Sunday, August 31, 2008

Creating a Community for Myself: My Path Towards Resiliency

This is a long post. I was asked by someone at one of the Mental Health Teams in my city to write about my experiences with creating a community for myself and how it has helped my mental health. They want to share it with people they are trying to help. I thought I'd share it with you.

Creating a Community for Myself: My Path Towards Resiliency

Social isolation has been one of the most difficult symptoms of my depression for me to overcome. When well I am open, bubbly, extremely extroverted, trusting and want to be around people. When I am in a Major Depressive Episode (MDE) I turn inwards and isolate myself from the world, even from close friends and family. Seemingly simple social tasks, like answering the phone, or returning e-mails, become experiences that fill me with dread.

My illness presents itself as Major Depressive Disorder: an illness that consists of "episodes" of Major Depression, usually followed by periods of wellness. My depression is anxious and there is a component of "bipolarity" to it; meaning my mood cycles between severe lows and extreme highs. Both these symptoms make my depression more difficult to treat.

My most recent MDE has been treatment resistant, or "refractory" to medications and other treatments for 7 years. This means despite my trying literally more than 30 different medications and combinations of those medications, having ECT and participating fully in psychotherapy once, and for long periods, twice a week, I remained severely depressed and anxious, while periodically cycling up close to hypomania for a few days for most of this entire 7 year period.

With my depressive symptoms refusing to budge with medication, my psychiatrist and I work in therapy to help me in other ways. One of the major areas I have been working on in therapy is lessening my social isolation, and increasing meaning and purpose in my life by "creating a community for myself". This is a very difficult endeavor because my symptoms: Depression, Social Anxiety, Isolation, Amotivation, Fatigue Concentration and Memory Problems and Cycling Moods, work against my ability to help myself change, meet people, keep social commitments and often do anything beyond survive. Even that seems hard sometimes.

The process of change and creating a sense of shared meaning and community with others has been very slow and has never followed a direct upward trajectory towards wellness. I move forward, only to have my symptoms drag me backwards again. It has been a one step forward two steps back experience. I am, however, moving forward slowly. I do see this improvement. Before I just kept going two steps back over and over again.

When my psychiatrist first introduced the idea of creating a community for myself, a community that would help me become more resilient, that would accept me for who I was, that would add meaning to my life, that would help me move out of my isolation and into a world that both interested and supported me, I thought he was the crazy one. I felt so depressed and anxious, and I was so isolated; literally laying on the couch, or hiding in my bed all day. The task seemed impossible. How did he think I was going to manage such a difficult task?

I started safe and small. I was afraid to be around people, so I thought maybe being around animals would help. I began walking dogs for the SPCA. It got me out of the house. That was a big step.

Then a year or so later I began volunteering for [an arts festival in my city ]. To volunteer I needed to write my resume and go for an interview. I was absolutely terrified, but I pushed myself to do it with the help and support of my psychiatrist and with the belief that I might find a community that interested me.

I was very sick at the time and switching medications periodically. I was so scared each day I was scheduled to volunteer, sometimes even for days before my scheduled volunteer day, but each time I went I was greeted by my co-workers and my supervisor, people did not seem to notice I was sick, even if I thought I was not doing a good job I seemed to manage the tasks, the people I volunteered with were very nice. Each day I volunteered I gained a bit more confidence in my abilities. My second year with The festival I became so depressed I could not continue volunteering. To take care of myself I gave notice and stepped back from my commitments. This was a setback, but not a failure.

A few years prior I had become a member of a therapeutic art clubhouse that offered art classes to people with mental illnesses. The first class I took was Beginner's Drawing. I remember being so anxious about going to the classes. I was afraid I would be rejected, or not fit in, or be so bad at drawing I would be humiliated by my failures.

The instructor allowed me to be whoever, and however, I was on any given day. By the end of the 10 classes I felt a sense of community with the instructor and the people in the class. Motivating myself to reach out to other human beings and to leave my house and participate in a community was a huge step for me.

Still very ill, I took a Pottery class at the Clubhouse and then an Intermediate Drawing class. Each time I had to go to class I would feel sick and anxious. There were days when I really have no idea how I managed to get there. I believe my commitment to joining and participating in each class, having a scheduled and structured activities for myself and my psychiatrist's support, provided me with enough external motivation to go to each class.

