Learning to Pull Back

Things in my life seem to take the characteristics of waves.

What happens is that, feeling stagnant, I’ll start to take on projects or set goals for myself in an attempt to break the nothing feeling, and, realizing it feels good to improve myself and get out of the funk, I’ll say yes to more things.

During this time I’ll get excited about potentialities, I’ll start dreaming of life with all these new facets that I’ve learned and new things that I can be proud of.

It’s a thrilling feeling so I’ll try to do more things until inevitably I’ll get to the point where my brain just blitzes out and I can’t handle the responsibilities I’ve taken on any more.

At that point I’m forced to quit what I was doing to regain a handle on myself and just chill the hell out.

Eventually, though, I’ll feel stagnant again and the cycle will repeat.

My mom has always said, in regards to my illness, “You know what you can handle.” And I do, but sometimes I forget that it’s all too easy to lose myself.

Because of this, the illness has been an exercise of learning to pull back. That is, learning to evaluate where I am with things and let things go if they’re too much, or if I find myself trying too hard.

This is an almost constant process, not only with projects that I take on but with things like being in public, talking to people, or even just spending too much time and trying to do too many things on the internet.

Most of the time I’ll lose sight of things for a week or two and frustrate myself until I realize that I need to take a step back.

I don’t necessarily think this is a problem stemming from my mental illness, as I can imagine many many other people do the same thing, but when you hit a wall with schizophrenia, it’s a total knockout and it can cause some scary stuff like paranoid delusions, depression, or even psychosis.

You have to be very careful with this stuff and it’s a delicate learning process. 16 years out and I still don’t have a firm grip on things, but I’m always getting better. Everyday is a new learning experience.

I think the point of all this is to say that it takes time to recognize the waves in your life.

I think everyone experiences some variation of what I’ve described and getting a handle on the way you do things is, seemingly, a part of growing up.

Life is a long series of learning experiences and we can choose how to act and how to react to the things we’re presented with.

We can choose to take action and we can choose to let things go, and learning when to do either of those things is a pretty intensive process.

It’s ok to get overwhelmed and it’s ok to feel stagnant but I think the goal is to create a life for yourself that is a healthy balance between too much and too little.

Just enough to keep you engaged, but not so much that you burn out.

Overall, I’m still learning, and I think that’s good enough. I’ll get there someday.

The Persistence of Delusions

When you have to contend with delusional thinking, life can get hard.

Many times I’ve been so confused by whether or not something was actually happening that I made serious mistakes acting on those things.

I have hurt people and I have ruined friendships and relationships over my delusions.

I regret those things immensely and I have fought my delusions to the bone, time and time again, but here, 16 years later, I still experience thoughts that have no basis in reality.

Delusions are incredibly persistent and sometimes no matter how much work you do to combat them, or hell, accept them, they still come up and bother you, sometimes when it’s incredibly inconvenient.

A particularly insidious delusion I still have tells me that people hate me, that they’re judging every action I take and deciding actively to shun me and ostracize me.

Of course the reality is that people don’t actually care much about what anyone does and they’re mostly concerned about themselves, but still, day in day out, my brain tries to find reasons why people don’t like me.

As you can imagine, I’ve kind of folded in on myself and don’t really make an effort to meet people or even be around people because my brain is telling me that I can’t trust them.

To say the least, it’s caused me a lot of pain.

I continue to wonder why these delusions are so persistent even given my rigorous adherence to medication and therapy techniques and I think it’s because they play on your most deep seated traumas and insecurities.

Like it or not, that stuff is hard to come to grips with, and even when you think you’re out of the woods, it still creeps up and grabs you sometimes.

Over the years I’ve come to fully understand that my brain is, essentially broken, and like the people it tells me to avoid, I can never fully trust what it’s saying.

I’ve had to cultivate a sense of self that’s removed from the thoughts that are going through my head purely as a means of self protection.

It’s still easy to get lost in the fog of these thoughts, but when I realize that something I’m thinking is upsetting, I’m able to step back and evaluate the thoughts. 9 times out of 10, they’re irrational and have no basis in reality.

Realizing that is freeing, but I would still give anything to not get so lost.

My delusions though, have taught me many lessons, they’ve instilled a thick skin and they have been an integral part of what makes me who I am today.

