The Daily Meltdown

I have not been doing that well lately, and I am really lucky to have an amazing support network of family and friends to lean on. However, I realize that when I call my friends during a psychotic breakdown, it puts a lot of pressure on them and they don’t know what to say. I’m writing this article mostly for myself and for my friends, but also for anyone who may be at a loss for how to help a person with psychosis.

Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate what symptoms are being caused by which disorder, or even what’s a hallucination, what’s a delusion, and what’s paranoia. Actually, let’s  talk about that for a second. Hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia are all symptoms I experience as a result of schizoaffective disorder. Hallucinations are hearing, seeing, and feeling things that are not there. (Some people also smell and taste things that are not there, but I do not experience this.) I often feel like bugs are crawling on me, and I can see the bugs out of the corners of my eyes. Sometimes I see cameras or other electronic surveillance devices where there is nothing. I often hear voices, or a single voice named Henry (He is a snake who lives inside my body.) insulting me, saying that I’m promiscuous, telling me I’ve done terrible things or that terrible things will happen because of me, and telling me to hurt myself or others.

Delusions are fixed, false beliefs that do not line up with reality. I have a paranoid delusion that a man who hurt me when I was a little girl is stalking me via electronic surveillance devices and a network of spies. As you’re reading this, you probably think that sounds far-fetched. I do not. Recently, this delusion has furthered, and I’m convinced that my world is all a simulation controlled by the man who hurt me (I refer to him as the Angel Man.) and that I have to hurt myself badly enough to wake up and “save the children,” so they don’t get hurt like I did. I don’t know who or where these children are, only that they’re in danger, and I was put in the simulation to save them. As I’m writing this, I realize that it makes absolutely no sense. That’s why it’s a delusion. It doesn’t line up with reality.

Paranoia is a little harder to explain. In a lot of ways it’s like anxiety, but times a million. It’s a sense of dread and fear. For me, it centers around the delusion that I’m being stalked. If I hear a weird noise outside, or one of my dogs starts barking at nothing, I immediately start worrying that there’s a dangerous person in my yard who’s going to rape and murder me.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s talk about what to do in a crisis. It’s always a good idea to ask me if I’ve taken my medicine. I almost always remember to take it, but it doesn’t hurt to check just in case.

One thing that really doesn’t help is telling me that whatever I’m hearing, seeing, or thinking isn’t real. It’s very real to me, and it’s just frustrating for everyone to get into an argument about  what’s real and what’s not. If you tell me that something isn’t real (the children I have to save, for example), I will get frustrated and tell you that you’re not real, and there’s pretty much nothing you can do to convince me otherwise. (My dad actually won that argument by showing me a list he made at a self-improvement class in 1998. It was a list of things that bothered him, and number sixteen was not getting enough “Daddy and Doodle” time. He’s Daddy. I’m Doodle.) Anyway, you can ask me what evidence I have that I have to save the children or that I’m in a simulation, or of whatever’s bothering me. I might get mad at you for poking holes in my delusion, but in the long run, you’re helping me, and once I calm down, I won’t be mad anymore.

A lot of my hallucinations and delusions are trauma-related. These are the most upsetting ones because the combination of PTSD and psychosis makes me feel like I am reliving the trauma. I will often say, “I can feel him touching me,” and proceed to beat myself in the face. Obviously, this doesn’t help anything. It’s totally okay to grab my hands and stop me from hitting myself. I’m not always okay with physical contact when I’m that upset, especially if I feel like my abusers are touching me, but if my options are: not hurt myself or have someone touch me when I don’t want to be touched, I’ll sit on my hands or hold yours. Sometimes, I might want a hug, but I’ll probably just want to pet your dog unless you’re my parents or Christin (in which case, I might want to pet your cats). It helps to hear, “He’s not here right now,” or “You’re safe with me.” Sometimes, that isn’t enough, and I get scared that an abuser is going to attack me immediately and that I will have to physically overpower him. Telling me that you’ll protect me or help me protect myself helps, and it really doesn’t matter if you could fight a scary man because there’s no actual danger. Physical contact can be a huge help. It’s grounding and reassuring, but please do not force it on me if I tell you I’m not okay with it. I know that a lot of people’s first instinct is to hug someone when they’re upset, but it doesn’t always help me.

