, but resist the idea of sentient life other than human life. But for me it rings quite true.

But back to the -- am I a good person or a bad person? dilemma (which seems to affect many people suffering from schizophrenia). This is a big issue for my voices. They won’t commit either way or jump from one perspective to another as if they are trying the view out. Is their lesson that I have to decide for myself? Well, this is a good lesson because I do have to decide for myself, which leads back to affirmations. One reason I think I can approach affirmations is because I believe human nature is essentially good. We all started out innocent, babies every single one of us.

Every single one of us has learned by mimicry. Monkey see, monkey do. Some mimic well, others not so well, some rebel and others follow the new thing. Positive learned behavior needs healthy role models and let’s face it, we are not the healthiest creatures on this planet. We are human. We make mistakes. We need some guidance. Some people guide themselves through reason and intellect, others through emotions and intuition. Some believe in the spirit of man to succeed and others believe in the spirit of God to direct. But children want to be loved and if they can’t be loved the right way, they accept the wrong way.

Love is the measure of goodness in life. If parents have trouble loving their children and children have trouble loving their parents, as is too often the case, bad behavior or mindsets develop on both sides. Bad, as in hurtful to the self and to others. And from there it is passes on to friends and lovers and co-workers. Are we “good” or “bad”? The best answer I can come up with to that question is that we are misguided. When we are young and impressionable we form imprints of behavior that we repeat over time in different situations. If we have not been taught by responsible children or adults to love in a healthy manner (and I do believe some children are very aware of the difference between right and wrong), we proceed to love in an unhealthy manner. When I write “love”, I mean all kinds of loves--family, friends, lovers, teachers, therapists, etc...

If we can accept that most of us have been misguided at some point in childhood and youth and stop thinking in terms of internalizing the mistake and branding ourselves as “bad”, we can put the focus on solutions instead of on problems. We can say honestly--”I am a good person who has made mistakes.”--without being swallowed up by the “who has made mistakes” part. And I know we all have at least one serious regret in our lifetimes, if not many. We are human, it comes with the territory. But we can’t live in the past or rewrite the past, we can only work with the present moment. Learning from past mistakes is important as long as we apply what we’ve learned to the present and don’t fall into forgetfulness, denial or simple avoidance.

Of all the qualities a child should be taught, I think honesty towards self and others is perhaps the most important quality. It connects us with our roots which combine innocence with intelligence.

So, I am a good person...who has made mistakes. I don’t forget that I’ve made mistakes and I don’t forget that I am good. Well, that’s the goal.