Sure they’ve been inconvenient and many many times have been the bane of my existence but they’ve showed me things and they’ve taught me things not only about myself, but about the reality of human nature that would be difficult to learn in any other context.

It’s hard to be grateful for them but I am, and I know how hard it can be to live with them.

To anyone reading who experiences persistent delusions, I’m with you, remember, you’re not alone in this.

While they may never go away completely, you can learn the tools to help deal with them.

Therapy is your friend, self awareness is your friend and introspection is your friend.

I know what it’s like to live with this stuff and others do to. Also, your family and friends will always have your back no matter what your delusions tell you.

It’s ok to be haunted by stuff like this and it doesn’t make you weak and it doesn’t make you crazy.

You have help and you’re gonna be ok, I promise.

What to do When You Get Overwhelmed

Sometimes it happens suddenly, sometimes gradually, but we’ve all been in a situation where we can’t focus because there’s too much going on.

This morning I was trying to learn and understand a new project and suddenly it was like my eyes crossed and my brain blanked out. I just could not make heads or tails of what I was looking at. Thankfully my inner voice spoke up and said, “this is too much Mike, put it away.” It was like I had blown a fuse.

The point is, I’m very familiar with what it’s like to become overwhelmed. It happens pretty regularly for me, mostly from being out in public or from being in places where there’s a lot of noise. Sometimes it’ll even happen if I’ve just spent too much time looking at twitter.

I think most everybody can relate when I say it’s easy to get overwhelmed. There are things you can do to ease that feeling though and it’s important to realize that it’s not permanent and most times, all you need is a little rest to get your mind right.

This may seem elementary but one of my favorite ways of easing a blown brain is to take a nap. You don’t have to sleep, just lying down and closing your eyes for fifteen minutes creates a nice reset and helps you better collect your thoughts.

I realize that napping in the midst of a work day is a luxury I have being a writer, and is not something most people can do but taking a small rest is definitely doable for most.

If you’re at your desk, close your eyes and focus on your breathing for a minute or two. Breathe deeply and think about the breath going in and out of your lungs as your thoughts pass by. Congratulations, you just meditated.

After that, it’s probably alright to get up, walk around a little bit, go to the bathroom or get a snack and come back to your desk. Chances are, things will be a little clearer and you’ll be to focus more cogently on the project you’re working on.

Even if you aren’t in an office, this method can still help tremendously.

Say you’re in a loud public space with lots of people talking and you start to blank out a little bit.

Firstly it’s ok to escape for a second and go find a quiet area, but even if you can’t, just closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths as you focus on your breathing can calm down even the most extreme cases of being overwhelmed.

It’s ok to get overwhelmed, it’s ok to blank out, and it’s ok to lose yourself for a moment or two. Just remember that it’s a normal human reaction and it happens to the best of us.

Again, as I’ve said many times, you are not alone in this experience.

Millions of people feel or have felt the way you feel.

Just remember to take those moments for yourself when you can and you’ll be alright.

It’s Ok to Overthink

I’m guessing I’m not the only out there that has a tendency to think and overthink things to the point of exhaustion. In fact, I know I’m not.

Millions of people struggle with anxiety in their daily lives and one major facet of that anxiety is the tendency to overanalyze.

For me, my mind seems to mostly spiral on social interactions and money related issues sometimes to the point of ridiculousness.

“Did I say something off when I was talking to that woman? it seemed like the energy shifted. I think she looked at me funny like I said something I shouldn’t have. Did my face look weird? Did my voice sound ok? Does she think I’m weird. I better apologize in case I said something weird.”

A monologue like this can run through my head for hours and I yell at myself to stop, put a lid on it. Stop overanalyzing Mike.

Of course then, that only makes me angry at myself which causes more anxiety.

Having dealt with this for most of my life though, I’m here to tell you, It’s ok to overanalyze. It’s ok to be anxious and it’s ok to worry.

These are all natural human reactions to stimuli and while they may have served us well in the past when we had to deal with very real scenarios of life and death, these anxious reactions don’t really have a place in modern society.

We can’t ignore them though, it’s smart to be wary of what’s happening in your surroundings and be prepared for eventualities, but when they cause us unnecessary anxiety it’s time to get a handle on them.

