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Giveaway Winner!

The lucky winner of Lynne Taetzsch’s wonderful, inspiring book is… Catherine Gourd!!!! Catherine has contributed regularly and has generously shared her pain and wisdom with all of us SOS readers. So, thank you Catherine, and thank you Lynne!

Comic Strip by Sarafin

Sarafin is a Toronto area artist and writer, and a student of sequential illustration.  Although having suffered from psychosis since the year 2006, Sarafin has had a longer history with mental illness, and used to take antidepressant medication for depression, which she has since conquered.  Both conventional and alternative medicine have helped with her healing, as have creativity, spirituality, and eastern & western philosophy.  She anticipates a full recovery.

Sarafin’s ongoing comic series, ‘Asylum Squad’, was started during her year long stay on a psychiatric ward, and continues to be updated.  The comic deals with themes such as schizophrenia (and similar disorders), psychiatric incarceration, drug & pill culture, and spirituality.  Sarafin hopes to someday compile the strips and publish them in book form.  Her comic series can be viewed at http://www.asylumsquad.com, and is also being serialized at http://www.mentalhelp.net

ART BY CAROLINA WARNER

Door Panels

The door panels are created around batik art panels by the Indonesian artist Ciptoning.  I constructed imagery to express my journey inward and my concept of strength for the day.

Leaf Fabric

The leaf fabric was created using deconstructed screen printing and foil.  I include the leaf to tell the part of my story that includes getting play clothes and belonging to a group of fiber artists who encourage one another to grow.

Carolina Warner has struggled with mental health issues most of her life.  It wasn’t until early adulthood that she sought treatment.  It took many years to get a Bipolar II diagnosis and medication that included mood stabilizers along with antidepressants. She feels she has been fortunate to have therapists along the way who could help her grow emotionally.  When symptoms ended her professional work life, she was encouraged to use art to express her feelings and experience.  She was able to stabilize and grow as a quilt artist.  Although she may or may not return to a full-time work life, art will always be part of her journey.

Major frustration

So, I thought my computer issues were resolved… but that has proven to be a big joke! It pains me to say this, but until further notice, SOS will only be updated once a week. Subscribe to the RSS feed so you can be notified when a new post is added! 🙂

Sandhya

THE LIGHT AT THE MIDDLE OF THE TUNNEL
By Jenny Ann Fraser

Who I Am Today

My life is far from perfect. I am 40 years old, single, unemployed and mostly broke. I will never have any children, a sad, but wise decision, and I am not as hopeful as I once was that I will ever fall in love let alone get married.

I have great friends, and a close family and yet I have never not been lonely. I don’t know that I will ever be capable of not being lonely, but I am optimistic that I can learn.

Still, I am pretty much ok with right now. I like my life these days even when I don’t like my life circumstances.

I love myself.

It is like owning a well of joy that I can always pull from, no matter how far I have to reach down into it to drink.

I wouldn’t give up my new-found well of self-love, not even if Jonathan Rhys Meyers himself offered to whisk me off to an English estate where I could live out the rest of my life like a Queen.

Who I Was

I’m not sure how it is that I suffered with depression, and anxiety since I was a small child without it being obvious to the adults around me, but I did. It was not due to neglect, or a lack of love in my life. I had great parents and despite an education system which is traditionally not good for students like me, still, I had good teachers.

Somehow, I was born a master at hiding. Hiding my thoughts, feelings and fears to the best of my abilities made sense, as it was difficult enough to fit in without showing my true self. That plan worked until I neared the last few years of my twenties by which time the facade had worn out and I could no longer pretend that I could cope.

Years of reading self-help books, and discovering an interest in and an aptitude for psychology led me to correctly self-diagnose my ADHD, but did nothing to alleviate any of my problems.

Anxiety was my constant minute by minute companion. I lived every moment with my heart racing, my blood pounding in my ears, my mouth dry, and my throat clenched. I could sleep for a few hours at a time, often waking up in a state of complete panic with chest pains and difficulty breathing. I blamed myself for this, even though I knew no better way to be. Despite all I was going through, the most difficult part for me was to get through each day without choosing to end my life. I saw very little reason to continue.

