A Letter To My 18 Year Old Self

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High school graduation season is in full swing in my home state.  Some times it’s tough to believe I’ve been out of high school for sixteen years.  So much has happened since I became an adult.  What follows is what I would tell myself if I had a time traveling DeLorean or funky booth like Dr. Who.

Dear Zach

You have just finished high school and your adult life now lays ahead of you shooting off into the unseen distance like the open highway in Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road.”  You didn’t take any time to appreciate the fact you graduated from high school, looking ahead to the challenges and opportunities of college instead.  You should have appreciated your time being somewhat of an outsider in your high school.  First because the people that struggle socially in high school often are the ones who adapt to the adult world better.  Be happy the highlight of your life wasn’t your last football game or Senior Prom.  You will face far tougher issues than losing the big game. You will have greater thrills than wearing an ill fitting rented suit and dancing among tinsel and paper miche decorations in a basketball gym.  Things like that will be remembered by NO ONE.

The challenges you will face in the coming years will be great and many.  When these challenges and disappointments come, you will be thankful for having developed a strong mind and ability to handle adversity, loss, loneliness and pain.  Because you didn’t have legions of fair weather friends, you will appreciate true friends and confidants.  Because you know what it’s like to be treated poorly, you will have compassion for others.  Because you didn’t allow yourself to concentrate on only academics or football or speech or your weekend retail job, you have made yourself a well rounded and well versed man.  Being well rounded won’t help you in a corporate job, but it will make you more self reliant and more aware of what’s going on around you.  It will make you interesting too.

I see you have your high school annuals.  You’ll be happy you kept them even if you go entire years without looking at them.  In coming years you will be amazed at how much you were involved, how much you accomplished, and how well prepared for college and the ‘fast times and hard knocks’ of the first several years of life in the real world.  Be happy you acted in the school play for two years, you won’t have that back.  Be happy you did three years of competitive speech, you developed courage and an ability to improvise, make split second decisions, and hide your fear from the outside world.  Be happy you played football for three years, even though you were at odds with your teammates. Not many people can say they did athletics in high school.  Millions may watch football from the stands in towns all over America on fall Friday nights, but you were part of the action.  It’s the closest you’ll ever get to feeling like a rock star or Roman gladiator.

Take joy in the fact you went to a small high school.  You may not have had dozens of Advanced Placement classes or a program for gifted students, but it will drive you to read and study on your own.  Be grateful you were unable to disappear in the crowd when you were harassed and annoyed by other students, it forced you to face your fear because you couldn’t run away.  Things like that develop courage and fortitude, running away from your problems or hiding in a clique won’t.  Be happy you couldn’t spend your days reading comic books or playing D&D.  Later on you’ll have friends whose only out of school activities were just that.  While they are good guys, be happy you had to rely on your own imagination to develop your own stories and got to draw upon real people and real experiences to find inspiration.  That, and most girls don’t find D&D and comic books fantasies very sexy.

Speaking of girls, don’t believe the nonsense you’ll date, party, and sleep around several nights a week in college.  “Animal House” has nothing to do with real college.  John Belusi won’t be your roommate.  You can go hang out, get a little crazy, etc. at times.  But you’ll be far ahead of 80 percent of your classmates when you keep things like that in moderation.  The few who do nothing but study won’t have the friends or the experiences.  You will be shot down and have girls stand you up even more in college than in high school.  You will have bad breakups, you will have terrible dates with girls, you will be frustrated, and you will have heartaches.  You will also realize that there are worse things than not having a girl in your life.  When you see high school and college classmates go through divorces and unhappy marriages, you might even be grateful for loneliness.

As far as your classes go, don’t get tough on yourself for not making Dean’s List or not graduating with honors.  Most people that get those honors studied easier subjects than Pre-Med or Business Management.  Spoiler alert, Zach, you won’t get the dream job you gunned for all the way through high school.  You will experience pains and horrors that make Dante’s “Inferno” look like an Adam Sandler comedy.  I won’t go into details because you won’t believe such things could happen to someone who worked as hard and was as ethical as you.  Just believe me when I say bad things happen to even good people.  That and no employer will ask to see your college diploma.

