Speaking at The Regional Mental Health Center

Image

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

 

Advertisements

Loneliness and Delusions

Image   

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.

How I Became A Writer

There have always been people who write that have written stories and poetry since they were children.  These types where those who always knew they would want to have writing and creativity be a part of their lives.  I was not among those types who just knew from an early age.  I didn’t stumble on the therapeutic value of writing until I was a senior in college.  By then I was only a year away from graduating with a business degree that deep down I knew I would never use in a career.  I never considered majoring in english and history, two of my three favorite subjects in high school (chemistry was my third favorite) because I believed the whole ‘you can’t find a job with a liberal arts or humanities degree’ nonsense when I was younger.  I didn’t take into consideration that a) my mental illness would probably prevent me from holding much for employment and b) most college graduates don’t end up with a job in their major.  

Yet as it turned out I did have some writing talent.  I was signed up for an honors english class my freshman year simply due to my entrance exam scores.  I certainly would have never volunteered for such a class on my own.  On the first day of class, we were asked what our writing experiences were.  There were a few who kept extensive journals, others who wrote poetry, a ministry student who wrote his own sermons, and then at the end of the line there was me.  I meekly admitted that I wrote only when I had to.  I didn’t have to write extensively in high school as I just took general english classes.  I was about to drop the class after the first day simply because I knew there was no way I would do well in there. To make a long story short, I didn’t drop the class and I found out that I was good at writing.  As it was early in the course of my mental illness still, I also found it to be cheap therapy.  Yet I didn’t seriously start writing even as a hobby until my last year of college.

I’ve now been seriously writing for ten years now.  I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of my writing as therapy.  I’ve also self-published a couple poetry books as well as a non-fiction book that’s part memoir and part advice book for mental health patients and their loved ones.  Heck, I’ve even managed to sell a few copies of those books here and there.  Even though I’m far from being a master of the craft of writing, I’ve had an enjoyable ten years teaching myself the ins and outs of story telling and even learned a little trying to get published.  Without the prompt from a wise academic advisor who saw potential that I couldn’t see, I never would have found out I could write.  And I certainly would have never had the courage to start a blog.

Things You Can Do On Your Own For Your Mental Health

This post is going to be about things you can do on your own to help alleviate stress, depression, and anxiety that goes along with mental health problems. There are times that, in spite of all the counseling, therapy,and medications involved, we still have problems. This is when we with mental health issues have to resort to our own resourcefulness. This post is going to be what you can do when you are primarily alone or in a private setting. The issue of avoiding problems in public will be the subject of another post later on.

For myself, there are at least three activities that I have found that help ward off stress, anxiety, and depression. One of these is writing out my frustrations. I have entire notebooks full of the writings I have done in efforts to alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression. I write in these even when I’m feeling well as a sort of preventative maintenance. I look back over these on occasion just to see if I notice patterns developing, especially over a period of weeks and months. From these writings alone I’ve noticed that my individual illness has a seasonal pattern to it, were I tend to do worse in late summer and around Christmas/end of year holidays than I normally do. My times I do best are in spring, early summer, most of autumn, and surprisingly late winter. I probably wouldn’t have figured out these patterns as soon as I did without my writing about what I was going through. An important factor in my journaling is that I do not censor what I write. I am honest with myself, even sometimes brutally. Of course I’m the only one who sees these writings. I also usually shred my writings after about two to three years as kind of a way to let the past go.

The second activity I do to alleviate stress is listen to music. I absolutely love almost all genres of music and the type I listen to varies even within a given day. Even though I have no musical talent myself, I appreciate those who can play instruments or sing and are not afraid to. To the end of listening to music I have an iPod, a subscription to Pandora internet radio service, and even look up music and music videos on youtube. A good session of listening to music can relax me even when I feel like telling someone off.

Finally, the third activity I do that helps to relax me is just silent time/meditation/prayer. While I’m not going to delve into any religious theology discussions as there are plenty of other blogs that do that, I do know that meditation, prayer, and just taking a few steps back have all worked well for me. As far as these go, I found they become even more effective once I stopped worrying if I was doing these ‘right.’ Even though I grew up in a devout Christian family, we were never required to memorize prayers when I was growing up. We just spoke what was on our hearts and minds at the time. In short, the only advice I give on this type of relaxation is don’t worry about doing it a right or wrong way.

There are plenty of things/activities you can do on your own to help alleviate your mental illness issues. While I have yet to find an activity that will cure all my problems at all times, I have at least found a few that work well for me. I’m interested in hearing from others as to what helps them to relax, calm down, etc.

