Ships at a distance

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“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

Sometimes I wonder why we wish so often for a different life, as if our own life is in some way leaves us unfulfilled.  Why do we seek greener pastures?  Why do we see our dreams departing for distant shores?  I’d like to offer a reasoning that has been resonating with me over the past few days.

I was a miserly child.  Every penny saved in a piggy bank painted with four leaf clovers hidden in a special place between two suitcases under my bed.  Every dollar folded carefully and placed in an envelope I kept in my dresser drawer.  I couldn’t bring myself to ask for anything in stores, thinking it all too expensive to be reasonable.  Other children asked for toys and candy and basically anything pleasurable they could lay their hands upon, my older brother included.  But not me.  When my mom quit her job, I recycled all of my school supplies and resisted her attempts to buy me new clothes and shoes for the coming year.  There were things I was saving for, for sure, I just didn’t tangibly know what they were.  If asked, I probably would have told you college or some other bogus answer.  The reality of the situation was that I thought money was more important than enjoying new things.  Over the years, my spendthrift attitude has diminished and I’ve become a frequent shopper.  I buy the things I want, within reason, and save very little of my money towards future goals.  It was slow at first; a candy bar here, a tee-shirt there.  But in high school I met my savings match: Drugs.  I won’t get into the details, but I needed painkillers like an infant needs their mother.  They were my respite from the start of the symptoms of my disorder, a problem I was afraid to bring to bear for fear that the whole world would reject me and I would be disowned by my parents.  Anyway, thousands of dollars in savings and tip money from waitressing and lunch allowances went down the hatch as I swallowed pill after pill.  A girl I was in school with was a hockey player and was more often on the bench with injuries than she was on the ice.  When she offered up her extra pills as a solution to my anxieties, I resisted at first.  But there they were.  I could almost hear them calling my name.  Thus, I started down that long and winding road of addiction.  The beginning of the end.

Why am I telling you this, you ask.  Because it drives home a point I’m trying to make.  The grass was always greener on the other side.  Either I spent so little that I found little joy in life, or I drowned myself in an expensive habit to take away the pain I felt.  I lived life at the extremes.  Did I ever find a way to meet in the middle and enjoy things responsibly?  No.  I still haven’t learned to watch my wallet and certainly have no desire to be as much as a tightwad as I was in my youth.  What I need now, what I’ve always needed in life, is balance.  The balance we all seek comes in many forms, not just a monetary budget.  Perhaps the best way to find a balance emotionally and mentally is to take a retreat from your life as it is and look at it from a different perspective.

Sometimes, when I look in the mirror in the morning, I see a fat disgusting woman who has let life get the best of her.  I don’t see my inner beauty staring back at me, or my incredible strength.  I just see a waste of life.  But there are other days when I feel like I look a bit nicer, my hair falls the right way, and I’ve got fewer dark marks on my cheeks.  I see a beautiful woman.  The challenge lies in taking from these two polar extremes and crafting a vision of myself that meets in the middle.  When you look in the mirror what do you see?  A charming, sharp, attractive man or woman with presence and a sense of purpose?  No, I know you probably don’t (for those of you who do, congratulations are in order…).  What if we eliminated the judgement altogether and were objective about ourselves?  Then, we might be satisfied with what we saw because we called it neither “good” or “bad”, but simply observed what we saw objectively.  Then our goals of living a moderate life would be achieved.  We might weigh more (or less) than others, be of clearer complexion, have a little bit of crow’s feet around the eye, but we can say in this moment, “I’m satisfied right now.”  We don’t have to look in the mirror or just at ourselves spiritually/mentally/emotionally and see a quest failed or a victory won.  We can just see ourselves for what we are and make observations without judgement.  That is a victory in and of itself.

