Here is my latest essay on Psych Central. It has a content warning for death and dying.
abuse, bipolar, friendship, gratitude, hope, inspiration, mental health, mental illness, mentally ill, psychiatry, psychology, relationships, schizophrenia], symptoms, thankful, Thanksgiving, value, writing
I am grateful for my friends and the other people in my life. I think I am particularly grateful because I have schizophrenia. I have some internalized stigma (I’m working on it), and that causes me to feel overly grateful that people want to be a part of my life.
When I look at who I am as a person, and who the people in my life are, I realize they are lucky to have me in their lives, too. Just as all the people in my life have to overlook some of my symptoms, or deal with them, I have to overlook their quirks, habits, flaws and love them as they are. None of the people in my life are perfect. I have some friends who lean toward the negative. I have some friends who are terrible listeners. I have some friends with quirks and idiosyncrasies. I have some friends who have big egos, and I have friends on the opposite side who have self-esteem problems.
In other words, I have real people in my life, and I fit into that category, too. There are no more “things” to deal with regarding a relationship with me than there are with other people.
I think this is important for people who have a mental illness to realize. Those of us with a mental illness have so many things happen over the course of our lives that can shatter our self-esteem and leave us thankful for anyone who sticks around. The extreme case of this is staying in an abusive relationship, and the less extreme is bending over backward for people (lending them money, always doing what they want, picking up the tab for social events, helping them out in any way that presents itself, etc.).
Maybe, everyone with a mental illness should make a list of their positive qualities and then list their symptoms and see how much more they have to offer than the problems that arise from their symptoms.
I want to continue to feel blessed and lucky to have so many amazing people who are a part of my life, but I don’t want to feel that gratitude just because I have schizophrenia. I want to be grateful because friendship and love are always a reason for celebration, not because I am bruised, flawed, imperfect and lucky to have anyone (no matter whom they are) to be around me.
My hope for all people with a mental illness is that they will recognize and begin to celebrate those things that make them unique and wonderful people – those things about us that mental illness doesn’t touch, or enhances in some of us (like empathy, compassion, possibly creativity, etc.). I want us all to know we are valuable and cherished people in other’s lives just like they are of value to ours.
So, we aren’t perfect. No one is so that just makes us human, like all the people in our lives. We all have obstacles to overcome, and that can make us more alike than different. We can share our struggles and help each other along – we can make our relationships equal instead of lopsided. We can admit that we need each other. We can recognize against all odds that we are of value and people benefit from having us in their lives.
I have started a gratitude lists/journal many times so this article in the New York Times was a wake-up call to me that the typical forms of expressing gratitude are in fact self-centered.
The article title is, The Selfish Side of Gratitude, and it is worth a read to shake all of us up and out of some of our complacency and self-indulgence.
The article addresses the very popular notion of “an attitude of gratitude” and how proponents of positive thinking suggest that nourishing that attitude translates into increased happiness, better health, and overall wellbeing. The author points out that much of what we do to express gratitude does not require interactions with other people and is selfishness. An example of that selfishness is creating a gratitude journal and writing down things like being grateful for having a roof over your head and food on the table.
It is great to be thankful for having food on the table, but this type of gratitude doesn’t recognize all the people (the community) involved in putting food on our tables – farmers, laborers, truckers, and many others. The author suggests that instead of gratitude we should instead practice “solidarity” and try to get people a better working environment or conditions and higher wages – as a way of truly expressing gratitude that does much more than making a list.
I’m not going to throw out the idea of a gratitude journal or list. I like putting gratitude in the forefront of my thoughts every day, but the premise of the article is great to consider. I see how keeping a list does something to elevate my mood, but it doesn’t do anything for anyone else. A list may make me feel good, but it doesn’t make the world a better place.
As a writer, working alone in my living room most days of the week, it is important for me to do things for other people. It is important for me to get out of my thoughts and my world from time to time. Writing is a solitary experience and although I can write articles and essays that address inequality, marginalization, injustice, etc. it isn’t the same as talking to people, thanking them and finding out what it is that would make their life better.
