Psychotic Break: An Aberration Story

I have more empathy for the suffering of others and for the mentally ill, who are not bad or scary people …

Are you depressed today? Did someone stab you in the back? OMG, are you addicted to coffee? So … if you don’t get a break, or have a vacation soon, you’re going to lose your @#$!x& mind, right?


Norman Vincent Peale’s book, The Power of Positive Thinking, written in 1952, was the first to teach me a thing or two about the power of positive thinking. I read it in the 80’s. In the 90’s, Tony Robbins emerged, saying that the way we communicate with others and with ourselves ultimately determines the quality of our lives. Using strong words out of context can create an unintended, negative mindset. This insidious drama queen language, in itself, can be damaging. And now we have Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret! When are we all finally going to get it?

Lost in both our blatant and more subtle negativity, we often forget that there are people out there who actually have a real disease called depression, and are in jeopardy of losing their minds on any given day. Heck, some people actually grew up in neighborhoods where people were stabbed every now and then. When we take their words are we downplaying the seriousness of their history and/or ongoing struggle? Does it make their experiences somehow less severe, and therefore worth a bit less attention from those of us lucky enough to simply be a little down from time to time?

And it’s not about political correctness. It’s about language, and the powerful messages we feed ourselves–mental loops that influence our emotional programming.

I often wonder who those truly depressed, mind-losing, struggling people are. Surely they aren’t my neighbor, the soccer mom with the fake nails in line at the grocery store, or my co-worker who just got promoted. They must be tucked away somewhere having problems or trying to recover.

Wrong again …

The more I come to appreciate that normal is a farce, I realize that these people are all around me, at times weaving in and out of my life on a daily basis. Maybe you are one of them. If not, are they listening to you talk about your so-called depression, and your emotional stab wounds, wondering if you actually know what those words mean? If you have experienced some of these serious issues, hopefully you’ve come to appreciate the words you use to describe your life, being careful to avoid those that should be reserved for the emergence or re-emergence of those heart-wrenching challenges you manage to keep at bay.

Liimu does just that. She’s a young consultant with a bright smile and quick wit. If you met her for coffee, or crossed her path at the grocery store with her three young children, you’d never guess that she once dropped acid and lost her #$#%x@ mind. She has joined the Aberration Nation. Her name is Liimu and she’s an alcoholic … she’s also your neighbor.

Your past includes a psychotic break and time spent institutionalized. Can you tel
l us what happened?

I was 24, and was finishing up my final year of college. Over the Christmas break, I went to see my boyfriend in New Mexico. We met in Las Vegas, and then for some reason, he thought it would be a good idea for us to drop acid before we made the 17 hour drive back to New Mexico.

Flash forward two months: I wake up hearing voices. I swear I can communicate with my cat without opening my mouth. I can think “come here” and he come s prancing into the room. I start writing letters like crazy, all the while showing up wherever, whenever I please. I miss appointments I’ve had for months and sit for exams without opening a single book. When my mom finally comes looking for me, she tells me we were going to see a doctor. We go to the mental health clinic on campus. They lock me in the ward, only releasing me to have an occasional cigarette.

When I was locked up, my mom visited daily. Every time she came, I had my bags packed and ready by the door. Every day, I was told I could not leave; they didn’t know when I’d be released. What was supposed to be a couple days’ stay turned into a five weeks of lock down. I finally agreed to go to rehab, and was released. I found out later that if I hadn’t agreed to the rehab program, they would have sent me to a long-term facility where my chances of getting out would have been slim to none.

Like myself, you were raised in a dysfunctional home. How did that environment bear out on your mental health as a teenager and young adult?

There were so many ways that have a dysfunctional home played out for me, the most impact probably being that I was raised in an alcoholic home. I didn’t learn any real coping mechanisms, and certainly didn’t learn that it was okay to be different, or to have feelings, or to be scared or sad. You just put on a good, strong front and muscled through, or you gave in entirely and were a complete loser drunk. So, although I finally realized I was a drunk and had to get sober, I put on a brave face for many years. It was that pressure, in part, that led to my breakdown. I have to be careful about that to this day.

You’ve said that being institutionalized changes a person forever. How so?

When someone else says, “If I don’t get a vacation soon, I’m gonna have a breakdown,” they don’t really mean it. For me, it’s truly a deep-rooted fear. In the same way that a person is changed forever by the experience of seeing a violent crime or losing a loved one or becoming a parent, a person is changed forever by losing his or her mind. Suddenly, the idea that the mind is a thing that can be lost takes on new meaning. I’m always aware now of where that line is and how close I am to it. I know what lies on the other side of sanity.

Can you describe your mental break?

