Home > FTIAT, Guest blogger > FTIAT: The Far Side of Sanity and Back Again: An Evolution in Thank You

FTIAT: The Far Side of Sanity and Back Again: An Evolution in Thank You

Kathy (reinventing the event horizon) drew me to her blog with her clear, evocative descriptions of life with mental illness.  A few of the very first entries I read were difficult for me to finish, but the illumination provided by her words made continuing onward so much more than worthwhile.

I’m constantly amazed by the richness of Kathy’s life. Through her descriptions of her beginnings as part of an organized crime family, her knack for creating beauty from bric-a-brac, and her descriptions of traveling for humanitarian efforts, she paints a picture of a life both well and adventurously lived.

© Kathryn McCullough

Her painting isn’t only metaphorical. About her art she writes that it “is mixed media and reflective of my creative efforts to transform potential trash into art–how I’ve long felt about my past–that my life trashed by mental illness could, indeed, be recreated into something lovely and meaningful.”

Indeed. Reading Kathy’s blog, it’s easy to believe that anything and everything is possible with arms opened wide to embrace possibility.

Recommended post: Canines in Conical Hats: Lucy Does Vietnam

The Far Side of Sanity and Back Again:  An Evolution in Thank You

Sometimes gratitude takes time to develop.   Sometimes it’s a process.

For me, being thankful is something I’ve matured into.  In me, the feeling has aged, like cheese, fine wine, a decent sourdough—pungent, rich and layered with flavor.

In fact, I fought mental illness for years before I felt anything remotely resembling gratitude—for either the illness itself or my eventual recovery.  Mostly I hated it.

Actually, I lost my mind gradually, but by my late twenties, I was caught up completely in the throes of it—hospitalized twice in as many months.  And as my 28th birthday approached, I gave up all pretense of sanity and simply let go.  I’d white-knuckled reality for a number of months if not years, until finally my fingers slipped, and I was lost to free fall.

At first I merely brought dead branches into my apartment and decorated the walls with them—not only loving their sculptural quality but also believing I was receiving special messages from them.  Twigs wreathed the room in forest, a sacramental fact, reality stripped of ordinary distraction.

However, in addition to this, I felt compelled to tear up the carpet in my rental apartment’s living room, to strip the floor clean and access the concrete beneath—a more solid surface on which to stand.

So in March of 1990, I stayed up one Wednesday night, utility-knifed my carpet into carry-able strips, stood a ladder beside the dumpster in my parking lot, climbed rung upon rung, and deposited my former floor within.

A rug literally ripped out from under me, I was hospitalized the next day at a state psychiatric facility, where I walked the halls and fingered the walls for weeks, as all around me sentences bloomed into branches, a dazzling display of crazy.

Antipsychotic medication made me restless, so during that admission and the many more that followed, I paced almost incessantly.  I walked hospital halls endlessly, feeling the walls with my palms, an effort to comfort myself, to calm the cacophony that worsened every evening.

One nurse was kind and would sometimes walk with me, attempting to reassure me and lessen the aloneness, as I tried to quiet the chatter in my head, the echo of children’s voices, reciting senseless, sing-song rhymes.

But mostly I walked alone, alternately fighting and forgetting, as psychosis whiplashed me between extremes of nothingness and nowhere.

This whiplashing made me acutely aware of my own nothingness, the fact that at the center of me, a huge hole swallowed and indeed devoured all I thought I knew about myself and the world around me.

I saw myself stripped of all substance, of all that seemed solid and predictable in the face of free-fall.  I was naked and drowning—bare to the glare of what others called crazy.

If I was indeed out of touch with reality, as the doctors told me, what did that mean?  And if I couldn’t trust my own mind, what could I trust?

Inevitably, this possibility that I couldn’t or shouldn’t trust myself terrified me.  And I displaced this terror in all directions, becoming terrified of everything and at the same time terrified of nothing.  I couldn’t articulate exactly what I feared.  I was only and always overcome with dread.  I knew something was terribly wrong.

So in the end, it was terror that made me walk those hospital halls alone–alone in the most existential sense–exiled not only from the rest of the world by mental illness, but exiled by mental illness from myself.

This is the terror of mental illness—a terror I fought for more than 10 years and 25 psychiatric hospitalizations.

Indeed, I was ill for a very long time, and recovery was slow.

Just like it took time to lose my mind, it took time to find it again, as well.  I emerged gradually from the ruin of my psyche.  Having forgotten what sanity looked like, I barely recognized its image in the mirror.  Backward and upside down at first, it slowly righted itself, turning me around to face the world again.