Moderation, balance, harmony, or whatever you’d like to call it has worked for a lot of people.  I couldn’t name any of them you might know if I tried, but they’re out there all the same.  We must be patient with ourselves in order to live a balanced life.  The grass may look greener elsewhere and the cup might seem half empty, but there is a field of green and a cup on your side of the fence.  That’s all they are.  Take your mental health, for instance.  I’ve gotten rather down on myself about relapses in the past, about opportunities lost because I was too stubborn to change, and things I needed to do that didn’t happen, but I’ve found a way to put my emotional life together in a way that hasn’t yet translated to the rest of my life.  I’ve done it by telling myself that things happen and they are what they are.  When I hear a voice in my head, I observe the witty retort it sends my way, and I let it go out of my mind.  When I remember my accident almost eight years ago, I can find peace in knowing that I will never know what really happened that day and that any memories I have of the incident are irrelevant now.  That day is gone.  Yes, I will live with the consequences of that day for the rest of my life, but there’s nothing to do but adapt now.  I have to live my life in acceptance of what was, wasn’t and could’ve been: moderation in emotion.  I try to keep calm, but not completely sedate or unaware of my surroundings, primed for facing new challenges without living with a sense of constant urgency.  I have to be centered or grounded in this moment because this moment is all that I have right now.  My emotions are not extreme in one direction on the scale or the other.  I have achieved a balance that brings me a quiet satisfaction unlike any other.  Or at least I do on a day when I’ve got more focus and can pay attention to the way I’m thinking about things.  This takes practice, as I’m sure you would know.

So there are a lot of things I don’t know, and as my professor once said, a multitude of things I don’t know I don’t know, but there are some certainties in my life.  I have a loving husband and family that will support me regardless of my struggles.  My excitement about things needs to be balanced with my anger or resentment and I will seek a place where I’ve come to grips with both.  We all need a little calm sometimes.  Take this moment to see yourself objectively and without judgement.  Do you accept who you are right now?  If the answer is yes, then you’re on your way.  If it’s not, then like me, you have more work to do on yourself.  You’ll find the peace you need in life when you’re ready too.  Now all I need to learn is how to apply this to my wallet, right?

Thanks for listening.

Nature as my muse

There’s a chill in the air.  It snowed recently a lovely blanket of white across the landscape outside my window, the garages and sparse trees dotting the area in front of the wall that protects us from the sounds of the highway just behind the complex.  My husband and I live in a condo in a very quiet location removed from the hustle and bustle of the nearby shopping district and office buildings.  Sometimes it becomes eerily quiet here, thanks to the newly constructed sound barrier that has all but eliminated the road noise coming through our poorly insulated windows.  We are fairly quiet people to live next to.  We don’t scream too much, play the music too loud, stomp too much on the floor, or run the various appliances in our house past 9 pm.  I started to think today about how quiet my life has become.  There’s the lack of voices for the most part, but that’s not even what I’m talking about here.  It’s the calm of it all, the routine way my days pass by.  I’ve tried to embolden the brushstrokes on the canvas of my days, but I’m the first to admit my life is rather dull for the most part.  And it has been slowly sculpted to be just that.

I’ve been on medication for over eight years now to combat the symptoms of schizoaffective disorder.  Before that I was flighty and rash.  I was quick to anger and to fight, but I was also passionately artistic.  I wrote brilliantly, or so I was told at the time, and my drawings and paintings always were the most celebrated in my art classes.  I was an artist through and through.  I even considered going to school for fine arts, an indulgence my parents were quick to dismiss.  I have mellowed over the years, my muse stifled by the overwhelming quantity of psychotropic agents coursing through my veins.  There are occasional moments of brilliance, where I produce some creation worthy of merit, but they are few and far between.

