A Secular Childhood: Letters to My Daughter – no.6 “Mental Health”

I have been struggling with my mental health issues lately, so I feel this letter is really important.

 

Dear daughter,

I have lived with schizoaffective disorder most of my life. Recovery and treatment have taught me to ask for help when I need it.

I hesitated to ask for help for my mental health issues when I was younger, but when I finally asked grandma and grandpa for help, they were right there and with treatment, life got a lot better. I wish I would have addressed my problems sooner. If you ever need help, I will be there for you, too.

I also had a destructive secret as a teenager and young adult — I was struggling with an eating disorder. What started out as skipping meals sometimes as a teen turned into a daily cycle of binging and fasting. Then when I got older I abused diet pills and laxatives. 

As you know me today, I’m no longer obsessed with restrictive diets or weight. In fact, I’ve gained a lot of weight with years of taking medications for schizoaffective disorder. My eating disorder is easier to cope with now that my other mental health issues have been addressed. I’m not saying things are perfect — just easier.

Food still causes me anxiety. I’m a picky eater often scared to eat at other people’s houses or restaurants I don’t know. I tend to eat the same foods over and over again. Sometimes I feel like these behaviors are the “leftovers” of my eating disorder and I really don’t know if they will ever change. Dad and I hope that you don’t inherit these habits.

I never want you to go down the same road I did. Always speak up if you are not feeling well — physically or emotionally. I understand how hard it is, but you really aren’t alone. We all need help sometimes and know that help is available. You don’t have to suffer. I will always support you and help you in any way I can. 

Every day you see me take pills for schizoaffective disorder; I will be taking pills for the rest of my life. It might sound discouraging, but I feel it is a small price to pay to live with fewer symptoms. Just like everyone else, my mental health symptoms are exasperated with stress, so it’s important that we all know our limits and when to say “no”. 

Unfortunately, considering your genetics, you are predisposed to mental health issues, but you should know by now that it’s not the end of the world. I’ve had a lot of success and happiness in my life despite having a serious mental illness. You are a part of that.

Take care of yourself mentally and physically. I will always be here for you.

Love,
Mom

Making Progress on My Mental Illness Book

Sorry, I haven’t posted for a while. 

For the past few months, I have been writing a book about my experience as an atheist with a mental illness. I’ve had a lot of ideas for the past few weeks as well as a lot of drive, so I just went for it — even though it meant neglecting my blog for a couple of weeks. I’ve been writing my butt off and I’m happy to say I’ve made a lot of progress, but I’ve also learned a lot about writing, myself, and recovery. I always think of myself learning from projects at work or school, but gaining knowledge and experience from writing this book, a project of my own doing,  has given me a sense of independence, and it’s empowering.

In the book, I write a lot about my eating disorder which has painful and at times confusing — like I just can’t put my thoughts and emotions into words. I gave a few pages to my husband to read hoping he could shine a light on the places where I was having difficulty, however, he thought it was really good, and to my surprise, those few pages gave him some much-needed insight. He didn’t realize the depths of my eating disorder at its current state. I’m not doing anything dangerous, but I have a lot of weird habits that range from annoying to dysfunctional. He said he’d be more gentle when reacting to my behaviors toward eating.

Then there’s writing about my schizoaffective disorder — which I’ve done so many times before. There have been points where I felt like I was just spewing out information, but now I working on telling a story — creating visuals and making it interesting. I try to give as many details as possible — especially when discussing psychosis — in hopes of showing the true nature of mental illness and recovery.

This book has been revealing — even to myself as the author. It’s really making me examine where I stand in my recovery. I didn’t plan this project too far in advance, but it really feels like it’s something I need to do right now, not just for writing, but also for my life — how am I doing and where am I going? This has been a very rewarding project and I can’t wait to see what the end product will look like.

I will keep you updated and post again soon. I hope you are all doing well!

Recovery Anniversary — Bulimic But Almost An Atheist

Monday was the 16th anniversary of my admission to an eating disorder clinic. I was only 21 and completely exhausted when admitted. With blood, sweat, and tears (lots of tears), the clinic kick-started my recovery, and after my five-week stay, I emerged as a grounded atheist with newfound curves and the potential for a future.

