Defining Success

Elyn Saks, the J.D. law professor who has schizophrenia and wrote a memoir, is billed as a “celebrity.”

I find it curious that people revere a person who has ongoing major episodes simply because she kept going on numerous drug holidays that failed. She might have obtained degrees from Oxford and Yale yer her family did little else to support her as a younger person.

The reason I talk about this now, the reason I wrote about intrinsic motivators, is because I don’t think the goal is for everyone to become a superstar. I’m not impressed with other people’s on-paper remarkable achievements when they have to live with symptoms every day.

Getting the right treatment right away could enable a person to live symptom-free. I’m not a fan of having to live with symptoms. Most people with ongoing symptoms might not be able to do what Elyn Saks can do so this is another reason her story doesn’t impress me.

The focus on achieving external markers of success (husband and kids, picket fence life, Ivy League pedigree) didn’t appeal to me as a young woman and it doesn’t interest me now.

I want to write about this here because in keeping with the last blog entry I want to limn that traditional markers of success aren’t the only valid accomplishments that anyone should covet claiming, whether or not you have a mental illness.

Each of us can get to the top of our own staircase yet the room on the other side must have a view of the kind of life we’ve expressed is personally meaningful for us. For you, it could be an M.D. For another person, it could be having a career as a chef. Yet another person might want to work at Rite Aid part-time while he collects SSI.

Our family members, others in society, would be wise to champion us in our goals and dreams, as hard as this can be when we’re first starting out and might have reached a plateau. I quoted the professor two months ago in here who said a person who reaches a plateau can then go on to be successful.

Define what success looks like to YOU. Nevermind what others in society think it should look like for you. Nevermind what others in society can achieve.

I’ll end here by confessing I was just as guilty of being skeptical of a young woman who didn’t immediately set out to get a job after she graduated college. A year later she applied to library school and is going to be quite successful in a non-traditional career.

I was just like her when I graduated college: I was a free spirit who didn’t relish the thought of being chained to a desk in a cubicle.

Thus my contention that using only traditional markers of success to define a person’s potential is not right, especially for a person with a mental illness who had a harder stair to climb.

I’m not a special person either. I’m just a person who survived the hell of a mental health system ill-equipped to help a young person like I was in 1987.

I decided I wanted to act as a cheerleader today because back then I had no one on my side except my close-knit family and my private therapist and private doctor.

I fought to create a better life for myself. The stair was steep. And it’s why I cheer on everybody now, circa 2014: it’s too late in the history of psychiatry for providers to keep reinforcing to patients that they won’t be able to do the things they want to in life.

Each of us can do the things we want to in life.

It starts when we stop chasing what other people have and decide to work towards our own version of success.

I have no doubt that the young woman who decided to go to library school will be successful.
I have no doubt that people with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses can be successful.

Dare to Dream. Take the stairs, one step at a time. There is no elevator to success for anyone. That’s the point. It’s not about what’s on the other side. It IS about “the climb.”

(Cue the Miley Cyrus song lyrics.)


No Crystal Stair

Out of the blue one night last week I remembered the words to the Langston Hughes poem, “Mother to Son.”

She told him: “life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” Those words popped into my head over 30 years since I read the poem in high school.

Lnagston Hughes, in my estimation, is one of the greats, not just of the Harlem Renaissance, but of all time. I’ve memorized his poem “Harlem–A Dream Deferred” and can recite it at the drop of a hat.

I wanted to write about this because it seems relevant to recovery. Life isn’t a crystal stair for anyone. Envy serves no purpose. I want to inspire people to dare to dream of having a better life–to go to school or to work, to live in their own apartment or to own a house, to do what anyone without a mental illness does.

If you reach for these things, others might be jealous of you, yet carry on. The stair might be long and hard to walk up to get to where you want to go, yet keep on moving. Another great, Martin Luther King, is quoted: “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.”

Taking the first step is what counts. Even when others try to cut you down.

And if you’re looking at someone else and think he or she has it easy, think again. Are you a mind reader? How do you or I or anyone know what’s going on in another person’s head and life?

