Filling Voids in Day to Day Living

            After I found out the hard way that I was going to not be holding forty hour a week employment, I needed to find a way to fill my days.  I could have been content to just sit in front of the TV for hours on end day after day.  But that type of life isn’t good for anyone.  Let’s face it, it just isn’t.  I decided early on that I needed to find activities that would bring variety to my life.  This would make my time worthwhile and interesting, not just endlessly dragging onto nothingness.

            There are many programs for the mentally ill and physically handicapped who are unable to work.  There are social clubs that engage in different activities everyday.  These activities can give an individual reason to leave the home and give a routine.  These programs vary greatly from town to town and city to city, so be asking around to see what’s available.

            Good source of information on social clubs include mentally ill individuals themselves.  Other sources my include your psych doctor, psych nurse, therapist, family friends, or just anyone in the know.  You won’t find out unless you are willing to ask around.

            We the mentally ill have as much need for socializing, appreciation, and belonging as anyone who is considered normal.  Such outlets as church groups, NAMI, and Goodwill are important for those with mental illness issues that make working difficult or impossible.  People are not meant to be isolated for long periods of time as we are social creatures.  Every person has a need to belong to something and identifying with something bigger than just an individual.  Entire sciences such as sociology, psychology, political science, etc. are devoted to learning why people act and socialize the way we do.  Socializing with others is so important to our own humanity that it should never be neglected.

            In America, we are closely identified with our jobs and careers simply because we spend so much time engaged in our employment.  We are now more identified by our employment than by anything else we do in this country. 

            Yet this line of indentifying is a drawback for those of us who are not able to hold long-term employment or hold employment at all due to physical or mental disabilities.  It is even more of a drawback for the mentally whose problems are not are not as obvious as other illnesses.  The line of thinking for many in the mainstream is that if you are not physically disabled or not in a mental hospital, you ought to be able to work full time.  It doesn’t always work out that way.  Mentally ill individuals do not always have physical signs of problems.  Most would never guess who among us is mentally ill if we were seen just once in public.  Yet the mentally ill can have as many problems as the physically ill.

            I cannot stress enough the importance of finding activities to fill the voids in time in your day-to-day life. Life is meant to be exciting and we are meant to interact with other people.  Life is not meant to be spent hiding in your home and living in fear.  For some of us who don’t even like going out in public, a walk to the corner and back can be a start.  Or perhaps you can do your shopping at night or when the crowds are not as large like I do. 

            The important thing is to not take in too much all at once.  You need those small victories before you can go after the big goals and challenges.  Positive and lasting change is a slow process.  But the results are well worth the time and effort.

            I cannot stress enough the importance of having at least one hobby.  Hobbies have been shown to reduce stress and give joy to people.  We have different interests and talents.  There has never been anyone who couldn’t develop a talent for at least one thing that they have a passion for.  Only you can tell what your interests truly are.  If you are not entirely sure about your talents, take some quiet time every day to listen to that “little inner voice” of your heart.  That could be yourself telling you what you are truly interested in. 

            It also doesn’t hurt try out different activities to see what you are interested in.  If you are truly interested in something no one has to push you into such an activity.  Follow your heart and it will lead you to your true interests.

            Another bit of advice is don’t just sit in your home and stare at the TV waiting for life to happen.  Go out and do something with your life.  Interact with other people.  Get in touch with old friends and family members that you have lost touch with.  Even if these activities last for only a few minutes a day, do something with the life that you have.  Gradually build up if you have to.  You don’t have to be successful to start but you do have to start to be successful.

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Struggles at Work with a Mental Illness

 

            When I first came out of college and entered into the world of work, I was all gung-ho and thought I could do it all.  I didn’t think that even schizophrenia was going to slow me down, let alone be a major hurdle to holding full-time employment.  I was wrong.

            I quickly found out that I couldn’t do all that I thought I could do.  I couldn’t work the forty-hour weeks that full time demands.  I couldn’t concentrate for long periods of time, at least not for the first few years out of college.  I would freeze up and have panic attacks around large crowds of people, especially people I didn’t really know.  So reality came crashing back down on me.

            I drifted from one job to another for the first two or three years I was out of college before I decided that I needed to take some time off and do some serious soul searching.  I needed to reevaluate my job strategy and why I wasn’t able to hold my jobs for longer than a few months at a time.  I needed to figure out why I was alienating myself from my coworkers and my supervisors.  Then one day in the fall of 2007 it finally dawned in me; I was not being honest about my illness to my employers.

