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, January 26, 2009

One Pound Lighter On The Road To Health

87 days free of smoking, a total of 6 days of exercise, 8 days on my diet, 1 pound lighter.

I just wanted to thank everyone who is following this blog, it really makes me feel good and I'm noticing there's developing a small blogging community of people with mental health issues, most especially those in recovery from schizophrenia. I'm proud of us for writing with intelligence and sincerity about our struggles and successes. Mental illness is a challenge and not a prison sentence anymore. I love the internet because it fosters freedom of expression and helps many of us work our way out of isolation. Most importantly there is a feeling of hope that with the right attitude and some outside help we can get through the worst of times and eventually embrace the best of times. I think blogging is a fantastic therapeutic tool and a great way to make and keep friends.

***********************************************

Well, so far the diet and exercise plan is working--I lost one pound of fat this week, I have more energy, I'm in a better mood and I feel hopeful about this year in general. This is the year I lose the weight. Why is that so important for an obese person who suffers from schizophrenia? Because not only does the schizophrenia incline me towards social withdrawal, but being fat just compounds the problem and gives me yet another excuse to not be around people. There's enough stigma going on about mental illness, but so is there stigma about being obese. And, of course, it is not healthy. My good cholesterol is down and my bad cholesterol is up, in part due to the weight and lack of exercise. I know this. I've known this for several years. I've been super fortunate in that I haven't developed diabetes considering that some of the anti-psychotic meds that I've been on and am still on have been linked to that illness.

My therapist has pointed out that I respond to a certain amount of structure in my life. The hard part, since I graduated from school, is getting myself to apply a structure to my days and nights. Basically I've been drifting for years. I've noticed a pattern emerging of going from one creative activity to another and then alternating between having productive periods and having depressed and unmotivated periods. In starting this diet and exercise program, I appear to be treating my depression as well as distancing myself from my psychosis (the voices). Though I must admit that I have also been drinking about 4 cups of coffee during the first half of the day and that may be helping with lifting my mood and giving me a little push of extra energy. So now I'm getting up at roughly the same time each morning. My routine so far is to make a pot of coffee, prepare my breakfast (based on an Anne Collins meal plan), eat it, take my pills (including a daily vitamin pill for women with added calcium, iron and zinc), work on the computer for a couple of hours-maybe go to the AC site and read or post, exercise for 50 minutes (making sure that I sweat in the process), then I eat lunch, do chores (I'm on the brink of including cleaning and organizing my house each day) and that's as far as I've gotten with the structure, though I do go to the AC site later in the evening and post what I ate and drank for the day, how much exercise I've gotten and my total calories along with whatever comments I can think of.

The two things that have held me down are my weight (literally and figuratively) and my inability to clean and organize my living space. I've rediscovered a motivational site for cleaning and organizing one's home (www.flylady.net/), but I haven't thoroughly explored it yet. I will get back to you about it in the coming weeks. So, two major goals for this year are to lose most of the weight I've put on due to the medication, poor eating habits and lack of exercise and to clean and organize my house and keep it clean and organized. If I can keep myself clean and healthy and my home free of clutter and clean as well, I know I will be making strides in my recovery from the mental illness that fostered those weaknesses. I think it's all about loving and respecting yourself enough to believe that you can change for the better. I have taken back some control over my life just by learning how to eat healthy, get some exercise and keep myself accountable to a group of people who are also trying to do the same thing. People can motivate each other and should. I've said it before, but affirmations and having a positive attitude can move mountains. Tell yourself over and over that you can and there's a good chance that you will.

Sounds easy, but it hasn't been easy. I've lost my way many times and then learned from hard experience. If I could do the last ten years over again while still having schizophrenia, I would have started taking the meds from the beginning (might have spared me my three breakdowns in three years), I would have started a mental health support group in my area, I would have committed to a diet and exercise program before I started putting on the weight. There were things I did do that I'm glad I did like going to therapy, going back to school, working on having a belief in a higher power. All of those things helped me.

***********************************

Today I finally mailed off 6 paintings to another artist who had commissioned me to paint two portraits of her niece and nephew. I did more than two because I wasn't satisfied with the two I did do and I wanted to make sure she would be satisfied. I also wanted to show my gratitude because she has been very patient with me and very supportive. Painting is something I want to get back to now that I've come out of a slump.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Anne Collins Effect

Well, I'm off to a good start. Five days on a diet and four days exercising. I'm more motivated and my mood is improving. The Anne Collins site is really good. I've started keeping a personal log there of what I'm eating and drinking, keeping track of how many calories I'm ingesting each day. I also write there about the new things I'm discovering and how I'm feeling. I'm inspired by the people at the site. They are proof that AC's diet and exercise advice is sound because they are losing the weight, some over 100 pounds or more. I'm aiming to get down to my pre-psychosis weight. Anne has cautioned me that I might lose no more than 1 pound a week (instead of 2 pounds per week) due to my medications, but I'm still hopeful that I might lose a bit more during the coming year if I stick to the diet and to nearly daily exercise.

