Coming out of The Dark – How I Recovered My Cognitive Abilities

I have mentioned before that during my psychotic break my cognitive functions were severely restricted. My concentration was below zero, and so was my ability to make even the simplest decisions. I was unable to put a list of items together that I wanted to have in the clinic with me, and it took me ridiculously long to pick an outfit for the day. Partly, this was due to my perceiving that even tiniest decisions could change the course of events obeying to a sort of butterfly-effect mechanism. The complexity of this idea was literally mind smashing. But to an even greater extent, I just could not hold on to an idea and follow it through. A thick broth of thoughts and notions was bubbling in my mind, and there was no way for me to put them in order or assign adequate degrees of relevance to them.

Being prescribed the anti-psychotic Olanzapine (Zyprexa) did calm the storm a bit, but it did not help my cognition. I still could not put two and two together. Even trying to complete an easy Sudoku was a major challenge. In addition, the Olanzapine seemed to dull my will and thereby actually accentuated my lack of direction. During my last hospitalization, the Olanzapine was substituted with Quetiapine (Seroquel), and I also took part in a structured program of coordinated therapies and received more thorough medical supervision for the first time. The therapeutic menu included arts therapy, social interaction practice, stimulation of sensory perceptions, psycho-educative sessions (basic information about mental health and illnesses), sports and outdoor activities and one-on-one conversations with the doctors. In your spare time, patients could do pretty much what they wanted: have a walk, go downtown, visit friends or family, sit in the park, organize table tennis or volleyball matches with other patients, etc. I soon became “famous” for devouring almost any sort of written text. With swarms of anxiety-ridden thoughts still frantically revolving around my mind, it was almost impossible to take anything in, but I knew I had to do it somehow in order to find even a little bit of peace and focus. I tried books at first, but I noticed I was not ready to follow the development of complex discourses, so I switched to reading articles in magazines. I read article after article, even if the topic of some was really outside my areas of interest, until I had read the whole magazine. Whenever I was done with one issue, I would go buy the next or lend new ones out from fellow patients. Gradually, I was able to digest longer articles, and eventually I returned to books, reading anywhere between one and three in a week’s time. Reading did not rid me of my anxiety and my racing thoughts, but it forced my mind to engage in the present moment and function, at least to a certain extent, in spite of the chaos.

I wasn’t the only one who instinctively turned to cognitive stimulation. Just as you would find me reading anything anytime and anywhere, a group of ladies used to crochet together. They tried to convince me of joining them, but I preferred to stick to reading. Although they were using a different activity, their need for focus also stemmed from an impulse to overcome anxiety and recover some degree of functionality, even if on a small scale.

As of today, my concentration and capacity for learning are healthy, possibly even improved in comparison to before my psychotic break, given that I have found myself embarking on explorations of my possibilities I hadn’t been able to open myself up to in earlier years. Maybe this is a sign of better cognition, but it may also be that after escaping a terrifying episode of zombie-like existence I have become more intrepid and willing to seize life. This is really not for me to determine, and I also feel my cognitive development has not yet come to completion. Many new – and positive – things and people have come into my life, prompting me to unlearn past thinking and emotional patterns to learn new, more constructive ones.

Although all of the aforesaid is based on my subjective perception, I would like to back it up with a few lines on recent trends in neuroscience. The regenerative powers of the human brain are being studied intensely, and the traditional idea of mental illness and brain damage as being irreversible conditions seems to become gradually dismantled in the process. In this context, it turns out to be untrue humans lose their ability to learn as they grow older, or that senile dementia is an unavoidable consequence of aging. What seems to be the case, instead, is that the brain can be exercised and strengthened through persistent stimulation just like a muscle can, throughout all stages of life. Cognitive training helps the brain stay fit and even regain lost functions. The term coined to denominate this property is “neuroplasticity”. I lack the scientific knowledge to competently explain neuroplasticity in depth, but I would like to recommend a book on it I believe everyone should have read, no matter from which background they come. The title of the book is The Brain That Changes Itself, written by Norman Doidge. It describes cognitive processes and neuroplasticity in terms understandable for the layman, illustrating its point through the narration of actual cases where a radical regeneration and reconfiguration of the brain appears to have taken place in an affected individual thanks to cognitive stimulation. The Brain That Changes Itself inspires without being inspirational in the sense of trying to lift anyone’s spirit by rhetoric means or philosophic meditations. The hope and encouragement inherent in this text derive from the portrayal of real people and real occurrences. Not in all cases described in the book all neurological functions are regained, but the overall improvement observed in the treated individuals’ quality of life is undeniable.

