The first day of school

As I attempt to type this post, my hands are jitterbugging around the keys uncontrollably and my patience is wearing thin.  Today was the first day of classes for the spring semester.  I couldn’t sleep a wink last night just mulling over the possible outcomes of today’s encounters with a whole new set of professors.  After a long night of tossing and turning, I finally resolved to just stay awake for the rest of the wee morning hours.  I said goodbye to my husband, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep and nervous as could be.  I laid in bed for a few more hours until the alarm went off and I needed to start in earnest getting ready for the day.  Hot shower.  Very hot shower.  Brush teeth, take meds, blow-dry hair, get dressed for the cold since it’s freezing here right now.  And then breakfast.  What to have, what to have, hmmm, meatloaf?  Leftovers, the breakfast of champions.  Now a clinch decision, do I or don’t I drink some coffee?  Today, the answer was yes, I think I will have a cup before I go.  Time ran short so I threw what was left in the mug into a thermos and ran, literally ran, out the door and let the storm door bang shut.  It was frigid, the snot-freezing-in-nose kind of cold, and I didn’t waste time brushing the thin film of snow off the windshields.  Now I kicked into high gear, sipped some joe, and drove off to school not more than a five minute drive away.  I’m so glad I’ve got a car on days like this and equally glad that I’m allowed to drive it.  I arrived good and early so as not to be the last one straggling in for our 8:15 am class.  Surfaces and interfaces with Rich Matyi.  I sat there at my desk, coffee in hand, computer booting, just waiting for the festivities to begin.  It’s like a class reunion now, everyone who was away over break is hugging and and fist-bumping like they haven’t seen each other in a decade or more.  Eventually, we all get seated and the class starts.  Rich is an engaging professor; everyone laughs at the jokes and refrains from asking any questions.  Until Dee raises his hand.  This kid is wicked annoying.  Every time I have a class with him, he starts out by asking the professor if we’re going to cover some obscure and only partly relevant topic, just so he can look his smartest for the new guy.  It raises the hair on the back of my neck every time.  If he didn’t box for pleasure I might seriously think about pummeling him in some dark alley incognito.  When he’s done, there’s his partner in crime, Tee, making uncalled for jokes from the back of the room.  This guy seriously thinks he’s funny, but the truth of the matter is that a lot of the time it just shows his total ignorance of the subject at hand.  He’s the kind of person you pity, not hate, because someday he will wake up and realize how truly small he is in the world.  No one else is any bigger.  So he will start acting according to his relative size.  But I like this class so far, despite the rate that Rich is flying through the intro material.  At least the homeworks aren’t graded….

We adjourn and I go to talk to Rich about my inability to stay awake because of my narcolepsy condition.  Mind you, I don’t actually a diagnosis of narcolepsy, but no other circumstance would explain the rate that I fall asleep if not completely dialed into doing something.  He was happy I told him, impressed with my honesty even, and said that he would cut me as much slack as possible.  One victory for me accomplished.

I chatted it up with other first year students in the hour between Surfaces and Interfaces and cellular signaling, my next course.  It’s an upper-level elective but my adviser is teaching the course so naturally I’m taking it and paying extra-special attention to all the material.  But Nadine is at a conference today in San Diego, so Tom fills in for her.  The lecture is pretty basic and there’s no reason to spend more than the required time there.  I’m hoping it will get more interesting a few classes in. 

By this point, I am shaking from the caffeine and can barely hold a pen.  I’m dreading changing the media on my cells later because I’m not sure I’ll be able to use the pipette.  Anyway, no reason to worry right now, because Optics is coming up in a few hours.  I wile the time away talking to a friend who has just returned from India and wants to hear about the goings-on while he was away.  We head off to Optics, where Dr. Denbeaux, a very good-natured, young-looking, senior professor informed us that the course would be attended by both graduate and undergraduate students.  I’m a bit confused by the whole thing, two syllabi, different lecture days, lots of homework and quizzes.  I’m sure he’ll manage somehow, but what about me?  I immediately like Greg’s style and that puts me at ease while he spends some time addressing basics about the electromagnetic spectrum and electron excitation.  The material is comfortable to me, like a broken-in shoe.  I’m sure it will get harder soon enough, but right now I’m happy to be there. 