How do we do that?

Acceptance and acknowledgement.

In order to lessen the power these mental windstorms have, we need to realize that they’re normal and rational and ok to have.

You are not messed up because your thoughts are too overpowering. It’s perfectly normal to be anxious sometimes and it’s ok to overthink.

We have to accept and acknowledge that we are having these thoughts and sit with them. We have to get to know them and become familiar and friendly with them instead of constantly fighting them and trying to push them away.

Lastly, we have to acknowledge them as what they are, transient, floating thoughts that drift through our brains like clouds. We don’t have to hang on to them, we don’t have pick them apart. We can accept them as simply thoughts and let them pass.

Sometimes assigning a name to these thoughts helps too. Like, oh, that’s just my brain pest Phil who likes to mess with me. Get bent Phil.

I’ve used all these techniques in dealing with my intrusive spiraling thoughts and each one works in different ways.

Finally, one of the most powerful ways we can quell our pesky thoughts is to meditate, that is, to focus on something like our breath going in and out as we close our eyes and breathe deeply, even just a few deep breaths like this can calm our nervous system and make it easier to forget and let go of overthinking.

Believe me when I say that I am no stranger to overthinking and dealing with spiraling and intrusive thoughts. They have been part of my experience of schizophrenia from the very beginning and even before then so I know what it feels like to have them.

Trust me when I say that it’s ok to overthink. It doesn’t mean your weird and it doesn’t mean you’re crazy.

You probably just need to take a moment to yourself and get friendly with your thoughts.

Fighting them is only gonna hurt more.

Whatever happens, you got this.

The Importance of a Strong Support Structure

I count myself extremely fortunate for the support of my family and friends. I feel blessed knowing that I’ve got this network of good people that can help me if and when a problem arises and I value that tremendously.

That said, there are a lot of people out there with mental illness who can’t count on a support network like I can.

It hurts my heart to know that people are struggling with both the illness, as well as the lack of help from any family or community structure. A strong support network is, in my opinion as important as the medicine I take for my illness, and without it I don’t know where I’d be, or what I’d be doing with myself.

In all honesty, I imagine I would be out on the street somewhere or, in the worst case, I may not have survived.

Knowing that you can count on people to help when the need arises provides a comfort and a security that to me, have been essential. This security gives you a space to recover in safety and to gain your footing in a place of love rather than a place of uncertainty.

I’m grateful that I’ve had that provided to me.

For some folks, their family is gone and so they no longer have the safety of a home network, for others, their family just doesn’t acknowledge or take the time to understand mental illness so again, these people have to find some way to fend for themselves. Still for others, they find themselves in communities that don’t have the essential and necessary means to deal with mental illness and the things that come along with it (homelessness, addiction).

It’s important that we provide support for these people in any way that we can.

Dealing with and recovering from mental illness has been one of the greatest struggles of my life and without the support that I have had, I doubt I would have survived these 16 years. Getting by without the support of my family would have been impossible. It’s for this reason that support on a familial and community level is, I believe, essential to recovery for the millions out there with major mental illness.

If I could introduce a bill or if I had the resources to create a place for that support I would pour every cent that I could into it. A safe community for people like me would make the difference between life and death for, I’m sure, a majority.

We may not have that level of support for everyone but for now, the best we can do is rely upon the services of organizations like NAMI to provide education for mental illness.

Families of those suffering need to, first, know they’re not alone, and second, try to educate themselves on the realities of mental illness in order to best support their loved ones.

If you are a caretaker of a person with mental illness, look into the family to family class offered by NAMI to familiarize yourself with the reality of caring for your loved ones with mental illness. There are other classes as well offered by different organizations but creating a support network for your loved ones is one of the most important things you can do after a diagnosis.

Also, realize that you are not alone in this experience and that millions of people and their families are going through the same thing.

All things considered, I wouldn’t be where I am now without the support of my family and my community.

Creating a strong support structure is and will be one of the most important things you can do for your loved one and if there’s any way for your to help, education is key. Learn everything you can about this diagnosis and what it means for both you and your loved one, it will provide guideposts that may not be apparent at first and it will create an understanding of the realities of what it’s like to live with mental illness.

Your love and support will make the difference to your loved one and it will show them that you’re there.

