Sunday, June 19, 2011

Things I wish I could tell my father

Dear Dad,

I know you don't read this blog. Probably, you don't know it exists, and that's okay. But here are some things I wish I could tell you.

Dad, when I was a little kid, we were really close. I enjoyed the fun times we spent together. I remember when you taught me how to swim, when I was three, by telling me to swim towards you, and then walking backwards so I swam all the way across the pool. I remember when you taught me to drive a boat, when I was seven, and you told me, "Put that throttle down!!" and wanted me to be a little Navy sailor. I remember when you taught me to ride a bike. I remember when you told me you were leaving, and you didn't love my mother anymore, and then you moved out.

As I got older, we were not so close. I remember writing you a letter to tell you I was upset that you drank too much, and I remember when your second wife treated me like garbage, and I hated going to your house. I remember how I avoided going to your house, because I didn't feel welcomed there or wanted, and I hated being there. I remember that I wished you would get a divorce. Many years later, you did, and you told me everyone said you shouldn't have married her. I said it too.

But still, I felt a bond with you. I resented you, at the same time. I resented that you had tons of money compared to what I lived on with my brother and sister and mother, and that you didn't seem concerned about that fact. I remember when I'd take pennies to buy a gallon of milk from the store, and you lived in a three bedroom house in an upper class neighborhood, and had a new car every two years. I didn't like that. But now, I don't care about it so much anymore.

I remember when you stopped talking to me. I called the police on you, because I was psychotic, and I thought you were going to kill me. I was delusional. You didn't know that; nobody knew that. Nobody knew I hallucinated, that my mind had turned against me and was destroying my life. But that was the end of our relationship for six years. In all those years, you never spoke to me, and I never got to know my youngest sister and brother. I accused you of terrible things, because I believed, then, in my delusional mind, that the terrible things had happened, and that kids were in danger. But later, when I was medicated and thinking clearly, years later, I apologized, and I was so sorry. I told you and I drew you pictures of us on a boat, on a card I made in the hospital, right after I was taken there by police for nearly shooting myself, and I was childlike in my manner because I was so sick. But I told you, I said, I was sorry. You cried. You said you forgave me.

Dad, I know you never really forgave me. It's obvious in our interactions, and our lack of interactions. I know you still resent me for the fact that I called the police on you, that I had you investigated for things you had not done. What I wish you understood, after all these years, and my many suicide attempts, hospital trips, years in treatment, and recovery, is that I was SICK. I was sick. I didn't do anything to you on purpose. I didn't set out to harm you. I was sick. I couldn't control my brain telling me things that were not accurate. I thought the CIA was after me too. The CIA doesn't resent me since they don't know me there. My dad still resents me. This makes me really sad.

Dad, I appreciate the times when you've shown an interest in me or my life. It doesn't really happen often, but when it does, I appreciate it. I wish, to be honest, that you cared more. I wish when I invited you to NAMI events, you would actually come, just once. I wish you had shown up at my college graduation, after it took me 17 years to get my Associate's Degree. It would have meant a lot if you had, just once, said, "congratulations", or something, about that. It would have been amazing if you had been there for it. I wish you understood how much it would mean to me, if you wanted to understand my illness, Dad. I wish you showed an interest in knowing what exactly it is that is going on with my brain. I've tried to give you information. I've told you about how I speak to police officers now to teach them about mental illness. I'm not sure if you realize I do this, partly, because I harmed you by things I told police officers about you when I was sick. I am still trying to make up for it.

I love you, Dad. I wish you didn't drink so much, and I'm sorry that you probably don't like yourself very much underneath your exterior. I wish you had more of an interest in your older kids' lives. But I know, I know, that you do what you are able to do.

I hope you realize one day that I don't want money from you. I never ask you for it, but it seems you're always afraid someone is going to ask. I won't. I'd invite you to my apartment, but if you saw the prostitutes and homeless people right out front, and the conditions of the building, you'd look down on me for living here. I can't afford to live anywhere better. It's not really my fault. But it embarrasses me, because, compared to where you live, it's a different world. So that's why I don't invite you. I don't think you'd really want to come here.

Someday, I hope we'll be closer. I'm not sure that will happen. I realize I am partly to blame for this. I don't know how to fix it. I wish I did. I'm sorry you're so disappointed in me as a daughter, but I have an illness. The illness doesn't define me, it just changes the landscape of my life. I wish you weren't embarrassed by it. It's not really something to be ashamed of. It's just a brain disease. That's all. It's just a brain disease that really messed up my life and our relationship. I manage it the best I can. I work hard at doing as much as I can. I know you wish I made more money and worked full time, and that I had graduated from college years ago. But I do what I can do. I work, I go to school, I volunteer, I do public speaking, I write, and I try to be the best person I can be as much as anyone can do. I'm not perfect; I have many flaws. But I'm not really something to be ashamed of, either.