And it took longer still for gratitude to develop.  Who in their right mind would be thankful for an ugly, painful past—and how could I trust the seeming insanity of that—thankful for both the process of unbecoming and the evolution that remade me in the end.  How was I to straddle that divide?

Indeed, I am now grateful, not only for the recovery I still struggle to maintain, but for the illness, as well—grateful mostly for the empathy I learned.  I finally appreciate the pain I endured, knowing that suffering has taught me sensitivity toward others, a caring I might not have developed otherwise.

So my message then is this.

Gratitude, like mental illness, isn’t easy.  It doesn’t happen all at once, at least not for most of us.  Gratitude is gradual.  It emerges over the course of months and years—and sometimes even lifetimes.

Sure, it’s easy to be thankful for the seeming good that happens—but thankful for the bad is another animal altogether.  So be patient.   Pace yourself.

And during the month of May, Mental Health Awareness Month, please remember the struggles faced by folks with mental illness.  Please, donate to NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.  Share stories like mine with those you love, and encourage others to talk, write, and blog about their battles.  Let those who live with mental illness (and their families) know they’re not alone.

The world is still a staggeringly beautiful place, and those of us who struggle with psychiatric illness make it a richer place to live and love.  We hope big hopes.  We dream ever more enduring dreams.

Recovery is possible.  And for that, I am exceedingly thankful.

© Kathryn McCullough

© Kathryn McCullough

© Kathryn McCullough

Bio:

Kathy McCullough is a writer and artist who has lived in places as far away as Vietnam and unlikely as post-earthquake Haiti.  Her partner Sara is an international aid worker.  Kathy is currently writing a memoir about growing up in an organized crime family.  She blogs at www.reinventingtheeventhorizon.wordpress.com.

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  1. May 11, 2012 at 5:49 am

    Thanks, Deb, for the opportunity to share my story with your readers. The more we share, the greater our ability to lessen the stigma associated with mental ilness. I’m honored you asked me to offer my experience as part of an ongoing dialog, not only about gratitude, but also about the gifts mentally ill individuals have to offer. Thank you so much.
    Hugs,
    Kathy

  2. May 11, 2012 at 5:51 am

    I very much appreciate this guest post and the way that Kathy shoots from the hip. No stranger to mental illness, my father is manic depressive, paranoid schizophrenic.

    • May 11, 2012 at 6:50 am

      I’m so pleased you can appreciate my shooting from the hip. I don’t know that’s it’s a virtue, however, as I simply don’t know how to be any other way. It feels, inside of me, like the only option–for whatever reason. Keeping quiet seems to paralyze me. I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with mental illness. It must be difficult, when the sick person is also your parent.

      Thanks for reading, Laurie!

      Hugs,
      Kathy

  3. Miranda Gargasz
    May 11, 2012 at 6:26 am

    I am crying. Recovery is a wonderful thing to be thankful for. I am thankful for the bravery it took to write this post and share it with the world. I admire your courage, Kathy, and love you so much more for it.

    • May 11, 2012 at 6:49 am

      Thank you, dear Miranda. I’m pleased this post touched you so deeply. At the same time, I don’t know that writing this has anything to do with bravery. I’d love to think that it does, but sharing my story feels more like an inner imperatitve. If that makes any sense. I just don’t know how to keep quiet. I love you to, Sista!
      Hugs,
      Kathy

  4. May 11, 2012 at 7:17 am

    Very well written! What a trenchant synopsis of a troubled life. I’m wondering how you managed to endure it.
    I suffered with periodic depressions during much of my adult life and managed to endure by “writing things out.” This was supplemented with therapy when things seemed the most hopeless. Interestingly, I have not had a depressive episode since going through menopause! And I, too, like you, Kathryn, am deeply grateful for my life.

    • May 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm

      Really great question. I think I endured by both writing and by creating art. I had always written, but it was not until the symptoms of bipolar disorder appeared that I developed the impulse to do visual art. Sometimes when language failed me, art gave me what I needed. I suppose it still does. However, It’s fascinating that I never picked up a paint brush or colored pencil before I got sick. And then the drive was overwhelming.

      Sorry to hear you’ve had depressive episodes, but thank God you’ve had none since menopause. It’s amazing how little we really understand about brain chemistry and how it works–and in your case the effect hormones may have had on the illness.

      Thanks so much for sharing. It’s wonderful to hear from you. Your comment means a lot to me–truly!