Again, you are not alone, your family is not alone and there are resources for you out there. You’ll get through this, I promise.

Coming to Terms with Reality

Diagnosis in and of itself does not mean that you are out of the woods. It’s just a label that you have now to put a name to the things you’ve been experiencing.

This can be freeing though, because it also means that other people have gone through the same thing and you’re not alone and never will be.

Those first few weeks/months after diagnosis though, may well be some of the hardest that you have to go through in this new, different, life.

In this period you’re forced to accept that you’re crazy. You’re forced to come to terms with what this means about you and the world and even reality.

For the first few months after my diagnosis I still experienced an overwhelming amount of delusions, paranoia and connections that made it incredibly difficult to know what was real and what was not. I knew that a portion of my conception of the world was skewed and incorrect but where was the line?

Discovering the nuances and the edges of my delusions and paranoia wouldn’t come for years, and even now 16 years down the line, I’m still not entirely sure of everything.

Figuring out what was reality and what was a function of my illness essentially required a kind of reboot. I had to step back, and force myself to look at things objectively. It required me to forget, or push back associations I had made in the years leading up to my diagnosis about how things are, how people are and what my place in the grand scheme was.

I learned though, and was relieved to discover that reality, and my position, as one small human amongst seven billion, who has chores and responsibilities, was far less exciting than I had been imagining it as.

When you think you’re a prophet you feel a kind of power, and perhaps I needed that power to survive and push on in the midst of my illness. Then you’re diagnosed though, and all of the sudden you’re nothing but some dude who has a broken brain, and nothing else. That transition was earth shattering for me.

In addition to this revelation, you are now on a heavy course of medication, and while deemed safe, the new side effects can really mess you up. For a good two months, my body wouldn’t let me relax, it had to be moving at all times or I felt like I was going to die. That’s called akathisia and they don’t tell you about that one very often. It’s either something like that, or you gain 50 lbs. in six months for no reason.

Suffice it to say that this transition period into living comfortably with your illness is one of the hardest times someone with mental illness will go through and support is a necessity.

What’s my point? Well, if you or someone you love is in the midst of this transition be kind to them or be kind to yourself. Take it easy, take it slow, everything’s gonna be ok, I promise you that.

You will get through this.

Recovery is a process and coming to terms with your illness is going to take a while, so patience and work is necessary.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel though, and you will get there if you hold on.

What Separates Paranoia and Anxiety?

If you suffer from paranoid delusions you’ve probably heard it time and time again that your paranoia is just social anxiety, and while there’s a function of anxiety in your delusions, paranoia seems to be a deeper, more sinister animal.

It used to bother me to no end when people would tell me my paranoia was social anxiety. I’ve had an innate fear of people since day one with my illness, and when people would say that, it felt like they were minimizing the intensity of what I felt and for that I became reactionary.

Mind you social anxiety is a huge problem for a lot of people and I don’t aim to lessen that, it’s just that paranoia is, at least I like to believe, kind of like a step above normal anxiety.

Paranoia is the delusion that the people around you are going to hurt you in some way while anxiety is just the worry that they won’t like you or that you’ll embarrass yourself.

It’s very easy to see how they can be confused with each other.

In my experience, paranoia is like walking around downtown and knowing that the people around you have motives purely to hurt you and to cause you harm in some way. because of that you have to remain hyperaware of your surroundings, you have to see and evaluate everyone and everything within eyeshot to determine whether it/they have the potential to mess with you, and you have to situate yourself in a safe space among this situation to keep tabs on them and any obstacles that may limit you from exiting.

Social anxiety on the other hand feels duller, more like just a worry that you’re not a part of the group and that you don’t fit in somehow.

I guess what I’m saying is that, for me at least, the difference between the two is the notion of imminent danger.

I fully acknowledge that other people might not see it this way and have an entirely different experience of the two as well.

I equate paranoia more with post traumatic stress disorder, in that you were hurt or irrevocably changed by a situation you found yourself in. One that, hence the name, caused a significant measure of trauma. I feel as though paranoia is a function of being on constant guard for that same or similar trauma.

What’s the point though? Why does this matter? Mainly, the healing for anxiety and the healing for trauma based disorders differs so it’s important to be cognizant of the things you are experiencing and feeling.