Last thing for the day: split the cells.  I had put the media and trypsin in the warmer before class so it would be ready when I arrived.  James was back at his usual post in front of one of the computers trying to wrap his mind around a new protocol and his new cell line’s quirks.  I got the flask out of the incubator, turned on the scope and took a look.  Just right.  Not over-confluent and not under-confluent either.  As I dump the media into the waste, the flask flaps uncontrollably back and forth, spraying cells and media everywhere in the hood.  My hands just will not cooperate.  Why did I drink that coffee again?  I chat with James about his time spent at home while the cells cook and then make the transfer and pack up to leave.  2:30 pm.  I’m on my way back out into the cold to drive home.  Day accomplished.  I survived the first day of school of the new semester.

But now I’m home, quite a few hours later, and I’m anxious again.  There’s a quiz in Optics on Monday.  The notes aren’t out yet.  I’m hyped up on coffee, feeling the caffeine humming through my veins.  I’m not hungry because I’ve had too much coffee.  Peter came home and ate his own dinner because I wasn’t interested in anything.  I’m sitting here with my stomach churning its acid without a scrap of food to digest and typing this post.  Even though the coffee should have worn off long before now, my hands still show its effects.  At least I can be satisfied with the first day, as there are countless more to come before this year’s end, and rest easy tonight.  Lulled to sleep by the sense of peace that comes with a mountain climbed and conquered.  Tomorrow, I will be ready for more.

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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.

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.

 

 

 

When being sociable isn’t so easy, it’s best to be an actor.

Sorry for the long hiatus from posting, but things have been hectic at work and with my husband and mom recovering from their respective maladies.

Today I want to talk about my dealings with social situations in the midst of significant psychotic symptoms.  Last night, my lab group went to dinner to celebrate the end of our undergraduate interns’ program and poster presentation, which is today.  My husband was invited and came along with us, despite the fact that he isn’t very good in social situations (I was super proud of him).  Lately, I’ve been having trouble with auditory hallucinations.  Whenever there is some kind of white noise, like fans or the AC running, I hear someone speaking on television just out of range of where I can hear exactly what the person is saying.  It’s frustrating, to say the least, and leaves me wandering around my house at night trying to get closer to the sound so I can hear the words, not just the noise.  Needless to say, I haven’t been in top form at work or otherwise.  I’ve been coming into work late because I’m too exhausted to drag myself out of bed, even at 9 o’ clock in the morning.  Thankfully, I work in academia, where there isn’t too rigid of a work schedule.  You can pretty much come and go as you please as long as you’re getting your work done.  But back to going out.  We went to a Japanese hibachi and sushi bar for dinner, which was a lot of fun for everyone except me.  It was noisy there, with all the spatula flinging and tapping and people talking loudly.  I am set on edge whenever I go out in public.  There are so many ways that someone could sneak up on me and harm me or someone I care for; there is no controlling the situation.  I worry about what people are saying about me out of earshot and what they think of me.  I wonder if they can tell how nervous I am or how concerned I am with what they’re doing.  I even wonder if they are associated with some dangerous sect that plans to annihilate the building and everyone in it.  I know it’s silly to think these things and consciously can rationalize why my concerns are unfounded.  But like all other schizophrenics, there is a part of me that never believes that people are safe to be around, no matter how hard I try to deny it.

