People have asked me what it finally took for me to start taking all thirty-something of my pills every day. There were many events that led up to it – chief among them visiting a Cognitive and Behavioral Therapist who showed me that there were things I could actually do to make myself feel better. But there’s one event in particular that stands out from all of the other tactics I tried – the pep-talks I gave myself, the self-shaming I put myself through, and the macho mentality that I could just “power through it.”
2009 & 2010 were tough years for me: I lost my job, my apartment, I had to drop out of school yet again, I was hospitalized twice within weeks of each other, I had to get ECT three times a week for six months, my fiancé left me, I had to move back in with my parents, I had to recover from ECT – the lost memories, the lost skills, the lost sense of self – on and on. Loss everywhere I looked. I wasn’t taking responsibility for anything that happened to me, I was just bouncing from one crisis to another, always sick, frequently psychotic, and completely miserable. But it was necessary that it happened to me. Sometimes you have to hit bottom before you come to your senses and start to take charge of your life and oftentimes it’s not even your decision to start the long climb up; something clicks in your head and, before you know it, you’re climbing. I wasn’t asking for help, I was trying to do it all by myself…and, to a certain extent, I was somehow expecting that this would all just end by itself.
I was broken. I was miserable. I was consumed with dread. I remember sitting in my psychiatrist’s office and thinking about the extent to which things had fallen apart. I was newly recovering from ECT at the time – I was lonely, I was unmotivated, I was exhausted, and I was sulking. I didn’t have much confidence in myself. At the time, I didn’t know what I know now: that I’m tough, that I’m tenacious, I didn’t know that I could fight this thing and actually win. I felt resigned. The illness had won, I was broken and I thought there was no fixing me.
Then came the Christmas of 2010. My mom and sister had gone to Minnesota to celebrate Christmas with my mom’s side of the family and I wasn’t going with them. I was too sick to be in a small, two bedroom house with 30+ people. It would be too much commotion, too much stimulation. So my dad and I stayed behind in Colorado.
My dad and I were video chatting with everyone in Minnesota. My little cousin, who was maybe 4 or 5 at the time, got on and asked me how I was feeling; she asked me if I was feeling any better. I told her that I was feeling much better and she proceeded to tell me that she and her family prayed for me every night.
It’s probably the most touched I’ve ever been having a conversation with someone, let alone a 4 or 5 year old. And, at the time, it was the first time I’d felt an emotional connection with someone in a long long time. I told her that I appreciated her prayers and that they were helping me feel a lot better.
It occurred to me afterwards that mental illness doesn’t just affect me, it affects everyone around me. I was being selfish by passively sitting around just waiting to feel better. I was being selfish by not taking my pills or learning the skills necessary to successfully live with schizoaffective disorder. This little girl, with her innocent caring – who probably didn’t know the first thing about what I go through on a daily basis – and her honest question revealed a great truth to me. I was hurting the people I love by not taking care of myself.
The treatments for schizoaffective disorder require discipline and they require constant attention. I have a fairly strict routine that I have to stick to: pills every day at 10:00a and 10:00p, a walk every day for at least 30 minutes, meditation and prayer, light therapy either with a light box or with the sun if it’s not too cloudy or miserable outside, and smoke breaks every two hours regardless of what I’m doing. The list goes on, but these are the essentials. It’s overwhelming to think about on some days and there are times when all I can manage on a particular day is to stick to that very basic routine.
It’s intimidating to think about, much less practice – the constant assessment and reassessment of how I’m feeling and thinking about what the appropriate measures are to help make me feel better: do I call my mom? Do I listen to an album? Do I make a cup of coffee? Do I work on my breathing? On and on and on…I have a huge set of tools I can use to help me feel better and sometimes the fact that it’s so huge can be overwhelming. But those tools are absolutely necessary.
Mental illness takes work and oftentimes I think we need a reason to do work. Whether it’s a paycheck so we can provide for our family, or the thought of a little girl praying for you to have the strength to fight this illness, we all need to motivate ourselves to do our life’s work. It’s hard to have that motivation when you’re mentally ill – the nature of many mental illnesses is that it robs you of your motivation; especially when the goal isn’t as tangible as a paycheck is. It’s like you need a concrete reason to be healthy because you’ve become so accustomed to the status quo of the cycle of pain and suffering.
People are going to have different reasons for doing things; and we all need reasons for doing things. My little cousin’s love and her prayers are reason enough for me – because I don’t want to hurt the people I love. I want to be healthy for them. But it goes beyond that. My short conversation with her showed me that – despite all of the stigma that I’ve experienced over the years, despite the woman I loved leaving me because I was “too needy” when I was going through ECT, and despite the voices in my head telling me how worthless I am – people still love me. And people love me enough to pray for me, to include me in their nightly prayers. And that love they have for me, makes me want to love myself. After all, if someone else can find something to love in me, then certainly I can find something to love in me.
And I have.
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