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.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Blizzard At JFK Airport

Life is precious and hence my flight to return home was cancelled at the last minute while our plane with all of us in it taxied on the runway.  The airport was closed.  We were told that we could get our luggage at the baggage claim area and then we would have to find an active service counter and try to re-book a flight out of there.

For the previous few days I had been tracking on the Weather Channel the winter storm that was working its way towards nearly the whole of the Eastern Atlantic coastline.  The first report I heard said the storm might hit right along the coast, but the next report said it might just miss the coast and move off into the Atlantic.  The night before I was to leave the Florida Gulf the more definitive report was that the storm had been upgraded to a blizzard and that it would hit the southern coast in the morning and then work its way up the coast towards New England by afternoon.  My flight to the JFK airport in New York City was scheduled to leave at 7:20 am and meant to arrive by 10 am in New York.  I woke up at 4:15 am hoping that getting up that early would also mean that I might just miss the blizzard and that once at JFK I could get my connecting flight at 1:25 pm to Rochester where the weather was not supposed to be as bad.  My friend Richard was even going to pick me up and drive me home.

I flew up to New York on the an airline called JetBlue.  They boast of having more legroom (which they do) and access to Direct satellite TV for each seat.  I watched the progress of the storm once again on the Weather Channel, still hopeful that I would get home by nightfall.  The weather was calm at JFK at 10 am.  My next flight was still scheduled to be on time.  Unfortunately, the flight kept getting delayed and I wound up kicked off a cancelled flight standing at gate 8 of the JetBlue terminal feeling helpless.  It was after 5 pm, I was tired and a bit hungry and had no desire to get on a line to rebook a flight that might not be leaving for at least one full day if not longer.  I decided to get my luggage, one blue and white floral pattern L.L. Bean duffle bag, not easy to miss.  The problem was that I would have to leave the main terminal.  I half realized this wasn't a good idea, but I didn't know what else to do, so I crossed the security line and headed for the carousels.  That alone was a big mistake; I wouldn't get back inside the main terminal till the following day.  

The baggage claim area was chaotic because we all were clueless trying to act as if we still had a clue.  I discovered soon that the baggage was being indiscriminately thrown onto any carousel and there were at least six of them with two operating.  This meant that you couldn't park yourself at just one specific carousel and wait patiently (or impatiently) till your luggage turned up, but instead had to move restlessly from one to another across a large and chilly room crowded with people old to very young.  The reason the room was chilly was because there were three very large spinning doorways with people going in and out either to smoke a cigarette or look desperately for a taxi or just to watch the progress of the blizzard.  I had no desire to do any of those things and once I got my bag I headed for a corner wall where I could sit down as I had been standing for an hour or so.

I saw that other people those with families or couples or people like myself who were on their own were finding their spots and taking a break till they could figure out what to do.  Many people were on their cell phones either talking to friends and family or trying to contact JetBlue to rebook a flight.  I wasn't ready yet to call my family.  I was continuing to feel vulnerable and disoriented...and hungry.  The only thing I had to eat were six small cake-like treats that my mother had given to me the night before.  Not the best food, but I ate them. I had spotted in the middle of the room on the side of the spinning doors one lone small Dunkin Donuts with a very small store selling water, drinks, chips and candies and other not very nutritious stuff along with large cups of coffee or hot chocolate.  The problem for me was that I was alone and couldn't leave my duffel bag with anyone.  I also had a fairly full messenger bag and a small camera bag with my digital camera in it.  Around my neck hung a wallet to hold my passport and some money and also my iPod in its padded little case.

I called my family in Florida.  My father and brother wanted me to take the subway into the City and get a hotel room in Greenwich Village somewhere.  They said I might not get a plane out for anywhere from two to four days.  I knew right away that I was NOT going to do that.  I was disoriented enough and didn't need to get lost in a blizzard in the City with no boots, gloves, hat or coat and carrying a heavy bag with no wheels on it.  At least at the airport there was shelter and some heat (though not a whole helluvalot I found as the night progressed in the baggage claim area), clean and fairly empty toilets, access to water and a tiny bit of food, but more importantly I would have much closer access to eventually getting out of the airport on a moment's notice if a seat opened up in stand-by.

My father reminded me on the phone to not neglect to take my pills and really I needed that little nudge and I did get some water and take my pills.  Then I went up one level to the ticket counter for JetBlue and waited online for a hour and a half.  It was 9 pm on Sunday.  The man behind the desk said that he could reserve a flight for me leaving on Tuesday at 7:59 pm.  Most people were talking to their particular airline representative for a chunk of time, but I didn't know what to say, except that I wanted to get inside the terminal again where there was proper heat and the hope of eating a hot meal.  I didn't complain and I was sympathetic to his plight (hundreds of disgruntled customers to take care of).  He didn't give me a boarding pass, just an itinerary ticket which might be able to get me a boarding pass in the future.  As I walked away from him, he took pity on me and said there might be a stand-by spot on a plane that was supposed to leave the next afternoon and to show up here again tomorrow.