All the time I am running this thread of distorted thinking, as they call it in the mental health community, through my mind, I’m trying to put up the pretense that I’m enjoying myself.  Allowing the chef to toss zucchini in my mouth and squirt saki at me.  Chatting about my foodie experiences and my familiarity with Asian cuisine.  Sharing laughs over annoying people at work or the strange thing someone did last week during seminar.  People don’t tend to know that I’m acting, or they don’t seem to, and I’m very pleased with how well I’ve progressed as an actor in social situations.  Unlike some of my schizophrenic brothers and sisters, I am blessed to have the capacity to fake it convincingly and consistently.  Before I got sick, I was a gregarious and sociable person, but never felt like I was well accepted by my peers.  Even if people openly lauded my actions and praised my work, I couldn’t get past a deep-seated fear that they weren’t being sincere.  So I learned to pretend I was comfortable with their attention and even to engage people in new friendships outside of my own circle.  When I began my downhill slide during high-school, everything got harder.  I became overly concerned with other peoples’ judgements of me and their honest impressions of me.   By the time I reached the height of my untreated illness as a sophomore undergraduate in college, it became nearly impossible to hide my condition.  I spent days hiding in my dorm room so I didn’t need to face anyone I didn’t know well, even if that meant missing classes and exams.  I even stopped talking for fear that I might say something stupid or suspicious.  So many people with psychotic illnesses are out there doing the same thing as I am though, faking it to make it.  The positive side of this whole equation is that when the medications are right on and I’m not suffering from constant paranoid and distorted thoughts, I can actually let go and enjoy my time with people.  I’ve learned that faking it really does help you to make it work.  Like putting a smile on your face consciously to fight depression, engaging in social situations despite extreme personal discomfort can help you to learn skills that will make it easier in the long run.  It’s taken years for me to make any real progress, but I can eek out a nice outing with my husband or other family members on a regular basis.  I’d like to be more comfortable with people I’m not too close with, but then again, even the most mentally healthy person can struggle with feeling secure in social situations.  It’s just human nature.  I’m no longer putting pressure on myself to perform, like I used to.  I’ve learned that doing things at your own pace keeps you from getting too anxious and having setbacks.  In the seven years since I was diagnosed, I’ve realized that everything will come with time as long as you are willing to take baby steps towards your goal.  It’s okay to go a few steps back every now and then and it’s okay to avoid the things that stress you for a time, but in the end, a little tough love for yourself can go a long way.  Being an actor isn’t the worst thing in the world when you’re struggling with being around people.  On the contrary, it actually might be the best medicine available.

We’re distracted, don’t you see?

A lot of times, I’d rather be sleeping.  Schizophrenia is exhausting.  People don’t realize how tiring it can be to listen to constant talking and noise throughout the day and how difficult it can be to limit your response to said stimuli.  I liken the experience to going to a concert, but for the entire day, or perhaps spending the day at an amusement park.  Someone’s always chattering in the background (or multiple someones), there are loud noises that pop up intermittently,  and usually some sort of music playing to round it all out.  I work constantly on ignoring the whole cacophony of sounds, but sometimes it just makes me want to retreat under the sheets and hide.  Music can be helpful, particularly the relaxing type played at an appreciable volume.  Reading does work on some occasions, should the book hold my attention well enough.  Video games provide a respite from the hallucinations to some degree, depending on the content and speed of play.  Things to be avoided include mindless activities where your attention can wander elsewhere and disturbing television that perpetuates negative thinking.  Sleeping, therefore, seems like a contradiction in terms.  Truthfully, it is probably the worst thing for you to do when you’re struggling to concentrate on something other than the voices.  But when I snuggle down with a blanket and pillow, turn on some low tunes, and really relax, I feel better.  The reason for my relaxation?  Meditation.  I personally like progressive muscle relaxation for this purpose.  It’s a mindful activity, as I’ve described in an earlier post.  This type of meditation involves total awareness and focus on each part of your body for a short period of time, sequentially moving from your toes to your face.  Tensing and contracting the muscles in different regions of your body briefly while focusing on the changes you feel physically there grounds you to reality.  There is no room for listening to someone chattering in the room or for watching yet another person dance around in your field of view.  Eyes closed and completely focused on you.  In this moment, which you have set aside specifically for you and no one else.  Everything is calm.

Should you be interested in giving this a try, I recommend a handy website:

http://www.calm.com/

A short guided meditation accompanied by soothing background sounds and pleasant visuals is available to you whenever you so desire.  And afterwards, like me, you’ll probably fall fast asleep.  If you don’t, at least you will have enjoyed the time you took to wind down and relax.

