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.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Mentally Ill and Addicted

I've become friends with a couple of people online who are both alcoholic and suffer from schizophrenia, both of them happen to be men, but could just as easily be women.  The fact that they are men is of personal significance to me because until this past year all my online friends have been mostly straight women.  Because I've lived with an alcoholic and also have used marijuana during my relationship and afterwards, my perspective on addiction and drug use is less ignorant and less critical than perhaps some of my friends online.  I think most people who haven't been caught by the darker path of addiction don't have a clear view of the hell of being tied to an addictive substance (and I'm not referring to marijuana which I have found to be helpful and non addicting).  Some of my friends do, however, have a clear idea of what it's like to be tied to mental illness.  In some ways, I see psychotic mental illness as similarly addictive, whether one suffers from schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder or bi-polar disorder.  For schizophrenia sufferers, it is a thought addiction.  For schizoaffective sufferers, it is both a thought and mood addiction and for bi-polar sufferers it is mainly a mood addiction.  We, the afflicted, keep returning to particular and often ego oriented thoughts and moods; we get stuck there for a time until we right ourselves through medication, therapy, support groups and the individual application of some mental health program in our lives.  The way these things right us is through self-reflection, self-honesty and sharing our stories with others who have been through similar experiences.  This applies not just to mental illness but to addiction.

I have a strong respect for addicts, especially those who try to face and conquer their addictions.  I myself am a lesser addict because I still fall from time to time into cigarette addiction.  Of course, when addicts are actively using they are caught like a fly in a spider's web, stuck, struggling.  What frees them is sometimes hard circumstance (jail or hospital time) or some subtle yet powerful shift in perspective.  I have found with smoking cigarettes that I got so sick and tired of being chained to a smoke that eventually I took steps to free myself, but that happened after years and years of blindly using.  I did manage to make a break from my addiction, though I have had several temporary relapses.  Relapse is part of the addiction cycle.  If you're any kind of addict, I think you have to expect it.  The main thing is to love yourself enough to stop the cycle as soon as you're able.  Yes, I know there are those who quit and stay quit for decades and that's great for them, but for the rest of us there is a need for tolerance and compassion as we struggle up the stream.  The all or nothing attitude of many 12 step type people is not as helpful as they think it is.  What's key is having a stretch of sobriety and that's the hard part for many addicts because when you try to quit, you have to wish for it to be forever and that's a scary thought for anyone who is chemically dependent.  So initially you aim very high and work very hard.  That span of sobriety is such a relief when it comes; it shows that yes you can do it and your mind begins to clear and you begin to reflect on your life and get a better perspective.

I once met a man online 4 or 5 years ago who suffered from drug resistant schizophrenia and who was a recovering addict.  He called himself "good soldier" because that's what it's like when you're fighting the good fight, hanging out in the trenches, occasionally finding yourself in an open space with sunlight on your shoulders.  Mental illness is bad, but lay addiction on top of it and you really do have to be a kind of warrior: skilled, focused, tolerant and with a sense of humor.  And there are a lot of these warriors out there on the streets each day.  It's easy to call someone a drunk or a junky and sort of dismiss them as hopeless, but that's a viciously bad attitude, because the truth is the drunks and junkies who achieve sobriety (without stinking thinking) are like little heroes and heroines.  They've got both heart, intelligence and courage and I think they need to hear that more from folks who are blessed enough not to be chemically addicted.  I certainly count my blessings.  I know if I were ensnared by alcohol, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, etc... that I would be right down there in the pit with the best of them.  And I can also empathize because I have been in the pit of acute mental illness.  I've been to the other side;  I've been to hell, but hell is not all there is, though when you're in it, it feels like it.  I just think it's very important for those of us with mental illness to be respectful and protective of those of us with an even harder burden to bear, that of mental illness and physical addiction.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Going With The Flow: My Journals

Today I finished reading a book called Leaving A Trace:  On Keeping A Journal by Alexandra Johnson.  I bought the book for my Kindle because the reviews were good and because from what I read the author writes about taking journals and turning them into a memoir or fiction.  That's what sold me on it because lately I've been brainstorming about creating a book from my journals.  I have journals spanning the last 20 years all in a muddle in a large storage container near my diningroom table.  And so I am not at all organized, but I hope to begin to be, starting this month.  My original idea was to take excerpts from my journals and maybe write present day responses to them, first dividing the excerpts into themes such as Family, Schizophrenia related, Creativity, Life with an abusive alcoholic and so on.  What I didn't and perhaps still don't want to do is to write the standard novelistic memoir.  I see memoirs made out of reconstructed memories and actual fabrications as not genuine.  They are fiction/fact, which doesn't mean there aren't great memoirs written in that style; I just can't see myself right now creating dialogue out of a vague general memory.  I might be resisting it because I don't have the skill or talent to construct a story out of my life.  I don't know for sure because I haven't even attempted it.