And even if it turns out that there is little I can do to make someone’s life better, I can be kind to the people behind the counter at the grocery store. I can be kind to the baristas at the coffee shop. I can be kind to the mailperson, and the garbage collectors. I can wish them a good day, and maybe even ask them their name. I can keep my eyes and ears open for ways to make their lives better because their work makes my life better and being willing to act on that is true gratitude – a kind of thanksgiving- giving something to those who make our lives easier and more comfortable. It takes a community to create a working society, and every member’s contribution is valuable. Maybe keeping a list can be the beginning of not taking anyone for granted.
At fifty-years-old I have daily aches and pains. My lower back hurts, my shoulder hurts, and I have things happening with my body that I wouldn’t discuss in public. Getting older is tough on the body, but for me, there is something else that is happening – I am more comfortable with myself. I thought that the comfort that I am experiencing was universal for women over fifty. But it isn’t because many of the women my age are now scheduling Botox injections, touching up every picture they post to social media and spending money and time on treatments, tucks, creams, clothing, diets, gyms, etc.
I can understand the desire to be healthy and I can understand the desire to look good, but does looking good have to mean a youthful appearance?
I haven’t lived a very healthy life. I smoked for over twenty years. I have battled depression and schizophrenia. There was a time when I drank to excess. There was a time when I used drugs. All of these things have left their imprint on my face. I have dips, cracks and crevasses that tell a story of a turbulent adolescence and young adult life.
Okay, so I don’t look thirty anymore. I don’t even look forty. It is possible that I look older than I am, but I am happy. In fact, I have never been happier with myself, husband, creative work, my whole life.
I don’t want to be the kind of person that acts like mental illness isn’t tough. It is tough, and not every day is a happy, shiny, positive-feeling-type day.
But when I look at the facts and my face, I can’t help but feel gratitude and a sense of celebration. I have lived to be fifty-years-old. I have been fortunate enough to be alive for a half of a century. I have never been a victim of famine or war. I have enough money to pay my bills. My husband has a job. We both have had the opportunity to go to school. I can sit at my computer (I have a computer!) every day and write, and that is what I love to do.
On the good days, I can see past my illness and my aging body to the far off horizon. On the good days, the landscape is large, and I can see that so many people in the world have more struggles than me. There are people who don’t know where they will get their next meal. There are places where bombs and terrorism are everyday occurrences. There are people living without medical treatment, people living in fear, desperation, and in the cold.
I don’t want to deny people the struggles of a mental illness, but I don’t want to go to a pity party either. Yes, I have social anxiety. Yes, I have panic attacks. Yes, I often suffer from paranoia. Yes, I frequently am bed ridden by fatigue. Yes, I am no longer young. Yes, I look like a middle-aged woman.
All I can say is that I am thankful I am a middle-aged woman because the alternative means I didn’t make it, and the reality is that I did make it. I made it to fifty, and if you don’t think that is beautiful, then you don’t see the battles and demons I had to fight.
Fifty is cause for celebration, not Photoshop. I’m so much more than the folds, wrinkles and the beginning of a double chin.
My husband and I have been doing a lot of visiting this holiday season (and will continue to do so until after the New Year). I thought staying in other people’s homes, and completely disrupting my routine would cause me to experience more symptoms than usual, but actually I haven’t. In fact, the reverse is true.
I think the reason I have been doing so well is that all the people we have been visiting with have known me since I was young, and before the onset of schizophrenia. I think this says a lot about support networks, familiarity and expectations.
I think most studies show that the treatment outcomes are the best for those people who are a part of a community. This would certainly prove true over the past week for me. Being around people that have known me almost my whole life, reminiscing with those people about shared memories, listening to them tell stories about things they have done since the last time I saw them, and having them expect me to help with grocery shopping, meal preparation, dishes, etc. has helped me to put my illness on the back burner somewhere and only think about it when it is time for medication, or in private conversations about the book I wrote (which has to do with living with schizophrenia).
I think being outside of my own head and having to concentrate on other people (what they are saying, what they are doing, and what they need, want, etc.) is good for me. I wouldn’t say that just being busy and being with people would always do me good though. I think the ingredient of trust and familiarity that I have with these people makes this such a winning combination.
At home, I give in to my desire to isolate socially, and to the symptoms round a lack of motivation. During this holiday season, I can’t isolate socially because people are always around, and not only do I want to visit with them, I am expected to visit with them. And not only do I want to contribute and make people’s lives easier, I am expected to contribute.