The clinic functioned on strict rules and schedules. Patients were monitored at all times — even in the bathroom. After a few weeks of healthy meals, my body began to change, but there were even more changes to come.

I met with a psychiatrist at the clinic and was diagnosed with bulimia nervosa. Soon after, psychotic and mood symptoms unrelated to the eating disorder prompted a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder.

With bulimia, I knew I was sick. I knew the behaviors were harmful and did them anyway. It had been going on for years. But with schizoaffective disorder, I didn’t know what I was experiencing was a mental illness.

I had always questioned the existence of god, but at the same time, I was experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations that I assumed were spiritual in nature. I thought I could communicate with dead people. I was always looking for an explanation and that’s the best I had — the only thing that made any bit of sense to me. I never considered it an illness. In fact, sometimes I considered it a gift. 

I came to the clinic *almost* an atheist — I didn’t believe in god and the hallucinations were the only thing tying me to any sort of spirituality. Enter Risperdal — the first antipsychotic I was ever prescribed. It kicked in after a few days and everything became quiet and still. It felt unreal, but to my amazement, it really was real.

That was the final nail in the coffin to any spirituality I had and I declared myself an atheist. What a freeing moment.

Today I live a really normal life despite occasionally struggling with my eating disorder and schizoaffective disorder. My symptoms certainly don’t pack the punch they used to, and I can move on pretty quickly after experiencing them. I have lots of help — my family is always around and I have an amazing doctor that I have seen for over a decade.

Every year on September 7th, I find a small way to celebrate my clinic admission day. I’ve come a long way.

 

Disclosure

So here’s a scary thought — I came to this realization while working on my book yesterday about being an atheist with a mental illness:

I am way more willing to share the details of my mental illness than to disclose that I’m an atheist. Even though telling someone you’ve struggled with psychosis is some pretty heavy information, I feel I am more likely to face discrimination and ridicule as an atheist than as someone with a mental illness. It’s just the reality of where I live and work.

I wish I could be open about both — especially since being an atheist has had such a profound impact on my recovery. I feel atheists and believers alike need to hear that story.

I have schizoaffective disorder and have been in treatment for years. I have no problem telling people about my recovery, but it’s only been recently that I’ve told anyone about being an atheist.

Does anyone have a similar experience?

 

Does anyone have any experience with AA?

I am working on my book about being an atheist with a mental illness, and in my 17 years of recovery from schizoaffective disorder and an eating disorder, I have noticed a lot of recovery or support programs have a spiritual aspect to them. Almost like you have to have a spiritual side to have any sort of balance in your life. I have included thoughts on this in my book.

I recently read in another book about an atheist not feeling welcome at Alcoholics Anonymous. I decided to check out the famous 12 steps online and I was shocked. God’s all over those steps. I thought maybe I was looking at an outdated document but apparently not.

Just for fun, I wrote my own 12 steps with more empowerment and less god. I’m trying to decide if I should include it in the book.

Does anyone have any experience with AA that they’re willing to share? Not for my book but just for my own curiosity.

A Painful Lesson When You Have a Mental Illness

I’ve been feeling really well and my medications are working. I’m on a good streak right now symptom-wise, but still, on this beautiful summer day, I came home early from work and puked (unintentionally). It’s been a stressful week and apparently, I had met my physical limit. My husband was in a car accident two days ago, and while he’s okay, there’s still a lot we have to take care of. On top of the accident, we had some unexpected expenses this week causing financial stress. As soon as I puked I felt better, but that doesn’t erase everything hanging over my head right now.

I have painfully learned that medications don’t make life easier; they are there to improve your functioning. Hopefully, with better functioning, you can face stressful situations from a more stable place, but medications will not protect you from the unexpected ups and downs of life.

Sometimes it’s hard to see the line between mental illness and the normal human experience, but today it was quite clear. When my head ends up over the toilet it’s time to take a step back and breathe.

Even though medications aren’t going to make my life easier right now, they are still working and I am grateful for that. Symptoms are often caused by stress so if I wasn’t taking my medication, it could be so much worse. This is that place of stability I was talking about.