I'll see you for Father's Day and bring presents. And I know, that on the way home, I'll be sad, and I'll be wishing there was so much more. I wish we could have an honest conversation. But I don't think you're interested. Regardless, you're my dad. I care about you.



Monday, June 06, 2011

There is something to be said about clean sheets on your bed (despite disappointment in life)

Yesterday and the day before, really the whole past week, I had been in a good mood. I had cleaned my apartment a lot, and unpacked most of my stuff, and decorated the walls. I had finally gotten the place looking good, for the first time since I moved in two months ago.

Two days ago, my mom and my sister came over for dinner, and I cooked real food (something I rarely actually do) and was happy to show my new place. It was renovated before I moved in, so although the building is ancient, ugly, and in the worst neighborhood of the city I live in, the inside looks relatively new. It has new windows, new kitchen and bathroom floors, and new cabinets and kitchen counters. It is a small place, for a person with a small income, and it's okay. I like it here. I liked my place before this alright too, and that was not renovated at all. It was in the same building, but I had to move out to accommodate the renovations. Moving was such an overwhelming task for me. I didn't realize how hard it would be physically and emotionally to try to organize all my junk. I was totally freaking out about what to do, where to move to, etc., as mentioned in previous posts here. But then the decision was made because this is a place I can afford, and I can't afford much else that is decent. Being only able to work part-time has its drawbacks, and a meager income is certainly one of them. But I'm glad I am able to work part-time, as there were years when I couldn't even do that.

I am pleased to report after my posts about not having sheets on my bed (which was partly because I never had sheets that actually fit my bed, because it has this comfy feather-bed on top that my ex-boyfriend's mother gave us, and which I still have as the only good outcome of that relationship, so the regular sheets never fit the bed), I now have a new bed set, and new sheets, all purchased at discount stores. I can't tell you how many stores I went to, or how much ridiculous comparison shopping I did, before I found a good price on a nice bed-set (a REALLY good price!) that I liked, that I could afford, and that I am happy to sleep on. I then purchased matching deep-fitted sheets from Ross, which actually fit my bed. So I can now sleep on sheets and not just without any. I was embarrassed to admit here that I never made my bed for years, so I wanted to show you this picture (not everything looks perfect in this picture, but it looks a million times better than before when I had piles, and piles of clothing on the floor and in laundry baskets, where they sat, all the time, for years)

The curtains match (in color, even if not in design) and are from the same company, though they only cost ten dollars a panel. This means a lot to me - as shallow as it may sound - because never before have I had curtains that matched my bed, and I looked everywhere (yeah, really, everywhere) for some I could afford, because it was something I always wanted. There is something to be said for the soothing nature of creature comforts. I am not a person who places a lot of value on money, but it is nice to have something nice sometimes. And I feel like my bedroom is nice now. The "dream, imagine" stickers on the wall that match are from a separate store (Marshalls) for $4.00 on clearance. I love them. Yes, I am frugal, by necessity.

A lot of people who live with serious mental illnesses live in crappy places. If you saw my neighborhood, with the prostitutes and the drug dealers and the many homeless folks, you'd say I lived in one for sure, too. And I have lived in much worse circumstances: homeless shelters, motels, a car, numerous rented rooms, a crappy shack-like apartment, and others....I have been forced to move more times than I can count, due to this illness. But for five years now, I've lived in one building. And that, for me, is an accomplishment.

People with mental illnesses I've known, like me, often share our rampant disorganization, or lack of organizing skills. I don't know what in the brain causes that, but I know I'm not the only one I know w with this problem. I am - really - a person who lives like a slob a lot of the time. And it's really not intentional. I certainly don't like living that way; it makes me horribly depressed, and it makes me a nervous wreck. In short, the anxiety it causes me to live like a slob is good motivation to try not living that way again. Sure, I have tried, and failed to maintain neatness in the past, but now, having company again for the first time in probably over a year, I like having a place where I'm not ashamed to open the door. I like having a place that looks decent. It makes me happier to be home. My case manager was the one person who I allowed to visit me, even in the worst of times, and she saw how bad it was before, and said last week that my place now looks better than she's ever seen it look. I used to avoid going home at all, just because I hated being there, when it looked really bad, so now, I have more peace of mind.

