Reflections on My College Years with a Mental Illness

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I currently live in a town that is home to a small state university.  School will be in session within the next two weeks once more.  As a result, several thousand college students will be coming back and this town will really come back to life from it’s annual summer hibernation.  Even though I graduated from ten years ago, and had a failed experiment that was grad school, I still enjoy seeing the college students returning and resuming what, for many Americans, has become a rite of passage into adulthood.  

 

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All of this has me remembering when I went through during these years, not only in college but also as my mental illness progressed and eventually stabilized into some predictable cycles.  When I started college in the fall of 1999 ( I know, practically the dark ages to kids now coming of age), the internet was still in it’s early stages and almost no students had lap top computers, let alone got laptops just for enrolling.  The iPod would still be a few years away, so we still carted around tons of music CDs.  The best parties, get togethers, etc. were always thrown by people who had massive stereo systems that had the capacity to change dozens of CDs without having to do it manually.  No quicker way to kill a party than having to change discs when the music ran out.  Like I said, it would be seen as the dark ages to kids just starting out now.

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One thing I did have even back in the late 90s and early 2000s that helped me  a great deal was the free use of my college’s counseling service.  I was in the early stages of what I would later find out was my mental illness when I grudgingly went to a counselor.  I had my mind full of the stereotyped visions of lying on a leather couch, confessing my darkest secrets to a Sigmund Freud look alike, looking a ink blot cards, and having to talk about my relationships with my family.  What I found was simply someone who would actually listen to my problems and issues. The good part was that, in college, no one really knew or even made an issue of me going to counseling.  At my counselor’s urging, I saw a psychiatrist to do some evaluations.  I also underwent complete physical evaluations, including a scan on my brain and brain waves to rule out anything physically causing those problems.  After all these evaluations, from which I missed quite a lot of classes, I was given a diagnosis of Paranoid Schizophrenia.

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I didn’t consider a diagnosis to be devastating.  For me, it explained a lot of why I had problems socially and was going through what I was.  It was a confirmation that I wasn’t making these problems up to attract attention or just feeling sorry for myself.  Yes, it did put some of a damper on my social life, social activities, and did force me to give up my dream of going into medical research.  But, I still managed to graduate from college, have several friends, learn some things I wouldn’t have had to, or bothered to, otherwise.  I’m glad for the experiences of my college years.  I’m glad I made the friends I did.  I’m glad for the counseling services at my college.  I only hope that students who are going into college for the first time find their niche, make some good friends, seek out help if and when they need it, and come out ready to face the challenges we all face in adulthood.

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Normal vs. Not-Normal and What Is vs. What Isn’t

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I will readily admit that I would, by no stretch of any neurotypical person’s imagination, be considered ‘normal.’  I don’t, thanks in large part to my mental illness as well as my own individual preferences and tastes, find things that most people would find enjoyable to be to my liking.  I don’t like crowds, I really have a hard time trusting people I’ve just met, I don’t enjoy much of what consists of acceptable socialization (i.e. going to bars, going on dates, small pointless ‘chit-chat’, attending large social gatherings in enclosed spaces, etc.), I certainly don’t like arguments or debates (as I’ve already expounded on in a previous blog entry), and I don’t see why it’s socially acceptable to appear like I’m dumb or lacking knowledge.  I’ve read so many books on ‘socially acceptable behavior’ that flat out states things like ‘the smartest man/woman in the room/group/organization/etc. is putting a bulls eye on their backs and is inviting ridicule and ostracizing themselves to the group.’  

I never understood the tendency of people to treat poorly those who are smarter or stand out from the norm (or average) in anyway.  I use smarter as an example because I’ve always held my smarts/intelligence/wisdom to be not only a source of pride and identity, but even as a child I knew my intelligence would be my way to carve out survival in the world.  Yet most of my classmates, many of my teachers, and even some of my family members didn’t see things this way.  Instead of the kid who read at a  12th grade level as an 11 year old, they saw the kid who was always picked last in softball, didn’t really like socializing with kids (and adults) with whom he had little in common.  Instead of seeing a teenager who did extremely well in classes like history, english, biology, and chemistry, they saw the kid who struggled to pass algebra and didn’t do well in shop class.  Instead of seeing a seeing a kid who absolutely loved speech and drama productions, they saw the kid who played football but didn’t like it and ‘had an attitude problem’ or ‘had problems with authority’ because he was always asking questions and held odd ideas (many of which in later years  proved to be true).  