I hated myself, and absolutely everything about me. My boyfriend had ended our relationship and I had pushed away (or run away from) all of my friends. I hid what was happening from my family as I always had. I hated everything about myself, and often didn’t eat. I weighed 92 lbs.

One desperate night I made a desperate call to a 24 hour hotline and without realizing it, I saved my own life.

How I Got Here

Shortly after that phone call, I started seeing and excellent psychologist who specialized in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and had a lot of experience with both adults and children with ADHD. I was in this instance in my life truly lucky.

I was lucky, because I felt that my situation left me no one to lean on let alone depend on, so I had no choice but to get better. At my worst, I couldn’t leave my apartment, but I worked at home because I had no where to go if I didn’t earn money. I listened to my therapist, because there was no one else who had any answers. She told me I could get better and I believed her, because not getting better wasn’t an option I could live with.

In the beginning, I took anti-depressant medication, and Ritalin for my ADHD. These drugs made eating even more difficult, though they helped me climb my way out of the pit that had swallowed me up whole so that I could learn how to heal. I was finally able to live without medication, though I would go back in an instant if I needed to.

I learned to become aware of the thoughts that created my anxiety and depression. I learned how to challenge those negative beliefs and replace them with new ones.

I read books on Neuroscience and Psychology and began to comprehend what was physically happening in my brain and my body. Facing one small fear at a time, from the smallest to the largest, I moved forward and found new ways to think which resulted in new ways to live.

When my anxiety had faded to the point where I could work again, I ended up getting a job with more responsibility than the job which had pushed me over the edge in the first place. I’ve been there, working successfully under increasing stress for 10 years (it’s a seasonal position which explains my current unemployment). I cope with whatever comes my way at work.

I started to face larger fears, things I could have avoided, like 4 years of classical guitar lessons which was the equivalent of paying a teacher to watch me have a panic attack every week for 30 minutes, but I didn’t quit until I finally had those panic attacks under control.

Then, I moved onto the truly scary. I started studying classical voice, and even sang solo in several recitals. There, I learned to pull through, panic or no panic and singing has become one of my greatest loves, anxiety be damned! It has stolen enough of my life.

I made a commitment in 1993, to dedicate myself to growing and learning so that I might contribute as much as possible while I’m here. I converted to Judaism, and practiced for a few years, but moved away when I found that it wasn’t helping me to find the peace that I so desperately crave. From there, I have delved deeply into non-denominational spirituality and have found contemplation, meditation, gratitude and compassion to be the key to anything and everything that is good in my life.

I realized that despite my problems past or present, I am growing, moving forward and contributing. I have let go of my debilitating perfectionism and learned to be happy with where I am. I am no longer ashamed of who I was, nor the mistakes I made, am still making and will make in the future. I am instead proud of all that I have accomplished.

Over the years I have slowly evolved into something greater than the girl who starved herself down to 92lbs because she didn’t think she deserved food. She seems like someone I met 12 years ago. Not someone I was.

My life is still difficult in many ways. Anxiety can rear it’s ugly head in certain predictable circumstances and sometimes when I least expect it, but it is nothing compared to what I used to live with each moment. The physical symptoms can be extremely uncomfortable but I can now compare it to a deep scratch as opposed to multiple stab-wounds. I truly look forward to the day when anxiety truly is a part of my past.

My age, and changing hormones have opened a new chapter in my story of depression but I know me now. Depression is part of my story, but I am not my story. I am careful, and I watch. I watch my thoughts, I question them. I work each day to change what doesn’t serve me. I work to accept what I cannot change. I know that it is my job to stay out of the pit and and I will never need to hit the bottom before I will reach out for help again. I know how to find it and I’m never afraid to ask.

ADHD is a constant in my life. I choose (most of the time) not to think of it as a disorder, but just a part of my personality.
Concentration is extremely hard for me still at times and hyper-activity is my constant companion. It keeps me fit, is definitely the source of my creativity, my humour and my ambition.

I talk too much, but that gets easier as I grow in awareness so I don’t worry too much about it as long as I’m not hurting anyone. I can’t keep a space organized to save my life it seems, but I keep trying, and I’m ok with the fact that I may never live in a show home, (or a show castle for that matter).

