“I’ve seen Schizophrenics do great things and then crash,” he said, a quiet voice in a quiet room. Quiet dust settled on a thin sunlit window sill. Hot tension settled, “Avoid anything that gives you any stress at all.”
I looked at the doctor but didn’t say a word, angry words trapped behind my teeth.
Great things aren’t done by avoiding hardship. I thought about the upcoming school year. It’s wasn’t going to be easy. But then, to defeat your diagnosis is a brave thing. It’s scary, and all along the way, people will like to tell that you can’t overcome what you have set out to do. Schizophrenics being gravely disabled aren’t only faced with challenges that any disabled person might face, but we are stigmatized too. Most recently I’ve been told I won’t be able to be aggressively intelligent, a skill I will apparently need to do well in college.
The first time I was ever told there was something wrong with me it was third grade. The smell strawberry scented markers filled the air. I held my marker clumsily in my hand. I don’t remember what I’m writing with it but I remember the wind blowing lazily through two purple curtains. The breeze is warm so it must still be September. The class pet, a white mouse, is sleeping in his cage. It’s close to the end of the day.
There is a fuzzy nagging at the back of the head. Like a string being tugged on. Then there is a voice. A voice which only I can hear. Creeping up my body like a ghost and leaving thoughts in my brain.
There was a great stillness in my throat.
I couldn’t draw a straight line. I couldn’t adhere to the margins of a page, all my writing coming out crooked. Mixed with my poor handwriting it became a problem for the teachers.
An Occupational Therapist came twice a week and tried and help. Holding my hands still and making me solve mazes. She thought that maybe there was a disconnect between my brain and my hands. She always wore skirts with animals on them. Blue skirts with dolphins and pink ones with pigs. By the time I stopped speaking the school didn’t know what to do with me so they decided to hold me back. I guess I was awkward socially. I don’t remember a whole lot of that year, just that the voices started.
By the sixth grade, I believed I had magical powers that my friends didn’t. Most of my school day was spent staring at the classroom door and wondering what might come through it. Monsters, aliens, a demon sly on two black wings. Math was an issue for me, the voices reciting lists of numbers as I tried to work through problems. I saw a six and all I could hear were lists of twelves. A thirteen and I could only hear sevens and eighteens. I never had a problem with the written language though, the voices inciting phrases and words for me. Helping my sentences to flow.
The third time I learned there was something wrong with me I was looking over the shoulder of a police officer. I was watching a grainy tape of myself, interacting with nothing. My blue Rite Aid work uniform black and white. Surrounded by shampoo bottles. Not a person in sight, though apparently, I thought so. I was in high school and although I had started speaking years ago, so had the visual hallucinations.
The fourth time I ever learned that something was wrong with me. I burst into tears in the middle of math class. Unable to breathe. A pale darkness surrounded me and outside the classroom window, I saw the same man I had seen at Rite Aid. Suddenly I was being escorted down to the Social Worker’s office. Then an ambulance with giant lights and loud sounds. Then a hospital. But this hospital was a different kind. It had doors that locked you in. In this hospital, they take the shoelaces from your shoes. All of your belongings are tied up in plastic bags. There is an old pay phone on the wall. Grimy from years of use. There are empty rooms. And there are crowded rooms where all the patients huddled around windows that looked out onto empty parking lots. Nurses come by and give you medications. Food gets brought up to you. There is a security guard with a taser. And a nurses station behind a wall of glass.
It wasn’t a healing environment.
I stayed there for three weeks.
That fall I went to college. I’d been living on my own since my first hospitalization. After six more hospitalizations, a bad psychiatrist, and a dozen or so medications I had grown accustomed to how many things were wrong with me.
“You’re sick, you need to be here right now.”
“Take this med or we’ll make you take it.”
“There won’t be any beds for a week, but you’re too sick to go home.”
“Don’t tell anyone about your diagnosis.”
“You’re not safe to be on campus.”
“You’re a liability in the classroom.”
“You’re diagnosis is a death sentence.”
Dust settled on my textbooks, heavy doses of anti-psychotics dulled my mind. Turning it to a beehive, amess with chatter but sticky with honey. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t move. So I dropped out of college. And became the image of the person my doctor claimed I would become.
For three years I let myself heal. Body and mind. I found a dose of a medication that worked for me. Finding that medicine was the catalyst that calmed the storm. A riled sea slowed inside of me. I could now pick up the debris which littered my brain.
I turned back to writing for the first time in years. I used writing to create a reflection of myself that I could understand. Coming to terms with being sick. Even though Schizoaffective Disorder is life-long, it’s still a life worth living. I learned that I could use my voices as a gift, letting them express themselves through words. After a few publications, I realized that it works. I started a blog to allow my voices to stretch their legs. They’re part of me, I can’t keep them cooped up forever.
