Can I Reach for More?

I was sitting in front of a young researcher in a small unimpressive room in McLean hospital. I volunteered to be there, to spend three hours being part of her research. I had been there before as a research subject. This time, I played computer games. I did memory tests. I filled out self assessments. At the end, she interviewed me. When I said that I lived on my own, she sounded surprised. When I said that I own my apartment, she asked me if anyone had helped me. I smiled and said no. When I told her that I had always worked full-time, she sounded impressed. “You are doing really well!” I thanked her. When I meet people who know me first as a schizophrenic, I always did so much better than expected.

I had my first psychosis at age of thirty. First, I became hypersensitive to my surroundings, had confused thoughts, then heard my first voice. The “young man” first talked to me for 10 minutes. Then by the end of my full psychosis, he was speaking to me nonstop. The constant talking and not being able to sleep finally broke me. Thoughts were racing; I could not talk. I called a friend in the middle of the night and he took me to see a doctor. Luckily for me, I was prescribed Zyprexa, which was able to suppress my voices and hypersensitivity right away. After missing a few days, I went right back to work.

Life appeared to be back to normal. The medication, however, could not erase the experience that I had and remembered in pieces. When I was alone at home, not at work nor with friends, I would struggle in private. I tried to remember. I asked myself, again and again, what happened. I wanted to find out the truth. I did hear from someone. I did notice weirdness on the street. I knew what I heard and felt. My experience was very real to me. I could not forget.

For the next six years, I lived in two different worlds: normal and private. In my normal life, I was working hard, living independently, traveling the world, and surrounded by friends and family. In my private world, I tried to trace my steps leading up to the day that I could not talk anymore. I did not talk to anyone about what was deeply in my mind. I was very alone in this private mental world.

At the end of the six years, I had a second major psychosis and ended up in McLean. For the first time, at the inpatient unit, someone was interested in talking to me about my private world. A team of doctors and nurses talked to me every morning. They probed and listened. The doctors gave subtle and gentle advices for two weeks. I finally made the connection that I was the only person who heard what I heard. To make a further connection, that my brain created that “young man” and many other experiences. Making a even further leap, the little white pill could alter my brain!

Looking back at my journey, I am very grateful that I am where I am today. By the time I was thirty, I was already a grown-up with known personality and stable life habits. Being treated at McLean was the turning point for me to become aware of what I really have. I was able to fully merge my two worlds into one. Now I can speak clearly with my friends and family about schizophrenia. I look for ways to help, such as participating in research.

After the research was done at McLean, on my way home, I felt the same conflicted feelings that I had before. Even though I was able to merge my two worlds, I am not sure if the world is. I am thankful for the life that I have as a schizophrenic. At the same time, I want to work towards living a even fuller life. I don’t want to be complacent; I don’t want schizophrenia to be a crutch. I work hard and want to be better at what I do. I am diligent about paying down my mortgage and saving for raining days and retirement. I treasure and keep up my relationships with my friends.  I hope to stay healthy and hope to practice yoga and run more often. I want to see Africa, South East Asia, and many other interesting places in the world. Most of all, I want to make the world a little bit better, even as a schizophrenic.

*~*~*~*~*

Writer’s Note: This was submitted to and passed by the NYTimes. My first try and rejection from NYT. If you are a NYT reader and have suggestions for my next try, please comment below! Looking forward to many more rejections that lead to successes! 

HRU

I met both of my ex-boyfriends in college, pre-online-dating and pre-smartphone. Match.com, the first online dating website I heard of, was founded in 1995. I was late to dating and, again, was late to online dating. Nevertheless, I finally joined the masses and tried dating online.

First, I took it very seriously. I started by answering every single message I received. But some messages left me speechless.

Him 1: “Hi hru cutie” I was not cool enough to understand this right away. A few days later, he messaged again, “hi hru mindy!” What? I was confused. Then, he did that two more times. Finally, I got it. Oh, how are you. Too lazy?

Him 2: “I am happily married. Looking for some fun. Let me know if you would be interested.” Wow. This was beyond being libraral for me. It was beyond me. Not my kind of fun?

