19 February 2017

Talking About Mental Illness. Help Helps. A Funk!

By: Jon Katz

Mental Illness

I confess I had the same stereotypes about mental illness as almost everyone else. I never wanted to be "crazy" and dreaded other people finding out that I was mentally ill.

People who are mentally ill are thought to be crazy in our culture, they are disqualified from many military functions and wouldn't last a minute running for public office. Other children don't like "crazy" children either.

I think we always fear the most what lives inside of us.

We want our politicians to be "sane," that is, devoid of empathy, compassion or compromise, but resolute about never seeking help for their problems.

Psychiatrists will tell you that the mentally ill are usually quite sane, quiet, law-abiding and empathetic.

I hope so, as I am one of the mentally ill.  I came out in 2007, when I started this blog. I knew I had to write about it or perish.

It is critical for people with mental illness to talk about it honestly, since no one else really does, and I realized this weekend, as I sunk into an old but familiar black cloud, that I have stopped writing about it or referring to it. Anna Freud wrote that panic attacks occur when people lie to themselves, and I stopped doing that, and have not had a panic attack since.

This weekend, I lied about the challenges of being suddenly alone, my rituals and practices disrupted.

I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder when I was a teenager and I went to a non-profit mental health clinic without my parent's knowledge, they were terrified of admitting, even that their kids had troubles,  though they both were ill themselves.

They refused to get help for me or my sister and forbid us to get it ourselves.

I disobeyed them, and perhaps saved my life. Imagine how difficult for a 15-year-old boy to take himself to a shrink for help.

Mental illness runs in my family, it is a chronic disease that is often passed along.

Today I felt down, alone, anxious and vulnerable, signs of my  illness that has been dormant for some time now.

I was in treatment more or less continuously for more than 30 years, and am not in treatment now, nor am I on any medications. I am proud of that, I worked hard to get there.

I should have known of course that two powerful triggers – Maria being on the other side of the earth, being alone in some blizzards,  and my computer crashing with so much of my creative life stuck inside – should have alerted me, but nobody wants to be mentally ill, and I am always happy to put it aside and declare it over.

I don't see myself as fragile, but there is no reason to be stupid either. I should have seen it coming.

When I met Maria, I had broken down almost completely and barely survived, we have been so supportive and loving to one another, this has been profoundly healing in and of itself. Her belief in me gave me strength and motivation.

I told a friend that the wonderful thing about my marriage is that Maria knows I am crazy and does not care.

My computers have enabled me to live on my farm and sent my voice and work out into the world.

As Steve Jobs intended, my technology has expanded my creative life, I speak in voice, image and word. Losing it, even for a few days, is jarring for someone like me, even though I relentlessly pretend to be above that kind of worry, and often am.

And once again, I am alone, as I have so often been in my life. It is familiar to me, but also sad.

I started this blog out of my illness, i realized that I could always write my way through depression and anxiety, that is how I moved forward and stayed grounded. Writing is how I figure out what and how I feel. I don't always know. My reader's acceptance of me was profound, and encouraging.

As is my natural default position, I shied away from acknowledging the illness in recent years. I just don't talk about it or write about it. That is another form of hiding.

In 2007I didn't hide my mental illness, I wrote about it openly. I had no choice.

The sky did not fall and people did not flee me or my work. When you get to know people, half of them or more have one kind of mental illness or another. It is not really that big of a deal.

It is risky to talk about cures, miracle or others, for mental illness. For most people, it never completely goes away.

My whole life I have gone alone to the movies when I needed to hide and feel safe, ever since I was 9 years old. Maria was not only 8,000 miles away, she was out of touch. I started getting restless in the late morning, I started looking for movies online. In the afternoon, I drove to Williamstown, Mass. to see "La-La-Land" for the third time.

I love the music, but also the message. Here's to the people who dream, foolish as it may seem.

I see the movie as toe-tapping and energetic, but today it seemed sad to me, a movie about heartbreak and struggle as well as success and glory. I love my creative, but it has been long and hard. I don't want to complain about it, it was my choice, but I don't want to lie about it either.

On the way to Williamstown, I listened to the new Alison Krauss album, Windy City. Last night, I thought it was uplifting and affirming, today it seemed sad and mournful. I started to think of the two children I lost some years ago. Okay, I thought, we're on that path.  I could feel myself sliding downhill.

I realized some old ghosts were coming back.

After the movie, I walked the streets for a bit, then got some Thai take-out to take home, wandering around alone was a hallmark of my life, since I was eight years old. It is a sure sign I am slipping into some darkness, where I spent so much of my childhood.Of course, the long walk on the windy dark streets.

Feeling lost, shut out, alone, sorry for myself.

When I was 16, I remember asking the shrink if I was crazy.

Yes, he said, I'm not going to lie to you, I don't  use that word, but in a way you are,  you have some mental illness. You will need to get help. It was the first time I was sure. I sought out help and never stopped getting it. I saw analysts, therapists, psychologists, spiritual healers, shamans.

I never quit on myself, I was determined not to end my life in a hopeless and empty way.