It’s a common problem among people in recovery — identifying what’s situational and what’s symptomatic. I don’t have a good answer for that, but chances are you will experience both.

I know in my case, taking my medications without fail will give me a better shot at overcoming whatever life throws at me. It’s just I realize that life won’t ever stop throwing things at me. It’s not just me. It’s everyone.

6 Lessons Learned from a Secular Recovery

In my early twenties, I sought help for an eating disorder. I spent five weeks at a treatment center where I went through a refeeding process and can to terms with my illness. Later I was also diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. I still take medication to lessen my mood and psychotic symptoms, but it’s actually been a long time since I’ve had any symptoms. 

Today, after years of recovery, I have a very nice life. I’ve been working in the mental health field since 2006 and I tend to be a cheerleader for those in recovery. If I can do it, they sure as hell can.

One thing I don’t get to talk about very often is how being an atheist has been beneficial to my recovery. I run into a lot of vocal religious people in this field and I’d really like the chance to share my story.

So I’m writing a book! Here’s a little taste.

 

6 Lessons Learned from a Secular Recovery

  1. Mental illnesses are medical disorders that require medical treatment. Taking my medication is a very simple thing I can do to give myself a better life. 
  2. Give yourself credit. God didn’t do it — you did. While you’re at it, give your doctor, science, and your support team credit, too. There’s so much that goes into each individual recovery and god has absolutely nothing to do with it.
  3. Humans are strong and resilient. I don’t find strength in god, I find it in myself. I’m independent, capable, and responsible for my actions. When it comes to recovery you can praise god or curse the devil, but it doesn’t really matter. Ultimately we have to rely on ourselves.
  4. A belief in a higher power is not necessary for recovery (even though many say it is). I’m doing really well despite (or maybe because of) the absence of spirituality.
  5. There is no guilt, shame, or punishment in having a mental illness. Recognize the illness for what it is — a medical disorder. Receiving a diagnosis is absolutely no fault of your own. I am responsible for my wellness — not my illness.
  6. Be open to change. In recovery, we explore, evolve, and find what makes us happy.

 

Before coming to Freethought Blogs, I was writing for a popular mental health site, healthyplace.com. There were strict rules there and I wasn’t able to share my story as an atheist in recovery. I’m so glad I’m now at a place where I can open up about my recovery and not leave any of the important parts out.

Conservative Christian Roommates

I don’t know why, but today I was thinking about some roommates my husband and I had early in our marriage. Spoiler alert: It didn’t work out well.

I really don’t know why my husband and I thought this was a good idea, but several years ago we rented a house with another married couple. My husband and the other man were coworkers. They were only in their early twenties — about ten years younger than us.

All of us were hurting financially and living in the suburbs. The plan was to rent a house in Toledo where the cost of living was considerably lower and split all the bills. The idea looked good on paper.

Problems started not long after moving in together. Besides being arrogant Christians, they were disgusting. I can handle a cluttered house, but they were leaving trash and dirty dishes everywhere. What was even more disturbing was their poor personal hygiene. I wasn’t expecting any of that.

Back to the Christian part. They were that kind of people that talk about the “sanctity of marriage” and how it’s a holy institution. They weren’t shy in sharing that they were virgins when they got married.

My husband and I lived together before getting married in Las Vegas. We’re not Christian (obviously) and our marriage was just a fun celebration of our love. It is a great memory that we share, but it wasn’t a necessity for our relationship.

Our roommates were just so staunch and arrogant in their beliefs that we were surprised to find out that they got married so that they could get more financial aid money. They were both in college at the time. They had planned a big wedding but got married at the courthouse just in time to be considered independent students on their FAFSA for the school year.

What happened to that holy institution and getting married in your family’s church? Apparently that all goes down the drain when you wave money in front of them. This wouldn’t have bothered me if they hadn’t spent so much time talking about how special and holy marriage is.

The arrogance and hypocrisy were relentless. There were lots of comments made that bothered us, but the marriage thing was definitely the most annoying.

