Red Letter: What Matters Most

  • Every so often, I'm going to write a blog entry called "Red Letter: [subtitle]" to talk about something that resonates with me. I'll introduce this series with thoughts on what matters most in recovery.

    In three weeks, it's the twenty-first anniversary of my breakdown. I'm 43 years old. I realize that my personality isn't going to fundamentally change. How I approach life was determined early on. Every day that I wake up to live another day is a good day. In these 21 years I've lived with the schizophrenia, I'm learned valuable lessons:

    The number-one predictor of success for people diagnosed with this illness is self-reliance: to be able to take care of yourself and handle what life throws you, to navigate real life. You could collect a disability check, you could live in a residence - so be it, that doesn't matter as long as you can maintain your independence.

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    So I urge you to consider going to school, working at some kind of job you love, or doing volunteer work. I know I wouldn't have recovered if I hadn't found my job as a public service librarian. I healed from the schizophrenia through education - by going back to school in 1997 - five years after I relapsed.

    I'm fond of quoting Robin Cunningham. Here, I'll comment on his SharePost about the friend who delivers coffee every morning to patients in a nursing home. That is the guy's one thing he is here to do in his lifetime. Take some time to find out your "one thing." Doing it will bring you immeasurable happiness. For you, that may be the lifetime dream of seeing your favorite band in concert, or backpacking through India. This is something you can't leave this life without having done. For me, that's publishing Left of the Dial, my memoir.

    The second trait to develop that will serve you well in your recovery is to be self-aware, to know what makes you tick or tock. To understand is to have compassion towards yourself and others. If you've gone down one road before and it led you to an unhealthy place, by all means back up and take an alternative route the next time. The key is to be honest with yourself: will taking a certain action set you back? Will continually trying to be someone you're not only make you miserable?

    Robin told me he heard the brain goes through a re-wiring from 5 to 8, from 13 to 15, and again from 18 to 21 - the years a lot of us develop schizophrenia. I have no doubt that when I was 12 years old the shift in my thoughts began. The fear was insidious - like the slow drip of a faucet. My earliest memory is when I was three years old, and sleeping in my bed in the apartment where we lived in Brooklyn. I saw a black cat at the end of the bed, and ran into my parent's room, scared. It was midnight, they looked around, and of course there was no cat. What did I see? Dark shadows? A hypnogogic image? This proves I always had a nervous mind.

    So I live with the truth that I tend to imagine things. Ninety-five percent of the time what I think is all in my head. Recently, I realized I could use my journalist's skill in interviewing to cope better with how I feel when I'm caught in the worry that leads to a mood. I'll give you the scoop on this technique so you can decide whether to use it to gain insight into what goes on in your own life.

  • In real-time, I narrate objectively what's going on. This is a mindfulness practice: to ask myself the 5Ws about the event-who, what, where, when and why: who I'm with when this is happening, what's going on in my head, where I am, when it happened, and why (asking myself what happened immediately before the paranoia came on, and then what happened before that, and so on tracking back in time to come at the root cause).

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    After 21 years on this journey of mental health and wellness, I can vouch that these two qualities - self-reliance and self-awareness - matter most. Everyone can develop these traits. The beauty of recovery is that it is the one truly level playing field, because you're only competing against yourself and by doing so, you ultimately recover.

    That's all for now in this first Red Letter.




Published On: September 09, 2008