Christian Mindfulness

“The spiritual practitioner is a symbolic microcosm of the world she inhabits (and transforms). – Coakley, Powers and Submissions

Does being a Christian change the way we are? In his book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, Bishop N.T. Wright talks about the virtuous circle, composed of the following elements:

-Scripture
-Stories
-Examples
-Community
-Practices

Indeed, he argues, being a Christian should change the way we are. To strive means to hope, and psychosis is a state of disintegration. A sort of hope filters in, but this time it is the hope that comes from being aware that you are no longer striving. The hope that you will never defeat yourself or be defeated again because you are immobilized.

In a word, this is catatonia (which I have lived through).

Mindfulness meditation perhaps saved my life, because I would make goals and then disintegrate from them and my life had become an exercise of building sandcastles only to have the next hour’s mood swing pulverize them.

Through mindfulness, I acquired an added sense that I shouldn’t have goals, which decreased my suicidality, but also put my life on hold. The 9 principles of mindfulness still inform my life, but I have adapted them into the framework of Christianity.

First, from Jon Kabatt-Zinn’s work, based on Eastern thought, they are

-Non-judging
-Patience
-A beginner’s mind
-Trust
-Non-striving
-Acceptance
-Letting go
-Gratitude

These overlap with the following Christian principles:

-Not judging
-Patience
-Only those like children will inherit the kingdom of heaven
-Faith
-Avoiding works-righteousness (we live by grace and not our own efforts)
-Instead of Acceptance: Hope
-Forgiveness
-Thanksgiving/Praise/Worshipfulness

I have shared this with some scholars and my hope is it will help them with their efforts to prevent suicide and encourage people to practice these habits in a way that doesn’t damage their Christian conscience.

Staying the Course

Hi everyone. I continue to do really well, and I also have added a new med that helps manage weight gain with antipsychotics, and so I’ve stopped gaining weight, which is great. I’ve even lost some weight and want to exercise again. Since I’m feeling so good, even I have started thinking about how I should perhaps change something to make it even better. Luckily the ring I wrote about, the one that reminds me to stay the course no matter how much it feels like I don’t need this much medicine, is a helpful reminder to stay on the medicine at a high dose.

The hardest thing is that being on this high of a dose of medicine makes my life take a more shallow course, because I’m not constantly plumbing the depths of my experience like I am when I’m on less. How do I combat that?

I write.

I especially recommend journaling a lot before you go up on your medicine if possible – i.e. if you’re not in crisis, needing a high dose right away – so that you have breadcrumbs back to your deeper life source from when it wasn’t medicated away. I can still access this mentally when I read my past writing, especially my life-coaching materials, which are designed to align your life trajectory.

Healthfulness

Hi everyone, I’m just writing to update you further on my progress, to describe signs of that progress. I just went to the doctor because I was experiencing abdominal pain and was worried about my health. So why do I call that health? Simple: I never would have done this previously, even if I had thought it quite serious. Once I had a skin rash from an egg allergy I had just developed and I waited months to go to the doctor. When I finally went my eyes were swollen shut. The doctor had asked me why I had waited so long. I didn’t want to go into it, but I knew from my research that this is common with schizophrenia. We don’t always take care of ourselves.

Fast forward to yesterday. They did a thorough exam and told me that I was perfectly healthy, aside from the mental health issues (which I medicate away), plus some of the side effects of my medication, such as being a little overweight and occasional stomach/abdominal pain. I was happy to be able to go to the doctor because when I’m on less medicine I generally don’t. I hadn’t been in a long time. Even if my problems were quite serious. I have had very little instinct toward self-preservation. The extreme of this is seen when people stop taking their medication, wander away from home, and then lose track of themselves and end up living on the street. It is very hard to maintain personal hygiene once one stops. One man I know with schizophrenia broke his leg, opted not to have surgery, which can be especially stressful on an already taxed nervous system, and so his leg healed bent. Up until I went up on my medicine, I would have also dreaded surgery. Everything seems more manageable now.

Medication

I’ve recently gone way up on my medication, almost doubling my antipsychotic, and my life has returned to the normal it was 10 years ago. Who would have thought that going up on medicine could be so transformational. My mom got me a beautiful sapphire ring for Christmas and I have made a rule to myself: as long as I’m on my medicine at xyz amount, then I will continue to wear the ring, and I also won’t go down on my medicine as long as I’m wearing it. The trick: I want to keep wearing it!

The hard thing about medication with schizophreniform disorders is that people get better with their medication and then go off of it. Or reduce it again. And then the problems come up again. So you really need to work with your doctor to change the medicine if you do change it, and in my opinion, one should try not to change it. My ring is my reminder that my wellness is due to a lot of things, and foremost among them, it is due to medication.