Sometimes, I get so delusional that I don’t make sense. One thing that many people on the schizophrenic spectrum struggle with is disorganized speech and issues with word-finding. I don’t think this affects me, but I can get so upset that I have trouble speaking, and I’ll forget what I’m saying and trail off in the middle of a sentence. (Speech class, here I come!) When I’m really delusional, I’ll forget that not everyone knows what I’m talking about. Today, I went over to my best friend Colette’s house because I didn’t want to be home by myself, and I asked her why we were in the jungle. I was very confused and did not know where I was. I told her that we were in a simulation, and started rambling about how I needed to save the children. She respectfully let me finish (always a good thing to do), and then said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” That’s a perfectly acceptable thing to say to me when I’m not making sense. You can ask me to elaborate if you need/want to know more about the delusion, or you can just let it go. Either one is fine, and knowing more about the delusion probably won’t help anything unless I’m telling you I need to harm myself.

I have prescription sedatives for when things get really bad. They calm the voices down, stop me from hyperventilating, and sometimes put me to sleep. These are all good things. The other night, I saw a story on the news about a one-year-old boy whose father killed him with the car in the family’s driveway. It was an accidental death, but I was already delusional and thinking about saving the children, and I immediately jumped to the conclusion that the child died because of me and started to cry. My dad tried to get me to take a sedative, but I wouldn’t because I “needed to be awake to save the children.” The more he encouraged me to take it, the more I thought he was trying to poison me. Finally he told me that I couldn’t save the children if I didn’t calm down, and that got me to take the medicine, and I was okay. It is perfectly fine to indulge a delusion if it’s going to keep me safe. That is so, so much more productive than telling me it’s not real.

Of course, if things get really bad and I can’t calm down or I’m becoming a danger to myself (or others, not that that’s likely), it’s in everyone’s best interest to call my parents.

The main thing is knowing that someone is here for me, which I know all of my friends and family most definitely are. I appreciate all of you who’ve sat through the hysterical late-night phone calls, who’ve held me while I try to stop the voices, and who listen to me and love me in spite of everything. You’re all amazing, and I am lucky to have  you in my life.

40 Reasons to Recover

I was asked to write a list of forty reasons to recover. Add your own in the comments!

  1. To have a healthy body
  2. To be able to work through trauma
  3. To find out who I really am
  4. To be fully present in my life
  5. Because I can have fun without drugs
  6. To make healthy friendships
  7. To honor and glorify God
  8. To be a better singer
  9. Because there are more things to write about than misery and mental illness
  10. To wholeheartedly enjoy my parents’ cooking
  11. To not be too wrapped up in myself to care about others
  12. To master the art of happy poems
  13. To write stories that have no basis in my life
  14. To finally go on Jon’s and my road trip
  15. To be able to focus in class
  16. Because I am outgoing and friendly when I don’t hate myself
  17. Because God didn’t make me so I could hate His creation
  18. To have enough insight to finish my novel
  19. To go back to Eckerd
  20. To become an ordained cantor
  21. Because I deserve to love myself
  22. Because trauma doesn’t define me
  23. Because I am strong enough to fight
  24. Because I don’t want to die
  25. Because I am talented
  26. Because life is too short to feel guilty over Mom’s famous chocolate cake
  27. To be able to live independently
  28. Because the light of God is within me
  29. Because I am loved
  30. Because I am beautiful as I am
  31. Because I need a healthy functioning brain to write well
  32. To make my parents proud of me
  33. To make decisions I can feel good about
  34. Because my weight has nothing to do with my character
  35. To experience a range of emotions without fear
  36. To be proud of myself
  37. Because I’ve wasted enough time being sick, sad, and miserable
  38. To be a positive role model
  39. Because it’s time to let go
  40. Because I’m worth it

Rad Reviews: Life Without Ed by Jenni Schaefer

Life Without Ed is a powerful book written in an honest voice.  It contains sections on different stages and aspects of recovery, everything from the early days of recovery, to relapses, to maintaining a recovered life. It also contains exercises written by a therapist designed to help readers move through their recovery and explore the issues surrounding their eating disorders.

The most helpful aspect of the book is Schaefer’s description of “Ed.” Ed stands for eating disorder and is the personification of the illness. Schaefer relates many conversations she’s had with Ed, who is portrayed as an abusive husband, but is sure to clarify that an eating disorder is not a hallucination or an audible voice in the sufferer’s head. Rather, Ed is that negative voice that drowns out one’s own. The use of this personification is very effective throughout the book, as well as in eating disorder treatment. I recommend reading this book if you have trouble with the idea that you are not defined by your eating disorder, or if you believe your eating disorder’s wants and goals are synonymous with your own.

