Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Like a Real Person



This weekend just past, I got to attend a writer’s conference. It was a rare opportunity for me, and I have my agents – Elizabeth Pomada & Michael Larsen -  to thank for giving me a guest pass to something I could not otherwise afford. It was a great chance to find out new things, and I was profoundly grateful to be invited. I learned scads of important things.

Any person with a mental illness will recognize that it was also an amazing challenge. How was I to pass myself off as a normal person for two days straight? There were some real difficulties involved, starting with getting through my morning depression in record time so I could be functional and in San Francisco at 8:30 in the morning. Then, the trick was to stay at least apparently functional from 8:30 till the last class at 5 p.m., and still handle the 2-hour commute, plus not bite off my husband’s head when I got home. Kind of a tall order.


I handled the first hurdle – the early morning – by going to bed at 8 p.m. the night before with my clothes and everything else all laid out ready. Then I woke – more or less – at 5 a.m. and allowed myself the usual two hours of fardling and fumbling around and whining in my journal about how hard waking up is. Lots of coffee.  Plenty of time for mistakes and false starts and changes of mind. The trick here was to automate as much as possible, so I used BART (the local commute train) instead of trying to drive to the City myself, arriving frazzled, and trying to find parking. That would have finished me before I began! After I arrived downtown, I took a taxi, something I rarely do,  from the station to the Kearney street Hilton. Another thing that works is to arrive early and scope out the territory, so you don’t get overwhelmed by rush and impressions and information. By the time the conference started, I knew where all the session rooms and the bathrooms were, had found the coffee shop downstairs, and had spent a peaceful half hour in a cushy leather chair at a secluded nook behind the stairs.

Surviving the conference itself was something else. For seven straight hours there was one class after another, with a speaker shoehorned in at lunch. This meant a constant barrage of sights, sounds, information, and faking normal in public for hour after hour. I don’t know about your condition; but I am easily overwhelmed by too much stimulation. This was way up there on my stress-o-meter. A year or two ago, I had tried to attend a conference like this. The first day I had caved a couple hours early and run home. The second day I couldn’t go at all. I had to stay home, in bed, with the curtains shut, and sleep it off. It was completely exhausting, and I didn’t acquit myself well.

This year I got through both days. The secret was frequent breaks. Every couple hours, I would go downstairs and sit in that quiet lobby corner with my favorite iced latte and a good book, and just completely shut the whole thing off for twenty minutes. Luckily the sessions were short, and I had time between each workshop – but I would have done the same thing even if it meant missing a session here and there.  I expect those breaks between sessions were meant for schmoozing, but that was beyond me. I could retreat to a dark quiet space, or go crazy. That was the choice.  In fact, the first day I skipped the paid-for lunch altogether and slunk off to the café downstairs, which was nearly deserted. I missed lunch with my agents, but I had a blessed hour of speaking to no one and taking in no sort of information or stimulation. Did I offend my agents? I don’t know. I doubt it. They’re busy and important. I don’t think it mattered to them much either way. And at the end of the conference, I skipped the final hour and sat where I could see the bright sky outside, hear street noises just faintly, and recover my equilibrium before I started the two-hour trek home. There was an entire celebratory dinner that I missed that evening. It would have been fun, but it would also have been way too much. I don’t know about you, but when I have pushed myself too far, I start doing and saying things that make people unhappy I’m around.

So now you know my recipe for those normal-world activities: take a time out whenever you can. It just doesn’t pay to pretend you can handle things when you can’t. Take time to be quiet somewhere, take a pill if you have to, check out of the action, and check in with yourself. This strategy works on the job too. That’s how I got through twelve years of part time work in public libraries: long quiet lie-downs in the lounge. Did people think I was weird? Or lazy? Yeah, probably. But it would have been worse for everybody if I had faked it till I came unglued and had a psychotic episode right there at the customer counter.

There’s a good reason “modified breaks” and “flexible hours” are listed as  ‘reasonable job accommodation’ for people with mental illnesses. Check out this and other information at http://askjan.org/media/Psychiatric.html.

By the way, I may take a number of days to debrief and get back to my version of 'normal'. The first day, that included sleeping till 1:30 in the afternoon. And you know what? That's perfectly OK. I don't claim to run as smoothly as every other car on the road.Those of us with psychiatric disorders are definitely high maintenance. The point is to stay ON the road, however slowly you have to drive - and don't smash into the other drivers. If you can do that, you've won.


Deborah's book on coping with mental illness, Is There Room For Me, Too?, is available on Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, Createspace.com, on Kindle editions, and at the Apple iBookstore.