Death of Family Members While Being Mentally Ill and Thoughts on My Own Mortality

Besides my family and one college friend, I haven’t kept in strong contact with most of my friends the last couple weeks.  My best friend’s mother died a few weeks ago and I haven’t talked to her much.  I decided to let her do what was needed and not bother her much.  She probably wasn’t much in the mood for talking the last few weeks.  I haven’t had a parent die yet.  All of my grandparents and a couple uncles have died.  But I wasn’t really torn up by their deaths as I was just happy that such people had lived.  At my grandparents’ funerals, the immediate family was mostly spending the time retelling stories of the cool and funny things they did during their lives.  We weren’t crying that much but instead were celebrating their lives.  There was almost as much laughter as crying at my grandfather’s funeral as the immediate family were retelling stories of my grandfather’s jokes and funny things he did during his life.  And my last grandmother to pass away was quite sharp and aware until she had a stroke about two weeks before she died.  But she was in her late nineties and had real bad arthritis to where she could barely walk.  She had said for the last few years of her life that she wasn’t afraid of dying and that she was ready at any time.  I think that maybe she was sad seeing most of her friends and family die over the years.  Fortunately I was able to handle the grandparents’ funerals without any flare ups of my mental illness.  I was a pall bearer for both my grandmothers.

I guess that as I have now crossed into my late thirties, I’m beginning to think about my own mortality a little.  This has been especially true the last few months as I’m getting more unexplainable aches and pains and I can’t lift as heavy as items as I could previously.  It also doesn’t help that schizophrenics, statistically speaking, have shorter life spans than mentally healthy people.  If I were to die prematurely, I think I want to donate my body to science.  I figure that something good should come from my having schizophrenia effect my mind and destroy my career.

I’m sorry for sounding morbid with this entry.  But I have been thinking about how several people who have influenced me in my young years are now dying off.  Even my own parents aren’t in the greatest health.  But I guess they are in their late sixties.  I’m thirty seven and that would have made me an elderly person in the Stone Age. But I suppose it doesn’t really matter how long you live as long as you make the most of the days you have.

 

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I Enjoy Adulthood Even With Mental Illness

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I must admit, I love being an adult.  I love the freedom involved.  I love having my own money and getting to decide how I get to spend it.  I love that I don’t have to answer to authority figures I didn’t choose.  If a boss was giving me static at a job, I could always look for a different job.  If a landlord was giving me a hard time, I always had the option of moving to a different place.  I love that I can do things like vote and go to casinos.  I enjoy that I don’t have to feel guilty for expressing my opinions and having my likes and dislikes.  I like that I can read whatever I want.  I love having privacy.  I enjoy not getting yelled at for trivial things like when I was in school or living with my parents.  I like the fact that I can avoid people who give me too much static.  When you are in school, you just can’t avoid bullies or sadistic teachers.  Sure I’ve had bosses and coworkers who were jerks and whiners, but at least I had the option of finding another job if I didn’t connect with said bosses or coworkers.  Changing schools is a lot tougher.

Even though I have been living with schizophrenia since at least age seventeen, I have found that it is getting easier to work around it the older I get.  The bad periods don’t last nearly as long nor are as intense as they were in my early twenties.  In my late 30s, I have come to the realization that I don’t have to be defined by what job I have or if I have a wife and kids or not.  I am not my job.  I am not less of a human being because I am not married.  Sure I still deal with people that tell me “mental illness is fake” or that “you’re not a real man.”  But as an adult it is much easier to blow those jerks and losers off and ignore them.  You think I’m faking mental illness, then screw you.  It’s not my job to meet your standards.  It is so much easier to not be bothered by criticism as a 36 year old than when I was 21.  I just hope that the older I get, the symptoms will become even less severe and I will care even less about naysayers and idiots.

I still isolate a lot and avoid socializing with my complex mates.  But I think I’m more mentally stable because of said lack of socializing.  When I was a kid people used to tell me I was being “anti-social” and had “attitude problems” because I didn’t like going to high school sporting events and county fairs.  There really wasn’t much to do in my farming village besides school events, church activities, and county fairs.  There was only one movie theatre in a fifty mile radius from my hometown. I didn’t enjoy watching people throw balls around much as a kid.  As an adult I really don’t have to feel guilty for not watching such things.  I do watch some college football and basketball tournaments just to give myself something to talk about with other people.  Most people still don’t like discussing science and technology in casual conversations.  But I haven’t been to any sporting events in person besides minor league baseball games in almost five years.  And I don’t feel the least bit guilty or anti-social because of it.  And as an adult I have these options.  That’s more than I had as a kid.