As far as functioning while distracted goes, I have mastered this practice.  Focus in the heat of conversation involves incredible self-awareness and control.  Anyone can benefit from these techniques:

Make eye contact with whomever you’re talking to and don’t look away.  This isn’t to say you should have a stare-down with the other person, just present the appearance that you are dialed in to what they’re saying. 

Maintain an active listening stance with good body language.  I find a little head tilt keeps me on task, as does standing with my hands clasped or behind my back.  Arms folded aren’t a good idea, as they present the speaker with the idea that you’re resisting their ideas, even if it is a comfortable position to be in. 

Focus on the person’s speech, don’t try to analyze or rehearse what you’d like to respond.  A lot of schizophrenics, because they are anxious or uncomfortable in social situations, have imaginary conversations where they try to hash out how they will conduct a dialogue with someone, however trivial the subject.  Resisting the urge to do this out loud is key, but also try to keep your mind free of predictive clutter.  You must accept that you have no control over the other person’s statements and that you can rarely predict them.

Last but certainly not least, answer any questions and express verbally your understanding of their message.  Make sure to ask questions as well, should you not understand everything said.  There is nothing worse than walking away from a conversation having no idea what was discussed or how you should proceed from there.

As far as completing tasks goes, mindfulness is key.  Do not pay attention to the thoughts and sounds creeping up around you.  I know, easier said than done.  But you can do it.  I like directing myself in my head, as if I’m providing someone instructions for doing the task.  It fills negative space and leaves less room for extraneous noise to distract you. 

Take breaks.  I like to stop every 20 or so minutes and refresh my thinking.  Get a drink of water, move around a bit, or just do something else.  It’s impossible to focus on anything for over an hour, for me.  I need a mental hiatus from the effort of remaining focused and letting every stimulus in for a few minutes can make things easier.  You can’t resist distraction forever, you know.  So let go every now and then to give yourself a rest.  It’s tiring to block everything out and you don’t want mental fatigue to keep you from completing your task.

If you really can’t get hunkered down and work productively, come back to it another day or even later that day.  Sometimes it’s too hard to focus.  There’s no point getting frustrated with it and down on yourself over any task.  And if there’s a deadline, don’t stress over it too much.  The anxiety you have about getting it done needs to be replaced by a plan to finish it later.  This requires you to avoid procrastination.  I know, it’s so easy to put things off; I often do it myself.  Break the habit as much as possible. 

All of these things require a conscious effort.  They do not come naturally for most schizophrenics, let alone people without mental illnesses.  You will most certainly fail to complete tasks or have unproductive conversations with people for awhile.  With time, however, you will start to gain mastery in these techniques and see a measurable change in the way you interact and complete important tasks.

Today, however, I just feel like taking a nap.  Time to give myself a break from everything.

Thanks for listening.

Anonymity

First off, a shout out to all my friends from schizophrenia.com!  Thanks for reading!

Schizophrenia is a four-letter word for most people.  It’s dirty.  It’s shameful.  It’s something that you hide in the closet in an old shoebox on the top shelf and hope to God no one ever finds it.  When you have a psychotic illness, it can be very hard to keep it under wraps.  I thought I might share a few stories about when I revealed myself to be psychotic and the reactions I got.  For those of you trying to get up the courage to tell people what’s going on with you, I hope these tales will be comforting, although some might turn you the other way.

If you’ve been following my posts so far, you know the story of my revealing my illness to my future husband.  One for the positive column.

