Symptom: Emotionally inexpressive

This one I found incredibly hard to write about because it covers feelings and emotions, which I find incredibly difficult to talk about even on the best of days. I’ve written and rewritten the entire post about half a dozen times. I do hope the end result isn’t nearly as messy as my thoughts on the subject.

This is not a symptom I myself am fully aware of. I can’t tell how much or how little emotion I actually express unless others comment on it, which few actually do. And even then, they might comment on it in a sort of roundabout way, like someone might say I look more relaxed/happy after we’ve known each other for a while. I never actually realized I could be considered emotionally inexpressive until my doctor made note of it at the time of my diagnosis.

I don’t know how long I’ve had this particular symptom. For all I know, it’s something I’ve always had. Maybe it can even explain a lot of why I have such a hard time in social situations. It could be the reason I’ve sometimes felt as if there’s a glass wall between me and everyone else. It makes sense. People tend to avoid someone who’s aloof, who doesn’t mirror their own emotions. Someone who does not display weakness becomes unrelatable and unapproachable.

I can think of three main reasons why I might not express myself openly:

  1. I don’t actually know how I feel.
  2. I fear the consequences of my own feelings.
  3. I simply take a long time to warm up to new people.

First reason is difficult to deal with. I have to take the time to process physical and emotional cues to pinpoint my feelings. Sometimes, they can be very indistinct or difficult to identify.

Let’s take fear as an example. I tend to avoid social situations, but I hesitate to say that I’m afraid of social situations or have social anxiety. The behavior is the same: Avoidance. But I don’t easily recognize the telltale signs of fear: accelerated heart-rate, sweating, the feeling of unease, the worrying about what other people think of me, difficulty breathing. Some of these things do register on some level, the heart-rate and difficulty breathing in particular. But they don’t necessarily become conscious. I might realize I’m suddenly taking long, slow breaths to compensate before I register the actual signs of fear. The worry about what other people might think of me becomes internalized so I worry about what I think of me instead and I’m convinced I don’t actually care what others think of me, even though maybe I actually do on some level. Or maybe I don’t actually care what others think of me?

The emotions themselves become lost in coping mechanisms and strategies until I can’t fully tell what’s what or where the cause to my reactions lie. Maybe it’s a result of suppressing my feelings for too long? Or maybe I’m just not very sensitive to my own feelings for some reason? Maybe the connection between my brain and face muscles is just naturally weak? Maybe I just overthink everything and make it more complex than it really is?

As a result I sometimes find myself in truly upsetting situations without having the first clue why it is I find it so upsetting. It often takes me a while of careful introspection and ruminating over the whole situation before it finally dawns on me. Maybe someone said something I didn’t like and upset me, but I’m loathe to make mention of it before I know exactly what it was that upset me. Otherwise, what’s really the point? You can’t ask someone to apologize over or not repeat something you don’t even know what is. There’s very little as upsetting as being upset over nothing or not knowing what it is you’re so upset over.

On top of that, it becomes especially difficult if someone comments how I seem to feel one thing when in fact I feel something else entirely. Maybe someone would make a comment that I look more relaxed and comfortable, when in fact I’m bored out of my mind and about ready to run off screaming. It annoys me and I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t want to tell people not to voice their impression of me, quite the opposite. But what do I do when that impression is wrong? Do I correct them and say: “No, sorry this isn’t my happy and comfortable face, it’s my dying of boredom face”? Wouldn’t that make the whole thing more awkward? What if they’re right and I’m the one interpreting my own feelings wrong?

The second reason is maybe kind of complicated. In my experience, expressing negative feelings tend to produce negative outcomes. I express anger, the response is often offended and defensive, I express sadness, the response is sadness. I don’t want to make others sad! Or hurt or offended. Especially not those I care about. So, I prefer not to express those feelings. That way, I’m the only one suffering. In the short term anyways.

Because the truth is, hiding feelings doesn’t make them go away. Eventually, they’ll boil over. I know this. It’s just that it’s easier to cover them up, to wait until I’m beyond caring. The short term relief means more in the now, the long term consequences is a problem for another day.

In much the same way, I’m very conscious of not “showing weakness”, especially when I’m not quite sure about the company I’m in. I’ll avoid complaining and automatically bury any embarrassment. Embarrassment especially is something I’ve become very good at avoiding.  If I don’t acknowledge it, it’s almost as if it isn’t there at all. If anything bothers me, I’m not likely to point it out. I go to great lengths to avoid crying in front of others as much as possible. However, when I’m with friends and family, I love complaining about every little, silly thing. I’m far more talkative as well. Almost as if to compensate, letting out a little of the steam I’ve been bottling up. But only with those few I know very well and very, very rarely anything serious.

It’s not hard to imagine that this kind of thing would affect my relationships a great deal. I have easy, comfortable relationships with all of my immediate family and my closest friends. But the minute they start digging into the serious things, the relationship crumbles and I can’t get away fast enough. But family and friends are supposed to be the ones that can handle the serious stuff. Those who’ll stick around for the bad as well as the good.

But then, there’s very little as painful as the realization that you can’t actually trust someone you thought you could rely on, that you’re supposed to be able to rely on.

I’m lucky in that my family and friends are all loving and supportive. I know I can rely on them. But there’s always that little doubt. Because we’re all only human. We have faults and I’d rather live in faith than truly test it and risk rejection. I’m afraid that if I told someone that I truly needed them and they couldn’t be there, I’d break. It’s easier to tell myself that I don’t need to say it, that of course they’ll be there if I need them, but I don’t need them that much right now.

Lastly, it’s very likely that this symptom has not only affected my existing relationships, but the forming of new relationships (or lack thereof). I warm up extremely slowly to new people. If I don’t know them, I don’t know if they’re worth spending time with, but I can only know them by spending time with them. And if I lack emotional expression, it’s likely it would put a great many people off. After all, why would you spend time with someone if you can’t even tell if they’re the least bit happy to spend time with you?