  5. May 11, 2012 at 7:21 am

    i can’t tell you how thankful I am that Kathy has become part of my world. I struggle with gratitude on a daily basis, but then I am reminded by the powerful struggles of others how, to quote Kathy “the world is still a staggeringly beautiful place,” Just the other day I talked to my hairdresser whose son recently came down with an illness that has numbed his right side, leaving him in a wheelchair. He will walk again, after a long period of physical therapy, but what really amazed me is his attitude. He will not let his mother do anything. His bedroom is cleaner than it ever was. And he has learned, from the looks on people’s faces what it means to feel different, but that has made him more determined to thrive. This is a smaller version of Kathy and anyone suffering from mental issues. They (perhaps we) face challenges that may not have been visible for the world to see, but were all the more challenging. Only time and faith and gratitude can heal that.

    Thank you Kathy. Thank you Deb, for another powerful reminder of how much in this world is truly wonderful.

    Lisa

    • May 11, 2012 at 11:38 am

      What a sweet thing to say, Lisa. I’m so, so pleased this post spoke to you. I love the idea of being able to give a gift with my writing, but I had never even thought in those terms before. And what an inspiring story about your hair dresser’s son. What a huge battle that must be.

      And, I also have to say what a gift you have been in my life. You are dear, Lisa. Thanks for sharing yourself, as well as your family, with me!
      Hugs,
      Kathy

  6. May 11, 2012 at 7:46 am

    Such a painful revelation, but so beautifully revealed. Congratulations on coming to the place of gratitude, Kathy, and thank you for sharing the story of the journey. Your art is lovely!

    • May 11, 2012 at 11:41 am

      Thank you so much for reading. I see your comments on so many of blogs I read, but have never read your posts–and I suspect you have never before read mine. How wonderful to finally meet you. Can’t wait to go check out your site. Great to hear from you today!
      Hugs,
      Kathy

  7. May 11, 2012 at 7:55 am

    I’ve not lived it personally but yet I have – I’ve witnessed 2 family members enduring the terror accompanied by their subsequent euphoria, none of it making sense, and all of it heartbreaking, inch by inch. Recovery is possible and hard-fought for. I’m glad you made it back to us.

    MJ

    • May 11, 2012 at 11:44 am

      Gosh, MJ, I’m glad to have made it back, as well. As you know, it’s all very painful, but that pain makes the joy I experience now all the more special. I’m so happy to have you in my life, MJ!
      Hugs,
      Kathy

  8. May 11, 2012 at 8:14 am

    As Kathy knows, my partner Jon suffered from a deadly combination of mental illness and addiction. These illnesses ultimately took his life, almost five months ago. The week after Jon died I wrote this post, called “Gratitude”. http://2summers.net/2011/12/25/gratitude/.

    I wasn’t coherent enough then to understand exactly why I felt grateful, despite the unbearable pain of losing the person I loved most in the world. But Kathy has captured it perfectly here. I’m grateful to have had Jon in my life, and I’m grateful for the illness that made him the beautiful person he was. I’m grateful that the time I spent with him has made me a better person with a deeper understanding of mental health and addiction issues.

    Kathy, thanks for reminding me that it’s Mental Health Awareness month. Beautiful post. Thanks to Deb for sharing it.

    • May 11, 2012 at 12:07 pm

      What a huge insight, Heather! You are absolutely correct that the “illness” is part of what made Jon the brilliantly creative person that he was. Losing him could be nothing short of pure agony, so your ability to be grateful so soon after the lossl is huge. You have a beautiful heart, my friend. And it’s the eye that was able to see the beauty in Jon that also makes you such a wonderful photographer–and stunning writer. Thank you for this comment. Thanks from the bottom of my heart.
      Hugs,
      Kathy

  9. May 11, 2012 at 8:21 am

    Wow, Kathy, thank you so much for sharing this. Mental illness can be such a mystery to people looking in from the outside, and your willingness to let us see and feel a glimpse of what you were going through is really special. I’m so thankful for your recovery, and absolutely agree that gratitude for the bad is what we all strive to feel.

    Your artwork is beautiful!

