Some Words on: Inner Strength – Your Contribution to Your Healing Process

There are many forms of treatment for you coming from the outside – medication, psychotherapy, creative therapies, physical exercise, and so on. Health care professionals and loved ones can be looking after you and trying to help you surmount your conflicts. Yet, there is someone whose participation in your recovery is indispensable: you. The least you can and must do is to accept help, but there are more active measures you can take to allow for healing to set in.

Our attitude playing a decisive role in creating success in all sorts of aspects of our lives is a generally accepted idea. Medicine has begun to recognize that both psychosomatic illness and healing actually do exist. Attitude, thought and intention appear to determine the outcome of our actions more than western science has been willing to admit so far. On the other hand, in philosophy, spiritual practice and even folkloric wisdom all over the globe, this idea is ancient.

You can play an active part in your recovery and cultivate your Inner Strength even when your mind is broken. Deep in your core there is a source of energy that cannot be destroyed, and that will only disengage from your body upon death. You can put whichever name you please to it, depending on your world view: Inner Strength, Survival Instinct, Inner Self, Essence, Spirit, or Soul. No matter what you believe or do not believe in, you possess this energy. It is what carries you through all good and bad moments of your life. Often, we only notice it is there when we are in crisis. Maybe you remember situations where you told someone, or where you heard someone else say: “Looking back, I have no idea how I made it – I must have been very lucky.” Well, that was the Inner Self at work. Something inside you is determined to see you through your ordeal. You must give it room to act.

Again, depending on your beliefs, there are many ways you can allow your Inner Strength to help you. First of all, you must connect with it. Religious or otherwise spiritually oriented people may resort to prayer and meditation, while rationalists who prefer a more practical approach can choose positive thinking, autosuggestion or exercises of willpower and mental discipline. It does not matter HOW you do it. It is just very important THAT you do it. Anyone insisting you need to belong to this or that religious group or a specific school of thought in order to achieve healing is misguiding you. Of course, if you feel it puts you on a good path, you can practise a religion! What I am meaning to say is that you need to find your very own way of dealing with yourself and your active role in this world, and no one should coax you into anything.

The following is how I, under consideration of my world view, attempted to drag my cart out of the mud. I repeat: this is not the only way to do it, and you need not share my beliefs in order to recover. It is just an example. Personally, I am wary about religious dogma and even more wary of people who try to impose it on others. However, I am a spiritual person. I do believe in a universal, conscious force some call God. I also believe in the existence of the Soul and its immortality. In my view, all elements of creation are energetically interconnected. As a consequence, I am convinced praying for others or the idea of sending them love or light is capable of reaching them through this energetic network. In a similar way, asking God (or The Force, or Maradona, or your Self) for strength and healing will help you activate those within you. No matter what or whom you invoke will come to your aid. As for myself, I know many people were praying for me or thinking about me caringly when I was hitting rock bottom. I firmly believe their good intentions made a huge difference. Also, despite cognitive difficulties during my psychotic break, I kept praying and meditating. I was terrified because my situation seemed completely hopeless. Nonetheless, I was unwilling to accept my condition as the endpoint of my life’s journey. The circumstances felt a bit like being adrift in the middle of the ocean and blindly firing flares into the night in the hopes of some ship noticing them eventually. Rescue was out of sight, yet not requesting it would have made it even less likely to ever arrive. How much of my recovery can be attributed to support from the forces I believe in is open to speculation. Still, I consider it must have been an important constituent of my healing process.

When your existence is in a fleeting state, being able to hold on to something edifying and encouraging also makes it easier for you to receive help from external sources. It can be your first step on firm ground. Just to use another metaphor: it is easier for others to extend their hand to you when you have managed to remain stable on the water’s surface, as opposed to panicking and chaotically panting and kicking around you. Inner Strength and hope can and should be stimulated even when you are at your weakest mentally and emotionally. Probably, no overnight miracles will happen, but look out for a gradual improvement of your state over time. A constant drop of water will finally fill the bucket.

My advice to you is to pick some entity you can ask for help. If you are religious, it can be your God or a saintly figure. If you are agnostic yet spiritual, it can be the universal consciousness, a deceased ancestor, your spiritual guide, an angel, or whichever other being. If you are a skeptic and non-believer, meditate over your own willpower, practise positive thinking or seek inspiration in motivational literature and time spent with loved ones. As you can see, the list of options is quite eclectic. If you do not feel up to any spiritual or intellectual commitment, you can still indulge in small rituals to invigorate you, such as the contemplation of beauty and nature. But be careful not to use your state of weakness as a justification for remaining passive. Your intention is what counts, and intention is active. You need to wish for healing. Your aim is to awaken your Inner Strength by whichever means you are able to use. This is your invaluable contribution to your recovery.