Mulling over this symptom and the possible problems and after talking to a social worker about how she connects with the people she works with, some interesting questions came to mind: Why do we find some people more genuine, approachable and relateable? Not because they’re perfect. We tend to resent people who seem to do so much better than us, seemingly without effort, do we not? However, when we see someone with flaws, someone who has to work hard for every, little victory, we can sympathize. They become more human to us. They become like us.

Everyone struggles with something and the struggle is something we can usually bond over. Things like embarrassment, frustration, fear, sadness, feeling inadequate. Most, if not all of us have been there one way or another. It invokes sympathy. I think we like being able to sympathize with those we’re with. But we tend to hate being sympathized, it quickly becomes pitied and patronized. I certainly do.

But then, by refusing to show weakness, by pretending nothing at all bothers me, I may inadvertently tell people, that I’m superior to them, that I wouldn’t be able to understand their flaws, that we have nothing to talk about or bond over. Essentially that I surely wouldn’t give them poor, faulty mortals the time of the day.

I’m often described as very intelligent and seem very mature and competent, but in truth I often feel so very far from all those things that the compliments sometimes end up seeming like outright lies to me. Me, intelligent? Hurr-durr, thanks I guess? I can’t seem to work out even the simplest of problems though. Competent? Yet routinely defeated by a pile of dishes. Mature? LOL.

I like being praised and admired, even if I can’t quite believe the admired traits truly are ones I possess. It’s certainly better than pity or resentment. I want those around me to see the good, not the bad. So I tend to cover up the bad. Perhaps with time and practice, I’ll be able to open up more and then I’ll learn that I truly don’t have to be lonely.

Cognitive Training

When looking at indicators for successful recovery from mental illness, I’ve sometimes seen intelligence, IQ or cognitive abilities mentioned. Personally, I haven’t often viewed my own intelligence with much favor. After all, what good is an above average IQ, if you can’t even manage to keep your own kitchen in order? Furthermore, if you’ve found your IQ score a little on the low side, don’t worry. Like your muscles, you can improve your “brain power” with training – and as I explain later, being good at puzzles doesn’t necessarily mean being good at living. But that too is a matter of training and practice.

So, when talking about cognitive training, what is it exactly we’re talking about?

Cognitive psychology covers everything from critical thinking to attention and memory. It is what we use when we read, write, remember tasks and shopping lists, follow conversations and work on puzzles and challenges among other things. When you recall items on your shopping list, search out a particular item on the shop shelves or spot a friend in the crowd, you use your cognition to do so.

Attention and memory in particular have been shown to suffer when a person is in a state of prolonged stress. You might notice that you forget more easily or have a harder time concentrating on tasks when you’re under great pressure, especially if you’ve been under pressure for a long time.

So, how does cognitive training work? Simply by using your brain. You can easily find several good “brain training” around. On the App store on my phone, I found Brain Training by Triangle Labs Inc., Elevate by Elevate Labs and Lumosity by Lumos Labs Inc. for free. Even well-known puzzle and memory games like crossword puzzles and the like can be used to train your attention, concentration and memory – or various video games for that matter. However, you can sit all day and “git gud” at a game, but then all you do is get really good at that one particular game. The trick is to combine several games to train different skills and then transfer those skills into everyday life.

I, for instance have struggled a great deal with concentration and memory. I couldn’t concentrate on my studies and couldn’t remember the texts I’d read. I’d also constantly lose focus and had trouble keeping track of conversations. And yet I had little trouble remembering every Pokemon and their types, attacks and weaknesses. Or follow the juicy development between the main characters of this or that cheap romance novel.

So, I joined a cognitive training group to try and figure out what exactly was going wrong and try and train my brain not only to remember Pokemons, but shopping lists and scientific articles too.

The cognitive training part of the group consisted of playing especially developed games on the computer, where you use various parts of your brain to solve problems. There’re attention and memory games, where you remember figures and where on the screen you saw them, names and faces, spoken messages and puzzles like the Tower of Hanoi. Each game started would start out easy, then slowly grow in difficulty.

The games themselves were a lot of fun, but the really helpful part of the group was spending time in the group as a whole talking about the similarities between the games and tasks in our daily lives.

Suddenly, the Tower of Hanoi wasn’t just neat little disks on pegs, but piles of boxes in a cramped room that need to be moved to create more space or the random figure somewhere on your screen became your keys located somewhere in your room.

We also spent a lot of time learning each other’s names, going over a couple helpful strategies. Names and faces are a real chore to remember, especially when you have to remember a lot at once. But you can help your memory along by creating connections or more meaning. Like, “Her name is Mary, like my aunt”, “Michael likes knit sweaters”, “Basil like the spice” or “Stella is a star”. Then, when you see the person, you can help your memory along. My aunt = Mary. Knit sweater = Michael etc.

The cognitive training didn’t only stay on the computer, but was pulled into daily living and chores. When you clean up your room, you locate objects, identify them and categorize them to place them in their rightful places. Granted, real life is three-dimensional and full of distractions, but the task in and of itself is the same. It’s just like the computer game, but in hard mode. Once your brain becomes accustomed to performing the task in simple 2D on the computer, it becomes easier to perform in real life. All you need is to make the connection between the game and the real life task and your brain will know what’s needed.

Over the course of the group, I found motivation and interest in the computer games waning, but I’m still using my brain every day, concentrating on tasks and chores, remembering said tasks and chores and how to perform them. It’s become a fun, little exercise when I’m playing a game to try and think of ways how the game translates into real life.

One really helpful technique I’ve learned from the group is to chop up big tasks into smaller tasks and steps. Dishes get divided up by category, so a big pile of dishes becomes smaller, more manageable piles by category: cutlery, plates, cups and finally pots and pans. Cleaning and tidying is similarly cut up into steps. When tidying my room, I start by sorting the trash, then the laundry. Then I usually lose momentum and end up in front of the computer until the trash and laundry piles up again. But once each item has a box, place or category, it becomes easier to deal with. Feels like I’ve mentioned something like this before on the blog somewhere… well, memory’s still not the greatest, but it’s getting better, I think.