    • May 11, 2012 at 11:49 am

      You are so correct! It’s imperative that we give folks who have no experience with mental illness a glimpse into the world of psychiatric illness. Since the subject has been so taboo for so long, most folks have no idea what these illnesses are really like. It’s only in sharing that stigma can begin to lessen. Thank you for reading. It’s great to hear from you today. And I’m delighted you like my art!
      Hugs,
      Kathy

  10. May 11, 2012 at 8:31 am

    Kathy, thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing your struggles with us. No stranger to mental illness (my mom has been severely depressed most of her life) I have had minor bouts with it myself. the worst being the PPD I had after my son was born. I was completely disconnected, adrift in a sea of misery. At one point I didn’t want to live anymore, everything in life was colored in gray, I can’t describe it. But that feeling of general dread that you spoke of…it was crushing me, threatening to completely devour me. Having gone through this, I am so much more grateful for the good things in life, the simple things. Truly, recovering from mental illness like you did, helps pave the way to forgiveness, forgiving yourself and others. You are an incredible woman and I am truly inspired by your story!

    • May 11, 2012 at 11:56 am

      How can I thank you enough for this comment, Darla! I’m sorry to hear about your mom and your own struggle with depression, as well. I think your description of it as “crushing” is powerfully true. I SOOOOOO know that feeling. And thank you for sharing a bit of your story with me. I truly appreciate it. I really, really do!
      Hugs,
      Kathy

  11. May 11, 2012 at 11:10 am

    As a mom of a daughter with a mental illness, I’m thankful for your words! 🙂

    • May 11, 2012 at 12:00 pm

      Gosh, I’m sorry to hear about your daughter. I think it must be terribly painful to see your child in the throes of mental illness. I don’t have children myself, but I can only imagine the horror that must be for a mom. You must have feared that you had lost your own child. Thank you so very much for sharing a bit of your experience. I appreciate it very much! Hope you have a Happy Mother’s Day–one free from the pain of your daughter’s illness.
      Hugs,
      Kathy

      • May 12, 2012 at 10:59 am

        She’s actually doing very well now on Lithium, but before we knew what was wrong things were very scary. We struggled for two years without a diagnosis and she suffered short term memory problems from psychotic episodes which made school very hard. Fortunately, she’s regained most of her abilities and will begin her senior year of college next year. It’s all about having the proper meds, nutrition, rest and sleep schedule for her. I’m glad you’re doing so well, too! I love your artwork!

    • May 12, 2012 at 6:15 pm

      It’s good to hear she’s doing better–especially that she can study again. I remember in the early years after diagnosis, I couldn’t concentrate well enough to even read. That was a huge loss for me. Thank God, it’s not an issue now, but it was for way too long. It scared me. At any rate, so happy to hear she’s struggling less. Happy Mother’s Day to you, tomorrow. You really deserve to have a wonderful one!
      Hugs,
      Kathy

  12. May 11, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    Kathy, what a deeply touching and difficult post to read. I cannot even begin to imagine what your experience must have been like. Just reading it sounded terrifying to me. As someone who had also experienced a brief albeit severe bout of post partum anxiety and can relate to your feelings of complete utter terror and fear of the thought of losing control and losing yourself. Mine only lasted three months thankfully yet it was the most difficult, frightening time of my life and it took years of therapy to get out of it. It is amazing how far your mind can bring you. I am so glad to see you talking about your experiences openly in hopes that it provides more awareness and education to mental illnesses. I am also dearly happy that you have healed and found balance in your life. keep writing and keep inspiring others! Take care! Nicole 🙂

    • May 11, 2012 at 12:51 pm

      Thanks for this comment, Nicole. I am so delighted your symptoms lasted only 3 months. But then the fallout afterward was long term. How wonderful to have had the therapy to realize the impact that trauma had on you. I know how dreadful that can be as well–a whole other story, perhaps. Have you ever thought of the travel metaphor in relation to that part of your life? Did that experience marry the third-eye-you to the mom-you, in any way, I wonder?
      Hugs,
      Kathy

  13. May 11, 2012 at 5:47 pm

    As one of your regular readers, Kathy, I think the world — or at least the blogosphere (but aren’t they the same place?) is much better off that you’ve managed to thus far survive a struggle that I truly cannot fathom even though I have a hair-trigger tendency to declare certain people in my life and many fellow NYC subway riders, “nuts”, “crazy” or “looney tunes”. As someone who has suffered and survived diagnosed mental illness, your articulate and candid insights about this side of your life that is so deeply personal have been very enlightening. Sharing what you’ve endured is so magnanimous. Your experiences battling these demons can give hope to others that they can not only live through this, but if they don’t give up, they can also be very productive, fulfilled, respected, admired and appreciated. Plus your art’s pretty nifty, too.