Today I exercised for 50 minutes. My exercise goal is to do 1 to 1 and 1/2 hours of exercise per day, but the minimum now is 30 minutes daily. I'm using a stationary bike and an inexpensive stepper (it cost me $50). I use the stepper while holding 5 lb weights exercising my arms and upper body as well as by legs. This is kind of fun to do, swinging my arms this way and that while stepping in rhythm. Today I started by using the stepper and weights for 10 minutes, then I rode on the stationary bike for 30 minutes, varying the resistance and the intensity, and then I finished with another 10 minutes using the stepper and weights. My time for exercising is between 1 PM and 2PM, just before lunch and that seems to be working out.

Anne also recommends eating every 3 hours. That comes to about 3 moderate meals and 2 snacks. My calorie range for losing weight is between 1200 and 1500 calories a day which I seem to be able be do so far without much problem. Anne also stresses repeatedly that one should eat whenever one is hungry. She says that hunger is the main reason why people fall off their diets. The key is in WHAT you eat. Eat fruit and fat free yogurt. Eat whole wheat bread and reduced sugar preserves. Eat vegetables and low to non fat dressings. Eat brown rice and beans. Eat grilled or baked salmon or chicken. Really eating well is not so difficult to learn, you just have to develop a taste for it and habit for going for the low fat/high fiber/low calorie option that is available.

So I am now eating more fruits and vegetables and I like it. I'm eating fresh fruit, canned fruit (but not with heavy syrup), fruit with plain fat free yogurt. I'm eating all those cans of fruit that I bought like a year ago and pushed to the back of the refrigerator--mandarin oranges, pineapple, pears, tropical fruit mixes. With cooked vegetables I'm learning to season with soy sauce or lemon instead of butter. And with raw vegetables like cucumbers I'm again mixing with yogurt, yogurt plain or with a little bit of vinegar, garlic powder, and salt. There are also many fat free and low fat salad dressings. Fruits, vegetables, whole grain bread, potatoes (with again yogurt or salsa or fat free sour cream and NOT butter...), rice, pasta, whole grain cereal, lean meat, fish and low fat or non fat cheeses fill you up and are good for you.

Where was I slipping up before? Getting "frosted" cereals or adding sugar to cereal, using butter on vegetables and english muffins, eating too many peanuts and peanut butter, eating canned soups with too much fat and too large a portion of it, eating tuna salad, drinking 2% milk instead of 1% or skim milk, treating myself to too many Werther's sucking candies, eating frozen pizza, using too much coffee creamer in my tea and coffee (10 calories per teaspoon and I was using tablespoons of it), buying now and then a large cookie at the coffee shop (which calorie wise is probably the size of an entire meal), eating large portions of chicken or tuna, using 2 tablespoons of butter in a tuna noodle mix and eating too much of it, not eating enough fruits and vegetables and not getting exercise.

The truth is my diet was very limited and required little to no cooking, but wasn't so bad. Like I don't eat cake, pies, ice cream. I eat very little red meat, very few eggs. I don't drink soda or eat chips or candy bars. I don't eat fried food. I also haven't been eating much pasta, rice, potatoes, hot cereals though I'm going to change that and eat more of those foods. My idea of a wonderful splurge is to get a large pizza and 12 fried chicken wings, but the only time I remember doing that recently was on my birthday last year. I eat very little cheese, don't use sour cream or cream cheese, but now I'm going to start buying the non fat and low fat version of them. So all in all, I'm very ready to embrace this diet and commit to it. I now pay a lot more attention to what I'm eating and how much of it I'm eating. Because I'm eating every 3 hours, I don't feel deprived. Keeping track of my meals and snacks both offline and online helps to keep me accountable to my diet. Being part of a support group I'm sure will help me to stay focused.

There's so much in my life that I don't have control over: the weather and road conditions, other people, my mental illness, the state of the world, but this is something I can control and with balance. I just needed a little direction and support. I guess I also needed to be ready to change. I think quitting smoking is what really gave me an extra boost this past year to get me to this point. Anne Collins says attitude is very important. Believe you can change, visualize the change, the goal and commit to a program and you will change. It will take time, but it will come to pass. Health and beauty are worth the effort.

