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Being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder was a real blow. I felt alone. I felt helpless. I felt my life had ended. I can’t tell you how many times I sat in a bathtub staring at the vein in my arm, wondering how much it would hurt to cut through the skin, or how frightened I’d become of heights, knowing that my suicidal thoughts might one day get the best of me. For years I continued to live as I had prior to my diagnosis: drinking, doing drugs, eating poorly, and not exercising. Finally, after my third manic hospitalization, I was struck with a realization: I have to learn to live with this disorder.
Over the years, I’ve learned coping skills to help when anxiety, paranoia, depression, or mania set in. Here’s how I deal with those issues:
When I’m anxious, I start by breathing deeply, in and out, as many times as it takes to feel comfortable. If being in a crowded place, such as a party, is causing my anxiety, I step outside for a while and do my breathing there. I focus on my breaths and center myself in the moment, allowing racing thoughts to slow down and disappear. I practice meditation often, and the skills I’ve learned through that training have allowed me to better cope with anxiety.
Paranoia often leads to anxiety, so while I’m breathing, I ask myself the question: “Are you sure?” It’s a trick I learned from therapists and Zen books. If I think a person at the party is out to get me, or everyone hates me because I made a particular comment, I just ask myself, “are you sure?” The answer is always “no.” You can never know what’s going on in others’ heads, and they can never know what goes on inside yours, unless you tell them. The paranoid side of schizoaffective disorder is often irrational, and asking a rational question can override that.
When you’re depressed, you don’t want to do anything. You just want to lie in bed, pull the covers over your head and cry. I understand because it’s happened to me dozens of time. I used to call them “suicide days”, when I’d sit around thinking of ways to kill myself, always realizing that the pain my own death would cause to my loved ones was significantly worse than the sad spell I was going through. Sometimes you have to tough it out, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.
Preparation for me occurs every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. As best I can, I follow a routine. I wake up, get my coffee, do my work for 6 to 8 hours, practice guitar for an hour, write for an hour, and read for an hour. In between I spend times with friends and family. When I’m depressed, the work day may only be an hour or two, but I try to stick to my routine.
The key to overcoming depression is doing something; anything can get the ball of productivity rolling, and productivity will help get you out of that funk. One thing that has helped me considerably is hiking. If I enter the woods depressed, 100% of the time I leave feeling better than I did when I got there. Nature has a way of making problems seem insignificant.
Avoiding mania involves two very important steps: taking medications daily and living a healthy lifestyle. Since I’ve been loyal to my medication regimen, I haven’t had a single manic episode. Considering that two of my three manic episodes were the result of not taking medications, I’d say this is a big one. Stay on your meds!
Living a healthy lifestyle involves eating healthily (or at least fairly healthily), abstaining from alcohol and drugs, and maintaining healthy relationships with friends and family. It seems like a huge change, but the truth is the past is gone, and you can change who you are any instant you choose to do so. Just pick a path and start walking.
I can’t say whether we only live once, or if there’s anything for sure beyond the life we’re living now, but I can say that this is the life we have, here and now, and having schizoaffective disorder is no excuse not to make the most of it. Life can be great with schizoaffective disorder. My experiences with the disorder have created within me a depth found in a select few individuals, and this depth allows me to understand life’s ups and downs and appreciate each not as punishment, or reward, but simply as part of this life we live.
The seemingly horrible experiences of schizoaffective disorder have given me a great gift: appreciation. After all, how can anyone appreciate sweetness without having first tasted bitterness?
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