I don’t beat myself up over my short-comings. Instead, I find myself asking if my so-called faults really have a negative affect on my life or others. I no longer worry because others perceive me as not being “normal”. I really have no desire to be “normal” even though I have to admit that I don’t know what it is. It sounds boring, so I’ll pass.

Where I am Today

These days, I am the self-crowned queen of my own personal castle. This would be why I would actually kick Jonathan Rhys Meyers out of bed for eating crackers. Clearly, I don’t need him.
My castle is a fortress with high strong walls, a moat, and a drawbridge to protect me from the evil dragon Depression who often lies just outside it’s front gate.
The damp cold of anxiety has little chance due to geo-thermal heating and energy-efficient triple-paned windows.
ADHD is welcome in my castle, and anyone who has a problem with it is not a problem for me. After all, I am the Queen.

I am both the Queen, and my own team of soldiers whose job it is to watch which thoughts are allowed to pass through and what they do when they get there.

If I am not diligent. The dragon will make his way in, but still, if that were to happen, I have a great collection of weapons which will stop him before he has the chance to burn down my walls. I don’t worry about what might happen. I deal with what is, the best way I know how.

Jenny Ann Fraser is a costumer for Theatre Dance and Film. She lives with her cat Angus in Winnipeg Canada.
She is also a a budding entrepreneur, new to writing, and creator of the blog Arriving at Your Own Door.
She can’t wait to see what she does next…

Marilyn Geary is a personal historian and writer. In her documentary film, Marin Mind/Scapes : Stories of Art, Nature, and Wellness, professional and amateur artists speak of their art, their creative process, and how Marin County’s natural beauty has inspired their work and influenced their lives. SOS had the good fortune to do an interview with Marilyn!

Marilyn, first of all, let me say that I am absolutely thrilled and honored that you have agreed to do this e-interview for SOS. I know that women everywhere reading what you have to say will be inspired and empowered.

With that, let’s get started!

 1. Please tell us a little about your new project Marin Mind/Scapes. What do you hope that people will get out of it?

Thank you, Sandhya, for inviting me to do this interview and for the wonderful work you are doing with SOS: Sisterhood of Strength to encourage women with mental illness to express their creativity.

 The Marin Mind/Scapes project has several goals. I conducted oral history interviews with eight Marin County landscape artists, some of whom are recovering from severe mental illness. The oral histories complement the visual works of the artists by preserving the artists’ stories and reflections on their work. They are archived in the Anne T. Kent California History Room oral history archives. Decades and perhaps even centuries from now, researchers will access these oral histories to get a glimpse of what it was like to be a Marin County artist in 2010.

From the oral histories, we created a 30-minute documentary featuring the artists speaking of how artistic expression and nature has affected their sense of mental well-being. By showing artists with a mental illness in the mainstream, we aim to help reduce the stigma of mental illness while boosting self-esteem and increasing hope for recovery among mental health clients.

 2. Do you have a personal history with mental illness? Would you mind sharing that with us?

I don’t mind sharing this at all now, but at the time, I was very ashamed. I cut off all contact with my close friends for many years. I had a psychotic break in my early twenties and was hospitalized for several weeks. I was extremely paranoid. I thought I was dead, everyone was dead, and we were all stuck in an everlasting purgatory.

In recent years, I tried to locate my hospital records, but they are long gone, so I do not know my diagnosis. I was treated with Thorazine and Stellazine. I was extremely resistant to the meds. I thought that Thorazine came from the god Thor and Stellazine came from the stars in outer space and that the psych techs were guards at Dachau. Everything was conspiring to get me, and I wanted none of it. I was placed in a strait-jacket in a padded cell for non-compliance. I feel fortunate that I was not given electro-shock therapy, as were several of the patients in the ward.

I suppose the insurance ran out, as I was released after a few weeks. I was more stable but still very unsure of where I was and where I was going. I did not want to be “crazy” but suffered several relapses and ended up back in my childhood home with my parents. During this time, I was on and off meds.  I did not want to take the medication as it made me feel groggy and stupid.  I had a deep need to be “normal” and get my life and career going again. My friends were getting jobs and getting married, and I did not want to be left behind, so I pushed myself forward to “get back on track.”