Have I mentioned I also find lists and plans helpful? Writing down each step needed to perform a task and how to do it helps keep focus and reduces a big chore to simply following a set of instructions. Cleaning the bathroom starts with filling up a bucket with soapy water, gathering up the necessary supplies and then starting pouring some cleaning solvent into the toilet, then with washing the walls, the sink and shower finishing cleaning the toilet and then the floor. Like following a recipe when baking.

Nowadays, I’m maybe still not at the level of scientific articles, but I’ve slowly upgraded to more meaty texts than cheap romance novels and at least shopping lists aren’t a problem anymore.

Not My World

 This is really more of a personal rant than anything else. It’s mostly an expression of my own depression and feeling of disconnect from the rest of the world. But perhaps you might find something familiar or useful anyways. Further down, I touch briefly on thoughts of suicide. If you struggle with thoughts of suicide yourself, my advice is: find a reason to stick around just a little longer and seek help. The way back out of depression isn’t easy, true. Sometimes you have to crest the hill yourself to see the light and find that you’re not as alone as you thought you were. Death is permanent, depression isn’t.

 Sometimes, I don’t feel as if I belong in this world, like there’s no home for me, no use or purpose. I’m just a round peg trying to fill out a square hole. I don’t understand half the things other people do or say, I’ve no connection to the world at large. If it weren’t for the far too few connections I do have, I’d have been completely lost, adrift in a cold and uncaring world.

I feel as if I’ve nothing to offer the world and that the world has nothing to offer me. That I’m a waste of resources that could have been used to help someone else more deserving and in more need. I’ve no right to complain, and truthfully not much to complain about either. It’s my own fault that I’m miserable. In fact, I’ve nothing at all to be so miserable about. I don’t even know how or why I’m so miserable. Am I truly such a horrible person? That I can’t simply be content and focus on the good things in life? ‘Cause surely there are good things, even if I can’t see them right in the moment.

I’ve a place to live, an income, of sorts. Things to do. But I’ve no home, no real purpose and I’m worse than superfluous – I’m a burden. No matter where I go, I’m nothing more than a guest, a beggar or a prisoner. Living off other people’s good will. It would be ungrateful of me to complain, to express discontent. But I feel it all the same.

Why can’t I just be content with a crappy cashier job? Live in a crappy apartment, content with crappy neighbors or crappy roommates? People do that all the time. They get on with their lives. Some even enjoy it. Why do I have to be so unreasonable? I know the world isn’t fair and no amount of complaining is ever going to make it fair.

I’ve so many people working to help me. I feel like I should be more thankful than I am. And truly, I’ve come so far this past year and a half. Why is it so hard to see the improvements? Why is it such an effort to see the positives? Am I such an awful person I can’t acknowledge all the amazing help I’ve received? How lucky I am? Shouldn’t I be over these bouts of depression? Or at least better at dealing with them? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel entitled to comfort or better life. At least I don’t think I do. I just don’t consider a poor, miserable life worth living.

The other day, I had a pretty good meeting with a psychologist working on a project to help young people into jobs and education. We brainstormed ideas for me to find more fulfilling work and she had a lot of good ideas. She was also a good listener and all in all, I think the meeting went well and I felt fine. Still, I felt lost and adrift. And walking home from that meeting, I just wanted to step right off into traffic, preferably in front of a nice big truck. I didn’t. I had no desire to ruin anybody else’s day. I felt like I wasted everyone’s time somehow.

It made me think of the movie, Up in the Air with George Clooney. At one point, they fire a woman who seems perfectly calm and put together, who then frankly informs them she intends to throw herself off a bridge back home. If a person neither looks nor sounds desperate, how would anyone know if they truly intend on acting upon such a drastic impulse? Surely a competent, intelligent, young woman would find her own reasons to keep going, even when everything looks hopeless.

I don’t feel particularly depressed or emotionally unstable. I’m just so tired of looking for the silver lining in every cloud hanging over my head. Always trying to see the positive when everything just looks like shit.

I will say this though: I am not suicidal. No sudden or violent death appeals to me and I’ve no intention of acting on any, random suicidal impulse. I’d much prefer a comfortable, dark corner somewhere to slowly, quietly decompose over decades and decades.

If only I could kill off my soul and be content with simply a life and not have to worry about living a good life. I wonder if a lobotomy could do the trick? Pity it’s no longer practiced. Not that adding damage to problem would likely solve anything.

I’ve been told that intelligence is a resource, but my intelligence has brought me neither happiness nor fulfillment. It’s just a bigger cup to fill when all I have to fill it with is a couple of pebbles. It just feels more empty. I think I could have been happier if I was dumber; had a smaller cup to fill.

I feel broken. Irreparably broken. My brain as useless and burdensome as a pair of floppy, paralyzed legs.

If I were a dog back home in Greenland,  I’d likely have been shot or drowned. Nobody needs a useless dog. But then, if I remember correctly, Greenland still has the highest percentage of suicides in the world. I wonder how many of them felt like I feel now? Like a lame dog to be put out of its and everyone else’s misery.

Unlike them though, I have no problem finding excuses to stick around anyway. I know there’re people who would be absolutely heartbroken if I were gone and I might be useless in the grand scheme of things, but I’m not leaving my loved ones behind if it means I can’t ever come back to them. Moreover, there’re still things I want to do that I can’t do if I’m dead. And if all else fails, I’ll stick around purely out of spite. Let my two middle fingers be the last thing to disappear, when the rest of me is mulch piled in my dark, little compost-corner.

This world might not be my world, but I’m living in it. So I might as well make the best of it. With a little luck, I’ll even manage to find a way to make it a little better for others as well. And who knows, maybe somewhere down the road, I’ll even manage to find a couple pebbles of happiness for myself.

Symptom: Social Withdrawal

Social withdrawal is a negative symptom of Schizophrenia and can be present in Schizotypal disorders as well. It is when a person shuns social contact and spends large quantities of time by themselves, largely ignoring the world around them.

I think, for much of it, this tendency is closely tied to social anxiety. After all, we tend to avoid what we fear and brings us discomfort. But that’s not the whole reason behind it. At least for myself, sometimes I just get so tired or so distracted that social interaction becomes more of a burden than a pleasure. It simply takes too much effort. My brain, like a sore muscle, screams out for rest so it can recuperate.

