“It’s all in your head.”

I’ve been fighting chronic health conditions for years.

Every day when I didn’t want to get up I knew I couldn’t give in. But it wasn’t always so easy for me. When the voices started I listened to them. When they told me to hide I hid. When they told me to stay in bed I pulled the pillow back over my head. When they told me that there was a higher power, unnamed though it was, that whispered when the wind blew, I prayed to the wind. When they told me I was a piece of shit I believed them. When they told me my medicine was poison I dumped them down the toilet. I ate when they said I could and didn’t eat when they wouldn’t let me. I counted the patterns in the colors of the cars that drove by me.

When they suggested I kill myself I gave it my best shot.

Now I’m glad I’m here, alive, breathing, thinking, writing and creating. I’m glad to see the sunrise and the wind doesn’t whisper like it used to.

I used to have visual hallucinations. More real than you in front of me. More real because that’s what my brain told me. So real that I felt their breath sometimes, felt their fingers on the back of my neck, saw their eyes move as they watched me. You can’t know what it’s like to hallucinate until you have.

My last visual hallucination was of an alien set upon reading my mind by sticking his fingers in my brain. That was three years ago. My brain’s last attempt at lying to my eyes. Though sometimes it still plays tricks and I see red cats out of the corner of my eye.

But the voices, they never stopped. They’ve been a constant part of my life for about five years now. It’s never quiet. There is never an instant of silence. It sounds like a beehive inside my head. Like a congested subway. Like a too full elevator. It sounds like panic and sadness and mania and anger. Some I can understand and some I can’t. Some sound like a radio in the other room. Some voices sound like voices sound. Some sound like dull hum of white noise. Some come from outside my head and make me turn around, scan the landscape or the crowd. There’s never a source, at least not one other than my own head.

Not to be confused with, “It’s all in your head.” One thing I’ve learned is to never let anyone get away with saying that. As if your brain isn’t part of your body. As if they don’t function as a whole. As if they don’t work together to create absolutely every experience you’ve ever had, every feeling you’ve never felt, every movement you’ve never made, any sound you’ve ever heard, every taste you ever tasted. You cannot have one without the other. The brain and body exist together, one thing that has one goal. When you are sad it’s the whole body that is sad, and when you cry it’s the whole body that cries. It’s the whole body that becomes tired. It’s the whole body which achieves happiness. It’s the whole body which becomes sick. You cannot have the oceans without the moon, or day without night, or spring without winter.

It’s with my entirety that I have Schizoaffective Disorder, it’s my entirety with which I fight. It’s my entirety with which I breathe. This how all things exist. With their entirety.

I’ve learned that my hallucinations are part of me. It’s who I am. Illness is a part of me. But life is a part of me too. Happiness is a part of me. And my body and my brain, they are me.

“It’s not all in my head.”

“It’s all of me.”

You cannot fight a war against yourself. Instead, you’ve got to learn to live with yourself. You’ve got to learn to be gentle with yourself. To let yourself breathe and sleep and wake and you’ve got to move and experience. But that’s all. If you can’t bare anything else today, just exist. Exist from where you are. Life can’t ask anything more from you.

Just exist and tomorrow try and exist a little bit more.

Advertisements

This Time of Year

Trees burst with yellow, so dust to dust.

Maine sighs the last taste of summer from its mouth.

We bundle ourselves fast beneath our jackets and steel ourselves against the growing hum of winter weather. Rain threatens ice. We breathe fog into the cold air.

I am at peace during this time of year. Loose fitting sweaters hang placid from my frame, I can tuck a scarf beneath my chin. A hat pressed against my head. I am at home underneath big red maple trees. I like the stories New England hauntings read aloud from dog-eared books with broken bindings. I like sweet apple cider. Round pumpkins with funny grins appear on old porches. Chimneys exhale, their ragged and tired throats expel pale grey smoke. Boots clatter and children fetch their costumes, laughing into a dark night sky.

I think my voices like it too.

Whispering in awe at the beauty, they too steel themselves in anticipation, covering my brain in a soft blanket. Soon it will be winter.