How It’s Going – Completion of Phase One

Yesterday night was, hopefully, the last time I ever took the old dose of Quetiapine, 300 mg. So from today onward I will be taking 250 mg of Quetiapine at night and 125 mg of Sertraline in the morning. If you have a look at my dose reduction plan, you will see that I originally planned to stay in this place for a while. However, as I have had no withdrawal symptoms or other adverse reactions to the dose reduction so far, I feel I should move on to the next dose reduction sooner. Thus, I shall begin lowering the Sertraline dose further next week, in the same way I have already done it once. This modification is to be followed by another dose reduction of the Quetiapine. My next aim is to reach a plateau phase with 200 mg of Quetiapine and 100 mg of Sertraline. This corresponds to a 30% reduction of the original dosages, which I find to be quite a significant change. Once I get there, I still plan to remain there for at least a few months.

The question now is whether I have noticed any changes so far. As for negative ones, luckily not! On the positive side, I do feel slightly more alert in the sense that I make faster decisions, seem to have an improved concentration and feel more open towards learning new things. A lot of this, admittedly, has to do with my recent changes in lifestyle and the accompanying shifts in priorities. Logically, I have some restructuring and decluttering to do. Nonetheless, I feel that I am mentally and emotionally better disposed to pull through with these reconfigurations. Lowering the dose of my medications may be contributing to that.

Physically, there have been slight improvements as well, although these most likely have to be attributed to factors other than medication withdrawal. My weight has been going down very gradually, which is probably mostly a consequence of my doing daily yoga routines and eating a low-carb diet complemented with veggie shakes. I have a very sweet tooth, but lately I have managed to steer clear of too much self-indulgence in this area. My partner and I have agreed we can be naughty – in culinary terms – every once in a while on special occasions, but certainly not on a daily or even weekly basis. Our naughtiness in other areas seems to be improving. Our relationship is thriving, yet it is impossible for me to say whether lower medication doses have anything to do with that. I suppose, and hope, that we are simply doing things right.

Lately, my sleep is less plagued by nightmares. I used to have them every night, and they were intense enough to have me wake up screaming every so often. Since I have moved in with my man, this has not happened again, although most of my dreams are still weird and unsettling. They very evidently deal with traumatic experiences as well as the fears and conflicts derived from those. As a result, my dreams are quite repetitive in topic, which makes me assume I have a considerable quantity of psychological knots to untie if I want to get rid of them. Several sources on psychiatric drug withdrawal explain that as you lower doses, emotions and thoughts may resurface that had been lingering under the surface of your drug induced stability. To me, that makes perfect sense, as the drugs do seem to suspend you from hammering away desperately at your worst conflicts. So, as a consequence of medication withdrawal, I expect some serious processing and coping challenges to lie before me. At this point in time, such challenges have not occurred to an extent that would make me consider seeing a psychotherapist. My partner is a great source of support, encouragement, comprehension and love. The list of his wonderful characteristics could go on and on. My close friends are caring and sincere. In other words, I have a support network that wants for nothing. Thanks so much for that!

All in all, I am happy about how everything is going. My initial fear of lowering medication doses has receded. I am still very careful and slightly apprehensive about the process, but so far I have felt motivated to think that as long as I proceed in a sensible way, I should be able to minimize risks. I am glad I have started this process.

Some Words on: The Sickliness of Hospital Settings

“Hospitals make you sick”, said a person whom I met during my psychotic break, and whose kindness and understanding make me remember her as some sort of angel who came to shine a light into my darkest moments. She had picked the saying up from her father, and I was soon to find out what she meant by it. Evidently, the main purpose of hospitals is to cure people. Yet, some characteristics of hospital settings are surprisingly out of tune with that mission.

