Escaping Reality

Note: This blog post, and the ones following, are Elizabeth’s personal story of living with schizoaffective disorder. She hopes that by sharing her story, she can help others who are also facing a mental health challenge.

When I was on Christmas break from my job at Northview Elementary School, I decided it was time to do a bit of cleaning.  Yes, the mundane:  vacuuming, washing clothes, Swiffering the bathroom and kitchen floors, cleaning the toilet, sinks, shower, counters, and washing dishes.  It got me thinking about the desire to escape reality.

Is there a way to magically plop us on a beach somewhere with a cool drink in hand?  Well, no.  Let’s be serious, but the thought for a moment was more than nice, wasn’t it?  Perhaps we can uncover why it is we have that need, and how in a healthy way we can truly escape.

You may have heard in the news about the nationwide heroin epidemic.  It is a serious problem, and we need to do more than just talk about it.  We need action.  Real people are addicted.  Real people are dying.  Real people are screwing up their lives to be high and escape reality.

Who cares?

In the spring of 2010, I witnessed the destruction and devastation drug addiction can cause.  I myself had wound up in a mental health inpatient unit in East Chicago, Indiana.  Little did I know my company for the few days I was there would be patients dealing with troubling addiction to heroin.

My roommate Patience had a very troubled life, but typical for addicted individuals.  Her kids had been taken away, she lived out of a car, no money, and she was addicted to heroin.  After talking with her, it was not surprising that she has a strong desire to improve her life and get out of her current situation.  Patience held the pictures of her kids close to her heart, and dreamed of seeing them once again.

Patience was being her own hero or heroine finally after years of addiction.  Her cause was herself, and she was championing for her life.  She had a desire to see her life as something she loved.  Patience no longer wanted an escape, but a real reality she could be proud of.

I thought.

Who makes your life so awful that you have to nearly throw it away?

I know.

I didn’t want to escape using drugs, but escape the way my life made me feel through suicide.

I wonder.

What makes us recommit to our life?  What does it take to see hope in living?  How do we start young people out to value the present, their lot, and their portion of this reality?  How can we balance how children escape from reality by encouraging healthy technology use?

Working at an elementary school these days, I witness each day the exposure kids have to technology resources such as:  laptops, iPads, cell phones, and video games.  It is easy to wonder if school work really is too mundane.  The stimulation that kids have from technology makes a paper and pencil seem like the Stone Age.  How can we get kids to appreciate learning and how it enriches their lives?  How do we as educators and parents balance escapes to technology with normal reality:  chores, homework, bath time, and family time?  How do we teach kids to be present?

I’m not against technology by any means especially for learning and fun.  It is so valuable.  We need to show kids how far we can go in our reality, how far we can realize dreams, and how much we can accomplish by setting our mind to something.  Yes, video games are appealing, but we need to make dreaming in our reality cool too.  If kids fail to find their reality interesting or satisfying enough, drugs or unhealthy escapes may seem like the only plausible choice.  Learning to deal with life’s ups and downs, understanding that not everything goes your way always, but seeing that dreams are still possible will keep kids shooting for stars.

Kids need to learn at a young age to do the work to earn their free time, play time, or escapes.  Acting out isn’t going to trick the adults into giving you what you want kids.  Just like kids, adults earn their play time too.  We as adults have so much we pack into our day, we need to appreciate those minutes of peace and quiet to ourselves, but we also have to remember to set the cell phone aside and engage in conversation with our kids.  It tells kids what is important to you, and it is them.

We need to be present in our relationships too.  Present in a manageable way not always in attack mode, which causes the significant other or spouse to seek an escape from reality.  We need to be present in a communicative manner seeking ways to make the most of the situation or seek compromise.  When you realize your significant other may be seeking an escape from you, I hope it gets you thinking.  How well do we really treat each other?  Do we lash out for little or no reason?  Do we think before bringing up an issue with our significant other?  How will they react?  Are we too demanding?  When will it actually be give and take?

A healthy relationship between two people should improve or enhance your day, you should feel fed by their connection, and it should not leave you feeling more stressed and upset than you felt before interacting with that person.

In order to reach the point where we can have healthy escapes from reality, we need cooperation or partnership, which consists of working together, hearing both sides, and solving issues together, not making one person’s voice greater than the other.  Next, we need to grow together spiritually or emotionally as we think and process within and beyond ourselves.  Finally, we need to show gratitude.  Appreciation for the whole person is key.  Expressing what they mean to you in words or actions lays the groundwork for a healthy partnership.

The daily grind of work often feels unrewarding and more of a stressor than anything else.  Stuck can be a common feeling, hoping and wishing for better pay and recognition for your hard work.  Along with family, friends, and community involvement, we are inundated with the mundane things we really do not want to do, but have to anyway.

Making the mundane more attractive and interesting is a lofty task luckily not requiring heavy lifting and total life reorganization.  It is not about replacing everything and making it new, but learning to love what is ours:  our life, our piece of the pie.  It is the only one we have.

