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.
I remember autumn upon autumn upon autumn that consisted in a dread of winter. Knowing my illnesses got worse as the days became as dark as they were quiet. Snow falling softly and coating the state in knee-deep sugar snow. It was these months (November-May) that I was the sickest. In one winter, at the height of my most ill, I was hospitalized three separate times, for a few weeks at a go. So it was, for this reason, I spent autumn, despite it’s what should have been, distracting beauty, dreading winter. Then spring would come and everything would melt. Snow turning to water and water to mud. Then summer, hot hot hot. Three months long in Maine. I often spent it lying naked in the river, my back pressed up against the rock bed in shallow water. The coolness of fresh water moving all around me. With my ears below the surface of the water, the world would grow muffled, but I craved the cotton ball silence. It seemed that even my voices dissipated in the water. Perhaps they were afraid of it, as most villains are.
June, July, and August are momentary. But this year, I am in recovery. Though it seems wrong to me. When you get diagnosed with something as life changing as Schizoaffective Disorder, you don’t expect to get better. In fact, very often, you’re told that you won’t. As another autumn begins. Another year passes when the only psych hospitalizations I have had to endure are in my nightmares. The weather grows cool and scattered amber and orange leaves are seen among the green. The apples on our apple trees are red now and the days to the first frost grow near. It feels wrong someone, to not dread winter. To function now. Guilt and shame frequent bedfellows. Depression growing smaller and smaller. “I get it now, you were always seductive. I see now how you made me feel misunderstood. An invisible number. A tiger behind a wall of glass. I have felt like this for too long. So now, when I am happy, I miss the amenity that depression brings. I miss the song, that sadness sings.”
I often wonder if it were the voices the caused the seizures. Too much noise like so many sticky bumblebees on the inside of my head. The seizures a reaction to the overwhelming. Much related to catatonia. And the pain, which still stays even to this day, a hallmark of the constant stress I felt. A mark of trauma left like a brand from hot metal forced onto my skin. And the paralysis? I still don’t understand it. I remember how it felt though, I’ll never forget. Waking up one morning to find my lower body weighed down by an invisible hand. My frame hot like boiling sap. It started with a cane and progressively I needed a wheelchair. My legs completely paralyzed, even part of my left hip no longer working. At my doctor’s visits, I’d have seizures, at school I had seizures, in the shower, with friends, by myself. And for half of that year, I dragged myself around (or had others do it). Rendered immobile by a sickness nobody understood. The hallucinations stayed too, just as they had for the two previous years. The delusions grew worse. The voices constant and aggravating.
I had an illness with no name. And to this nameless illness, I lost four good years of my life. Years I will never get back, lives I will never live, doors which, once open, were closed to me because of this.
And now, in recovery, I feel guilty to be getting better. I feel as if I don’t deserve to be happy and healthy. I feel lost of course. Confused. Distant. The pull of sickness like a dead weight in my gut. Voices, still within me, urging me back into their company. Reminding me that I am losing the sick part of myself which defined me for so so long.
I’m changing and it’s scary.