Zach, be grateful for the challenges ahead. They will teach you that you don’t need a prestigious job or lots of money to live a happy and content life.  You will learn the best things in life are other people and your experiences.  Be happy you went to the small college you did.  You got to make friends from all over America and the world.  Most people that go to large, prestigious universities don’t get to have the variety of friends you will.  Be happy when you get to learn early on that life isn’t about working most of your waking moments at a mind numbing job, chasing money to buy junk you don’t need to impress people who don’t care.  All I will tell you is every day you wake up, be thankful if aren’t a cubicle jockey or a serf in a designer suit racking up debts on meaningless trinkets and thrills.

In closing, Zach, always remember the words of the late Bill Hicks: “It’s just a ride.  And you can change it anytime you want.”  Be happy that you can and will.

Yours truly,

Your older self.

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.

Struggles With Mental Illness In College

Struggles With Mental Illness In College

By Zach Foster

 

            I wasn’t officially diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia until I was twenty years old.  Yet I started to notice problems when I was seventeen years old.  I was gradually seeing changes in my personality as well as losing interest in my activities and hobbies.  None of this made any sense to me when I was going through it and was quite scary.

            Until I began having problems I was involved in many of the activities my small town high school had to offer.  I was also one the best and smartest students in my class.  I even had an active social life outside of my school activities.  In short, I was a typical teenage male.

            Shortly after I turned seventeen, I began to notice some changes in myself during the fall of my junior year.  I started to become careless in my school activities and eventually became indifferent about them.  I would occasionally skip speech practices.  I would be giving minimum effort in football and track practice as well as arguing with my teammates and ignoring my coaches.  I came to be easily frustrated and angered by my schoolmates.  Things I would have previously dismissed as meaningless jokes and harmless pranks took on a sinister and threatening tone.  I was less interested in school and my grades began to decline. 

I didn’t even try out for the school-play my senior year even though I had the lead role as a junior.  Though I never did cross that line, on many occasion I wanted to physically fight my classmates and even some of my teachers were previously I hadn’t been in a fight with anyone except my brother and my cousins.  I completely gave up on dating as I went my entire senior year without one single date.  I began to gain weight at a fast rate once football ended my senior year, gaining almost thirty pounds in only six months.  I even managed to fail a class the last quarter of my senior year.

            By the time I graduated from high school I lost contact with all of my friends.  I didn’t have a single friend when I finished school because I had neglected to maintain any friendships and strained others as hard as I did.  I was angry and frustrated all the time.  I almost never laughed or smiled.  I never went out socially anymore, instead opting to hide out in my basement bedroom and listen to hard rock music for hours at a time.  Fortunately I was still able to graduate because I had enough credits even with failing a class.  I didn’t care about anyone or anything, especially myself.  My hygiene declined, as did my self-esteem.  I didn’t trust anyone at all, not my teachers, my parents, my old friends, and especially not my classmates.

            I was a total wreck by the time I graduated from high school.  Graduation was not a celebration as far as I was concerned.  I didn’t savor the victory of graduating because, in my diseased mind, I was expected to graduate just as much as I was expected to do my chores at home.  Graduation had no more excitement for me than taking the trash to the curb.  I didn’t see graduating as an accomplishment. I saw it as I survived those last two years of pure torment. 

            Looking back on it years later, I should have sought help immediately when I was in high school.  I certainly should never have attempted college immediately after I finished school.  Mentally I was exhausted and running on fumes.  I could hardly concentrate on my work even that last year in high school.  Socially I was inept and way behind the curve.  I should have sought help sooner than I did.

            My problems went from bad to horrible when I got into college.  I was depressed and sad when I wasn’t full of rage and anger, but never happy about anything.  One moment I would be absolutely enraged by something that was meaningless.  Not even a minute later I would be so depressed and sad over something else that I was inconsolable.  After a few weeks of this in college, I went to a counselor who strongly recommended I go see a psychiatrist, which I finally did after about a year of fighting and struggling through school while having major psychological issues.  I was finally diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in October 2000.

            After being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia I was put on a series of anti-depressants and anti-psych medications.  It took several months of trial and error before a combination of medications that worked for me was found.  With this right combination of meds I was once again able to return to college and live an almost normal life.

            I first had problems with being depressed and moody when I was a junior in high school.  At first I thought nothing of it and believed I was merely going through typical teenage mood swings.  I saw what other students in my high school were going through and came to believe that anger, depression, frustration, sadness, and anxiety were normal parts of growing up.  I would find out that my original thinking was wrong and distorted.  My problems were anything but normal and I was going to need some serious help.