I started writing in a journal in 8th grade when I was 13 years old.  It was what was to be my final year in a public junior high school.  The school housed perhaps two thousand students in grades 6th to 9th.  Much of the student population, if I recall rightly, was Hispanic and there were several gangs that subtly and not so subtly ruled the school, much to the chagrin of many teachers and students, including me and my friends.  We were in the rather vulnerable position of being in the top Advanced Enrichment (AE) classes which allowed us certain privileges such as being able to take our books home each night, go on overnight school trips to places like Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, work on yearbooks, participate in plays and generally be the favorites of the best teachers in the school.  We weren't particularly aware of these privileges at the time, we just accepted where we were, but here and there primarily tough girls from the local gangs would threaten several of the girls in our group.  The boys from our class escaped becoming targets mainly because they were avid basketball players.  Their love of sports created a bridge between them and the tougher boys, but the girls in our group had little in common with the violent, self protective, critical girls we would have contact with in gym classes and during lunch.  We also commuted about 17 blocks from another neighborhood.  The year before I had been popular with the boys and the girls in my class, but in 8th grade I stayed primarily close to my group of friends and we were all a bit distanced from the boys particularly because we were dealing with more stress than they were.

Anyway, it was in this atmosphere that I began writing in an ordinary notebook.  Rather foolishly I also began bringing the journal to school and writing in it there, letting only some of my friends read it, which led to some of my group imitating me and to conflict amongst us.  I would love to say that my journal was filled with insights and good descriptions, but from what I can recall I wrote pretty petty, complaining stuff.  I put down "the boys" and was critical of some of the "the girls" and was generally unhappy in school, though I was never chosen to be picked on by the tough girls.  I think this was because I looked particularly Hispanic even though I was 3/4 Irish American.  My first impulse to write was a way to take a stand, to voice those puerile opinions because they gave me the illusion of having some control over my life at a point where I felt rather helpless.  That helpless feeling only intensified as the year progressed.  We wound up as a group deciding to leave the school a year early.  There was a sort of random lottery for the better Brooklyn public high schools and I didn't get chosen.  Instead of going to my local neighborhood's lousy high school, my parents enrolled me in a private high school in Manhattan, much to my horror.  My sense of isolation grew as the school year came to a close and because of that I continued with my journal, bringing it to my new school the next fall.

As the years went by, journal writing became very important to me and I began reading other women writer's journals:  Virginia Woolf, Anne Frank, Ettie Hillesum, May Sarton, Alice Koller.  I bought book compilations with excerpts from famous people's journals and diaries.  I bought books on journaling and creative writing.  The number of my journals began to grow.  I kept them in one box, then two.  I wrote during the rest of high school, during college and after college.  From time to time I would re-read my journals and feel a sense of continuity in my life.  Then at age 27 I moved seven hours northwest of New York City to a small college town and promptly got involved with a young man who turned out to be mentally ill, alcoholic and abusive; that's when the continuity in my journals stopped.  My boyfriend read some of my journals without my permission when I was away on a trip.  Several months into our relationship his abusive behavior began.  I had never been treated with such callousness and condescension.  Feeling helpless once again, instead of taking it out on him, I took it out on myself:  one day after reading through some of my journals, I became so disgusted with myself that I carried the several boxes of my journals from age 13 to 27 and I went to the local dump and threw them all away in a fit of temporary self hatred, which I shall always regret.

I didn't stop writing.  I wrote in secret and hid my journals in the house, but that precious sense of trust and continuity was gone and I wrote awkwardly.  I was living in an intolerable situation partly of my own making and I had to have some place to release my frustration, fear and anger.  I had to have someplace where I could keep in touch with a personal self honesty that was beginning to erode under the pressure of the cycle of abuse.  I left my abusive partner repeatedly and stayed with my parents and each time I did my journal began to blossom with self-reflection, only to have me return to him yet again and begin the destructive living pattern over again.  Finally, I left him for good and returned again to journal writing as a way to strengthen my resolve to never go back into an abusive relationship with him.  In my journals of those several years after I left him, but before I became psychotic, there is a certain toughness to me, a certain numbness and emotional detachment that I'm not sure I like, but that I understand.  There were a few indications of the illness that was to come, primarily certain romantic fixations that I didn't pursue because I was still too raw.  And then one day, I became crazy.

And I continued writing, sporadically at times, but I kept in touch with myself and ironically with my illness.  For three and a half years I remained inside my primary delusions and my journals of the time are obsessively fixated on them.  Insight shines out from time to time, but for most of it I am still quite lost.  I wrote in junior high school because I was in conflict with my environment, somewhat isolated even amongst my friends.  In high school, though I made a couple of friends, I would often keep to myself and my journal kept me company.  Isolation has been a theme for why I continued to keep a journal, isolation while with others and isolation while on my own.  I was always aware of being a separate self, on the periphery of society and normalcy.  Journal writing has been a life line.  When I was young, before I threw out my boxes of journals, I imagined them eventually becoming published and now I've come full circle, though in my heart of hearts I believe that the journals I threw away were somehow better than the ones I've since written and kept.  That may not be true, may just be the wear and tear of having lived a difficult life and internalized negativity.