My best friend Zach:  It’s hard to tell the guy you’ve been friends with since kindergarten that there’s something very embarrassing (or so I thought at the time) and serious wrong with you.  I was forced to broach the issue with him after my first hospitalization and subsequent temporary withdrawal from my undergraduate program.  I think I started the conversation casually but, like a tall wave that breaks over a high wall of rocks, I unleashed my torrential secret in a violent rush.  I was so nervous about telling him, thinking he would judge me or refuse to be my friend anymore, that I just threw it out on the conversation table like you might do so with a dead skunk.  It was ugly and lingering and there was an indefinite period of awkwardness that seemed like it would never end.  But then he said, ever so nonchalantly, “Okay.”  Some details about the symptoms I was experiencing and the struggles I had already endured followed, but for the most part that’s all that was ever said.  Zach seems uncomfortable when we talk about it, doesn’t have much to say, and generally avoids the subject.  And that’s okay with me, because it gives me a sense of normalcy.  There’s no elephant lurking in the room with him.  Just two people in graduate school lamenting the woes of research projects, bad labmates, and inconsistent advisors.  Planning hikes and going kayaking.  Drinking coffee and eating baklava.  He’s the kind of rock every schizophrenic needs.  Someone who completely ignores the fact that you’re sick and almost seems to forget it.

My big, Meridith:  Mers didn’t find out from me about my mental illness I don’t think.  When I lived in the sorority house for a semester, I became overwhelmed with mounting pressures of school, persistent hallucinations, and exhaustion.  Completely off my medication and seemingly beyond hope, I downed a bunch of Geodon (an antipsychotic).  About eighty pills, to be exact.  Needless to say when my boyfriend at the time found me and called the ambulance to come get me, my illness was center stage in the house.  People who the day before loved me and thought the best of me no longer wanted to have anything to do with me.  They banned me from the house and pretended like I didn’t exist or worse, that I was vermin.  But not Mers.  She sent out an e-mail attempting to do some damage control and just stuck by me like any sister should, biological or otherwise.  And to this day we are close, perhaps closer than ever.  She is the kind of person who just genuinely cares.  She doesn’t ask me specifically about my illness or symptoms, but she’s always kept up with my adventures through life.  When I struggle, she supports me.  When I’m doing well, she celebrates with me.  She means the world to me and I am so proud that I will be giving a reading at her wedding (eek, talking in front of all sorts of people I don’t know…) to the guy she’s been with since I met her, almost seven years ago.

My mom:  Mom didn’t find out from me about the schizophrenia, obviously, because I still didn’t recognize or understand what was wrong with me when I was diagnosed.  She didn’t believe it then and she doesn’t believe it now.  She is unflaggingly against the use of such a label for me.  When the doctors told her initially, she was outraged.  And scared, I assume.  She didn’t know much about the condition and she didn’t know how to help me, something she has always been able to do in the past.  When my condition was downgraded to schizoaffective disorder earlier this year, she considered it a huge victory.  She is fiercely protective of me, like a mother tiger, and is the first person to advocate for my continued academic pursuits.  She is, however, always afraid of people knowing that I’m sick.  In fact, I haven’t told her about this blog.  Sorry mom, if you ever read this.  I know she’s not ashamed to have me as a daughter.  She’s afraid of the implications of my diagnosis for my professional development, career opportunities, and respect from peers.  She’s terrified that I will be denied some opportunity because of my condition.

It’s a valid concern.  But I am stubborn.  I want people to know what this is like and how I and others with psychotic illnesses get by on a day-to-day basis.  I want to provide hope to those who struggle with their tormented existence that there might be a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak.  So I tell people I have schizophrenia.  I talk openly about it to those people who I feel I can trust.  And I share my story with all of you.  You may see me on the street someday, not knowing I’m the person writing this blog, and never recognize me.  I don’t want to be a celebrity or something.  I just want the world to see the effect those little words have on someone and how it doesn’t have to get in the way.  If you’re afraid to share your illness, I totally understand where you’re coming from.  I’ve kept it from many people.  You have to judge how the person might respond and be ready for the fallout if it isn’t good.  However, if you never try to break out of your shell then you never will.  It might surprise you to hear that another person you know already is suffering too.  A comrade in arms.  Someone you can talk to.  Anonymity is great but it can make for a very lonely soul.  So reach out and share your soul with someone.  It could change your whole life.

Thanks for listening.

Get moving.

Get moving, you lazy ass!

You’re the size of a house!

Ugly.  Enough said.

