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Filed under: About Mental Health Tagged: Mental Illness
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Joseph Suglia liked my post Language Frustrates Me. I’m thrilled, so here I boast and return the favor. Suglia’s latest novel TABLE 41 you can read free online at table41thenovel.com. I will read it now that I know about it. Doesn’t hurt that Suglia liked my post. Suglia also wrote Watch Out: The Definitive Version, Years of Rage, and the academic Holderlin and Blanchot on Self-Sacrifice.
Listen, I don’t pretend to be a perfect practitioner of unconditional love. I wish I was. My loved ones would have had such better lives, had I had any notion of what unconditional love could do.
For example, on July 20 I bought a skinny, sick, fearful dog, for a ridiculous sum of money. I was in a terrifically needy state, having lost my beloved dog Aress to a freak accident. I looked into this pitiful sick doggie’s soft brown eyes, paid the sum, and took her home.
It was clear that she had never been in a real house before. OK, I don’t really live in a “real house,” since I make my home in a fancy van. But it is undeniably a home, and it was clear that she had never been in one. She lived in a kennel outdoors, was taken out to train, and put back in her kennel. From her lamentable condition, it was also clear that nobody had ever paid much attention to her.
In the six or so weeks that I’ve had her, she’s become a sleek, happy pup who loves almost everybody except people she deems untrustworthy. This is her job, and she does it well. She’s affectionate to the point of occasional annoyance, since there are things that must be done (according to me), like writing, doing chores, paying bills…but to Atina, these are annoyances to her, for damn the torpedoes, the play must go on!
An old buddy of mine stopped by to camp for a few days (hi, pal, in case you’re reading this!). I showed him the picture of Atina when I first got her. You could count her ribs and all her vertebrae, and the bones of her pelvis stood out like a sick cow’s. Her coat was dull and ratty: so much so that I had her tested for mange.
My friend asked me how I had managed to rehabilitate her into the sleek, happy girl she is today. I shrugged.
“Love,” he said quietly. I nodded, tears stinging.
Although he gets furious when I bring up the topic and vigorously denies it, my son is a very high functioning autistic. He learned to speak before the age of one, and before that, he developed his own version of sign language. By 19 months he could count to 19, and by three he could tell you the names of every dinosaur known to man, where they had been discovered, and what they did, their diets, their habitats, and what era they lived in. By four he had taught himself to read and do basic arithmetic via “Reader Rabbit” and “Math Blaster” on our desktop Mac.
On the other hand, he hated anything to do with other children, refused to participate in preschool, and whenever possible isolated himself in corners, absorbed in a book or playing with his plastic dinosaurs or action figures. At three, he was already seeing a child psychologist. We managed to get through private kindergarten in five-minute segments. If he cooperated and sat in the circle with the rest of the children for five minutes, he got to go to his corner and be alone for fifteen minutes. Later in the year he discovered the school office and became enamored with the laminating machine, so he became more motivated to sit for five minutes so that he could run to the office and laminate for fifteen.
First grade was a bust, as far as the teacher was concerned. We enrolled him in a progressive Quaker school: small class size, emphasis on art and music, compassionate teachers–what could be better? Nothing, I guess. Literally nothing. My son staidly refused to cooperate with anything whatsoever. His teacher, a caring and earnest young man, could not get him to do anything. He retreated to a corner and refused to come out. Somehow he managed to ace all the tests, though. But he would not come out of his corner, nor would he speak a word. The teacher called me on a weekly basis.
“He refuses to participate. What shall I do?”
I was busy, harried, frustrated and sleep deprived, so my stock answer was, “You’re his teacher. YOU find a way.”
This did not work.
Finally I had a brainstorm: “Make him the class scribe. Give him a tape recorder, and have him sit just outside the class circle and record everything. This way he’ll feel like he’s got an important job and is not simply one of the (muggles, but that word had not yet been coined by Rowling).”
It worked. We managed to make it through first grade without any further conflict.