            Let me state that again, I was not being honest about my illness to my employers.  Thanks to such laws as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and such third party go betweens as Goodwill and Vocational Rehab, workers with disabilities have a much easier time in the work place than they did in the past.  But I was not taking advantage of these programs.  These programs will not do you any good either if you refuse to acknowledge your need for help.  These programs are there for you to use; use them.

            I found out the very hard way the best thing an employee could ever be is not intelligent, skilled at their job, or even have good people skills.  No, by far more important is honesty and integrity.  And I was not doing myself any service by telling my supervisors I could do jobs without accommodations that, according to the ADA I was within my rights to request if it was made known I had a disability, in all reality I could not.  I was not helping myself. 

            In short, because of my pride and being in denial as to how bad my mental illness really was, I was lying to my supervisors as to my work ability.  I was also lying to my coworkers.  I was lying to myself.  All because I refused to acknowledge that I needed help.  I was too proud to ask for it. 

            It took me three years of failed jobs and a lot of heartache to figure out that the best thing a person with mental illness that wants to work can do is be completely honest about their illness.  Tell the truth.  If you cannot perform a duty, let it be known right up front.  According to the ADA, an employer has to make “reasonable” accommodations for a job to allow someone with a disability to perform that job.  Employers cannot refuse to hire someone simply because of a mental illness; that is hiring discrimination and that’s illegal. 

            In my paranoid state, before I stabled out and had some good work experience, I was afraid my mental illness would be held against me in a work place.  Paranoia that comes with schizophrenia can be tricky like that sometimes.  Fortunately I had a third party in Goodwill as a go between for me to help me find my last job.  This job I held over four years.  As a result I have seen that my previous paranoia about my illness being held against me was just paranoia; it never materialized into anything real.

            If anything I have found my employers willing to work with me and help me out during the rough times that I have had.  I still have flare ups occasionally where I have to miss work for a day every now and then.  But my supervisors are more than willing to work with me because I have been honest and up front with them about my illness.  It also helps that I’m a good worker who shows up on time and doesn’t leave until it’s quitting time and makes an effort to be friendly with my coworkers even on my bad days.

            In closing, my struggles at work were largely due to my not being honest with my supervisors as to the extent of my illness.  Once I broke that trust, it was only a matter of time before I was looking for another job.  If you are mentally ill and looking for work, be totally honest with your supervisors.  It will pay off in the long run.  And they will often be accommodating.

Overcoming Loneliness

Loneliness is often a problem for those of us with mental illnesses.  Our loneliness is often brought about because we are scared to socialize with “normal” people because of stigmas that still surround mental illness.  Loneliness can also be caused by the paranoia that accompanies many mental illnesses.  Loneliness can also be caused by depression when people are to sad or depressed to go out and socialize with even close friends.  Any one of these alone can make the idea of socializing daunting.

Loneliness can be overcome.  It can take a long time to overcome, though.  It certainly takes a great deal of effort to overcome a fear of socializing and opening up to people.  The topic of your mental illness can scare anyone into thinking that no one would want to socialize with him/her.  However, it is not necessary nor advisable to discuss any aspect of your mental illness the first time a new person is met.  Only when any person has earned your trust should you feel like you could discuss it with him/her.  Even then, discuss it only if you feel comfortable doing so.  

There probably will be times when you have new friends who wish to discuss aspects of your illness before you are ready.  In such cases, it is necessary to be polite, tactful, yet firm that you are not ready and do not wish to discuss such issues about your illness at that time.

Fears of socializing can be overcome by with practice and by gradually pushing your limits.  There is no need to feel that you have to conquer your fears all at once.  A fear of socializing, like any fear, can only be overcome by repeated acts of gradually increased bravery and courage.  It just may be just enough to say hello to your neighbors or someone in a store as a first step.  A second step may be to make some mundane comment about something as harmless as the weather to the clerk at the grocery store or anything like that.  From there, you can build up and branch out.  Socializing is by no means an exact science.  It is not something that can be learned from reading a few books or watching others do it.  It has to be learned by trial and error.

From my own personal experiences, I was by no means an extrovert growing up.  I didn’t learn a great deal about ‘normal’ socializing until I was well into college.  I don’t know how much of this was due to my illness or my being a natural introvert and I’ll probably never know.  The fact remains I would have never learned what social skills I have now had I never attempted to work on my skills.  I took a risk, faced my fears (and there were a lot of fears and paranoia), and came out better because of it.  You can too.  You just have to keep working at it.  There are no easy ways around it.