Monday, January 19, 2009

New Year's Weight Loss Resolution

This week I was shopping around online for a weight loss support program. I went first to Weight Watchers where there was a free 7 day trial offer. I found their service a bit complicated and I couldn't use certain features because I don't have a flash player installed. I cancelled my subscription on the 7th day. If I hadn't I would have been charged $65 for the first 3 months and then about $17 each month afterwards. I then found reviews and ratings for 10 of the most popular programs online. Most charged between $16 and $19 per month, but the cheapest charged $20 for a whole year. This was the Anne Collins Weight Loss Program and it was the lowest rated amongst the 10. For $20 I decided to try it anyway.

Ms Collins offers about 10 different diets all designed for losing weight, some are for diabetics, some for lowering cholesterol, some for vegetarians, etc... The basic premise is the same as Weight Watchers: in order to lose weight you must eat less and exercise more. I found portion controlled measurements which showed me that though what I eat is not so bad, my portions are way to big. Basically I need to cut out about 500 calories a day or one meal if I am going to begin losing weight. The instruction is to eat when hungry, every 3 hours or so, but to eat small portions of healthy food.

There are active message boards for added support and each person is encouraged to create a personal log of what one eats, exercise and general thoughts for others to read and respond to (though it is okay to keep the log private if you so choose.) So far I've introduced myself. In my introduction I revealed that I suffer from schizophrenia and have gained weight, in part, due to some of the medication I'm taking. I was hoping that by being honest I can reassure others in similar circumstances along the way. So far I've gotten one positive response.

Basically, I have never gone on a diet though I have watched what I eat and for a short period of time I skipped meals in order to lose weight. The voices warned me about eating disorders, saying that it can be a terrible trap. Still, dieting is about control and too much control is mind warping. So a balanced approach is the key I think. So now I am beginning the process of paying attention to everything I eat and drink. I will measure and count just as millions of people do every day. I will join the ranks of those determined to lose weight.

It won't be easy and it will take me a year of determination, but I can do this. I will allow for relapses. The main thing is to get back on track afterwards and work towards a steady pace, keep track of my successes and get support for when I fail and give support in return. I have to learn to be accountable to myself.

I can't help but see parallels between eating too much and smoking. There's the strong desire to do it and the near unconsciousness when you do do it. I mean how often do I eat mindfully? Usually I'm thinking of the next bite as I'm chewing on the first one. Before I got ill, I practiced yoga and meditation and mindful eating. Before I took the first bite I would identify all the ingredients and be grateful. I would slow everything down. Cooking, if you don't cheat, is a good way to appreciate food. It slows things down. I just don't want to become food obsessed, but I do want to begin measuring my food in a way that I haven't done before.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Life Is Difficult

M. Scott Peck begins the first chapter of his book The Road Less Traveled with the phrase "Life is difficult." He also writes "Life is a series of problems. Do we moan about them or solve them?" I, honestly, would like to solve them, but when I don't make headway I worry that when I write here I will just be moaning and repeating myself. I don't want to do that, so I wait.

It's been bitter cold here. I mostly stay indoors and alone, my cats are my company, and the voices, and the computer. I have been withdrawing from human contact again. This pattern of self isolation bothers me, but I succumb to it over and over again. A part of me wants to be alone as long as I can remain creative in some way. I haven't been painting or singing or writing much these last couple of weeks so I felt grateful when I had the urge today to write this blog entry. But what do I want to say? That life is difficult for all of us. We live with the knowledge that our life is temporary and will most definitely end. We live with our own imperfections. And yet, in so many ways, we are very resilient. We bend more than we break. We suffer and yet we feel that joyful pulse of life close at hand. Yin and yang. Sometimes the dark threatens to eclipse the light within us, but we keep on fighting for the right to breathe in and out, to live, to find happiness. This courageous fight is what keeps me connected to other people regardless of how much isolation I impose upon myself. And so I thank you for reading and I respect you for living your life.

My brother told me this week that someone in this community killed himself recently, he shot himself in the head in front of a friend of his who was trying to talk him down. I never met him, but I feel the sense of loss even so. He reminds us how fragile life can be and how stark when we are in a hopeless frame of mind. Yes, life is difficult and there but for fortune go you or I as Phil Ochs once sang. If we allow it we can build on a common bond. Every time I write I'm putting my faith in that bond that we are not so different from one another. Compassion is wonderfully healing. When I read other people's blogs I feel that sense of connection and compassion. We are each creating our own home spun wisdom. We are unique and yet we are the same. The uniqueness makes for the fun and the sameness makes for the bond. It's a good relationship.

So what do we do with our difficult lives? We live them, sometimes with much gratitude and other times with resentment. We are not perfect and I don't think we should strive to be perfect. Perfect is an illusion and good is good enough. I get into trouble with myself when I doubt my essential goodness. I am often examining myself, trying to stay honest with myself, but too much of that can lead to another form of perfectionism. At that moment what I most need is faith. Faith requires that I let go and believe in a higher power.

