Reinventing Myself While Living With Schizophrenia

 

I admit I don’t have good social skills.  Never have and probably never will.  Part of it may have come from growing up in a rural town of less than 500 residents without much in the way of diversity or culture.  That and I didn’t know many people who shared my interests in science, science fiction, and fantasy type stories until I went to college.  To this day I have never bought a comic book.  I was 31 before I played my first D&D game.  I didn’t read any Issac Asimov or Arthur C. Clark until a couple years ago.  I didn’t sit down and watch an episode of Star Trek start to finish until I was in my thirties.  And besides the D&D, I enjoy all of these things.  I would have loved to discovered this stuff twenty five years ago.  Most people in my childhood hometown were interested in mostly farming, hunting, football, church, and politics.  I can discuss such things but they do get old after even a few minutes and then you’re just rehashing reruns of reruns.  While I didn’t hate my hometown as a child, I was quite bored and always felt like I didn’t fit in.  As a result I didn’t socialize except when I was forced to.  It’s not that I don’t like people.  I love people.  I just have a wide range of interests that growing up where I did just wasn’t able to satisfy.

I suppose in some ways now that I’m on disability insurance and don’t have to work a regular job (not that I could with my depression, paranoia, and anxiety), I feel like I’m getting a second chance at my adolescence.  Sure I’m in my late 30s, don’t have the physical strength I did at age 18, and I’m not interested in trying to get laid, but in some ways I still feel youthful.  I am enjoying my thirties far more than I ever did my teenage years.  In some ways, I feel like my thirties are kind of like my adolescence in that I have different possibilities every day as to how I want to spend my days.  And I don’t have to deal with bullies or irritable elders yammering on about how the ‘cold cruel world’ is going to kick my idealistic butt.  I had my butt kicked many times in my teens and twenties by my mental illness and trying in vain to find a job so I could be considered a ‘productive member of society’ or considered a ‘real man’ by fools and jerks whom I really couldn’t care less about.

My teens and twenties, besides the mainly truly happy times I felt in college because I got to work with smart and interesting people every day, by and large were lousy.  In fact, they sucked.  I pretty much spent my twenties going from one dead end job to another, one ill fitting relationship to another, finding out that the real world doesn’t make sense and isn’t supposed to all the while having psychotic breakdowns every few months along the way.  By the time I qualified for disability insurance at the age of 28 I realized that there is no set script to life.  I didn’t have to follow anyone’s script for me.  I could feel free to change my script anytime I want.  And I have.

Every one is free to change their life as long as they are willing to make sacrifices here and there.  Anyone who hates their thankless job could stride up their boss tomorrow, quit in a blaze of glory, and live the life of a nomad who answers to no one but their own limitations and nature itself.  But almost no one does because they aren’t willing to sacrifice their incomes, their prestige, their families, their McMansions, etc.

You can do what you like and are good at, it’s just what are you willing to give up to get there?  I have my freedom and I live quite happy in spite being on disability.  But I had to be inflicted with schizophrenia through no misdeeds of my own, give up ever having a traditional career, give up the shot at getting rich (it isn’t just monks and priests that take the vow of poverty), give up any shot of ever having a family or any kind of romance life (again, clergy aren’t the only ones who take vows of celibacy), and it can be quite lonely at times.  But I value my freedom.  I value my intelligence and wisdom.  I strive every day to make myself smarter, better read, better cultured, and wiser.

But it all came at a price.  It was a price that, at age 16 before I started having my problems with schizophrenia, I would have said ‘no way am I paying that price.’  I paid the price for my freedom and wisdom.  And, as it is, I am thankful I took the paths I did.  Statistically speaking, people with my diagnosis usually wound up lifetime institutionalized, homeless, in prison, or dead at a very young age for most of history.  I’m happy I beat the odds.  I’m happy I didn’t become just another statistic.

Everything else from this point in my life is just chicken gravy as far as I’m concerned.  So yes, I am going to be happy.  I am going to share my joy with other people while they gripe and moan about their jobs, their spouses, and humanity in general.  And if people think I’m overly optimistic or a hopeless Pollyanna, well it was one rugged process surviving from age eighteen until my early thirties when I finally learned to say, “screw others expectations, I am doing what I want.”  And I didn’t come to this conclusion all at once.  It was a gradual evolution.  My physical health may be not what it once was, but I am far happier now than I was ten years ago.  And that is mainly because I learned to let go of others’ expectations and a type of regular life that was never going to materialize.  In short, dance like no one’s watching; no one is.  Everyone else is too busy with the petty concerns of their own lives.

