Vivid Memories of My Recovery Journey with Anxiety and Schizoaffective Disorder (Part 2)
by Leif Gregersen
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In my younger days, not understanding religion, I studied philosophy and psychology, seeking the incredible feeling one gets when new knowledge and new ideas change the way one looks at the world. For a while, I had a very hard time accepting any belief in God, the devil, spirits, or Jesus. Then after some former friends played a humiliating joke on me, I looked up and recited a poem in the Satanic Bible for revenge. I learned later the instigators of the joke got into a serious car accident at the same time I had read it. As soon as I learned about the accident, I was convinced there had to be a devil, and it scared me. If there was truthfully an evil in the world, there had to be a good and I wanted to be on the good side. Hearing about that accident was a spiritual awakening which led me to seek out an all-powerful, all-loving God.
I would have put all that to one side, but when I ended up experiencing psychosis and having delusions and hallucinations that seemed so real, I was further convinced that there was more in this world than just what appears to us on the surface. After my wandering days of denial and shame were done, and I had accepted my illness and medication, I attended churches and studied the bible. I went to many churches, but felt I needed some firmer footing, something that would change me from within. I went to a Buddhist temple in Edmonton, right in my neighbourhood and was trained in meditation.
Finding the inner peace and happiness that Buddhism led me to was the biggest influence in my life up to that point. I learned that we all have something called a “monkey mind.” Our thoughts run around and grab things and get tired of them and drop them, run off and go on to other thoughts. Meditation, and mindfulness are ways of seeking to tame the monkey, to find peace and joy in just being alone with clear thoughts, a desire to be kind, and a sense of peace and joy.
Meditation was a wonderful, healing experience, but I sought out other things to feed my spirit and let me practise what the Buddhists call mindfulness. I learned that, if I got into reading, spent time taking care of my sister’s daughter or her dogs, write or take pictures, I could get out of my head and nurture the same mental clarity meditation gave me. I also found that mindfulness could replace the key aspect of 12-step meetings. Mental clarity was the spiritual transformation so many people in the meetings had told me I needed to find.
In addition to finding a new, high paying job and meeting some wonderful people, I also got serious about writing. I found so much joy in composing poetry and finding places to read my work for an audience. It seemed a natural extension of learning about writing to learn how to use a digital camera. Now, the most important mindfulness technique I use is just walking as much as five miles a day with a camera. I try to find new ways to explore places I have already been, and at the end of each day I post my photos online, simply to share my joy of the beauty in this world. What is amazing about Edmonton is, we have four distinct seasons, and all of them are lovely in their own way. I walk from suburb to cityscape, always thinking about the light, the angles, the shadows, the structures, and colors. When I walk, my mind doesn’t wander to past mistakes.
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As a youth, so much of my life was wasted drinking, smoking cigarettes, playing pinball, video games, and watching TV. I was angry, scared and alone. Then came the darkest time of my life. At eighteen, my mind took a sharp turn for the worse. Perhaps stress from working nights, going to school all day, and facing extreme pressure to move out pushed me over the brink. I slowly drifted away from reality, and it all came to a head, not long after I walked away from my grocery job. I picked a fight in school, lipped off my administrators, and was arrested. The police took me to the psychiatric hospital where I was treated against my will.
Although the hospital helped me, I still lost everything when I went there. I left that place in denial of the inevitability of having delusions and hallucinations and my need to take medication. After months in hospital, I no longer had any money, a car, a job, I was kicked out of school and no longer had a place to live. Then, I found something in my life that transcended all the things I once cared about. I discovered flying. It was so incredible to soar among the clouds and witness the majesty of the Earth from above. I even enrolled in commercial pilot’s school, but due to mental illness I was unable to pass the medical. I was devastated.
Now, as I interact with and live among people I have come to know for years, and as I am shown respect for creating things sometimes beautiful, sometimes entertaining, I have found new meaning and purpose to my life. I teach creative writing in a psychiatric hospital; I have public speaking engagements and sell my books. I have been able to write about things that change minds, improve lives and in practising “photography mindfulness” I found new beauty in everything around me. Best of all, I know so many people loneliness is in the past. Becoming a part of something larger than myself is so incredibly important to my recovery. I couldn’t be happier as a pilot or as a millionaire, mental illness or not.
Above all, I must keep my spirit nourished. I do this as I go about my day, when I stop to talk with people in the community I live in, and when I do what I feel are the most important things in my life, decreasing the stigma and increasing awareness of mental illness. I know that each time I enter my apartment building, I will run into my friend Daniel, who is an African refugee and has a wonderful outlook on life and an infectious smile. When I walk in the neighbourhood, I look forward to when I can talk to my incredibly intelligent pastor who is from the same country my dad grew up in, Denmark. If I want to find a book to read, there is a little free library box just a block away and each time I go there, the woman who owns it waves and smiles from her living room. These small contacts, these heartfelt conversations are a balm to my soul. Once, I thought it was wasteful for my dad to spend so much time to stop and talk with his friends at his business and when we went anywhere, but I have learned that these connections with others are so important to mental health and to living a successful, healthy, and productive life.
It has now been three years since I was last in the hospital. Due to a bad reaction to a medication, I slipped back into psychosis after believing it could never happen again. Going in the hospital with a psychiatric disorder is never easy and leaving care is another big adjustment. This time I had invested in good friends and solid relationships, and it paid high dividends. Even though I was in psychosis, back to having delusions and hallucinations, so many people supported me and came to visit which made going through a difficult time so much easier. Twenty-one years ago, when I was in the hospital for six months, my only visitor was my dad and each hour, each minute just dragged along, though he tried to come every day. Now the roles have been reversed and my dad is in the hospital with dementia, and I am his sole caregiver. Living by feeding my spirit, always putting the Buddhist principles to work of mindfulness and kindness to others has allowed me to regain control of my own money, to be able to live on my own and thrive, not just survive. And it has made me happy beyond measure.
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