I don’t really understand people who are nostalgic about their youths or the past.  I might be a little nostalgic about growing up if I had more friends, was bullied less, and wasn’t so much of a social misfit in my school.  I am kind of nostalgic about my college years because I knew lots of smart people, had lots of interesting conversations, could do things at the spur of the moment with no planning, could study what I felt like studying, and had the legal rights and responsibilities of adulthood.  College was much more stimulating and enjoyable than grade school or high school.  Sure I never got to use my degree in a job, but I blame the schizophrenia for that completely.  And I am grateful everyday I can keep in contact with old friends through Facebook.

I love living in the here and now of May 2017.  Sure getting to this point was rough dealing with schizophrenia for almost twenty years.  Sure my physical health took a beating because my mental illness and the side effects of the psych medications.  But after twenty years of schizophrenia I have figured out how to deal with bad days and psychotic breaks.  I have also learned how to enjoy the small things of life more than many of my mentally stable friends and family.  Happiness for me is watching a sunset, or eating chicken wings at a sports bar with college friends, or seeing my niece and nephews for a few hours, or talking with my parents about history or technology, or reading internet sites like futurism.com or bloomberg.com about trends in science and current events.  I had my ups and downs with schizophrenia.  I had many breakdowns when I took a lot of grief out on my parents and friends.  Fortunately those breakdowns are getting less severe and shorter as I age.  I have had to go to the mental hospital twice. But both times I was self committed and my longest stay was one week.  I may not be able to hold a forty hour a week job, but at least I tried several different lines of work before I came to the conclusion that traditional employment wasn’t in my future.  And it’s not shameful to not hold a full time job, especially if you have a disability or find other outlets to give back to people.  I can still drive a car, I can still buy my own groceries, pick up my medications, keep appointments, and more or less live on my own even with mental illness.  Some people can’t claim that.  In short I love being an adult.  And I wouldn’t want to go back to my youth, even though I had more friends and better health in college.  Being an adult rocks.  It really does.

Reading, Learning, Advances, and Hope

Ever since I changed medications back in March I gradually started reading more.  For several months before I changed my psych medications I had little interest in reading.  I had gotten rid of some of my books.  I still had several hundred ebooks and I kept my books I wanted to reread.  But I hadn’t been reading much for a long time.  I had just lost interest in reading.  I was watching a lot of educational videos on youtube and netflix.

Now it was quite unusual for me to lose interest in reading.  I have known how to read even from my earliest memories.  I didn’t have to be encouraged to read as the village library was a second home to me.  While most of the neighborhood kids were playing basketball or throwing around the football during our summer afternoons, I was spending my time at the library.  I never really did like fantasy books or get too much into fiction.  But I absolutely loved books about different animals, different plants, different nations, and the high achievers of history.  Reading so much nonfiction during my summers off from school really helped me in my classes once school started.  Sometimes I would read ahead in the textbooks because I wanted to know what would be covered next.  I read ahead especially in science and history books.  I didn’t have to be encouraged to read.  I had to be forced to put down the books and get physical activity with the neighborhood kids from even an early age.

I read because I thought learning something new was entertainment.  It actually makes me feel good physically to learn new things.  Reading a good book and learning new ideas gives me a high that no booze, money, or woman could possibly give me.  I know I’m weird for loving learning, at least I’m weird in my culture.  But I certainly wouldn’t want to ever be where I couldn’t read.  That’s why I would prefer to go hard of hearing rather than lose my eye site.  It’s sad that not very many people continue their education after high school or college.  For me that’s when my self education really took off.  I’ve learned more history, economics, philosophy, biology, chemistry, and literature since graduating college than I did when I was in school.  Being in school laid the foundation but my love of reading took it to levels that not many achieve on their own.  I would rather read a book than go to a nightclub.  I have always been that way.

