May 17, 2009 -- "Nobody wants to think about it
Nobody wants to talk about it ...
Well I found out if we opened it up,
We could work this out."
-- "Nobody Wants To," a song by Crowded House
This month is Mental Health Awareness Month. Although that beautiful song may not have been written about mental illness, it applies, in my mind. I'm ready to open things up.
It's not always easy for me to live with schizophrenia but, like any significant part of one's life, it can be a learning experience. About one percent of the population -- more than 2 million Americans -- live with schizophrenia. About 55 million others live with another significant brain disease such as bipolar disorder or major depression.
Many of us feel like we are, or are perceived as, somehow "less" than normal. But if your mind is open, believe me, you may find a different way to feel.
As I got up this morning, put on my ring and took my meds, I thought back over the previous days. For years, I had tried not to think about problems I experienced as symptoms of schizophrenia. But a few days before, they had come to my attention as exactly that.
Early this week, I broke down and cried for myself for the first time in as long as I can remember. Work was getting hectic: I was developing a Web site for my family's charity, the International Mental Health Research Organization, and I wanted it to be world-class and ready pronto. Our PR team was setting up interviews for me with the media for Mental Health Awareness Month, and I wanted to present myself well in the spots because they were aimed at fighting stigma.
But I was feeling strung out. That week, I had had not much free time and not enough sleep, and that day I was getting to work a few minutes late -- again. When I was in high school -- before I got sick -- I was used to being on top of things all the time, and was on time for everything. I wasn't sure I could handle this much longer. I called my Dad (my boss) as I drove in to work to talk about this with him, and he reminded me of something:
Mental Health Conditions Can Be a Part of You
"You put a lot of pressure on yourself," my father said. "Whether you get in a little late, it's not important, just as long as you get your work done. And you are! It's not healthy for you to work to too rigid deadlines. I'm happy to give you the time that you need in the morning to take care of yourself. Take the time!"
It dawned on me that, yes, I did sometimes have needs, especially related to stress, that other people didn't. After years of thinking my schizophrenia was essentially behind me, it was still a part of me.
I cried a little that morning, but today, I am at peace. I got up early this morning, read a little and passed a few quality minutes with my wife while making breakfast for us. I have remembered some truths about life: It's about taking care of yourself and those you love. And it's OK to have your own needs; let those who love you help you! With trust and love in your heart, the stressors that once seemed so big become very small. And you can feel better and begin your work anew.
Meeting Nancy was a lucky circumstance. At the time, I was just beginning to stabilize on an antipsychotic medication I had recently started taking, aripiprazole, and able to start enjoying the company of new women again. The year before, journalist Julian Guthrie had published an article about me and my family in the San Francisco Chronicle. If you're reading, Julian, I want to thank you, for you helped clear a path.
When we met, Nancy had read the article, and already knew I had schizophrenia. But she had only formed one preconception about me: She assumed I didn't drive. Otherwise, her mind was open and after we had met a few times for hikes, we both knew we liked each other.
Now, almost four years later -- the best years of my life so far -- she still accepts and loves me for who I am. Getting to know and love this extraordinary, compassionate woman has meant the world to me. We often talk about the day-to-day issues I face and she helps me just by understanding and accepting. Not to mention she makes me laugh. When we have problems, we open them up and work them out.
Learning From Schizophrenia
If I first learned the values of communication and compassion through years of psychotherapy, living with my wife confirms them every day. We're good for one another.
When I told her today that I had finally realized that I would probably always have some issues because of my illness (barring a medical breakthrough), she said simply, "Of course, isn't that obvious? I mean, it doesn't go away."
In that way, she saw what I had not been willing to admit. Now, I smile and know that she's right.
The disease can be hard for all of us, but we also can love and appreciate life and the people in our lives. I know four other people with schizophrenia, one of whom I e-mail regularly, Ebony. In spite of the pain and anxiety she sometimes feels, she loves to travel, studies a wide range of subjects and loves her family and her two little dogs to pieces. I hope that someday she'll find someone to share her life with, too.
We who live with brain disease are people like you. I work for a cause I believe in, value my family and love my wife above all else. And people mean a lot to me. These are good things and I am, to be honest, proud of them. I don't think I'd be at this happy place now without having had, and learned from, my experience with schizophrenia.
For more info on my and my family's story, please see http://www.imhro.org/history.html.