Let’s think about a few positive thoughts about life or things we can do.  Let’s practice being happy for what we have.  Let’s try to find satisfaction in life by living a full productive day.  Change what we can, but manage what we cannot.  Try to make the best of everything by making do with what you are given.  “Get what you get and don’t throw a fit” as we tell kids at school.  Learn to appreciate the little things in life.  Develop realistic expectations so that you aren’t disappointed all the time.  Would any of these begin to help?  Do we try any of them?

As a person with mental illness, my disease made me escape reality through delusions and mania.  My mind made me think I was a NBC journalist.  I thought I was saving the world.  I was a different kind of superhero for sure.

At the height of mania, I could not come down for days at a time.  Luckily, it was a relatively soft landing not a tremendous crash like getting off of drugs or alcohol.

For me, delusions and mania felt like an escape from everyday life where things were not going my way a lot of the time.  Believing that NBC wanted me when I was delusional and started writing on my parents’ computer in January 2008 felt so wonderful.  It was of course a dream and my sole focus at times, but it pushed me to do my very best when I was writing, not for me but to help other people.  It was perhaps an escape from people that had wronged me, but it is scary to think about as it happens when you are not expecting to become ill.  It can happen with a flick of a switch.  Everything can be going great, and then all of a sudden your whole world seems different.  It may seem exciting at first, but can wreak havoc on your personal life if not properly treated and medicated.

We need to be here.  Present.  On Earth.  What you are thinking may seem possible in your mind, but unfortunately it is the disease playing out in your life.  We need to live in the realm of what is possible.

When I started this blog, it was a trigger because I still feel an urge to save the world through my writing.  That’s not my job.  My title is not savior, but I work as a peer relating to others through personal experience.

You are needed here, medicated and all.  Do not be ashamed, feel broken, or feel less of a person by seeking help.

When we are down or even suicidal and daily life makes you feel like a nobody, we must remember we are all somebody, and we all matter.  Do not depend on others to make you feel good or happy.  You need to find it for yourself.  Even when you think no one cares, even friends or family, people do care.

Sometimes it is easier to connect with people at churches, charities, and other non profits, or healthcare professionals because they are not directly in your life and simply want to help you get better.

Yes, it was 6.5 years ago that I met Patience, but her story still resonates with the current heroin epidemic in this country.  I still often wonder:  what makes someone feel they need such an escape from life?

Perhaps, someone who chooses drugs as a way to escape might think:  there were no other answers in sight.  No reason to care, a feeling of worthlessness.  Who cares?  My body can take it.  It feels good when I’m high.  I got what I wanted.  Who cares what I do with my life, I need the high.

Can life be fulfilling again?

Hopefully, by now Patience has developed ways of coping with reality.  Here are a few.  First, find ways to care for your life, your self, and your body.  Make yourself feel special.  It is not about money, but time and effort to try to relieve our woes and revive our love for life.  Exercise and eat well.  Grow spiritually and emotionally.

Second, smile more.  Show or express you are happy when you are.  The facial expression does more for you because others see you feel good.  People also smile back.  It’s contagious.

Third, seek out healthy mentors to be guides and accountability partners.  It is important to let a stronger more stable person help us out of our life mess.  The bond can be invigorating and propel us to a new place in our life.

Fourth, don’t rush.  Slow down a few notches.  Take in the day, the sun, the rain, or the snow.  Enjoy when you get a minute to look out the window or go outside at work or at home.  You don’t have to get there as fast as you think you do.  You will get there.  Pace yourself.

Fifth, learn to love again.  How?  Why?  When?  Learn to appreciate others for all the joy they bring to your life.  Thank them for all they do for you.  If you do not think you know anyone that does that for you, make it your duty to make someone feel good.  Complement them and focus on the positives they bring to this world.

Finally, find healthy escapes in moderation.  These are all of our little luxuries:  hobbies, sports, sex, good food, going to the salon, getting a manicure or pedicure, going shopping, tinkering in the garage, listening to or playing music, building, working in the yard, writing, reading, having a glass of wine or a beer, or praying.

Doing the things we love makes us feel valued.  Yes, we are valuable.  Quite.  This life has value.  It is important that we carve our time to replenish ourselves after we become depleted from our day or week.  Don’t give up what you love.  Make it have meaning as a way to not run away from life, but strengthen us and embrace all that it brings us.

Yes, I still have a load of clothes to fold and errands to run, but I am thankful for the life I have built and will take the mundane as it comes.  When you are in an inpatient mental health unit, everything is taken away, and your main focus is getting better.  It is an escape because you cannot handle reality, and function in society.  Once you regain control, there is an appreciation for life again because you worked so hard to get back to normal.  Perhaps, if we keep working to balance our daily schedule with all of our commitments with satisfying healthy escape needs, we can reconnect with a healthier purpose or direction for our life.

About Elizabeth:

My name is Elizabeth Schmalzried. I am from Wabash, Indiana. I graduated from Indiana University in 2004. I was a member of the Women’s Golf Team at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) during my four years in college. I was diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder in March 2008. I have been through a great deal with my mental illness, and continue to manage my mental illness in recovery. I moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana in October 2016, and hope that my contributions to this blog will be relatable and help others who have similar struggles. I enjoy working out, reading, listening to, and watching the news, golfing, cooking, volunteering, watching sports, watching movies, listening to music, and spending time with my boyfriend, family, and friends.

Read previous blog post

Read next blog post