Mental illness and the Decisions Made as a Result

Image

 

When I was first diagnosed with schizophrenia back in 2000, I was determined that in no way it would affect my plans for my life.  At the time I was in my second year of college studying pre-med courses.  I had done reasonably well in my first year of college even with an undiagnosed mental illness.  I figured that I would fight through this with very little problem.  Man, I was wrong.  After failing Organic Chemistry and having to drop a Calculus class, I was faced with some serious decisions to make.  I was also facing a mental illness that was getting worse with each passing day.  After half of a spring semester in 2001 of struggling to even make it to classes, let alone do well, I found myself in danger of flunking out entirely.  This was a serious blow to my ego and self confidence as I always prided myself on my grades and academic accomplishments.  At mid term, I made the painful decision to drop all of my classes and take a few months off.  

After approximately six weeks on the mend, I started working again.  In spite of my problems I never lost sight of the goal of graduating from college.  I knew that because of my failures in my science classes I would be forced to change directions.  It was gut wrenching for my dream of going into medical research to die.  I decided that I would study primarily business management for two reasons 1) I believed that it would make me employable once I left college even though I had no true business or sales experience or even ability. 2) Even though I loved both history and english, I thought that I could study those on my own and I really had little desire to teach once I left college.  As a result I ended up earning a degree in a job field I really had no aptitude  for.  Sure I learned some interesting things that helped me later in life once I had to live on a very limited budget.  But I never did use my degree in any kind of career.

One of the odd, and sad, things about my mental illness is that I retained almost all of my intelligence and problem solving skills while I completely lost my ability to manage stress, understand ‘office politics’, and relate to people as would be needed in a workplace environment.  Most people meeting me for the first time would never suspect I was mentally ill and can’t understand why I have had such problems in the workplace.  Because I don’t look like the stereotypical mentally il person, at least as the public understands mental illness, I used to get a great deal of ‘you’re not working hard enough’ or ‘you’re too lazy’ or ‘you just don’t play the game right’ and on and on.  Sadly, in America, we are often defined by what we do to make money.  I don’t know what it’s like in other nations.  But defining someone by their paid work, or lack thereof, is a really lousy way to measure some one up for their intrinsic worth.  

While I enjoyed my time working for the county courthouse as a custodian for the four years I did it, I was ready for something else.  After a few false starts, I think I found what I really enjoy doing in blogging and my other writings.  Sure they don’t pay the bills, and likely never will.  But it does give me a sense that I’m doing something positive for the small corner of the universe I’m in.

Arguing and My Schizophrenic Mind

Image

 

I personally hate arguing with others, listening to arguments, and even reading an online forum argument. I hate these as much as I have ever hated anything in my entire life.  I never could understand people who feel a need to yell, curse, and scream at others.  It is one of those things that simply overwhelms my already massively overstimulated and sometimes way too anxious and paranoid mind.  There are times it is so bad, for me anyway, that it literally triggers the ages old ‘fight or flight’ instincts.  There were times early in the course of my illness, I would just either walk out on someone trying to argue with me or tell them off so bad and so personally it ruined any chance I ever had with being friends with those people.  And it wasn’t because I was trying to prove a point or win the argument, it was because I was so mentally overwhelmed (not only with the argument itself but also with my paranoias and the auditory hallucinations that were arguing with me as well) that walking out and telling off this person was what stopped me from physically assaulting these individuals.  

Some, especially among the chronically normal, may think this is a terrible way to live, having to avoid arguments or overly strong emotions for your own mental health’s sake.  For me it isn’t as bad as it sounds.  It has kept me out of a lot of trouble even though some accuse me of being weak, stupid, and refusing to stand up for what I believe in.  Yet I believe, I’ve always believed, that there are far more types of strength than the getting in someone’s face or looking for fights routine.  The quiet strength and confidence that refuses to boast, the kind that people like Ghandi, Jesus, Buddha, Einstein,Newton, along with many of history’s greatest heroes doesn’t seem to be valued in the modern world. And I guess I don’t understand people well enough to know why.

To listen to any kind of debate, whether it’s politics or religion or science or anything else is far from my idea of having a good time.  It is actually torture for me to listen to most news programs where there are two people trying to be heard as well as fight it out with each other.  And I certainly cannot stand to read any kind of online arguments, especially if it’s a hot button topic like politics, religion, economics, or even college football fan forums.  I definitely have my beliefs about all these things and think I can contribute to a rational discussion, but I flat out refuse to be in any kind of arguments about them.  With my schizophrenic mind, which desperately craves reason, order, and mutual respect, being part of any of this will quickly upset the stability of mind I’ve worked a long time to attain. 