So, everything was going pretty well after all my work in the past couple weeks. Then, today, I got the news. I was rejected by the university I wanted to transfer to. I wanted to go into social work, to be a case manager, or a social worker. And so, I really wanted to go to this university where I could either major in social work (if I could get admitted to that program and handle the internship requirement) or sociology, which might be easier. Since I finally got my A.A. degree last December, after going to college off and on for nearly twenty years (17 exactly), I thought I would automatically be admitted into a Bachelor's program at a state university, because that is the way it's supposed to work in Florida. But not if you've withdrawn from as many classes as I have over the years, due to severe depression, and then, to psychosis. For that, they can reject you. My completion ratio was too low. I cried, rather a lot, when I read the letter.

I decided when I didn't like some things about the Bachelor's program I'm in at the community college, to apply for the university where I could pursue what I really wanted to do. And then I thought maybe this was not a good idea. So I wasn't totally sure, as I have mentioned here before, about what to do. But once I had decided to go for it, I really was starting to picture myself at the university, difficult course load and all, long drive and all, everything that would be hard and all, and managing it. And then this happened. My completion was too low to "succeed" at a competitive "research" university. I had mentioned on my application that I had this history with a mental illness and that my life had turned around. I don't know now if I should have mentioned that, but they can't deny admission on that basis. In fact, I can appeal this rejection, because I have a disability. But they say on their website that only ten percent of appeals will be accepted. I have to get more information on the appeal process, how involved it would be (I only have three weeks to complete it), and decide whether or not it is even worthwhile to bother.

It's just disappointing. I worked hard. I got A's in most of my classes. I struggled, and got through, and then it came down to this. Now, I might live the rest of my life regretting that I never got a chance to do social work, which was what I really wanted to do.

It's not the worst thing that has ever happened to me, by any means. Much worse has happened and could happen again. But it is disappointing, nonetheless.

For now, I will take comfort in my clean, decorated home, and the nice, clean sheets on my bed. I will not be ashamed to open the door. One night, I will have my neighbor, Mary, over for dinner. She has had Bipolar Disorder all her life and now, in her sixties, rarely leaves her apartment. I have visited her place downstairs numerous times, and now, she can visit mine.

This is Ribbit in the living room:
This is the Van Gogh wall in my kitchen:

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Giving Speeches: Trying to Create Change

I love giving speeches about my story now! I have been doing it for the past couple of years, every so often, when an event comes up. Tonight, I spoke to a NAMI Family to Family class, for family members of people who live with mental illnesses. This is a 12-week course that is offered throughout the U.S. with NAMI affiliates. It is free, and it is run by volunteers like most things NAMI does. I was the guest consumer speaker. I told my story to a group of about 12 people. Being a small group, it was really pretty comfortable. I also participated in their class before I gave the speech, so I had gotten to converse with them a little. So, it was a little less nerve-racking then some speeches I've done. Nevertheless, I was still nervous.

I like telling my story because it is not just my story. It is the story of so many other people, who don't get the chance to tell theirs. I like creating awareness, in my own small way, and if I can make a difference in even one person's life, then it is worthwhile to do so.

I talked about some of my sordid past with psychosis, and I realized later if I had more time I would have talked more about the recent years since I got diagnosed, which I didn't get a chance to delve into since I spent so much time on the more intense stuff. I think the people are generally interested in this intense stuff, because when it is contrasted with how I'm doing now, they seem quite surprised, and my hope is that it gives them some hope. Several of them spoke about their children who have mental illnesses like mine, and a couple asked me for advice on what to do. I had a hard time with that one. Later, I thought, I could have said, "Coming to this class and educating yourself is doing something to help in itself". But, alas, I didn't think of that at the time. When it comes to what you can do to actually help a psychotic person, I admittedly have a hard time knowing the answer to that. I know that, when I was at my worst and people in my family knew there was something wrong with my brain, they still didn't know what to do about it or what it really was. I know that, to some extent, people did the best they could in dealing with me, which, at times, meant they couldn't deal with me at all. I think my mom had the hardest time, because she's my mother, and she tried to be helpful, but also didn't understand my behavior or know what to do about it. Much like these mothers tonight. I told them, if you let a person know that you care, that makes all the difference. But I also said, when a woman asked me what to do when her son is hallucinating, that telling him it's not real isn't going to change things much. I said that, in my opinion, medication is what helps psychosis. And this is really what I do believe, as it has been my experience. I mentioned therapy that helped me a great deal the past few years, and my case manager, who also helped, and how I'm losing those things now due to budget and Medicare issues.