For myself, I often have periods of time, a day or two usually, sometimes up to several weeks, where I can’t stand the thought of looking at another human being. During those periods of time I find communication, even by text, extremely difficult.

Usually, these periods of isolation coincide with depressive periods. I’ll huddle in my room, in front of the computer, immersing myself in fiction. Sometimes I’ll spend days just playing video games. Other times I’ll binge-watch TV or anime series or Youtube videos, or spend every waking hour just reading mindless, fluffy romance novels. Just anything that keeps my mind turned off, away from reality. If one pastime fails to distract me well enough, I’ll move on to another before I have to think too deeply on what it is I’m doing.

Any time I find myself under any kind of pressure, I risk lapsing into this isolation tendency. Exam periods were especially harrowing. I had to retake a couple exams, but somehow I managed to get through them in the end.

Too much social contact can also be a serious strain. I get exhausted just by being around a lot of people, even when I don’t have to talk to anyone. Talking to a lot of people over a period of time seems to be especially draining though. Even just spending too much time with family can leave me exhausted and irritable, to the point where simply having another person just quietly breathing in the same room becomes unbearable.

I’m extremely introverted by nature, and so I actually need some time to myself, to recharge and relax.  Otherwise I end up mentally exhausted and stressed out. Generally, a day or two a week, without social obligations is enough to keep me going, so I try to plan around that.

My most recent bout of social withdrawal, was likely brought on by too much social contact. I just simply couldn’t bear the thought of seeing, let alone talking to another human being. I felt almost like I’d shatter, if I did. Thankfully, usually after a couple days, or sometimes a week or two, depending on my level of exhaustion, I perk up again and become able to face the world once more.

I think, there are several points to keep in mind about social withdrawal. One is personality. If you have an introverted personality like mine, you might benefit from more time alone. But too much time alone isn’t good for anyone, regardless of personality.

During my worst time, I spent weeks by myself, hardly speaking a word to anyone. During that time, I found my speech greatly deteriorated. When I finally did speak, I spoke slow and haltingly, spending more time searching for words. My more psychotic symptoms became more pronounced, I felt increasingly detached from my body and the world around me. The more time I spent alone, the harder it became to simply set foot out the door. I was “lucky” enough that my local supermarket was open 24/7 at the time, and so I’d do my grocery shopping in the middle of the night to avoid other people as much as possible. I could hardly function day to day and that’s when I finally realized, I couldn’t keep going at the rate I was.

This leads me to another point to keep in mind: Day to day function. If your social withdrawal impacts your day to day life negatively, if you find your mood deteriorating, find tasks such as grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, showering etc. increasingly more difficult, that’s obviously a big problem. Any time you spend alone isn’t in and of itself a problem, as long as it doesn’t affect your quality of life and your relationships.

If you can, holding up your behavior before and after getting sick can also be a good idea. Were you much more social before you got sick? If so, then the social withdrawal most likely due to your illness. As with any symptom, proper treatment might greatly reduce, if not completely eliminate it. Although, it goes without saying, that restoring a ruined social life is very hard work. Like most any course of recovery, it takes time and practice. You don’t generally start running the moment the cast is off your broken leg either.

Like our muscles, our brain requires use to function properly. This includes the parts of our brain governing language, speech and social skills. The more they’re used, the better and easier it becomes.

Since my biggest bout of isolation, I’ve come a long way, simply by interacting with the people around me, weekly talks with my psychologist, frequent visits to my dad and the like. I was also very lucky to get into a social skills training group, where we meet every week and take up various problems we face in social interaction. We’ll take a problem one of us faces and together discuss strategies and ways to overcome it.

For instance, maybe someone is facing a pending family gathering and is nervous about seeing family members they haven’t seen or talked to for ages. So then we’ll talk about what makes the person nervous, the negative thoughts they face like: “They’re not going to like me” or difficult questions like: “What do I say if they ask how I’ve been?”, “do I tell them about my illness?”, “if I don’t want to talk about it, what do I say if they ask?”

Usually, by the end of it, we’ll have a plan of action for the person and a whole host of good tools and ideas for everyone else.

To summarize: Social withdrawal may be a symptom of illness, but it’s only a problem if it’s bad for your relationships and quality of life. If it does become a problem, it can be treated with training and working out good strategies. Cultivating good relationships is crucial for a good quality of life regardless of illness, health or personality.

 

Lastly, these are, as always simply my own thoughts and experiences. I am by no means an expert and my experiences may not completely reflect yours. Take what you can use and leave the rest.

Household Chores

I often find keeping up with day-to-day living extremely hard. I especially have a hard time keeping up with household chores like tidying and cleaning, laundry and dishes and the like. If you’ve struggled with depression or some other mental illnesses, I’m sure it founds very familiar indeed.

Otherwise, it might sound awfully petty or lazy. After all, these are all things nobody likes to do but still needs to get done. It’s a part of life and you just have to suck it up and get it done. But feeling bad and horrid over never getting it done doesn’t help. It doesn’t give me the energy or presence of mind to do them. It just makes me feel awful and like a complete failure.

I struggle even on my good days, but when I’m in a really bad period, the simple chores become impossible. The filth just piles up. Trash, laundry, dishes, everything blends into a giant, depressing mess without head nor tail. I can’t cook proper food because of the dishes, I’ve no energy to tackle the dishes and don’t really have the energy to cook besides. I run out of clean clothes because I can’t manage to do my laundry and I don’t shower because I’ve no clean clothes to change into, so I can’t go out either. I won’t have anyone over, because everything’s a mess and I can’t summon up the energy to do anything about it. And just staring at the whole mess every day just makes my mood even worse.

Luckily, it’s been a very long time since things were quite so bad. Although I still can’t quite get rid of the mess entirely just yet. I’m slowly working on incorporating better habits and found a couple strategies that seem to help make my life easier quite a bit.

Some time ago, I attended a cognitive training group. We’d train memory, attention and the like by playing games on the computer. They stressed the importance of keeping up with these games at home, to get the best results. We didn’t have to spend a long time on it, just a few minutes if that’s all we had. If we couldn’t spend an hour, then a half or even just 10 or 5 minutes, then that was fine. Just so long as we got something done.

