Regardless of whether you work or don't work at a traditional job, the job of recovery is the most important work you'll do. The symptoms of SZ require life-long management via medication and forms of therapy, such as one-on-one sessions, a support group, a network of friends, a warm line or hot line as needed, and if you're lucky, family who loves you and wants to see you happy and healthy.
In the summer of 1992, I took a vacation from the Stelazine because I thought I was doing well enough and could function on my own. Within three months, I relapsed and had to be hospitalized for two weeks. I had hoped that going off the meds would be the end of it: I wouldn't be sick, and I wouldn't have schizophrenia, I would be normal.
Three years ago a co-worker famously proclaimed, "There is no normal." Proof of this exists: if you've ever seen Marilyn Manson in concert, you know he owns the copyright on weird.
If I could put a human face on the SZ to take our experiences out of the realm of pathology, I will have done my job. I shudder to think the word psychotic describes what happened to me; it should be banished from the dictionary. Because I recovered so quickly I was in denial. The philosopher George Santayana tells us: "Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it." Every day I live with the truth, indelibly imprinted on my mind. Not a day goes by that I don't focus in some way on my recovery. My victory would be hollow if I didn't use my good fortune to help others recover.
The job of recovery is some of the hardest work you'll ever do, and yet it's the most rewarding as well as challenging. You'll have not so good days along with the good ones. Your medication may need to be adjusted or changed. Friends will come in your life and go out. Loved ones will pass on. Through it all, you'll survive if you make your mental health a priority; your physical well-being is linked to this also.
After the diagnosis, our lives are never the same. It is different, yet it can be a better life. We have the chance to choose how we want to live and filter out all the distractions and demands that others place on us. I realized that other people's approval doesn't matter because I'm the only one who needs to be OK with herself and the choices she makes. This is your prerogative, too.
One of the guiding principles of the NAMI Care support group is that "We expect a better tomorrow in a realistic way." "Not all of us are going to be cardiologists" is an expression I tell people when I give talks. I mean no disrespect to heart doctors, and nor to you if you have the ability and desire and want to be a cardiologist. Rather, I invented this quote to suggest it's OK if you don't have a status job or all the other things that on the surface mark you as a successful person. I would question any barometer imposed on you that you didn't set on your own for your recovery.
I used to think that my day job was a reflection of me. Paula Cole, in her song, "The Road to Me," describes this fallacy so beautifully: "I am not my house, my car/These are only steps along the way." I no longer confuse having what other people have with being normal.
When I realized I wouldn't be happy-and couldn't be healthy-unless I was writing, that is when my recovery turned around. By the time I was seven years old, I knew I wanted to be a writer, and that is who I am, inextricably part of my personality-like the fact that I'm barely five feet tall and have jet hair and dark eyes.
So, too, you are an individual of worth whose life is sacred. You have everything you need right inside you to succeed. Recovery is not the absence of symptoms, but the addition of things: school, work, an apartment, anything that gives you joy. Strive to do one thing each day that makes you happy. I know someone who was so depressed that he couldn't get out of bed for three years. One day, for some unknown reason, or maybe because he reached rock bottom and the only way out was up, he told himself, "I have to walk out that door." So he put on his sneakers and went outside.
Recovery isn't quick, it's not easy, and I use my friend's story to show you there is hope.
Again, I'm going to revisit something I wrote in an early blog entry. When you put "service above self," it deflects the focus from your problems to how you can help people solve theirs. That's why I always recommend volunteer work. One way to find a good fit between you and an organization is to search the volunteer opportunities database on www.idealist.org to find a position with your criteria in your city or town. Whatever resonates with you-it doesn't have to be mental health-try it.
Volunteering your time and talents boosts your mood, and I read somewhere that volunteering does have proven health benefits. Someone I know suggested I join Habitat for Humanity to meet eligible guys because that's where I'll find them: banging nails in walls and painting houses. An unintended and not entirely altruistic reason to volunteer, but hey, you should get something out of the experience, too.
[I'm not joining Habitat for Humanity, I'm joining the Friendship Network, and I'll let you know how that goes in the winter.]
At this time, I would like for you not to get hung up over things you had in the past that didn't follow through with you in your new recovered life. Xavier Amador, Ph.D., in his Lessons Learned column in SZ magazine, wrote that when we mourn our losses, it enables us to embrace the future. We must let go and move on. I'm not going to agonize over whether I used to be more outgoing-a goal I always had after I got sick. A counselor told me that trying to be outgoing was like "a leopard trying to change her spots." The difference is, I love my spots now and you should love yours. Reconciliation is the order of the day after a diagnosis of SZ.
In all I do, I want to give others dignity and help them feel good about themselves. This is it, folks, this is it: the job of life is to treat others as we would want to be treated, and to love ourselves as much as we love other people.
Published On: December 11, 2008