Know the Signs

At the beginning, I did not know what was happening to me. My stable and secure life had changed all of sudden: I lost my job of five years; I broke up with my boyfriend of six years who I was living with.

I was very much alone all of a sudden. Chris and our couple friends were not around much anymore with everyone making similar life change events, getting married, going back to school, and starting new jobs. I was not thinking about making new friends. I kept to my room, gym, and work, my Bermuda triangle in East Cambridge, MA. I did not feel lonely. Quite the opposite. I felt determined. I wanted to control my life and give it order and purpose. I felt that I had so much to learn. Instead of eating out and hanging out with friends, I needed to take advantage of every free minute I had to be productive.

This mental rigidity meant that I was not expecting any new changes or surprises in my life. In the past, when facing a new stage in my life, I was always ready to draw on the connections with both old and new friends. However, at this time, when I was not at work, I stayed alone, even isolated. Without realizing it, I started living in a world of just me.

When I started working at my new job, I was in a very happy mood. I would listen to music and, not intentionally, sing out loud in my cubicle at work. I would chat with people in my group and laughed so loud that people down the hall could hear me. That was the me without any cover-up. I was being me, from the inside out and not considering that I was surrounded by strangers I did not know. I believe, this was the start of a sequence of small and large events that altered and stressed my brain in a new way that it had not experienced before. Perhaps, being inside out made me more vulnerable. 

Then the emotional spikes came. Then the uncharacteristic timidness appeared. When I talked to strangers, I had trouble telling them what my name was. I became deadly quiet in social settings. Then I heard my first voice. Still then, I did not worry about myself. It took about three months or so for me to finally had a mental breakdown and called for help.

Looking back, given my isolated and vulnerable mental state, I should have been more careful and more aware of my mental health. Here are some of the lessons I learned from my experience:

  1. Understand the genetic risk. My mother triggered her schizophrenia also late in her life, in her thirties. Given that, I should have read up more about this brain condition and keep in mind of the risk as my life changed.  
  2. Be careful of major shift in personality. I became single-minded and hypersensitive to any surprises. I became emotionally much more vulnerable than usual.
  3. Be mindful of major environmental change. Everything about my life changed within the same six months. All of a sudden, I had to face new challenges and people all around me.
  4. Talk to a health professional. If I was aware of the signs, I should have talk to someone who could help me!  

If I was able to spot early signs of problems and seek professional help, perhaps, I would not trigger and go through a full on episode of psychosis with confused thinking and auditory hallucination. Learn about these brain conditions. Early education and detection may save one from triggering a lifelong brain condition.   

*~*~*~*~*

Writer’s Note: This post was also submitted and published on NAMI.org on May 11, 2018. 

Snow

Today it snowed.

She checked her watch again, not wanting to be late for the doctor’s appointment. In a small conference room, she looked out of the window as a men talked on. His voice hummed in the background. For a second, she thought she smelled the fresh air through the glass window. The snow was like powdered sugar spilled from a jar, fine and sweet, however, lighter than sugar, floating in every direction. The continuous chatter in the room failed to get her attention. What was the discussion about again?

Craving for fresh air, she sneaked out during the break. It was time for her to leave anyway. The snow encouraged her; the way to the doctor was beautiful. She could hear her shoes squashing the snow. Were those cries of pain from the pressure?

There was no window in the waiting area; her mind wandered outside. The dancing snow calmed her nerves. Her conversation with the doctor was quick. The doctor told her that the lab report came back clean. The tumor was benign and no other areas were affected. No guarantee for the future though. The talking voice faded into the background and she wondered about the dancing snow. The talking voice was now as soft as the sound of snow falling. Was she okay now?

Six weeks ago a snowstorm came.

The storm took over the city. The weather forecast predicted a historic record. The heavy white particles fell nonstop from above and landed on the buildings, over the trees, on the pedestrians, on the roads, and on the windshields. The car ride to the hospital took forever. The visibility was almost nonexistent. She did not think about what was going to happen. She saw no familiar faces; she was alone.

There was no window in the preparation room for the surgery; she wondered about the storm. Was the storm as violent as her heart drumming? Lying down, she was asked if she could feel anything. What? She mumbled a response. Then she felt a knife moving through her chest, amazingly, feeling only the impact and not the pain. She mumbled again, not very audibly. Seconds later, she was knocked out senseless by the anesthesia. About six hours later she was sent home half unconscious: the surgeon calmly concluded that the operation was a clean removal and said that the large fist-size growth was sent to the lab for analysis. She got a bottle of heavy pain killers, medical packages, the instruction of what to eat, and the time for a follow-up. While she was under, the snow cleaned up the city, at least on the surface.

