My Journey To Being An Advocate For The Mentally Ill

My birthday is coming up in a few days.  I’ll be 37 years old this year.  That would have made me a senior citizen in the Stone Age.  Of course if I would have developed schizophrenia at most points in human history, it probably would have been a death sentence.  As it is I have found what works and what doesn’t in my life with mental illness.

I was first diagnosed with schizophrenia and major depression in the autumn of 2000.  I was in the second year of my pre med studies in college.  Even though I had been having problems with depression and anxiety for a few years before, I was still able to do well in school and keep up a strong front.  I still don’t know how I did it.  But in my second year of college, it all collapsed.  I couldn’t handle stress anymore.  I was having constant panic attacks.  I would have breakdowns where I called home and yelled at my parents at least once a week.  Looking back on it, I should have gone to the mental hospital right then and there and not tried to gut out college at the same time.  As it was I withdrew from college at midterm of the spring semester and took a few months to adjust the treatments and pull myself together.  After the disaster that my second year of college was, I knew I’d never get into any med school with my grades.  So I switched over to business because, let’s face it, everything involves money and commerce.  I still thought I could be employable in the right situation after college.

During the last few years of college I became interested in economics and finance.  I applied for several jobs like financial planner, insurance sales, insurance underwriter, loan officer at a few banks, etc.  I took the obsession I previously had with science and was able to transfer it to business and economics.  It paid off to be curious for me.  I graduated in spring 2004 but, like many college seniors, I had several job interviews but no offers when I left school.  I didn’t realize just how common that was until I started talking to people over the internet a few years later.

After a few failed attempts at careers in various fields, (retail sales, academia, manufacturing), I applied for disability insurance.  This was in 2006.  I had just lost my job at the university and been forced to leave the masters’ program.  Here I was on a waiting list for disability, on a waiting list for low income housing, with no job, no confidence, and no money.  If it wasn’t for my parents help for the first half of 2006, I would have never made rent on my apartment.  But that wasn’t all for 2006.  My longtime college girlfriend and I broke up and I failed at a couple minimum wage jobs, one of which was at Goodwill.  If you can’t succeed at Goodwill, then you are really screwed up (or so I thought).  In the late summer I checked myself into the mental health hospital.  Stayed there for a week.  By this time I was at my lowest ebb.  I had no job.  My illness wasn’t allowing me to hold a job.  I had no real income.  I was living off food stamps though no mess ups of my own.  I had no idea when social security was coming through. I was on high risk insurance that was costing my parents a lot of money so I could stay on my meds.  I never could have afforded them on my own.  I came to the conclusion I would never hold a career because of my mental illness.  I came to the second conclusion that I would never marry and have a family because of my mental illness.  I was really sad and depressed during this entire time.  I really thought I’d never be happy or amount to anything ever again.  I’m glad I didn’t cross the line into becoming suicidal at this time.

Those rough years of my mid to late twenties when I came to the conclusions I would never hold meaningful employment or have a family really sucked.  But they were also when I was writing a lot, granted not as focused as I am now.  Before I got serious about my blog I wrote hundreds of poems, largely in the style of Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson, and I also did complete rough drafts for two novels.  The novels were nothing really special, just kind of like Jack Kerouac for Millennials.  I was working on notes for a science fiction novel at this time too.  I also read every day to try to help me find a literary voice.  I read dozens of authors, ranging from Kurt Vonnegut to Ayn Rand, Chuck Philhanuak to John Grisham, Alexandre Dumas to Mark Twain, Adam Smith to Nietcheze, etc.  I tried to teach myself Spanish at the time as well, but the only Spanish I know is how to ask for directions and order simple meals.  But as my ‘traditional’ side was falling apart, I was finding other ways to find meaning in my life besides work and dating.

