It was not an easy transition from the depths of mental despair into the present moment.  It was a long and arduous process.  For so long, I had lived my life as a professionally trained coward, and I don’t mean that as a judgment.  I mean that as a wake up call.  How many of us are walking around in fear of revealing our soft underbellies, of feeling sadness?  It is the constant self-reprimand for feeling sadness or anger or even shame – because shame can multiply exponentially when we try to push it away– that takes us to the edge of reason and destabilizes emotional equilibrium on both psychological and biological levels.  Our fear about simply being who we are – of feeling sad, or angry or joyful when others are sad, or even fear about our own shame – causes anxiety, depression, and despair.  Now, this may seem radical to some, and textbook knowledge to others.  And I have spent a few years telling people my painful recovery story, and fabricating a tale of transforming fear and shame into hope, but I have found empirically that essentially, fear and hope are but two sides of the same coin, and they are equally destructive. Bear with me.

The left wing creative media has done a pretty good job of warning us about us how a culture of fear pollutes our minds, our hearts, our ability to feel anything but fear itself.  It often hardens into an armor of judgment towards ourselves and others, and prevents us from touching in with our core vulnerability, our tender hearts.  But, so can hope.  This seems preposterous, some might say, and five years ago, I would have been with alongside these avid protesters, fighting for the preservation of this ever-elusive concept.  Yet, think about it for a moment.  Absence of hope does not mean nihilism, nor does it mean a dull passive acquiescing to whatever comes your way.  Absence of hope is a whole-hearted embrace of a situation with an open heart, without wishing that it be different.

In the service of hope, we strive to better ourselves, becoming preoccupied with the future, subtley telling ourselves that our present selves are not ok.  We are thus unable to engage with where we are in the present moment, which is the only place where real healing can happen.

Although hope is a common coping mechanism, like most coping mechanisms, it can outrun its course, and even get in the way.  Hope is often touted as the reason why people overcome mental illness.  But hope, or the desired fulfillment of an expectation, as it is literally defined, does not always precipitate wellness.   Because, to be honest, how often do our expectations manifest exactly as we had hoped?  And when you are depending on them to turn out in just the right way, you end up in dangerous psychological situations.  I did.  I for one always hoped things would get better, be better, that my environment and even I would get better.  I have found that self-improvement is one of the most aggressive acts towards ourselves we can commit.  When we do not allow ourselves to be ok with where we are, when we miss the only moment which we can really truly inhabit, because we spend all day comparing ourselves to others, or to a past or future self, we are doing the same as writing, in black block letters in the mirror: I am not ok. Right here, right now.  I did this for years. This self-improvement, this wish for something better, this harsh comparison to intangible possibilities,  this whittling away my body, this suppressing and shaming myself into numbness, dull depression, and even disassociation – all expressions of hope, almost killed me, literally, not once, but several times. I grew up constantly ashamed of who I was, how I was different, and because I was constantly compared to this nonexistent self I would not, could not be.

I have been given this opportunity to address this epidemic of expectation because I have been blessed with a sensitive enough constitution, and the right influences and terrible luck in my life to be placed in the position of either wake up from this toxic illusion, or die.  I have lived with depression myself , and though I think depression can have biological origins, it is clear that the environment is too a factor – and I’m not saying this to place blame – I am simply saying that our individual cultures, with all of their nuances and complexities, can inadvertently contribute to our the state of our minds in as accidental a process as a the countless complicated processes that cause cancer.

Some people can come to this realization gracefully. I however, did not.  I had to be pushed pretty far.  I’m incredibly stubborn.  I had survived depression, anorexia, anxiety, and losing major relationships in my life and I still managed to cling to the hope that I would some day be met by the approval of those whose opinions I deemed most important, and to the fear that I never would, and was destined to a life of mediocrity.  So, it took losing my mind – losing my emotion – my livelihood, my intellect, my sanity, my grasp on reality, even the expectations of others that I could even lead a mediocre life – for me to start the process of dismantling what I call endearingly – bullshit.