First of all, there is that smell. Even if you are just a visitor, it can turn your stomach inside out. Naturally, hospitals need to be kept clean at all times, and strong disinfectants are to help achieve that – but heck, can’t they develop one that doesn’t make the place smell as if a tsunami of cough syrup has just rolled through? There must be a way of eliminating those sick smells and introducing more pleasant ones. Smell can improve well-being significantly. Otherwise, perfumes or aromatherapy would never have been invented. It isn’t even a new concept. Human beings have used fragrances for thousands of years in the context of religious cults, all kinds of celebrations, in their homes or on their bodies. Essential oils, for example, have been a coveted luxury good for countless generations, and continue to be that. Only think of this: who doesn’t like to use incense sticks, aroma lamps or room fresheners to improve their mood? Who doesn’t keep one or the other perfume in their bathroom cabinet? Scents help us relax, energize, concentrate, and feel sexy; they can make a home feel warmer and a work environment more dynamic.

Remember that we experience life through our senses, including the sense of smell. The stimuli our senses convey to us are immediately interpreted by us as positive or negative, and therefore trigger different emotional reactions. It is all about associations. During our lives, we learn to associate smells with certain circumstances, events, rituals, places and memories. Cinnamon smells of a cozy day at home, sunscreen smells like a beach holiday, burned cookies smell of wasted effort, and hospitals… smell of sickness.

It is true that there is a lot of sickness accumulated in hospitals, so it seems only logical for it to be reflected in the general vibe of the place. Still, hospitals should also be places of healing, and healing can and should be stimulated through strengthening stimuli. Scent is just one of them. Let’s move on to hospital food. It is probably one of the poorest diets there can possibly be. When all the ingredients on your plate – the salad, the veggies and the meat – have the same color, gray, you know they don’t have much going on in terms of nutrients. Vegetables and proteins are usually boiled to death, and salads often consist of canned yellow beans and the likes. Desserts mostly seem to have been made out of some instant powder mixed up with water and typically come in sickly pastel colors. And let’s not even talk about flavors and textures. “Urgh” says it all.

Considering that science already knows how vital good nutrition is for our health, it seems insane how hospitals are still serving food that not only does not help patients to recover, but has the potential of making them even sicker because of its nutritional poorness. Even someone healthy needs a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, fats, and so on. Now imagine someone who has already lost their health and needs to regain it. This does not only go for physical illness, but also for mental pathologies. The brain functions thanks to elements our metabolism derives from what we consume. In every respect, hospital food should be absolute power-food, the very best stuff there is! The emphasis goes on the word “should”.

If you, or a loved one, are currently hospitalized, you may wish to complement the hospital diet with valuable snacks. Get fruit, or have fruit brought to you. Apples are a great choice. They are easily available and keep for a long time, even outside the refrigerator. There are, of course, bunches of other types of fruit, but none seems to be quite as practical as apples. Bananas, for example, are an excellent snack and very rich in dietary fiber, but their intense smell may bother your roommates. Also, they get squishy quite easily and attract fruit flies. Whichever fruits you decide to acquire, eat them instead of that awful, pale-yellow Jell-O with tiny beige chunks in it. Also, abstain from the mummified salad on your food tray. Alternatively, you can have a fresh cucumber cut in slices and with its peel still on. As a snack in the afternoon, you could enjoy carrot sticks dipped in peanut butter. All of these items – apples, cucumber and carrots – are relatively cheap, available all year round and do not need any preparation other than cutting them up. Also, drink a lot of pure water and squeeze half a lemon into it at least once a day. Whenever you have the choice between a soda and water or milk, choose any of the latter two. Avoid adding sugar to hot drinks. All these are small and easy hacks which help you improve your health.

Complementing the hospital diet with your own choices of fresh foods can also be an opportunity for social bonding with your fellow patients. During my last hospitalization, I was sharing a room with three other people. It was summer, so there was a lot of fruit on offer everywhere – cherries and plums from local farms, apples, imported peaches and so on. Spontaneously, some of us would go, buy a big bag of fruit and put it in a bowl on the table for everyone in the room to take. Other patients spontaneously formed salad initiatives. They would throw their money together and shop for ingredients for vegetable or fruit salads, prepare them together and share them among one another. All this does not sound like a big deal, but that little bit of human warmth and joyful interaction can make a huge difference for someone who has hit rock bottom. In this sense, bringing flowers to your room is also a small, but important boost for everyone’s psyche. And guess what, this is where smell comes into play again. The smell of flowers is always beautiful.

