Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mispoken Words

I made a political, social, and emotional mistake. We were talking in mental illness peer support group about people having a fantasy that if they could just find a significant other everything in their life would be swell and they would be happy. I said, "I've noticed this fantasy in both mentally ill and normal people." And the worker from a group home (who brings her clients to group and has an illness herself) fired back "Everyone here is normal. Having a mental illness doesn't stop you from being normal."

I realized instantly my mistake. She was right, you can be mentally ill and normal. That is obviously the way she feels about herself, and I'm glad she has healthy self-esteem. However, in my mind there is this distorted perception that I am far, far away from being normal. Having lost so much ability after the onset of my illness (remember, I wasn't disabled before onset, I had a rich, complicated, on-the-go lifestyle in New York City) I felt like before the illness I was normal, and now I am not normal. Its been 23 years since the onset of my illness and I'm still comparing myself to the woman I was before and feeling ambivalent about who I am now. I don't feel normal. My husband is normal. My mother is normal. I rub shoulders all the time with people who are full of energy and capability - the exact opposite of my disability. But because I suffer everyday from symptoms of my illness (mostly negative symptoms) I don't feel normal. I know people without a mental illness go through instances of suffering (loss, chronic pain, loneliness, disappointment, disease, catastrophic acts of nature and criminal mankind) but it feels really, really weird when your mind fails you. I experience vulnerability and the inability to think, even sometimes, move.

We had dog training class this week. I found out that I was doing one the exercises wrong. Now I had worked really hard on this exercise. But in class I was focused and talkative and worked well with my dog on the new exercises that would become our homework for this week. When I got home I had a little meal and took my evening meds and then sat down on the couch. Suddenly I couldn't move or speak. I was catatonic. My limbs stayed in position, my eyesight was stuck looking at a corner of the kitchen. My husband had to pull me up and half carry, half drag me into the bedroom and position me on the bed. I fell asleep with my contacts in, too exhausted to make it to the bathroom to take them out.

Then at 4am I woke up, wide awake, with a crushing emotion. I had failed the dog training exercise, and life was too difficult for me. I wanted to die. I wanted an out of existence that I'm not up to facing. I felt like a colossal failure as a human being. I started crying and woke my husband up. He said he would go into work late to stay with me. But then he told me that if he did this, he would lose his overtime pay. I said to him I would take a trilifon (old school anti-psychotic) and klonopin (a mild narcotic) together and medicate myself. Once the medication started working I got very sleepy and went back to bed. When I woke I felt fragile but in a normal frame of mind, not hysterical, not beating myself up, the self hatred was gone.

I think the schizophrenia makes some of my emotions too strong. Things get blown out of proportion. I told my husband that there wasn't one person in dog training class that knew or could even guess that I had schizophrenia. My normal act was so good. But it took a boatload of energy to maintain the state of normalcy, and after the class was over my nervous system crashed, making me first catatonic and then hysterical.

My therapist says I have to detach from my emotions and watch myself experience them. He says that over identifying with any emotional state is not good. That the self isn't defined by any one thing - it is beyond definition. So to say, "I'm an artist", or "I'm a therapist" is dangerous because this is not the real you. Also saying "I hate myself, I'm a failure and I'm sad" isn't you either, and you have to detach. This is the latest advice that he keeps on giving me. Yesterday I said to him "so are you losing patients by giving them this advice, because what you are asking is a very difficult thing, I think you underestimate the power of mental illness and how real it seems" and he said that it was none of my business whether or not he was losing patients and that self is bigger than mental illness. Then I said, "Oh, you are asking me to pull a John Nash". I've read his biography two times and in it Nash claims that he simply using his rational powers made choices between was was real and what was delusion. "No, that's not it" said my therapist, "all your emotions are delusion." Which is a statement he makes about every time I visit, and I don't know how many more times I can hear it. I'm an emotional creature. So I'm to consider myself a false creature too. My therapist reads a steady diet of religious mystics, from all religions. Priests, self-help gurus, and nuns. All people who claim that they have found a higher reality.