As my brain slowly clears, I’ve made the big decision to return to school. To pursue something which I’ve was told I’d never reach. I’m braver now than I’ve ever been. Any life is a life worth living, and any knowledge is knowledge worth learning. I learned in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy that to function properly one has to balance rational mind with emotional mind. Doing this creates a calm that exists between the two: wise mind. A place we can all find peace. School teaches me the same thing. I’ve learned to balance my school work with my illness. The best example of emotional mind and rational mind that I encounter on a daily basis. Academia and Schizophrenia, place in which I find peace.
When I had my appendicitis recently I was left with very little memory of the day in the hospital. Each moment is like a puzzle piece and all the pieces are out of place. Punctuated by seconds of pain and long half-hours of my body cushioned by narcotics. I am reminded of the cohort of old men that gather every Saturday and Sunday at the restaurant where I work. Discussing how they are getting sicker and sicker. How the long light at the end of their tunnel will be THE LIGHT that comes after the darkness of death. I am reminded of my own chronic illnesses. I am thankful that the pain in my stomach was only my appendix. And not cancer or a baby I didn’t know about or my liver or kidneys. Only my little and useless appendix which had no function and could be removed the same day.
The doctor said, “we need to put a tube down your throat to breathe for you, we have to inflate your stomach and it’s hard on your lungs, you’ll be asleep for all it.” The pang of anxiety grew like a storm in my stomach but couldn’t replace the pain.
And then a nurse came and gave me some fentanyl. I knew some things about this drug (medicine) but only what I heard on the news. I am reminded that I’ve never been addicted to a drug like that and I am grateful. But I am also terrified.
Then I had the surgery. I woke up so cold I am reminded of winter. Dark and frozen and long. I recall the longest nights. The dead of winter. Water freezing when it meets the air. And now, six feet coming overnight, and the silence which comes on the heels of a Nor’Easter. It is the deepest silence you’ll ever hear. The greatest silence. The most powerful silence inflated over the whiteness of snow. Silence like a legend. The nurses covered me with five or six blankets. If it were more I don’t remember. The darkness and unfamiliarity of anesthesia wear on my body for at least the next week. I can’t imagine there is anything close to death. Aside from the night of my suicide attempt where I hallucinated my childhood cat. I’ve been told that perhaps she was an angel but I don’t believe in God.
In the minutes after surgery, I am basked in unrecognizable light fixtures. My brain grasps wildly for the last hour and a half. It’s made uncomfortable in the absence of time. Our thoughts are linear. I am reminded of our first night in our new house and how I got lost looking for the light switch along the wall. Hands sliding along the smooth wallpaper, confused and lost in a space which I was uncertain of. Uncertain of the door and the lights and how far the ceiling was from my fingertips when I threw my hands above my head. It felt like I was lost forever but I think I was half asleep. Dreaming is the only thing out of time that we can reconcile. The lights in the hospital where an unforgiving brightness. And laying in recovery my thoughts drift to a summer forest sewn up in green and bursting at its seams. Birds are loud and the harder you listen to the more birds you hear. I feel so far away from everything. Like I could lay down and die. Like I could decompose until my bones shown, wide and white against the summer sun.
Then there is soda in my mouth and the grogginess begins to subside. Sugar-water deliciously sweet against my tired tongue. Like lemonade on a hot day.
With my appendix removed I was sent home the same day. I was exhausted but the rocky pain in my stomach was gone. Only an ache was leftover from where the incisions were made. What had my infected appendix looked like? Like a clump of tissue? Like a worm? Like a tiny organ with a little definition? I know that the appendix is small. And that about one in five people will develop and appendicitis in their lifetime. Without treatment, I know that these infections are fatal.
Interestingly enough one in five people will develop mental illness in their lifetime. And while not everyone will need treatment, the more serious the illness the greater the need for treatment becomes. The earlier the detection the more successful the treatment.
I was lucky they caught my appendicitis early. It was caught before it exploded. This meant we could bypass open surgery. I received laparoscopic surgery and the so the recovery time was cut in half.
I was not so lucky with my Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder (Schizoaffective Disorder). My mental illness was not diagnosed for three years after its onset. I’ve been living with Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder for six years. Getting my symptoms under control after so long wasn’t an easy task. Being dismissed by doctors almost proved fatal for me. Years of grief led me on along a road of self-destruction. If I had received early intervention for my psychosis would it have been different? Would my first psychotic episode have been my only one? Would it have meant an acute episode and instead of full-blown, chronic, Schizophrenia?
