Vivid Memories of My Recovery Journey with Anxiety and Schizoaffective Disorder (Part 1)
by Leif Gregersen
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Somehow, numerous incidents in the past stand out, possibly because I often replay pivotal moments in my mind. Basically, I spend a lot of time alone with my own thoughts and replay some life events over and over. What is happening is I remember something I recall remembering. One of my more vivid memories was of grade one when a classmate got caught skipping school. Everything about that day stands out, I even remember thinking that, if she got into this big of trouble in grade one; she would never make it through all twelve grades.
After twenty-five years passed, I was delighted to hear she had successfully graduated high school and completed four years of university and had become a teacher. I jumped at the chance to call her up, joke with her and congratulate her. At times like that, my memory is a joy. But the truth is, having almost total recall of certain events can be a curse. When I am alone or doing mindless work, I often replay interactions I have had with people over and over, seeking out anything I did or said wrong upon which to perseverate. A lot of the time, my self-conscious brain invents something I think I still need to be ashamed of. Remembering events and conversations is worst when I think back to the time when I spent six months in a place that was meant to heal, but instead traumatized me horribly. It was a psychiatric hospital where no one, not the staff and not the patients, believed I had any potential to make it in the outside world or even ever leave the hospital.
One day, I walked down the hallway of the hospital ward, and the patterns in the tiles seemed to speak to me, taking on a life of their own. My delusional (and under-medicated) mind interpreted what I saw as a special message representing a force of supreme evil. I imagined I was having a premonition of a new rise of Nazism. I even called my dad and told him get my Danish aunt and uncle out of Europe. The only way I have been able to stop remembering these thoughts is by using redirecting thoughts. To stop dwelling on something, I must think of something else that moves me and is more powerful than the thought I am attempting to stop. I might think of a supermodel or a time when I was most happy. The thought I try to redirect myself to when I think of my traumatic hospital stay is a pivotal moment from a trip to Hawaii when I realized I had overcome the trauma of mental illness and the treatment one often receives as a result of poor mental health.
I had just said or did the wrong thing and the staff felt obligated to punish me with the one thing I hated the most. I was laying on a cold floor in the isolation room and had been there for hours, bored out of my mind. To me, it was cruel and unusual punishment, especially for someone who did little more than smoke, eat, pace, watch TV. There wasn’t anything in the room to keep my mind occupied, not even a simple radio built into the wall like they have in prisons. I was experiencing severe psychosis. This meant my whole perception of reality was skewed. I saw myself as being persecuted and bullied. When one was put in isolation, you just had to lay there until staff decided you had been there long enough. Often, I would scream and kick at the door. After months of daily isolation punishment, my will was broken. They had won. This time in isolation, though, I decided to think about my desperate situation.
What I thought about was simply this: “I’m here and it’s horrible. I can’t stand this place and I am being treated unfairly. But even if I’m here for years, this won’t go on forever. One day this will be over, I will be home and able to drink all the coffee and read all the books I want. All I must do is survive.” That was enough to give me the will to take the abuse and not lash out, which would have only extended it. I started out trying to be more polite and behaved. Then, a recreation therapist started taking me for walks on the grounds of the hospital. That was such a healing activity and it helped motivate me to not do anything to go back into the isolation room and have those outdoor privileges revoked. Soon, the staff started talking about discharging me. Around that time, my medication finally began to take effect and one day by sheer luck a new doctor was taking my regular doctor’s patients and he transferred me to a normal ward, away from the locked ward I had spent five months on. If these things hadn’t happened, I shudder to think of how long I may have stayed in there, being put in isolation day after day.
One of the things that was critical about leaving the hospital was that I ended up in a group home in a beautiful part of Edmonton. It wasn’t the white middle class area I grew up in and was used to, it was a working-class neighbourhood near shelters and soup kitchens. There were so many incredible people taking part in my recovery. Years back, I had the option to go to a group home, but I didn’t like the people who owned the homes, the neighbourhoods they were in, and I didn’t trust the owners to provide for my needs. Private group homes are all too often a homeowner’s way of paying their mortgage. When I left the hospital after six months, I spent two months in the worst group home imaginable. The landlady was demanding and greedy, I was forced to help maintain her property and the food was barely edible. After an argument with her that ended with me calling the police, she lied about me, and the constable told me I would be the one to be arrested if the situation deteriorated. I needed to get out. My social worker found a group home run by a reputable charity, and I jumped at the opportunity.
