Joining the World Again

  • In the fall of 1996, just over ten years ago, I’d been demoted from the job I was hired for.  Depressed, I felt my mind was woolen, like the boucle suits I wore.  To cheer myself up, I visited a psychic my friend Lila recommended.  The autumn-faced woman gave me a reading at her kitchen table.  She predicted I’d move to Brooklyn.  She knew I’d publish my book.  “What I see for you is only better,” the warm prophet assured.  I couldn’t be convinced, and when the session was over, I paid her the forty bucks and fled with the cassette tape on which she’d recorded everything, jamming it into my messenger bag.

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    Seeking a more down-to-earth way to find a dose of happiness, I joined Fountain House in Manhattan, a clubhouse for people with psychiatric diagnoses.  After work, I’d take the subway there and attend the Thursday night poetry group.  At the Fountain, I met a woman I became good friends with for four years.  We’d attend the writing session, and then walk around the corner to the Coffee Pot, where we listened to folk music and talked about the poetry of our lives, sipping cappuccino and sharing a chocolate mud pie.


    My friendship with Ali blossomed in the time I spent there, and continued for a couple of years after I left.  For the time I knew her, I considered her my best friend.  I also met other brave poets who shared the lyrics of their lives.


    Fountain House has Clubhouses all over the world.  The Manhattan outpost provides transitional employment, peer advocacy and housing, as well as social events, and hosts a yearly retreat and offers daily, cheap meals in its cafeteria.


    As I come up on 20 years in recovery, nostalgia for that time has come on.  I remember the 1990s well, yet interestingly, a dark haze now surrounds the difficult nights and a bright halo shines around the good days.  I’m not sure why I have a selective memory, yet perhaps that’s a side effect of getting older: we let go of the pain, and focus on what gave us joy.  Life’s too short to do otherwise.


    What have I learned in retrospect?  Self-reliance is the #1 skill you need in order to do well in your recovery.  The point is to get out there and live your life.  If you’d rather hibernate, afraid of what the outside world will think of you after you’re diagnosed, I recommend you join a clubhouse or go to a drop-in center.  Everybody there has a mental illness, and knows what it’s like to feel different.


    Also, developing social graces is the key to overcoming anxiety, paranoia and low self-esteem.  At a place like Fountain House, you can participate as much or as little as you want.  Some people plopped on couches in the great room, content to quietly soak up the nurturing vibe; others sat talking loudly at tables in the cafeteria.  The point was to just go and be out there, and each day, the more you did, the more you felt like doing things.


    The best thing is, the Fountain offers a free membership, and it was guaranteed for a lifetime when I attended.  The Thursday night poetry group was like creative therapy, and as I shared my writing with kindred souls, my blue mood slowly lifted.  Those were some of the best times I had in the first ten years of my recovery.


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    If you’re the mother or father of a loved one who lacks the desire or motivation go outside, I suggest you gently nudge her out the door, by offering to help get the services a clubhouse offers, or researching options like a day program or drop-in center.  When I got out of the hospital, my therapist referred me to Aspire, a day program I attended five days a week for that first year.  Along with other ex-patients, I formed goals, talked about my feelings and got feedback. 


    I firmly believe that if you’re a mother or father, you need to set house rules if your adult son or daughter who has SZ is to remain in your home.  Telling them they must attend a clubhouse or day program will only serve to help them in the long run.  Enabling them to sit on the couch does no one any good.  Watching your son or daughter sit on that couch every day is heartbreaking, and yet it’s an avoidable scenario.


    That said, I understand what it’s like to be physically unable to get up and out.  After I got out of the hospital the second time, I returned to live at my mother’s for two weeks.  I lay on the couch every day; my brain fogged up with nothing thoughts; my black-rimmed glasses askew and my hair matted.  I was suddenly afraid to go out in the world, and be away from home, even though I used to be able to.


    Everyone, and that is everyone, has days where she doesn’t feel like getting out of bed.  If you’re going through this now, that’s okay.  If you have the desire to do something, and your body tells you differently, keep the faith that it will get better.  See your psychiatrist more often to change your dose if necessary or get support.


    The waiting out the low moods is the hardest part, yet it’s the little things that matter.  Do what you can do, slowly, and persist each day to try to do one new thing you couldn’t do the day before.  Recovery isn’t a race to the finish line; it’s ongoing and a life-long process.  I admire you for taking the first steps to live well.

Published On: June 18, 2007