Working with that same principle, I found I could chop up my chores in various ways to make them more manageable. When faced with a messy room, I could chop the tidying up into categories, saying I’ll pick up the trash first and then that’s one task done. I can take a break, stop for the day or, if I feel up to it, I’ll maybe gather up the laundry or start clearing my desk. Then, little by little, I’ll manage to get my room in order. It might take days or even weeks, but it’ll slowly get done. I’d chop up the tasks into as little pieces as necessary. If it’s even just picking up one sock off the floor and putting it in the laundry bin, that’s still one sock less littering the floor.

For the dishes, since I didn’t have a dishwasher and very little kitchen-space, they tended to be a big problem. So, I’d start by just sorting and tidying up the dishes, pile the plates and bowls together, group cups and glasses, gather the cutlery together. Suddenly, it looks a lot more manageable. Then, when I feel up to it, I’ll wash the cutlery first. Then the plates, then cups and glasses etc.

Often times, I’d do the dishes, then order takeout. Dishes and cooking right after each other is a lot and so, just thinking about it would make me too tired and depressed to even get started. So instead, I’d negotiate with myself, find a comfortable place between nothing and everything and at least just get something done.

It might sound lazy or petty to feel satisfied with only doing a tiny bit at a time, but I’ve tried beating myself up over it and that got me nowhere good. When everything is darkness and you’re just barely holding on to your will to live, there’s no just “pulling yourself together”. You’ll have to make do with what you can do, and forgive the rest. That way, you might soon find that the amount that you can do will slowly increase.

Another thing I discovered just recently is just how helpful step-by-step guides can be.

Where I live now, I have to share the bathroom with 5 others and so we each have to take a turn every week to clean it. To help with that, there’s a piece of paper hung in the bathroom with a detailed step-by-step guide on how to go about it. The first step is listed as: “Fill a bucket with warm water and a bit of cleaning agent.” Then it details what to clean first with what and how. It makes the whole process so much simpler and easier. You just follow the list one step at a time and then you’re done.

Even though I know roughly how to clean a bathroom, I found it extremely helpful to have a written guide. That way, I didn’t have to keep everything in my head and risk forgetting anything. The cleaning got chopped up into easy, little steps that made it much more manageable. Sure, I had to do the whole thing in one sitting since others need to use the bathroom, but it didn’t feel like such a big task when I had a place to start and a list to follow.

I’d bet I could use a guide like that to do more things than just cleaning the bathroom. Such as tidying up my room, doing the laundry, the dishes, even keeping track of bills and finances.

I struggle with chores, sure. But I’m not lazy. I just need a good strategy. You don’t have to leap into the deep water, if there’s a ladder or you can slowly wade in from the shore. It’s okay to do things slowly, one step at a time and at your own pace. What matters is that it gets done.

Body Awareness Therapy

A little while ago, I took a class dubbed “Body Mindfulness”, which was a light exercise and meditation class employing elements from Yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong and mindfulness meditation. It turned out to be an exercise therapy called Body Awareness Therapy (BAT) developed sometime in the 70’s and used by physiotherapists to alleviate symptoms both in physical ailments such as chronic pain like from whiplash and mental illnesses like schizophrenia and the like.

This class caught my attention because I’ve had problems with feeling disconnected from my own body, feeling as if one or more bodyparts or in some instances my whole body isn’t really mine or fully under my control. I had an inkling that it was a problem that could be removed or alleviated by actually using my body, exercising and the like. But it’s incredibly difficult to get motivated and I detest the pains and aches and exhaustion that comes from exercising. So, a light exercise class that seems to focus on connecting body and mind by focusing one’s attention on the body and movements more than the movements themselves seemed like just the thing.

I often struggled with actually showing up for class, but once I was there, my experience was very positive. The exercises did indeed help not only with loosening up on some muscle-tension, but helped making me feel more connected to my body as well.

The exercises were very simple and fairly easy to do at home. Most of them only required a yogamat and enough room on the floor to stretch out. We’d start the class by taking note of how we’re feeling in the moment, our mood, various bodily sensations we might be feeling at the moment. I’d often feel a tension in my neck and shoulders, maybe some strain in my thighs, ankles and feet from the kneeling position. Sometimes I’d feel mostly happy and content, other times I’d not want to talk at all, and whether it was good or bad feelings and sensations, they were all valid and perfectly acceptable. There was always a relaxed atmosphere in the room, no one ever asked any more than you were willing to share and you were free to participate as much or as little as you were able.

Next, we’d do a lying down or sitting meditation exercise where we’d slowly move our attention first to breathing, then to various body parts one at a time. I’d often find my thoughts wander and might have fallen asleep once or twice during this exercise. It wasn’t uncommon to hear someone else snoring softly somewhere either. The point, I think, was to gently coax your mind and attention to focus on your body, let go of wandering thoughts without judgement and just be in the moment. The mindfulness part of the therapy.

Next, we’d do various standing exercises. The main focus was to visualize this center-line going through our bodies and slowly move it and our bodies back and forth, side to side, up and down, twisting around. If you’ve ever taken a lesson in drawing the human body, you might be familiar with the helping line often drawn straight down through the center of the face and follows the spine all the way down the body. That’s what I’d visualize – just more like a rigid thread or rod going through my body that I can move around and my body sort of just follows.

Then we’d do various exercises lying down, often times with a big sausage-pillow, filled with something like sand to give them weight and firmness. We’d use the weight, hugging it on top of our chests, use the firmness to lay our back or legs on it and relax into a stretch over it. Some of my favorite exercises were just lying down and moving the arms. One started lying on our backs, eyes closed, with the arms laying straight down our sides. Then we’d slowly, very slowly lift them up and sloooowly raise them up and then down to rest above our heads. It was always something of a surprise to note just how heavy my arms are. Sometimes we’d open our eyes when it felt like our arms were at their highest point above, to give some visual feedback on our physical sensations.