Being Held Accountable While Having A Mental Illness

         This is kind of a tough topic to write about.  I’m going to discuss being held accountable while having a mental illness.  I know that I am walking a very fine line when I say that there were times that I, as a mentally ill person, needed a healthy dose of tough love from my friends and family.  Fortunately, I have friends and family that know me well enough that they know when I’m using my illness as an excuse for when I could be doing better.

         Being mentally ill myself, I completely realize that not all mentally ill individuals would fare well at all under the tough love approach, especially when applied hap hazard.  I am not advocating hap hazard approach to tough love with anyone.  I am saying that there are some of us who can handle such a thing, in the right manner applied at the right time.  It is a fine line to walk and should be applied only when a support person (whether it be family or friends or counselors, etc.) knows the mentally ill individual extremely well and knows when it will work.  It is far from an exact science.  I would go as far as saying it’s like raising children, knowing that some things work with one of your kids but doesn’t work at all with another.

          Fortunately, it is possible to hold someone accountable without resorting to tough love.  Tough love should be used only as a last resort.  But use with caution and always use with healthy doses of love.

         My bouts with schizophrenia and depression made the going in college and the first few years of work extremely rough.  There were times that I just wanted to quit on the idea of being able to work.  But with people like my parents, my friends, my psych doctor, my counselors at college and later when I was working, and my extended family, I had plenty of people holding me accountable.

       Support people are not there just to be a shoulder to cry on.  They are also there to administer a healthy dose of discipline and tough love when necessary.  And there are times when tough love is necessary for even the mentally ill if we are to improve our current situations.  We have to be held accountable like everyone else, sometimes even more so.  I am sure there are many times I didn’t make things easy for my support people at all by my actions and bizarre behavior. 

        Had I not had a counselor to meet with once a week while in college to help keep me grounded and focused, I probably would not have graduated college.  I certainly wouldn’t have done as well in my classes as I did.  And that is simply because I knew I had someone who was going to ride my case if I didn’t do the job in classes. 

       Had my friends and family not encouraged me through occasional tough love, I would not have tried several different jobs before I finally I found a job I could do that I was good at and that didn’t cause me much stress.  I may not have been working my dream job, but I had the discipline to stick to a job for over four years had my friends and family not challenged me to keep looking for work when I was ready to throw in the towel.

       I didn’t like the tough love approach at the time it was being applied.  The thing is, it’s not supposed to be liked; it’s supposed to motivate you to do good things with your life.  Sure I as a mentally ill individual could just mope for the rest of my days about what I have lost?  But what does that gain me? 

        Sure you are mentally ill or may know someone who is mentally ill?  But what are you going to do about it now?  Are you going to learn about the illnesses and try to better yourself?  Or are you just going to drift through life?  The choice is yours.

Struggles With Mental Illness in College, Part 2

            In a previous blog entry, I wrote about my struggles during the first year and a half of college before I began treatment.  This entry will be about my struggles after my treatment began.  Just because I was under treatment didn’t mean my problems were over.

            During the last three years of my collegiate career, I never achieved the quality of grades I had during my first year of college.  I also changed over to a different major.  I originally started college as a pre-pharmacy student.  After a year and a half of struggling with my mental illness as well as my classes, my grades were bad enough that I wasn’t going to be getting into pharmacy school.  I needed a change.

            I switched to a business management major, which was a surprise to my family.  I had never taken any business classes in high school.  I didn’t have much of an aptitude for sales, and I was quite an introvert.  So to my family and friends the move didn’t make much sense.  But to me it made a great deal of sense.

            In my line of thinking at the time, I wanted to be able to be employable with a good job as soon as I graduated from college.  Even though I was really passionate about literature and history, I always figured I could read all the history books and classics of literature on my own time when I wasn’t studying for my business classes.  With my best friend being a history education student helping me out with history and classical literature books, which is exactly what I did.

            I admit with this “Dual Study Program” with my studying business classes officially by day and reading my classical literature and history books late at night and on the weekends, I didn’t have much time for outside socialization.  I had my small core group of friends, and I also made it a point to be friendly as possible to as many fellow students as possible.

            As the last three years of college went on I slowly picked up a few more friends and gradually went to more social activities.  There were a few music bands on campus that occasionally played weekend concerts that I went to.  They were pretty much cover bands that also played some of their own material.   I made a few friends with some of the band members through that.

            I also made a few friends through some of my business clubs like Students In Free Enterprise.  I also went to many of my college’s home baseball and basketball games.  I preferred the baseball games because of the more laid-back atmosphere of baseball and I had a few friends on the team.  I also made a few friends through games of softball, ultimate Frisbee, and flag football.  I wasn’t a fast runner but could be a vicious blocker.