Kinda weird — when they prayed before meals it really bothered me. They spoke so highly and were so proud of their beliefs, but when they prayed before meals, they held hands and quickly and quietly recited a short prayer in a monotone voice. I honestly couldn’t make out everything they were saying, but it seemed like the same thing every time. It was obviously just a meaningless routine for them. I guess I was expecting more from them since their Christian beliefs were so important to them.

Needless to say, they moved out and we all moved on. I learned later that they got a divorce soon after. No surprise there.

I sometimes think about them and wonder what they’re doing now. Are they different? They’ve been through a lot and they were so young back then. I’m just curious if their beliefs have changed.

Have you ever met people that are so ridiculous that you can’t believe it’s real? That’s how I felt.

I still wish them well. I remember what I was like in my early twenties and I wouldn’t have wanted to live with me. Chances are they’ve grown up.

Sharpies Mend My Brain (And I’m Not Alone)

I work as an artist and mental health advocate and my work is very important to me. I am staying home right now due to the COVID-19 outbreak and I am really missing my job. I want to share with you a little article I wrote about my work.

 

Mental Illness and the arts seem to go hand-in-hand. Makes sense. Deep emotions. Losing touch with reality. It seems like all the greats were afflicted. However, this article is not about the greats; it focuses on the everyday life of everyday people struggling with mental health issues.

I always carry big purses so I can take Sharpies and paper everywhere. Waiting at a doctor’s office? Draw with Sharpies. Slow day at work? Sharpies. Sneaking away for a quiet moment alone at a family get-together? Definitely Sharpies.

It wasn’t that long ago that Sharpies were my lifeline. I was isolated — stuck in a different world — when I was experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations. I discovered art was a way I could communicate what I was experiencing. Everyone else got to see the world I was stuck in. Over time, I didn’t feel so isolated anymore.

A couple of drawings turned into dozens of drawings. I really loved creating them but I also needed something to do with them. Maybe this was my passion so I took it up a notch and started entering exhibitions. I let everyone into my world of living with schizoaffective disorder.

Art gives me purpose. It calms me and boosts my confidence. It’s part of my identity now. What started as a tool to cope with mental health symptoms has now become a way of life. So why not make a career out of it?

I love participating in exhibitions, but I feel the experiences that influence the artwork are just as important as the piece itself. My art is a part of my story and vice versa. I’ve learned that I can use my story to help others and I was searching for an opportunity to make that happen.

And I found it right here in my own community.

I now run a small arts center that is part of a local nonprofit helping the homeless. The participants at the center are all struggling with mental health and addiction issues. I facilitate art groups for the participants and our time together feels magical. The atmosphere is supportive and we bond. Our artwork is everything from a distraction from life to a way to express our symptoms. Whatever role artwork plays for the participants, it is an obvious driving force in their recovery. 

The participants come from all walks of life. It is very clear that mental illness and addiction do not discriminate. We find common ground in our daily battles. Then we make those battles beautiful, thought-provoking works of art.

We hold our art groups in a small space near downtown. It’s bright and welcoming with tall windows allowing lots of natural light to flood the room. Canvases line the window sills because there’s just not enough space on the wall. There are colors and emotions everywhere you look. It’s a new location for us but it already feels like home.

Sharpies still hold a special place in my heart and I make sure there’s plenty of them at the center. Sharpies are unforgiving and require very deliberate lines. However, their colors are bold, stark against the paper, and beautiful. I see my recovery (and the participants’) in every stroke. 

 

I hope you are all well during this crisis.

“Psychotic” doesn’t mean what you think it means.

I see it everywhere but especially on Facebook — people using the term “psychotic” to describe someone that’s angry, violent, or out of control. 

I’ve been psychotic many times and I am absolutely none of the above. I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in my early twenties and psychosis is one of the main symptoms. 

Psychosis actually refers to having hallucinations and delusions, not anger or violence.

Personally, I experience visual and auditory hallucinations that leave me feeling anxious, distracted, and sometimes isolated –probably the exact opposite of how people describe someone as “psychotic”.

The term “psychotic” is extremely stigmatizing when used incorrectly. Having a mental illness is hard enough and stigma just makes the stress — and asking for help — even more difficult.

So now you know. Please speak with care.