Get with the Program

The asylum was a home to ghosts now. But then again, it always had been. Only back then it was the other kind. Back then the ghosts were bodies without a spirit, instead of the other way around. Or sometimes it was a body with more than one, or the wrong one – one that hadn’t come with the original owner.

People didn’t understand that bodies were a bit like houses. Sometimes they were unoccupied. Sometimes there was a new tenant. And sometimes there were squatters – people who snuck in and never left.

But the asylum’s founders never saw it that way. They saw it as a character flaw that people were less than stable. They were running a warehouse, not a hospital. It was more like a prison than a sanatorium. Nobody got sane there. In many cases they went even further down that rabbit hole. Sometimes so far they never came back.

That all changed when the new Program started. It was small at first – privately funded by a few far-sighted citizens and understanding congregations. It never wanted to take government money. Government money meant government meddling, and that meant nothing ever got done.

The Program’s motto was “Get with the Program” and they didn’t advertise or recruit. People found them through word-of-mouth. People who had gotten their lives back told friends they thought were ready for it. It was private, but not secret. But it was free to the people who needed it. Healing shouldn’t cost money. That cheapens it. But there was a cost. The clients (never patients) had to clean and cook. They were supervised and assisted but they had to do the work. Idle hands meant idle spirits, and the goal of the Program was to re-integrate body and mind. They did this by making the clients participate in their own recovery. They truly healed themselves – and more importantly they were taught how to keep that momentum going once they left.

They weren’t out on their own after the Program. There were weekly meetings to attend as graduates, to remind themselves of how far they had come and the path that led to life. All too often people forgot how they got well and so got sick again, entropy being what it is at all.

The natural way of life leads to decay. The founders of the Program knew that. They taught their clients a series of steps to do daily maintenance on their souls and bodies, just like with a car or house. This was their secret. It wasn’t pills or talk therapy that did the trick, but they were included too. It was more like occupational therapy than psychotherapy, with the occupation being living your life.

For some people, just being alive was work, and hard work at that. The daily tasks of self-care didn’t come easy to them, or they never learned them. So they struggled with tasks that everyone else did unconsciously. Or they did them for a little while – a week, or a month, or even a year – and then forgot, or assumed their stability was normal, forgetting the incredible framework they had to build all the time in order to prop themselves up and avoid collapse.

They were taught that sanity isn’t like taking penicillin. You don’t follow this prescription for eleven days and then stop. It requires daily work to keep away the decay in body and mind, the decay that leads to death. Maybe it isn’t an actual death, but a sort of living death, a half life. Maybe it is a zombie kind of life, one where you go through the motions, never really here.

The goal of the Program was life, full stop. A true integration into reality, an active participation. It included classes in mindfulness, gratitude, and forgiveness. It taught cooking and how to navigate grocery stores. It taught how to budget money, time and energy. It taught how to express feelings verbally and through art. It taught self-sufficiency and interdependence. And it did it all out of love.

Eventually, the building closed, because this new way of living became part of the community’s way of life.  Everyone followed the Program.  It became normal to take care of bodies and souls together, to not see them as separate, or as opposed to each other. It became normal to be healthy in body, mind, and spirit.  They kept the old building as a reminder of how far they had come, and as a warning to not go back.

(Written mid-July 2018, updated February 2, 2019)

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This woman is an island

The room was dark and damp. A faint smell of mildew tickled her nose, caused her to remember that her inhaler was at home. She hadn’t needed it the last several urban adventures and she didn’t want to need it now. She vowed to be careful, to breathe shallowly. It wouldn’t do to have an asthma attack here.

Urban exploring had become her secret passion. Early in the morning, at least an hour before the sun came up, she was out walking across deserted fields to abandoned buildings, her car parked a mile away to avoid attention. She was always back home in time to wash up before going to work. Nobody knew this was how she spent her time. Nobody would have suspected, and this was how she preferred it. Left alone, a silent life, away from the masses who didn’t think, who let their computers think for them.

This was her version of a video game – places to explore, rooms to discover. Who needs virtual reality when actual reality was so much better? Of course, this reality came with real dangers – loose flooring, rusty nails. You could land a trip to the hospital, or the jail, or the morgue.

She wandered alone. Plausible deniability. Nobody could rat her out if they didn’t know. Nobody had to lie for her. She was on her own for everyone’s benefit. She preferred not having to make arrangements to meet or what to bring to the site. If she didn’t have something or was late, it was her fault. She’d rather not have to be mad at anybody for letting her down.

She thought back to her family, her friends. They all had failed her. They all had lied, intentionally or not. She was done with it. Maybe it was true that no man is an island, but this woman was.

To everyone she was a girl, but she knew better. They called her a girl to keep her small, to take away her power. Maybe even to keep her from ever getting power in the first place. What they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them.

She lived two lives, the public one and the private one. Maybe it was more than that. Her life was divided at home too – the life her husband saw, and the one she lived when he wasn’t around.