Okay Shamu, easy there.

There’s only so much you can say to the people talking in your head to defend yourself when you do need to get up, get moving, and lose weight.  Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve taken up road biking and find that I love the freedom.  The downside?  All that quiet time means more shouting inside my skull.  There’s nothing like doubt to turn you away from progress.  The voices inside me have every criticism in the world for the things I do, but when I am already sensitive about an issue, their assault is proportionately magnified.  I gained a lot of weight after the accident.  Not right away, but slowly in little spurts corresponding to major personal setbacks suffered.  Hospital stays.  Surgeries.  Withdrawals from school or jobs.  I’ve tanked my way up to over 250 lbs and I feel like it’s time to start moving back down the scale.  Slowly but surely I’m starting to make progress in the right direction.  Here’s how I’m doing it:

myfitnesspal.com -Tracking what you eat can be eye-opening.  You can pick up on all of your emotional eating sprees, those extra calories brought on by condiments and other small things you do to manipulate the taste of your food from its original state, and most importantly, the effects of portion size.  I’m not a junk food eater, not that I don’t have a taste for sweets, but I just plain eat too much.  If you start counting calories, it’s a small motivator to stay on track.  Do I eat another oreo?  No, I’ve already had three.  What was the serving size again?  If you own a smartphone, the android app is a fantastic way to keep tabs on every crumb of food going in your mouth.  That way you know how many oreos you can stuff into your pie-hole without exceeding the recommended calorie intake for the day.  And just about any other food.  Millions of options on the database or plug in your own recipes.  It is FREE.  It’s just that easy.  Psyche!

Fitbit – This handy little clip about the size of your thumb is a calibrated sensor that records your steps taken and stairs climbed each day.  There’s nothing like a little self-competition every now and then.  This is the tool for you, should you be the competitive type.  Badges can be earned for daily and personal milestones to spur you on further.  Can I walk 10,000 steps today?  I know I can find out if I do!  The website attached to the device (which plugs into your USB drive handily for charging and syncs up to 5 feet from the charger when plugged in) is a fantastic way to keep track of all your health stats.  You can even find your sleep efficience by wearing the Fitbit on your wrist at night when you sleep (there’s an armband it attaches to included in the kit).  What’s more exciting is the fact that myfitnesspal food diaries are shared to the Fitbit site, allowing you to combine forces for maximum efficiency.  Yes, I know I sound like an advertisement.  But honestly, try the darn thing and see for yourself.  Tons of fun.  You can pick one up from the website or your local Best Buy for around 100 dollars.

Endomondo – Also synching up with your Fitbit, this workout tracker records distance, speed, splits, and a handful of other helpful stats for each workout you do through the use of your smartphone.  I love this for cycling.  Need to know where you’re going next?  Plan a route and the coach will keep you on course.  Want to hit a certain mileage goal today?  The coach can do that for you as well.  Calories burned and hydration required after the workout are also calculated so you can maximize the results of your efforts and keep track of all of your workouts in one place.  Years of competitive swimming tell me that keeping a log of workouts and how they felt aids you in safely upping the difficulty or length of your workouts and tells you when you need a little reprieve from vigorous exercise to recover.  The need to better your personal best times, miles, or other stats will drive you right back to the road or gym more often than you might go without any sort of record of your progress.  Again, it’s tons of fun and makes exercising a little more rewarding as far as instant gratification.  You may not see your muscles toning or adding mass, but you can gauge your mile split’s improvement over the course of weeks or months to keep tabs of your progress.  The free app is pretty full-featured but the pro app ($4.99) will give you some cool additional features.  Or so the site says, I have yet to invest the five dollars in giving it a spin.  I will let you all know how that goes when I do.
So these are the tools.  What’s left?  The effort and motivation to keep it going for the long haul.  Everyone has the same roadblocks.  Falling off the bandwagon for holidays or stress.  Losing hope of a real tangible change.  I’m hoping with these weapons I can engage in mass destruction of the fat surrounding my skinny self underneath.  Not to mention the physical health benefits, the emotional benefit of exercise is overwhelming and I couldn’t adequately treat a review of the pertinent literature here.  The moral of the story is that getting moving ups the important neurotransmitters in the brain that fuel your happiness.  Endorphins are the common culprit but dopamine and serotonin play roles as well.  So get out there.  For your health, and your health.  After all, there’s nothing crazier than wasting your life away on the couch watching the world pass by.