Another one we’d lie on our sides with one arm straight up into the air. Then we’d slowly swing it around in the shoulder-socket, first in tiny circles, then slowly widen the circles until the circle stretched as wide around as possible, practically dragging the hand on the floor at the front and back. Those exercises could really loosen up some muscles in the shoulders and back.

Finally, we’d finish up the class by repeating the starting exercise, noting how we’re feeling in the moment compared to at the beginning of the class. More often than not, I’d feel a definite improvement, if not in my mood, then in how my body felt overall. Sometimes, I’d note a tension in new muscles, sometimes I’d have more or less of a headache. More often than not, I’d feel much more relaxed and at ease compared to the beginning of the class.

It’s a bit of a challenge to actually keep up with the exercises, but I’m happy to say that I feel much more connected to my body these days and haven’t had any episodes of being unable to recognize it as my own. It doesn’t do much for the face in the mirror, but I don’t spend much time staring into mirrors anyways.

Symptom: Paranoid Thinking

When asked whether I suffer from paranoid thinking, I’d say no. I don’t really think the people around me want to deliberately hurt me. I don’t automatically think the worst of other people or assume anything about their speech or behavior without good evidence. Not that I’m aware of, anyways.

I do have this sense that I mustn’t show weakness, or show if I’m nervous/afraid/uncomfortable, that if I show other people that they can hurt me, they probably will. It doesn’t register to me as an actual fear. I simply quietly avoid it, let it pass me by without a conscious thought. And so, when people inevitably hurt or disappointment me, I know it wasn’t on purpose, because if they’d known, then surely they wouldn’t have said or done what they did. Maybe I’m afraid to find out that if I did give others the opportunity, that they would want to hurt me deliberately? So it’s better to hide and forgive any accidental toe-stepping.

I’ve heard that sometimes people suffering from schizotypal disorder can have small, momentary paranoid delusions, or maybe paranoid stray thoughts. They might be very self-conscious about it and feel that the thought is silly, that “of course my friend isn’t a government spy” or “bodysnatchers isn’t real and mrs. Jensen down the hall isn’t actually an alien in disguise” but… Often, such thoughts are fairly quickly and easily dismissed.

Sometimes, the idea might feel all too real and even if they sound silly to others, they make perfect sense to the person experiencing them. Those tend to enter the realm of full-blown paranoid delusions. Thankfully, I’ve never experienced this myself, that I can remember. I’ve enough in worrying that my subjective reality isn’t quite the same as objective reality, or the reality experienced by everyone else, so that there’s no chance I’ll ever be able to truly understand what others are talking about, or make myself understood. Could that be considered a paranoia?

Paranoid thinking could also be things such as, if a friend takes a little longer to reply to a text, “it’s because she’s angry or doesn’t like me”, or “everyone at work hates me,” even though there’s no real evidence for it. It could also be the immediate assumption that if someone says something hurtful, it’s deliberate, or interpreting general comments as referring to you personally. I heard a story of a man once, who, while suffering from paranoid delusions, became convinced that the happy smiley faces staff members left on whiteboard messages for general use were in fact caricatures of him, which the staff drew purely to mock him. It might sound like a silly, little thing, but it’s truly deeply disturbing and hurtful for the one experiencing it.

Mostly, my own fears are never so concrete or focused, although I’ll admit I’m absolutely terrified of ghosts (even though I don’t really believe they exist, I can’t say they definitely don’t exist either). It’s usually just a vague sense of “I’m not safe”, “I’m alone, but it feels like there’s someone else here” or “I’m completely, utterly alone in a cold and uncaring world”. I’m aware the latter is an incredibly ungrateful thought, that I have people close to me who care a great deal about me. But well, they have their own problems. They have their own lives to worry about. They don’t and can’t possibly understand what I’m going through. Although in truth, I’m sure they understand and recognize a great deal more than I’d think.

I hate this part of me, who thinks this way. Like an overly dramatic teenager. But I can’t quite get rid of her. It’s silly and stupid, but it’s the way I feel, and feelings aren’t so simple to change. The fact I feel ashamed for feeling this way in the first place makes it all the harder to admit to and discuss, even just with myself.

I don’t know what to do about the vague feeling of being unsafe. Mostly, I just try to ignore it, distract myself, turn on the lights so I can see around the room, play some music, read a book. But this often ensures I won’t get much sleep that night and I’ll be tired and cranky the next day.

Sometimes, if I catch myself thinking or feeling something negative, I use techniques from CBT (That’s Cognitive Behavior Therapy, not the… kinky one) and try to challenge the thought or feeling using reason. I’ll ask myself things like: Where am I? Have I ever experienced something bad here? How likely is it, that this thought/feeling is true and reasonable? If I’m feeling alone, maybe I’ll challenge the feeling by texting a friend. She usually texts back. Maybe I’ll line up examples in my head where my bad expectations were justified versus where they were proved wrong and usually I’ll find just enough examples to put my mind at ease. I can use this technique to determine the likelihood of a thought being true as well. Like, “if Mrs. Jensen down the hall were an alien, what’s the evidence for it? Could there be other, more likely explanations? Maybe she just had a bad day and goes back to normal soon enough?”

 

I’d love to hear if anyone else experience anything like what I’ve described and how you deal/cope with them.

Sense of Self

Talking to a few others with schizotypal disorder during a group session, I found a curious trait most of us seemed to share. And that was a lacking, or poor sense of self. It was somewhat described as feeling “hollow” or not having a core of identity by one and it’s a feeling I find I can recognize: The sense of being a different person depending on who I’m talking to. I’ve on occasion thought of myself as a mirror, merely reflecting others’ own image back at them. Sometimes I’ve felt like a poor facsimile of a human being, other times just as if I’m missing something crucial that’s supposed to make me a person. Sometimes, when alone, I’d feel like a puppet, with her strings cut, or a toy others might pull out and play with for a while, but then put back in the toy box and forget about until the next play-time.

Identity is a complex thing I’m sure we all struggle with at one point or another. Teenage years and mid-life crises come to mind. Questions like: Who am I? What do I want? Like? What do I think about this or that or how does one thing or other make me feel? But I imagine most people have a sense of being, something inside they can point to and say: That’s me. They might not know who they are or what they’re really like, but there’s something. A constant that’s always there. A certainty that there’s something that’s you and you do exist.