I wonder on days like these, when the hours go by ever so slowly and torment me with their leisurely pace, “What if I could draw again?”  “What if I could really write like I used to?”  I ask myself what I would do it for, because practicality has begun to take hold at my roots.  I don’t act on a whim, because the consequences could be dire if I do – an impulse to yell at my husband because he’s displeased me for some reason, an urge to stomp around the house and smash things, the temptation to hurt someone or myself.  I can’t be responsive to primal urges, for although they are the impetus for many joyful pursuits, they are also potentially dangerous.  I know deep down I would never hurt a fly, but I always wonder what would happen if I truly let go and responded to my thoughts as they came to me.  The flood of thoughts running swiftly through my conscious mind, and those which hide their faces in my sub-conscious mind as well, have the power to control me should I allow them to.  So instead of letting go and truly feeling life as it comes, I must board up the shop in preparation for the perpetually-predicted storm yet to arrive.  The storm never comes, but my doors and windows are sealed shut nonetheless.  I yearn to break free of my bonds and let the my dreams and desires play catalyst to my actions.  The medication, however, makes my life manageable.  It makes me into someone who is capable of making something for themself.  It makes life simpler and more predictable.  It makes everything quiet.

It’s at these times that I wonder where all of the wonder in life went.  Am I missing the divine inspiration that would drive me to create?  Am I limiting the possibilities of my life by sedating away the not-so-comfortable parts of me?  I can’t be sure.  I can only hope that there will be glimmers from time to time.  In writing this blog, I have found that the act of writing sometimes can expose the artistic soul within me and the joy and genuine gratitude I have for each day that I live to enjoy.  I can feel that spirit stirring within my bones, eager to burst forth and be known to me.  I have felt the softness of warm summer winds on my face and smiled.  I have held a purring cat and found contentment in its comfort.  I have inhaled cold dry air and felt the moisture drawn from my throat by winter’s icy grasp. I have felt the pounding of my heart in trepidation from an unexpected night noise.  These things I have seen and known, these small snippets provide the color on my canvas.  I simply must learn to derive inspiration in new ways.  I can no longer depend solely on the impulses that drove me to create in the past; I must now find inspiration on the outside.  There is much to be had, I am sure, and I will have to start looking externally for that inspiration.  Let nature be my muse and the world guide my fingers on this keyboard and my hands and heart when I touch pencil to paper with the intent to create.  Hopefully, those creations will be worthy of some appreciation.  If I deem them so, I will, by all means share them with you here.

Thanks for listening.

Sunlight

It’s beautiful outside, sun shining down, melting snow and hardly a cloud in the sky.  It’s too bad because I can’t seem to enjoy it for more than a couple minutes before some other part of me takes over that’s angry at the little bunnies and squirrels and birdies that are fully taking advantage of the day’s warmth.  I’ve been angry at the world because there is anger going on inside my head. I’ve pictured some sort of apparatus in there. I keep thinking that the ball will run its course down the corkscrew, light a match by flipping a switch, and cause enough steam to fill the balloon that the needle pops it.  The balloon pops and I am thrown back on track.  Back to optimism.  Back to happiness.  Back to energetically challenging life.  But I read a quote a few minutes ago in a blog post entitled Random Thoughts On Living Authentically In Artificial Times that set something afire within me…

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The person who posted this quote on their blog is decidedly a free spirit in the most traditional terms.  She’s a sexual, passionate, complex, lovely person who has an artistic bent and rejects convention whenever possible.  Lately, I am none of these things.  My muse is gone and she left broken glass from the window she shattered upon her escape at my feet.  These shards are the carpet of my daily walk.  Much like those who have suffered a “living death” before me, I didn’t even realize that my soul had become torn and tattered in the process. I’ve closed my heart off from the world, from the people I love and the places that stir something in me.  I’ve walked blindly on, blood-stained and splintered, until I feel like I can’t take another step.  To think, I’ve almost let them win.  But the ball did spin on down, strike the match and blow up a big old balloon inside my head that woke me up.  “No more walls,” she says.

I’m coming alive as I write this, I can feel the spring going back into my step.  I can feel the fog lifting, the anger settling, the electricity of my being, the sparking synapses.  I am transforming into something marvelous in my mind and that transformation won’t be stopped.  A spirit drifted through the doorway and sat down beside me at the table.  I’ve gathered the folds of her gown, felt their cool softness upon my cheek and smelled her scent in the air.  She is home.  I am awake. I am alive.