            I bring all of this up to show that I was able to have the average college experience in spite of having a mental illness.  There were a few things I obviously couldn’t do, namely the drinking scene because of my medications.  But I wasn’t in college to drink and drug.  I was there to get a degree.

            I didn’t work during the school year because of the stress of going to school full time, having a mental illness, and having a job would have just been too much.  So I worked in the summers instead.  It also helped that I had a good academic scholarship based on my grades.  Even though I wasn’t getting straight A’s, I was still managing to do well.  And I was enjoying the college experience at the same time. 

            A strange thing happened during my last year of college, I became interested in writing.  I had been reading voraciously the previously two years, so I suppose that writing would only be the next logical step.

            All of the struggles, problems, victories, and defeats of five years of college came to a culmination on May 8, 2004.  That was the day I graduated from college.  Graduating from college meant that I had overcome the problems of mental illness and accomplished my life long goal of finishing college.

            While it’s been several years and I still haven’t found permanent employment in my major, I still won because I was able to finish college.  I thank God that I was able to finish in spite of my illness.  Finishing college by itself is hard enough.  Throwing a mental illness in the mix makes the degree of difficulty pretty steep.  I hope that by finishing college that perhaps someday I can encourage someone with a mental illness to reach for and achieve their dreams.

Coping During Difficult Times With Mental Illness

          We all have difficult times when it seems the breaks are beating us and absolutely nothing is going our way.  Sometimes things seem bad enough that no matter what we do, things just get worse.  This is true for even the most sane of people.  Yet this is even tougher for those of us who are mentally ill.  We can become agitated and disoriented even on average days.  On days when things are going especially bad, the situations that arise can become almost too heavy of a burden to bear.

            This is where finding the strength to continue on comes in.  Strength to fight the good fight can come from several different sources.  A source of strength for a mentally ill person can come from a support person.  A support person, whether it is a family member, a friend, a doctor, a counselor, or anyone to hold us accountable can help anyone cope with difficulties.

            Everyone needs friends and family to lean on during tough times.  Human beings are not meant to be alone and isolated.  This is true especially of the mentally ill.  We who are mentally ill need to have support systems in place for when things go wrong.  Believe me, they will go wrong.

            The support system can comfort you, calm your fears, and let you know that these difficult times will not last.  Those of us who have weathered the storms of mental illness and come out stronger because of them are in turn better able to help those who are just starting out.  It is easy to bemoan that we are different or can’t do what we used to.  But that won’t make it any easier for us.  And it certainly won’t make us more able to weather the next round of storms or help someone else in need.  It sometimes takes an honest and loving support person to remind us of this during our times of distress.

            Do not give up.  Giving up is not an option.  Strength can come from many sources, even from within.  Strength to continue on will sometimes be the only thing that carries you through one moment to the next.

Reflections Back on Early Years

I live in a small town where the main source of activity and jobs is a local state university.  The university just started classes this week for the fall semester which got me to thinking about my time going through school and the friends I had.

I grew up in a small farming village of about 400 people in rural Nebraska.  Our lives more or less revolved around the changing seasons, crop prices, church activities, and the local school.  Since my town was so small, we actually shared a school with another town about ten miles northwest of us.  The school was a big part of our town’s life.  It didn’t matter if it was Friday Night football, competitive speech meets, the prom, academic bowls, etc., the town supported all of our activities.  I never thought much of it while growing up in the late 1990s, but then most kids don’t think much of their hometowns when their 16 or 17 and are looking to venture out and see what is out there in the world.

I wasn’t Mr. Popular in my high school, but I was far from anonyomous too.  I like to think that most of us in my high school who were involved in some kind of extracirricular activitity (which was probably 85% of our student body in my small school) were somehow embraced and noticed by the people in our town one way or another.  Years ago when I went through (I’m not sure how it is now), our school was more academically inclined then some because we had some really amazing teachers, so there was no embarassment in being in the band or the school play or speech teams.  Though we also had some decent sports teams as our football team did make state finals one year in the mid 1990s. 

Even though we didn’t have many advanced placement classes or any accelerated programs, we still recieved a good well-rounded education at our school.  Sure it may not produce any Rhodes Scholars or Ivy Leaguers or may not make the list of Top 100 High Schools in America.  Sure I had my difficulties because of the beginnings of my mental illness problems, especially late in my academic career.  But I won’t trade my four years of classes, friends, experiences, activities, and times I spent at Anselmo-Merna High School in Merna, Nebraska for anything.