Today, if you’ve been diagnosed with schizophrenia, chances are you didn’t have to go into a hospital, or if you did, it wasn’t for a long time and you were placed on one of the newer atypicals that offer hope for a better life. I’ve designed a blog entry just for you: listing some sure-fire tactics for getting back on track after being hit with a devastating diagnosis. These “Seven Steps to Recovery” focus on the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual needs we have to become whole, healthy people.
1. Give yourself at least one year in which to begin to heal and recover.
The first year is the time for “woodshedding,” a jazz term that describes when a musician goes into the wood shed to practice his tune in private before performing it to the public. In 1987, I graduated with a B.A. in English and wanted to be a writer. That fall, I was hospitalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia. When I was released, I could barely pick up a pen. My father had bought me a computer so I could do my writing, and it stood on my desk unused, except for when I wrote one poem and printed it up. Imagine: I couldn’t do what I loved; the schizophrenia had robbed that from me. It took me a full year before I opened a notebook and began writing things down.
This was my time spent in the “woodshed,” feeling all my feelings and sorting things out. I was in shock, and felt numb, and I was in pain. If this is what you’re going through, know that it does get better and you are not alone. We’ve all been in your shoes. So give yourself at least one year to get stabilized. Set modest, realistic goals for yourself. Even if your objective is simply to get up in the morning and take a shower, do that. Start small, and work your way up. Be good to yourself when you’re hurting. If other people, however well-intentioned, don’t understand your need for privacy and quiet spirit-nurturing, reassure them that this is what you need to do to prepare yourself for the demands of the rest of your life.
2. In the space of this year, do things to move towards a more secure sense of mental health and well-being.
Join a day program, or an Intensive Psychiatric Rehabilitation Treatment (IPRT) center. A day program is a place you go to five days a week with other people who’ve just gotten out of the hospital, to get support in a therapeutic environment. Here, you attend daily sessions, typically group therapy and art therapy, health and education workshops, and sometimes dance therapy or fitness classes. Often, a psychiatrist prescribes medication for the patients.
Back in the mists of time when I started in the Rise day program, it wasn’t intended to be long-term, and I was sent to a second day program after my time at the first one ended. I spent two years there. Recovery is not a quick process. Remember, “There are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going.” And since you’re making a commitment, research the best treatment center that fits your needs.
At some day programs, the patients have been there for three, four, or five years or more, because that’s where they’re at. Decide for yourself the vibe you pick up. Hey, if it suits you for the longer term, and that’s your thing, by all means, you can benefit from staying there. If you feel it’s time to move on, consider an IPRT.
An IPRT is a place for advanced, intensive work on goals such as going to school or getting a job. I’ve given talks to clients at these centers, and have friends who’ve been IPRT members, so I can vouch for the benefits of attending one. If you’re motivated to set higher goals and are ready and able to reach out towards achieving them, this is the place for you.
**3. Find a NAMI Connection peer support group, or other support group in your area. **
Call the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) national hotline at (800) 950-NAMI (6264) to locate one in your city or town. These meetings are free and confidential and held weekly. Peers meet to get encouragement, feedback from others who’ve been in our shoes, and support as we navigate the life challenges of living with mental illnesses.
4. Schedule a check-up with a primary care doctor, and plan follow-up visits as necessary.
Most of the atypicals in their current formulations cause weight gain, which could lead to hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. Get weighed on a doctor’s scale as soon as you’re placed on your psych meds to determine your baseline. Have blood work taken to determine your cholesterol, sugar, liver, thyroid and hormone levels. Other things to take into account: your C-reactive protein (a suggested indicator of cardiovascular disease risk) and your HDL level (the good cholesterol).
**5. Get moving. Now is the time to begin a moderate, consistent exercise program that will keep you in good health for the long term. **
Start out by walking twenty minutes a day in good weather, and build up from there. If the thought of lifting weights is too much for you, considering lifting a bag of groceries and carrying them home from the corner store a worthy victory. Tailor your routine to whatever gets you pumped up and excited to do it. Join a YMCA if you like to swim; take Tai Chi classes if that’s more your speed. Do the research: low-cost fitness options abound. Where I used to live, on Staten Island, the Cromwell Center offered a membership for fifty bucks a year. Even local Parks Departments are getting in on the action.
6. Stay away from street drugs and alcohol.
In the years before I got sick, I was a college disc jockey and hung out with other students who did drugs, but I never got involved, and didn’t hang out with them when they were getting high. This wasn’t luck; it was choice. So that when I was diagnosed with schizophrenia, I only occasionally had a beer or a glass of wine. In 1993, I decided not to drink at all. Though I was shy, I didn’t want to use alcohol to come out of my shell. I could live with myself and liked myself just fine. I didn’t feel the need to be “always on.” You could have friends who want you to join them for a beer after work. Or maybe they pressure you to snort a line of coke, “just once, it won’t hurt.” Again, stay away. On the prescribing labels that come with every schizophrenia drug, there’s a warning not to drink alcohol while you’re on them. And street drugs are a no-win situation. They could exacerbate your symptoms, or trigger ones you didn’t have before.
7. Set the goal of living independently.
It could be in a supported residence where the agency is your landlord and takes one-third of your disability check or other income, or it could be in your own place. Either way, the goal of recovery, in the end, is self-reliance. The more you can do for yourself in the world, you’ll gain confidence and walk with pride.
Face it, the people who love you won’t be here forever. And isn’t it nice to know you could play your music whenever you want, and clean your apartment on your own schedule, and have friends and lovers over at any time?
In my next blog entry, I’m going to talk about a “manifesto” I believe in: conscious living, and how a devotion to this lifestyle can aid you greatly in your recovery, making the difference between merely reacting to what comes your way, and beating the schizophrenia at its own game.
Mental Health Activist