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Tuesday, July 20, 2004

A couple of notes on mental illness: I met today with a representative of NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.  This grandfatherly gentleman runs a support group down in Hanover, the biggest town in my church's neck of the woods.  We got together for lunch at a local diner so I could pick his brains about starting a group.  I'd toyed with the idea of starting one at Emmanuel; they've been looking to do some support groups or small group ministry, and I've been looking for ways to be an advocate for the mentally ill.  In the end I decided that I wouldn't be here long enough to get such a project off the ground, but I was interested in learning more about it, so I kept the date.
We spent most of our time talking off-thread, as they say on the internet:  his service as a bomber pilot in World War II; his furniture factory down in Hanover; his daughter, who has schizophrenia.  Turns out that one of the people on my Transition Team was supposed to be the flower girl at his wedding sixty years ago.  But then he got stuck in Nebraska, and the wedding had to be shifted.
But that we wandered didn't mean that I didn't get anything out of the conversation.  He had very practical knowledge of how to get a group started, and how to keep it afloat.  Find two or three people who will be core members, he said, and let them invite other folks who need the help.  Parents and other relatives of the mentally ill will form the backbone of the group, while the "consumers" (the preferred term for those with mental illness) will float in and out of the group.  Even schizophrenics can benefit from such a group, however--though their presence can be a bit dicey at times.
He invited me to the Hanover meeting in September, and I think I'm going to go.  If nothing else, I'll learn something about how these groups work, and who knows?  Perhaps it'll lead to something else, some new form of ministry.
My other note:  when you are a "consumer," structure is your friend.  Those who have not experienced mental illness have a hard time, I think, understanding how it can scramble the circuits that keep most of us awake and organized from day to day.  Obviously, if you're schizophrenic, your major preoccupation is going to be your voices and what they tell you to do.  But even someone such as me, with a relatively minor case of bipolar, can get pretty far out on a limb, if you know what I mean. 
This comes about for a couple of reasons.  First of all, let's face it, my brain doesn't fire on all cylinders.  Who knew my brothers and sisters were right, after all this time?  As I've noted before, the bipolar affects the part of my brain that sifts through the normal, humdrum details of life and decides what's important and what's not.  It's the mental equivalent of tossing everything in the circular filing cabinet.  On the better days, my wife can tell me to take care of something over breakfast, and if I'm lucky, I'll remember it at dinnertime.  Most days, it's "gone."  Not that I don't remember the conversation; I don't remember (or notice) its relevance to my continued existence.  For this reason, Jen has threatened to beat my brains in on more than one occasion.  The death threats seem to work; perhaps having underlined for me the connection between forgetting & drastic consequences completes a circuit I wouldn't normally close on my own.
In any case, it makes me a pretty poor candidate for the gene pool.  The odds are even at best that my mate will rip me to shreds in frustration before I can reproduce.
But a more serious point is this:  the mentally ill walk around with more pain in their heads than a non-consumer might suspect.  Again, schizophrenics are obvious:  the auditory and sometimes visual hallucinations are terrifying and all-encompassing.  So, too, the pain of depression is obvious.  My own is a bit more subtle.  I walk around wondering what I've screwed up this week, and if I've pissed anybody off recently, or why it is that I can never seem to get any writing done.  Mind you, I'm not complaining:  this is only to say that thoughts such as these take up a lot of energy, and they can distract you pretty easily.
The answer to these problems is structure.  It's incredibly important for a shizophrenic to take their medication at regular intervals.  Depressives often find it beneficial to stick to a schedule to distract them from the emptiness within; bipolars soon find that their mood swings are not so pronounced when they set a rhthym to their life and stick to it.
In my case, I've found that writing things down helps tremendously.  Every entry in my "to do" list is one less thing that I have to carry around in my head.  Not only does that help compensate for my memory problems:  it helps my moods.  I don't have to worry so much about what I'm forgetting, because I have it written down, or I should.  Now I worry about whether or not it's in my book, but that's much less of a concern.  So having the to-do list takes a weight off my shoulders.  Having more of a structured schedule to my day frees me up to get more done.  Here's my ideal day:  wake up at 6:30 or 7:00, get ready for the day, spend some time working in the yard, split the rest of the day writing and crossing off things on my to-do list; perhaps some visits or a meeting late in the day, come home, walk the dogs, spend an hour or so reading before I fall asleep.  So far, I haven't hit a perfect day, but I've come pretty close.  More important, I have been getting more productive.  I've been writing more (even if it's just crappy blog entries), and for the first time in who knows how long, I've begun to read as voraciously as I used to.  I got through I, Claudius in about a week-and-a-half, and I'm currently working on Ha Jin's Waiting and Molly Ivin's Bushwacked.  That's pretty good for a guy who read nothing but magazines and comic books for the better part of two years.
That things are going better starts a better cycle.  For one thing, I don't have to be worried about what I've screwed up, so I don't have to spend as much time either hiding from or anesthetizing my problems.  For another, it opens up some spiritual energy that I've been needing for far too long.  Those of you who have experienced this kind of renewal will understand what I mean when I say it's the difference between reacting and responding.  Having admitted my illness in public gives me the grace to be who I am; having established some structures to compensate for the illness has allowed me to do better in my life, if not exactly "be the best person I can."  I wouldn't want to go that far.  The two combined--identity and structure--allow me to be more fully centered than I have been in a long, long time.
Now, if I could only get to bed at a decent hour, I'd feel more energetic, and wouldn't have to write long, rambling, nonsensical blog entries...

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