After attempting suicide in high school, my parents took me on a Caribbean cruise on a premier passenger line. After my ‘break’ in college, also known as First Episode Psychosis, my life didn’t stop either. I traveled with my mom on a tour of Italy and cruised around the Mediterranean to the very gates of the Middle East. I have traveled all over the world. I’ve been jet-setting across the globe before and after my schizophrenia diagnosis.
So many of us with a mental health disorder feel our dreams and hopes of experiencing pleasure in Life eclipsed. At the minimum, people with schizophrenia and first-episode psychosis lose around ten to fifteen years of healthy life in recovery. Robbed from me, my twenties were a blur of injection and psychotherapy. Instead of socializing, cultivating social contacts, and accumulating wealth, some people with schizophrenia spend their young adulthood living in adult homes, some living off a government benefit check from week to week.
After discharge from Greater Binghamton State hospital center, my discharge plan was to live in my childhood home under my parent’s care. Living in my family’s home in middle-class America, back amongst my peers again, my social determinants expedited my recovery. Most people discharged from a state hospital center are not as lucky and sometimes move into group home settings with additional supervision and support.
While I don’t live in a group home or community residence, I am a part of the Supported housing program. The supported housing program subsidizes my apartment rent. In addition to the rent subsidy, Supported Housing agencies offer respite and other support to clients. One example is a yearly respite trip to the Catskills. The respite trip is not a privilege. It is something earned by the agency participants through hard work maintaining their health and working on their recovery. Most patients in Supported Housing have also been in state hospitals and have had multiple hospitalizations and severe mental health diagnoses.
After discharge from long-term hospital units, many people in Supported Housing struggle to survive. After years of evidencing “stable functioning” to their treatment teams, people in this program are rewarded with respite. The trip and the privilege of attending the Catskills trip is a badge of honor, recovery, and insight into one’s illness. What did I learn after going on 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 disease and recover. As a mental health therapist and a person with lived experience, I knew all of that. Instead, I learned something more memorable. My 20s challenged and tested the very limits of my dedication to continue healing and recovering. In the words of the Apollo 13 Mission Control Director, I still consider my twenties my “finest hour” living, albeit with a chronic disabling disorder.
The truth is, because of my resilience, I persevered. My illness hindered my plans initially, but today, I am more stable and happy than most people on god’s green earth. I adhered to my goals and never wavered. My story of living with a mental health disorder is a narrative that privileges strength over sickness 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 and 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 peers a hundred miles from home. Joy comes in all forms and feels transcendent wherever I experience Life, with or without a mental illness.
After all, Life is an odyssey marked with fear, etched with courage, and driven by strength. Life’s odyssey passes through every emotion available in our (moods) affective spectrum, intersecting with the experiences of a very long and happy life span. Ready to make a course correction? How much can you handle? Beyond the constraints of the day, tomorrow’s happiness is within reach.