“Beautiful” is my cue for the next unfortunate aspect of hospital environments: visual ugliness. It must be acknowledged that, given the requirements of cleanliness and good illumination, the off-putting linoleum floors and ghostly light from uninspiring neon tubes are probably necessary evils. Still, a lot can and should be done to make hospitals look less cold and morgue-like. After all, it is in no-one’s interest to have patients slip even further into depression. Some clinics do make attempts to create a more mood-enhancing environment. Large windows, plants, colorful artwork and cozy sofas with coffee tables and magazines here and there go a long way. The access to green outside areas is another huge plus. Sometimes, all it takes to make someone feel less gloomy is to sit on the in the sunshine on a lawn or on a bench in the shade of a tree for a while – alone or with others.

And last but not least, hospital setting should offer ample opportunity both for socializing and for introversion and retreat. The last clinic I was in had generous outside areas with a park, benches and Ping-Pong tables, as well as an indoor sports court which was constantly open to patients who wished to organize volleyball matches or other activities. This was not a fancy private clinic – it was a public, if quite renowned, one. Admittedly, the place was guilty of giving out horrible food and committing several esthetic atrocities, but the overall intention was right. Another thing they did well was that the staff kept close contact with the patients. Not so much in a controlling way, but mainly by being available for communication and socialization. Patients would get to talk one-on-one with the treating doctors several times a week, and every morning both patients and staff would meet up to comment among one another on how everyone felt and on some randomly picked topic. Once every week the arts therapist would direct a huge cake bake-off, followed by a collective cake and coffee binge. On one occasion, as the weather was hot and sunny, all staff and patients from the station decided to go for a pick nick in a nearby park. You may guess by now this was not a closed facility, meaning that patients were not physically restrained or thought to be a danger to themselves and others. Still, some of them had symptoms comparable to those of people I had met in a closed facility some months before, possibly meaning that this clinic simply encouraged and trusted its patients more than other institutions. Along these lines, I remember being invited to a former patient’s birthday party on the other side of town. I commented to the nurse at the entrance that I might be back really late, and she just smiled and wished me a fun evening! All over, I felt that the staff of this clinic was more interested in motivating patients to return to functional life than in isolating them from it. This should be one of the core objectives of psychiatric hospitals, but as things are you have to be very lucky to find a place like this.

Being hospitalized at any psychiatric h clinic is always difficult and scary, because you are often so hopeless that you just can’t fathom a way out of your crisis. But definitely, the attitude of a psychiatric clinic towards its patients is crucial for your recovery. Being guarded by an institution whose staff works against you by violating your dignity and undermining your trust can be the last nail in your coffin. I am certain such places don’t even contribute to the destruction of their patients on purpose. They fall prey to an intellectual fallacy by thinking you have to recover by yourself, and all they have to do is medicate you and lock you up. If the day they examine you again you haven’t improved, they just assume you need some more drugs and additional time behind closed doors. Being locked in by people who disregard your personal integrity could drive a healthy person bonkers. Now imagine what it does to someone who is already weakened. If anyone ever comes out of there cured, it is a miracle rather than a medical success. Such clinics fail to recognize their role as active participants in your healing process, and therefore contribute to your sinking even deeper into illness. On the other hand, staying at a clinic that practices an attitude of encouragement and support towards its patients helps you greatly, if not decisively, in putting your act back together.

In my belief, the biggest shortcoming of hospital environments is how they isolate patients from life. When you are confined to a clinic, you logically cannot participate in society the way you do living freely. But it is that very sense of being stuck in limbo that can worsen feelings of depression and hopelessness in patients. Who if not the very institution our society provides for healing should allow the ill to gather new strength and return to active existence? I am sure the more life is brought to a hospital in the shape of social and artistic therapies, fresh foods, biological life such as plants, comforting scents, natural daylight, cozy areas for relaxation and fresh air, the more curative it will be. Staying at a psychiatric clinic may not allow you to be immersed in everyday life, but it must offer the clear perspective of equipping you for it.

Right now, many hospitals make people sicker. My acquaintance’s father was right about that. The practice of medicine and psychiatry is often still not humane, not loving, not caring, enough. To a culture devout to science and rational thinking this sounds amateurish and cheesy. Yet, it is a profound truth. If science has not been able yet to define or measure love, compassion, health and vital energy, it is by force also unable to produce those. It is one thing to give someone a pill for their intestinal cramps. It is another to attempt mending someone’s broken spirit in the same way. Our health system still has a lot to learn.

