Ryan came into my life when I was trying to find portrait subjects for I Am More in Worcester. A friend reached out to him for leads, and I suddenly had a complete stranger advocating for the project, contacting organizations and individuals who might be able to help. Soon he experienced what I had been coping with for weeks – dead ends. So many dead ends, that he apologetically offered to “throw his own hat in the ring” if I needed him to. That was a big YES from me and soon I was sitting in his apartment listening to this story:
I am more because of schizoaffective disorder. That seems like a bit of an odd thing to say doesn’t it? As best as I can tell, though, that day in the hospital with the apathetic psychiatrist who told me I had a “broken brain” changed my life for the best. I’ve always been a bit of an “odd duck”; a living breathing mix of hyperbole, goofiness, melodrama, absurdity, melancholic cynicism, dark optimism, vulnerability, adventure-seeking, and self-deprecation. I’ve been known to cry at commercials, well-crafted pop songs, and movies one definitely shouldn’t cry at–like Weird Al’s UHF, amongst others. And the thing is, I embrace it, I love it.
I was 35 when I was brought to the hospital. For most of my adult life I was unstable; I could barely hold a job, I had bounced in and out of a number of different universities and colleges, I could not make sense of any part of my life. So I did what most people in this sort of situation do, I self-medicated with booze, drugs and endless nights of parties and sexual trysts. I was a DJ at a few bars and clubs around town; this was the easy lifestyle for me. I don’t know if my demeanor was just pleasant enough or that my friends just couldn’t figure out how to get through to me–maybe it was a bit of both–but I kept sliding under the radar. Just jump to another job, find another girlfriend – “He’ll be okay.”
Into my 30’s, though, the ground began to fall from under me. I found myself homeless more than once and I started to grow deeply paranoid. I was overworked and underemployed, often working two or three part time jobs. People were after me, random people on the street would grow concerned at my presence, my friends and roommates would talk about me when I would leave the room. Eventually the pleasant demeanor began to fade and I became more erratic, more desperate. I had been coping using the few things I had left: my cats, a sketch pad, a mechanical pencil, and a collection of records, mostly reggae, that had been growing exponentially since I was 25. It wouldn’t last, though. I cracked.
I had been an off-and-on Buddhist since I was a child, and I had been practicing at the local Zen center for a few years. It is a remarkable Romanesque monolith of a building. It carried the authority of a fortress that aptly shielded its practitioners from the noise of the outside world and helped to navigate the raging storms of the mind. I hadn’t slept in days; in my state, only one thing made sense–asylum. I called the center and spoke with the caretaker of the building, a woman I only knew by our brief silent meditation sessions. I would not get the asylum I wanted, it would be “impossible” she said. Instead I got driven to the hospital. She walked me in, ensured that I self-admitted, and then left. I found myself trying to convince people I’ve never met that I wasn’t crazy, but that I needed help: dangerous, deranged people were after me, my friends hated me and were trying to avoid me, I was alone. The hospital staff wasn’t having any of it. No one was after me, my friends weren’t turning on me. Rather, I was a Grade B Schizo and there wasn’t much hope for me, but I had better start taking the drugs if I wanted a some semblance of a chance.
Suddenly everything – EVERYTHING – about my life and reality was called into question. How long had this been going on? How many times did I go left when I should have right because of this “thing”? I no longer had a point of reference. I was incensed. Shaken. I refused.
Things would get worse. I would quickly become homeless again for a stint, sleeping on couches, floors, wherever someone would take me in. Work was the only place where I felt safe. Thankfully, my main employers at the time loved me. They created a salaried position for me that would allow me to get insurance in order to offset the cost of the drugs and psychiatrist. They gave me a sizable advance and I was able to find an apartment blocks away…but I was too afraid to walk home at night, so members of the staff would take turns driving me home. Each night I would drink bottles of wine by myself in an effort to silence the voices and get some sleep.