Winter means depression. Or worsening depression anyway.

But right now it’s autumn and there are pumpkin pies and ghost stories to be had. A cozy night clasps in her hand’s hot chamomile tea.

She says, “drink up.” And I do. I sleep best this time of year. Buried beneath a mound of comforters the cool air slows my too fast heart.

“slow down,” says the cool autumn air, “slow down. Don’t miss this beauty.”

Standing at the base of an old maple tree, arms wrapped around her trunk my fingers cannot reach. A great, wide, trunk juts off into the sky. It’s lived three or four times the length of my own life. Each autumn she dies and in the spring she is reborn.

“look,” she mutters, her big branches shudder in the cold, “at my resiliency,” her leaves fall and pile at my feet, “I can show you how to be this way.”

Autumn is, after all, a practice in the acceptance of our own shortcomings.

“we all need time,” she whispers absently into the breeze, “to rest.”

22339220_1457089014409760_6384970120295994998_o
All the pumpkins smile. A black cat, who is not mine, yawns on my porch and stretches to life. A big tom cat, who knows it too. He lets out a silly noise from between his teeth. Cats rest when they need it, which is often enough. Taking cat naps in the apricot autumn sunshine.

“winter is for resting,” says the nighttime, her body stretched across the sky.

“and in the spring,” thinks the cat, “we will stretch to life again.”

The cool air captivates me. It winds me down until I slow.

“winter is alright,” I say.

The cat agrees, and then purrs lazily, “don’t fear time for recuperation.”

The trees shift, “we couldn’t go on so long without it,” they say, their voices not unlike the wind. Talking all at once.

Bittersweet and rose and wine. Cherries and chestnuts. The colors this time of year are without names. Wordless colors tossed across treetops and tree-middles and all the way across mountain ranges which will soon be powdered in light, quiet snow. And against the blue sky leaf peepers gaze, and birds fly south, and squirrels gather acorns, and the resident porcupine steals corn cobs from the aged corn fields. Cobwebs gather and the furnace kicks on. Each morning grows colder. Hot soups in hot steamy kitchens are stirred. Ghosts come out at night and stand around their ghostly fires that burn the color of nothingness.

Everything is still except a lone buck that stands at the edge of the woods, hooves stamping in the dirt. Antlers like strong arms grow stronger with each exercise. He grunts and twists his head to look into the forest. A great silence beats the within it. Suddenly turns and runs against the winter wind. Dark eyes like two black marbles inside his head.

The trees shudder and the pumpkins grin and the cat is lazy and warm and nighttime with her heavy arms comes earlier now. And against the dark a deer races. Heart pounding beneath his chest muscle. His bovine skeleton will come apart and vanish into the soil before the spring.

“rest,” says the cat, “you’re tired.”

The deer races.

The deer races.

Behind him, the forest turns pale and blushes at her naked body. Fall is her favorite season to be naked. Autumn reassures us that spring will come. After all, you cannot have life without death.

Appendectomy

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.

 

Midnight and Momentary

Fifteen-minute wellness checks are to guarantee you won’t hang yourself with your blanket. Everybody gets them, all night long. Nurses walk the halls, spectral energies trapped in tired bodies. Trained eyes lolling in trained skulls. Not predators but prey. Cats and canaries, if not queens then mercenaries. Nurses like hawks circling with rays of light. Every room, every fifteen minutes.

Even as I lay on the hard bed, eyes shut against the dark, the nurses came and went. My door opened from the hall and shut again. Light creeping up my torso and then sliding away like a yellow-bellied snake. There and gone. I’m not a deep sleeper so light the woke me as I rolled between fifteen-minute intervals of sleep. As my door opened again it brought with it a cloud of cold air that met the warm air of my bedroom like oil meeting water. I pulled my blanket over my face and rolled onto my other side, away from the door. I hated the nurses and the medication (which I would often spit into the sink). I hated the monotony of the psychiatric hospital.  The same things day in and out, only clothed in different names. CBT group and DBT group. Art therapy. Individual counseling and casework. Medication and meals. Sleep, and hygiene. As you can imagine the days fell together like a house built on a bad frame. The nights one long night.

