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.”
Am I scared to return to school with Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder? I’d like to say no. I’d like to say I’m not terrified. For me, my first college experience was populated by hospitalizations. And steeped in constant instability. Which is why I left. I needed to get better and I wasn’t going to if I stayed in school. My expectations were set too high and with every failure, I sank lower. There was a period, close to the end of my time at my school, that I was missing weeks of classes at a time. It got so bad in fact that the school actually had a meeting, or intervention, to discuss my health. I was present and actually shaking under the scrutiny.
Understandably I had been rotting away in my dorm room. I had not been keeping clean, not attending class, and not feeding myself. Holding me hostage was an undiagnosed case of Bipolar and Schizoaffective Disorder. Along with a rare case of Conversion Disorder that left me unable to walk. So college ended for me in a hospitalization. Then a five-hour long evaluation. And finally the long-awaited diagnosis of one of the more serious mental illnesses: Schizoaffective Disorder. The unholy union of Bipolar One and Schizophrenia.
My doctor put me on a max dose of Seroquel, an antipsychotic. And a heavy dose of antidepressant. Followed by some other medications. I took the time to recover physically. And then with the help of my still partner, we got an apartment. I went for another try of school but in the end, we left the area and embarked on the hardest year of our lives. Myself recovering from Schizoaffective Disorder and him battling his own depressive disorder. Jobs were very hard to come by and we lived off seven-hundred and thirty-five dollars a month. Each of us had our own sleepless nights.
But in the end, we’ve come out on top. We’ve bought a house, a car, and he is approaching a career. So, I’ve decided to go back to school. In the wake of hardship, I’ve grown hardy. Understanding that I am able to fight in even the hardest of situations. A flower unwilling to wilt even in frost. So what am I doing to protect myself as I prepare myself my return in the fall?
First, I am taking the time to begin making lists now. Deciding what it is that I will need to manage my health conditions on campus. Things like medication organizers, and medical id bracelets. Apps which help me to manage multiple aspects of illness. Notebooks which aid in organization and note-taking to help with my cognitive symptoms. A good planner. And a backpack that won’t increase my chronic back pain.
Over the summer I plan on studying my schedule and learning it ahead of time. I will be notifying my professors and the school of my mental and physical health conditions. It’s better they know ahead of time even if it never makes a difference. After my experiences, and being aware of the stigma that surrounds Schizophrenia, I have decided to be open about it. That is the best policy (at least for me). Schizophrenia ISN’T the death sentence it was once believed to be.
With proper management and support, Schizophrenics can recover. We can return to functioning in our personal lives. And functioning in the community. Of course, Schizophrenia is a spectrum much like Autism is a spectrum. Even if Schizoaffective Disorder is on the more serious end of both the Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia spectrum. With energy and time, recovery is achievable. Even if Schizoaffective Disorder is life-long, it is still a life worth living.
Another important aspect of my return to school is that it’s a new school altogether. No reminders of my darkest journey with every step. No reminders of my suicide attempts by being on campus alone. I’ll never have to return to the emergency room that traumatized me. By starting on a new campus at a new school it’s a new beginning. And that’s important. It may be one of the single most important aspects for me.
So, by knowing what I need ahead of time. By preparing for classes with enough time. And by notifying my new school of my disabilities I am taking the stress out of a new experience. By being honest and open I am creating a positive relationship with this experience. I am encouraging the continuation of my recovery. I’m scared to return to school and to academic life. There is some doubt but in the shadow of hard work and treatment and support. I’m not afraid to say that I am disabled. I am not afraid to say that I am a Schizophrenic. And I am not afraid to say that I’m in recovery.
The only thing that I am afraid to say is that I gave up.
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.