June 05, 2019

By Susan Weiner

I was working on a PhD in the humanities when I experienced my first episode of psychosis. I quickly spiraled into delusions and full-blown mania. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I began to believe the U.S. was on the brink of a devastating civil war with hidden factions on each side. I was with the good guys, of course. On the other side was an evil dictator and his followers, who sought to dominate my country and begin a new holocaust involving the intelligentsia. It was terrifying. Mostly because I believed the evil dictator was beginning to acquire power over space and time, giving him the advantage of a nuclear bomb over states without one. 

I withdrew from my academic program reasoning that the war needed my full participation. I ignored the pleas of my loved ones and cut all my ties to my old life. For seven months, I lived in a delusional state isolated and torn away from all that I loved and had worked for in my life. I had no one to care for me. I lived in a rundown apartment with little furniture and no working oven or heat. I was utterly engaged in my delusions and with no one to prevent my decline, I spent many hours of my day in ritual practices that I believed would hinder the rise of evil in the U.S. I imagined I was being effective and even heroic. I look back on this time as an excruciating and horrifying episode that nearly destroyed my life. 

After seven months of uninterrupted psychosis, I owe a debt of gratitude to the police force who finally detained me and realized I needed to be hospitalized and not shuffled through the prison system. This led directly to being reunited with family and some friends. But some friends I lost forever. Luckily the hospital was a gateway to my eventual recovery. It took me several years to find and become stable on the right antipsychotic medication and accompanying medications that make the side effects bearable. According to my doctor, I would get well. And he was right. But that didn’t mean I could pick up my life where I left off before my episode.

Life After My Episode

I desperately wanted to become a professor. I did my best to make this deeply cherished dream come true as I recovered. I worked as hard as I was able, but I no longer had the physical strength to support long days of reading and research that were required in my program. I became exhausted after just a few hours. I couldn’t keep up with the reading. I fell far behind. It was with a broken heart that I realized I had to forgo this career path.
Instead, I continued to work on research at my own pace, hoping I might be able to write a nonfiction book on pirates in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I reasoned this was a topic I could cover that wasn’t too big or complex, one that might fit in with my impaired skills and abilities at this time. So, I labored on, reading always about pirates and privateers, buccaneers and outlaws. 
When it finally became clear even to me that I would never be able to return to an academic program or even write a book, I decided to descend a level and began to write articles on pirates for a local historical and pirate-reenactment magazine. I was fully engaged in this activity. And I found real joy in life again. 
Yet even this too brief passage of a year was doomed to collapse. Just like academic research, I couldn’t keep up with the demands of reading needed to compose original articles. Little by little, I pushed myself beyond limits over which I no longer had any control. I felt utterly broken. Here was yet another letdown. Another glaring example that I was no longer fit to pursue my dearly prized dreams. I felt frustrated and hopeless.

I worried that no matter what I did from now on I would fail. I began to believe that mental illness had destroyed my life and left me intellectually crippled. What could I possibly do now that would bring me the intense joy that research and writing had shown me was possible? Due to the side effects of my medications, I became more confined to my house. Due to the fragility of my mind, I needed a quiet life that didn’t impose deadlines or interactions with others that caused me stress and unhappiness. It seemed to me that my life was over for good. 

Finding What Would Make Me Happy

Although I felt defeated, I decided to search for another project that would allow me to recapture some dignity and sense of worth and meaning. Because of the handicaps from mental illness, I knew this had to be something I could work on from home that had no deadlines—something I could devote myself to without breaking down or collapsing into physical and mental exhaustion—something that would allow for bad days. 
As a young girl, I wanted to be a poet. It had been at least a decade since I was diagnosed with mental illness and about as long since I had written any poetry. To my utter surprise, it came easily to me again. At first, I dedicated one day a week to writing. Then within months, I began to spend all the time I could on poetry. I was able to focus and write for long periods without interruption. If I felt sick, I could take time off to recuperate. No matter how poorly I felt when I woke up, I could always work on poetry. I felt useful again. I was engaged. 

I decided to write poems about the pirates I had researched so extensively. But, who wanted poems on such a topic? Why, children of course. So, I began work on a book of children’s poems. It was such an absolute surprise to engage in this activity. It had never occurred to me that I might undertake and embrace my fate as a children’s author. I spent two years laboring on this new book. Finally, at last, I could work hard and produce something. 

Even more miraculously, after a long year of searching, I found a publisher who was willing to take a chance on me as a first-time author. Last year, Belle Isle Books published my children’s poems as the book, Pirates and Spooks, Beware! The book contains poems about rampaging, romping pirates and slightly spooky monsters.

I had found my little place in the universe at last. My own garden to tend and bring to blossom. Fiction had called me back again, and although it took me a long time to answer, I found the very thing that gives me purpose and makes sense of my life. 

Mental illness doesn’t have to be the one definition of who we are. It may be a disability we have to cope with, but it also may bring opportunities we never expected to make life bright and enjoyable. I think any lesson derived from my experience is that you should never give up on hope. It took me a decade to find an activity I could pursue with success. And that activity was something I fell into by accident without thought or planning. That one thing for you is out there, too. Though mental illness is a devastating diagnosis, I firmly believe we can overcome our limitations to live a life of satisfaction once again.  I am living proof that hard work pays off.  

Susan Weiner is an author who lives in Maryland near the Potomac River.  She has just published her first children's book, Pirates and Spooks, Beware!, a collection of poems on rambunctious pirates and slightly spooky ghouls for kids ages 8-12. Her second book of adult poetry, Before the Foundation of the World, will be published at Christmas, 2019. You can see more of her work at Susanweinerbooks.com, where you can contact her as well.    


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