Over the ensuing years, I’d occasionally hear voices and hallucinate, but I would hold on tight and do a reality check. Was that statue really waving and calling out to me? Maybe, but I would try to ignore it. Somehow I was able to get through without another hospitalization. For many years I lived in fear and avoided any situations I thought might trigger a severe relapse. The man I married provided strong support and security that helped enormously. I am very grateful for my recovery.

I also suffered from panic attacks, particularly on bridges and freeways. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, my activities were largely confined to the city, since I could not drive the bridges crossing the bay. I frequently took the El Camino Real route down to visit my parents in the Santa Clara Valley, enduring several hours of stop and go traffic for what would take about an hour on the freeway.

Over the years, I have desensitized myself to my fear of heights, bridges and freeway driving. I am now able to drive nearly everywhere without fear, except for the Bay Bridge and a narrow stretch of Highway One north of Jenner on the California coast.  I challenge myself when driving to new places. I make good use of maps to familiarize myself with the terrain and road conditions and plan alternate routes if I think the route will be too scary. I am very thankful that over time I have been able to overcome most of my driving fears. It has given me a much greater sense of control and capability.

 3. Why have you chosen the medium of documentary to educate people about mental illness?

Studies by the Chicago Consortium for Stigma Research have identified three types of anti-stigma activities: Contact, Education and Protest. Results from studies show that face-to-face contact with individuals with mental illness produces the best anti-stigma results and the most understanding.

Documentary can reach a larger audience and provide a virtual face-to-face contact that can raise awareness and provoke discussion. Each showing to-date of the Marin Mind/Scapes documentary has been followed by a panel discussion. At the de Young Museum showing, an audience member said she could no longer create her art and asked the artists how they dealt with blocks in artistic expression. The artists on the panel, some renowned and others not, including a homeless artist who lives in a tent on a Marin hilltop, participated in the discussion of how to break through blocks to artistic expression. These interactions helped put a face on mental illness and showed the commonality shared by the artists, regardless of circumstances. Not all showings of the documentary will include a panel discussion, but they will show the faces and voices of artists recovering from a mental illness along with those of other artists.

 4. In your experience, broadly speaking, do you find that people with mental illness find art to be therapeutic?

Yes, creating art can be therapeutic for anyone. In the interviews with artists, a common thread emerged: creating art brings focus. The artist is in the moment, not thinking about anything else but creating art. The creative process can engender an altered state in which the creator can re-visualize and heal traumatic wounds. Creative expression can bring a sense of control and satisfaction not found in other activities, although a couple of artists mentioned that creating art can also be frustrating if the resulting work does not match one’s vision. The expressive process requires a certain surrender to the moment and can bring one closer to self.

5. In your opinion, is the world is slowly acclimatizing to co-existing with people with mental illness? Is the stigma still as bad as when you started out on your career path?

 Stigma does appear to be lessening slightly as our culture gains exposure  through films such as A Beautiful Mind, The Soloist and PBS’ This Emotional Life.  Interestingly, the big pharmaceutical companies seem to be playing a major role in this trend.  It’s nearly impossible to leaf through a magazine or flip though the TV channels without coming across ads targeted to people suffering from bipolar disorder. Pharmaceutical manufacturer AstraZeneca’s elaborate interactive exhibit entitled The Bipolar Journey: Living with Bipolar Depression was hugely present at the recent NAMI Walk in San Francisco. The exhibit is touring the country with aims to educate about bipolar depression, and of course, promote awareness of Seroquel and AstraZeneca.                                                                          

Medication can be very helpful with symptoms of mental illness, yet the medical community still does not understand the neurobiology of mental illness and how medications actually work. Psychiatrists have abdicated their role as healers, as described in Dr. Daniel Carlat’s new book Unhinged: The Trouble With Psychiatry. Many psychiatrists no longer provide talk therapy and in-depth interaction with their patients. Mental illness can be seen as a dis-ease of the soul, but economics and our society’s predilection for the quick fix of medication means that many people suffer in a fragmented mental health system.

