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schizophrenia

Coping with Schizophrenia: Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

December 2006

NAMI partners with HealthCentral.com to bring you relevant information from their Web site. The following is a blog entry by Robin Cunningham from HeathCentral.com’s schizophrenia site.

Schizophrenia is a multi-dimensional brain disease that can affect all aspects of one’s life: mental, emotional, physical and spiritual. In this blog, and in blogs to come, we will look at the many facets of schizophrenia.

If you read my first two blogs or my bio you will know that I’m not a psychiatrist, psychologist or licensed clinical social worker, so I will not be offering professional advice. For this you must look to the experts in these fields. In other blogs, scientific analyses and professional reviews included in Schizophrenia Connections you will find just such expertise.

The perspectives on schizophrenia I can provide are that of a consumer and a family member. I have walked the walk on both sides of the street. As such, I can speak with experiential authority. It is my objective to share with you, as best I can, what is like to experience schizophrenia, to struggle with it day to day. I will also make observations from time to time about the art and science of being a family member, also taken from my own experience.

Let’s begin with something practical: a coping mechanism. I believe the example described below is most effective at the stage in a consumer’s illness when they are just entering into recovery, but continues to be useful thereafter as well.

One of My Most Effective Coping Mechanisms

Individuals with schizophrenia respond differently to various medications available for the treatment of this brain disease. And they may respond differently to the same medications at different points during their illness. No medication works for all patients and at all times, i.e. there is no “silver bullet.”

Coping mechanisms are much the same. Providers have developed a large number of coping mechanisms intended to assist individuals living with schizophrenia. Different patients find different coping mechanisms to be helpful at different points in their illness. Again, there is no “silver bullet.”

During my fifty years of living with schizophrenia, I have tried many different coping mechanisms. The coping mechanisms I will share with you in this and future blogs will be those that have had the greatest impact on my quality of life over the long term. Remember, however, that each of us is unique. You should discuss with your therapist any and all of the coping mechanisms you use.

One of the interesting aspects of the coping mechanisms I will share is that each, in a slightly different form, has been useful to me both as a person living with schizophrenia and as a family member trying to cope with loved ones that are themselves struggling with mental illness.

Coping Mechanism #1: Do not compare yourself with others or your success in life with what others have achieved.

Compete against yourself. Try to make every day just a little bit better than the one before. Work to be the best you can be.

For Consumers: When I was an undergraduate I lived in one of the men’s dormitories and had two sets of friends who were mutually exclusive: 1) Superb students, most of whom were largely inactive socially, and 2) students that were average performers in the classroom but quite adept in social situations.

When I compared myself with the first group, I found myself inadequate. My grades were good but not comparable. My social life did not impress them. When I compared myself with the second group, I again found myself inadequate. This group found my social life less than interesting. They thought I was bookish.

It seemed to me that I did not measure up academically or socially; I did not have full membership in either group. I felt humiliated and isolated. This troubled me to the point that I began to feel paralyzed in both fields of endeavor.

I blamed my troubles on the fact that I had schizophrenia. After all, the illness had already been a source of great anguish for me. I assumed the illness was crippling me in some fashion which I could not fathom. Symptoms from an earlier point in my illness began to reappear. My paranoia resurfaced. I began to believe the two groups were plotting against me, that they were tearing me limb from limb. I became terrified, on the verge of becoming dysfunctional.

In talking with Dr. Levy, my psychiatrist at the time, he pointed out that I was competing against the best of the best in both groups. Did I really expect to be among the best at everything? Might I be placing unrealistic expectations upon myself? He recommended that I look at my own unique set of skills and employ the coping mechanism set out above. At the time it was a huge challenge to change my thinking and quell the emotional turmoil in which I was caught, but it was something I could do on my own. It didn’t require the approbations or approval of others. I worked hard at it, sometimes teetering on the edge of relapse. The effects were unexpected.

In an attempt to make a long story short, I will jump ahead. Competing against myself turned out to be an excellent approach. It greatly reduced my level of stress. I began to develop my own skills at my own pace, both academically and socially.

Ironically, the leader among my academically oriented friends was elected to President of all the men’s dormitories for our junior year. He appointed me to the coveted position of Social Chairman. Suddenly it was easy to get a date. My paralysis disappeared and my grades improved. I relished both.

For Family Members: First, I suggest that the coping mechanism described above can serve as a personal growth strategy for just about anyone. If you’re not using it, I recommend you try it.

Second, as noted above, this coping mechanism is probably most appropriate for consumers who are entering into recovery (and thereafter). Consumers are vulnerable at this point in their illness. Family members that understand this will probably be more effective in assisting their loved one during this critical stage.

In my experience, it is not helpful for family members to suggest role models for their consumer to emulate. It is not beneficial to express joy that their consumer is finally returning to “his or her old self,” that all their ambitions on hold from yesteryear might once again be possible. Also, it is not productive for a family member to dust off their old expectations concerning the consumer. To do so is to set the consumer up for failure.

Don’t expect immediate results from this coping mechanism. Consumers usually find it difficult to execute this strategy, at least initially. Often they have to unlearn the contrary standards of success they have been taught all their lives.

What a family member can do is to celebrate their consumer’s every success in making each day better than the one before, even if this is just a hug or a slap on the back.

* * *

In closing, I will observe that the coping mechanisms that have been the most productive for me over the long term, both as a consumer and as a family member, have been those that, although not always intuitive, upon further examination made common sense and yet were commonly ignored by others.

Reprinted with permission from HealthCentral's Schizophrenia Connection Web site at www.schizophreniaconnection.com


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