As far as interpersonal conflict goes with friends and family, I attempt to avoid this as much as possible too.  I have had friends that I have known for over thirteen years that I have literally never had a shouting match with.  I know that sounds like a crock to most people but it’s true.  We have our disagreements, to be sure, but we also know when not to press the issues.  I’d much rather thought to be wrong then to kill a friendship.  Because I get so overwhelmed during an argument, I haven’t dated in almost eight years. I will never date again or even consider the possibility of marriage.  It’s not that I’m not interested in love or romance, it’s just that it’s not worth all the arguments, up and down emotions, and questioning where I stand with a significant other (due to my natural paranoia).  At least for myself it isn’t worth it.

I simply cannot stand to be in an argument, especially a heated or emotionally charged one.  This is due to the sensory overload, anxiousness, paranoia, and even auditory hallucinations that come with schizophrenia.  It isn’t that I’m devoid of beliefs, convictions, and emotions. Far from it.  I feel strongly about my convictions.  I have my beliefs.  I definitely have my emotions, especially when I don’t show them or I keep silent.

 

Things I Didn’t Know As A Kid, Part 2

For this entry, I’m taking a break from my regular mental illness writings and writing on something more light hearted.  Growing up, we’ve all had mistaken impressions about what things were really like in the adult world or in popular culture.  I was no exception.

Here is another installment of the depth of my youthful ignorance.  It’s amazing, though.  I’ve been out on my own for ten years and I’m now less intelligent than I thought I was when I was eighteen.  Either the older I get the dumber I was or I just forget what I actually did know.

As a kid growing up in rural Nebraska, I not only had no idea that Minnesotans and Canadians spoke with accents BUT I was ignorant enough to believe that we in Nebraska did not as well.  Way wrong on that one.  Just ask anyone who has ever heard me talk.

Growing up as a hopeless college football junkie, I knew that the Wishbone formation was a football offense long before I knew it was a chicken bone.  Sad but true.  Yet I did know who The President was before I knew who Tom Osborne was.  

As a kid who was an avid reader, the old library in my hometown was a second home to me.  I read so much as a kid that I was well into college before I even imagine why other people just couldn’t get into reading.  Just a matter of practice makes perfect.

When I was in grade school, I found it laughable that kids from the big cities on the coasts thought that kids from the midwest rode horses to school or lived two miles from their nearest neighbors or didn’t have indoor plumbing or such other nonsense as if we were still in the late 1800s.  Yet it didn’t occur to me that the idea of there being drug dealers and pimps on every street corner, mobsters buying off entire state governments, and the ‘valley girl types’ were just as ridiculous.  But that’s stereotypes for you.

Even as a kid I didn’t like Mickey Mouse at all.  I was more partial to Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck.  And I used to have endless debates with my friends about who was the better cartoon character.  Think a grade school version of the deeper debates (i.e. Capitalism vs. Communism, Evolution vs. Creationism, Ford vs. Chevy) if you will.  Of course when I’d be losing my argument I’d bring out the heavy artillery and yell “Yeah, well Donald Duck is such a man that he doesn’t even wear pants!” or “Yeah, well how much money does Mickey Mouse have?  Scrooge McDuck can swim in his cash!” 

 The first time I saw ‘Braveheart’ as a teenager, I unintentionally spent the next 24 hours speaking a Scottish accent.  I’m just glad that I didn’t own a kilt or a massive sword.

 My biggest aspiration as an 8 year old child was to “Be rich enough that me and my friends can play Monopoly with real money.”  Of course I’m well short of this goal right now but I could probably start building houses on Baltic Avenue right now.  

 When I was 13 and first heard about the book ‘Anthem’ by Ayn Rand, I immediately thought it was about the writing of the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’  I was a bit off on that one.

When I was in college, I read an email forward titled ‘Jocks vs. Nerds.’  It described how much money Michael Jordan had and how fast he was earning his money and “at that rate it would take over 400 years to have the money Bill Gates has right now.  Nerds win.”  I was telling one of my friends this and he retorted, “Yeah, well how many women would want Bill Gates if it weren’t for his money?”  To which I responded, “Well, at least any paternity suits against him would be automatically false.  So there’s one advantage.”  And I say that typing with a computer program he made famous.