            As I moved from high school into college my problems went from bad to worse.    I was rarely happy with anyone or anything.  I easily lost my temper over the smallest things.  I had delusions that people were going through my trash.  I was paranoid that people were listening in on my phone conversations.  Yet I still managed to stay in school.

            I first went to counseling a few weeks into my freshman year.  Before then I was completely on my own.  I was keeping all of my emotions and fears bottled up with no way to safely release them.  I was fearful of telling anyone the true way I felt and what I was really thinking.  I was afraid that no one would understand me and or tell me to ‘suck it up and take it like a man.’  I had been doing just exactly that since high school and I was only getting worse by the day.

            Counseling did some good to help me vent my frustrations.  But it did nothing to get at the root of my problems.  I was still having problems with depression, anxiety, delusions, auditory hallucinations, anger, and extreme irritation.

            My auditory hallucinations were a problem.  Mine didn’t tell me to kill myself or to hurt anyone.  Instead mine always give a running commentary of what I was doing all of the time.  It was sort of like the play-by-play commentary on a ballgame telecast except that it was my life.  The voices were always inside of my head, never outside.  The voices were never complimentary; they were always very critical, occasionally hostile, always annoying, and always occurring at the very worst possible times.  These voices demanded perfection out of everything I did all of the time. 

            Finally in the summer of 2000, I went to see my family practitioner about my depression and anger issues.  I was way too embarrassed to talk about my auditory hallucinations.  Major mistake.  I could have saved myself a great deal of heartache and a lot of recovery time had I pointed those hallucinations out immediately.  But because I was not completely open with my doctor about all of my problems, I wasn’t correctly treated right away.

            I was given a prescription for an anti-depressant that was quite new and popular.  But it didn’t do anything to lessen my problems.  I was well back into college before I figured out that the medication was going to have to be changed.  That was my second major mistake, trying to continue on with my life before I took care of my own sickness. 

            With my illness getting severe enough that every aspect of my life was now suffering real bad, I had no choice but to take a few days off from school.  I went and saw a psychiatrist.  After a several hour session and a complete physical where I was completely honest, I was diagnosed with Major Depression.  Paranoid Schizophrenia would later be added to the diagnosis. 

            Different people handle being diagnosed differently.  Some will be confused as to what it means.  Others will be severely depressed, saddened, and feel that life no longer has any reason for going forward.  Others, like myself, may actually be somewhat relieved to know that there are names for their problems and that they are not alone. 

            I went through several series of medications over the next several months with little success of finding anything that worked well.  The entire time I was trying to find a series of medications that worked I was limping through school, just barely getting by.  At first I thought that quitting school was not an option because I had never quit at anything before in my entire life.  It finally got to be too much and I finally came to the conclusion that I needed to take some time off and regroup. 

            In March 2001 I decided to withdraw from college and take a few months to recover.  My mental illness, juggling medication changes, and trying to pass my classes had finally worn me out.  I would have flunked out had I stayed on for the rest of the year.

            In the weeks that followed my withdrawing from school, my psychiatrist and I were able to find a combination of medications that finally worked.  By the summer time I was able to hold a forty-hour a week summer job.  When the fall of 2001 came I re-enrolled in college and was back ready to go.

 

I was officially diagnosed as mentally ill in the year 2000 at the age of twenty.  Before then I was acting strange and thinking paranoid thoughts that no one else was.  I had no idea just how bizarre my thoughts and actions were until I was recommended to a psychiatrist by both my family physician and counselor.

            I now readily admit that I had serious problems in college before I started my treatment.  I was doing well in my classes but my academic achievements were the only things going well for me in my first year of college.  I didn’t make many friends and I didn’t date at all.  I didn’t join many social activities.  I was too paranoid that people knew my thoughts, my secrets, and everything else there was to know about me.  I felt like I could be completely seen though, like everyone knew me better than even I knew myself.           

Yet that wasn’t the end of my troubles.  I was also paranoid that people were intentionally going out of their way to keep me in the dark of what was going on at college.  I was usually the last one to learn the goings on in other peoples’ lives.  I was usually the last to learn of any campus news.  So I was angry that people “intentionally” kept me know knowing about what was going on in my dorm, on campus, and even with my friends and roommate.

            Before I began my treatments, I would go through cycles where I would sleep for only two hours a night for a week at a time.  By my second year of college, I was such a wreck that I couldn’t concentrate enough to read a book, listen to a class lecture and take good notes at the same time, or even follow an average conversation.  Once my second year of college was underway, I didn’t have even my academic work to be proud of.  My grades were suffering severely.