Him 3: “I am very subservient. I would be willing to do anything you want. I can clean. I will obey your commands sexutally or emotionally.” We hadn’t even met and he was offering his world to me. Hmm, not my type?

Him 4: A write who literally wrote a very long essay about himself. To be honest, I could not finish reading…

Him 5: “Hey. There are not that many Asians on here. We are both Asian. We should go out!”

After chatting with my friends who were more experienced and were successfully at online, I stopped answering messages. This was not work. I was not being rude, especially if the messages did not make sense. Or I was just not interested when the messages was “hi” or “hey.” I learned that no one answers every single message.

Then, I approached this with a very open mind. I met up with anyone who wrote a decent message to me, which was about 10% of the time. Without OkCupid, I would not have ever met most of these men from different parts of Greater Boston. I was excited to meet new people. Though messaging, I sometimes connected with someone on where we both went to college, what movie we liked, a compliment about my profile or picture, or a curious question.  Most of these first dates did not work out.

Be open was good but I learned that I also needed to understand what I was looking for. At the end of the day, I am half of the equation.  A friend had told me that online dating was a number’s game. I went back and forth on that. Was meeting more men better? Or was it meeting more of the right men?

Of course, I turned to books and read Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari. Aziz did a great job taking about the new way of dating with humor. I liked seeing my own dating stories with humor too.

Finally, I started seeing the same profiles of men. It was like living in the same neighborhood for all my life. I was bounded to see the same old faces. To change things up a bit, I tried other dating apps besides OkCupid. Still pretty much some of the same faces. More apps and websites did not change who were available in Boston. That made sense to me.

Luckily, I still believe in serendipity in life. What may come may come! Good luck to all the singles out there!

 

My First Voice

Update from April 16, 2018: I submitted an updated version of this post to NAMI and they posted on the NAMI blog. 

No one ever asked me what I had heard from my voices. I think it’s a tough topic to talk about. If you have never heard of your own voices, you might not know what to say. Voices are not normal. Regardless, I remember them. Some voices are more memorable than others, just like real people.

On a sunny day, I heard “him” for the first time. Later on, I would name him Joe who reminded me of my crush at the time. I woke up in my room and was getting dressed. All of a sudden, I heard a young man talking. I was not sure if he was talking to me. I thought, “Let me walk outside of the house to see if I can still hear him.” I stepped out of the front door and there was silence for about 5 seconds.

Then, he said, clearly. “Can you hear me?” I stood in front of the door, locked the door and start walking towards work. “Yes.” I said quietly and smiled. “Don’t smile. You are going to look silly if you walk on the street, talk to yourself and smile on your own.” Okay. I thought in response. I transitioned my communication to Joe from speaking out loud to in my mind only. That did not bother me. Actually, I did not notice the transition. “You need to ask someone for help,” he said. I still can’t believe that my first voice warmed me about the situation I was in. “Jennifer?” I thought again. “No, it has to be a single guy.” I thought, “Are you joking? Is this some sort of joke?” I don’t remember how the conversation ended. The voice disappeared when I reached work.

I had a completely reasonable “conversation” with Joe. We did not talk over each other. No one yelled. He did not make me upset. He did not give me commends to hurt or kill myself. Just like people, there are all kinds of voices.

My psychiatrist recommended Hearing Voices, A Common Human Experience to me when I asked him to help me learn more about my condition. The book covers many different perspectives on hearing voices, from mental illness to spirituality, from distant past to now. It is an insightful read.

Every time I think about my schizophrenic experience, I am amazed at what my brain can do, even when it’s broken. Perhaps, in the future, we would find out that it’s not really broken, but just behaving in a way that we don’t quite understand right now.

Human brain is incredible!

Selfish

When I was 36 and very single, I was hit by the narrowing of the time window to have my biological children. With any life problem I face, I turned to books and my friends.

I was glad to find Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. The writers in this book talk about how there isn’t one way to life. There were different scenarios for women to not have their own kids. Some had decided not to have kids for various reasons, some ended up not having kids because time had passed, and then there were those who gave away babies.