There are a few places in the book where the writing is unpleasant to read due to cheesy jokes and awkward dialogue, however this does not detract from Schaefer’s overall message. In fact, she addresses these flaws in the ten year anniversary edition of Life Without Ed in her updated afterword.

Schaefer’s voice is unique and distinct, making the book relatable and quick to read. Life Without Ed is a book that changes people’s lives and provides a close look inside the mind of someone with an eating disorder.

October 9: Another Day in Treatment

One of my favorite groups here is “Creative Arts,” which is basically art therapy. It’s led by Marissa, a wonderful, kind therapist who always comes up with inventive ideas for activities. Yesterday she did not disappoint.

When she said we were making hate projects, I admit I was a little confused. Treatment is about learning to love yourself, not wallowing in the self-loathing that got you there in the first place. We were given magazines, glue, and construction paper and told to make collages representing everything our eating disorders, which are personified as Ed (or in my case, the Warden) tell us about ourselves. I tried to tap into what the Warden tells me, but much to my surprise, it was hard to identify exactly what he says to me on a daily basis. In the past, I would say that this is because those negative messages are so deeply ingrained in me that I mistake them for fact, but today, I am happy to report that the Warden’s voice is growing distant and hard to hear. I made a collage of the beach and wrote, “The world is an ocean and I am an oil spill.” By this I meant that I feel worthless and small compared to a world of seemingly happy, functional people. I meant that I feel defective.

After we finished our collages, Marissa brought us outside and had us do something pretty surprising. She instructed us to rip up our collages. The group was hesitant, and we went one by one. As each person tore off something negative from the collage, she said something positive to reframe the negative thought. When it was my turn, I ripped my collage tentatively and was slow to come up with affirmations or reframes. Marissa asked me what feelings I associated with being an oil spill. I said I felt worthless, stupid, unimportant, and unlovable. As I shredded my collage, I found myself saying, “I matter. I’m important. People care about me. People do love me. My parents love me and God loves me. I am allowed to love myself. It’s not selfish. I am intelligent. I am a talented writer. I matter.”

After I was finished, my negative thoughts, which I had so carefully constructed, were laying beside me in a little pile. It was pretty exciting to see that I have the power to destroy negativity and unwanted thoughts. I don’t have to listen to the Warden when he tells me I’m worthless and unable to recover. Instead, I will listen to the genuine Katherine who believes in herself and knows she’s worth recovery.

Self-Love Letters

When I’m feeling unproductive and ready to make a change, I make to-do lists. I start out earnestly, thinking about the things I want to accomplish during the day, then I get overzealous, and before long, everything I intend to accomplish in my entire life is scribbled on the six lines my planner gives me for the day. By noon, I have to reevaluate my plans because there is simply not enough time. By bedtime, unmade phone calls, my messy bedroom, undone homework, and the fishbowl that still needs cleaning are weighing on me, and I feel like a failure.

Instead of overwhelming to-do lists, I propose a gentler idea: a self-love letter. Every night before I go to bed, I leave myself a note on the mirror encouraging me to do the essential things I need to get done, some ideas to entertain myself before going on the internet for hours on end, and a bit of positivity. It goes something like this:

Good morning! Today is Sunday, October 5th. It’s really important that you reschedule that doctor’s appointment today and turn in that essay. If you get bored today, think about going to the library, taking one of the dogs for a walk, or doing some writing. Don’t forget that you have work at 10:30 tomorrow, and you also told Colette you’d give her a ride to the bookstore at 5:00. If you start feeling sad, just remember that your family loves you and you have that concert to look forward to on the 18th. One great thing about you is your smile. Have an awesome day! 

You can customize this self-love letter any way you’d like. For me, the essentials of it are no more than three “to-do” items (turning in my essay and rescheduling the doctor’s appointment in the example above), a few suggestions of ways to fill up my day, and an affirmation. The ideas of things with which to fill my day was especially important when I was home from school but hadn’t started treatment yet. I found myself getting bored, which led to feeling sorry for myself, which led to feeling depressed. Keeping myself busy became essential. You might want to add a space for something you’re grateful for, a long-term goal you’re working towards, or a way you’re going to reward yourself for getting through the day. Keep it open-ended and positive, and you’re bound to have a better day.