Onwards and upwards we go.

A respite. A time of recharging.

It’s been months since I was at it writing for this blog.  It’s been a tenuous time for me, with the end of my first semester of grad school and the holidays and all.  I’ve always had trouble with the end of semester rush of papers, exams, and homework all to be completed quickly and successfully.  The pressure is enough to make a normal person’s head spin, but for me it’s a nightmare come to life.  I really struggled this time.

Sometimes you are met with an intellectual challenge that bars your progress.  Micro-electro-mechanical systems was just such a course for me.  Try as I might, I couldn’t make sense of the material.  It was like Greek to me, and I don’t speak Greek or pretend to understand it.  Physics came too many years ago for me to apply any of it here, and I was never good at electricity and magnetism.  Well, if you could pack more things into one topic that were completely not germane to my work, I would congratulate you on achieving the impossible.  There’s something about the courses here in my nanoscience program that completely stump me.  And with all of this intellectual hardship, my stress level skyrockets and my mood plummets.  We had been stepping down my medication gradually over the past few months, trying to get rid of some excess baggage that I didn’t need in my pillbox.  When all this trouble started to rear its ugly head, my resolve to be strong and solid of mind wavered and I started heading down the narrow tunnel of depression.  I’ve heard people say that depression “hurts”.  It hurt, alright.  I laid in bed just wasting the hours away, my mind lost on some other continent where I lay chained and shackled to a splintered plank, sharks snapping jagged teeth just out of reach of my body.  The pain, the agony of the whole thing kept me in bed often till noon or later, when I would pry myself from the comfort of blankets and pillows and try to apply myself to the academic laundry list before me.  I cried out in pain, alone in the house where no one would see or hear me, and tears flowed freely and regularly as I tried to tackle the homework I hadn’t yet finished, study the material I’d missed from classes I couldn’t bear to attend, and process the reality that I would soon be taking final exams in courses I was hopelessly behind in.  I felt miserable and fell into an unwavering quagmire, tortured by the mounting burden of schoolwork.  At the same time, even if my schoolwork wasn’t front and center in my mind, as I made small victories here and there in completing assignments or reviewing lectures, I still couldn’t turn my funk around.

I started to think of dying.  Not killing myself at first, just of being killed.  A drunk driver, a malfunctioning elevator, a murderous intruder; I welcomed their coming.  One might even say that I prayed for them to come.  Anything to eliminate my responsibility for my death.  A blameless death.  There would be some culprit who my family and friends could blame for my death and it would give them a target for their pain.  They would have someone to blame other than themselves.  But as the days wore on, I started to think that it would be best for me to just be done with it and end my life myself.  This is the moment when you know you are close to hitting rock bottom.  When the downward spiral may just be over and there would be no means of returning to the high ground.  I didn’t plan for it.  I just knew if there was some precipitating event, a drop to overflow the bucket, I would know what to do when the time came.  In all the other times when I’ve become frustrated enough to end my life, it was an impulse.  I just wouldn’t be able to manage the grief, and I would lay my hand down and fold.  Obviously, I was never successful.  I rarely regret the decision to terminate myself afterwards.  I’m just as depressed as I was beforehand and don’t really care.  I get out of the hospital after feigning a complete turn-around from sad to glad and I simmer quietly until the medication takes hold.  It doesn’t usually take long and I tend to be a fairly patient person once I’ve got my head on a little straighter.  Plus, the time in the hospital gives me perspective.  Life doesn’t need to be overwhelming, and if it is, I have friends, family, and doctors to turn to for support.  I always seem to forget this when I’m desperately down.