I know some people think they were born in the wrong era and would have been happier in medieval times or in the old west.  I don’t look to the past like that even though history was one of my best subjects in high school.  Part of me wonders at what excellent things my five year old nephew will see in his lifetime should he live to be in his late nineties like my grandmother.  I think about some of the changes she saw just in her lifetime.  She went from being in awe of Henry Ford’s automobile to having a Facebook account that she used to keep up with friends and family.  She didn’t even have indoor plumbing in her house until after she was married.  My grandfather used to trade in his car after it had over 50,000 miles because it was wearing out.  Now a car can last much longer even with minimal maintenance.  My five year old nephew will never know a world before the internet or basic automation.  He will never know a world where we didn’t know the human genome.  He will probably never own a music CD.  If self driving cars gain wide spread acceptance, he might not even need to own a car or even have a driver’s license.  I can’t imagine what he will see in his lifetime, let alone his children’s lifetime.  For me things have gotten really interesting just in the last twenty five years.  I wouldn’t want to live in the past.  I would be even more ridiculed in the old west because of my reading.  I would have been burned at the stake as a heretic in medieval times.  I would have been a terrible hunter in the Ice Ages.  My only hope then would have to become the tribal medicine man providing I didn’t kill myself from doing experiments with poisoned plants and mushrooms.  In short I love learning and seeing advances.  I love seeing the advances I have seen just since I was old enough to pay attention thirty years ago.  I can hardly wait to see what advances come by the time even I’m an old man.  It’s things like these advances and seeing people becoming less accepting of violence, sexism, bigotry, and cruelty that give me hope for the future of my species.

 

Washing Out of Graduate School, Having Mental Health Issues, and Chains of Events (Or The Story of My Adult Life)

If I were to meet anyone who has been diagnosed with mental health problems and he/she were looking for advice as to what to do from the diagnosis onward, it would be 1) Don’t Give Up,  2) Look for what you are naturally good at despite your problems, and 3) Get Really Creative. 

In this entry, I’m going to tell some of my personal story from the last several years. It’s a short autobiography of sorts. In February of 2006, after having washed out of the MBA program at a small state university, I decided to apply for Social Security Disability Insurance.  I had recently lost my graduate assistantship due to my grades.  It wasn’t that I didn’t like my classes or hate my work with the university.  Far from it.  I absolutely loved the work of being a research assistant, tutor, seminar presenter, and occasional substitute teacher.  Yet my mental health issues were flaring up during this time.  I would have been allowed to stay in school in hopes that I could raise my grades and get back on track.  But the prospect of going to school without a job and no way but loans to pay for it while taking on my mental health issues just didn’t appeal to me.  I was able to get through undergraduate college without any debt thanks to academic scholarships, working full time during the summers, and the much appreciated assistance of my family.  I was afraid that taking on the burden of continuing graduate school with no guarantee of getting my grades back up, having to go deep into debt to continue said studies, all the while combating mental health problems and being a financial drag on my family (who were already paying through the nose for the high risk health insurance I was on for meds that otherwise would have cost almost $2,000 monthly); all of it would have been major problems that simply were not worth it.

Looking back on it, I believe I could have completed the MBA program had it not been for the mental health burdens.  But, like almost everyone, I simply didn’t have the unlimited funds to cover medications, health insurance, and retaking the two classes I didn’t do well at all in.  Yet, knowing myself better now at age 33 than I did at age 25, I know I would have been unhappy with being another cubicle bum jockeying for dollars.  Even though I appreciate money as much as anyone I know, I also know it isn’t my only motivator or even one of my primary motivators.  I have found, over the last several years of experience and looking for tendencies in my life going back to before I even started elementary school, that I really enjoyed sharing what I learned with others and giving advice.  If I did complete the MBA program and then become something like a financial analyst, I wouldn’t have been meeting my need to share what I learn to others and helping others avoid problems.  I love explaining things to people, assisting people, and looking up things I don’t know.  I always have.   Had I been able to stay on the ‘traditional’ path, I would be miserable at a cubicle job but would still have my personality slants I mentioned above.  I would have probably then gone on to attempt to get a PhD just so I could teach at even a junior college. I probably would have been doing what I loved, but would have had a rough road to get there.  But to quote Eric Church, “Thank God I ain’t what I almost was.”