My first thought was I am a woman living in a modern time. I could logically separate being single and being a mother. I decided to become a single mother. I charted my basal body temperature daily for a few months. I took folic acid when I remembered to. My primary care doctor recommended a reputable donor bank in New England. I reviewed numerous profiles and got what I needed. I tried it once and failed. For couples who try to get pregnant together, it is not necessary an easy path. For me, doing it alone and failed felt devastating. I realized that I did not want to get pregnant and become a mother alone, when I had control over this. So my journey to single motherhood ended abruptly and quickly.

Now, at age forty something, I feel that I am okay without my own biological kids. I had thought about it and did something about it even though I failed. I can’t say that I am noble and do not want to contribute to the global overpopulation problem. Now I just have a few personal reasons to pass on having kids. For someone whose brain does not react well to high stress, being a single mother is not a smart move. There is also the chance that I might pass on my schizophrenic genes. The desire to want a family and take care of someone is now replaced with deeper personal reflections. The right time had passed.

There are times when I see my married friends and thought that I could be considered selfish. I live my life, for the most part, for myself. So I try not to be selfish through other means. I live my life everyday with gratitude.

Once in a while, my girlfriends would say to me, I really hope I can sleep in late. Or I would love to take a walk or read a book. I know that having time to myself is in a way a privilege. Between them and me, there is no right or wong. It’s just two different lives.

Unlike fertility, dating has no biological timeline. If I want to, I can date until I am 90 years old. I can still have kids, just not biological. Dating opens up all kinds of possibilities. He could be divorced with kids. He could be open to adopting kids. Of course, he could be like me, being content without kids or does not want kids.

That is just it. Life accepts all kinds of paths. Like the shitty first draft when I start a writing project, I can only write down what my inspiration takes me. No assumptions. Like driving at night in the dark, even though I can only see as far as the headlight, I can still make it to my destination. My life may not follow the most common or expected path but it is unique in its own way. For this peaceful mind, I am grateful.

Strawberry Shortcake

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From: Japonaise Bakery

Right in front of the St. Mary T stop on the Green C line is this muted-colored bakery. It’s a hidden treasure, easy to miss, even though it’s located on Beacon Street. The staff is always courteous, helpful, and soft speaking.

When I am there, I am reminded of my childhood in Taipei. Some Taiwanese pastries and cakes are heavily influenced by the Japanese and similar.

My favorite is the Japanese style strawberry shortcake. Typical of Japanese desserts I know of, the shortcake is flavored lightly and not sweet. The taste of the sliced strawberry is mixed with layers of delicate sponge cake and whipped cream frosting on top.  I find it very tasty!

Of course, there are many other pastries to try. I am still working my way through. Don’t expect fancy. No wifi or plugs. Somewhat pricy!

As it is, I love this little unassuming gem that brings Japan to Brookline.

Life in Numbers

The great thing about math is that it can quantify the intangibles. Taking that practice to an extreme, a person’s life can be simplified and expressed in all kinds of numbers.

The most common measure is age: how old we are. Typically expressed in number of years but there is no reason why it can not be in months or even minutes to make us feel more significant. I have not run into ageism professionally yet but I expect less professional opportunities in a decade. I’ll deal with that when I get there. All online dating apps ask for age. With online dating, I can’t help but look for the very basics: age, height, and weight, like I am a five year old. As superficial as these numbers, they make it easier to take the first step to get to know someone new.

From a more practical view, we are often associated with some dollar amounts: net worth, debts, credits, unrealized gain, or annual salaries. Unless famous, these are usually numbers that we judge ourselves in private. Sometimes harshly. They show how successful we are and how far we still have to go. Recently, I was introduced to a new number: my retirement target based on the life style that I want to maintain after I stop working. I did not look into the actual calculation but the target seems taunting and impossible. I was told, time is my friend!

The number of kids is important after we get married. The parents are always counting teams. There are two of us and one of her. Should be fine! Or, we are having a third and will soon be outnumbered! Behind the kids, it’s about number of hours of sleep, play dates this weekend, and trips to the ER. Behind the number, it’s one of the most important responsibilities we can have. I don’t pretend to know all the hard work that goes with raising kids and have the upmost respect to parents around me.