The storm came in a hurry covering everything in white. The neighborhood was white and soundless. No cars were on the streets to pollute the breathing and listening space; they were buried in the snow guarding the sidewalks. The houses looked smaller. The trees looked shorter. The world seemed less man-made and more magical.

The storm left as quickly as it came. Drinking morning tea, she gazed through the window to find the street filled with people: shoveling, walking, talking, and playing. One storm did not pause life for too long. People, amazing creatures, dealt with the snow in their own ways. The responsible bunches were already out shoveling. They preferred to deal with the problem head on. The older kids were out with trays searching for a nice hill to have some fun. They believed in re-charging and making the best of a timeout. However, the children knew the best: making snowman, starting a snow fight, or being an angel. The storm brought laughter.

Her thoughts wandered.

She should rest and heal from the cut.
“Is it possible to fully recover from such an experience? I almost had cancer.”
She thought about the possible medical liabilities that she would have needed to take on.
“Where is that policy booklet from the insurance that I never read?”
She tried to imagine chemotherapy and had flashbacks from the movie Dying Young.
“Why did I watch that movie? Well, I love Julia.”
She resisted quitting her job tomorrow.
“How does a deadline on life change perspectives?”

Ultimately, she did the best that she could. She told herself to stay calm and watched the snow slowly melted away.

Four months ago the snow made a mess, wet and slushy.

The falling snow was icy. She blamed Mother Nature for being indecisive that day. Wetness was everywhere. Her shoes were not surviving the challenge. The doctor wanted a biopsy done before meeting up. She had mixed feelings about that, but would never say no to a doctor’s order.

The wet snow touched her jacket and melted. A layer of water coated over her, especially the hair. With a bit of walking, the water turned into ice sticks, and icy hair sticks. People had umbrellas and raincoats, however, everyone had about the same hair look. It did not seem to matter how prepared one was.

A thin metal tub went straight into her breast aiming for the target, the man-made rock, based on a fuzzy image on the ultrasound machine. She turned her head away feeling only the impact of the stab and not the pain; local sedation saved her nerves. She wanted a window, so she could look out. She wanted to be distracted. The operator retrieved a small chip of a rock-like substance from the metal tub. Now there was a sample of this fearful unknown. She resumed to waiting once again.

This city was not built for wetness. On the way home, she came across a street corner surrounded by wet slushy snow. She was trapped. She hesitated. Then she jumped, hoping for the best for her shoes.

Half a year ago, the rain dropped.

The rain was unbearable hitting her all over. The mud was everywhere. Cars zoomed by with no regard to her pants or emotions. When she was changing last night to go to bed she felt a solid object in her chest. An electric shock went through her. She checked a few more times carefully and reluctantly. There was something solid hard. The drivers on the street were all half-blinded by the heavy rain. She felt blinded by the heavy drops and “it.” The streets were flooded. The air smelled humid and muggy. She disliked rain and preferred snow. Snow would clean things up. As she walked on, she wished for a snowy winter.

Today she got her wish. Her foot could not resist the soft snow: eager to make prints and leave marks. The neighborhood looked heavenly. She made another wish.

*~*~*~*~*

Writer’s note: This was my first semi-fictional piece that I liked. I was always fairly healthy growing up. When I wrote this, it was the first time that I had a health scare. Thank goodness I was lucky. Can you tell that I had fun writing this! 

Taiwanese Night Markets

One of my favorite places in this world is the Taiwanese night markets. They have the smallest “restaurants” I have ever experienced. Each “restaurant” takes up no more than a small square of space, typically out in the open, on the street, one next to another tightly packed. There is usually a table with whatever is needed to either display or cook the food. Usually one person is behind the table. Some have sitting areas and some don’t. The food, everything, is authentic, tasty, and cheap. My favorite dishes are oyster pancake, tofu and peanuts dessert soup, minced pork on rice, and stinky tofu. Many locals can stroll and eat the night away. It’s similar to bar-hopping except this is stand-hopping. On this special day with my cousin Chao, we made it to five. How many stops do you think you can stomach?

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.