Instead, due to circumstances beyond my control, I was forced to become competent in areas besides business and economics.  While I am not an expert on treating mental health problems and issues in others, I have over the years become quite knowledgeable on how to survive with mental health problems and issues.  In the process, I was able to work a part time job for over four years.  I have, thanks to being on Social Security and having the earnings limitations that come with being on Social Security, become knowledgeable on how to survive on what most people in the Western world would consider below poverty level existence.  I have learned how to ‘stretch a dollar’ far further than one could learn in any business school.  Thanks to following my natural love of telling stories, explaining things to people, and reading, I am also a self taught writer.  I have been writing seriously for only ten years as it wasn’t something I acted on until I was almost out of undergraduate college.  Because of my mental health issues, my natural empathy for other people, and my natural desire to share what I learned, I eventually came to write about my experiences with mental health problems and issues.  Many of these writings have found their way onto this blog, The Writing of Life.  I may not have a string of letters behind my last name that ‘qualifies’ me as a trusted expert, at least not in the traditional academic sense.  But with my experiences with my own mental health problems combined with my writing skills and the power of the internet in the Information Age, I can fulfill my natural talents and perhaps help some people in the process.

I have no idea where my life’s journey will go from here.  But this blog will be part of it regardless.  In only seven months of having a definite focus in my blog, I have had over 1,500 visits already.  Though there are bloggers that get that even on a bad day, this is already more than I would have expected when I started. And that’s with sometimes infrequent posts.  Being somewhat risk adverse by nature, I never would have started the process of becoming a mental health advice blogger had I never been forced to change directions.  Yet “Thank God I ain’t what I almost was.”

Social Mistakes

We’ve all had those times when we committed ‘social mistakes.’  These are also called ‘faux paus’ and ‘social gaffes.’  It can be that moment when someone takes what we’ve said wrong.  It can also be that moment when we said something without completely thinking through the consequences.  It is also that moment when we fail to properly acknowledge our thanks and appreciation for what someone close to us means to us (think the spouse who forgets an anniversary or the boss who doesn’t always acknowledge the hard work his/her employees put in everyday).  We often do these without thinking or intending any harm.

For those of us with mental health differences from the ‘norm’, socializing can be really tough and even daunting.  This is often because we don’t always pick up on social ques such as body language, inflection and tone of voice, or are as aware of social situations as the ‘chronic normal’ or neurotypical people do with such seeming ease.  I have committed numerous social mistakes over the years without even knowing what I was doing.  I have lost friendships, alienated myself from coworkers and bosses, thought things about others that were not true, and made myself to look like a fool many times as I had no awareness of social rules and norms that I was breaking.

I never broke these norms or unspoken rules just to make life difficult for myself or others.  I was simply unaware of the boundaries I was crossing.  Maybe these boundaries are always known for most people, but I never picked up on them to a degree to make myself an extrovert.  As the years went by and I was committing more and more social mistakes, with the price of such social mistakes going higher and higher as I became an adult, I had no idea why I was offending people that I had no intention of offending.  I had no idea why I was reading people wrong.  I had no idea why I wasn’t advancing in my former work or why I wasn’t making lots of friends.  The reason was, because of my mental health issues, I simply was missing many unspoken and unconscious social signals that most people take for granted as being ingrained from birth.  I didn’t understand how the social game was played by everyone else.  I still don’t to a degree.

As I was losing ground socially, I gradually withdrew from most people and most social situations.  That was a mistake.  I thought that people simply didn’t me because I was different from everyone else.  That was not only part of my natural paranoia, but also because I hadn’t sufficiently learned to socialize on a level where most people could.  What resulted from me isolating with the exception of family and close friends was my not learning the social skills that are needed to adequately socialize as an adult.  So I was falling even more behind than I normally would have had I ignored my paranoia and kept socializing.

I have now had an official diagnosis for over thirteen years.  I have made many mistakes in my life with the diagnosis and being different than most people.  I have, and continue to, pay for the mistakes I have made socially.  Yet I am optimistic about right now and the future. I know the mistakes I have made as I have made them plenty of times.  I can now advance in my life and see what’s next to be learned.  If I, or anyone else, had everything learned and completely figured out, then there would be no point to keep going and striving.  

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.

Coping With Limitations and New Expectations

When I was first diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia I was clueless as to what exactly that entailed.  I knew that I would have to take anti-psychotic medications for a while and go to therapy.  Yet I had absolutely no idea how much my life was going to change.