It was not easy. I was always so anxious before I went to each class. Usually that anxiety stuck around for the first hour of the class, however often it never left me the entire class. It was hard to stay, but with the supportive environment and the support of my psychiatrist I forced myself to stick with my commitments. As each class went on I became more and more comfortable with the environment and with the people around me. Showing up to these classes was like behavioural therapy: A type of therapy that desensitizes a person to things they fear by slowly introducing them to the thing or things they are afraid of, until finally they become no longer afraid of the thing they fear.

My experiences at the [Art Clubhouse] awakened the slumbering artist inside me. I had never been artistic. In fact, drawing stick figures was the extent of my experience with the fine arts. I had always loved art; other people's art, but never believed it was possible for me to learn what I loved. With the [Art Clubhouse] experiences and successes to back me up I took a huge step from the Art Studios and decided to try an Adult Education class at [a local Art College]. It was a difficult, but rewarding experiences and my love for drawing began to grow.

Driven by my new found joy of art I began volunteering at the [Art Clubhouse]. I participated in cleanup days, and showed up for their monthly meetings. I began to meet more people in that community. The more I participated in the community the more it began to feel like an even safer and welcoming community. I had discovered a group of peers who not only shared my love for art, but who also understood and accepted me for who I was.

One day I saw a posting for an assistant to the printmaking instructor. I took another large leap and applied for the position. I cannot even express how difficult this was for me. I was very depressed at the time and cycling rapidly between severe and anxious depression and a sense of euphoria brought on by my new found feelings of social freedom and a sense of meaning and purpose I had not felt in a long time. After being the Printmaking Assistant I applied to be the Beginner's Drawing instructor's assistant. Each time I assisted the instructor my anxiety became less and less and my comfort level, and my enjoyment the studio's community improved more and more.

I now volunteer to teach Art classes. I teach Beginner's Drawing, and have taught a short Printmaking group for young adults. I am about to teach my third session of Beginner's Drawing classes and a session for young adults in drawing, printmaking and painting. Even better than this I have discovered I have both a love and a developing talent for acrylic painting. To top it all off I have somewhere to go to share this joy with and even more important, I now interact regularly with people who support my artistic endeavours.

Through a supportive and caring community I have discovered meaning and purpose in my life. I am becoming the person I always wanted to be. Never in my life have I felt like I was on the right path. I feel like that now and this feeling has healing power. My experiences at the [Art Clubhouse] have opened a world for me I never knew existed. This community has lifted me out of isolation and is moving me closer in my quest towards healing my soul. I cannot say enough how important creating a community for myself is contributing towards my climb out of depression and towards resilience and increased wellness.


sara said...

I was so scared each day I was scheduled to volunteer, sometimes even for days before my scheduled volunteer day, but each time I went I was greeted by my co-workers and my supervisor, people did not seem to notice I was sick, even if I thought I was not doing a good job I seemed to manage the tasks, the people I volunteered with were very nice.

This speaks to how I feel every day. I am always breaking and broken, but no one seems to notice.

Aqua said...

Wierd isn't it...I can never figure out if it's because I can hide most of my symptoms well, or if nobody really cares enough to notice?

I do have a reactive it can lift for short periods of time (but this leaves me exhausted later), if people are around me long enough my facade topples into depressive symptoms. I can only hide for so long. That is why I had to eventually leave work.

The Silent Voices in my Mind said...

It's a tremendous journey you're on. I hope you can see that even through the ups and downs of your life, you have made so much progress. It is a thing to be proud of. You are an inspiration to me.

Aqua said...

Thank you so much SV. I agree it is a tremendous journey I am on right now. Six months ago I would have scoffed at some of the things I am saying now. For 6.5 plus of this past seven years I had absolutely no hope of getting well. I thought people who talked about their "path to wellness" were full of s**t. I honestly never believed I would ever feel like my life was worth living. I thought constantly of suicide. The only hope I had was in my weekly visits with Dr. X.

I am almost afraid to say it in case I jinx my progress...but I see myself taking huge strides recently. Let's hope the feeling continues to grow.

kara said...

How are these art classes coming? Seems I've been a bit in my own mind; thought I'd check in and see how it was all working.

take care...kara