And still, even after telling me he would do it that very weekend, my therapist has failed to bill me. I've been seeing him for over a year, once a week, for free.

I've got two good natured, big-hearted eccentric men in my life. My husband and my therapist. I guess I'm really lucky because life isn't dull. Fate keeps putting in my path the most marvelous, odd, special, under-the-radar people.

As far as my artistic path, I'm coming to a cross-road. I'm going to continue working on the oil paintings that I've been doing, and finish them all. There is one nearing a final stage, two smaller ones in beginning stages, and one that exists only as a precise drawing on paper. I figure I've got the next six months scheduled. But then I'm also going to work on paper. I've worked in oil for about 10 years and I can't do in oil the same expressive, free work that I do with oil pastels on paper. I'm happier with my strongest work on paper, and paper really lets me be more creative. For some odd reason I don't have the same hesitation and restraint about color when I'm working with oil pastels that I feel with oil paint. And I can't get the same effects with oil paint that I can get with oil pastels. I've had ten years to catch up with oil what I did with pastel and it never happened.

The consequences of changing from oil to paper are unpleasant. The gallery where I've shown my work was only interested in oil paintings, they didn't want any of my work on paper. So I might not have a gallery to show in. Framing works on paper, the correct way, with matting, is expensive. I don't want to make my own mats or frames. And I hate reflections in glass, I love that there is no barrier between an oil painting and the viewer. Then there is this - I'm going to have to "go to school" and relearn the techniques of using oil pastels. I'm not as competent and sophisticated as I once was. Yes, once I really rocked with oil pastels.

My friend asked me if I was bored with oil painting and I said yes, I was. So there is that - a new direction to spice things up creatively. Looking into the future I see having more fun. But whether I'll make things that are better, I don't know.

If you are having fun, shouldn't the end product carry in it some of your glee?


  1. Dear Karen,

    I don't think that you made a mistake at your support group meeting. You were just being honest and that other woman should not have jumped on you just because she felt differently. In fact, a discussion of normal versus not normal could be appropriate in such a group. A discussion, not an argument. I think many, many people who suffer from mental illness feel the way you do. You are not strange or wrong because it bothers you that you feel your difference in comparison to very well adjusted people. Still, most people are not well adjusted in at least part of their lives. Also the word "normal" is very tricky. Your idea of normal is not another's idea of normal. Normal is elusive. I know I am not "normal" because I don't work or have a family of my own, but in terms of the nature of my feelings and thoughts, I don't think I am so very different from others essentially.

    Your struggle is in continuing to compare yourself to others and, as I've said before, I think that is a trap many of us fall into, but a trap none the less. You are not on this planet to measure up to anyone, but when you fail in your eyes to do so, your symptoms worsen. So what do you do? Ask for guidance from God, stay receptive and try and be aware of what it is you do, your habitual patterns. Without awareness, you can't change and you're stuck. With awareness, you can change yourself and lessen your suffering.

    One of your strengths is your dedication to being honest with yourself and this shines brightly in your blog (and in your emails to me). You have integrity. But don't be intimidated by others who contradict you.
    You have a right to your own perspective, but at the same time you need to look at your perspective when it begins to hurt you and question yourself and your assumptions and beliefs. You can do this Karen because you are smart and sensitive.

    Coming from a Buddhist perspective, I can sort of understand why your therapist says that all emotions are delusions and I agree that it is important to detach from overwhelming emotions and yet emotions are a part of our mental landscape and can't, no, shouldn't be removed entirely, if that were possible. You suffer from schizoaffective disorder, which means that your emotions come into play in your illness. Acknowledging which emotions are destructive to your sense of well-being is important and then working with the thoughts that spur on the emotions is a way to lessen their effect. It's a struggle, but it can be done.

    All my love,

    Kate : )

  2. It is good to be sharing your thoughts here.It will make and help you feel better.This disease is hard to fight and therefore needs a lot of courage and spirit. Plastic Surgeons Atlanta


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