So here I am again, with the equivalent of several boxes worth of journals in no particular order asking to be reviewed and taken seriously, covering my life in abuse, out of abuse, into psychosis and then in an extended recovery from psychosis.  I think it's a story worth being told, but as is true with all of our life stories, it's not easy to go back to difficult times in life and renew them once again.  And it is not just a matter of review, but of organizing and editing and responding, all of which takes careful consideration and time.  Right now, I have the time and I pray that I will continue to have the time to complete this ambitious project.  I've had several other ideas of how to approach this.  One is to read my journals from the beginning and keep a new journal to follow my progress through them, taking excerpts here and there and commenting on my present day reaction to my past life.  Another idea is to just start a new journal and continue with it for a year, writing with the intention of showing it to an audience, touching on different aspects, most specifically of my life living with abuse and with mental illness.  In any case, I am starting now and will continue to brainstorm throughout the process.  If anyone of you has suggestions, I would love to hear them because, once again, I am working from a standpoint of isolation and am in need of help.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Taoism and The I Ching

Paradox -- n. 1) a statement that sounds absurd or seems to contradict itself, but may in fact be true.  2) a person or thing that combines contradictory qualities.  (The Pocket Oxford English Dictionary)

Definition of "I" in "I Ching":  "The name I has three meanings.  These are the easy, the changing, and the constant."  (Understanding The I Ching:  The Wilhelm Lectures On The Book Of Changes by Hellmut Wilhelm and Richard Wilhelm)

Verse One of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu:

Transcending


The Tao that can be told
is not the universal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the universal name.

In the infancy of the universe,
there were no names.
Naming fragments the mysteries of life
into ten thousand things
and their manifestations.

Yet mysteries and manifestations
spring from the same source:
the Great Integrity
which is the mystery within manifestation,
the manifestation within mystery,
the naming of the unnamed,
and the un-naming of the named.

When these interpretations
are in full attendance,
we will pass the gates of naming notions
in our journey toward transcendence.

(translated by Ralph Alan Dale)


In the past couple of weeks I've returned to consulting the I Ching after many months away from it and I've made a new online friend who is a student of Taoism (pronounced Daoism).  Recently he asked me for my perspective on Taoism and it is logical that he should ask considering my blog is named Yin And Yang and I have written about the I Ching and its philosophy before here, but frankly I was at a loss as to how to respond to him.  I see myself more as a Tibetan Buddhist than as a Taoist and yet I feel a deep connection to the Taoist and Confucianist aspects of the I Ching, most especially the Yin and Yang symbol itself.  To me the symbol is a perfect representation of the potential and the actual balance in all life.  It uses the essential dualism of light and darkness and surpasses it in an ingenious visual combination.  It is organic in design yet a symbol and thus somewhat artificial.  In a sense it is a paradox.

When my friend sent me a link to a Taoist scholar's interpretation of Taoism, the first thing that struck me, after years away from studying any Taoism, was the paradox of the language and explanation.  This led me back to the most major text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, which is why I cited the first verse of the book.  The word Tao means literally path or way, but in the words of the scholar and practitioner Ken Cohen, it means "the divine life that moves through all things...Tao is everywhere."  So regardless of whether you practice Taoism or not, all beings are intimately connected to the Tao.  In typical and wonderful Chinese fashion the word has multiple levels of meaning that are all interconnected.  To follow the Tao, is to stay on the path, a path of harmony and natural sense, to stray from the path is to lose that natural harmony with all things.  The word Te means power or virtue and I believe the symbol associated with it is of a farmer in his field.  In that sense it has to do with both strength of character, simplicity, usefulness and harmony with nature.  Finally the word Ching means book.  So the Tao Te Ching means essentially the path of virtue book.

The Tao that can be told
is not the universal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the universal name.

So here is the paradox:  if you can name it, conceptualize it, somehow pigeon hole it, then you've not truly understood what Tao is.  Universal means present everywhere, so if you see the Tao as one thing or at most several things, you are excluding so much of it.  It is "the divine life that moves through all things." It is similar in some ways to Moses asking the Judeo-Christian God's name and God replies, "I AM THAT I AM" and leaves it at that.

In the infancy of the universe,
there were no names.
Naming fragments the mysteries of life
into ten thousand things
and their manifestations.