Even now people don’t always see me as a mentally ill individual who can live on his own, manages what little he receives from Disability with little to no outside help, writes a quite unknown blog about mental illness, manages his friends (most of whom are loyal friends for life) and social life well, and has never been trouble with the law.  Sadly many people see a man who has no ‘permanent job’ (as if there is such a thing in the 21st century), relies on Welfare (and thus is perceived as a drain on society and taxpayers), is somewhat odd because he speaks out on what he believes (especially if it flies in the face of conventional wisdom), is someone to be pitied because he doesn’t have legions of friends and supporters ( I would much rather have a small, but loyal, base of friends and family who overlook my differences and the fact I’m not normal as opposed to have an army of superficial friends who’ll abandon me with any minor shakeup to their normal lives), and someone who is quite overweight (never mind I’ve been making steps to remedy this sad fact and have lost 40 pounds in 4 1/2 months).

 

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In short, I am not normal.  I am not ‘average.’  I am not neurotypical.  I am not popular (nor do I seek to be).  I will not tell anyone just exactly what itching ears wish to hear.  I tell the truth about what it’s like to be mentally ill in a chronically sane world.  Believe me, it isn’t always pretty and I have no doubt lost ‘friends’ and ‘supporters’ over it.  The truth isn’t always pretty.  The truth can be threatening.  I have, since I was 8 years old and discovered I had some unusual intelligence and wasn’t what my classmates and some teachers considered normal, refused to knuckle under and be what I knew I wasn’t.  What I was and what I am is good enough for me.  It is what I was made to be.  It is alright with me that I am what I am.  I don’t understand why it isn’t good enough for most neurotypicals I have met.

Mind Health, Body Health, Placebo Effect, Expectations

I imagine this entry is some continuation of my last post.  I am absolutely convinced there is actually quite a bit of crossover between how one feels mentally and that can influence physical health and well being.  Likewise I am convinced there is a crossover in how one’s physical health and influence mental health and stability.  About the only real ‘scientific’ evidence I can truly point to support my convictions are ‘placebo’ effects.  In some medical studies where the patients, and sometimes even the primary doctors, believed that they were getting real medications but were in fact actually getting pills that actually had no real medication.  Many of the results of these tests found that the patients who received the placebo, or inert, pills often did just as well as the patients who were taking the real medications.

I will state up front, I am not a doctor.  I am by no means suggesting that anyone, mental illness or no, should go off any medications without a doctor’s supervision.  I am not qualified to treat, diagnose, etc. anyone.  I have issues even with my own problems and life. 

What I am getting at is that sometimes something, whether it be a treatment, medication, set of beliefs, set of actions, etc. works for us as individuals because we believe they were work and we want them to work.  I suppose it’s sort of like if someone thinks they do well at a job because they look and act the part, then that is true for that person.  I would even venture to say this applies to even basic human emotions, such as love and anger.  If you think you are in love, or angry, with someone, then you are.  I guess that if you think something works for you, then maybe it does for you.  Some of the wisest ideas I ever came across can be expressed by this short statement, “I think, therefore I am.”

Think about this for awhile.  If you, or someone you know, are always complaining about things that you either have or control over or won’t do anything to change, why should you expect to have any happiness at all?  I’ve heard many philosophers, gurus, experts in many fields, etc. state that what a person thinks about will come about.  That’s only part of the equation.  What is really should read is something like, “What a person thinks about and acts about will come about.”  I suppose the phrase “I think, therefore I am” should be coupled with “By their deeds you will know them.”

I didn’t really start feeling really good mentally until I, along with my writing and promise to myself that I would never stop learning, decided to improve my physical health.  Yes, reforming my previous coach potato ways were tough.  I even failed at these attempts the first few times.  Yet, I can tell you that after the first four months of getting as serious about my physical health as I am about my mental health, it is more than worth the work I’m putting into it.  Though I am not close to making my ultimate health (and weight) goal, I am far better off physically and mentally than I was even four months ago.  I personally believe the improved physical health is breathing new life into my mental health.  Likewise the renewed mental health is fueling the improving physical health.

No, I don’t have more scientific evidence that mind-body, body-mind health effect each other besides the placebo effect.  But I know in my own life, and experience, there is a connection.  I truly am convinced of this.