I started writing down my thoughts and experiences with mental illness in my late twenties.  I was submitting some of my poems to be published in literary magazines.  I got a few of them published but never made any money.  I eventually wrote a few dozen short essays about life with a mental illness.  I was reading The Federalist Papers at the time and kind of modeled the book of mental health essays on that.  I put the files on a print on demand service.  I sold a few dozen of those books, mostly to friends, family, and interested mental health facilities.  After tasting a little success with those essays, I thought they might make good blog entries.  And my first few blog entries were from that original book.  Since it’s been several years since I updated that book, I probably ought to rewrite it and repost it.  And since I now have a dozens of blog entries on the subject of living with mental illness, I definitely have new material for another edition.

I started blogging through wordpress in 2012 shortly after I left my last ‘traditional’ job.  I didn’t get much for visitors early on because I had no focus for the blog and I wasn’t posting regularly.  In early 2013 I decided to focus the blog specifically on mental illness.  My audiences have grown slowly but steadily over the last few years.  I started a Facebook page to promote the blog.  I also have a patreon account a few months ago and I already have a sponsor through there.  And I’ve also made a little money since I monetized this blog.  I’m not breaking even yet with what I spent on advertising this blog, but it’s getting closer all the time.  I recently broke 14,000 all time visitors from 100 different countries.  And this is with only four years of work, a microscopic advertising budget, a niche topic, and 50 percent of the world’s population still not online.

I’ll be 37 in a few days.  And I already had a larger reach with my writing works than I ever thought possible when I first seriously started writing in 2004.  That’s been only thirteen years.  I think I’m going to keep at this and see what I can develop with this blog and my writings over the next thirteen years.  I say all of this to point out that young people in their late teens and early twenties shouldn’t sell themselves short at all.  At age 23 I would have been content to be a loan officer at a bank or an insurance salesman.  But I know I wouldn’t have been content doing such work.  I wouldn’t be doing what I’m really good at.  And let’s face it, in this day and age a person can make money doing almost anything thanks to the exposure of the internet if they put in the time and lots of effort to get noticed.  I’ve already accomplished more than I thought I could as a writer thanks to the internet, especially when I started out I was just writing poetry out in notebooks.  And now after running this blog for four years and getting some audience and dozens of positive emails, I know I’m only scratching the surface of what can be done.  I never would have thought this possible when I first applied for disability insurance.  Mental illness is one of the few things that is still discriminated against with little to no protest.  I intend to be part of changing that.  I’m not going away.  The mentally ill bloggers and you tubers aren’t going away either.  We will not be silent and suffer needlessly anymore.  Consider this a declaration of war against mental illness stigma.

 

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Winter Routines and Down Time

 

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My life has been essentially quiet and uneventful since Christmas.  We had a pretty cold January and early February so I didn’t really go anywhere except to pick up groceries and house supplies for the last two months.  We had our traditional mid winter thaw the last week or so.  So I’ve been spending some time outside watching the squirrels and birds.  I see the cranes and Canadian geese are starting to migrate back.  They are usually quite thick near my town from the last week in February until middle March.  I’m going to take a few hours sometime next week and just watch the birds along the Platte River just outside my town like I do every March.

I traditionally love to travel and see new places.  But I haven’t been outside of Nebraska since my friend Matt’s wedding almost two years ago.  And I can tell that the lack of travel and new experiences are making me stale and itchy.  Believe it or not, I really don’t like the sedentary lifestyle.  When I still held traditional jobs, I usually did my best at jobs where I was moving a lot and it didn’t matter if I got sweaty or dirty.  I admit that since I had the sedentary lifestyle forced on me, first by my car accident and then spending a summer with a messed up back, I have gotten lazy.  And by getting lazy I can tell I have lost much of my stamina and enjoyment of just doing simple things like walking around the park or going to the all night deli to pick up some Chinese food.  I have recently started going back to the all night deli more often, especially if I’m going to be up late.

I am still not as active as I would like to be, but I can tell that it is beginning to come back.  I am traditionally not very active during winters, at least not physically.  I usually read a lot and have traditionally done some of my best writing work during the winter.  Most of the books I read this winter were about future technology trends and popular science.  I also listen to a lot of audiobooks and current events type lectures on youtube.  I tend to utilize youtube and my books more in winter than the spring or fall.  Traditionally during the summers I do most of my errands in the morning than spend the hottest parts of the afternoon reading and writing.  But I still do the bulk of my brain work during the winter.