For me, this decision not to change my medication means I have had to change my way of being in the world. My doctor told me that there is a medicine that reduces the amount of weight you gain on my antipsychotic, which is lovely, and so it is all becoming more manageable.

The hardest transition for me has been not being the life of the party anymore. Yes I was manicky, but I didn’t see it that way. I saw myself as vivacious and entertaining, and I miss that, especially as a teacher.

As a teacher I’m doing a lot more project based learning over the direct instruction I used to excel at. The added and unexpected benefit to this is that this actually holds students’ attention and their intrinsic interest better. Furthermore they are more thoughtful in their interactions with me. I’m really enjoying teaching again, although I’m a completely different teacher.

If you’re just barely surviving and are isolated, then consider trying other medications if at all possible. If that doesn’t work, then do what I did for 6 years and learn to embrace where you are right now with grace, and don’t give up hope and gratitude for your life, your past, and your future. The mind responds to God’s grace in our lives and, paired with medication, which for me is essential, we can be a gift to the world. You are not a burden, you are a blessing.

The Haters

There is a lot of wonder I have right now at how my life is playing out. I’m really grateful. But I’m also thinking about how neuroatypical people shame people like me, and how people like me tend to be writers or artists of myriad types of others who don’t fit in. Mental illness is a birthing process, whereby we become more fully who we are – or where we lose who we were. In the case of treated mental illness we are becoming wonderfully unique. We are wonderfully unique and fearfully made, and sometimes we need to disengage from haters who want to control us and see us live in little boxes that they live in. Little boxes that “normal” people live in.

I just went up on my medicine and am experiencing no paranoia right now. It’s pretty fabulous and life is good. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to stay on it because of the side effects, but it’s been a nice couple of weeks. What I’m learning is that we can just take medication changes one day at a time. And always with a doctor’s close supervision. I’m learning more medication is a good thing most of the time, with breaks in controlled vacation periods.

Watching my wellness…

The hardest thing about mental illness is the beginning of life with it, which for me took place in my late 20’s. The issues stem from this, and Kay Redfield Jamison talks about this in her book An Unquiet Mind: when we get well again, we don’t realize that we can also get ill again, and then we stop taking our medicine. And get ill again.

But something else can happen. When we get well for a period of time, we’re so obsessed with the possibility of a relapse that we bring it out in ourselves or fail to enjoy the good times because we know that they won’t be permanent.

I am doing really well right now. I have been for several weeks, with a few difficult times here and there. And so I’m taking the opportunity to write about my joy of watching my wellness, knowing that it may not last forever, but that indeed things are really nice right now. And that it is okay to be grateful.

Loving what is…

It has been an interesting journey to where I am now and I definitely think that my life is richer now and my experiences more meaningful than they were when I was an ambitious and successful 20-something. When I interact with friends who are still on the success treadmill, I do so with a mix of admiration for them and their efforts, and a complex gratitude, both that they are making a mark on the world, and that that life is no longer for me.

A matter of perspective is what it is. When I was first getting off the success treadmill, I was desperately sad and anxious and worried that I was losing all the accolades I had earned. And I had worked hard and genuinely earned them. But as I came to understand who I am and how I was to live now, and as I came to embrace that and to welcome when I was feeling good and accept when I was doing poorly with hopes it wouldn’t last long, I found that the times when I was doing poorly were less frequent. Largely because I was no longer assessing them as times when I was doing poorly. But also because my self-hatred had greatly diminished.

When I was taking mindfulness classes, I realized how much I was judging myself. How much I was striving. One of the core principles of mindfulness is that of non-striving. In reflecting on how important this has been, I have wondered if it hadn’t also taken the wind out of my sails. That I was working on non-striving so much that I wouldn’t make any kind of impact. But gradually I am making a difference.

Jealousy

Jealousy doesn’t happen often for me anymore. I’ve made my neuroatypical life so unique that it is really unusual for me to hear about someone and to then be jealous of them. But it finally happened. I discovered a bio online of a professor around my age, who has the same research interests as me, and who has published a ton on these topics so close to my heart. I felt a sting I had forgotten about.

I think that it is definitely an artform, to live with a disability and not to feel jealousy at people who do not struggle. I have apparently not yet mastered this artform, but I remain hopeful that one day, probably 5 years from now, I will not feel jealous of people with their accolades when their accolades are close to my former, wellness-infused ambitions of my late twenties.

For my Christmas card this past year I wrote that I was doing well and said that I was praying for people who had not yet found stability. I think I wrote something like this: “prayers for all those who still suffer.” One person I happen to know who still suffers daily, and who is unemployed and pretty isolated, was deeply offended by this letter. She said that I was rubbing it in her face that I had a good life now.