I shut my eyes and rolled onto my other side, peering out into the dusty, bone dry parking lot. A cold wind blew white heaps of snow around what cars remained parked there. With daylight, more cars would come. More doctors and dayshift nurses. People would arrive and leave like the ocean ebbing between low and high tide. Not me though. I wasn’t going anywhere. College would roll on without me and life would continue outside the hospital.

Wellness checks where growing more tedious. Tomorrow heralded more treatment and a medication change. I sighed and threw the crook of my elbow over my eyes. I didn’t want to be here another couple weeks. I bit my lips, drawing blood. Then, as I felt sleep creeping up on me the door opened again and a face peered in on me. She’s still alive in there. The voices started. She’s still alive. Alive. Alive. But she doesn’t want to be. She wants to die. We want her to die. We want her to suffer. She’s lying in bed, she’s always lying there. No good piece of shit. She wanted help and look where that got her. Those voices went on forever it seemed like. Background noise sometimes. Screaming sometimes. Other times they were quiet whispers rising like bread dough at the back of my head. Telling me which way to look and when to do it. Telling me to kill myself, that I was worthless, that the people were watching, that the radio could read my mind. That last one was a big issue for me for a long time. I hated the radio, especially when it was speaking to me. Its radio voice nagging and loud.

The light from the hall lingered a while longer before the door was half closed. I yelled for the nurse to leave me alone. As she left I heard a chattering bird dialogue of two nurses in the hall, one male and one female. A midnight and momentary admittance was arriving. The nurses were not to remove his restraints. I thought back to my own admittance. Cowering apathetically beneath a tan Egyptian cotton throw. Arms restrained to the stretcher I was brought in on. My legs, unrestrained, were brought inward against my chest.

The sleeping medication they’d given me had worn off hours ago. And with the nurses chatting outside my door I wouldn’t get much sleep. My frustration mounting I forced my eyes shut.

But then I felt my mouth run dry when I heard the male nurse whisper, “…he killed his parents…” a lingering pause, “said it was the devil’s work.” Frustration traded instantly for anxiety, “Found him covered in his parent’s blood.”

A female voice now, “If you ask me, all the people who come here are fucking psychos. They should all be committed.”

My fast pulse rattled dangerously like a broken machine and I felt a hot bunch of tears starting. I was the youngest crazy kid on the adult psychiatric ward after all. And according to many, I held the greatest potential for violence. Was I destined to fall victim to mental illness stigma? Could I show up one night covered in the blood of someone I loved? Would my psychosis and irrationality get the best of me? Was it was only a matter of time. Of course, I know now that those things are untrue. But at the time these thoughts accompanied by voices had my head full enough to explode.

In a silent rage, I brought the pillow above my head over my face and screamed into. Emptying my lungs and then my throat, leaving my respiratory tract scratched and raw. I had many more hospitalizations ahead of me. But I couldn’t have known that. I couldn’t have known all the sad music views I’d seen from my hospital windows, all the sad music scenes I’d see, all the sad music medicine I’d take before I found the one that worked…

As I went in for a second scream there was a commotion in the hall. The sound of a stretcher, a sound I’d never forget, rattling down the hall. Its thin wheels sounded like dry skeleton bones on clean hospital lelonium. My next fifteen-minute wellness check came just as the stretcher made it’s way past my door. And in the hall, I saw a man pass by. His hands, though tightly bound, were clean hands. Maine hands. His face empty, eyes empty. A lost look plastered on him like a missing person’s ad. And as the entire stretcher passed my door I didn’t see a single drop of blood.