I can tell that the lack of physical activity and travel is making me easily bored.  It is also tough in that I haven’t seen my close friends or family at all since Christmas.  I fear that I’m losing my social skills.  I don’t socialize much with my neighbors in my complex as I have little in common with them.  Most of my neighbors are senior citizens or people with physical disabilities that can’t do much of anything.  I don’t know many people in here with mental health issues who are still in reasonably good physical health.  It is kind of lonely in here as far as socializing goes.  I can also tell that the lack of socializing and physical activity has taken a toll on my physical health.  I just hope that once spring sets in a few weeks from now, I’ll be able to get more active again.

Christmas Projects and Monetizing My Blog

 

Besides buying groceries and running a couple miscellaneous errands around town, I haven’t been out that much this Christmas season.  I have mainly stayed home, worked on some projects around my apartment, cleaned a little, and rearranged some of my furniture.  As I don’t have much for furniture the rearranging took less than a couple hours.  I’m also messing with a few new computer games I bought for myself as an early Christmas gift.

I still haven’t worked up the courage to brave the mall or box stores.  The crowds are bad every holiday season.  I get real bad sensory overload from the lights, bells, bright decorations, crying children, and stressed out adults.  I don’t enjoy holiday shopping.  I’d rather just buy all my gifts online and let the post office worry about delivery.  That and I don’t have to put on shoes when I’m shopping online.

A few months ago I decided to monetize my blog and see if I could make something off it.  I also set up a pateron account.  Between the two of them over the last few months I made some money.  Granted it’s only a few bucks but I had no expectations when I started doing this blog three years ago.  Even though I have had the taste of making some money through my online work, I’m not delusional enough to believe I will become rich from my blogging.  I doubt I’ll even be able to get off disability insurance from my writings.  But I don’t care that much about the money.  I have learned to live on not much, at least not much by American standards.  If this blog became popular enough that I could buy a pizza every month from my blog earrings, I’d consider that a huge success.

In some aspects I already consider this blog a success.  I have gotten dozens of messages from readers that have told me that what I am writing is helpful.  I got one message from someone who claimed he was biased against mentally ill people until he read several of my postings.  Changing minds one blog post at a time I suppose.  Another success of the blog is that the audience has grown bigger with each passing year.  I am happy with what this blog has been able to accomplish in only a few years of determined effort.  In the back of my mind I always wanted this blog to have lots of readers and be well known within the mental health community.  But I didn’t set myself up for disappointment if my blog never got noticed.  I would blog even if I didn’t get paid or if my blogs weren’t read by more than a couple people.  I post this material also for future audiences as something that may be able to help anyone years down the road.  If something ends up on the internet, it’s practically permanent anymore.  And that is still considering that over half the world’s population still doesn’t have easy access to internet.  Think about it, over three and a half billion people still haven’t seen a youtube video, bought anything online, or seen a troll face meme as of December 2016.  The internet is not going away.  Neither are mentally ill people who will tell their stories and demand more fair treatment.

Minimalism, Optimism, and Freedom with Mental Illness

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In the classic movie ‘Forrest Gump’, there was a line that went like “there’s only so much you need and the rest is just for show.”  After a couple of years of practicing minimalism I know that is a fact.  There really is only so much a person needs to really be content in life. I don’t have any music CDs or DVDs because I have all of that held by my computer via my subscriptions to Netflix, Curiosity Stream, and Spotify.  I have my books but I am seriously considering buying a Kindle or another cheap e-reader and putting a bunch of free books on it.  I don’t have a lot of trinkets in my house.  Besides a few art pieces done by friends and my framed World Series ticket stub from when my Rockies made the World Series I don’t have much for decorations.  The only real extravagance  I have for decorations is the world map where I put in push pins in every country I had a visitor from.  I have food in my fridge and pantry.  I have some emergency supplies so I could ride out a blizzard or emergency for a few days without power if need be.  I have my car which I use mainly to buy groceries and run occasional errands.  I’ve gotten to where I usually buy gas only once a month unless I’m making road trips during the summer.  I banked some of my insurance settlement money as another emergency fund.  I already had an emergency fund that I keep outside of the bank.  My medicaid covers my medications and psych doctor visits.  I have learned how to live on what social security pays me.  I have zero for debts.  I have two computers and central heating.  Heck, I dare say that even though I’m on social security disability insurance and officially living under the poverty line for U.S. standards in 2016, I live better than the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts did back in the late 1800s.  Thank God for technology and knowledge.