In later years, I experienced what happened when I tried to force my son into anxiety-producing behaviors using negative consequences. He either withdrew, or else he simply sat down on the floor and crossed his arms, earning him the nickname “Sitting Bull”. When he got older, he became threatening and intimidating. I was not about to knuckle under, so I upped the ante, and so did he. Soon a full-blown war was in progress.
Now, I don’t believe in accepting bad behavior, not even from a “special” child. But there are ways, and then there are ways.
My moment of epiphany dawned upon reading Karen Pryor’s amazing book, Don’t Shoot the Dog. Pryor was the head porpoise and Killer Whale trainer at Sea World for many years. Now, you can’t make a large sea mammal do anything it doesn’t want to do. You have to make doing the desired behavior so attractive, that said mammal would rather do it than just swim around and play, like porpoises like to do. You have to make it fun to do what you want them to do.
Pryor’s book, as its title implies, carries this philosophy over to dog training. At the time her book was published, most dog training was based on negative reinforcement: You don’t do what I want, you get your neck jerked, you get yelled at, you might even get hit with a rolled-up newspaper for doing your business where you’re not supposed to.
Pryor applied what she had learned as a sea-mammal trainer to dog training. Thus, lucky dogs found out that doing the desired behavior resulted in treats and praise, while negative behaviors got them…nothing. Ignored. Exactly what a social mammal desperately does not want.
Of course, psychology students already knew this from getting rats to do things that humans had a hard time with, by simply having a tasty treat at the end of the maze. But applying methods that worked with “lower life forms” to humans? How insulting. Humans ought to just know that what they were doing was good or bad. Adam and Eve, right? Tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, and stuff like that.
The Behaviorist School of Psychology, pioneered by B.F. Skinner, showed that positive behaviors rewarded with positive reinforcement produced more positive behaviors, while negative reinforcement inhibited negative behaviors. A third strategy was called “extinguishment.” You do what I want, you get left alone to do what you want. You don’t do what I want…nothing. The behavior “extinguishes,” for want of reaction. In many cases this worked better than negative consequences such as electric shocks. (N.B.: a rumor somehow began that Skinner experimented on his own child by placing her in a “sensory deprivation” cage. This is not true.)
Pryor capitalized on Skinner’s Behaviorist School of psychology and its “behavior shaping” model in her sea mammal training program. She then morphed it over to dog training…and concluded her book with a chapter on shaping the behavior of humans.
I can’t say that I ever mastered behavior shaping, either in dogs or in humans, but I have tried to incorporate it, when I remember.
What I’ve learned through the years, though, is to assimilate and practice the art of “Love the person, even if you hate the behavior.”
I have always loved my son, completely and passionately, even when I was dodging head-butts when bear-hugging him through an autistic melt-down, or once again leaving a cart full of groceries in the checkout line when all those people were just too much for him, or agonizing through the time he was in and out of countless outpatient and inpatient addiction programs as a teenager, or sitting up nights worrying when his stepmother threw him out and he lived in a drug house, on the street, in a homeless shelter, in a psychiatric ward zombied out on legal drugs.
Finally he got arrested, and this was my chance to save his life. I called the judge, whom I knew from my work with the court system (yes, this was taking advantage of my position), and begged him to remand my son to long-term inpatient care. The judge reprimanded me for calling him, but honored my request.
After a long period of searching, we found the perfect place. The students were held to a strict policy of personal accountability. Positive behaviors were rewarded with increased privileges; breaches of the rules resulted in suspension of free time, which was instead spent writing a paper examining the undesirable behavior, why the kid did it, what the internal meaning of the behavior was, and why this was counterproductive to the kid’s development as a productive, independent, successful individual. The student then presented the paper to a mentor, who helped process the ideas and helped the kid internalize them. There was still a consequence in terms of loss of privileges for a finite period, and a defined way to regain the lost privileges.
In this way the teens learned that self-determined productive behaviors resulted in more freedoms. In addition to these interventions, the kids had daily group therapy, thrice-weekly individual therapy, a staff mentor who was always available for processing issues, family therapy monthly, and many other interventions. It turned many lives around. It gave my son tools that he is still using, ten years later.