Personally, I acquired and read The Brain That Changes Itself before my psychotic break, and I am glad I did. More than one psychiatrist and more than one website with supposed information on mental illness transmitted the idea that mental pathologies equal a life sentence in some existential limbos – that the affected face perpetual residence in a state of forced stillness, not really participating in life, yet not biologically dead. Now, in retrospect, I can see how wrong they were. Here I am, living a happy and active life. But back then I had no idea if there was any hope for me or not. I certainly wanted there to be a way out, yet indications that there would actually be one were scarce. The Brain That Changes Itself, I believe, has the potential to be a source of valuable information and invaluable hope for someone in crisis.

Looking back at the insanely lucky and very unlikely concatenation of helpful people and circumstances that lead me back into life, I have to believe some benevolent power has laid its protective hand on my shoulder to lead me out of the darkness. Subconsciously, I also must have vehemently refused to give up, even though my conscious mind was paralyzed with terror. Now I recognize that every chunk of driftwood floating by can carry you the missing extra mile. The Brain That Changes Itself could be such a piece of driftwood for you or for someone you know. I really hope you read it, even if you and all your loved ones are doing fine right now. One day, they may need strength to overcome a crisis, or maybe you just wish to explore your potential and tread on a new path. This book is an eye-opener as to what your mind is capable of doing (and no, I don’t receive any commission for recommending it).

Websites

Norman Doidge’s official website, where you can get informed on his book The Brain That Changes Itself. http://www.normandoidge.com/normandoidge.com/MAIN.html

Here are links to the stores selling it: http://www.normandoidge.com/normandoidge.com/LOCATING_THE_BOOK.html

 

Audiovisuals

An impressive and inspiring testimony by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, a psychologist who overcame a severe congenital learning disability through cognitive stimulation techniques: http://youtu.be/o0td5aw1KXA

 

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

My Medication History – Why I Was Prescribed Psychiatric Drugs

Four years ago, I suffered what is generally called a psychotic break – a severe mental and emotional crisis that pushed me into total dysfunction in everyday life. In retrospect I believe the event had been announcing itself over time. In the back of my mind I had had a notion that something was wrong with me for a good while. I had not resolved various conflicts generated during my childhood and young adult life. I now believe they had kept accumulating and necessarily had to lead to a paralyzing overload someday. When the big crash finally occurred, it felt very much as if a knot that had been pulled tighter and tighter over the years had ruptured and left my existence in shambles. One could very well speak of a major seismic event in my head and heart. I could feel my mind racing, yet completely unhinged and in idle speed. Emotionally, it was such a traumatic experience that I found myself in a constant and paradoxical state of combined panic and numbness. I was convinced I was irreparably broken. 

My symptoms apparently were not easy to classify. I literally received as many different diagnoses as I saw psychiatrists: major depression, bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia. It is true that some symptoms of mental illness are common to all of these. There are no clear divisions between one mental illness and another, and psychiatry knows no scientific test methods to determine what you are suffering from. It is up to the psychiatrist to interpret what he believes to see in you. Also, most of the doctors I visited did not dedicate more than 10 or 15 minutes to our sessions, which is evidently not enough to make qualified observations, let alone guide me out of the crisis. In fact, the doctor who helped me most and invested the biggest effort in his patients’ well-being was also the one who saw no point in sticking a label on my problem. What mattered was my recovery. Further on, I will talk in more detail about my experiences with the psychiatric discipline – both positive and negative.