With social media, we have numbers of friends and followers counted for us at all times. I had talked to my dad about this number and he reacted in disbelieve. However, the contact list for my holiday card, the guest list for my future wedding, and the girls at my dinner dates include tighter groups of people who I don’t mind being embarrassed in front of and I can pour my heart out on my most recently blind date. Yeah, you may not want to be part of this. This number is definitely a fuzzy one and not one to be taken too seriously in my opinion.

Health wise, number of steps has become such a common measure enabled by all kinds of new trackers. Even kids know that 10,000 steps is the daily recommendation. Less common is the number of pills taken daily. I realize the importance of this measure from my 96-year-old grandmother and 70-something dad. I remember seeing my grandmother arranging her pill box with such caution and precision. Dad counts the pill every morning and night. Embedded in these pills is the hope that he will continue to live healthily. Right now, I take one before I go to bed, but one day, I’ll get to where he is too.

Number has no judgement but people do.

For my brain disease, a key measure is number of hospital stays. I was at McLean hospital for two weeks. Many people, patients like me, I met there had more. A common goal for us is to stay out of the hospitals. Going to hospital is not seen as having a major stroke and needing medical attention, but as trouble escalating out of control, going through the system often, the resolving door. When I was in the day program at McLean, I asked my doctor how I can go back if I wanted to. He said, no, I can’t just go back. I would need to be admitted. To me honest, I have adopted to that thinking now. My goal is to stay out of (mental) hospitals, right or wrong.

Finally, I have a different kind of number in mind for life: number of pages. Imagine we can all put our life in words in books. What would our books say? Is our life eventful? Are we wordy or concise? What would we include or leave out?

Numbers has no judgement but people do. The simplicity and accessibly of them should not be the only way we see each other. What’s important about age is the life events that happened during that time. What’s important about number of pages is the story in the book. Let’s be curious beyond simple numbers. Let’s be kind to each other.

My Labels

In the last week of the year, I finally have the guts to call myself a writer, a label that I had been very hesitant to give to myself. Instead of writer, I called myself “writer-wannabe” or “scribbler.” I hold quotes like “don’t be a writer, be writing” to heart, using them not only as inspiration to keep writing but also as excuses to avoid clearly defining a part of me. I have not published anything. I have not gotten any stamp of approval from anyone. Even if I had published, would anyone be interested in what I have to say?

I am also a schizophrenic, for real, medically. I gave myself that label six years ago, the moment that I finally started to understand what I had been fighting against. The journey  to the beginning of self awareness of this brain disease took about seven years, even though my close friends and family all knew what I had by name. Among my own circles, I have become comfortable in discussing what I have. Most of the time, I am the one who initiate that conversation. I want more people to know what it’s like to be a schizophrenic and that I am not at all that different from everyone. Outside of my circles, I oscillate between being brave and cautious. What is smarter? To share or not share? Do I want to have this label when I meet a stranger who does not know anything else about me?

Further more, I am a single-childless woman in my forties. A minority in my circle for sure. Fortunately, I loved the last forty-something years of my life. I have not met the right man even though I did meet many very good men in my life. I embrace my singleness everyday. I believe it is possible to have an open heart for a partner while being happily single. I did not decide that I did not want kids. I did considered having my own biological child by using a donor. That did not work out and was not meant to be. I now made peace with being childless. Being single and married are just two different path down life. This one is mine and it’s okay it’s different from most of my married friends. My time of having children has ran out, however, I am still dating. When I meet men, I sometimes wonder if I am able to let someone in after being single, independent, and peaceful for many years.

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There are definitely risks to owning up to these labels, to be different. But that’s what life is all about. To be uniquely me. I want to write what I have to say, even if only my family and friends read them. I have to speak up for mental illness because I am lucky to be able to. I am hopeful in meeting new people. I have to take a stand in the light, away from the dark, and say, this is me, and it’s okay.