When she first got married she would cry when he had to leave – to work for the day, or away for the weekend on a project. But that was when she wasn’t sober. She feared sobriety at the time – that it would mean she’d feel too much, too often. How would she function?

But now she was sober, she’d learned how to feel and move and be alive multi-dimensionally. All those who looked down their noses, those who thought themselves as sober because they didn’t do drugs, they were fooling themselves. It was like people who weighed 200 pounds thinking they weren’t obese because that was normal, even svelte in comparison with others around them. Why change?

Over eating, over drinking – too much TV or social media, whatever. Fill in the blank – the thing they used to avoid life as it is was their drug. Legal or not, it is that which draws away from life, the path that leads to destruction, to being asleep.

Being awake was like riding a wave. So many changes, shifts. So hard, and yet so essential.

This skill was what she honed on her walks into unattended buildings. Fully present was the only option. Anything else meant death.

And death was the last thing she could afford right now.

She had 15 more years of time to do at work, 15 more years of wearing a mask, of faking it. It was still better than what others did. She couldn’t call them friends – more like acquaintances. They weren’t even friends of friends. Just people she knew. Maybe it was time to have better friends. But then again, why?

People thought she needed to read this book, watch this film, listen to that album. She never liked those things. It all felt fake, like they were just talking to themselves. Maybe they were. So maybe “you need to have friends” wasn’t for her, just like all of their other suggestions. Why force herself into their mold? The same people would turn their nose up to taking welfare but were OK with begging from friends to support their habits – namely not working a full-time job. Her take on it was that if you don’t work, you shouldn’t expect those who do to pay your way.

So her way was not their way. Yet she remembered – she used to be like them. It was grace that knocked her out of that groove, that horrible broken record. Perhaps the same grace would come to them. In the meantime, she stayed away from them. She had to. Their ways drew her back into bad habits and new ones. She tried to help them, fix them, and then realized that too was an addiction.

So here she was, alone in an abandoned warehouse. The more she thought about it, it seemed apropos. The building had housed a thriving industry, hundreds of people had worked here, made their lives here. And now it was crumbling away. Now only thrill seekers and transients came here. Perhaps she was a little of both, prowling around these dusty rooms with their peeling paint. Perhaps she too was near the end, but of what? Did the workers here know they’d never get a pension because this “sure thing” wasn’t?

So how had it come to be – for them and for her? How had the tried-and-true, the solid path, become unsure? How had their jobs ended? How had her life moved into one where she felt she had to put on a mask in front of everyone? Perhaps that sort of dishonesty, that lack of being truly present, as is, with no hedging and no apologies, is what finally closed down this business too.

She was going to have to watch her step, in more than one way. Being less than honest is a guaranteed way to get tripped up. And yet, there was this – she’d never lied. She just hadn’t revealed all of her truth. Was that being polite or politically correct? Who was she protecting with her silence? Them, or herself? Did it matter?

Soon it would be time to leave. Soon she would put on her uniform, put on her face for the world. Or maybe she wouldn’t this time. Maybe she’d just simply be herself, unedited. Could they handle it? Could she? The last time she was fully herself they thought she was sick, or crazy. Many’s the time that she did not fully put on her happy mask and the customers or her family accused her of being a bitch, or worse.

But she was tired of shoehorning her extra large personality into an extra small world. They were just going to have to make space for her. Maybe they’d be inspired to follow her example. Or maybe they’d try to commit her again.



(Started early June 2018
Completed late January 2019)

Panic attack

Remember to breathe from your abdomen. It takes time to make that natural. Shallow breathing is normal, but it tells the brain that things are in crisis mode.

Get 8 hours of sleep.

Eat more fiber and no processed sugar. Natural fruit is fine, just don’t go overboard on it.

Go for a walk.

Stretch. Yoga is helpful.

Don’t watch or read the news.

Make art.

Connect with God through prayer.

The panic attacks are physical. They are not “real”. They feel real because you are in your body and you feel them. You can learn to observe them and see them as a sign that you are going off track. Refer to the list above. What is being neglected? Do that.

I have to do all these things every day to feel human.

Mental health and the pothole

How mental health works –

I saw this pothole.

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It was on my route every day to work. I decided to fill it with rocks from my walk. I can only carry a few at a time (in a plastic grocery bag). So I will gather rocks and fill it little by little every time I go for a walk.

It took a week to get to the point from where I saw the problem, figured out the solution, and started to commit to it. It is a slow process, but that is how it works.

A little later –

It has been days since I have last worked on this. I have left myself a note on the dining room table and a large rock at the end of my driveway to remind me that I need to keep working on this task.

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It doesn’t matter that I haven’t done any more work in several days. It only matters that I continue the work. While this may look mostly complete, it is not. It is shallow. I need to add more to it. I have found a place at the end of the road where they have recently repaved so I am not taking rocks from anybody’s driveway. But to get these rocks requires that I walk all the way to the bottom of the hill and then carry the rocks, small bag by small bag, up to the top of the hill.