This doesn’t seem necessarily the case if you suffer from Schizotypal disorder. I don’t know if it’s a trait in every case or how severe or mild it can be for each person. For me, I do usually have a sense of self. I’m the source of my thoughts. Trouble is, I can’t always tell if it’s really a me, or stray fragments of thoughts and opinions picked up from other people and tangled up together to fill an empty void.

The worst part of it is, I think, that whenever I try to talk about what I think/feel or how I see myself, I can’t always tell if I’m even telling the truth or not. I often struggle to find the right words to describe them and I am endlessly worrying about whether or not the words I use actually mean what I think they mean. I worry constantly that I’m being misunderstood and that I in turn don’t understand others at all. Makes for interesting social interaction. Not to mention sitting down and writing a blog like this one. Sometimes it just all feels like a massive waste of time, but anxiety and depression are a topics for another day.

So, what do I do to try and lessen the feeling of emptiness, the lack of identity? I treat it like an empty canvas and paint something on it. I sit down and think about what kind of person I want to be: Honest, compassionate, loyal, kind, intelligent, confident… and then I strive to live by the values I make for myself. Of course it’s not easy and I don’t always live up to my ideals, but then no one actually does. I think of it like this: Who I am doesn’t matter nearly as much as what I do. Then all I have to think about is what do to do to create the image I want for myself. But I realize it might ring a little hollow to some. It just ends up feeling like another role to play. A lie.

Another thing I do is, I spend a lot of time pondering my interests, my talents, consider what I like to do, take the time to really think about my likes and dislikes, try to examine my feelings and emotions and how I react to one thing or another. I imagine Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) also might provide a good way to challenge the feeling of emptiness/hollowness and negative thoughts such as “I’m nobody”, “I don’t have a personality” and the like. Often times, when you sit down and really think about it, there’s usually always some kind of evidence that there really is a person inside.

I try not to compare myself to other people too much. Down that road lies all kinds of misery.

I mentioned playing a role earlier and incidentally, one of my big interests is roleplaying. I recommend it for anyone who struggles with identity problems. Or hell, I’d recommend it to anyone just ’cause it’s super fun! The gist of it is, you construct a fictional character complete with a backstory and personality and then act them out in a series of scenarios together with other players. Basically making a game out of playing pretend. There are many ways you can roleplay: Live action roleplay, a great variety of desktop games like Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer and Shadowrun, as well as text-based roleplaying fora all around internet. There are also roleplaying communities in the various Massively Multiplayer Roleplaying Games like World of Warcraft and the like. Roleplaying gives a great opportunity to explore roles, personalities and even sexuality without actually putting yourself out there. I had a guy in my roleplaying group once, who played a gay character before he officially came out as gay. I don’t know if the roleplaying ever actually had any effect on his decision when he did decide to come out of the closet. I never asked. But I like to think it helped just a little.

 

A poor sense of self can be an incredibly painful, confusing thing to live with. But perhaps there can be upsides to it too and it certainly doesn’t have to be all pain always.

Symptom: Unusual Perceptual Experiences

This is perhaps one of the more insane-sounding symptoms, but also one of the hardest for me to correctly understand and identify. In fact, it took me many years to realize what they were.

Sometimes, when I’m really stressed, I see shadows, either flickering out of the corner of my eye or appearing and disappearing from one blink of an eye to the next. They were always so brief they weren’t really worth paying much attention to. Easy to ignore and forget. At most, they might weird me out a little, but I got over them quick enough.

Whenever I stare at a blank wall, more often than not it will begin to waiver, wriggle and squirm as if it were alive. This happens so often it hardly registers as unusual. I know the wall is completely inanimate and that it’s just my eyes creating the illusion, so I can just ignore it.

Sometimes I’d hear my mom calling my name in this really annoying voice, even when she wasn’t. But I haven’t heard her calling my name since I moved away from home.

Phantom noise or cries is fairly common and not necessarily a sign of insanity. Parents to infants might experience hearing their baby crying even when it’s not, or perhaps they’ll hear a random noise, like a bird call or the like, and it’d sound like their baby crying. I suppose the stress of too little sleep and too much awful noise can get to anyone. But knowing this, I never really thought of my ‘hearing’ things as anything unusual or a cause for concern. In the end, it was easily ignored and soon became little more than background noise.

I’ve had problems with neighbors playing too loud music because the walls are stupid-thin, but sometimes I felt as if I was just hearing things. As soon as I left my room to complain to my neighbor, I wouldn’t be able to hear anything at all. Usually, there’d be a window or door open and that’s what made the sound carry. Other times the music would be loud enough to hear from outside as well. To this day, I don’t know if some of the noise was created solely in my head just out of the stress created by the actual noise. But that period of about two years was the one period I felt the most insane in all my life.

The worst case of seeing something that wasn’t there, that I can remember was when I was still living at home. One evening I saw a girl sitting in the corner of my room. But it wasn’t exactly how I’d thought seeing things was like. I could see the empty corner clearly with my eyes and knew she wasn’t there. But at the same time, I had the feeling she was there and I could see her clearly in my mind’s eye. Even though I knew she wasn’t actually there, I just couldn’t get her out of my mind. I had to leave the room and go sit in the living room for a while. I was obviously upset and worried my mother, but I couldn’t explain why or what happened to me. How do you explain seeing something, but not really? I never saw it as “seeing things”. Because it wasn’t exactly at the level of A Beautiful Mind, now was it?

When I was first questioned by a doctor on whether I heard or saw things that weren’t there, I said no. Because the squirmy walls, the shadows, the strange girl, the phantom noises, those weren’t “seeing” or “hearing” things, they were just a trick of my over-active imagination. They weren’t the signs of a mental illness. I was depressed, not insane.

It wan’t until much later, when I attended a lecture by a woman suffering from Schizophrenia and she described hearing voices as very similar to having a song stuck in your head, that my view of my own experiences began to change. As she said, most people have experienced a catchy song continuously playing in their head. She said that the voices were like that, but talking instead of playing music. And a lot more oppressive, upsetting and disruptive.