I’m sorry if I sound like I’m bragging.  But I am happy that I have gotten out of debt, stayed out of debt, didn’t end up in a bad relationship or divorced paying child support for kids I’m hardly ever allowed to see, and avoided a lot of other problems that could have come with being mentally ill.  I’m glad I don’t have kids because I fear passing on genetic tendencies for mental illness and I know with schizophrenia I would have made a lousy father.  I am glad I got out of debt and learned how to have cheap tastes because I don’t have to take a job just for the money.  I don’t work right now because I really don’t need the money.  I also don’t need the headaches of office politics and putting up with whiny and lazy coworkers.  I left my last job because I didn’t need the money and the job was becoming more of a headache than it was worth.  Being in the position where I don’t have to accept a lousy job or put up with coworkers’ nonsense is a sense of power that not many people I know have.

Some of my critics will no doubt say that I can do this only because I am on the government dole.  Years ago with mental illness, I’d be locked up in an insane asylum and probably costing the taxpayers more than I am now with less effective results. With me living in the community on disability, my community was able to get several years of labor and taxes out of me that they wouldn’t have gotten fifty years ago.  The community also received my blog entries, which from messages I have gotten from readers, are making a difference.  Some may think I am spoiled by being able to live in the community and take psych medications at tax payer expense.  What’s wrong with that?  Everybody alive today benefits from inventions and innovations they had nothing to do with.  Everybody with electricity today had little to nothing to do with the research that people like Michael Farraday, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, and George Westinghouse did back in the 1800s to make electric power possible.  A significant percentage of the people living today would be dead or never born if it wasn’t for anti biotic drugs.  Surely that doesn’t spoil anyone or make them less productive.

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Because of advances in science and technology along with advances in the social safety nets, I can live pretty well off very little.  I have access to much of history’s music through Spotify for only ten dollars a month.  I have access to the world’s cumulative knowledge and wisdom won through centuries of toil, tears, and blood through a wireless internet collection that costs only one dollar a day.  I don’t need in encyclopedia for research when I have wikipedia and search engines.  I don’t need to write letters to friends when I can just hit them up on Facebook.  I don’t need to buy a newspaper when I can go online to get my news or craigslist.com for classified ads.  I can reach an international audience with this blog for pennies a day in advertising and I have a much further reach than when I started writing a dozen years ago.  Back then I wasn’t known outside of the few people who bought some of my print on demand poetry and essays books.  Much of what I am doing right now would seem like Flash Gordon and Buck Rodgers type of science fiction magic to my grandparents generation back in the 1950s.  Even the Wal Mart special smart phone I have is more advanced than Captain Kirk’s mobile communicator from the original ‘Star Trek.’  And I have access to all of this and more even though I am a minimalist, on disability insurance, a single man, and living in a smaller town in a largely rural farming state.

Because my hobbies and entertainments don’t cost much I don’t need that much money.  Splurging for me is going to a sports bar with a couple college friends when they come to visit.  Or buying $60 worth of used books on amazon or picking up a couple cheap computer games.  Extravagance for me is going camping in the Black Hills of South Dakota or the mountains of Colorado.  A good time for me is getting to see my nephews and niece. I may not have a large income, a big house, a fancy car, a designer wardrobe, or prestige.  But I have come to realize over the years with a mental illness I don’t need these things to be content and happy.  I need only a fraction of the things I was told I needed to have a decent life when I was growing up.  I really don’t have to make any more major purchases for the foreseeable future.  Other than the ups and downs of my mental illness I am living quite well.  Now that the insanity of the election has passed I may not have to worry about so many ups and downs anymore.  Life is going well for me.