Some Words on: Drug Interactions

Being on psychiatric medication will force you to question some of your habits. It might also make you wary about other drugs that had seemed harmless to you so far. Little things you took for granted may suddenly become big no-nos. I am talking about interactions your medication may have with other substances. For example, if you are taking a tricyclic antidepressant, popping an Aspirin against your headache is out of the question. You may have to renounce to alcoholic beverages and quit smoking bong. Possibly, you can’t even have caffeinated drinks.

Before you consider suicide, I wish to stress that despite the many restrictions your medication imposes on you, you will still find ways of enjoying life. I am just saying you need to be careful. The first step you need to take is to find out about the interactions your medicines may have with other prescription and over the counter drugs. Personally, I am on Quetiapine (Seroquel) and Sertraline (Zoloft). As a result, when I have pain from flu, from a migraine or caused by some lesion, I pretty much have to rely on Acetaminophen to fix it. It is the only analgesic and anti-inflammatory I can use without putting myself at risk. Every time I am about to try a new medicine I have to check and double-check if it is really safe for me to take. I admit to feeling quite nervous whenever I experiment with a new drug, although it is reported not to interact with my psychiatric medication. However, sometimes there is no way around playing guinea pig. Once I have successfully tried out a new drug I usually stick to it like glue. My list of compatible drugs is still short. Luckily, I don’t get ill often. Yet, eventually I should definitely make a list of all the medications I have found work fine for me.

It can be frustrating to find an entire group of medications is counter indicated for you, especially when you’re having an acute and debilitating health problem. You may have read in my withdrawal diary that I had been suffering from back pain. Unfortunately, I had to stick it out because there seemed to be no compatible muscle-relaxants. Usually, though, in every medication family, there should be at least one variety you can use. For example, there are several antibiotics which would interact with my psychiatric medication, but some are alright for me. The same goes for anti-allergic drugs. A couple of them would be dangerous for me to use, but Fexofenadine (Allegra) is harmless.

Not just other drugs can interact with your medication. Natural substances and food products can, too. All beverages containing caffeine are stimulants, meaning that, if your psychiatric treatment is aimed at calming you down, you will have to cut those out at least for a while. It is no coincidence that mental clinics usually offer their patients decaffeinated coffee and tea throughout the day. This may sound off-putting to the coffee-gourmets among you, but the nice thing about non-stimulating coffee is that you can literally have it around the clock and as much of it as you like. Personally, I love having several cups of coffee and tea per day. Yet, in order not to let it disturb my sleep, I stop consuming caffeine before 5 pm. Alcohol, on the other hand, is a potent depressant. So, if you are already down, having a few shots at your neighborhood bar will dig your grave a bit deeper. Doctors will generally recommend you to abstain from alcohol while taking psychiatric medications, or to enjoy moderate quantities on rare occasions. Your medications are broken down by the liver, so anything that would affect its functioning or strain it unnecessarily should be avoided. Now, alcohol is often a staple at social events. For many, having a glass of wine, a beer or a cocktail is part of the fun of hanging out with friends or colleagues. Probably, you can drink a glass or two without risking any negative effects. As for myself, I can have a few drinks without difficulty. I have never been a heavy drinker, not even a regular one. When I am at a party or at a restaurant, I like my share of red wine or a round of sake at sushi places. I never have booze on an empty stomach and also never let myself get drunk. If you decide you’d like to try a drink, accompany it with a glass of water to dilute and help you flush it out. An exotic item on the list of forbidden foods is the grapefruit. It alters liver function and therefore should not be consumed in combination with any drug at all – psychiatric or not.

Then, there are psychoactive natural remedies, such as Saint John’s Worth or Valerian. Extracts made from those plants are tranquilizing. In other words, they act on your brain. Only use them if you can make sure they won’t interfere with the therapeutic purpose of your current treatment. For the ladies, it might be an interesting fact that Saint John’s Worth, on top of its psycho-activity, also diminishes the effectiveness of hormonal contraceptives. So, hands off this shrub if you would like to enjoy your freedom for a bit longer!

Talking of natural psychotropic substances, there is a host of them. Probably the most commonly used is marijuana. Although it is illegal in most places, it is probably less dangerous than many psychiatric drugs. Still, it should not be used in combination with them. I am acquainted with people who are on anti-psychotics and smoke weed at the same time, but it is risky and therefore not recommendable. It can go well, or it can go wrong, without there being any way of telling beforehand. Unfortunately, little data is to be found about the risk factor here. It appears to be that recreational drugs can actually trigger mental illnesses. During my last stay at a mental clinic, I came across fellow patients whose diagnosis of schizophrenia or psychosis followed the use of marijuana, heroin or other illegal substances. Spontaneously, I can recall four or five cases, just out of the people I got in closer contact with. There is no way for me of knowing whether the physicians at the clinic recognized the cause of mental illness correctly, or whether factors other than recreational drugs were in play. Still, it is a possibility.