I called my psychiatrist.  That was probably the most proactive move I have made in my own health in the entire course of my treatment.  I was honest.  I told him I was hopelessly depressed, sleeping more than twelve hours a day, and feeling like death would be a welcome respite from my pain.  No, I didn’t have any plans of suicide specifically, just the thought that I’d gladly let death take me if given the opportunity.  No, the anxiety medication you gave me last time isn’t doing the job.  Yes, I realize that I will have to increase my anti-depressant dosage again.  Drug samples in hand, I returned to the car and  let out a good long sigh.  Why does everything have to be so hard for me?  Why can’t I tackle a challenge with strength and resolve and enjoy success without a month of torture beforehand?  It’s one of those questions that will never be answered, I just need to accept the reality that it isn’t how it works for me.  I will say that I will be less of a procrastinator this semester, make sure I’m studying all throughout rather than cramming at the end and that I will ask for help the minute I feel behind.  But that isn’t me.  That isn’t the majority of students I know.  I just need to be able to handle the final hump with a little more patience and grace, that’s all.  Ring in the new year with plans to be a better student and better scientist.

But today, a couple weeks past the semester’s end, I’m still down.  I’m sedated by the medication beyond my control and against my will.  I’ve had moments of productivity, where I cleaned the bulk of the main living spaces, the closets, and organized both the kitchen and china cabinets.  But I still feel the pull against my heart leading me towards the gloom.  I can’t seem to pull myself out of the hole quite yet.  So back to the doctor’s office I go today, with much the same complaint I had last time, minus some of the anxiety.  It will probably just be an attitude adjustment today, perhaps a tweak to the medication again but not likely.  I’m already taking the maximum dosage.  I will continue to cling to my family for reassurance and hope that the storm rolls over quickly and I can get back to my normal self.  Whatever that means.  The remarkable part of it all is that I’ve been depressed and struggling, but no psychosis to speak of at the moment.  Normally I’d be tormented by voices at this point, the reason for hiding under the covers for most of the day in the past.  But all there remains is a lingering paranoia.  Is that car following me?  Why is that person staring at me?  Are they staring at me?  The answer to these questions is always no, but I can’t help asking.  I don’t drive erratically or walk into a large crowd to hide from my tail, but I think about it nonetheless.  This is better than it usually is, and I’m glad of that fact at least.  Unfortunately the holidays are over and the cheer they bring to my heart is gone, save for the beacon of joy, my Christmas tree, that still stands in the living room.  If it were up to me, it would be up all year round.  However, my husband would likely tire of it and force me to send it back to the garage where it lives out most of its days.  At least right now, he is fine with it staying up for a bit longer.

I wish you all a very happy new year filled with health and prosperity.  Filled with good spirits, productivity, and progress.

Thanks for listening.

Finding myself for the first time.

Well, it’s been a few weeks on the new medication regimen and I’m finally getting back to writing.  So much has happened since my last post, and at the same time, so little has really changed.  There’s been a silence inside of my head for these past few weeks, a quiet that I’ve struggled with considerably.  I’m not going to spend this post talking about all the things that are different about walking around all day without little people talking to you.  Most people can probably imagine this would be a big transition.  Over eight years of non-stop hallucinations and then all of a sudden, nothing at all.  What I am going to talk about is what I’ve learned about myself.  There’s so little about my life that I really understand in an unbiased and objective way.  When everything you do is narrated by a bunch of snarky and nasty people, you stop forming opinions of your own about the things around you and, most importantly, the things you do.  This is the crux of probably the rest of my life, discovering what I truly think and feel without the influence of my belligerent snippy companions.  These are my observations this week:

I’m not always the nicest person, deep down.  Sometimes, when people say things to me that are illogical, I have a tendency to judge them harshly.  I’m not sure if it’s arrogance, but what I do know is that it makes me feel very much like I’ve become the people talking in my head.  And I don’t like that feeling.  I was always opposed to the judgmental nature of the voices, to the extent that I refused to entertain negative thoughts about what anyone did.  If they were critical, I was open and welcoming.  If they threatened to harm people, I was all the more kind and caring towards the real people in the equation.  But now I no longer live a life of contradiction.  My thoughts are my own.  I have to learn to get comfortable with them and manage them.  I have to open the doors, so to speak, to the diverse set of people I will encounter throughout my daily walk and accept them as they are.  That’s hard when you struggle to accept who you are at the same time.