As a low-needs resident, I was placed in an unsupervised house with three roommates. At first, the other clients seemed frightening. One of them would yell nonsense out loud. Another was visibly dirty and didn’t bathe. I thought I would have to move out on my own, that I would never adjust, but I settled in and soon realized I had a lot in common with the people there. I felt bad because I was 30, long past the age where I should have judged anyone by how they looked or acted, instead of by the simple fact that they were human beings with flaws just like me and just like any human being. And when I started to accept the other residents with a better attitude, almost all of them were more than willing to treat me with kindness and respect. For a person with a mental illness, acceptance like that is like a soothing balm to your spirit.
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In addition to meals and medications, the staff often took us out for movies and to play sports. I was building a proper life, doing better than I had for years. Although we weren’t supervised, we had to show up at the main house for our medications and supper and they made sure we went to all our appointments. I spent my time feeding my spirit. I had a lot of healing to do. I would go for long walks in Edmonton’s beautiful River Valley with my dad, I read every John Steinbeck book I could find. Sometimes I simply laid on the couch and drank in the peace and quiet. I made close friends of two staff members and some of the other residents.
When I first left the hospital, I was a wreck. I had very little money and just about everything I owned was put into an inaccessible storage closet. One of the critical things about that time was that I hadn’t yet adjusted to my medications. Additionally, my hospital stay had broken my will, and I could barely speak up for himself or live independently. I had even been assigned a trustee who took control of my disability payments, paid my rent, and sent me a pittance every week.
Not everything was perfect, but there was a lot of good in that group home. One of the problems I had was I constantly wanted to go out at night to find excitement. I started to gamble again, just for the rush. I was lucky enough to be able to access twelve-step groups to help me stop but for a while I was gambling until my last penny was gone. As far as the excitement went, I realized that I was doing these things, going out, going to bars to gamble on video lottery machines, taking the bus to shop for books in hopes of meeting people, all because of my loneliness, and my desire to meet a potential partner. Soon, I learned I was much better off establishing a proper routine that would allow me to do things more connected to the outside world. Going out all the time and seeking excitement was just like when I went out to gamble or go to bars to numb myself with alcohol and try and meet women. Taking a hard look at who I was as a person, as I was simply eating and sleeping, I realized if I wanted to be able to establish healthy relationships, I needed to stop going out at night wandering around, and do something different.
I needed to find honest work or a volunteer job and to start engaging in the kinds of activities where I would really get to know someone and find people who had their lives together. I decided to bring about a real change there was a lot of work I needed to do on myself and that it would help if I had a job. Working would keep me in better shape, allow me to do things and afford things, and to set goals that would motivate me to get up early and face the day, and give me a better outlook since I would have something to look forward to. It simply didn’t make sense to sleep in all the time expecting something different to happen in my life. After working for a while I also took advantage of some free courses available through my local library.
I started going to bed early so I could wake up and go and line up for temporary labour work. It was back-breaking and, sometimes, I would go there at four a.m. and never get sent out on a job, other times I would work and injure my back and be laid up for days. But having a bit of money helped and so did learning new things about warehouses and construction sites. It also helped me get in shape, and as I began to walk more and work out with weights, everything about my life seemed to get better. Eventually I found a job as a security guard. This was an almost magical time because I was able to save money and take a plane trip across the country to visit my sister. It was my first time in Ontario, which was a magical place for a prairie boy from a small city.
My security job also did something miraculous. I was working at a palliative care hospital, and I met a nurse who was beautiful, sweet, funny, and kind. I couldn’t say if I had a crush on her or if I was in love, but for a while she was all I could think about. Then I found out she was married with three kids, and I stepped out of the picture. I could never feel good being in a relationship that affected the wellbeing of children. I also didn’t want to influence someone to break a lifetime commitment. Still, I took every chance I got to spend time with her, but only as friends.
I did manage to get a handle on my gambling, and I went to other twelve-step groups that helped me talk things out and listen to others. I found if I went to as many meetings as possible, I could manage to not gamble between meetings. The essential thing I learned from that experience was that it only takes a few weeks to change a habit, but I had something deeper in me that paved the way for the habit. I also learned my gambling addiction was due to seeking a rush of adrenalin and endorphins. A close friend told me if I didn’t bring about a change in the spiritual aspect of my life, even if I quit one thing, I would fall into another addiction. After a whole year of daily meetings, I realized that I had changed my habits enough and stopped attending them. But I did feel that there were things I needed to do to maintain my abstinence. As my friend advised, I became even more of a spiritual seeker than I ever had been before.
EDITOR IN CHIEF / EDITOR: Gabriel Nathan | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PUBLISHER: Bud Clayman
See Related Recovery Stories: Anxiety, Mental Health Aloud, Mental Health First Person Essays, Schizoaffective Disorder, Schizophrenia