Many people experience their first psychotic break as young adults at a       time when they are experiencing enormous life transitions. The stresses to conform in our society are enormous, yet we lack supportive rituals to guide young people through this difficult time of change. Many young people are reluctant or unable to admit that they have a mental illness, which makes recovery that much more challenging. Having a mental illness is painful enough without suffering from shame and discrimination. No one wants to be labeled “mentally ill,” especially if they are told in their early twenties that it’s a lifetime disease and that they must take medication for the rest of their life so that the symptoms don’t return in even greater strength. Recovery is possible, but so often messages of hope and recovery get lost.

 Stigma will also remain strong as long as we continue to criminalize mental illness. A recent study by the Treatment Advocacy Center states that there are now more than three times more seriously mentally ill persons in jails and prisons than in hospitals in the United States. Forty percent of individuals with mental illnesses have been in jail or prison at some time in their lives. Our prisons are not healing centers. Having an illness is not a crime. Our society can be judged by how we treat our most vulnerable, and until we recognize the inhumanity of incarcerating those suffering from mental illness, we cannot make significant inroads in reducing stigma. Stamping out the stigma of mental illness involves increasing global consciousness of our shared humanity and our awareness that we are all One. I hope that Marin Mind/Scapes helps with this effort.

Marilyn, thank you so much for agreeing to this mini-interview for SOS. It has been an honor ‘speaking’ with you!

Visit http://marinmindscapes.com/ to learn more about Marilyn Geary’s documentary.

The Lavender House

THE LAVENDER HOUSE

By Holly Ward

Jessica would come to remember very little about her stay at The Lavender House.  She would recall the white walls, the atmosphere of solitude and the buzz of white noise in her ears.  She would occasionally think about the other people.  How they rocked gently and muttered under their breath to the people she couldn’t see.  At times their mutterings became louder and more intense, anger etched on their faces as they battled with old foes in another time, another life.

She would at times consider the equality of the place.  There was, seemingly, very little prejudice about mental illness.  Black, white, old, young, male, female, rich, poor even celebrity, it didn’t matter.  These afflictions weren’t choosey, they would happily destroy anyone’s life given half a chance.

And she supposed that that was what bound all these oddities together.  The desire of someone somewhere to not give half a chance to the demons that battled their loved ones.  She supposed she was lucky that John had actually cared enough, loved her enough to take away her freedom like this.  Because he had taken it away from her, she was a prisoner of sorts for those four weeks.

She pondered on her good fortune and that of her fellow patients, (because that is what you were at The Lavender House, no inmates or the wonderfully inaccurate ‘guests’ here).  They all had someone who loved them, someone who had cared enough to commit them before they hurt themselves even more than they had already.  She knew she was fortunate but she couldn’t feel happy about that yet.  Not for some time to come.

She had found a group of what you might call friends, but somehow the banter and chumminess that the word conjured up was wrong.  Friends implied choice, conversation, the sharing of knowledge and maybe laughter.  Her friends here were more like comrades.  Battling through this stretch of soul bearing and humility together.  They met every day for a group session.  Other people who had come so close to losing everything, maybe some had done so already, but someone had put them here to try and get it back.

The sessions were exposing and frightening.  At first Jess said nothing, in fact for days she said nothing.  This was apparently quite normal, although that seemed the wrong term for this place.  But to Jess, who was used to talking, used to presenting to roomfuls of people who were all hanging on her words, it was a new experience.  The very fact of being able to shut down, to say nothing, to languish in the depths of her own despair was a comfort of sorts.

She recalls the session where Lilly, a highly paid corporate lawyer in her former life, said her first words.  The words that reached deep into Jessica’s aching brain and caused a response to flow from her lips.  It felt involuntary.

Lilly had said ,”The kids were better off without me, I was useless to them.”

Jessica felt this resonate around her mind, it touched her broken heart and she said.

“I know that too.  I was damaging them”.

This had in turn started a rather slow but gradual discussion amongst their group of eight people.

“I needed someone to stop me, stop me hurting her so much” said the man in the red t-shirt to her left.

“I’m pointless, my wife deserved better” the middle-aged man in the corner.