In the end, I can't say I gave these people a lot of answers about what to do for their loved ones. I can say I tried to help them understand their family member's point of view, and what those experiences feel like for a person living with a mental illness. I can say, I tried to be very honest, and to explain that there is hope, and you can get better. After the class, this one woman who was upset about her son came up to me, and I gave her a little hug and told her there is hope. I hope she has hope. Because there is reason to have hope. I do believe that.

One man asked me what my relationships with my family are like now. I had mentioned that there were times when I wasn't in contact with hardly anyone for long periods of time, and that my mom had a hard time dealing with me sometimes. I told him I'm really close to my mom and my one brother and sister who I see a lot now, and that my younger brother and sister still don't know much about my experiences because they were kids at the time. I said I'm not as close with my dad as I'd like to be, but I do see him on holidays and birthdays, although he would never attend a class like this one (I have told him about it and he didn't respond), possibly because he doesn't really understand mental illness and possibly also the things I said and did when I was psychotic that he still hasn't forgiven me for, even though I've apologized. Maybe I haven't apologized enough, I don't know. I'm glad that there are men like this man tonight who will take an interest in learning about mental illness and how it pertains to their family member, because I think society especially puts the idea in our heads that these kinds of things are "women's issues", and not the type of thing a man should be interested in. In reality, mental illness affects millions of men, and millions of men's family members, and hiding  your head in the sand doesn't help.

After the class, I felt a little weird, like I always do after telling my story, because it is so  much like opening a wound and showing it to people, but I was also really happy I had done it. They all responded well, and thanked me for talking to them. They invited me to the party they're having on the last day of their class.

Next week, I speak, again, to the local C.I.T. (Crisis Intervention Team Training) course for police officers in my area. C.I.T. has trained  over 1,000 officers in the county I live in, and 10,000 in the state of Florida, on mental illness, with a forty-hour week of classes. I have been doing it once a year for about three years. I think this will be the third time I speak at one. I love the fact that these officers are learning about mental health, because it makes a real difference in people's lives when crisis calls are made. In fact, it saves lives. Research has shown that their are fewer shootings during crisis calls when officers have been trained in C.I.T. trainings, and officers who have received the training have prevented suicides.

I always get a little nervous about getting up in front of a group of forty police officers in their uniforms to tell my story. One part of my illness, is that I've always been afraid the police are after me. Not so much now, but in the past. Now, my fears of being pulled over or accused of shoplifting are mild in comparison to the fears I had when I was psychotic a lot. I was very, very afraid of authority figures in uniforms, as well as doctors, hospitals, the government, and numerous and sundry other people. So it takes a lot for me to get up in front of those officers and bare my soul. But I do it because, however cliche this may sound, I want to make a difference. I want to use my voice in my own small way, to combat stigma, and to help them understand. I want them to know, if only for a moment, what it's like to walk in the shoes of someone who has a serious mental illness.

One of the things that someone was surprised about tonight was how much I remember about all that I experienced while psychotic. The class facilitator chimed in to explain that the part of the brain that is experiencing psychosis is not related to memory, so it's not like people block it all out or forget it all. I do mention when I speak that if I don't remember ever being correctly diagnosed, perhaps it is just that I don't remember. But I'm pretty sure I never was until 2005.

All in all, it was a good night. I feel like I've accomplished something after I tell my story, and I don't say this to sound arrogant. I say it to encourage you to tell your stories too. I know a lot of people who read this blog have their own blogs about their mental illnesses. You are already doing something to tell your story. I think all of our blogs create a dent in the stigma that enshrouds these brain disorders and keeps them hidden in the dark corners of the society's collective consciousness. I think that when we can have a chance to speak in front of people, that really helps too.  If there is no C.I.T. training where you live, but you are interested in starting one, I would contact your local NAMI chapter. If there is no local NAMI chapter,  I would contact national NAMI, if you're interested in starting one. If there is one, NAMI offers free educational meetings, classes, and support groups. I think it is a valuable organization. There is also the Mental Health Association - now called Mental Health America - which doesn't have a chapter where I live, but does in many parts of the  U.S., and that's another valuable organization. There is also the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, which has support groups in many areas. When you can connect with others who care about mental health awareness, or who understand your experiences, or who respect your experiences and want to help you use them to create change - your life can really benefit from that. And if you are a family member, well I highly recommend NAMI, which was created by family members of people living with mental illnesses, and their education classes.

Thanks, as always, for listening.