Before I was prescribed medication and the psychosis was in full swing, symptoms included: racing thoughts, sleeplessness, unorganized and contradictory thinking, unstructured speaking, inability to concentrate, incapacity of taking even the smallest decisions, paranoia, restlessness (akathisia), rigid stare, exaggerated need to make contact with people in the hopes of finding support, feeling existentially uprooted. At one point, I collapsed with what I now suspect to have been a minor stroke. I could literally feel an electric explosion initiating somewhere inside my brain and engulfing all of it in a few seconds. I began feeling ice cold and fell to the ground. I almost passed out. Terrified, I forced myself to open my eyes and get up. During the following hours, my legs would fold up under me, I had to force my eyelids open because they were constantly falling shut, and my speech was out of control – I was unable to form a thought and express it. My sentences were mostly incomplete. I also had no control over which of the languages I speak came out of my mouth. Despite my insisting to the people around me that something had “happened to my brain”, they preferred to believe I was just “low on sugar”. Even the psychiatrist who saw me a few days later did not consider it necessary to examine my brain. I felt I was in the wrong hands, but was powerless and exposed to other’s decisions. I described the incident to other doctors, but none thought it worth investigating. The first time I got a brain scan was seven months later. Around that time, also my blood and my thyroid were finally checked for anomalies. Nothing was found.

The first drug I was put on was the atypical antipsychotic Zyprexa (the active ingredient is Olanzapine). It did make me sleep, which no doubt was important. Yet, overall it had numerous unfavorable side-effects which added to the psychotic features mentioned above.  The negative effects were rapid and noticeable weight gain (about 35 pounds in six months), loss of willpower, deactivation of the menstrual cycle, lack of libido, unhealthy skin, and I still had that disturbing stare and was overall unable to engage in life.

When I got hospitalized for the third and – hopefully – last time, my medication was changed to 300mg of Seroquel (an atypical antipsychotic substance called Quetiapine) and 150mg of Zoloft (the SSRI antidepressant Sertraline). This cocktail seemed to work significantly better for me, and it is what I am still taking. All psychotic symptoms have vanished. The only downside is that I haven’t been able to return to my original weight – I am still about 25 to 30 pounds heavier than I used to be before the psychotic break. I also have recurrent nightmares and all sorts of unsettling dreams, which is a known side effect of Quetiapine. Apart from that, I am leading a happy and healthy life. I have a job, a partner, friends, pets, hobbies and a good overall health. My cognitive capacities are as good as they have ever been – I am pursuing a Master’s degree and also enjoy acquiring new knowledge and skills in my free time. Nothing is missing. Luckily, I have not noticed any cognitive disabilities caused by the medication. Although everything has been going just fine, my lifestyle needed to undergo major changes. Today, I am more careful with myself than before the crisis. I have become more conscious and protective of my mental and emotional health. I didn’t really know how precious it was until I lost it! Before the psychotic break, I tended to be merciless with myself. My schedule used to be crammed with duties and I seldom allowed myself to rest. In fact, relaxing would make me feel guilty and useless. In those days, I was notorious for my iron discipline and efficiency. I was working non-stop to keep up with my obligations. Today, I am way less masochistic. In fact, I’ve begun liking and trusting myself. I now consider spare time an important and pleasurable part of my schedule. I am still a busy person, but I am more selective as to which chores I fit into my day and to which ones to say “no”. Even when things get a bit intense at times, I don’t allow stress to take over. Of all the tasks that are at hand, I figure out which should be completed first, and I focus on that one. Then, I pick the next one, and so on. Tackling challenges one by one works a lot better than looking at the huge pile of responsibilities and getting overwhelmed by it. I also find I have become more discerning as far as priorities and not-so-important matters go. Allover, I’d say I am living more consciously and more lovingly towards myself and others. Definitely, life is more fun and more fulfilling now. It is something I believe everyone should strive for – mentally ill or not.

Personally, I am certain that medication alone did not put me on this new, better path. Many, if not the majority, of my fellow patients at the clinic were just as miserable on medication as they had been without it. I believe that love, attention and spiritual support from people close to you are at least as important as the correct prescription. Also, the last clinic I was in had a tight schedule of therapeutic activities which forced the patients to remain busy and engaged in reality. The staff was available for one on one support most of the time. In my view, it was the accumulation of all these factors plus my own striving for emotional wellbeing that helped me back into life. In fact, I now feel more secure and at peace with myself than I had ever felt before the psychotic break. Why that is so, I cannot be sure.  My becoming better may be, and that I would consider the worst case scenario, the sole merit of my medication plan. It is also possible, which I hope is the true cause, that the pills have, metaphorically, pushed my reset button and thereby allowed me to tackle my old conflicts and the challenges of life step by step, until seeing me out of the worst.