Jealousy serves no purpose. Focusing on what other people have or can do doesn’t help you succeed. Strive to do the things you can do instead of harshing on yourself for what you can’t do.

Maximizing our assets instead of trying to correct weaknesses is the only way to live.

Instead of keeping ourselves stuck in a negative thought loop of envious thoughts, we can pick the brains of successful people to see how they did it. Truly accomplished people will harbor no secrets; they want others to follow along in their footsteps. They do this because they realized the secret to making yourself look good is to make the people around you look good.

I say: send the haters packing. Acknowledge that their insecurities come from a place of pain, and have compassion for them. Reach for the stars and settle for the moon. It’s just as easy to dream big as it is to settle for less.

Be grateful for the tacks and threadbare steps. Every effort to climb the stairs counts.

You can get to the top.

Just Do It

I’m fond of the Nike slogan–Just Do It. I have it on a sunny yellow tee shirt with fuchsia and turquoise letters.

Just Do Your Own Thing is more like it. This is easier to do when you remember wellness is not the total absence of illness. I value having a life where I can live as a whole and well person.

This isn’t impossible. It’s possible when we recognize that our health isn’t an “always” well or “never” ill affair. And that allowing ourselves to live in fear of other people’s judgments is no way to live and the quickest way to make ourselves ill.

Ironic, yet true.

We can look to others for inspiration yet selectively choose the media we use to get information about ourselves and other people. We don’t have to feel inferior to the rail-thin waifs like Kate Moss advertising designer clothes. We can instead seek out individuals and images that reinforce a positive message.

For the record, I rarely wear high heels. I’m not rail-thin either. I believe that those of us facing mental health challenges need to take back the media. Thus my goal of publishing Left of the Dial in December and of publishing soon after the two self-help books.

Remember: wellness is not the total absence of illness. Achieving wellness involves accepting that the world is bigger than you and your pain. That by going out and doing what you love every day or as often as possible the pain subsides.

That by helping others, you help yourself.

Just Do What You Love?

Yes. Yes. And Yes.

Intrinsic Motivators

I recommend setting goals to achieve for the intrinsic rewards not external approval from other people.

The ability to walk in “go-big-or-go-home” stilettos that cripple your feet just to prove you’re hot.

The getting on a hedonic treadmill to acquire more and more things that clutter your apartment.

The faking it over and over to prove you’re normal to people who are going to judge you for being “crazy.”

The holding of other people accountable for determining how you feel about yourself.

The living with endless insecurities instead of lowering the VU meter on your thoughts so that you can live life in balance: left of the dial.

It goes on and on when a person continually seeks other people’s approval.

I say: do what’s right for you. Live YOUR life in YOUR style.

In my book Flourish I talk in detail about acting true to yourself to combat the stigma.

The Ziggy Marley song “True to Myself” is an anthem. I attended a Ziggy Marley concert where I first heard that song and had to buy the CD it was on.

It can be hard when other people in society don’t give you recognition. Like when Ralph Ellison wrote in his classic book that he was an invisible man because no one saw him.

There’s a solution: seek intrinsic rewards like a job well done or the high of a good workout.

Each of us can hold ourselves in high esteem when others do not.

It takes courage to live with a mental illness. It takes confidence to do your own thing when society abandons you.

I’ll end here by telling readers that doing your own thing IS the way to combat stigma.

I’ll return on Thursday with more ideas about this.

Treatment Options

I’m a mental health activist because I think a lot of traditional treatment options fail the people they’re supposed to help.

The traditional drug rehab treatment center industry is not regulated. How can it help a person that keeps going into the same centers over and over and relapsing? There are only a few treatment centers using evidence-based practices. And too often traditional rehab centers fail individuals who have a co-occurring mental illness. You can read about this in the book Clean by David Sheff that I reviewed at HealthCentral in September 2013.

Too often, traditional “day programs” fail young people with mental illnesses too. These programs are often little more than babysitting services. They fail young people who have the potential to do so much more after they’re newly diagnosed with schizophrenia or another mental illness.