For me, it reinforced that the power of unconditional love moves mountains and saves lives.
To tell the stories of individuals who struggle with mental illness and their family members we are embarking on a journey of hope. The first leg of this journey is the sharing of stories and works of art by family members and individuals.
Here are my entries and story of hope:
Though I am a minivan-driving wife and mother, unlike most of my suburban neighbors, I live with bipolar disorder. On my blog kittomalley.com, I recount my struggle with mental illness, the two decades it took to get a proper diagnosis, and how my journey has ultimately given me a sense of purpose – and at times, a sense of religious calling. I find creating art and writing a good release for racing thoughts. Coloring, especially, helps to slow down my thoughts and quell anxiety.
When I go on walks, I like to take photos of nature, especially flowers and cloudscapes. The photos I’ve taken over the last two years. Walking outside in nature and taking the time to appreciate beauty helps me with my moods. At the same time, I must be sure to not overexpose myself to the sun, for it triggers hypomania.The monoprints I created almost two decades ago when I lived with a diagnosis of dysthymia, well before I was diagnosed bipolar type II. The doodles I’ve done recently, as I’ve found coloring and doodling helpful in grounding me, in slowing down racing thoughts and overcoming anxiety.
I am not creative in spite of or because of my mental illness. I simply am creative. Even when medicated properly and asymptomatic, I am creative. Medication does not turn my creativity off. Using creativity can help me to manage my symptoms, it can be a release, but it is not dependent on me having a diagnosable mental illness. What I want to get across is the importance of self-care, including medication, if needed, and psychotherapy. Art, photography and writing do not take the place of medication or psychotherapy, they are adjuncts to traditional treatment modalities.
Check out my fellow artists’ hope-inspiring work at The Blooming Hope Nursery.
I wrote this piece about thirty years ago when I was as an undergraduate. I used it as a writing sample when applying for jobs.
Language frustrates me. Because of it, I think in distinctions; I draw lines where they do not in fact exist; I categorize and differentiate. All this I do to simplify, to impose order. All this so that I need not think or feel or know too much. All this so that I may function in a complex world. Otherwise, I would be overwhelmed. Or so I believe. But, in actuality, my attempts to simplify, to order the world around me, make my world more complex. More complex because I distort. More complex, for language is inherently imprecise. And, I get caught in my errors, in my ignorance, and in my arrogance. I err when I oversimplify. I close my eyes to what is really going on when I ignore subtleties that elude definition. And, I arrogantly play God when I try to control my environment, imposing on it an order that is not necessarily there. Still, I convince myself that making these distinctions somehow empowers me. But the definitions, the distinctions, the categorizations I make become cages, and I find myself, not the objects I define, behind the bars. For in limiting what is limitless, in trying to contain what will not fit into any box or cage, I limit and imprison myself.
This piece of prose poetry means a great deal to me. It still resonates. My questioning and open nature, my love for ideas, my ambivalence for language, my theological bent, are part and parcel of who I am. Have been and still are.
Too bad I didn’t save more of my writing, that I pitched it all in an attempt to clean house. This piece, though, I kept in my résumé file.
Do you use Firefox? If so, are you as sick of all the damn tracking and targeted advertisements as I am? I KNOW!!! I changed my privacy settings to stop the tracking and the third party cookies, and now I have to log in to every-fucking-thing every time I go to the site, and Fuckbook makes me login about every ten minutes. FIREFOX’S REVENGE!!! Well, FUCK YOU, FIREFOX!! I’ll live with a few (hundred) extra logins to avoid the ultra-annoying ads every time I turn around. Damn!! I google something stupid like “pocket pussy” (because I’ve never seen one before, and a girlfriend of mine told me she found one in her ex’s bathroom) and Fuckbook starts advertising Pocket Pussies on the side of their page!! Always and forever!!! That is RIDICULON!!! So you see why I rant. Part of it is Google and part of it is Firefox. Together they are the Devil Incarnate.
I am excited to see the BLOOD MOON tonight. Pictures tomorrow. Be afraid.