Sometimes, an illness or injury can require extra medication with great urgency. If it so happens, you will have to grind your teeth and weigh possible interaction symptoms against the gravity of your condition, then choose the least compromising of the two. Note that not all drug interactions are necessarily dangerous. Depending on their severity, they are usually categorized as major and minor interactions. Hence, if you are seriously ill, you may be willing to risk interactions as long as they are not menacing to your life. Just as side effects, interactions may occur in some individuals and in others not. If an undesired symptom is expressed in a very small percentage of the sample population, the odds are on your side.

Most importantly, you need to find reliable information on the interactions your medication may have. The package inserts (or PILs – Package Information Leaflets), usually only contain a basic paragraph on the subject. You can, of course, ask your prescriber, but he or she will likely not be familiar enough with the specific combination of drugs you are going to take. Remember your doctor sees dozens of patients every day, all of them with their specific medication plan. It is virtually impossible to bear all possible drug interactions in mind. Then, there is the internet. Several sites offer interaction finders where you can type in the combination of drugs you wish to check for safety. It is hard to say whether these webpages have complete data at their disposition. New medications are thrown onto the market and new studies with already existing medications are conducted all the time, so there is a constant need for updates. The advantage of online interaction finders is that you can type in any number of substances, which allows you to learn about the safety of multiple drug use. You can also find interaction lists on the internet. But be warned: the number of interactions for your psychiatric drug can literally be in the hundreds, so prepare for a Sisyphean task.

Last, but not least, your using psychiatric medication may be socially and professionally compromising. Not because you may have to turn down friendly offers of alcoholic or stimulating beverages, but because your medication may render you unresponsive to everyday situations. One day, instead of taking my antidepressant in the morning, I accidentally took the anti-psychotic. What a knockout! That day, I had visits coming over. Later in the afternoon I was supposed to shop for a birthday present and attend a theater rehearsal. I am hard headed as a ram, so I forced myself to pull through with my agenda, but it felt like attempting to pull myself out of a swamp. I won’t forget that day so easily. Normally, I am supposed to use my anti-psychotic right before going to bed at night. Now, there are some evenings where you have no intention of going to bed any time before the early morning hours of the following day. New Year’s Eve is one of those occasions. As a consequence, you may end up flushing your sedating medication down with a fruit punch at 2 am or so. As long as you have nothing important to do the next day, it’s not a problem. Just make sure you have no job interviews, driving lessons or college admission tests coming up, because you will be feeling quite heavy. Luckily, I am not much of a night owl, so the anti-psychotic does not really get in my way much. If you are into clubbing or have to work graveyard shifts, you will need to make adjustments either to your activity schedule or to your medication plan. Discuss this in depth with your prescribing physician. You may have to modify your lifestyle in some regards, but do not feel discouraged. If an aspect of your life is really important to you, there should be ways to conserve it. Stay motivated and think outside of the box.

What Made Me Crazy And How Do I Deal with It?

When I broke down with psychosis, I had already been struggling with myself for many years, if not for all my life. Although as a teenager and as a young adult I had always been hopeful about my future – and I still am – I was also experiencing major insecurities which made me fear I was incapable of survival, let alone happiness. Even if other people praised me as a person or liked the quality of my work, I always felt like a cheat who is using a promising façade to hide a putrid ruin. I felt emotionally and socially disabled. During the years leading up to the psychotic break, I had been working hard to overcome my mistrust in myself, but I never shook off the fear that I might be a failure by design. Something seemed wrong.

Now, there are many definitions of mental illness and also many theories about its origins. As no clear answer has been found yet, the consensus is that mental illness results from mixed factors such as genetic predisposition, dysfunctional upbringing, traumatic experiences and substance abuse. The presence of any of these, or any combination of these, can push someone over the edge.

In my case, I can rule out substance abuse and traumatic experiences, not counting extreme stress as the latter. Thus remain genetic predisposition and a dysfunctional upbringing. I cannot prove nor disprove genetic disposition, but looking at family history on my paternal side there might be some. I would have to find out more about that issue. Just for the sake of argument, let’s say I am genetically predisposed towards mental illness, and my symptoms were triggered by a dysfunctional upbringing and other stress factors. An unhealthy upbringing I can prove to have had. I lacked nothing material, and also received a good academic education, but my close family was and still is emotionally damaged.

