Finding Friends You Can Count On

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.

My eyes were drawn skyward as I drove home tonight.  The moon looked beautiful perched above the Earth.  As I kept driving, the moon would go behind the thick, gray clouds and hide away from my sight.  My gaze was fixed upon the moon during the moments when it shown so bright and I could see its complete form, but when it went behind the clouds it left me in the dark.  The man in the moon kept turning off our budding connection.  Perhaps the space and time put between us was not a turn off, but the right distance or basis we need to begin our relationship.

With the holiday season that just swiftly passed by, I have since taken time to reflect on how we quantify the status of our relationships during that time:  friends, family, professional, or the like.  Are we close enough for gift giving?  Is a card necessary, or just a call, a message, or simply getting together enough?  Who are our real peers?

The holiday season eliminates or dissipates our space to think and process with the accumulation of seasonal stress and lack of extra time.  With all the gift giving, are we still giving in a therapeutic way to each other?  Is this a season where we see our peers as help or a hindrance?  How can we make sense?

We as Americans are at an interesting place in time.  A new president took office in January, the unemployment rate has taken major steps in improving in recent years, we have vast social networks, and many of us have a New Year’s resolution to lose weight.

How can we utilize our resources to help us succeed?  Can peers create a therapeutic environment able to reestablish time and space for real connection?  We shall see.

What many parents didn’t see this past holiday season was Hatchimals.  The toy craze of the Christmas season was real.  Like a Hatchimal, we are waiting for the dawn of a new day when we hatch from our shell, and see the world with new eyes.  We want to be seen for who we are bumps, bruises, and all.  We want to get to know our surroundings, and live a full life.

When we are isolated, we feel great loneliness.  We often do not see a way out.  After diagnosis with mental illness, I thought no one could possibly understand what I had been through, but if you openly trust and trade in hopelessness for hope by engaging the help of others, the right people come into your life. Loneliness subsides in time because you believe enough in yourself to have the right people around you.

Inside the egg of the Hatchimals, we are isolated from the world.  Until someone connecting on a peer level comes along.

We are not alone.

When I was very ill with Schizoaffective Disorder, my mental illness, I often isolated myself from my family and friends.  I didn’t want anyone to reach me.  I didn’t think anyone would understand.  I was an island unto myself.

Isolation is the absence of us working together.  Our minds are not meeting together.  I was in a darker place without company, and my friends and family were cut off from all the good that I do for them just being in their life.

We can think of people like an onion each having many layers.  Our social network relates to the same concept.  Our social network does not buckle us in.  It (almost) bubbles us in with many secure protective layers.  We are protected by the people we surround ourselves by.  If we don’t let anyone in, we get so much in our own head that we drain ourselves of our own light.  When we relate together we recharge each others’ batteries or illuminate each other by being each others’ safe place to vent our daily issues or problems.

Our social network is comprised of a careful and precise design of concentric circles around our life.  They encircle us.  At each level, friendship looks different.

At isolation, we become very into ourselves, and the world seems very far away.  The thought of connection seems nearly impossible to make sense in our mind.  We don’t think we need other peers.  We hope the world stays away.  If it doesn’t, we can find ways to make it stay away from us.

Next, we have me plus family plus spouse or significant other, and closest of friends.  These are our closest allies.  We live and breathe each day for these folks.  We need these people to make it.  We depend on their care, love, and guidance to make it through all our rough patches we experience through daily life.  We can fight and make up and live to love again with these people.

After that, we have other friends, doctors, counselors, coaches, church family, community organization members, close fellow students or close coworkers, etc.  We work well at times and other times we struggle.  These people we grow with.  We strive to improve our lives with this group because we have space and time to think in between seeing these people.  We change together.  We dream together.  We build together.

Next, we have other students and other coworkers, business associates, close friends of friends, and significant acquaintances.  We relate with these people in passing by daily.  It may not be always the most in depth interaction, but it is significant and a real and memorable part to the day or week.  We depend on them for help with a job or maintenance around the house.  They make us feel like we are a part of an even bigger team.

Finally, we have our social network beyond us.  These are the people we hope to meet.  Our aspirations we have of paths less traveled.  It is everywhere we want to go, but have not been.  It is that new job we dream of with the ladder to get us there.  It is the connections that will build us up in the future.

Each of us is linked by our connections.  We are linked by a message from us making sense to the receiving party.  We are linked by our depiction or representation of us making sense to the receiving party.  We are linked by the ways we demonstrate our self to others whether that is in a false or factual manner that is up to us.

When someone sees our true self, we feel excited and thankful.  It then propels us to want our true self out more regularly or all the time.  We desire as humans to be who we are and not be deceitful to others.  It feels good to be real.

When we are real to each other, we see our differences and we meet in between.  It is like the bond a handshake creates.  It means something.  Two parties are taking a silent oath to guard each other as they would guard or protect their own body.  Love your neighbor as yourself as the Bible states.

It is not a friendship or relationship where we compete, distrust, or willingly complicate.  A friendship or real relationship occurs when we want the best for each of us and mean it.

Relationships such as these free us.  They free us because they allow us to tamp down fear and be brothers and sisters.  With mental illness, stigma abounds.  But when we allow for the space and time to believe in and see our real selves, our bond is therapeutic for both of us and fear is eliminated.  Do we see stigma between us can be reduced by developing our true dependencies on each other by making differences make sense?

We are not alone.