Coming Back, Losing Weight, Mind-Body, How and Why

It’s been a long, long time since I last posted anything to this blog. For the record, I never gave up writing. I just took about a three month long vacation. It has been the longest time, in fact the only real time, I took a break from just about anything I do. An update on how things have gone lately is in order.

For approximately the last four months I’ve been seriously concentrating on getting back into good physical health. As a result of changes in eating habits and exercise routines I have dropped at least 35 pounds. Yes, I still have a long way to go before I get to my final goal weight. I notice a positive difference already, not only in physical health but also mental health. I’m not doing anything really out of the ordinary. I’m not on any fad diet. I’m not exercising several hours a day. I’m not eating organic food as I’m on limited budget as is. And I certainly am not taking any diet pills, powders, etc. I suppose if I was to describe my approach, I’d simply call it cherry picking what works for myself from several different types of diets and discarding what doesn’t work for me. Some may find it odd that I pick and choose rather than follow only one set plan with an almost religious fervor as many people do. My grandparents had a phrase for this tailor making a plan from only the best of everything that works for one person and may not work for someone else. It was ‘using your head.’

As my physical health gradually improved so did my mental health. I really do believe there is a mind-body, body-mind connection. Chinese medicine has innately known this for centuries. Western medicine for the longest time, having no real way to measure this, denied such a connection. This connection was denied even though it completely ignored any real world practical experience. That in itself is not ‘using your head.’

It is completely possible to know something is or is not so even if you can’t completely explain the why. For thousands of years, ancient peoples knew that the constellations in the night sky not only changed over the course of the year but changed at the same times each year. It wasn’t until a relatively recent time in human history that we figured out the why. I can’t offer a functional explanation why I feel better mentally after losing 35 pounds in four months, let alone a scientific one. I know simply that I do. That alone is enough reason to keep me working at losing weight.

A Few Poems

 

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I have for a long time thought that writing was a form of therapy for myself.  One of the forms of writing I engage in is poetry.  Here I am posting three poems I have recently written.  Hope you enjoy them.

 

Chisel Away

By Zach Foster

 

Chisel away all that is not the sculpture

From the stone of your life.

Find the beautiful creature

You were meant to be

Hiding within the rock.

Polish away the rough edges

And the tough smudges

From the stone of your life.  

Ó Copyright 2014 by Zach Foster

 

 

Guises and Gall

By Zach Foster

 

Where do we go from here

Under our guises and gall

Breaking ourselves inwardly

To make ourselves look outwardly

Proud and Strong?

I just want to cry

For what I have lost

Giving up my heart

Giving up my love

Just to look cool.

Where is the payoff

We were so promised

Following this path

Of selling ourselves out

High and Dry?

 

Ó Copyright 2014 by Zach Foster

 

The Journey

By Zach Foster

 

Were are we going from here

On this mad, obscene journey of our lives?

Will fame and fortune be in the cards?

Or will we struggle to pay rent?

Will we allow ourselves to be weighed down

By the mundane worries of our days,

Buried in silent obscurity?

Will we instead cast aside the chains

That hold us in place

And soar with eagles

Over the vistas and skylines of the world?

Of the journey there are many routes,

True beauty lies not in the goals,

But within the journey itself.

 

Ó Copyright 2014 by Zach Foster

Speaking at The Regional Mental Health Center

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It’s been quite some time since I last wrote on this blog.  Too long, in fact.  I think that an update is in order.  Since I last wrote, I was able to do a presentation of my poetry and speak about the therapeutic value of writing to an audience at my home state’s regional mental health center.  It was a fun, exhilarating experience.  I was able to share my work not only with some of the patients, but also with the administration of the hospital.  This experience has made me more thankful for my ability to write and more thankful that I’m doing as well as I am.

I wasn’t very nervous about the talk I gave at all.  It was the first real presentation of any kind I gave since I was in college.  But I received several compliments and was asked many questions.  I suppose that not only did I give encouragement to the patients, but I also shed light on what it was like to be mentally ill from the mentally ill person’s perspective.  It was a trip that was well worthwhile.

I often get down on myself for not having a job and for the bad days that I have.  But this trip to the state hospital put it right in my face that I could be doing much worse.  It has also led me to being more resolved to act as an advocate for others with mental health issues that aren’t able to write or speak for themselves.  I am going to keep writing and addressing for others.  In fact, it may be my main passion in life.