As a result of my worsening mental illness, my ability to concentrate gradually became less and less.  I also had problems remembering details and paying attention.  It became bad enough that I had to give up on my original career dreams.  I started college as a Pre-Pharmacy student with the intention of becoming a research scientist for a pharmaceutical company.  Because of my worsening mental illness and deepening paranoid this dream became impossible to achieve. 

My grades were declining to where I wasn’t even sure I could stay in college, let alone go after my dream.  A change in course was in order.  Even though I knew very little about the subject I switched over Business courses.  My thinking at the time was I wanted to be employable immediately after college if I did get better.

As my college career progressed in my business classes I never achieved the level of academic success I once had.  This was due to my illness making it impossible to concentrate for long periods of time or pay attention to minute details.  I also had problems prioritizing projects so I often had to rush my college class projects.  As a result I didn’t get as good of grades as I could have had I not been mentally ill.

With all of the effort I was putting into just getting through my classes, I wasn’t even thinking about what jobs I would be good at once I finished college.  I really had no clue what I wanted to do once I was done with school.  I didn’t research potential careers very closely, at least not careers that someone with my particular illness could do.

I was in a really odd place, looking back in retrospect.  I was mentally ill but I had been able to maintain much of my original natural intelligence.  I had always been one of the most intelligent kids in my class in high school and even managed to do well in my classes in college in spite of my paranoid schizophrenia. 

My problem was I had serious stress and paranoia issues concerning other people.  Those issues, along with my problems with anger and depression, made, and still make, holding a regular forty-hour a week job for any length of time impossible.  It was, and still is, frustrating to be sitting on this intelligence but not able to use it, at least not in a job.

After I graduated from college I applied for every business related job I could find.  I didn’t get many responses to my inquiries.  I was sending over twenty resumes a week but was having absolutely no luck in landing an interview.  I was painfully finding out that the “apply for everything out there and hope something hits” tactic to job applications does not work.  It wasn’t until a few years later I learned that it’s far better to focus in what you want and be patient.

I thought that I wanted to work in banking or insurance.  I believed that these were stable industries that would be not too difficult to get into.  Yet I couldn’t get interviews for even these industries.  I was painfully finding out another truth: Job hunts immediately after college take a long time.  The person who finds a job before graduation is not the rule; he or she is the exception.

Finally after three months of living with my parents and futile searching, I changed my expectations.  I decided that I was taking the first thing that came along.   That job came in the form of a minimum wage job as a store clerk, and this was a part time job on top of that.

The first few months weren’t that bad.  The boss liked me and I worked well with the customers.  Yet I had a coworker that was constantly on my case and was very unpleasant to be around.  It finally became bad enough that after four months of this that I decided as soon as something different, not necessarily better, came along I was going to jump on it.  The biggest reason was to be done with this disagreeable coworker.  I couldn’t put my finger exactly on it, but I think this coworker found my quirks of being mentally ill frustrating.  I never said anything negative to this person though inside I was seething angry with this person.

One thing I couldn’t deal with very well in the past because of my illness is work place politics.  I have gotten better about it with age because of better coping methods and being able to better tell when I’m just being paranoid. In my younger years I could never understand work place politics, pecking orders, jockeying, etc.  My thinking as a younger man was we are on the same side and we ought to make an honest attempt to get along.  Now that I’m a few years older and have a few years of work experience, I have just accepted politics in the office as just part of human nature.  Just because they occur does not mean that I am expected to participate whole-heartedly in the gossiping or anything malicious.  But I am expected to do my job to the expectations of my bosses and coworkers, and that is what is ultimately important in keeping a job.

If you are an individual with mental illness and you do seek a job, know that there are personality differences among your coworkers and office politics.  Just know that these are rarely personal, they are just part of human nature that cannot be changed.  It took me a real long time to figure this out.  Until I did figure it out, my working life was often miserable simply because I had misguided expectations.

My expectations have changed so many times over the years since I was eighteen.  My expectations about working alone has gone from where I wanted to be a great research scientist to wanting to work in insurance to hating even part time work to fearing I would never work at all to now I work twenty hours a week as a custodian back to not working right at the moment.  I don’t think I would have become interested in writing had I never become mentally ill.  Maybe something positive has come out of all of this after all. 

I don’t know where this journey is going to end.  But I do know that right now that it is quite exciting and each day brings something different and new.  I wouldn’t have had this if I never become ill or had to change my expectations.