Yes, I was diagnosed with schizophrenia.  I may have been a frightening picture to those who witnessed this change: I slowly became was an overanxious, and otherwise zombified, nonsensical, monotone, almost averbal shell of my former self. But this severing of ties with the former honour student, actress, poet and all around normal person, precipitated the process of awakening from so many years of being a slave to hope that I would someday be enough, …and the fear and shame that I could never be.  I didn’t even fit into the same category of person anymore.  I was a used to be person.  So, I had to accept where I was.  That’s all there was to it.  But this change I speak of didn’t happen all at once.  On the contrary: I was brought to the edge of suicide, because I was brought to the edge of my own hope and fear.  I was so afraid of my own mind, of the inability to measure up to my former self, that I was prepared to die for it.  I was prepared to die for it.  As hard as it may be to hear, I know that I am not the only one.

And it took years of one day at a time, slowing letting go, again and again of my expectations and comparisons.  It is an active, ongoing process, there is no pill for it, there is no off switch that reroutes a brain that has spent years berating itself.  But it is possible.

I went from being unable to assist my parents find what they needed at the grocery store, which dashed my hopes of improvement and left me suicidal, to working towards a Masters degree in Drama Therapy, so I can help others creatively and actively heal from their own personal cultures of hope and fear.  How did I get here?  That’s really the link you probably most want to know about.  Well, I surrounded myself with people who didn’t have the expectation that I get better, or be any different than I was – people who validated my suffering, and didn’t try to make me push it away or change.  I reengaged with my creative process, and I tried with all my heart to stop comparing myself to my former skill levels, and stop hoping that I would return to some kind of prowess in any category of my life.  And suddenly, once you’ve been diagnosed with schizophrenia, it becomes easy to bypass other people’s expectations.  It’s refreshing in a way to be given a free pass to step outside the beaten path because few people continue to expect much of you, and then when you’re ready, just preface your words with “I have schizophrenia” and you’ll dispel your audience’s hope that anything you say will be of relevance, and so then they will be able to see you with clear eyes, because they won’t have any expectations.

Nonetheless, your hope in reading this blog, was probably that I provide you with some hope.  Sadly, I think I’ve failed. My story is not of one of hope; it is a story of realizing that life is workable, it is a testament to the brilliance of possibility in the present moment. What does happen when you let go of fear and hope, or at least hold them with some degree of scrutiny, is that you can work with yourself without being caught up in the shame of not meeting your expectations.  And this does not create laziness.  Absence of hope and fear is where we stop projecting ourselves into the past and future and can be in the thick of it, where real work, real healing, can happen.  I had a therapist tell me recently that only in letting go of hoping for something to be different and being with ourselves and our ugliness, our chaos, our true experience of the world, can people expect to improve from mental illness, because ironically, letting go of this desire for escaping our present into the future actually precipitates profound change.  Right here, right now.  Change can only happen in the present.  Some things, it’s best to plan for, but psychological change – I’m afraid that I’ve found it doesn’t work that way.   So, what does this change process look like, in my case?

Over time, I simply allowed and gently accepted who and where I was, and then in time, after letting go of the self-directed aggression of aspiration, my heart opened, and gradually, it became apparent that more important than my desire to be an artist of significance, was to help others.  When you start directly working with your sense of equanimity, of unconditional acceptance of yourself, then it just happens.  When you part the clouds, there you are, beautifully imperfect and you don’t even care about your own plight as much anymore because the focus has shifted, and it’s no longer all about you.  And the world, they’re not perfect either, but because you no longer judge yourself so harshly, you naturally have compassion for them, thus taking healing to a higher level and moving it into the greater world.  Suddenly, for me, after years of tumultuous emotions, and a few more of having none at all, I now feel something that is worth opening my heart for.  And the more you open your heart, the more you leap into the abyss of not knowing how others will react or if you are going to get hurt, but the more alive and human you will become.  I have not just described a cure for depression, or any other mental illness.  I still take medication for my symptoms of schizophrenia, and an antidepressant, so that I am well enough to help others.  I still struggle, and I still obsess about not being good enough.  But knowing that this is not the truth, creates gaps in the spirals of negative self-talk, and allows me to begin, again and again, to love myself.  I know that hope has its place, and it is not going to disappear for almost any of us.  But, there is the hope that I will be somehow better, smarter, more attractive, more talented, more significant.  That tomorrow will somehow bring some magic relief.  And for me, I now know it gets in the way of my mental health.  If I can provide a gentle assault to the obsequious veil of social propriety, and expectation, thus dismantling one person’s faith in its random and sometimes oppressive guise, I will say it with a smile: hope nearly ended my life.   Accepting and loving myself as is, was the beginning of my recovery.

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