My parents had a miserable marriage, yet never split up. They shared a strange need to destroy, despise and blame one another for everything that had gone wrong in their lives. Fights and insults were their means of communication. My father retreated into a socially isolated lifestyle. He was super-sensitive and irritable, displayed signs of OCD (he feared the presence of germs and dust everywhere) and held no power of decision within the family. Hardly anyone took him seriously, or so I perceived it. My mother personified the theories about “schizophrenisizing” parenting you find in psychology literature. She loved me, but had no clue how to do it. She was possessive, controlling, over-protecting, manipulative, and eternally ambiguous about everything. She exerted power by instilling fear and feelings of guilt in me. Despite her addiction to control, she herself was desperately insecure and fickle. At times she was excessive in her demonstrations of motherly love, and at times she condemned me for being my father’s offspring. One day she could be encouraging and generous, the next she would make me feel unworthy. I could never confide in her because she might use whatever I said against me. My siblings, way older than me and living far away, just got the idea that I was a problem. My mother used to evacuate her complaints about me with them and other family members. When the first thing your cousin says to you, after a decade of not seeing one another, is “I know everything you’ve done to your mother”, you know for sure you’re the official fuck-up of the tribe. Now add years of bullying at school and you get someone who logically – with or without genetic predisposition – had to go nuts at some point.

So what was the ultimate trigger? My psychotic break was not my first crisis, but other than the previous ones it was cataclysmic. The breakdown was immediately preceded by the end of a long-term relationship (if not a very healthy one), a life-changing move to another country and a personal confrontation with my family I was unprepared for, and which threw me right back into my old conflicts with them. All of these together produced an acute feeling of having been uprooted and set adrift in existence. It was an extremely frightening and painful experience. There was nothing I could hold on to for catching my fall, most of all not myself. That is ultimate loneliness. I became shock-frozen in life, and a case for the mental clinics. Mental illness had always been presented to me as an incurable, invariably disabling and socially annulling condition. My terror was nameless when I got diagnosed as psychotic and medicated. None of the first bunch of doctors I saw gave me any hope of reconquering life ever again, and my initial medication regime also was not helpful. I literally became a zombie – wishing for an end to everything, but my body would go on functioning, keeping me prisoner in a biological existence devoid of meaning and direction. There was no curtain call for me yet. Back then, during my crisis, staying physically alive felt like a curse. I just wanted out! The winds began changing during my last hospitalization. After that, I hesitantly but firmly took up the reigns again. I cannot tell what exactly made me recover. A combination of many physical and immaterial factors must have come together in my favor, including an unknown energy deep in my essence that refused to let me go under.  Nowadays, I am glad I made it through. Nothing guarantees me psychosis won’t strike again, but as things are I am not fearful about it. Right now, I have a lot to live for and I love my life as it is – full of beauty and love. But getting here sure was heck of a trip!

Once you break down in crisis, society isn’t exactly forgiving, including people you had felt close to so far. They may give up on you for various reasons: they think you are just putting on an egocentric show and this unnerves them; in their opinion your problems are your own fault and you are an irresponsible fool for having invited them in; your shallower acquaintances simply don’t find you fun anymore; firmer bonds suffer because they find dealing with you and seeing you ill too painful. Your former co-workers or fellow students may prefer to forget your name forever. In the eyes of many, craziness is not an ailment which can attack anyone and eventually subside again. Society stigmatizes mental illness as an inborn, rotten part of the befallen individual, who is therefore worthless.