            By the time Christmas of 2000 came I was a mess.  I was changing medications every two to four weeks while we were looking for something just to remotely work.  I eventually came to where I would get out of bed for classes and to go to the mess hall to eat twice a day.  That was it.  The rest of my days were spent in bed.  I don’t know what I was thinking to believe I could still attempt to stay in school while being that sick and having that ineffective of treatments.  But that is part of the delusional thinking that comes with mental illness.

            Naturally my social life died a quick death.  The friends I made my freshman year quit coming around and I quit going to see them.  I was no longer participating in any school activities so I no longer had those friends.  I lost my study groups when I quit going to those.  I lost my girlfriend when my behavior became especially bizarre.  I had only two friends by late February 2001 and that was it.

            I finally decided to withdraw from school on March 2, 2001.  The reason I remember that exact date is because that is when I believe that my recovery officially began.  I dropped all of my classes, moved back home with mom and dad, changed my medications again, and caught up on my sleep.  The medication changes finally worked this time after several months of stumbling around in the dark.  After six weeks of being out of college I was feeling well enough that I began working 40 hours per week at a retail job.  By the middle of summer I was feeling well enough that I decided to re-enroll in college.

            After I returned to college I made it a point to be friendly and thoughtful to everyone I came into contact with regardless of how they treated me.  But I decided to keep only a few really close friends that I felt I could tell anything.  Since I was being friendly to everyone that I met, that made it a little easier for me to learn how to trust people again. Little by little I began to open up to more people until I felt that I could carry on a regular, casual conversation with anyone who willing to carry on one with me.

            From being friendly with even strangers and gradually opening myself up more and more I learned that my paranoia about people trying to hurt me was completely wrong.  In fact I found that most people were just as busy with their own lives as I was with my own.  They were too busy to hurt anyone.

             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 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.  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 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, Matt Campbell, being a history education student helping me out with history and classical literature books, this 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.  Yet 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.  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 for me.  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.  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. 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.

The Beginnings of My Mental Illness In High School

I have already dealt with what mental illness isn’t.  In this post I will write about what the onset of my mental illness was like.

I was officially diagnosed with major depression and paranoid schizophrenia at the age of twenty.  Yet I started noticing problems at age seventeen.  The onset of these problems were so gradual that my friends noticed something wasn’t right before I did.  I still remember after a biology class in high school when we were discussing the symptoms for bipolar disorder, a friend came up to me and said that those symptoms described me pretty well.  I really didn’t have much of an idea of what she was talking about as I thought all teenagers were moody, flighty, and angst ridden.  I just didn’t realize how bad I had become until this friend mentioned this.

Even though I have always enjoyed my personal alone time I always made a point to be friendly to people no matter what.  It was after I turned seventeen I began to isolate much more to where it became a problem.  After I came home from football practice in the evenings, I’d just sit in my room and listen to hard rock music on my headphones for hours at a time most nights.  It got to where I rarely socialized, never went to school activities I wasn’t directly involved in, and I didn’t date at all my senior year of high school.  

By the time senior year came, I was a wreck.  Yet I didn’t tell anyone I was having serious problems.  I think that people knew yet they were afraid to do anything about it.  This was the late 1990s in rural Nebraska, so there wasn’t much in the way of mental health help in the immediate area.  Since people knew I didn’t drink or do drugs, they must have been really scared of me looking back on it years later.  It probably would have been easier to dismiss my erratic behavior and emotional outbursts to drinking and drug abuse as opposed to coming down with a mental illness that was totally unpreventable that no one wanted to discuss.

Speaking of behavior, I quit the school play my senior year even though I had the lead role as a junior.  In football, I became standoffish with my teammates and ignored my coaches so much so I became very unpopular on our team.  I withdrew from my friends so much so I literally had maybe one or two friends by the time I graduated high school in May 1999.  I became argumentative with classmates.  I even almost hit one of my teachers, which would have not only been instant expulsion, but would have been assault charges since I was eighteen at the time.  Thank God I didn’t act on that impulse.

For most kids graduation from high school is a time of celebration.  It wasn’t for me.  I was just too bewildered and overwhelmed by my ever progressing mental illness to enjoy it.  I didn’t see graduation as a victory.  It was simply a ‘I’ve graduated and I have all these anger and depression problems.  I don’t know what’s wrong with me.  Now what?’  I’ll cover the problems of my undiagnosed mental illness in college in another post.