Eventually I found a therapist who finally got through to me and helped. She taught me about Reality Testing–finding ways to convince my brain that what I was hearing might not be what I assumed it would be. For me, this often meant going to the places where the voices would say that they intended to attack me and silently, patiently wait for them. Through her I would also learn about groups like the Hearing Voices Network –therapists, patients, and researchers who validate the experience and the voices of voice-hearers, suggesting that the voices do have meaning and purpose if the messages can be deciphered. Buddhist teachings ensured I would remain nonviolent and, for the most part, honest. My sister would introduce to me to the Icarus Project, an online forum created by and for people to share their experiences living with mental health issues. There we could ask each other questions, vent, and build relationships with people who knew exactly what we were talking about. With these resources and others, after some time, I would start to slowly recover.
I never forgot, though, how I felt that day at the hospital (and the subsequent visits), and I’m thankful for that. It was the wake up call. In all of that mess, the loss, the pain, the chaos, I found purpose and a desire to make changes and get better. I had reached a hard bottom and I knew for the first time in my life, I needed to start taking real care of myself. So I did.
I left what was left of my life behind, grabbed my cats and moved across the country and started over. I resolved to get better, and to do so on my own terms. Many thought this would be a disaster. I’ll say right now that it’s probably NOT THE BEST OPTION FOR EVERYONE. But miraculously, it worked for me. I started rebuilding reality, my personal narrative and myself. I thought long and hard about the limitations I had previously, perhaps naively, disavowed and went about working better within them.
I’m now able to say I’ve never been happier. I’m mindful of my emotions and their context; I make efforts to view them objectively and handle them proactively within the space I provide for them. I’ve been off all the the drugs, including the Psychiatric ones, now for 6 years. I also advocate for and mentor those struggling with extreme mental distress and madness, helping them to get what they need and find their own their purpose. I graduated finally and managed to land an amazing job were I help others with similar stories to mine. My next challenge will be grad school in 2019. I’m closer to my family than I’ve ever been in my life. I’m blessed to still have these two amazing cats. I have a great girlfriend of 5 years. I still continue to make art (although I must admit I’m terribly slow in process) and have a deep love of music, mostly reggae. And I think that I have all of this because I’ve been honest with myself; I didn’t push the Madness away, I embraced it. It’s helped me to be more compassionate, it’s helped me to be more urgent in finding the important things.
It’s not always easy, there are certainly days where two defiant middle fingers are raised towards the world at large. But I guess in the end, it allowed me to find my place in the world. It’s not likely that I’ll ever be normal, but I can’t imagine life in any other way.
Ryan’s Artist Statements:
Picture 1: Untitled
I still use my sketch pad as my primary medium for developing the art in my head. This is the most recent and is in need of the digital treatment. I’m also an avid Tiki lover. The idols, the Exotica music, the jungles, the dreams and fantasies born from it – I’m all in. This is an extension of that.
Picture 2: Standing on the corner…
This is one of my forever pieces; a piece that will just never be finished, I just keep adding to it. I started this during the height of my troubles with just my pencil and a sketch pad (below). I can’t pretend to know what’s going on; it’s taken on a life of it’s own. Comparing the two though, you can see how it all gets developed and refined. As I keep all of my sketch books, I go back through regularly to see how I’ve developed as an artist, but also to try and go back to my mindset at the time.
Picture 3: Arise Prometheans
I’ll never escape the feeling that those with mental illness are a product of our environment; canaries in a cold mine, if you will. Frankenstein’s Monster also carries that burden. His story is similar to many of ours. Being a lover of the older horror movies and the design of Communist China Propaganda, I merged the two to make something I’m pretty proud of.
To learn more about Genesis Club, and the services and community they provide for individuals with mental illness in Worcester, visit their website here.
If you would like to share how you are more than your depression, grief, bipolar disorder, addiction, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorder or OCD please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a Writing Guide.
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