On September 25, 1987 I had a breakdown. The next morning my mother drove me to the ER. I was admitted to the inpatient unit a day later and given Stelazine, the drug that worked—if imperfectly—until April 2007 when Dr. Altman instituted the cross-titer to the Geodon.
This blog entry is about the in-between days from 1987 to 1991 when I lived at home and then in a residence, working my way up from the halfway house to supported living in a housing project. Arlington Terrace was a haven for drug deals, and crack vials littered the hallways. The apartments were infested with roaches.
There was no heat in the winter. There was no hope of a better life for the ex-patients, who had been in the mental health system for four, five, six years or longer. As I slowly recovered, I realized I didn't want that to be my fate: collecting a disability check for the rest of my life, at the mercy of the government for food, shelter and healthcare.
The story of how I got here from there begins when I got out of the hospital and returned to living with my parents for the first year of my recovery. That lost year I spent in the "wood shed" was a form of solitary courage to feel the hurt physically and express the emotional pain in therapy—one-on-one with a therapist, and at the day program with a counselor and the others who had also just gotten out of the hospital.
It was all I could do: to get in my Mustang at eight in the morning, turn on the FM radio, and drive across town to Rise. Indeed, I lacked the motivation to take showers or wash and comb my hair, and to dress neatly. In an art therapy session there, I remember drawing a picture of Tide detergent because I had the goal of doing my own laundry. Before I got sick, Mom was the one to do this.
The first year of my recovery I spent sleeping ten hours a night. My greatest goal in life—to be a writer—was put on hold. For that one sad year I couldn't pick up a pen to write. My father bought me a computer so I could do my writing, and all I could manage to type was one short poem, "Bounced Back Blues."
Then something happened.
After a year at Rise, I moved into the halfway house, in September 1988. I'd brought sheets of loose leaf in a binder and began writing down my feelings, and observations about what was going on in my life. Though I threw out that seminal journal years ago, the words come back to me now. On lonely nights in my bedroom, listening to scratchy records on my stereo, I would write, over and over, "When life throws you a curve, hit it out of the ball park."
At that time, Rise was meant to be short-term, so when I lived at Lake House, I started a new day program that I attended until fall 1989 when I began training as a word processor. The coordinator I met with weekly at the halfway house felt I could do more than just check in with him, I could read from my journal entries and begin to articulate my goals and hopes for the future.
At the Lake, with the other residents, this staff member led a weekly "life management" group in the basement lounge. He gave us the short form of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and I discovered I was an INTJ. This budding self-knowledge sparked my interest in personality types.
At the second day program, because I was quiet when I first started, my counselor, Pam, placed me in the lowest level of the groups. There were five levels, and at the top were the patients who were transitioning into school or work. As I got better, I realized I didn't want to warm a chair at Meadow for the rest of my life.
In June 1989, Pam sent me to OVR—the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, known now as VESID—for testing to see what kind of training this New York State agency for people with disabilities could send me to. I was accepted into the clerical program at ICD, the International Center for the Disabled. In June 1990, I graduated and that August I found my first full-time job with health benefits and a retirement plan, as the administrative assistant to the director at an insurance brokerage.
Oh, I wasn't a model patient. In those days, I was impatient to find a job, get my own apartment, and say goodbye to everything that happened to me. I wanted to wash the schizophrenia out of my hair, so to speak. This short-circuit to work came at a price. Because I was doing so well, I was in denial that I had an illness, after all, I had a job, and the other ex-patients couldn't work, so how could I be sick? I began to think the diagnosis was a mistake.
In April 1992, Dr. Santiago instituted a fateful drug holiday. Three months later I was hospitalized and had to take the Stelazine again. The paranoia and racing thoughts had returned in full force. What I learned: I had an illness: schizophrenia. It doesn't go away on its own. The medication allows my brain to compensate for the faulty wiring and mimic the brain of someone who doesn't have the illness, but my brain, after the first breakdown, had been altered so that it couldn't heal on its own.
I needed a little help from my chemical friend to get by. My constellation of symptoms was as unique as my thumbprint, and I accepted this, whereas previously I thought the diagnosis was debatable because I didn't hear voices or hallucinate. There's a spectrum of manifestations in all of us who have this condition.
So much about what happens to our minds isn't known. Psychiatry hasn't yet reached its golden years, though it's come a long way since the treatments of yore. My p-doc now is only four years older than me, so he grew up with the atypicals. Together we work to get it right: the balance between thoughts and moods that eluded me until I was placed on the Stelazine, and now has attenuated with the Geodon.
I hope this blog entry has enlightened you to one avenue of recovery: attending a day program and living in a residence, as a transitional option or a more permanent solution, depending on your needs, or if you are a parent, the needs of your son or daughter.
My experiences at these places were favorable, even with the external conditions at the housing project. It was what I needed to do to transition into living on my own and being able to meet the demands of real life. Though I railed against my time there, feeling I made a detour, in retrospect I know I made the right choices.
Recovery isn't quick or easy.
In my next post, I'll talk about what happened after I started work as an administrative assistant, and found my very own studio apartment near the beach.
In future blogs, I'll write some questions you can ask providers before obtaining treatment in a day program or moving into a residence.
My inspiration in writing about these early years is to show you things to consider. Please, if you want to respond, do post a comment.
Also, the "Ask a Question" feature is up and running. When you click on "See the Latest SharePosts" under the Connect menu on the homepage, it will bring up a heading to the right of Marketplace titled Ask. As an expert blogger here, I'll answer your questions to the best of my ability. I welcome the opportunity to share my experiences, in the hopes that it can benefit you living with schizophrenia and give you some peace of mind.
Published On: April 30, 2008