Thus I don’t consider myself to be an “advocate” for traditional community mental health centers like the followers of the current “recovery movement” claim are the best options for treating people with mental illnesses.

I’m an activist who wants to see better options available for everyone who first experiences emotional or mental distress. I will continue to fight for the right of everyone to get the right treatment, right away when they have a break.

Doing nothing is not the solution. Turning people away from the hospital doors is not the answer. Using consumers as cut-rate labor is not the answer. Having anti-psychiatry consumers advise our loved ones not to take medication and to refuse the treatment that would help is not the solution either.

Social skills training and cognitive remediation are best-practices treatment that can help individuals with schizophrenia resume having a normal life.

Going off your medication and getting sick is not in my estimation the way to resume having a normal life. Denying you have an illness is the sure-fire way to become ill. Ironic, yet true.

Business-as-usual hasn’t worked for years. I’m an activist because I don’t “advocate” for the “right” to be psychotic. I don’t “advocate” for a person to accept having symptoms, when getting the right treatment quickly will enable them to live symptom-free or with minimal hardship from minor symptoms.

I had a doctor tell me that “total symptom relief” was the only acceptable outcome for my treatment. No kidding. He set the bar that high.

We need to set the bar higher for the kinds of outcomes we can expect for people newly diagnosed with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

We need to set the bar because no one should have to endure years and years if not decades of hell from ongoing symptoms, all because their treatment was delayed for too long.

The earlier a person gets the right treatment, the better the outcome is. That’s the bottom line.

I will continue to fight for everyone to have quick access to the right treatment for their needs. I will not join the chorus of haters bashing psychiatry and advancing their no-medication-no-treatment-at-any-time agenda.

Setting the bar higher is an idea whose time has come.

360 Degrees

It’s remarkable to me that every human being is capable of making a 360 degree turn or change for the better. At any point in our lives and our recovery. And really, the revolution full-circle is an evolution of what each of us is capable of.

In recovery as in life, there are no endpoints or limits, just the potential for continued self-growth. Human beings can be like perennials that bloom over and over throughout our lives when we nurture ourselves, and act kind and are good to ourselves.

I also realized that medication and self-motivation are the twin engines driving recovery for individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar. I learned this the hard way when I went on a failed drug holiday in 1992 when I was 27.

Without medication, your efforts are useless because you’re straining against the illness. And having the medication without have the desire to do better is the quickest way to having a life where it’s “one day like any other” spent watching TV in your room.

The song lyrics from the 1980s about how it’s just another night on the edge of town reminds me of the time I spent in the residence in the dangerous apartment complex on yes, the edge of town. A friend and I back then joked that to have fun and amuse ourselves we’d have cockroach races to see which bug got to the other side of the living room first.

I’ll end here by quoting Viktor Frankl from his holocaust memoir Man’s Search for Meaning: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

It gets better. It can get better.

Each of us extending a watering can of hope is what matters most.

Always be hopeful, because hope heals.

Eating To Live

I’ve reviewed the book Body for Life for Women in the reviews section today.

Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP gives sound advice: to control your portions and eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables.

She is quoted: “You’re talking 15 almonds, 20 peanuts, or 12 walnut halves.”

A sample day’s meal plan includes 2 light string cheese sticks and 1 medium apple as an a.m. or p.m. meal.

You can have six mini healthful meals throughout the day.

This is the best kind of eating plan. A healthful “snack” counts as one of the six meals.

I’m going to experiment with buying the tuna and salmon in the foil packs. I will report back in here what I think of this option. Bumblebee calls their foil packs “SuperFresh” and I wonder if it is.

My contention is that even if for whatever reason you don’t want to buy organic food, you should be loading up on fruits and vegetables, regardless of whether they’re organic.

I have fallen down in this regard lately. The goal is not to have perfect habits. The goal is to follow your plan 80 percent of the time. This makes sense as a livable option to me.

The goal is to always do your best and to know that your best will change from day to day.

We each of us need to be kind to ourselves and stop chasing perfection, which is an impossible standard to live up to.

80 percent. Something to think about.