These would be the days I’d be reminded of later. My life looking like floating wreckage on the sea of Schizoaffective Disorder. Hallucinations, even on medication, are still present. At night noises of people circling the house. Distant footfalls and jawing of male voices. They almost sound like animals. Almost like… predators circling prey. I lay in bed feeling like a carcass strewn across a field. Their voices a breath away, just beyond the curtains and wooden walls of my home. The crackling of leaves is all it takes to launch me into paranoia. I choke down my nighttime dose with a half glass of water, press my lips together and listen harder. Two footsteps now. A branch cracking leaves crumbling into pieces as they’re pressed into the ground. Then silence. Their voices start up. I narrow my eyes in concentration I but still can’t understand them. I ask myself just as TS Eliot asked himself in The Wasteland, “…what is that noise…what is that noise now? What is the wind doing?” The noises dissipate as they round the corner but I know they’ll be back. I could follow them ’round and ’round our house if I wanted. Hours wasted to hallucinations.

But I won’t.

I slip into bed and soon. Before I have time to register it, there is morning light pushing through the black curtains and onto my face. My kitten urges me awake with a paw on my nose. Her tabby cat eyes still languid too. She yawns a big yawn and shows her teeth. We both lay unmoving for a while longer as she settles down again. After some time I look over to my husband. He’s sleeping next to me, face turned up in sleep. I reach above our head and turn on our heated blanket for him. Then I climb out of bed, body sore.

I take my morning dose with hot tea. Clutching the mug with both hands I try and ward off the cold Maine winter morning. I feed my cats and pull open the shades so that they can watch the bird feeders on the porch. It’s mostly chickadees these days. Though the occasional blue jay, cardinal, and woodpecker can be seen. I pick away at something for breakfast. Then, with a deep breath, I tell myself that I can deal with my illness today. I push the voices around like sticky bread dough, kneading them into submission. Then scraping them off my hands. They would, until my afternoon dose, continue to rise into a fat dough. And then I’d knead them down again.

I sit at my computer and urge the words to come. Unfortunately, most days the page stays blank. My fingers poised for no audience. I sigh and close the screen with one hand. With the other I hoist my youngest cat to my chest, kissing her between her ears. She purrs, her fame whirring like a small engine sat in the chest of her body. Her little gray form tucked up under my chin does my anxiety some good.

We stare out the window for a while together. She watches birds and I disassociate. My body and brain attached like a tin can telephone. I hang onto reality like my nervous system hanging from my brain stem. Chickadees sing outside, puffing up their chests against the cold.  I’ve been building myself up too, against illness and insanity. Learning to cope instead of breaking down. I’m doing this because I have to, or else this thing is going to kill me. And I don’t want to die. Not anymore anyway.

 

 

A Snowstorm

Trees here,

in winter’s grasp,

expand white on white until the darkness comes.

Pine and maple,

decades in the space between.

Beyond the window, trees lie torpid.

Twisting.

Bare.

Dusklight on my alabaster skin,

and within the hour a storm moves in,

so coats the sod in impassivity.

 

Silence settles,

and bones won’t rattle here.

Despite trees as gaunt as skeletons.

Even as the wind moves between them,

there is secrecy.  

 

Voices at the forest’s edge,

anesthetize and draw me in,

writing love letters on the surface of my skin.

 

As I tear away,

as the nighttime comes,

both bodies naked and infalling in the dark,

a sense of silence overwhelms,

as if noise could consume us whole.

 

“This Pain IS Real”

IMG_20180215_182043_211

There Is an Ancient Thing Inside of Me.

There are eighteen lives between my two cats. Yet I feel that I’ve Iived more. When will reality and reincarnation disunite? For many lifetimes have been lived inside this body.

Nine lives apiece for each cat which naps placid in winter sun.

Yet I have lived one thousand more.

My bones, old skeletons, rattle when I walk like wind through frozen trees.

Count to five.

Breathe.

There is an ancient thing inside of me.

Ghostly.

Sheet thing.

Tombstone skin.

There is an ancient thing inside of me.

A tiger behind a wall of glass.

Power strongly veiled by fear.

I’ve mistaken sleep for death again.

A cold sun dips below cold hills.

A fistful of nighttime pills.

This ancient thing inside of me is of my own commitment.

And even as it whispers, “you are a but a vision, absent…”

I am stronger than you think.