In the beginning there were no names, no language at all.  Language is something that developed over time to make communication between human animals more efficient and direct.  It was also ironically a way to define and hold on to "the mysteries of life," but what it often does is to take some essential meaning out of what it chose to describe in this fashion, thus fragmenting it.  To say "I walked by a person" is to leave out the essence of that person.  To say "I sat beneath a tree" is to rob that tree of all its beautiful individualistic attributes.  It is to flatten and minimize life.  Yes, you get your point across in a bare bones way, but you do not get to "the mysteries of life".  Writers all over this world work damn hard to try to overcome that essential failing of language and a lot of times they don't get it, don't get the Tao of their subject matter.  The result is that instead of taking in the wonder of the full moon, people get hung up on the finger that is pointing to the moon and miss the point entirely.  And so language gives us "ten thousand things and their manifestations," but without the higher spirit that is contained within those things and manifestations.

Yet mysteries and manifestations
spring from the same source:
the Great Integrity
which is the mystery within manifestation,
the manifestation within mystery,
the naming of the unnamed,
and the un-naming of the named.

And yet language, too, is part of the mystery of life, part of the divine order, which is why despite its drawbacks it can be like magic.  This particular translator (and there are many) of Lao Tzu's verses, Ralph Alan Dale, writes of this verse:  "What is implied here is nothing less than the healing of the split between the two hemispheres of our brain which have become separated, alienated and at war with each other during the past few thousand years." (p. 9)  Left brain, logical and right brain, intuitive.  With the left brain we devised the system that is language, a manifestation of our human will and intelligence, but with the right brain we appreciate the subtleties of the sacred.  What came first in our human development?  Right brain, our animal brain, our lizard brain, our instinctual brain.  That's where the sacred lies, in the essence, in survival, in the immediacy of the present moment.  Very powerful stuff which is why in so-called primitive cultures animals become totems, spirit gods and goddesses.

Anyone who has been near wild animals knows the kind of respect that the experience engenders.  Especially potential predators: the bear, the panther, the elk, the alligator, particularly when they are with their young.  I've seen a bear outside my house twice and it nearly took my breath away.  It was a nervous kind of privilege to be so close to an animal that guards its privacy from humans most of the time.  The bear and I were both part of "the Great Integrity which is the mystery within the manifestation, the manifestation within the mystery, the naming of the unnamed, and the un-naming of the named."  My first impulse is to say "There's a bear!" but the next impulse is to really look at that particular bear and, from a safe distance preferably, really get to know that bear's essence.  The bear I saw defied the stereotype of some circus bear lumbering along.  This bear was quick, agile and acutely aware of my presence.  This bear was ALIVE, vital and mysterious all in one.  The name "bear" says nearly nothing of what the experience of being near the bear was like and yet the bear and the act of naming the bear are all part of the great whole.  

When these interpretations
are in full attendance,
we will pass the gates of naming notions
in our journey toward transcendence.

To be in "full attendance" is the goal of the Tao as far as I can see; it is to be fully awake, fully experiencing the present moment, which is why meditation is so important in so many spiritual practices. My Taoist friend, who is a very good meditator, has said that he can rest in the place and space of no-thought, watching, listening, feeling the "hustle and bustle" of the world go by him.  It is then that the dualism falls away and yet the paradox remains.  That very paradox, which can be so frustrating to understand on first glance, is the spice of life and well worth exploring, especially in this instant gratification world of ours.  

The I Ching generally is translated as The Book of Changes, but the I also means the easy and the constant.  Again, the paradox.  How can change also be constant, and yet we all know intuitively that it is, even as we resist the changes and go astray of the Tao, the path.  The practice is to go with the flow of nature, what in Chinese is referred to as Wu Wei.  This is what the I Ching tries to teach:  to stop when it is time to retreat or rest and to go when it is time to engage in life.  There is such harmony in that.  It is when we go when we should stop and stop when we should go that problems of the heart, mind and body occur.  This is what is meant by the easy, knowing with both sides of our brain when to act and when to not act.  This is the choice we're given and what a great privilege it is to learn it.

The I Ching combines both Taoism and Confucianism and both are concerned with ethical behavior.  The Taoist aspect, which is much older of the two, uses the symbolism found in nature.  The hexagrams, which are the six yin or yang (usually both) lines of the oracle are made up of trigrams, or three lines that are broken (yin) or solid (yang) and each of these trigrams represents eight combinations: Heaven, Earth, Thunder, Wind, Fire, Water, Lake, Mountain.  These trigrams also simultaneously represent the members of a family, mother, father, sons and daughters.  So there is both the organization of nature used to elaborate subtle truths as well as social organization within the family.  And there is more than that, but I'll leave those who are interested to figure the rest out themselves.  Just think, thousands of years (maybe five thousand or so) before the 0 and the 1 of computer language, there was the yin and the yang of this amazing Chinese oracle.  So rich in history and so flexible in meaning and so much a part of the Tao.  So this is "the journey of our transcendence" if we choose to follow it in one way or another.