Because I have some insight into my condition and into social situations (not all people with schizophrenia do, and I lack that insight when psychotic) I am able to understand the expectations that others have of me, and to respond to those expectations in order to avoid negative social consequences like people thinking I am lazy, rude, inconsiderate, etc.
Experiencing those social expectations in an environment where I am safe has turned out to be positive – it keeps me engaged and it keeps me contributing to the community.
It is impossible for me to be around the people I have visited all year long, because our lives have taken all of us to different cities and in different directions, but if I was going to give advice to someone recently diagnosed with schizophrenia, I would say, surround yourself with people you can trust and people who knew you before your illness set in – those people will have ways of bringing you outside of your mind (great for those of us with a mental illness), they will have stories that can make you remember who and how you were, they will expect things of you that may help you to function at a higher level.
It is possible that these benefits will only last a short period of time and if I were around the same people all year, I would isolate myself, spend most of the time in my own mind, and lose my motivation for helping to do daily chores. I don’t know. I do know I have a lot to be thankful for this holiday season.
I have been a part of something larger than me. I have been a part of the lives of so many. It may be short lived, but I feel an increased level of hope for my today and my tomorrows. Hope is the gift I have received this holiday season and it wasn’t on my list. If it isn’t on your list, I hope you are surprised by its arrival like I was. I hope hope visits you as well.
Thanksgiving is one week away. I don’t know how it happened, but the holidays are here, and the stress of the holidays is about to go into fifth gear. The goal of anyone with a mental illness should be to keep it in neutral and coast down the hill to the New Year without anxiety, depression, paranoia, psychosis, or any other symptom (all of which can be made worse by stress).
As we move into the most stressful, and for many people depressing, time of the year please take care of yourself. No matter which holidays you celebrate (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, The New Year), remember what the meaning behind these holidays are – gratefulness, hope, joy, peace, love, new beginnings, etc.) . Try to focus on the bigger picture and not on the little things.
There have been many years when I have bought the most beautiful holiday cards, and I didn’t address or send one of those cards. I had the best intentions, but I failed at completing the task.
There have been many years when I bought all the ingredients to make five to ten holiday cookies to give out to coworkers and friends, and by the next holiday, I ended up throwing all the ingredients away.
There have been many years when I thought I would buy all my friends a holiday gift, but it ended up being too expensive to get them anything that wasn’t going to end up in the trash.
For people with a mental illness, the holidays can seem overwhelming and filled with high hopes, and big failures. These failures can end up making us feel worse about ourselves. All of this coupled with the social events or gatherings with family and friends that are not pleasant for everyone. Not everyone has good family relationships, and for all of us, extra people and social interactions mean added stress.
My holiday wish list for you:
That you will know you are enough with or without gifts.
That you will remember that taking care of yourself is a loving act.
That you will find joy in the little things like candy canes, mocha, or eggnog.
That you will remind yourself of all the things you have to be thankful for.
That you will know that at least one other person is thankful for you.
That you will feel the magic of the season in someone’s smile, or small act of kindness.
That you will feel like sharing part of what you have with someone less fortunate.
That your heart will grow bigger with compassion, empathy, and love for you fellow human beings.
I wish you the best holiday season you have ever had and I pray that means you are symptom free so you can enjoy some of the best ideas that life has to offer – joy, peace, hope, love.
I will be here on A Journey with You if you need me.
Storms terrify me, and we had a big storm in Southern California yesterday. The wind was rattling all of our sliding glass windows (we live in an old condo, on the third floor, and the sliding glass doors are very loose and in need of weatherizing). The rain was coming down so hard it sounded like someone had turned on a very loud shower. The thunder would occasionally boom and rumble. I curled up in bed and in a pathetic attempt to drown out the sounds of the first winter storm, I turned on a fan.
As I was wrapped up in the covers of my bed, I thought about the people, over ten thousand of them, living on the streets, some within walking distance of where I was warm and dry. Many of the people without a roof over their head last night are mentally ill. I tried to imagine myself out on the street, in soaking wet clothes, shivering as thunder and lightning popped and crackled overhead. To be so cold, uncomfortable, and to have no option but to sit there shaking and alone is a reality for real live people in the city where I live.