And it worked. I recovered to the point that I could fall in love and have a healthy relationship. My work is stronger than ever, and more diverse. My blog is robust and growing. The dread panic attacks have gone. I am no longer a valium addict, I sleep under my own auspices. I have not seen a therapist for six or seven years, I would go back in a flash if I needed to.

Tonight, I came home, took some deep breaths, walked the dogs, sat by the fire and ate my steamed dumplings and shrimp fried rice. I listened to the silence, always healing for me.

Maria called and the first thing she said was "are you okay? You sound down."  She could hear it in my voice.  I was down, I said, it never does good to lie about mental health or hide from it.

With all that's going on, no wonder you crashed, she said. But I corrected her. I did not crash. This was nothing like a crash. This was a quiet little funk. It was inevitable, necessary. But not a crash, not nearly a crash. The mere word sent a shiver down my spine.

"I slipped into a funk today," I said, "I think it was the movie." Was it her being gone, also? Sure.

This all got me thinking of own suffering and loss, the painful struggles of the creative life, the things I wanted to do that I never did and may never do, lost friends, failures and humiliations. And then I sat and thought about how far I have come. I felt strong, proud of myself.

The hopelessness I carried about like a shroud is gone. The difference is, I know I will feel good in the morning. That was not something I ever knew.

And look how far I have come. A book contract. A loving relationship. No therapy. No pills. No panic attacks. An increasingly sane and productive life. I know now that I can not have a healthy relationship with an unhealthy person, and I no longer try.

I am increasingly surrounded by loving, empathetic and nourishing people. They ground me.

I have learned how to recognize my illness when it recurs, and deal with it myself. I know how to get help when I need it. And I do get help when I need it. There is help. And it helps.

Mental illness is not the end of the world.

I am already feeling better and more grounded. Just writing this helps.

Being alone this weekend seemed too familiar to me, an old feeling and habit,  and I don't have my computer to hide behind, which is a good and healthy thing. Telling Maria  was helpful. She isn't gone, she is coming back.

I don't have to ask people if I'm crazy any more, I have accepted it and am good with it.

Crazy people learn how to be sensitive and empathetic,  their survival depends on it. You almost have to be crazy to be a writer at all, all kinds of things dancing in my head.  This funk is cleansing, inevitable, really, given all the disruptions of the week.

I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder some time ago, and certain things will trigger it. I have to be alert and self-aware. Vigilance is not a natural state for me.

This week was almost certain to trigger it. It is so important to be open about it, there is no shame in it. My illness gave me the strength to be strong and get help and work my way through it, it took a lifetime and it will never, I imagine, be finished with me.

The idea is control, not cure.

The most common forms of mental illness are major depression, anxiety disorder, and Bipolar disorder. When I was first diagnosed,  it was anxiety disorder, although I did suffer from major depression for a few years and was medicated for it.

That seems to be gone. My illness is a gift, it has connected me to people, forced me to be self-aware, forced me to get  help, fueled  my compulsions to write and create, connected me to Maria in a very powerful way. Taught me the importance of compassion.

I think it even helps me communicate with animals.

I wanted to share this with you tonight because I haven't mentioned it in a long time, and I know the consequences of hiding it. It nearly cost me a lifetime. Tomorrow, I pick up my computer, work on my book. Move ahead. Happy to share, thanks for letting me.

Posted in General

Good Morning! Be Sure To Smile…

By: Jon Katz

Good Morning

My daughter and granddaughter are thinking of me this week, as Maria is away and I have been dealing with snowstorms and the crash of my trusty computer, the repository of my creative life. I can't really complain, as Plato says everyone has  harder battles to fight, but Emma, who is crafty, has been sending me a steady stream of photos showing Robin's enjoyment of life.

That smile does get to me, every time, and it seems to be demanding that I enjoy the day. On that note (Maria has just texted me from India that she is falling asleep, so good night to her.) This has been a memorable week in many ways.

I am responding by heading out to Williamstown, Mass., to go and see "La La Land" for the second or third time. I am  hopeful that my computer will come home tomorrow in good repair. And that you Robin, for reminding me and everyone looking at the promise and wonder of the world. I'm with you, may your smile never fade.

Posted in General

Blessing Maria In Jodpur, India. Has It Only Been A Week?

By: Jon Katz

In Jorpur, India, four hours outside of Kolkata, it is customary to bless visitors, and Maria was blessed by the villagers and sent me this photo, she is so at home there. It's hard to believe she headed off in that blizzard just a week ago in her little toilet bowl of a car and spent three days getting to Kolkata.

It feels as if she has been in India for 1,000 days, not six or seven. For me the first week was marked by life's many twists and turns – snowstorms, computer crashes. I hope things will settle down and return to normal Monday, and that I can make use of Cassandra and get to work on my book.

But the big news by far is the excitement of Maria's trip. It has such a good feeling about it, and it will open up a lot of doors. It has already changed her, more to come. I think the donkeys and I will bless her when she returns.