I never knew I had any kind of writing talent until after I became mentally ill.  I had to find out the hard way that writing is my outlet for my frustrations.  I always made up stories on my own as a kid, but never put them on paper.  I may have to try to do that one of these days.  The first two drafts of novels I wrote were not very good.  Yet I found out what I had to work on and what I could do better.  I probably should try to write some of my stories I made up in childhood.  

In closing I’m sharing with you two of the poems I shared with the audience.  I hope it sheds some light on what it’s like to be mentally ill.

 

The Burdens of Mental Illness

By Zach Foster

 

My mental illness is a burden to be born

Around my neck it is sadly worn.

Some days are sunshine without pain

While others are darkness and rain.

My pain is not such the world can see

As it’s just the depressed delusions and me.

My anger, searing white hot, comes and goes

Without any warning or notice to be shown.

The echoing voices rattling in my weary head

Fills my heart with panic and soul with dread.

My mental illness is a burden to be born

It dogs me every night and every morn.

 

Ó Copyright 2014 by Zach Foster

 

Weariness

By Zach Foster

 

Weariness pulls at my weakened bones,

Fresh tears pour from my haggard eyes

Lazy, lethargic, and wanting to give in.

Where are my boosters and rocket fuel

To fly with the eagles

Instead of scratching with chickens,

Not caring they are cackling fools

Drunk from ignorance thicker than rum?

I desire a blast from my more energetic past

To bring me free of this weariness,

To put to end all that is pulling down on me. 

 

Ó Copyright 2014 by Zach Foster

 

Loneliness and Delusions

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It’s been awhile since I last posted.  I’ve been going through some rough spots lately.  I’m only now pulling out of the spell of depression I’ve lately had.  When I have issues with being depressed, I often isolate myself a lot.  I won’t be very talkative to even my close friends and family.  I even somethings go for entire days without leaving my apartment.  I was doing this quite a bit this winter as I just didn’t want to deal with the depression and anxiety that often arrive with no rhyme or reason with schizophrenia.  I often would go entire days at a time where even going to the grocery store or pharmacy would seem like an ordeal.  Naturally this would lead to a lot of loneliness for me.  And I would get paranoid and begin wondering why no one would contact me or want to do anything with me.  I wasn’t contacting my friends, I wasn’t leaving my apartment, and my social activities were next to nonexistent.  This would generate depression because I was lonely.  The depression would lead to anxiety were I literally could not force myself to leave my apartment even when I wanted to.  From anxiety I would go into paranoid because my friends wouldn’t contact me because I wasn’t keeping up my end of the friendship and staying current with friends and family.  This cycle would perpetuate itself, sometimes for days or weeks on end.

One example of my anxiety was that I was getting paranoid that people (I couldn’t figure out who in my delusional state of mind) were going through my garbage.  So I would let it pile up in my apartment, sometimes for ten days to two weeks at a time before I’d finally work through my anxiety and force myself to throw it all out at once.  I was also afraid that I would receive a few odd looks from people seeing me taking three to four bags of trash out all at once, often late at night just so I could avoid contact with people.  Now that I’m passed that phase, I see how delusional that line of thinking was.  I mean, if someone is going to go through the dumpster at a large complex the night time would be perfect for someone dumpster diving.  At least it wasn’t as bad as when I was in college and taking my trash to the Wal-Mart half way across town because I thought that ‘people where going through my trash.’

The delusions that come along with schizophrenia no doubt seem very odd to the ‘chronically normal’ individuals that read this blog and/or have loved ones with schizophrenia.  But to those afflicted, it seems very real and very possible.  I sometimes even recently had delusional thoughts that I’m being watched and followed by people I don’t know (and don’t want to know).  It doesn’t make it any better when I’m driving my car and someone will be taking the same streets I do and are following real close.  This has been going on for as long as I’ve had problems with mental illness.  At least it’s not as bad as it once was because I’ve learned how to reason such things out most of the time.  It’s too bad I couldn’t reason out the stress and anxiety I have felt about working again.  I would love to return to work even at something as small as ten hours per week.  Anxiety and delusional thoughts playing over and over in my mind do make that prospect quite daunting.

Loneliness and delusions that go with mental illness are real serious problems for people with mental illness.  I can tell you for a fact I didn’t choose these delusions.  It would be great to be able to completely reason the delusions away.  But I’m still working on that.