And one by one they all revealed their weak spots.  The people who meant most to them, the people they had betrayed.  And they had betrayed them, these dependents, carers, lovers, they had all been betrayed by the illness that had consumed their families.

It was the first time in a long time that Jess felt she might just be with people who understood how her hurt mind worked.  Maybe in this white room in a facility in Sussex she would find her redemption.  Maybe she could find a way back to her life and her children.

Her recovery was painful at times.  Frustrated she would scream and shout at her therapist.  The anger she was so familiar with would rise up and explode out of her mouth in torrents of abuse.  She would experience the high this provided, she would writhe in the fix of self expression, until, as always she would collapse in a heap of shame and guilt.  But it was different here.  The guilt didn’t have the same sharp claws, she could shrug it off more easily.  She could consign it to a part of her mind and file under ‘recovery’.  The therapists were kind, they understood this was a process, they encouraged it.  She would recall that she felt a genuine freedom at The Lavender House, freedom to shout, scream, cry, wail and collapse.  There was no shame here, no guilt.  Only understanding and talking, if she wanted it.

Of course there were drugs too.  She was medicated at night time, when her demons would rise up from the depths of her soul and try to reclaim her.  They were bound up in a fog of Temazepam at night.  But during the day her anger was encouraged, it was fortunate, they said, that she could feel anger.  It was a good sign.  It meant the tunnels in her brain were rebuilding or realigning or something.  But it was definitely good.  She could believe this when she looked at the poor souls sat hour after hour gently rocking in their favourite chairs.

But Jess was on the mend they said.  She was making progress.  She had shut down, she had broken down but they were helping her get started again, cranking up her mind back to full health.

Today John was due to pick her up, she had seen him four times since she was committed.  She hadn’t seen the children once.  This was normal apparently.  Too much for them to understand, she missed them like she’d miss her arm.

The morning she had been brought here she hadn’t seen the children since the morning before.  She could hear them calling her as she lay in bed unable to move, but she couldn’t get to them, she didn’t see them.  She wondered what was going through their young minds.  How do a two year old and a five year old comprehend that their mother had broken, that she was unable to continue to be their mother.  Their world had it’s own logic, they understood the way the world was.  Josh perhaps more than Lucy, but there was an inate understanding in their forming minds.  Their own tunnels were being built. She had felt no sadness that morning, she had felt nothing, in truth she struggled to remember anything of that day or indeed the few days that followed her committal.  She knew she had been sectioned when she woke up on, what she was later told, was the fourth day.   She had felt the emptiness in the pit of her stomach, then the fear sinking in from all around, suffocating her.  She could hear a strangled shrieking sound enveloping her, it was her own voice of course.

She must have been sedated, calmed down.  She was quiet and sleepy, devoid of feeling.  Maybe that was better, maybe the silent life was easier for her.

But now they had deemed her repaired.  Repaired enough to go home and rest with her family.  She wondered what that meant.  She was a mother now, full time, she needed to learn how to do that.  A great big challenge that rose up and terrified her.  Until she had broken down she had had work to distract her, her reason for not being their mother full time.  But everything had changed now.  She had lost her job, she had lost her mind, she couldn’t lose her family too.

Summoning all the reserves of strength she had built up in these four weeks, she went to wait for John to collect her, to take her back to her life.  She could do this, she would do this.  She would be a mother and a wife again, she wouldn’t let them all down.

She looked out of the window, his car had just turned into the gravel drive.  A small lurch in her stomach, her mouth dry.  She was relieved to feel a glimmer of happiness, of hope as he got out of the car.  His familiar face, his slight frown against the weather.  His unfailing strength and belief in her and their marriage was almost tangible even from this distance.

He looked around and saw her.  Apprehension mingled with relief on his strong face.  She knew it would be alright.

Holly Ward is the mother of two little girls who, along with her full time job, make her life rather wonderful, happy, exhausting and terrifying in equal measure.  Life can get on top of her but writing is the best therapy (and she’s tried a few other kinds!).  She writes to keep the clouds away.  Holly lives in South East England with her children, husband and cat (who is a bit scared of her girls). Visit her blog at http://hollishobby.com.