Sometimes it is hard to believe in a higher power, especially when I'm feeling vulnerable and afraid. Where is God? Everywhere, yet intangible. Sometimes the voices will say to me that there is no God and yet I hold onto my belief. Sometimes the voices threaten me with hell, but I keep reaching for heaven. It comforts me to think that there are people experiencing heaven on earth right this moment. And to be fair, I've had some heavenly moments too, though I often forget that. The essence of life is ever elusive yet always present. The essence is good. I think we intuitively know this and it gets us through the hard spots. We are not lost in some eternal void, we are in something much greater than ourselves. The goodness is in the water, air, food, and light. We drink it, breathe it, eat it and absorb it.

What would happen to us if life were easy? Would that be nirvana? One of the reasons why I respect people is that I know they have suffered and overcome their suffering countless times. I still dream of a world where there is no need for suffering, where everyone is happy, safe, kind and useful, but I can't get around the fact that the negative serves to highlight the positive. Nothing really goes to waste. The brilliance of life is that it offers countless challenges to overcome adversity. And people are doing just that. I'm doing it. You're doing it.

It is comforting to think that the higher power gives us our daily challenges, not to punish us, but to give us opportunities to grow. A bean sprout pushes against the earth as it reaches for the sunlight and so do we. When we first learn to crawl we utilize gravity until we find ourselves standing upright. And by standing upright we develop a taste for the freedom that goes with it. Life is both difficult and it is easy at the same time. It is difficult to learn to walk and yet once you learn it is easy. But with the freedom comes an element of danger because we are all capable of being hurt. The good news is that with faith and determination we can overcome most obstacles. Yes there are wounds and there are scars, but there is also life and life is precious. I feel my discomfort every day, but I'm still glad to be alive.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Changing Habitual Patterns

I hope everyone entered into the New Year happily and safely. I was asleep at the stroke of midnight, so I missed that magic moment. I woke up again sometime after 1 AM. I'm pretty sure it was the three glasses of wine that knocked me out earlier. I didn't mind sleeping through the switch over from 2008 to 2009. It felt good to be so relaxed. The truth is there was no switch over really, just a continuation of time, but we humans make up constructs to define our world, just as we define borders where there are none. Still there is something to be said for coming full cycle through the four seasons (well, there are four seasons where I live). There is no denying that time has passed and we have changed. And it is hard not to feel the pull to change oneself for the better right now by following new year's resolutions, though those will likely change too as circumstances shift.

I want this to be the year that I get back in touch with my body. Since I quit smoking cigarettes again 64 days ago I've put on weight. I have been hiding behind the weight for years now, but I have moments when I move with some small bit of grace, a leftover from the dance and yoga of the past. Tonight I listened to an audio recording of Pema Chodron speaking about getting unstuck from habitual patterns. I turned out most of the lights and sat down on the floor, then I lay down first on my back and then on my stomach and listened.

She talked about how our minds are rarely still, how we live in a state of restlessness and how we fall into habitual/addictive patterns as a way to get temporary relief and comfort. She said feeding our addictions is how we stay stuck and in pain. One of her Buddhist teachers taught her that we are like small children with a case of scabies (a contagious, itching skin disease caused by a mite). The more we scratch the itch, the worse it gets despite temporary relief. We wind up living for that temporary relief, that drink or smoke or piece of food or whatever. We wind up bleeding and suffering from all the scratching that we've been doing.

No one is exempt. It is the nature of the mind to be restless. Just try sitting still for 15 minutes following your breath and you'll see. Pema Chodron illustrated her point by ringing a meditation bell. The instruction was to listen to the sound of it as it faded away. Simple right? No. She hit the bell three times. Only one of those times did I feel as if I had stayed with the sound from beginning to end, the other times I attached to my thoughts. I wasn't being willful, I just got distracted.

How serious is it? Potentially life threatening. Certainly life deadening. I give in to instant gratification--I eat too much and I exercise too little. And yet I continue to have the wish to get healthy. Compared to alcohol and heroin addiction this seems a minor problem, but it really isn't. I am no longer young and my metabolism has slowed down. I just don't need as much food as I did even 10 years ago and yet one of my meds is an appetite stimulant (Risperdal). So when I have that extra mug of sweetened coffee or that extra bowl of cereal, I am staying stuck in an addictive cycle.

What am I afraid of? Sitting with the discomfort of doing without. The discomfort has been exacerbated by the effects of living with schizophrenia. I've lived without my sanity. I've lived with voices ordering me about. And so I learned while things were going badly to comfort myself in small ways. But now the worst is, it seems, past and I have to learn how to turn back the tides and refrain instead of indulge, not to punish or deprive, but to heal. Initially it won't feel like healing; it will be uncomfortable.