It’s important that you recognize what steps you need to take in order to handle the situation correctly, in a way that minimizes severity in order for you to push through until the time comes where you can leave the situation.

That said, social anxiety is a beast all it’s own and I applaud people who live and deal with that in their daily lives.

It takes an immense amount of strength to live with mental illness regardless of your diagnosis or the symptoms that you suffer with.

It’s important though to get the right treatment for your particular brand of crazy and with the help of a psychiatrist and a counselor, that treatment can be correctly determined.

No matter what you’re dealing with though, I want you to know that your experience is valid. You are important and you deserve to feel comfortable.

Regardless if it’s anxiety or paranoia, you’re allowed to be afraid and you’re allowed to get out. Your mental well being is and always will be the most important thing.

Is Recovery Possible?

I was diagnosed schizophrenic in 2006, it’s been almost seventeen years now that I’ve lived with this devil on my shoulder, and the verdict is, unfortunately, still out on whether or not I’ve fully recovered.

I still have days, weeks, months where I feel the brunt of my mental illness, but for all intents and purposes, I suppose I present normally to the outside world.

That is, if you met me today, would you be able to tell that I have schizophrenia? My loved ones say no but I still feel every odd slight, every weird little idiosyncrasy that hints at something majorly wrong behind the curtain.

That may be just anxiety rearing it’s ugly head but there are moments where the reality of my diagnosis is made keenly apparent to me.

I still struggle tremendously with paranoia, the notion that someone is watching me, dissecting every move and action I take to find something to hurt me or to use against me. I’ve said before that if there were Oscars for real life I’d win for best actor every year. Acting though, is not something that I like to do, especially for the benefit of any suspected character who has decided to act in bad faith. I want things to flow, I wanna be natural and easy but unless I trust you inherently, I’m not letting down my guard.

As you can imagine this has been a pretty big lynchpin when it comes to things like job interviews, dates, or even merely just making new friends. Sadly, If I don’t know you, chances are, that I’m terrified of you.

With all this said, it seems pretty clear that I’m not entirely recovered from my illness doesn’t it? That’s the standard I set for myself. I will be recovered when I can feel at ease around people I don’t know. It’s hard to say if that will ever truly happen.

I’ve often looked at my illness as a second life, removed from the life I had before I was diagnosed. Interestingly, I’ve equated the last sixteen years to being a second childhood, if that makes sense.

I was thrust out into the world after being told everything I thought I knew was fake and I feel as though I’ve had to rebuild my sense of being and my personhood from scratch, zip, zero. This being the sixteenth year I’ve had schizophrenia, I am now essentially a sixteen year old in the way I feel I’m interacting with the world.

I don’t really know how else to explain it other than a hard reset and a total and complete system reboot and rebuild.

Will I ever fully recover? That remains to be seen, but for now, I’ve got the things I need, and I’m comfortable with my life and the way it’s gone.

It seems strange, but I remain thankful that I was given this mental illness. It’s taught me some very, very valuable lessons. It’s given me a razor sharp self awareness and understanding of who I am as a person, and it’s forced me to give regular and rigorous introspection a major place in my life.

It has also taught me empathy, perhaps more so than I want. I understand that on a deep level, everyone is constantly evaluating and judging themselves and that everyone, regardless of circumstance, deserves respect and care.

So is recovery even fully possible? I don’t know, but I’m steadfast in improving myself in anyway I can as the years go by and honestly, normality is probably an illusion anyway.

How I Fell Into Grandiosity

It started small, seemingly coincidental. Things started lining up where they hadn’t before.

I went to class one day (in the midst of some pretty heavy depression and anxiety) and on that day, out of all the others, a guest speaker had been called in to talk about, you guessed it, depression and anxiety. The funny thing is that I didn’t have a word for the ways I was feeling, and as this speaker outlined symptoms, things I felt hard, a small thought occurred to me. Did my professor notice I was dealing with this stuff and call this person in just for me? It seemed too significant, the way this person was hitting these feelings so perfectly, to be a coincidence.

That may have been the spark.