I headed back downstairs and picked a spot where I had access to an outlet and watched over my cell phone as it charged for an hour next to a man who was lying on the floor covered up with two small Yorkshire dogs cuddled next to him for warmth.  He was using the other outlet to charge one of his gadgets.  There was an Hispanic woman sitting near me shivering and holding onto her stacked luggage with wheels.  She didn't make eye contact with me and talked only to another Hispanic couple, but it was obvious that she was cold and I heard her say the word "frio".   I opened my duffle bag and pulled out a long, large, black knit cardigan sweater that I had just gotten in a thrift store in Florida for $5 and decided to give it to her, which I did.  Later, as I lay down on the floor and covered myself up with my fleece and rain jacket to try to get some sleep, she attempted to return the sweater.  It was obvious she didn't speak much English, but I made my point that she could keep it if she wanted to.  She thanked me and moved off.  I felt good that I was there to be of some minor use.

To make a long story short, after shivering myself, and wandering and getting some fitfull sleep, after drinking a large cup of coffee, eating a little candy and talking to a mother guarding her sleeping son, I got through the night and into the morning and back up to the ticket counter.  I learned that only people with a ticket and carryon luggage could get into the inner sanctum of the terminal.  I was willing to wait another day and a half to get on the Tuesday evening flight out of there, if I could get inside and feel the heat and eat a meal.  The African American man behind the counter was polite and articulate and responded to me being polite and sympathetic, if not so articulate.  He sympathized with me and managed to get me a ticket and said I could take my duffel bag as carry on luggage, it happened to be small enough.  This man was clever, he gave me a ticket to a flight that he knew was or would be cancelled and had me keep the itinerary ticket to get me on the later flight.  This is the ticket that got me through security and into the terminal proper.

The first thing I did was get a hot meal.  As luck would have it I didn't even have to pay for it because the stores' computers were down for 5-10 minutes and the person in charge let the four of us on line take the food instead of awkwardly standing on line holding all of our parcels and bags.  I was very tired and I tried to eat slowly and savor the food and get my energy back to keep on keeping on.  The airport was closed and it nearly looked it -- not a lot of people and only a couple of food/convenience stores open.  I was very lucky to have gotten that far.  I stayed there overnight and then the next morning got booked on a flight that was supposed to leave at 9:30 am.  Almost 12 hours earlier than the other flight I had been placed on.  This time I got a boarding pass with a seat assignment.  The flight, which changed gates three times, began boarding at noon and left at one or one thirty.  I got to Rochester at around 3 pm where I called my family and also Richard.  I would get home by 6 pm.  Once my seven cats were all accounted for to my great pleasure, I called my family one last time to say that my ordeal was finally over.  I had been mostly awake for about 62 hours and had just run out of my bedtime anti-psychotic medication.  I went to sleep anyway.

I'm grateful that I was safe from harm, that I had my family and Richard to talk to, that I endured without complaining,  that I got to talk to several people in the airport and that I got home.  This experience taught me a tiny bit of what it would be like to be homeless -- the wandering from place to place, to where bathrooms and water fountains were, to where outlets were, to where food was, to where shelter and heat were, having to guard your stuff, catching a little sleep here and there on the floor or ground, talking to other people who were also homeless,  perpetually waiting for something good to happen but feeling tired and almost resigned, living in twilight world, never at home, always a not quite welcome guest.  So tired, so sad.  In limbo.  And without proper facilities to shower and brush your teeth, to have that luxury we call privacy for 10 to 15 minutes, you will begin to be identifiable by smell as well as sight branding yourself as one of the walking wounded, homeless and quite possibly mentally ill.  For who remains sane without proper sleep and nutrition, living in continual stress in order just to survive?  I'm grateful I was given this window into the lives of the homeless because it has made me appreciate humanity all the more, into the sheer endurance and flexibility of the human spirit.  I was also pleased to note that most people behaved very well considering they were stranded.  We all knew that we were strangely united by the blizzard raging outside and that we would have to wait together in peace.  And we did.

I saw nothing that would make me say that we were all just a bunch of sinners getting what we deserved; there were no shouts, no aggression, very little bad behavior at all.  As far as I could see, there was a lot of Buddha Nature being passed about within us and between us.