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My Education as a Writer with Mental Illness

 

I readily admit to being eccentric.  I was such even as a child.  In my more active years, I used to pace in the back yard for hours on end regardless of the weather just making up stories in my head.  I’m sure this concerned my family some (and made me a butt of jokes among the school yard bullies), but I had an overactive imagination as a child.  I was too scared to actually put any of this into writing.  I guess I was paranoid even as a child.  I used to make up all sorts of stories and characters.  I kind of kick myself now for not making notes on some of those stories as I think some of them might have made decent science fiction or fantasy stories.  But I never considered a career as a writer because I had heard so many horror stories about English and humanities students condemned to working minimum wage jobs after college.  As it is now, the middle class is all but gone.  I may have been happier as a double major in English and History rather than trying to be a medical scientist.

I guess now that I know myself much better at age 38 than I did at age 18, I know now that I am really a writer/story teller who is interested in science, rather than a scientist interested in writing.  And I certainly am not the economist or sales man I studied to be when I studied business after it became clear my mental illness wouldn’t allow to go to medical school.

Since I’m starting to read much more again, I’m beginning to get the urge to try my hand at traditional writing again.  I absolutely love blogging and I used poetry in my twenties to learn how to write and tell stories.  But perhaps it is time to venture into new possibilities with my writings.  I’ve had some of my poems published in small literary journals in the past. I did write the rough drafts of two novels when I was in my twenties.  I made outlines for science fiction novels but never wrote anything serious.  Once I even tried my hand at writing crime drama, and my only experience with crime was when I helped my boss catch a couple shoplifters during my first day on the job when I was in college.  I wish I had kept my rough drafts of my old novels.

I became interested in writing as a means of story telling during my freshman year in college when I qualified for a place in an advanced English course.  I find out I loved writing stories and essays in that class.  I made some pretty good friends in that class too.  One of those friends became a blogger too.  I regret that I lost contact with her and everyone else in that class over the years.  Even though I didn’t dive head first into writing after that class ended, I did become interested in literature.  I must have spent as much time reading in the college library as I did studying for my business and economics classes during the last three years of college.  I became so dedicated to pursuing this course of self study that I let much of my old college life go.  I left my fraternity even though I had lots of friends in that group.  I stopped dating to pursue knowledge.  I guess I knew even early on that learning and story telling were the true loves of my life.  Besides, fighting a mental illness I would have probably made a lousy husband and father.

I more or less lived in the library the last three years of college.  But one of the purposes of formal education should be to at least give kids the tools to learn new things should they wish to once they leave school.  I felt my formal education, first at a rural public school and then at a private college in York, Nebraska, did just that for me.  And I am grateful every day that I wake up for being able to make it through college without any student debt.  With as expensive as college is getting now, and how wages simply aren’t keeping up, I whole heartedly recommend against going to a four year college unless you are going for a STEM degree or can be guaranteed to get out debt free.  I’ve seen too many friends crushed by student loan debts, robbed of their peace of mind, and working jobs they can’t stand just because of said debts.  And much of what I learned in college can just as easily be learned with a few years of hard self study via the public library system, ebooks, and youtube videos.  I dare say that I learned more in five years of hard self studying via the public library and youtube videos than I did in my formal education.  But it was the formal education that planted that desire and need for knowledge and wisdom to begin with.  These are some of my thoughts on my education and path to enlightenment as the school year starts again.

A Schizophrenic Country Boy’s Journey to Enlightenment

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Starting to read more traditional books again.  For a couple years I had been lazy, by my standards, about reading.  For most of my life I always had a book I was reading on or re-reading.  I had gotten out of that habit for a little over two years as most of my reading was being done online.  I did listen to a few sci-fi audiobooks on youtube.  My favorites were Foundation by Issac Asimov and a few of Cory Doctrow’s short stories.

But I have recently rediscovered how much I love laying in bed with a book under my nose.  When I was in college, my friends thought I was odd in that I would do most of my homework in bed.  In addition to my homework, I was also reading some of the classics of Western literature from the college library.  Levitt Library was such a second home for me during my college years that I took a job as a tutor there my senior year.  I didn’t really need the money as I lived at home during the summers while working 40 to 50 hours a week and saving my summer money for the school year.

During my ‘self directed study’ program, I sampled philosophy from ancient Greece and Rome, read epic poetry by the ancient masters like Homer and Virgil, read lots of history, sampled some of the philosophy of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, read some of the major works of Shakespeare, as well as much of the classic poetry of Europe and 19th and early 20th century America.  The works of Emerson and Nietchze resonated with me.  I still have some of their works on my book shelf.  My favorite classical novelist is probably Alexandre Dumas, I especially loved ‘The Count of Monte Cristo.’  One summer I read ‘War and Peace’, and it took the entire summer to read it.  The summer after I graduated from college, I managed to slog through ‘The Wealth of Nations’, which is essentially the Bible of free market capitalism.