This too is mental health.

Do what you can with what you have, even if it is small. Something is better than nothing.  Keep going.

Also, rains will come and wash some of this away. Cars will drive over it and knock some of the rocks out. I will need to check it every now and then to make sure that it is whole and add more to it.

That too is part of mental health.

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Days later….I found a small (palm-sized) box to scoop the rocks into.

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It can’t be a big box because I have to carry it. So I walked down to the bottom of the hill to gather the rocks and then I looked up. Here’s the view looking up the hill.

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I can’t see the top from here. But I know it’s there. The trick is to just keep on walking towards the goal even if you can’t see it.

When I get to the top I see that cars have driven over my filled-in pothole, kicking out some of the rocks.

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So some of my work has gone away. This is not a “do it and walk away” project. This requires diligence.
People may try to take away from your happiness intentionally or otherwise. But all that you have done doesn’t go away. That was a lot of exercise just putting those rocks there. That is not erased. And I got a lot of encouragement from starting a project and persisting in it.

But then sometimes you have to admit that the task is bigger than you are equipped or trained to handle.  The rocks I put there were now scattered on the road.  The road isn’t a smooth surface for walking anymore.

So yesterday (7/26/18) I contacted a professional (the city government) – to fill in the pothole.

This too is mental health.

They fixed it on Friday, 7/27/18

hole

mental / emotional / spiritual health

We talk about having a “go-bag” for natural disasters. How about having a plan in place for mental / emotional / spiritual problems? Do you have a daily practice that keeps you grounded and stable? What can you share of that to help others? Many of you know that I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder for nearly 20 years. I have committed myself twice, and am in recovery. That being said – I have also been married for 14 years, held the same job for 17 years, and have excellent credit and health. All of that happened after my diagnosis. There is a LOT that I do to keep myself sober – mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually. Mental/emotional/spiritual health is an inside job and requires as much work as physical health – if not more so, because our society doesn’t value it. Perhaps it is time to. We have lost too many people to suicide, to substance abuse, to mass murder. We have a mental-health epidemic going on. Sanity starts with each person, making tiny daily steps on a consistent basis, towards getting stronger. It isn’t easy, but it is essential.

Things I do –
No substance abuse – this includes the usual suspects but also I severely limit caffeine and sugar of all sorts.
Daily exercise.
Reading the Bible.
Making art.
Doing worksheets for my emotional health.
Doing family of origin work.

Invisible war wounds – poem

My Dad had PTSD,
invisible war wounds
from a war
he never left home for
in fact, he had to
leave home
to leave the war.

He was a son of a veteran
who brought the war home
in his pockets,
in his perfectionism,
in his need for things to be
just so
and it never was,
because it never could be.

Gone were the days
of an innocent youth,
it never happened.
He was trained by an incompetent,
unwilling
drill sergeant,
masquerading as Dad.
He was living in an army
he never enlisted for,
was shanghaied
simply by virtue
of being born.

There is hope after diagnosis

A guy came into my workplace yesterday, obviously experiencing the mania that comes with unmanaged mental dis-ease. He was raving about conspiracy theories and the Temple Mount – said he was even frisked by the police in the Holy Land just 50 days ago.

Little does he realize but I speak Crazy fluently, being a citizen of that country. I’ve also taken classes and read books on how to safely interact with people who are on the edge of “dealing with it”. I enjoyed the challenge of the conversation, but was also reminded of how far I’ve come.

Today is marks the 17 year anniversary of the last time I was in a mental hospital. There is hope after a diagnosis. Since I started taking care of myself, I’ve had the same job for 16 years, I’ve been married for 12, I’ve published four books and I have excellent credit. You can have a mental disorder and be fine – with proper care (a lot of it is self-care).

Like many people, I went through the trap of thinking it was a temporary thing and got off the meds (which weren’t good for anyone anyway – they no longer prescribe the one I took) and went off the deep end again. I went to the hospital again (both times self-initiated) and got on different meds that gave me clarity so I could start taking care of myself. It is hard to be “normal” when the high is so vivid and interesting. Everything is connected. Life is 31 flavors when high with mania – but only vanilla when “normal”. I’ve learned how to be in the middle.

A lot has to do with getting enough exercise, eating right, and enough sleep. Writing helps me a lot. But Americans aren’t into self-care for anything – do whatever you want and damn the consequences – and blame them on someone else. This is true with every disease we have.

The only way out is to –

admit that there is a problem,

that it won’t fix itself,

that it is chronic (think heart disease, not the flu),

and that you have a lot you can do to help yourself get better. It isn’t all about the meds – but they are important.  Look through my “Survival” book list for books that will help you help yourself.

 

Most of all – remember that a diagnosis is not a definition.  You are a person who has a mental health diagnosis.  You aren’t the disease.