DO OTHERS NOTICE I am sometimes strange? My husband -- from whom I'm separated -- does, and says others comment on the fact; but I can't trust his opinions anymore because everything I do, he sees as a manifestation of my illness.
Today I got up, methodically dressed and had breakfast. Then I went to the health club for exercise class and a workout on the machines. When I got home, I bathed, dressed, had a quick lunch and went to my job as a library assistant at a nearby university. After work I went to classes, where I'm studying for a master's degree in library science.
To me, this is a remarkable achievement.
Two years ago, I was a psychotic who couldn't decide what -- if anything -- to do first in the morning. I was enthralled by my own thinking processes, the greatest wonder in the world. Other people were unnecessary to my existence. I never felt lonely -- only alone. My thoughts whirled and spun with amazing celerity. I couldn't control or stop them.
Sitting in my apartment for days on end, I only went out for food (I never kept more food around than needed for one meal at a time; I don't know why -- I guess I was afraid I would eat too much) and a daily walk. The only contact I had was with my estranged husband, who constantly checked on me to see if I was all right.
I never cleaned my apartment or did the dishes. I never made my bed or took a bath. My own brain was too fascinating to allow for mundane house-keeping chores. As a matter of fact, I didn't even see the dirt in my apartment, even when it was pointed out to me.
Obviously, the situation couldn't continue. I was hospitalized against my own wishes. Six weeks later, though, I was deemed ready to face the world again. Now I was supposed to take responsibility for myself and for my own actions.
What I've discovered is that regaining my sanity is like recovering from a broken arm. Once the cast is off you may need physical therapy for tasks as trivial as squeezing a rubber ball or shaking hands. So it is with psychosis -- normal behavior and thinking must be relearned, and it takes a constant effort of will to resist wallowing in my delusions.
The moment that my recovery began was a month before my release. I was sitting in the hospital lounge, thinking about my grandmother, still strong and vigorous at 86. I just thought, am I going to be like her or not? I looked around at the other patients and decided that I simply did not want to find myself grown old and back in this hospital for the 50th time.
Nonetheless, when I got out of the hospital I felt totally helpless, even though my by- then-enstranged husband was willing to help me get reoriented with real life. (My psychosis had destroyed my marriage. No one can live with someone who is on a weird cloud of her own making one day and a cursing, screaming, demanding shrew the next.)
There are organizations, day hospitals that help; they may even find one a place to live and a job. But they can't find a home for your heart. They can't make you comfortable with yourself.
The first shock was that re-entering adulthood didn't make me happy. It depressed me. Medication had slowed my brain's workings. Time slowed to an agonizing pace. My mind could no longer be occupied with its own workings. I was frightened. I wanted to return to my old habits, roaming the streets to look for God knows what. Sometimes my mind was blank. I rushed to fill those spaces up -- with food. I gained weight. Part of this was boredom, part was due to the lithium and Mellaril I took.
As an arrogant psychotic, I had demanded attention from shopkeepers. Now I feared they would ignore me; I was too bland to get attention. Or would they, like the people at my job, just think I was eccentric?
I lost my arrogance to gain only fear. I had to force myself to leave my apartment, and a few times I failed. Life frightened me as it never had before. I feared being raped or robbed, getting lost in the streets, getting hurt in an accident. Now I double-locked my door and fastened the chain -- when I was sick, I never bothered with it.
The worst fear was death. Before I got sick I hadn't thought much about it. Then I believed my mind (not my soul or my body) was immortal -- I had taken terrible risks, darting in front of traffic or standing on the edge of the subway platform, to prove my assumption true.
Suddenly I was terrified of dying, of the risks we take daily in our lives. I feared doing anything without my husband to protect me. None of these fears is unreal, but the amount that I worried was -- especially since during my illness I had been relatively fearless in going after something I wanted. The awareness of my mortality had an impact on me as if I were going through a middle-age crisis slightly before middle age.
I was sorry, too, to see the dirt in my apartment. For when I tried to clean, I found that I had forgotten how. I only made things worse, rubbing the dirt in deeper, instead of making it disappear. Deciding instead to straighten things up, I found I was only shifting items from place to place and not putting them away. In frustration, I gave up and my hard-pressed husband hired a maid to help me learn. Very gradually, I assumed the burden of doing some of my own cleaning and my own laundry.
Why I had to relearn all of this is still a puzzle to me. Before my illness, I was a perfectionist; everything had to be in place. The bathroom especially had to be kept sparkling, with the kitchen coming in a close second. I was a spotless housewife. What had changed?
Part of the answer to this question may lie in one's purpose in living. I did all those things not for myself but for someone else -- first my mother and later for my husband. What I did for myself was useless -- locking myself in rooms to think and find peace, a practice that had led to psychosis.
Now, with new therapy (and I had spent 10 years gradually deteriorating to psychosis in therapy in the past) I saw that I had based my existence on the good intentions of others for me. I also saw that basing it on one's own welfare is hard. No one pushes you, no one sets goals for you, no one tries to keep you amused during moments of leisure time.
Like the cleaning I gradually assumed this burden. For the first time in four years, I had a job (only a part-time job, but a real job); I opened my first bank account. Then I started exercising at the health club in the morning. And I joined a single's dining-out group, with the hopes of making connections with friends as well as lovers. I started work on another college degree.
I kept complaining to my doctor that I was just not the same to myself or to others as I was before I ever got sick. I expected to be completely well, and I wasn't yet. He explained it was common not to feel normal at that stage, especially among those with subtle psychoses (not florid hallucinations). Most people never feel totally normal again and the doctor urged me to be the one to break the barrier.
The one nagging problem I have is with my memory. Either my illness or my medications destroyed it. I can't remember names or faces or books that I read. This is embarrassing, but I don't go off my medications; I tried and symptoms begin.
Sometimes I doubt that any of these changes is an improvement; sometimes I wonder if being "normal" is worth it. Trivial tasks of life, such as taking out the garbage, seem like major undertakings. Sometimes I still get confused in the mornings and can't decide what my morning routine should be. Then I wonder if I'll ever be normal.
Still, I think I've won my battle. My therapist says I havereturned to normal after a psychotic break, that I conquered the depression that follows it and that I don't even have the traits of a personality disorder that sometimes follows such an episode.
But even more rewarding to me was my head librarian's comments recently: "When you were first here, you were way up in the air somewhere. Your personality has changed 180 degrees. Now you laugh, you talk, you get along. You're normal."
Maybe she's right. Maybe expecting life to be the same as it was before is too much to ask. For life is change. Change -- and growth -- is what's normal.
It may be an effort made in vain, of course. Another thing I learned is that there are no guarantees in life. Therapists may overuse this phrase to triteness, but I no longer doubt its veracity. I worked hard for other things in the past and failed to get them. And I reacted by getting angry and depressed. Now my reaction was puzzlement. I guess I knew life was like that, but somehow never really accepted it. But at the moment, my problem was -- if this is so, why try anything at all?
My therapist's answer? It lifts your self- esteem, occupies your time, improves the quality of life, and opens up the possibility of change for the good. No matter how many times a week I think of just crawling back into bed forever and giving up, thinking about these hopes keeps me going.