Right along the lines of supposedly being damned by birth, you will hear it said that what you didn’t receive in your cradle, you will never acquire. In other words: if you had a bad start you might just as well throw yourself off a bridge, because there is no remedy for you. To everyone out there who was lulled into believing this popular la-di-dah: it is utter and complete BULLSHIT. Certainly, teaching yourself is harder than having everything served to you on a tray. Still, your capacity of learning and growing is your lifelong gift. No-one but yourself can keep you from enjoying it. Never resign to thinking you are merely the outcome of your parents’ joined genes and educative efforts. Have you ever heard the saying “the sum is bigger than its parts”? It is true! There is much, much more to you. An unlikely source of wisdom, among many others, is the subtitle on the posters of the Hollywood movie “Gattaca”. It reads: “There is no gene for human spirit”. Neuroscience, in fact, backs this philosophy up. It turns out the human brain remains capable of rewiring its networks throughout our entire life. This ability is called neuroplasticity. How remarkably flexible and versatile our brain is, is impressively described in Norman Doidge’s book “The Brain That Changes Itself”. It is quite a fascinating and edifying read. According to the principle of neuroplasticity, any unhealthy behavioral and thinking patterns you fear were hardwired into you during your childhood and youth do not predetermine your future. You can modify them through willpower, practice and positive reinforcement. Thereby, you can even activate or deactivate certain genes. In other words: no matter where you are coming from, you are able to become someone you love and respect. Probably you will need help and also some powerful insights gained from difficult experiences, but you can mend your psyche. In this context, I would like to recommend another book. It is really written for therapists and the loved ones of people in need of help. Yet, as it portrays clearly which kind of help is the right one, I found it extremely useful for myself, because it taught me what my therapeutic needs are. This, in turn, allows me to seek out adequate help and instruct those closest to me how to deal with me should moments of crisis come up. The book I am referring to is Dr. Peter Breggin’s The Heart of Being Helpful”. This is a must-read for you, both if you are the one who is in crisis, and if you are a potential helper.

And finally, don’t let yourself become the problem. Also, don’t allow others to make you that. Unfortunately, even in the medical field, a mentally ill patient is treated as the personified problem. This does not happen to such a great extent in other areas of medicine. For example, a patient can HAVE a heart disease, but they ARE not a heart disease. Possibly out of general ignorance about the causes and nature of mental illness, someone with, say, schizophrenia, is considered to be inherently dysfunctional rather than suffering from a dysfunction that may well be temporary. Also, what if mental illness is actually not an illness in the conventional sense, not a medical defect? Could it be a reaction to the richness of observations an exceptionally sensitive and perceptive psyche is able to make of reality? Maybe some people are simply able to feel the pea under multiple layers of bedding, while others have a thicker skin and fall asleep anyways? It is easy to just stick the label of mental illness onto someone whose takes in a greater variety of stimuli, and who cannot always process their complexity. At first glimpse, you may judge extreme susceptibility as a weakness. In general, the psychiatric discipline and mainstream opinion fail to recognize that psychological hypersensitivity can also be a gift that stretches way beyond madness and alienation. In my personal view, it offers an opportunity for learning, healing, and growth that is less accessible to all those who are robust enough to just leave their conflicts unattended and carry on with their emotional load on their backs. If you break down under your world’s weight, you will be forced to sort the clutter and take only the useful things with you. Mental crises are a nightmarish ordeal, but they can also be your chance for renovation. I am not saying you necessarily need to become psychotic in order to make something out of your life. Of course not! What I suggest is that facing mental illness does not have to end in absolute defeat. Instead, it could well be the first step towards a more conscious way of living. I do believe that the destructive forces of madness can be turned around and redirected. Consider mental illness as a challenge, not as a final verdict. You can move on.

The following are links that lead you to people who are dealing with their conditions in inspiring ways, and to institutions which can help deal with your situation.

 

Websites:

Directory of organizations which can help people who are first diagnosed with a mental illness (UK based): http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01b3s86/features/info-and-support

This is the blog of Natasha Tracy, who fought herself back up to her feet despite her diagnosis: http://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/breakingbipolar/

 

Articles:

Christopher Tolmie writes about his documentary “Mental: A Family Experience”, which he exposed at the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival 2013 in Glasgow (http://www.mhfestival.com/). Here is the link to the article: http://www.changingmindschanginglives.com/2014/01/mental-illness-does-not-necessarily-incapacitate-someone/ Or go to:  http://www.mhfestival.com/news/interview/item/77-festival-blog

Audiovisuals:

“Ask A Schizophrenic – My Answers”: Questions and answers with Rachel Star (NOT Rachel Starr), who got diagnosed with schizophrenia and talks about how she manages her life and makes the best of her condition. To me, she appears quite admirable and inspiring. http://youtu.be/BAUlllDZqxg

This moving story recently went viral. In case you still haven’t come across it, it is about a man named Johnny Benjamin. He had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and decided he was going to take his life. This was prevented last minute by a passer-by. After the incident, Benjamin began to turn his life around and is now giving thanks to his rescuer. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-25959260