It’s impossible to say. Myself, like too many other people, are lost to the system of psychiatric care. Allowed to fall to the wayside. Too many people will slip into drug abuse and homelessness. And on the brink of a fatal and final symptom. Death by suicide. One of the leading causes of mortality.
But we can continue to make changes surrounding the stigmatization of mental illness. We can change the way we talk about, treat, and support people with mental illnesses. We can change the statistics surrounding death by suicide. We can cultivate understanding about ourselves and others to encourage positive conversation surrounding mental illness.
Chronic illness, mental illness, an illness which endures is indescribable. It’s made up of pain which cannot be fully understood without actually experiencing it. People with illnesses and injuries, people like myself, aren’t placated into inaction. It’s not as if we don’t strive for the same things you do. It’s not as if we don’t want to excel. It’s that, to no fault of our own, one day we were thrust into a world inept to meet our challenges. This world wasn’t designed for us. The dreams we once had are dashed when we are told what we won’t ever be able to do again.
After my diagnosis of Schizophrenia, it was a death sentence. I’d never do anything worthwhile for the rest of my life. Called ‘profoundly disabled’. It was suggested that I live in a group home until I might end up in the hospital for a long-term stay. But almost four years later I’ve bought my own house and work part-time. I’m a student about to embark on a four-year program to a masters degree. I’m a published author and advocate for other people with psychotic disorders.
I’ve come so much further than any doctor would’ve dare predict. I am not afraid and in fact, I feel powerful. Like I have power over myself and a mind which doesn’t have my best interest at heart. Battles waged against ourselves are often the scariest. And certainly, they are the most difficult. But, when we face ourselves we experience a transformative journey. One which spurs us onward to wellness. That journey wasn’t easy for me and at times I lost myself. Those closest to me, those who were with me at my worst, know that at times I came close to losing the light. But I’m here now and ready to help those who find themselves on the edge like I once did. People with Schizophrenia are told there is no recovery. But I beg to differ. Hard work, harder work than you’ve ever done before, determination, and support dictates your own journey. Everybody’s recovery may look different in the end. But what’s most important is that you didn’t give up. Even when your symptoms were at their worst. And that you pushed yourself as hard as you possibly could.
The message here isn’t just, “don’t give up!” It’s, “recovery is possible, don’t lose hope.”
I’ve done two solid years of DBT, the acronym of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. And thanks to the groundbreaking work of Marsha M. Linehan, I’m here today. I can say, with utter truth, that DBT played a huge and integral part in my recovery, and has really shaped me into the person I am today. DBT took me from a place of impulsivity to one frequent peace with myself and my emotions. It wasn’t until after DBT that I began to apply a great deal of importance to inner peace. I want to share these things with people who may also benefit from them. With that said this is Lessons from DBT: Wise Mind and Mindfulness.
Wise Mind is this beautiful intersection between Rational Mind and Emotional Mind. These two mind states can wreak havoc on your life in you exist too extremely in on or the other. For example, finding yourself only existing in Rational Mind, you might be cold, withdrawn, and lacking empathy. You could be slow to act and struggle to make decisions. While existing only in Emotional Mind you could find yourself acting emotionally impulsive. Jumping to conclusions and letting your emotions dictate your actions. You can see how an unbalanced life could quickly spiral out of control.
This is where Wise Mind comes in. Offering a way to draw from both mind states while not relying on one or the other too fiercely. When I started DBT I was trapped in Emotional Mind nearly all of the time. Acting on one impulsion and then another. Following my psychotic delusions to their end. And, ultimately, putting myself in danger.
I think Marsha Linehan put Wise Mind best when she says, “Wise Mind is like having a heart, everyone has one, whether they experience it or not.” I found, when learning about Wise Mind and becoming acquainted with it, it was best to start with breathing exercises. If you can imagine Wise Mind at the bottom of your stomach you can almost feel Wise Mind growing inside of you as you breathe. Sort of like the calm after the storm.
Try to recognize when your mind state is tipped in one direction or another. I great way to do this is practicing writing down what you are feeling when you are upset, feeling anxious, in crisis, or in my case, experiencing hallucinations. This way, once you have recognized your mind state Rational Mind or Emotional Mind, you will be able to take a step back and begin practicing breathing exercises. Imagining Wise Mind growing inside of your body and bringing with it a calm.
Try the 5-7-5 pattern (it’s a personal favorite). Which is inhaling on the 5, exhaling on the 7, and inhaling again on the 5. This exercise should be repeated for as long as you need it for and until you find yourself in a better place and you can think more clearly.