Something about mindfulness

Stress is the number one reason why I hear more voices and see more of the unseen on any given day.  Like everyone else who lives on earth and belongs to the human race, I am physically and emotionally taxed by stress of any kind, be it excitement or sadness, grief or joy.  There’s something about extreme emotions that just makes my day more difficult than the usual day.  An important thing to know about people with psychotic disorders is that their day is as bad  as situation appears but worse than it seems because they experience the unseen and unheard.  I’m really not saying that you should pity or feel sorry for us more than the average person, but that our patience for the unexpected disruption of the norm is markedly reduced.  And any challenge that escalates the impact of hallucinations should be minimized.  That being said, I thrive on a little stress.  When I’m buckled down studying or knee-deep in lab work I’m a happier and more productive person.  Being busy, particularly with your hands, takes your mind off of the troubles you’re experiencing and focuses you on the here and now.  My therapist refers to this as mindfulness.  It’s a cornerstone of dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT for short.  If you’re out there suffering with the day-to-day challenges and struggling to make emotional ends meet, you might try some DBT training.  I started using DBT skills recently after an unexpected hospitalization forced me to re-examine my coping skills.  Psychosis is overwhelming for many who have insight into their condition, and bewildering for that person’s family, whether the affected individual is aware of their condition or not.  You need a way to weed through the extraneous problems and get to the heart of yourself again, because your world is clouded by the imagined.  Even a person not suffering from mental illness can benefit from mindful practices.  Take a moment in your day to tune into your surroundings and the state of your mind and body.  Feel the ground beneath your feet.  Smell the air.  Use all your senses (excluding taste for the most part) to experience your current state.  Take note of how you are breathing, not changing it but just acknowledging it.  To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t really capable of mindfulness while at the hospital.  I’ve taken more and more stabs at it since, and I’m starting to feel like I’m getting somewhere but there’s always room for improvement.  Meditation also helps you to become observant of your physical and emotional state, but I have a hard time remembering to do it on a regular basis.  DBT and schizoaffective disorder, my particular brand of schizophrenia-spectrum conditions, make a good pair.  You do have to work at it though, it doesn’t come naturally.  Back to stress.  Being mindful when you’re struggling is particularly useful and is referred to as grounding.  In the heat of the moment, take some time to get your feel back on the ground and your head out of the clouds.

I’m sure other people suffering from my condition can sympathize with my struggle with “daydreaming”.  When my mind strays from the task at hand, I am bombarded by a flurry of noise in my head and thoughts about a moment that has passed or may never come to be, but seems like the next step in the road regardless.  I am transported to that place immediately, dialogue kicks in and for those few minutes I’m lost in my head and my head has left the state of New York.  Someone chimes in that I am doing my work poorly, another person agreeing and expanding upon that idea by suggesting I have never done anything well in the first place.  I launch into a lively debate with these unseen persons about what I have done wrong or badly and I try wholeheartedly to defend myself.  The moment of failure they bring to light may or may not have occurred, I may or may not see my accusers sitting around the room, and I may or may not agree with what they have to say.  I can see myself doing whatever it was in my mind’s eye, feeling the emotions I felt or would have felt most likely and watching helplessly from outside my body as I fail to perform effectively.  But on a good day, I can say to myself, “I’m doing just fine and you’re all wrong!”  And DBT skills help you do that.  I’m not saying they’re a panacea, just one way to cope with hallucinations.  Delusions, on the other hand, are much more complicated and require a more lengthy treatment than I’m willing to provide here.  Take away lesson: self/situational awareness and grounding, or mindfulness, will get you through a tough spot given enough practice.  It’s worth a try.