In a few hours it will be the first of January, 2011.  I'm going to think of all those people (including the elderly and children of all ages) who are stranded in airports around the world or homeless and cold at the stroke of midnight.  I'm going to be wishing them the best new year of their lives because they deserve it just as much, if not more than, the rest of us.  No, really, we all deserve a happy new year.

Happy New Year Everyone!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Using Obstacles As A Path To Awakening

"When the world is filled with evil, transform all mishaps into the path of bodhi (awakening)."
Lojong Slogan # 11

Tibetans believe in ghosts they call "dons" that suddenly attack you in order to wake you up.  I see my voices and the web of my psychosis as these dons.  Though they appeared to be evil and set on causing a great deal of trouble, pain and suffering, they were in fact a blessing.

Life is hard; we all face obstacles every day, but what if we saw our difficulties as the fertile soil of our spiritual path, as the ground we use to plant the seeds of well being?  Most of us are deep in sleep, so lost in thoughts about the past or the future that we don't see the present moment.  A lot of us feel guilty if we stop doing things and move into the being mode.  For those of us who do take the time to just sit and enjoy the view, we often feel our own restlessness or resistance to accepting things just as they are.  The root of that restlessness is fear, fear of acknowledging that we are not in control of our lives.  We and those we care about could die or get sick or hurt at any time.  This is why the present moment is precious, why life is precious.  This is why it is infinitely better to be awake now than asleep and on automatic pilot.

What wakes us up?  Problems wake us up.  We are fortunate in that we all have problems.  Without problems we would be lost in a bland complacency, a place of few changes.  Because of problems we get curious, curious about solutions to our problems.  Curiosity is the mother of awakening.  Even questions such as "Why is this happening to me?" lead to the beginning of a spiritual journey.  We learn by falling, by failing, by misunderstanding.  We learn by being persistent and flexible despite our mistakes.

So we all have problems, we all make mistakes and we're all in the same situation.  Life is precious.  Death comes for us all.  Actions have consequences (karma) and being dissatisfied with life as it is (samsara), is the first step towards spiritual growth.  In Tibetan Buddhism these are called "The Four Reminders" and we need these reminders because the sad fact is that we are continually forgetting.  We forget that our life is precious and fall into patterns of complaining and self pity.  We live in denial about death, saying to ourselves that perhaps it will come, but much, much later.  We skirt around taking responsibility for our actions which causes us a lot of personal suffering.  And finally we adapt ourselves to the sickness of the world, perpetuating wars and innumerable conflicts amongst ourselves, thus remaining spiritually stunted.

How many people are willing to stand up and say that all of humanity is family?  That we are all facing essentially the same situation?  Why do so many of us buy into the myth that some of us have it "easy" because of fame or fortune or good genes?  No one has it easy; we're all going to die.  So why are we killing or condemning each other every minute of every day?

Two things are certain -- life is about change and there will always be obstacles.  We will never live in a world where there is only pleasure and no pain.  Pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin.  So we must learn to cherish the pleasure and see pain and obstacles as stepping stones on our spiritual path.  We must learn to grow up.  This is difficult to do.  We are taught as children in stories that there are good guys and bad guys and that the good guys always win and go on to live happily ever after.  This good guy/bad guy, black and white thinking continues into adulthood with us as the "good" ones and others as the "bad" ones.  If we're honest with ourselves, we know that we all have our shadow sides.  If we can't admit to the fact that we've made a lot of mistakes along the way, we will never truly grow up.  To see these mistakes as lessons for growth is to bring obstacles to our spiritual path.  Mistakes precede successes.  We wouldn't even be able to identify success as success if we didn't make the mistakes in the first place.  Our language and our psyches are structured around yin and yang, opposites, because they complement and clarify each other.  The key is to change our attitudes about pain, to see it as a natural and necessary step in deepening our understanding of ourselves and our world.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Thanksgiving Lessons

The night before Thanksgiving I forgot to take my medications and instead began drinking coffee after a three hour nap so that I could continue cleaning and organizing the house in preparation for the guests that would be arriving the next day.  I stayed up all night getting tired and wired at the same time, but I did get the house in order.  Unfortunately, I was not in order as I again forgot to take my morning medications before going to get my brother early the next morning.  Neither my brother or I had the chance to take a nap before the guests arrived.  Compared to me, my brother was in good shape cooking the Thanksgiving meal.  People arrived at around 3:30 PM, three men, one middle aged and two younger men, one of whom I had never met before.