 

Experiences With Mental Illness Blogging

I’ve been doing this blog for over three years.  And I absolutely enjoy every minute I spend blogging.  I enjoy it more than any traditional job I ever had.  I enjoy it even more than the classes I took in college.  I don’t have to be forced to write about mental illness.  I would do this for free.  I am doing it for free unless I get any kind of advertising revenue or sponsors.  I wouldn’t refuse any money that comes my way even though I am not delusional enough to think I can get off disability pension from blogging.  I have been doing this blog for three years and not made a cent off it.  In my twelve years of overall writing I have probably broke even between selling print on demand books and what I spent advertising my blog through Facebook.  I don’t suppose many people can claim they have a passionate hobby that almost pays for itself.

After spending several years with selling only a few dozen books of mental illness essays and poetry I really had no expectations with this blog.  I didn’t know what kind of a following I would have or even if I would have a following outside my mother and a few friends.  So I set up shop with a free blog site and started writing blogs about what it is like to have schizophrenia to people who can’t imagine it.  This isn’t the first blog I ever did.  A friend and I did a blog several years ago.  It never gained more than a couple hundred views because we were unfocused and not posting regularly.  I did a blog about my poetry for awhile before I found out I wasn’t much of a poet and there really isn’t a great demand for average poetry.

After examining what I liked to read, what I was good at writing, and what I gained good audiences from, I decided three years ago to focus on writing about my experiences with mental illness.  That’s when I gained more than a few readers.  After years of experimenting with styles and genres, I came to the conclusion I do best writing nonfiction essays from the first person point of view.  I had written rough drafts for two coming of age type novels both from first person view.  They didn’t really hold together and I later found out for fiction novels that first person is tougher than third person point of view.

Once I found my niche and style I had a few visitors coming in with every blog post.  After it became a weekly posting I had a few more visitors.  The thing that helped me gain more visitors was posting often.  A blogger simply can’t build any kind of audience by posting only once or twice a month or only when the creative muse moves them.  Most of my favorite individual youtube content creators post several times a week and have for several years.  I’m not at that kind of proficiency, but perhaps I could be if I keep posting material.  I think it helps to get a body of work of several dozen postings at minimum so that search engines can find your work easier.  As of now I have had close to two hundred postings over the last three years and a little over 9,500 visitors from 90 different nations.  There are bloggers (and youtube stars) who get that even on bad days, but I’ve been working at this for only a few years and haven’t done as much advertising as some people.  Being on a limited budget with a disability pension I have to be choosy about what kind of advertising I do as it still costs money to get truly noticed.

Early on in the first several months I got some audience from following other bloggers and leaving positive comments on their articles.  I left nothing but positive comments.  If I didn’t agree with a particular post I just didn’t comment.  I didn’t want to gain the reputation of a troll or troublemaker.  Having a good reputation on the internet is more valuable than gold.  I got some following from following other bloggers and I tried to direct some of my readers to bloggers who helped me out.  But leaving positive comments on other blogs, following other blogs, and trying to refer traffic to other blogs helped me out in the early months.

Even though I have a few years of blogging experience and some following I don’t consider myself established by any means.  I don’t think there can be anything really established as far as the internet and the current information revolution goes.  I was learning as I went when I wrote my first words twelve years ago and I’m still learning new things even today. I was a bit frustrated in the early years when I would get rejection notices in the mail several times a week.  I was also frustrated in the early postings when I wasn’t getting more than a few visitors per post.  But looking back on it, I see how rough and raw most of those writings were.  I’m glad they didn’t get published.  And I’m sure in several more years I’ll look at some of the things I’m writing now as rough and unpolished.  It’s a continuous process that never ends.  I hope to always keep improving as a writer so I can better explain to people what living with a mental illness is really like.