Posted in General

Loving America, Helping Refugees: The Whistling Pumpkin Teapot – $12.08

By: Jon Katz

Two young refugees thank you for your generosity. Keeping the torch lit.

My donation today: A red Pumpkin shaped Whistling Teapot, $12.08. Something the newly-arrived rescue families could use.

John Adams wrote that it does not take a majority to prevail, rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.

The Amazon Gift Page, created by the U.S. Committee on Refugees And Immigration,  is such a brushfire, and it is burning brightly. You are lighting the sparks, the Army Of Good. The page was set up to welcome the new refugees arriving in upstate New York – they are still coming, at least for now. They need everything, from prayer rugs to teapots.

And I can't think of a more fitting gift for them, many are Muslims, and they pray towards Mecca five times a day. We practice freedom of worship here.  The prayer rugs range from $2 to $4. I have been buying one a day. It is easy to send these gifts to a warehouse in Albany, N.Y via Amazon.,  they are inexpensive.

Every morning, I chose a different gift and send it to the refugees, these two young women overcame their discomfort and fear about being photographed because they wanted to thank people for the gifts they are receiving. We have filled the warehouse more than once.

Power always thinks it is doing God's service, wrote Adams, "when it is violating all  his laws." He was a wise man, devoted to the idea of his government as a compassionate and just one.

Every time I sent a gift, I feel good and I feel like a patriot, standing up for my idea of America. There is a lot going on in my life right now, and in all of our lives, but this has become a sacrament for me, my daily prayer, my way to avoid arguing and to do good and feel good. I wouldn't care to miss a day.

This is my vote for America, and for liberty. I want the newly arriving refugees to see the true heart and soul of America.

Adams wrote that facts and truth are essential to governance, and I can tell you that these refugees, mostly women and children, are not a threat to you, your family, or America. They are here legally, they have been thoroughly investigated, they have suffered horribly.

They are my fellow citizens, my brothers and sisters in the American idea. You can help them here, and thanks.

Posted in General

Falling In Love With India? She Might Stay There

By: Jon Katz

Welcome To Bodpur: Photo By Dahn Gandell

I'm not sure Maria is coming back from India.

Just kidding, sort of, but we spoke this morning, and it was wonderful to hear early this morning how much she has fallen in love with that country.

There is no better way to wake up that to hear the excitement and wonder in her voice early in the morning.

Maria just returned from two days in the village of Bodpur, four hours from Kolkata and another world – beautiful, prosperous, clean and welcoming. Bodpur is, in part, an innovative and successful experiment created to keep rural women away from the sex trafficking trade by offering them work training and economic alternatives at home.

Maria just fell in love with the place and was busting with good news – she is planning to teach her potholder class tomorrow and the people running the program are talking to her about her selling the potholders here in America an on her blog that the girls she is teaching there  make.

She would not only teach them, but provide them with a market for their work, and keep them in their village and help them to be independent and provide for themselves and their families. She was disappointed she didn't get to teach right away, but India has its own ways of doing things, and they got around to it, as I suspected they would.

Most often, it is desperation that draws rural women into trafficking and anything they can make or sell keeps them away from that path.

India is a perfect match for Maria, a beautiful and intense land of unimaginable contrasts. The people are most often generous and friendly, the poverty is staggering, the colors and traditions and smells and fabrics and food are just astounding. Talking to her makes me want to go there, and it now seems likely she will be going, again and again.

The country  is not only a never-ending visual feast, but it has a deeply spiritual side, and lives very close to nature in ways that are wonderful an ways that are not. In her village, there were hordes of baby goats. She loved that.

"You're coming," she told me this morning, so I guess that is that.

No more pondering. Maria sometimes seems and is shy, but she has an iron will when she makes up her mind.

I guess I'm coming next time, and I can't wait to run around there with my camera. I've had dreams about that. There is a sweet side to India, and a dark side.

Tonight, she is going to tour the infamous Red Light District of Kolkata, from which so many of the girls she is meeting were rescued. I imagine that will be a difficult thing for her to see.

She is so in love with India, I think this country will not be a regular part of both of our lives. I jokingly asked her if she will come back, and I know she will, but the place is in her blood and imagination,and will soon, I think, be revealing itself in her art.

The trip, as I imagined, is changing her already. I have never heard her so strong and confident and excited and sure about her purpose in the world. She overcame much to get there, it was worth it all.

Can't wait to talk about it with her when she comes home next Sunday.

Maria is back to blogging, and a lot of people will be happy to hear that. I think this has all opened her up in many ways that have yet to reveal themselves. I am so grateful she went and grateful to the many people who helped her go. Soon, I think, made-in-India potholders will be on sale on our blogs and at our Open Houses.  How cool, the might potholder might help transform the world.

What an antidote to fear and anger and despair.

My Sunday: some blogging on Maria's fading laptop (I hope to get my computer back on Monday.) More listening to Alison Krauss, I am in love with her new album Windy City. A walk in the woods, lunch with a friend from New York City, maybe a movie or maybe a book. More later.

Posted in General