There was another class where I arrived early and, sitting in the back of lecture hall I looked over my notes and out of nowhere, a song started playing. I can’t remember what song it was but the lyrics “hold on” just hit me in a place where I needed them at that exact time in that exact place. I looked down to the podium where the teacher’s aide was getting everything ready, paying no attention whatsoever to me, up here, with my heart being torn in half, and I thought, she’s pretending to be busy, she’s playing this song for me.

Little things like that started happening, seemingly more and more frequently.

There were lyrics in songs on the radio (how could they know I was listening?), and phrases in books (holy shit, this book was published in the eighties and they knew that I, Mike Hedrick, would read it here in 2005 because of this sentence, written exclusively for me in this moment).

Pretty soon, commercials and tv shows were sending me secret messages too, knowing that I was watching, at that very moment. It became unquestionably clear that I must be a very important person for society to stop its normal operating procedures to send ME these messages. I must somehow fit in to future’s history as a leader of some kind, a king? maybe even a prophet?

I’d fight with myself over these things being real but then I’d turn on the TV or play some music and, sure enough.

It’s a strange process to fall into grandiosity, it is at it’s best, psychosis, and to someone who had no concept of what psychosis was, it grabbed me like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.

Looking back, it’s clear to me that I was just desperately grasping at straws for something that made sense (or my mind was). I needed something to explain or validate the confusion, the fear and the sadness I felt and these connections gave me something to hold on to.

They also gave me motivation, so much so that I would eventually hop on a plane out of nowhere to go to the U.N. in New York thinking I was meant to claim my position as leader of the world (whatever that means).

Here I am today though, sitting in a chair in my tiny apartment in nowhere, USA thanking God that I’m nothing more than a tiny mote of dust floating on a sunbeam.

Truly, it speaks to the notion that we all long for, a sense of being recognized, of belonging to the greater good, and while that sense was merely a delusion for me, it taught me that I need inclusion. I always have and I always will.

Grandiosity is a unique experience but one that I’m grateful for because it helped me see that, yes, I needed help, badly, as so many others do today. If you see this stuff in your friends or loved ones, or if they start talking about things that don’t entirely make sense to you, it’s worth a discussion, or an appointment to see a psychiatrist because delusions of grandeur seem to be the starting point for a number of major mental illnesses.

I’ve always said that real life is extremely boring when you don’t think you’re a prophet sent from God to bring peace to the world, but 17 years on, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Mysterious Voice in Your Head

I don’t want to call it God, because I don’t know if that’s true. I’m also hesitant to think it’s me because it feels, somehow, removed.

In efforts to classify the voice I’ve just come to calling it “The Voice of Reason”.

I don’t know if everyone has this voice, but it’s the one that answers when you ask a question into the deep dark recesses of your mind.

Strangely enough, that voice was never there before my breakdown. Either that or I didn’t need it I can’t remember entirely. Suffice it to say that that voice has been a guidepost for me, a map or even a sage when I’ve needed it. It seems to always know the right course of action or the right advice to give me when I’m confused or lost.

I’ve asked it many times if it was God or if it was just me and that’s the one question where it’s never given me a straight answer, it just kind of says, “I don’t know”, or “I’m whatever you want me to be.”

Honestly it’s probably nothing more than my conscience.

I don’t know if everyone has the voice but it’s essentially the angel on your shoulder. It’s small, and quiet and mostly keeps to itself unless you ask it a question. But it is also quick to interject when you’re making a dumb move.

You can choose to ignore it but, in my experience, it’s always had the right answer. It’s always seemed to have known what to do when I didn’t and for that reason I’ve come to trust it inherently.

Sometimes it even speaks up when you didn’t ask it to, putting a word or a phrase in your head that immediately provides a sense of comfort and calm.

Again, I don’t want to say it’s God but in moments like those it’s pretty hard not to think it is.

As I’m writing this I realize that the reader may have no idea what I’m talking about whatsoever, and may be saying to themselves, “This is pretty clearly a rambling schizophrenic diatribe.” and that may well be true. Regardless, I take comfort in knowing that this voice is there, sitting quietly in my head with the right advice at the right time, seemingly never having missed.

It could be a function of my mental illness (hearing voices) but it’s not malevolent and it seems to only want the best for me, as I do of myself.

I don’t have to know if it’s God, or an angel, or my mental illness or just simply myself, but I know that I’m grateful to have it.