But my tastes have changed over time, when I was in my late twenties I read all the works of Ayn Rand as well as a lot of military history, namely John Keegan, Victor Davis Hanson, and Barbara Tuchman. In my early thirties, I read many economics and business books.  I enjoyed the works of Napoleon Hill, Dave Ramsey, Zig Ziglar, and Robert Kiyosaki the most. In my mid thirties, I became interested in all things science and future tech.  To that end, I read some of the works of Michio Kaku, Ray Kurzweil, Eric Drexler, Ronald Bailey, Kevin Kelly, and Peter Diamandis.

After a couple years of letting all this reading ferment, I am ready to dive back into serious reading again.  Even though I have spent a great deal of my life reading those famous books everyone has heard of but never actually read, there are still some books I haven’t gotten to yet that are still on my bucket list.  There are still major philosophers I haven’t gotten into much yet, namely Marx, Kant, Locke, as well as Lao Tzu and Confucious.

Before the prevalence of the internet, some of the entries on my bucket list were to visit the Library of Congress as well as all of the libraries of Harvard University.  But, as it stands now, I can get many of those rare and hard to find works online.  I have hundreds of e-books about philosophy and history that I may never get to read.  But I have them on my computer and iPod.  Kind of mind blowing to think that I have access to the treasure trove of the collected knowledge of civilization available in a manner that would have been impossible even in my childhood and for the price of only one dollar a day in wireless internet connection.  I have access to information that scholars were too often tortured, imprisoned, and killed for seeking in past eras and I don’t even have to leave my living room to acquire it.  I have access to the wisdom of civilization yet I’ll likely never have the money to buy my own house.  Only in the early 21st Century.

Yet, I enjoy living the life of a self  taught scholar.  I made myself into one primarily because school by itself didn’t completely satisfy my love for reading and learning.  Tragically, for some people, their school years stifled their creativity and killed their love of reading and learning.  Even though I make poverty level wages, I can get by with my books and writings.  I can do this because I have zero debts.  I will never go into debt again, not even to learn.  I can learn almost anything online anymore.

If there is any one thing I can take away from my years of self study, it is that the path to enlightenment is a never ending one.  I don’t want to stop learning, ever.  If I make it to my nineties and have to live in a retirement home and not be able to bathe myself, I hope at least I can still read books or online articles.  Maybe, by the time I’m ninety anyone will be able to create entire fantasy worlds on hyper powerful computers and share those with other people via powerful virtual reality.  I would love to be able to recreate some of the worlds I read about in books.  But that is still a long way down the road.  Until then, I can visit such worlds by my reading.

Changes Over One Lifetime

I’m going off subject for this post.  Today, June 28 2018 would have been my grandmother’s 100th birthday.  She died of a stroke in 2015 at the age of 97.  Fortunately for our family, she was very sharp mentally right up until her stroke.  She would often talk about the things she saw and experienced in her lifetime.  Grandma Foster could just as easily recall events from her teenage years during the Great Depression as she could events that happened within the last week.  In some ways, she was like having a local historian in our family.

Today I would like to talk about some of the changes that occurred since my grandmother’s birth that early summer day in 1918.  One hundred years isn’t really a long time in terms of our recorded civilizations, let alone on the time frame of the cosmos.  But we have seen many changes.  And I would like to mention some of these.

In 1918, when my Grandma Foster was born, World War I was still going on.  The Spanish Flu Pandemic was at it’s hight.  The old Ottoman Empire was still in existence.  The Russian Revolution was going on.  China was still a very poor country.  India was still a possession of the British Empire.  Much of Africa was divided into European colonies.  Automobiles had been available to the working and middle classes for only a handful of years.  Industrial magnates like John Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Nikola Tesla, etc. were still alive.  It was mostly urban areas in America and Europe that had electricity.  Coal and steam powered almost all industrial processes.

