It was one of my annoying husbandly bits, I suppose. My wife would request something simple, non-urgent, like, “Can you please fix the drawer on my desk, whenever you get a chance.” I’d spring into action, floating on my why-wait feeling, emerging with tool kit in hand. While I was this way with chores, when it came to my mental illness & the tugboat it conducts, I waited, was coerced to wait, was debilitated into waiting.
At the urging of my new therapist, I’ve taken the month of May as a break from larger reality & honed in on one basic thing -- what keeps going wrong & how can I fix it for the future, to keep it from happening again? The patterns were clear--a period of normalcy leads to a big life change which gives way to a monster meltdown only to be masked by a break-through that starts the cycle all over. If I’m to make the next period of normalcy my everyday normal with smoother transitions, less catastrophic meltdowns, & more purposeful break-throughs, I have to take control & stop being passive about the rhythm of my mental health.
I don’t want to be like P, this guy I met while in the psych hospital. During group, when we would talk about why we were admitted, he would accept that he had a problem, but wouldn’t admit to the cycle, habits, symptoms or effects causing & continuing his problem. I don’t want to be my 20’s self, willing to accept whatever the closest trusted person would label me -- you’re a monster! you’ve got multiple personalities! you’re fine! I don’t want to be my teenage self again--quitting sports & the arts, keeping a girlfriend as a distraction, dawdling in the void; I was playing it safe in my environment instead of managing my problem.
Even then, as a seventeen-year-old, I knew what James Clear would later articulate on the Making Sense podcast: habits are solutions to recurring problems. I summoned my Midwestern work ethic. I summoned my hardcore / straight edge ethos. I summoned a funneling of the energy to somewhere good for once. I got into shape, losing 60 pounds. I fell in love for the first real time. I fully engaged my mind for the first real time as an English major / stoked poet at Ball State University. I finally saw the importance of being mindful of & intentional with what I put in my body-mind & what I do with that body-mind.
Spoiler alert: of course it fell apart. I was young, my mental illness was setting in, & I lost track of that control. The cycle has repeated itself, turning in on itself, for the better part of the last decade. As Peggy Orenstein reminds us in her book Boys & Sex, what we consume becomes part of our psyche. Here at the pile of rumble that is the Great Convergence of 2020--my latest mental health crisis, my wife leaving me, COVID-19, another dislocated shoulder, a backed-up septic tank--I do declare it is time to start being 100% proactive about this stream of knowledge, influences, & factors in my life, in an effort to prevent recurring patterns & to sustain a healthy trajectory
Because of my disorder, often I can’t fully control my body-mind, but when I can, I need to make the best of it. For my thinking in this sabbatical & for my own accountability moving forward, I want to document how I’m setting up my new life. As Cal Newport advised regarding technology use, I have spent the month stripping away activities, occupations, & habits, paying attention to which impulses & needs rise naturally day-to-day & using those pieces to build back some semblance of a life. I am also following what James Clear mentioned, encouraging us to focus more on the daily habits rather than the goal, the habitual pieces that lead us down the right chosen path.
A Litany Of Values Towards Better Living
Since I busted my way into the nuthouse in early April, I've been determined to lead with gratitude that I made it out of my latest mental health crisis alive (as well as the many that came before!) & that I have the resources & support system to continue to make it, (hopefully) recover, (hopefully) thrive. I'm meeting with my therapist TT (on video call, of course!) once a week & I'm eating dinner with my parents every other night. I'm pouring the majority of my emotional energy into writing & collages, thinking & tinkering & as often as needed, I'm pointing my face forward--in meditation, in reading, in hope. Here's another silly-headed attempt to take back #blessed.
But even as I put my shoulder into it, this leaning forward is weighed down; piling on top of normal life is the shock & confusion of my new diagnosis, the daily management of my treatment plan, the heartache of my wife leaving me because of my mental illness, & the stress of the divorce transition, all wrapped in the suffocating bow of life in the days of COVID-19. The symptoms of my disorder, quite frankly, are bleeding into my emotional pain--hallucinations of better times, paranoia with what's left behind, stressful delusions of the reality I'm currently in.
Like the days following my latest (& one of my worst) episodes, I often find myself shutting down, worried that if I do anything I'll have another outburst & be destructive. The energy I should be reserving for growing within my disorder & processing my pain is being utilized instead in worry, confusion, & other clutter.
During my marriage, my spells would send me into this panic, a fear that I am broken, not made for this world; I held the belief we'd all be better off if I just removed myself, living homeless & alone. In my mind, I was the problem, but as my therapist & I parsed it out today, it is the disorder & the habits that allowed it to fester & multiply that are the real problems.
I would have these fantasies of running off & living in my van, coming north for the summers. I imagined me lugging a small stack of books around, a leash in the other hand, spending the days with my nose in a book, my hands petting my dog, & not a single person being hurt by this monster, me. I had daydreams of getting shot by the police, crashing into ditches, mysterious tumors pulled from neatly cut holes. I had nightmares you won't care much to hear.
This feeling of leaving is an instinct telling me I need to reboot. This feeling of not being built for this world shows the necessity for searching out alternative lifestyles. But as I learned from Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism, before I can piece together the right, sustainable lifestyle, I must tear it, my life--its habits & its hopes, its values & its evaluations--down to its core.
The life expectancy of someone with schizophrenia is a decade or two less than average, with similar variants for bipolar diagnoses (9 to 20 years). Sometimes I worry I know too much about the self / my self to be a normal functioning person in this world. I've been lucky enough to guide myself away from suicide, but I'm also aware enough to know I have a battle ahead of me.
If I'm going to find a more sustainable path through life, I must become a new, more focused person on the other side of the mourning, both for the loss of a relationship & the addition of the diagnosis. In order to become this new, more focused person, I must clear the space for myself to grow, to avoid falling back into bad habits--chiefly, my incessant need to control, to plan, to not be alone, to be constantly known.
In therapy today, TT & I formulated a plan for a bit of a sabbatical, stripping responsibility & "storyline fever" (to borrow from David Berman), to clear way for healing & eventual growth. I am taking a month to focus purely on my treatment, focusing on coping skills that heal & nurture--meditating, reading, writing, therapy, exercise, walking, low-stress projects (like yardwork & cooking), rest. I am never going to get better if I keep the same habits, same self as before, & this is our best plan for doing that.
I was behaving like a runner who had suffered an injury, & instead of healing properly, training to return, & implementing new skills, I just got bandaged up & hopped right back into the race. I need to give the meds more time to kick-in. I need to create better habits, prove to myself I can reach some goals, & sew up some gaping wounds. I need to learn to be alone with, connect with, this version of myself, once I build him up again.