In the past week I have been out of the house more and seen more people than I have in years. It’s almost like having a social life.
In the past week I have also slept more than I usually do in my sloth-like, torpid existence.
I think the two are not unrelated.
If you follow Spoon Theory (http://www.butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/) you know that each spoon represents an amount of coping that you can do.
Every day you get a certain number of spoons – not the same number every day. You use them to perform everyday tasks that most people think nothing of – things like getting out of bed (some days you don’t even have that spoon), taking a shower (1/2 spoon for Janet’s patented “super-fast smelly-bits sink wash-up”), getting dressed, finding something to eat, fixing that something (keep a box of Cheerios by the bed in case you run out of spoons at this point), and all that is without even leaving the house. Some days that’s all the spoons you have and when you’ve used up your spoons, that’s it.
Other days you can manage to do all that and leave the house, go to work, run errands, and assorted other normal activities. But for those of us who have mental disorders, such days are few and far between.
You hear depressed people talk of not being able to get out of bed, and for the most part that’s caused by lack of spoons. I am usually notoriously low on spoons. My husband now understands Spoon Theory and we use it as common shorthand for “I’m too tired” or “That’s all I can handle right now.”
Dan, however, is an over-scheduler and I often have to rein him in by pointing out that his proposed slate of activities will not be possible because I, for one, will run out of spoons, and he may too.
The dry run for my recent spurt of socializing began last week. After I went for my final session with Dr R., I managed a trip to the bank, a trip to the place where I could pay my power bill, and since it was right next door, a stop at Kmart to buy underwear. It was a good thing that was a hypomanic day, but it floored me for the rest of that day and the next. And it started a cycle of bipolar up-and-down oscillations that were clearly related to spoon usage.
My spate of social endeavors started with a double-header. On Saturday I had lunch with a friend at a favorite restaurant I almost never get to go to. We talked about politics, social issues, and book proposals. Then I went home and had a little nap.
That evening Dan and I went to Monkey Bones for Zombie Dogz. I know that takes a little explaining. Monkey Bones is the tattoo studio where I got my semicolon tattoo (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-9G). Zombie Dogz is a local food truck. (Also, it’s fun to say “We went to Monkey Bones for Zombie Dogz.”)
Notice that in a single day I had to get up, out of bed, and get dressed twice. That’s a lot of spoons. Sunday I was not able to get out of bed at all.
Monday did not involve socializing, but it was another hellacious spoon-eater. Dan and I spent the day scrounging for documents and information that the IRS wanted. It was taxing. (See what I did there?)
Tuesday was an extra-special social event, though it did not involve getting dressed and going out, or even interacting with other people. It was Jenny Lawson’s online book launch party. Better known as the Bloggess, Jenny has severe social anxiety. At this stage in my life, I certainly would not be able to dress up, mingle, and make polite conversation with both friends and complete strangers. The online party was a genius idea.
I sat at home in my pajamas with some red wine while the Bloggess read chapters from her new book, Furiously Happy. (You should get it, by the way. It’s about mental illness, but funny.) As low-key a social situation as that was, it still used up spoons because it was something I had never done before. Making sure I had the right URL, converting Central Time to Eastern, not being able to ask questions because I don’t Tweet, worrying that Dan was getting bored – not a lot a lot of spoons, but still some.
The effects were getting cumulative. Again I was unable to get out of bed the next day. In fact, Dan and I both slept away most of the daylight hours. For him it’s understandable because he works third shift, but I have no such excuse. Except that if you borrow from the next day’s spoons, or try to keep going without them, you will pay.
Thursday, I was determined, with or without spoons, I was going to meet a friend for coffee. I’ve seen her only once, briefly, in several years. In a way, it was a test of my ability to maintain anything approaching a real social life.
I put forth the extra effort because a mutual friend cut her ties with me because I canceled so often on social engagements. I suppose I really have nothing to prove to anyone but myself but it seems important that I do so. It’s not like coffee with a friend is an ordeal or anything. It’s just that I know I’ll be using a spoon for more than stirring my coffee.
And I hope I have enough spoons left over to work on my other blog.