Technologies that my Grandma Foster saw rise during her lifetime included regular radio broadcasts, anti biotic medications, hybrid crops, nitrogen based chemical fertilizers, radar, reliable rockets, nuclear weapons and energy, jet propulsion, reliable airline travel, television, computers, more fuel efficient automobiles, plastics, reliable contraceptive pills, super highway systems, easily available credit cards, lasers, the beginnings of space exploration, organ transplants, test tube children, cellular phones, active searches for alien intelligences beyond our solar system,  high speed railways (granted not so much in America as in Europe and East Asia), the internet, near free information via wikipedia, near free self broadcasting via youtube and podcasting, social media, the beginnings of inexpensive renewable power, the rise of automated drone technology, the rise of robotics, the human genome project, the beginnings of affordable electric automobiles, the discovery of anti matter, and the early research into fusion power, genetic engineering, 3D printing, and artificial intelligence.

Cultural changes my Grandma Foster saw witness to involved women’s suffrage, the beginning and end of Prohibition, the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Communist Russia, World War II, the decline of children in the work force, the increase of women in the work force, the assassination of Gandhi, the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, the rise of rock and roll music, the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Pearl Harbor, the assassination of John Kennedy, the turmoil of the 1960s, the rise of cable and satellite television, the first people on the moon, the fears of nuclear war and it’s after effects, the popularization of hip hop music and urban culture, the launch of space probes to almost all of our solar system, the Hubble Telescope, the popularization of science fiction and futurism, the rise of awareness of industrial pollution and the beginnings of the efforts to undo the effects thereof, the AIDS epidemic, the end of colonialization, the rise of China as an industrial and scientific power, the rise of the United Nations and globalization, the beginnings of the decline of nationalist furvor that was the norm for most of civilization, the rise of the European Union, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the War on Terrorism, the first black man to be U.S. president, the first women Supreme Court justices, the beginnings of the declines in the marganializations of religious, sexual, cultural, etc. minorities, the beginnings of plans to colonize space, the realizations of the potential benefits and drawbacks of artificial intelligence, and the rise of better treatment for the disabled, mentally ill, and pretty much anyone who didn’t conform to the average norm.

All of this I mentioned was just in the lifetime of someone I was blood relation to.  As you could see, the rate of changes only accelerated as time went forward.  I’m sure there are changes I forgot to mention.  My grandmother was old enough to remember people who were Civil War veterans and probably met people who were born into slavery or at least their children.  I write all of this to state that yes, the world changes over time.  People change over time, and not just because older generations die off and younger ones take their places.  I think of some of the changes I’ve seen just in my 38 years living as a human.  I really don’t recognize much of what I saw in the mid 1980s now and some of the attitudes and practices of even my childhood has me wondering “what were we thinking” and even “what was I thinking.”  Change is constant.  Change is inevitable even if not predictable or even in coming.  Or as one science fiction writer put “The future is already here.  It just isn’t evenly distributed.”

Schizophrenia and What it Means

In previous posts I have written about my life experiences as a mentally ill individual.  In this post I’m attempting to describe the symptoms of my particular illness, rather than just the results of the symptoms.  I have done this in a poetic form.  So here goes.

 

Schizophrenia and What it Means

 

Schizophrenia means a broken mind,

A mind broke off from the real world.

Unable to separate the delusional

from the factual truth.

It also means crippling depression,

Constant sadness,

And mourning for dead potential;

The loss of a life that never was.

Schizophrenia shattered mind unable to process

most kinds of stress or anxiety

without ghostly hallucinations chanting their condemnations,

Causing wave upon wave of unrelenting anxiety

to slam upon an already tormented, battle weary soul.

How do I explain to old friends,

family, and strangers I meet

I am not well, have trouble holding a job,

When on the surface I look normal and well?

Lurking in the depths of my mind

The monster schizophrenia causes havoc,

launching an all out assault on my mental senses.

My abilities to socialize, to handle stress, to live normal,

are crippled.

I’m not lazy, I’m not a freeloader.

I’d do anything to be rid of this silent monster.

Rooting For A Last Place Baseball Team

Rooting For A Last Place Baseball Team 

A Poem by Zach Foster

 

My hometown baseball team is now forty games out of first

Of the teams in the league, we are the worst.

The pitching staff, so eager and young,

On which our hopes of a dream season hung,

Got lit up early and often and never came around

Sinking our chances for the pennant with only the sound

Of the crack of the other teams’ bats sending the ball

Over our outfield’s walls.

Our bats started luke warm only to go completely cold

When our two best hitters got traded and sold

To better playing teams on the coasts,

From there the team gave up the ghost.

Sitting in the stands of our ballpark on a late September day

With far more empty seats than fans who paid

I’m watching this scorned mut of a team I’ve loved since youth

Fighting desperately nail and tooth

To stay in a meaningless late season game

With nothing but pride to gain.

For those of us few, but faithful, bleacher bums, we have no fear

For our rallying cry is “Wait until next year!”