November 1, 2015

GUEST ROOM | The Flip Side of the Coin

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By JOSH GREENFIELD ’84

I wake up and before I even get out of bed, there is a degrading voice in my head calling me names. How discouraging is that? I have no explanation for why this is happening so early in the morning.  In most cases, it bodes ill for my writing.  I can’t count on anything positive happening once such negativity has been introduced to my thought process.  I don’t know what brings it on, and I don’t really know how to make it go away.  Maybe exposing it publicly, by writing about it will have some constructive effect.

The origin of this unsettling phenomenon remains a mystery.  There are medications to treat it, of which I am currently taking three, but why it pops up when it does defies explanation.  The patterns change and shift.  The rules are not consistent.  A period of time that seems safest one month may, by the next, be fraught with uncertainty, even danger. Medical authorities take this degrading voice seriously, as do I.

The consensus seems to be that you can’t just ignore it — that some form of response is warranted.  When I told my psychotherapist that I had been standing by the swimming pool at the local YMHA, while a voice was telling me to submerge myself and drown, he did not take it lightly.

Still, there are clearly ways of dealing with my mental illness.  Take this morning for example.  I wake up thinking the darkness has clearly taken the upper hand, and here I am twenty minutes later, gainfully employed, feeling quite clear and collected.  All I did, really, was carry on.  I made my breakfast, and sat down to write.  Go figure.

I’ve come up with a million different theories about that angry voice.  None of them are really any good.  The reality is that it is, in some way, an outgrowth of the spirituality I have so sought after by working The Twelve Steps. That lifesaving program that has helped so many alcoholics and addicts was never intended for me, yet has helped me enormously. My chemical imbalances were all generated internally. I have been able, however, with the assistance of a capable doctor, to adapt the Twelve Step philosophy to relieve the symptoms of severe obsessive compulsive disorder. I don’t like to acknowledge that this wonderful way of life has had a significant down side, but it seems to be true.  Without the Steps, no psychotic episode.  Without the episode, no ugly degrading voices.

I have posed this disconcerting hypothesis to both of the men charged with treating me for an extended period of time.  They both immediately responded that the trade-off was strongly in my favor. Even taking into account my stay at the Westchester Psychiatric Hospital, to say nothing of the police escort that got me there, to say nothing of the truck load of anti-psychotic medications I have taken since, and the fearful apparitions and voices, I have come out ahead.  They both agree.

The treatment I’ve undergone has been successful, one might contend, because it has conferred upon me a capacity to move spontaneously through my day. I can now manage the minor decisions that would once have stymied me completely — like the decision of which brand of granola to buy in the supermarket, or whether to buy two or three bottles of blueberry jam.  It is not an overstatement to say that these kinds of choices once turned the grocery store into a house of horrors.  Now I just kind of Zen past them, kind of on autopilot.  I sit in the driver’s seat and the plane makes it to its destination without a mishap.  But there is ever so much more. There are feelings of joy and contentment.  There is a growing resolve that whatever I have lived through has been well worth the effort, as it has empowered me to be of assistance to others.  There are those special times when I can get on my knees, ask my Higher Power for assistance and know that it has been granted.  There is every morning when I awaken and ask to know my Higher Power’s will for me for that day.  And, I suppose, right up there at the top of the list, there is this strange ability I seem to have acquired of stringing coherent words and sentences together on a computer screen.

So when the trained medical personal contend that in the grand equation, the enormous blessings that have been conferred upon me far outweigh the psychotic symptoms, I simply have to agree with them.  The psychotic stuff can be controlled with medication, and who knows, maybe over time I will find a way to dispense with it entirely.  In the meantime, I am a writer — which is no small thing.  And if my writing can help alleviate the stigma normally associated with open discussion of mental illness that is no small thing either.

Josh Greenfield graduated from Cornell in 1984. Comments may be sent to associate-editor@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester. 

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