I don’t love myself.  I always thought that it was the demeaning nature of the voices that left me completely dry of self-worth.  Now that things are quiet, I need to start building some of that back.  According to my therapist, my perfectionist nature has caused me to torture myself to a greater extent than most of her other clients.  Karen doesn’t ever lie to me in therapy, and I’ve been seeing her for nearly six years, so I’m inclined to believe her when she says something drastic like that.  I’m never satisfied with the work I’ve done; it could have been done better, more quickly, more efficiently, or with less waste.  I’m critical of my schedule, especially the moments when I’ve got nothing planned.  When there isn’t coursework or research to be done, I find my mind wandering and my focus waning.  I don’t like it at all.  I need to be on point all the time while at school or I feel like I’ve wasted the day.  And at the end of that day, when not everything went as planned, I’m cursing myself out over it.  I attack myself over little things, like dishes left dirty that my husband cleans up or having a messy desk in the grad office, and over bigger things, like the fact that I’m horribly overweight and that I’m probably a bad wife.  For each of these situations I see how I “could” have improved the outcome of certain choices I made, blind to the fact that there was indeed very little I could do differently.  Sending punch after punch in my own direction when I supposedly have so much to be proud of.

I can’t take compliments.  I was telling a woman from one of my classes about my illness and my life after having been given a diagnosis of schizophrenia over lunch when we were planning on working on some homework problems for our nanobiology course.  She was, as per usual, dumbstruck by the pervasive influence of hallucinations in my life and my ability to become a somewhat successful graduate student, the somewhat being added by me, and congratulated me on my achievements to date.  I am a modest person, in general, or so it seems to everyone who casually knows me.  The modesty, however, just reflects the lack of satisfaction I find in my own achievements.  No matter what the occasion to celebrate, I can never really be truly happy with what I’ve done.  I’m always trying to do it better than the next guy, to be smarter than everyone I know, to be the most successful scientist, hoping that someday the validation will come and I will feel truly accomplished.  The fact is that validation like that will never come.  I can’t be the best at everything.  All I can do is be as good as I can.  The more I try to sit with that idea, the more it baffles me.  Why must I beat myself up over spilled milk when there are cookies and a half glass of milk still sitting on the table?  Why can’t I just be proud of what I’ve done without “but” or “except” or “if only”?  Like the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie pop, this is something the world may never know.  But right now, I’ll be damned if I’m going to stop licking.  At its chocolatey core is the holy grail of self-awareness, the understanding I seek that will make all of my self-hatred and abuse dissolve away.  I’ve only just started to make my way there in these past few weeks, there will be plenty of time for more progress.  No reason to beat myself up, is it?

I need the people in my life more than I’d like to admit.  So much of my happiness lies in my interaction with other people.  I gave a reading at a wedding this past weekend of two dear friends of mine from my undergrad years at Carnegie Mellon.  Mers, who was the bride, and I have a long history together and I wanted nothing more than for her day to be perfect in every way, shape, and form.  And it truly was.  If there were massive mistakes made on someone’s part, you never would have known it.  It was very important to me to give a good reading during the ceremony and to be there to support her in any way possible.  My husband also attending the wedding with me and I’m sure he felt the same way about his role.  We went to the air and space museum on the way home from DC, where the wedding was held, so Peter could swoon over old jet engines and flying wings.  He thoroughly enjoyed the time we spent there, as did I.  While we drove home, I enjoyed what is the best feeling one can feel, the joy of knowing that I made people happy in some way. Both my husband’s and newlywed friends’ happiness served to magnify my own joy exponentially  I know now that I live for the betterment of those around me, both people I know and those whom I have never met.  If there is indeed any satisfaction to be had in my life, it will be because I have satisfied the needs of someone else, especially the people I love most deeply.

But for now, I’m just trying to live in the moment.  For an easy motivational pick-me-up, try this song.  Music does wonders for the soul.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fdo8uORFfRQ
Thanks for listening.