On a night like last night it is impossible for me to imagine the depth of loneliness, and discomfort of the homeless. Do they feel as if the world has forgotten them? Do they feel as if they are still human, with dignity, and value? While so many of us sit in our houses, protected from the elements, playing on our computers or phones, eating a snack, watching television, reading a book or newspaper and casually wondering about the meaning of life or are we happy enough, some people are simply wondering where they can get a little less wet and be a little more shielded from the wind.
To try and imagine the thoughts of the people on the street breaks a part of me open. To try and imagine what it is really like to live such a hard life where even going to the bathroom is a struggle, and being thirsty means relying on the compassion of a shop owner to give you a cup so you can get some water, these thoughts give me pain.
I spend a good portion of every day reading about people’s experience with being mentally ill. And don’t get me wrong, being mentally ill can be like a road block, and battle at every turn, but being mentally ill and having the luxury to keep a blog, write articles about your symptoms, be in therapy, go to doctors, eat when you are hungry, turn up the heat when you are cold is a very different experience than being mentally ill and having nothing except what you can carry.
I hope that as I try to write about what it is like to have schizophrenia, and that while I am carving out a space for my voice on the Internet that I never forget that I have a responsibility to give voice to the truly voiceless – those living on the street and possibly being tortured by their symptoms.
We are moving into the season of Thanksgiving and the season of giving. If you can buy socks, or rain coats, or an umbrella for someone living without a home, that would be fantastic, but if you can’t afford to do that, you can use the power of your words to bring attention to those people who are so often overlooked and forgotten.
This blog post is for people living with schizophrenia whose names I may never know, but whose faces I see as I’m waiting for the bus. I’m writing for you today, because it is one of the few things I can give you to try and make people see that you are suffering and hopefully use their resources to help change it.
Welcome to the holiday season.
The New Year came and went and for the first time I didn’t make any resolutions. Now, with the year nearly half over, and with everyone well on the path to either accomplishing their resolutions, or throwing them out completely, I’m planning on making one resolution and taking the steps to make it stick. I am going to start a gratitude list.
The use of a gratitude list to elevate one’s psychological state (happiness or contentment) is well known, well documented, and is definitely not news. It is one of many things that are included on other people’s list of resolutions, but never on mine. I am happy. I am content. At least I thought so, until today while I was driving home with my husband after dinner with friends.
While we were enjoying the company of our friends, we each shared the big things that had happened in our lives since we’d last spoken to each other. One friend had been in an accident in a car he had purchased just four weeks earlier. Another friend wanted out of her current job and had been on two interviews. Another friend had just returned from a graduate school trip to Guatemala.
When it came time for me to say what we had been up to, I told our group of friends that we had, after a two and a half year battle with our homeowner’s association, finally tented our condo to treat the termites that had destroyed our bamboo floor.
I also said that while we were required to leave our home for three days to complete the fumigation, we had stayed in a hotel with bed bugs, and my husband, we discovered, was allergic to them and was all swollen and itchy.
Lastly, I told them that I’d found another lump in my breast similar to the one that I had found last year that I had to get tested, retested, and retested again in what was one of many health scares for my husband and I in the past few years.
On the drive home I said, “Why does it always have to be something? Why can’t things just go perfectly for a while?” I realized as soon as those words left my mouth, that I tend to focus on the negative things happening in our life and ignore the positive. I was stunned by my flash of insight into my personality, and the way I handle life’s problems.
As I said earlier, I would definitely describe myself as happy. I feel that I am more than content, and actually thankful for the life I have, but when difficult situations arise (and they arise frequently), it is the details of those difficult situations that I focus on. When I realized this was true of me, I immediately decided that I needed to change this habit and avoid a cycle of bitterness or self-pity.
The reality of life is that difficult things do come up all the time; my dad just had open heart surgery and my mother is battling cancer, but if I put the difficult things side by side with the wonderful or positive things the lists don’t even compare. The list of positive things is so long I can’t complete it. The list of difficult things is very short. To focus most of my attention on the things that are hard, and ignore the long list of amazing and positive things is detrimental to happiness, thankfulness, and my overall wellbeing.
I know I am coming to the benefits of a gratitude list very late, but I am grateful that I have finally arrived at the door of thanksgiving, and a thanksgiving that lasts all year not just one day with turkey and pumpkin pie.