    • May 12, 2012 at 6:08 pm

      Thanks for reading, V. I’m so happy this post moved you. Like you, I tend to say things like, “Is she nus?” Often, however, I also use that language to mock my own eccentricities–and more often than not, I am crazy–big-time-crazy! LOL Oh well, I truly am delighted this post spoke to you, my friend. Hugs————-

  14. May 12, 2012 at 5:22 am

    It took me a day to get to this but I finally did—so glad I did. I am so glad to share this bit of your life with you. So well written and so inclusive of all that you have been through with mental illness. You are one brave woman that I truly admire. Full of hope and expectations for the future. Proud to be one of your bloggy friends, indeed.

    • May 12, 2012 at 6:17 pm

      Beth Ann, you are dear, my friend! I think most folks rise to the challenges they face, as ultimately, what choice do we have? However, I DO know there are many, many folks who remain stuck in the cycle of mental illness and don’t really triumph ove the disease. I don’t know what makes the difference. At any rate, thank you so very much for your kind words. Hugs to you–and happy MOther’s Day tomorrow!

      • May 13, 2012 at 6:13 am

        You are very welcome. I am in awe of how you have come to this point in your life and can share openly about so many things that most would keep tucked inside. You are a woman of great character!

  15. Running from Hell with El
    May 12, 2012 at 8:54 am

    Thank you for sharing this. Psychosis has always been my greatest fear and I have had my own white knuckle struggle with it at times. Like you, I am incredibly grateful (now) for the sensitivity to the pain of others that this, and many other struggles, has bequeathed me with. A beautiful piece written by a beautiful soul.

    • May 12, 2012 at 6:20 pm

      So sorry to hear you, too, have had to do some white-knuckling of your own. It’s very, very scary, I know, but you’re right. These kinds of struggles do make us more sensitive to others. Thanks so much for reading. It’s wonderful to hear from you this weekend.
      Hugs,
      Kathy

  16. May 12, 2012 at 9:45 am

    Kathy, I have read some of your earlier posts about your struggles with mental illness, but this one really touched me this morning. I have tears streaming down my face now– I am filled with gratitude for knowing you, and filled with gratitude that you are willing and able to share your story!

  17. May 12, 2012 at 6:23 pm

    Oh, Dana, you’re dear. Can’t tell you how much your friendship means to me! You are a precious soul. Thanks so much!
    Hugs,
    Kathy

  18. May 13, 2012 at 5:29 am

    Dear Kathy, what you have been through, and the person you have become, gives me, and should give all other people who know you, the confidence that there is hope for the future, no matter what the situation. You have proved to all that strength of will and determination will conquer all obstacles. You have become the beautiful person who I am blessed to know today, with gratitude for your past trials. What an amazing, inspirational woman you are. 🙂

  19. May 13, 2012 at 6:22 am

    It is always a gift to read your honest raw feelings about encompassing your illness and life, learning to find a measure of peace, and then sharing it with all of us. It settles me to read that your life deepened into a sense of gratitude and thankfulness. You can feel that between many of your words and sentences. How thoughtful of Deb to ask you to do a guest post.

    • May 13, 2012 at 11:09 am

      How great to hear from you today, Kathy! I’m delighted you can feel gratitude in my language, in my sentences. I love that sentiment. Thank you so for reading, my frind. And happy Mother’s Day to you!
      Hugs,
      Kathy

  20. May 14, 2012 at 2:02 am

    Thanks for sharing Kathy’s life and her inspiring triumph over mental illness. In a way, we can relate to her story. Most of us, me included had at one point battled the chaos in our head triggered by life changing, altering events. No one is immune to the effects of human hardships, sickness or suffering. How we face them and survive the chaos makes the huge difference. It helps to have a loving and supportive family, friends and commnunity, including the blogging community. Great post. Happy Mother’s Day!

  21. May 16, 2012 at 7:35 pm

    I am moved by what you wrote, Kathy, and by Deborah’s reposting a week or so ago about her mom. Thank you both.

  22. May 18, 2012 at 3:08 am

    These words are so fantastic Kathy, not only for your powerful description of your own experience of mental illness but also because you have captured a universal truth – that gratitude can be a gradual process and that it’s not easy. So, so true. As always I love reading your writing and am always inspired by it, well done you 🙂

  23. May 20, 2012 at 8:58 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story Kathy! Quite moving…

  24. May 22, 2012 at 11:41 am

    Thank you for allowing us to accompany you on your journey, Deborah.

  1. May 11, 2012 at 5:42 am
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