I sat down with them in the living room while my brother worked in the kitchen.  Very soon one of the young men started talking about war and religion.  I knew that at some point he had been in the military; I learned later that he also had an I.Q. of 160 and a tendency towards severe depression.  He was addressing the middle aged man who was also very bright.  Suddenly I shut down and felt very threatened, awkward and unable to speak.  Soon I found myself in the kitchen with my brother making excuses about how I had to go downstairs for a while.  I wound up staying downstairs the whole time the guests were in the house, all through their meal.  I was too embarrassed to go upstairs and take my medications because they happened to be in the living room right by the couch.  I tried to get some sleep, but was still too wired from all the caffeine I had been drinking.  My friend Richard stopped by and came downstairs to see how I was.  He sat in the darkened room with me and talked and joked and cut through the tension.  I was grateful.

Later, when everyone had left, my brother came downstairs.  I had been afraid that he was angry with me, but he wasn't, just concerned.  I asked how everything went and he said that actually everyone had a good time and a good meal complete with leftovers to take home.  I was relieved to hear this and so I went upstairs and finally had my Thanksgiving meal while talking to my brother.  Then I took my medications.  Later I got the sleep that I so dearly needed.  My brother was impressed with how clean and organized most of the house was and wound up staying over for four nights.  He also got a chance to use my computer which has a high speed internet connection as opposed to his much slower dial up connection.  This allowed him to explore online videos, especially on YouTube.  He had a good time and we ate turkey dinners for four days.  I brought him home on Monday afternoon.

The irony of all this is that because I stayed up drinking coffee and cleaning all night last week I got my house ordered and clean, something I have been wanting to do for many months.  That may seem like a small thing, but to me it is a big thing.  My habitual response is to not clean and watch my living space get more and more disorganized and dirty which in turn makes me quite depressed.  Now I have a fresh start, a chance to change my pattern and keep up with cleaning a little each week instead of once every six months.  I vacuumed a couple of days ago and plan to vacuum upstairs once a week from now on and the same for cleaning dishes once or twice a week and doing a laundry once a week too.  If I can step up to this new routine, I will be stepping closer to normalcy and away from my mental illness.  May it be so.

Yesterday I brought my electric guitar, amplifier and recording equipment upstairs and set up in a corner of the dining area.  I also have my acoustic guitar in the living room, but I've been playing so infrequently that I don't have callouses on my finger tips and it hurts to play it.  The electric guitar is much easier to play and so sounds better.  That's a relief because I play so poorly as is.  I had a couple of elementary lessons on the guitar when I was around eight years old, but that didn't last long.  I got an acoustic guitar when I was fifteen, but no lessons.  I used the guitar to make up a few very simple songs, but mostly I didn't play.  I played my boyfriends electric guitar in my late twenties and would use it to make up songs, but I never took the time to try and master the instrument.  I still haven't.  I have told myself that someday I will take lessons.  Right now I don't have the money.  I did get a Guitar For Dummies book a couple of years ago.  It comes with a CD and I think I'm going to study it.  It's not the same as having a teacher, but it is better than nothing.

As you can tell, I haven't been writing, not here or for my memoir.  I'm not giving up on it, just been taking a break, as is my way.  I've been able to see my creative pattern more clearly this year.  Generally it's two months of dedicated creative activity in one artistic field and then a shift to another after that for another couple of months.  If I had talent in just one area that would focus me I'm sure, but I've always been multi-talented and that tends to scatter my energies.  I do make progress, but very gradually.  So I've started working on two new songs and I'm thinking of painting a portrait of Pema Chodron, the one I meant to do months ago.  When I focus on writing, I miss the music and the painting and when I focus on them, I miss the writing.  I want to do everything at the same time and I can't.  Or I can sort of, but not with the level of skill that I yearn for.  I'm not really complaining, just slowly getting used to myself.  And actually I'm quite grateful that I am creative.  It may have saved my life.  It certainly has injected meaning into my spirit and made me a lot happier over time.  I think everyone should be creative, especially individuals who suffer from any form of mental illness.  It's been a key factor in my recovery.

I've decided that regardless of my creative pursuits that I want to continue to study the dharma and meditate.  While my brother was visiting, I didn't do my meditation routine and didn't read my dharma books, but now I've returned to it.  My goal is to be able to call myself a Buddhist by this time next year. That means putting my life and my artistic pursuits into a larger context.  It sounds almost artificial that I want to be of benefit to others, but I do.  I'm at the aspiration stage.  I pray to apply the dharma teachings to myself so that I can understand the lessons and reach out in whatever way to others.  Applying the dharma to myself means practicing patience, generosity.  It means including discipline into the way I live my life.  It means continuing the practice of self-honesty.  It means having the courage to sit with the pain and not run away from it.  There will be no sudden transformation for me.  I'm hoping for a gradual and more lasting change.