She described how she learned to cope with the voices, identifying when they grew worse, which was usually when she was especially tired or stressed out. They weren’t just always there. Knowing when and why they appeared helped her overcome the negative voices. Then, instead of being a torment, they became a reminder to take better care of herself.

Hers is the best advice I’ve found to cope with unusual perceptual experiences. The shadows and phantom cries aren’t the first warning sign that I’m starting to get overwhelmed and stressed out, but they’re probably the most obvious and easily identified.
These days, shadows hardly appear in the corner of my eyes, but when they do, I try to pay more attention to what I’m doing and how I’m feeling.

Occasionally, when I’m really tired, I’ve also started to ‘hear’ a whole crowded restaurant in my head, full of broken pieces of conversations, fragments of sentences that make little sense. It makes thinking or focusing on things really hard. Luckily, it doesn’t last very long and it’s not something that actually keeps me from sleep.

The unusual perceptual experiences I’ve described here may not sound very severe and in most cases are fairly easy to ignore. But when they start to chase you out of a room, keep you from going out the door or drive you so much to distraction you don’t have any attention left for the things you need or actually want to do, they can become very debilitating indeed. Like a hundred little streams that become a large river.

In summary: Unusual perceptual experiences can be small, almost trivial and little more than a distraction. But if that distraction is actually really upsetting or disruptive, it may be worth it to pay more attention to the situations in which they arise. The nature and experience of the unusual perceptual experiences can vary greatly from person to person. Some may not be able to distinguish them from reality, which is upsetting enough all on its own, whereas others may experience them as a figment of an over-active and out of control imagination. The point is, it’s not something you can control.
Reducing stress can reduce the impact of unusual perceptual experiences significantly.

Symptoms: Odd Thinking

I figured, rather than just copying the many pages describing schizotypal disorder, I’d take my time going through each symptom and just give my own perspective on them.

So let me start with the one that might be the most obvious when reading this blog: Odd thinking and speech (or in this case, writing).

The Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders I found here writes this: “People with schizotypal personality disorder may have speech patterns that appear strange in their structure and phrasing. Their ideas are often loosely associated, prone to tangents, or vague in description. Some may verbalize responses by being overly concrete or abstract and insert words that serve to confuse rather than clarify a particular situation, yet make sense to them.”

It’s a bit iffy and looking from the outside, it might be a bit hard to put your finger on exactly what it is that makes the speech or writing sound weird exactly.

Seen from the inside, I’m not actually sure myself that my thinking or speech really is that odd compared to anyone else’s. I make perfect sense to my own ears. The only clue I have is the way other people react to the things I say and do, which don’t always make any sense to me. As if they heard something completely different from what I said. Although it’s pretty rare.

In conversation and writing, I think I tend to turn to metaphors and allegories a lot when trying to explain things and depending on how complex the topic is, I might never actually manage to get to the true core of the matter. But it’s not something I’ve ever registered as a problem myself. I can imagine how it might become a little tedious for some.

Sometimes in conversation, I’ll taste test words, trying to gauge whether it fits the thought or feeling I’m trying to describe. If I’m writing, Thesaurus can be a big help finding just the right word. In speech, I’m stuck with my own memory and gut feeling.

Whether in speech or writing, it takes me a lot of time to organize my thoughts. The harder the topic, the longer it takes. On top of that, when I get nervous or insecure, my speech becomes very slow and halting. I’m sure you can imagine how that might make conversation a bit tedious and uncomfortable for everyone.

Most times, this symptom is really more of an annoyance than an actual problem for me, but it can get in the way of communication and thus personal relationships. It does tend to build up over time and the negative experiences stick out more in my memory than the positive experiences.

The little misunderstandings sometimes makes me hesitant to talk. Especially when I’m already in a mood or tired. Then it’s easier not to say anything at all rather than risk talking myself into a mess and waste time and resources I don’t have.

The misunderstandings unfortunately aren’t only one way. Sometimes, people have this annoying habit of not saying what they actually mean. Like for instance, someone might say: “It’s really hot in here.” And apparently that’s supposed to translate to: “Can we open a window?” Except sometimes, it’s really just an observation, not a request, and how on earth is anyone supposed to tell the difference?!

It takes me a while to realize when someone wants me to do something when they don’t tell me outright what they want and more often than not, it’ll be much too late when I finally realize what they actually meant.

Flirting and banter is perhaps the most difficult for me to deal with, because I get confused easily and end up doubting my understanding of the other person. Then, what’s supposed to be fun and lighthearted becomes a scary minefield at the flip of a coin.

The better I know a person and the longer I’ve known them, the easier it is to understand them and make myself understood. I have pretty good, close relationships with my immediate family and I have two very close friends whom I’ve known for ages. But I haven’t really managed to form a decent friendship with anyone since 7th grade, maybe barring a single internet friend. Even though the relationships I do have are generally good, misunderstandings can still make problems sometimes. The good thing about the old, close relationships is they don’t break so easily.

The problems with misunderstandings has made me very concerned with word choice and whether or not they mean the same to others as they mean to me. I’ll often agonize over word-choice and end up not saying what I wanted to say, because I’m afraid of hurting others’ feelings. In my most hopeless moments, I’m convinced that words really don’t mean the same to others as they do to me and that I’ve no hope at all for properly communicating my thoughts and feelings to anyone, ever.

My point is, communication becomes a whole lot more complicated and anxiety-inducing than it needs to be. It’s exhausting and so it’s so much simpler and easier to just – not.

The problem with this symptom isn’t that my brain’s a little funky in the way it works. When it comes right down to it, it’s not as if it’s all that alien. Everyone differs in their thinking one way or another. The problem is the isolating effect it has on my life.

It’s easy to imagine that my thinking and writing style might turn out to be a problem for what I’m trying to do with this blog. I try to keep on point and my posts are pretty heavily edited before I publish them. But things do slip. Sometimes, a digression doesn’t register to me as such. So I’d appreciate any loose threads pointed out to me, or if something comes out unclear. I do want my writing to be both legible and if not at all entertaining, at least useful in some way.