 

 

Getting Back To Stability

It’s been almost three weeks since I threw out my back.  I can get around pretty decent for the most part.  The mornings are the only difficulty, especially the first time I stand up after waking.  In spite of my back issues I’ve been socializing more.  I went to a writers’ support group on Monday night for the first time in over a year.  Told people about my blog.  My blog is the primary writing activity I have right now.  I do occasionally write poetry but there is such a limited market for poetry.  I haven’t written any kind of fiction for almost three years.  But then I’ve always preferred reading nonfiction to fiction.

Mentally I’ve been very stable for quite awhile.  I call at least one person over the phone every day now.  Usually family or close friends.  Things have gotten a little less contentious  at my apartment complex in recent months.  We’ve had a couple problem residents I haven’t seen in weeks so I’m guessing they moved out.  After ten years in the same complex I really don’t pay much attention to who moves in and who moves out.  I just pretty much keep to myself and the handful of friends I have here.  The friend I made back in the winter moved out a month ago.  But I’m kind of used to that by now.

I rejoined my old writers support group.  I’m probably going to rejoin my mental illness support group as soon as my back clears up.  There is a second writers’ support group that meets twice monthly at the local library that I’m joining starting next week.  In short I’m beginning to put myself out there socially.

Been seriously tracking my diet for a week.  I don’t know how much weight I’ve lost.  Probably not as much as I normally would as I’m not yet very active.  I won’t be very active until my back completely heals.  The best I can do right now is put strict limits on what I eat and keep a positive mind set.

Today is also my birthday.  I am now 36 years old.  I don’t have much planned today besides going out to lunch with my family.  Can’t really do a great deal for at least the short term.  But the back has cleared immensely since two weeks ago.  I just have to keep doing things to encourage the healing process until I’m back to full speed.

Good Things Coming From Bad Events

After a couple decent snow storms and cold winter like weather for much of November, I figured that winter was coming early this year.  That was until the recent warm up we had over the last few days.  So I’ve been able to get outdoors more this month than last month, especially since my back is feeling so much better.  Been doing the chiropractic treatments on my back for six weeks.  I didn’t realize how much I was being hindered by low grade back pain.  I even had an old injury that had been giving me fits  since age fifteen clear up.  Too bad I had to get my car wrecked to get into this treatment.  But good things can come out of bad events.

Another good thing that came from a bad event was learning I had some talents besides science classes.  Almost all the electives I took in high school were in biology , chemistry, and physics.  I spent the first two years of my college career with the goal of going into medical research.  But the problems from the mental illness prevented this from happening.  In desperation I switched to a business major.  I knew nothing about any kind of money or finance besides being able to balance a checkbook.  I got good enough grades in my business classes to graduate, but it wasn’t the mostly A’s I got in high school.  But I still learned how to budget and how basic economics worked.  As my college career was winding down I found I had a natural talent for writing.

I didn’t do much writing as a kid besides what was required for my classes.  I quit keeping a journal after a few months in junior high after I caught my older brother reading it one day.  I guess I was paranoid even before I became ill.  So that was one of those unknown and untapped talents I discovered in college.  I wrote every day for several throughout the rest of my twenties.  And looking back on those writings, I didn’t realize just how raw and unrefined they were.  How I got even a few poems published in my twenties is beyond me.  But I guess anything worth learning is worth doing poorly at first.

I didn’t learn how to write all at once.  It has taken almost a dozen years of cranking out material to get even where I’m at now.  I wrote for three years before I got a guest article published in the local newspaper.  I wrote for five years before I self published a novel (which was truly lousy even though it was semi-autobiographic).  I wrote for seven years before I sold a few dozen self published books.  And it was over ten years before I had any kind of traction on alifeofmentalillness.wordpress.com.  Even now I’m still learning the writing game.  And I do it even though I don’t get paid for this.  While it would be cool to get paid for some of my work, it’s not the end game of my writing.  I’ll continue to do this blog and anything after this for years to come.  As far as money goes, while I like money as much as anyone it’s not the reason I write.  I write because I can’t imagine not writing.  And this is a thing that, had I never become mentally ill, I would have never discovered.