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.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Crossroads

I went out Wednesday to the dentist because one of my back teeth cracked in half and because I have infections on either side of my mouth.  I've had these infections off and on for several years.  For three years I wouldn't go to the dentist and deal with them.  That's very typical of people with mental illnesses, they don't get the help they need right away and put things off.  Sometimes such neglect leads to serious illness, even an early death.  So don't do as I have done.  This time, after my tooth cracked last Monday, I called the dentist without delay.  He gave me a prescription for antibiotics for 10 days and then I will return and he will remove my cracked tooth.  On the other side of my mouth, I need yet another root canal (I had one done last year along with other stuff), but he wants me to go to a specialist who is a 45 minute drive away.  I have to get my courage up to give the specialist a call and set up an appointment, though not until the weather gets a bit better.  The dentist said it was okay to wait a month and so I will.  For now, I have to chew on the left side of my mouth to avoid making the cracked tooth on my right side of my mouth any worse.  It's a bit awkward, but okay so far.  And I'm not in any pain, thank goodness.

Otherwise, I've been struggling with the usual:  moderate depression, bouts of anxiety, an increase of voices and isolation.  I'm not miserable, yet not quite content either.  I saw my psychiatrist last week and asked him if the voices will ever go away and he said no they wouldn't, unless some new drug gets created that eliminates them.  He said that he knows of several people as old as 90 who still hear voices, but who take their medication, get enough sleep, take care of themselves and are basically content.  He referred to them as "happy" psychotics.  I generally fall into this category, though as I said, sometimes I am not so content, but rather restless, down, anxious, etc...  Even so, there is enough good in my life that I don't get swallowed up by the negativity.  I also realize that we all struggle being alive, regardless of our level of mental health.

I can only afford to see my therapist every other week and this past week I saw her.  I told her that I was returning to working on my memoir, but that when I read through some older journals, my voices began to react against it and so I backed off and took a break from reading.  She warned me that I could return to acute psychosis despite the fact that I take the medications and go to therapy.  That woke me up a bit because I have somewhat taken for granted that I won't get really sick as long as I take care of myself, but taking care of myself also means not antagonizing the voices by doing things to create conflict within myself.  Still, I am stubborn; I feel the need to continue with the memoir, I just will go more slowly through the process.  Ironically the journals that upset me were not the ones from when I was deeply psychotic, but rather the ones from earlier on in my recovery when I was in school and caught inside a depression that almost made me drop out of school.  I kept returning to the theme of who the voices were and why they were here.  Some of that was interesting, but much of it was redundant.  I also blamed the voices for my unhappiness, which is something I no longer do.

It's a relief to not blame anyone or anything for my illness.  Part of why I don't is that I've come to see my illness as a part of a spiritual journey, thanks to Pema Chodron's view of Buddhism.  I know that most people who suffer from schizophrenia either see it as purely a biological illness, thus trying to distance themselves from their symptoms, or they are caught inside a resilient delusion of some sort that serves to explain the existence of the voices.  I believe that the illness has a biological basis, but I also believe that it is much more than that.  I believe that there are higher forces at work for all of us, but that those with schizophrenia are more conscious of the connection, for some reason unknown to me.  That is why in different cultures at different times in history those who we would now deem mentally ill were seen as shamans or healers with magical powers.  It's not an either/or equation.  It is not enough to say that we have a physical illness like diabetes that needs treatment, though this is true enough.  There is a rich psychological/spiritual element to the phenomenon of schizophrenia that I am not willing to ignore.  It's what gives meaning to my life.

But can I translate this perspective into a memoir?  I am at a crossroads.  I'm unable to narrow down my intent.  I have so much material to work with, years and years of journals and this past fall I began to seriously collect memories of my childhood and explore the facts of my parents, grandparents and great grandparents lives.  I know the process just takes time and that I must be patient.  And I know that when I get disturbed by some of what I find that I must back off for a few days or weeks and digest the new perspective.  But when I sat before my therapist and she said I might return to acute psychosis if I delved into my past, I almost believed her.  I'm convinced that part of the process of writing includes not only self questioning, but naturally, self doubt.  In order to be absolutely honest, I have to question my own assumptions, but I also have to rise above the doubts and press on, even if it takes me a decade to write one book.

Is it ambition or is it a desire to give succinct meaning to my experiences in life?  I think my desire to write a book is a desire to put a partial end to my isolation by opening my story up to other readers (if I'm fortunate enough to get published and read).  There are times when I have to count my blessings and not push it, but there are also times when it is healthy to give a little push here and there.  It is my psychiatrist and therapist's business to be cautious and many times I agree with them, but it is not a hard and fast rule.  There are no hard and fast rules in life because different situations and different people require different treatment.  The pain and beauty of life is trying to find that magical balance day to day.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Meditation: Letting Go Of Ambition

Krishnamurti, the Indian social critic and sage, says in the book Think On These Things that ambition breeds anxiety and "therefore ambition does not help to bring about a mind that is clear, simple, direct, and hence intelligent."  It is relatively recently that I've identified in myself the cyclical spurts of ambition.  I want to write a book and paint pictures and become a Buddhist.  I want to do something in order to be someone.  I don't see that in existing I already am someone.  In modern western culture we are asked at a young age, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"  I knew I wanted to be some sort of artist.  Here and there I have embraced that intention, but I never committed to it for the long haul.  And so I have judged myself as not living up to my potential.  This is a subtle form of aggression towards myself, one that I share with many other people who aspire to creative success.  Krishnamurti also has said, "Is not ambition an urge to avoid what is?....Why are we so frightened of our loneliness, of our emptiness?"  These questions bring me back to the Buddhist practice of sitting with my discomfort, of not running away into one of the many ambitious activities I lay out for myself each day.