I finally see how this went wrong when I thought I had done so much right. It was definitely meant to be affirming and grateful, but really, I just extended pity to people who are still suffering. This could have been humiliating to them.

I guess I’ll just have to double down on the neuroatypical uniqueness that is me since I can’t go and get a PhD and publish tons of articles anymore. That ship has sailed. But I am grateful in a way that this moment of jealousy happened. I returned to the website again today and looked at it and let the feeling of jealousy wash over me until it disappeared. I remembered that the man is still a human after all, and much like me since he publishes on what I’m passionate about.

I think I will buy his books and see if they are any good.

Doing Well at Work

There is something very satisfying in being able to do well at work, and I think I have stumbled upon a way to do this. When I am locked into a job for the whole school year, I start feeling trapped and unhappy, but short and long term substitute teaching is a joy, and I get to coach teachers on the side, which is my training. I have been an educator for over 10 years now.

When getting back into a work environment after a year off due to COVID, or perhaps other hardships, it’s important to be gradual about it. In the book Cognitive Therapy of Schizophrenia, by David G. Kingdon and Douglas Turkington, they talk about how people sometimes try to do too much too quickly, and it just leads to disappointment and the inability to fulfil one’s objectives due to being overwhelmed. I think this applies to all people really: if we try to bite off more than we can chew and we are not patient with ourselves, we can start to drown.

If you’re highly intelligent and still struggling with executive functioning, try to figure out what kind of work you can do. When I look at professional workspaces for people with struggles I see that a lot of people work as consultants. This could be a good gig, because people with mental health issues are often very sensitive to the energy of an organization and the atmosphere of organizational structures. See if you can get training that will help you to excel professionally, but make sure it’s something that you can see yourself actually doing when you’re done. A lot of the time people get trained only to realize that they really don’t have a passion for what they were trained to do. Or they get a PhD and realize that they’re too specialized and practically unemployable. Look before you invest so much time and try not to spend too much money as you get trained, especially if you don’t have a job lined up.

Remember, finally, that every situation is unique and that I’m not a mental health professional, but remember that people are there for you who are trained. They’re just a phone call away.

The Rabbit Hole

If you can at all avoid it, please consider avoiding the rabbit hole and staying on the surface of things. Depth doesn’t always yield accuracy; in fact, it often yields projection.

Allow me to explain. Mental health issues, especially schizophrenia, have to do with a system of thoughts that become interlocked and in which a person with schizophrenia becomes trapped. The thoughts are enticing, a sort of waking dream. There is a lot of research into this type of thing, with different major theorists, psychologists, psychiatrists and scholars such as myself, having our own theories about what psychosis is and whether you can avoid it. My take is that some people can avoid it and some people cannot. It depends on if a person is deeply embedded in the meanings and the symbols or not.

For me, with medicine and therapy (when I can respond well to therapy), I am able to stay on the surface of things quite well. Playing piano helps even more, because then I can be expressive without getting bogged down in the rabbit hole of words. Researching my mental health condition also helps provide structure and purpose so that I have language, a sort of handle to grasp, when I’m not doing well.

I’m reading the book The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann right now, and I am pretty sure that the protagonist of the story has schizophrenia. It is a sad, compassionate, and yet sensationalized story, and I don’t recommend it. Because it assumes the worst of people with mental illness. But one thing I’m realizing is that it has to do with the Enlightenment/Romanticism split of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and that that seems to be where the nexus of schizophreniform disorders emerged (the illness itself was first “discovered” or diagnosed around that time, as well). Hoffman says that the protagonist is “inner-divided.”

It gets down to the split between faith and reason, which was dramatized through a deeply Christian and moral lens by Dostoevsky in the famous novel Crime and Punishment. The main character is named Raskol’nikov. Raskol’ means schism or split, in Russian. Raskol’nikov goes down the “is everything permitted” rabbit hole of the day.

You don’t need to read these books, which may themselves generate a rabbit hole, but they teach an important lesson. Namely, that there is a rabbit hole, and that, should you be able to, you should avoid it. In Hoffmann’s book, the main character kills himself, and in Dostoevsky’s book, the main character kills someone else. It all starts with lack of purity and morals and a lack of self-accountability to stay on the right path. A novella called “Fair Eckbert” by Ludwig Tieck also talks about how once you start down off the pure path, it is all downhill from there.

Moral of the story: don’t overthink it, choose the good, avoid evil, don’t repay harm with harm, and take your medicine if you think you’ll go down the rabbit hole without it.