We need people.  We connect with in kind connections.  When we try to hurt others we only hurt ourselves because we are disconnecting ourselves from the warmth, love, and acceptance found as a peer and that which we feel together as a part of us and the human race.  Don’t go it alone.

When I can be the real me free from others’ judgment, panic attacks subside, feeling overwhelmed goes away, and anxiety fades.

Instead of being inside the egg, you can be Horton from Dr. Seuss and protect the egg.  My hallucinations at the Bowen Center in Warsaw, Indiana in the summer of 2008 were of Horton’s egg.  My Grandma Schmalzried read that book to my brother and I as a child.  Horton withstood cold, heat, all other elements, and taunting because he knew his job was to protect the egg.  What if we held each other’s life in that regard?

Why not try to be a friend someone has not found yet or friended in their social network, or a friend we all need.

When you have a mental illness, getting better depends on peers you put in your life:  counselors, psychologists, doctors, nurses, parents, friends, pastors, teachers, bosses, coaches, etc.  You depend on them having your best interest in mind because at times you cannot see the direction to take your life or where you need to go or be to get better.

Inside the Hatchimals egg, the lights are out.  We cannot see what the Hatchimal is thinking.  We need the shining light of a true peer to set the Hatchimals path straight, and get them going.  Like Horton’s egg we need to be protected until it is our time to hatch, and be cared for to live a full life after we hatch.  We need to want a better life for all of our connections.  When each connection is better, we are better as a whole.

Our inner circle is about quality of friends not quantity.  Surrounding ourselves with the right number of quality people does more for us than 100 people who barely know us or understand us deeply inside and outside.

Reach out for peers both:  professional and special companions.  We are here for you!  Those are true friends regardless of title, position, or status.

Our public relations today depends on starting out inside that egg not in darkness, but in the mind aspiring to be something more or the best citizen or addition to us.  How do we relate properly?  Are we working together for the common good?  Can we live a better, fuller life together?

Leave space for our mind to think and develop and sustain close connections.  Do not worry about the numbers.  Ask whose peer therapy would I chose?  Who is going to get me thinking, moving, caring about me, and caring about us?  Lean.  Our experiences make us who we are, and the wealth is summed by how we use it to help or influence the people we care for or are connected to.

We need our peer therapy to relieve us of our mounting stress.  We need our peer therapy to make us feel normal and accepted.  We need our peer therapy to prompt us when change is necessary.  We need our peer therapy in order to believe in us again.  Believe we are not alone.  We need it.  We are due.

Even with our peers or family members, mental illness often strains relationships.  It had a tremendous effect on relationships that I had established prior to being diagnosed with mental illness.  When I was first diagnosed with a mental illness, I was living at home in Wabash, Indiana with my parents and my fourteen year old sister.  My illness destroyed my relationship with my little sister.  We used to do everything together, and my sister looked up to me in many ways prior to my diagnosis.  After I got sick, it was like I did not exist to her, or maybe she would rather I did not.  My little sister ignored me for years barely making even the slightest acknowledgement to me that I existed.  It was devastating to me.

That strained relationship really did not help my self esteem or self confidence.  I wanted to be a part of her life, but she would not let me.  My sister got through high school and college, and I did manage to become more a part of her life again with time.  I know it scared her to see me sick, and lose everything I had going for me.  I know having our parents take time to take care of me or visit me in the hospital was taking away from time that they could have spent with my sister, but it was not my choice to have a mental illness.

We all did the best we could to get through all the tough times.  Hopefully, as time goes on my sister will grow to respect me again, and see me as a person, big sister, and maybe even a role model again.  Maybe that is asking a lot for how much I hurt her by becoming mentally ill or how much it hurt her to see me very ill, but I am trying to make it up to her.  Perhaps, one day I will feel like I have my sister totally back in my life again.

A person with a mental illness is just like everyone else, but with some extra challenges.  As a friend to someone with mental illness, it is important to have a good listening ear.  Listen.  Listen.  Listen.  If you do nothing else, take a few minutes when they ask and listen to what their day was like, what they go through, how they are feeling, what is going well, what makes them smile, and strategize on how the next day can be a better one.  Share your life both positives and struggles.  Encourage, laugh, and love.  It helps immensely to know there is a shoulder to cry on when needed.

Another way that friends can help someone with a mental illness is organize activities to do together.   When someone is ill for a good length of time, all they see is their house, apartment, or maybe the hospital inpatient unit.  They need your help to get them out, and back doing normal activities.  Be creative.  Do fun inexpensive activities that get the friend with a mental illness out of the house, up moving, and interacting with others.  It will do wonders for their self esteem.  It will make them feel like they are a part of the world, society, or your community again.  Some activities might include:  going to a movie, taking a walk in the park, going to the library for books, praying together at home or at church or joining a bible study, going to the coffee or ice cream shop, going to a museum, or volunteering in the community.

As a friend you could also help with any cooking, cleaning, or shopping.  Try to involve the person with the mental illness or just assist them.  By assisting, the mentally ill person gains some independence.  Finally, the friend with a mental illness may also need help with rides to and from doctor’s appointments, therapy, or support groups.  Be willing to lend a hand wherever you can.  It will be much appreciated.

It is our job as peers to give us time and space to bring each other out into the light, and by connecting and caring make our purpose known.  Space is more than a place to hang our moon.  It is a stage for great men like John Glenn, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong to make their firsts known.  This is a space to think.  It is time to dream.  Free us from distractions.  We need true friends to see us even through gray clouds, and help us to remain linked inside and out by being a special shoulder to lean on through 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.

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