I have been meditating, but I am a restless meditator.  The nature of meditation is to face and accept the eternal restlessness of our spirits, to keep coming back to the breath, to keep touching and letting go of thoughts.  I used to see meditation as relaxation, and when I practiced it in conjunction with yoga, it often was deeply relaxing.   Now I experience it as more than a relaxation technique.  When I sit on my meditation cushion I try to imagine myself as an eternal witness, a breathing Buddha statue.  At the same time I resist that stillness.  I scratch my nose; I look over at the clock; I shift my legs.  My natural tendency is to react when I feel any discomfort.  This tendency has a long history, as long as I've been alive, and so it is no wonder that I am a restless meditator.

The fundamental nature of mediation is discipline; it requires the ability to both concentrate and let go simultaneously.  That sounds like a contradiction, but anyone who has meditated knows that it is not.  You let go into concentration; the concentration in turn lets go of all those restless urges to interrupt concentration.  You have to make the decision to do that.  Without a commitment, you will be caught up again in thoughts and desires.

Ambition is all about thoughts and desires and thoughts and desires are all about how we see ourselves, about our egos.  Buddhists describe the ego as a fixed sense of self, an unchanging "I", but the very nature of life and self is change.  Ego is nothing but an illusion; there is really no fixed and solid self.  Who I am now is not who I was last year or who I was as a young adult, or youth, or child.  In some ways that saddens me, as in the loss of the resiliency and optimism of youth, and in other ways I am relieved, as in I am no longer caught in debilitating delusions and paranoia.  Moving on in life frees me and confines me.  I am free to choose my direction in life, but confined by all the choices I've made to get to this point, confined by my karma.  I can transform negative karma into positive karma through consistent effort, but I can't change past choices or how those choices affected those around me.  I can only work with the fluid process and personal awareness I call, for convenience sake, my "self".

I struggle with the illusion that I have a fixed self and that that fixed self has to get somewhere else and improve itself in the process.  This struggle, this restlessness is counter to the aim of meditation, which is to be here now, to accept self and circumstances exactly as they are.  When I settle into a good zone within the meditation process, I feel peace.  It is then that I experience my own personal dignity and worth.  It is then that I have nothing to prove to myself or anyone else.  No wonder Buddhist teachers continually stress the necessity of including meditation practice in one's life; the goal is to incorporate the practice into daily life activities that go beyond the traditional seated meditation.  Meditation then becomes not some temporary isolated activity, but a way of being.

It is my wish that my meditation practice will grow and deepen into just that.  If I can be mindful of my moments, I believe I can let go of the restless quality of my ambition to become something else and instead rest mostly content with just being.  The real reason why I love artistic creativity is that when I'm in it, it is meditation and so I will continue to write, to paint and to make up songs.  I would like to write a book, but I want to change my attitude about why I want to write a book.  I still hold on to the idea that if I create a book, it will validate my existence, that it will give my life the meaning it presently lacks, but this is a grave misconception.  My life has meaning; it is the process of being and creation that gives it meaning and not the end products.  I am more than what I create.  The reason for creating anything is not self validation, but to help and give pleasure, maybe understanding, to others and to deepen the sense of our interconnectedness.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Couple Of Quick Portraits




I painted these two portraits yesterday using acrylic paints.  The top painting was done on a 11" x 14" canvas and is based on a photograph someone in my family took of my mother's mother (nana) when she was quite old.  The other portrait was done on a 10" x 10" canvas and is based on a photograph I got for free online.

I approached these two paintings differently.  In the painting of my nana I began with a canvas that I had recently done a primitive self portrait on.  The portrait was done vertically and so I turned it on its side to create a horizontal picture and began to draw with ultramarine blue paint over the previous painting.  This was a bit tricky, trying to create new shapes over old shapes, but it also forced me to paint more boldly.  In the second painting, I began with a new canvas and I drew the details of this girl's face with a pencil.  I painted thinly, barely covering the canvas.  The brush marks are therefore less obvious than in the first painting, though there are thin spots in that one as well.  Though I enjoyed painting both of these portraits, I respond more to the way the first painting was painted.  Using the paint to draw over an already covered surface means I go for approximate shapes and overemphasize them in a dark color, so that I can paint into them with a lighter color.  I did that with the eyes particularly.  This is something I learned in a 5 day a week figure oil painting class from an exacting and talented artist named Mary Beth McKenzie.

I think these two painting have different head sets.  The first one done in a painterly style and the second done in a design style.  The reason I respond to the first style a bit more is that I am not a careful designer, which is why I also like to paint abstract painting that are not carefully designed but more spontaneous.  Actually there is some careful designing within the spontaneity, pauses that make up intuition, but mostly it is me in action.  

I was watching a program that was on PBS called Art21 which is a series of documentaries on artists and one artist who caught my attention was a young woman who grew up in Pakistan.  She paints miniatures in a very old style, very traditional, but with modern accents in the subject matter, carefully constructed and political.  She is a design type painter, extremely precise and patient, and I admire her because I haven't painted that way and probably can't because it takes so many years of practice.  And yet, I have put in enough time painting over the years to apply the lessons I've learned through trial and error and this is still exciting to me.  The learning process is magical.  I felt the same way when I used to developed film photography prints in the darkroom watching the image materialize in the developer.