I have traveled all over the world.
Before, after, and during my most psychotic episodes, I have been privileged in the realm of touring, traveling, and seeing the world at large.
After I attempted suicide in high school, my parents took me on a Caribbean cruise on a premier passenger line. After my break in college, not one year after my discharge from a state hospital center, I traveled with my mom on a tour of Italy and another cruise across the Mediterranean to the very gates of the Middle East.
I am NOT touching on my privilege to show off. I am talking about my privilege because so many of us with a mental health disorder feel our dreams and hopes of experiencing pleasure in life have been eclipsed. Many people with schizophrenia and those who have experienced the first episode of psychosis have had their 20’s robbed from them in their early adulthood. Instead of socializing, cultivating social contacts, and accumulating wealth, many of these folks without means spent their young adulthood in an adult home, without means, and living off a government check from week to week. This was not my experience.
Instead, my recovery from first-episode psychosis looked much, much different. A sharp departure from living off a government check and hoping anyone, a friend, or a worker would offer me a helping hand in my darkest despair. No, after discharge from greater Binghamton state hospital center, I was placed in my parent’s care. Living in my family’s home in middle-class America, back amongst my peers again, my convalescence was expedited, hastened, and much more tolerable than most people who’ve been discharged from a state hospital center.
When I later returned to graduate school, yet another privilege many folks don’t have the opportunity to do or have enough support to be successful enough to graduate, I knew I wanted to understand people’s lives less affluent and connected to fewer organic supports than myself. Consider it a study in resilience, or more accurately, a dose of reality in the lives of my peers. I wanted to learn how these folks keep going and moving forward with their recovery with less and be just as successful as I was in my health and healing. This is why when my Supported housing program, Search for Change, which subsidizes my apartment announced their yearly respite trip to the Catskills, I wanted to join the rest of the participants in their vacation.
This vacation is something earned by the participants of Search for Change. After discharge from long-term units in the hospital, most of the participants first live in a group home. After years of evidencing “stable functioning” to their treatment teams, they graduate to apartment treatment or the highest tier in the mental health housing system, supported housing. As I said, this trip and the privilege of attending is a badge of honor, recovery, and insight into one’s illness. I didn’t move through the system, though. My Medal of Honor was self-knowledge and very personal, if not distant, and totally foreign to the system and its gaze.
I was a world traveler before and after my disorder. Why did privileged me want to vacation with Westchester county’s most chronic people living in mental health housing? The truth is, I have never been better for it. Not because I learned about mental illness or what it’s like to live with a chronic illness and recovery. I knew all of that as a mental health therapist and as a person with lived experience. Instead, I learned something more special. That decade I once felt was robbed from me, my twenties, in the words of the Apollo 13 Mission Control Director, was indeed my “finest hour” and ten years living albeit with a chronic disabling disorder.
Evidenced in resilience, perseverance, and achievement, my illness may have hindered my plans initially, but I am more successful, stable, and happy than most people on god’s green earth. That’s right, my adherence to my goals never wavered and continues to inspire not only people living with a mental health disorder but everyone around me who privileges strength over disorder and victory in the face of looming tragedy or misfortune. So, how did I learn all of this in the Catskills? The answer is profoundly simple in the wake of such complex issues.
People’s dreams, and wants, for themselves and their futures, are much more similar to one another than we may believe in a world of brilliant diversity. We all want to be happy, healthy and experience personal success and connection with ourselves and others. This trip and its participants taught me whether I am cruising in the Mediterranean or traveling with my program peers a hundred miles from home.
Joy comes in all forms and feels transcendent wherever I experience life, with or without a mental illness.