I was completely removed from reality. Until I entered the mental institution, it wasn’t scary at all. I had this overwhelming sense of calm, actually. Like I was completely in tune with the energy of the Universe. But, once I got locked up, it was a whole different story. If you’ve ever seen one of those movies from the 1950’s where they show a funhouse with scary looking faces flying in and out of the camera, and people laughing and screaming at the same time while the room is spinning around and around–it was sort of like that, only scarier. I remember at one point (during a drug-induced, fitful sleep), dreaming that I was literally standing at the gates of Hell, facing the Devil Himself. When I woke, I felt like I had very narrowly escaped Hell.

You recovered from your psychotic episode, and went on to finish college and begin a successful career. How were you able to walk away from such deep pain and mental disarray? How are you now?

For me, it was a simple process of recovery–not easy, but simple. I surrendered to my alcoholism and addiction, and began to work the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Soon after, I developed my own understanding of a Higher Power and since then, it has been easy.

Were there any particular individuals who influenced your recovery, or was it ultimately a case of, “I will survive?” Did it take a combination?

Each person is unique. What are the key success factors in your ongoing mental health? My sponsors, my mother, my therapist, my husband, and my female friends have all been instrumental. The key success factor in my ongoing mental health is my commitment to recovery–in all the ways it manifests in my life, whether it’s workshops, recovery programs, friendships, therapy, exercise, etc. My commitment is to improving myself, and improving my relationship with God. As long as what I do is fundamentally based on one or both of those priorities, I’m doing fine.

Having grown up in the shadow of mental illness, how much of your own issues do you attribute to nature versus nurture? How does one stop the vicious cycle of familial dysfunction? Is it possible?

I definitely believe that it’s possible to break the cycle, though for me it’s impossible to deny that I had it in my blood (my father and mother were both alcoholics). What I hope to pass on to my children is how to recover, so that if they are afflicted with the disease of alcoholism, they will know there is a solution. I also think there is a line between teetering-on-the-edge-of and full-blown addiction, and for some people, that is where environment plays a role. In my case, I’ve had an addictive personality from as far back as I can remember.

Looking back, can you tell us if and how your experience being institutionalized, and the associated struggles, have changed you for the better? What are the positives you’ve found in yourself and in others as a result of your unique life?

I don’t take anything for granted. My commitment to recovery is strengthened by how much is at stake for me. I have more empathy for the suffering of others and for the mentally ill, who are not bad or scary people, they are just ill and need help. I have a complete awe and love for my Higher Power for having taken me to the depths and brought me back again. That’s what it took for me to fully accept my alcoholism and recover. And ever since then, I have been committed to serving God and others.

When I start to feel sorry for myself, I immediately look for ways to be of service to others. That’s the quickest way to get over anything that is causing me pain.

For more on Liimu, visit here and here.

5 thoughts on “Psychotic Break: An Aberration Story

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  1. In a way it feels like you're just one more person blaming me for all that's happened to me, the rapes, the abuse, people ignoring me or being rude just to hurt me – just because I didn't say positive affirmations all these things happened to me and only affect me because I survived and remember?

    I think positive affirmations are probably more for people who already have good lives and just hav the 'poor little rich kid' syndrome. Me? I'm almost 50 and still fighting to survive so dumb sayings like la-tee-da aren't going to make my boo-boo all better, the scars are old and deep but just so searingly painful to this day that no words alone are going to smooth it over.

    If you have a way for me to make friends and be happier without it seeming so…oh anyway…I'm old enough to know that it's only the people who's lives are fair that tell others life's never fair. I realize that but who said it had to be so hard either?


  2. Thanks Liimu for sharing your story.

    Anonymous, all the abuse and horrors you have endured are definitely not your fault. I too suffered psychological abuse from early childhood until my late twenties, and still struggle with the memories and the emotions it can trigger when I end up in situations that remind me of it. Interestingly, although I knew on a conscious level it was not my fault, I had still convinced myself deep down that there was something I could have done to change the situation. It took many years of work to truly convince myself that it was beyond my control, and that not only could I have done nothing as a child to change things, but I could not change the past by being angry about it. This was a very difficult point to get to, but once I reached it it was exrtemely liberating and led to my eventual recovery.

    My first step was finding professionals who really believed me. I was in my twenties before I found this. I had to move away from my abuser, which was horrifically painful as it was my mother, and I did so when my father died. He had been my stability, although he had also been an enabler of her behaviour. I moved in with my sister, who has been my rock. For the first time I felt medication would help, as I was no longer stuck in the situation and I knew I was dealing with aftereffects of abuse and had reached the point where I could no longer function. I didn't want to harm myself, but I felt it would be better if I just died.

    The medication (Cipralex, or Lexapro in the USA) made me apathetic for quite some time, but that was needed for my own healing. Then I sought out cognitive behavioural therapy. I had heard great things from people who had recovered from severe lifelong depression and anxiety. When I started, it sounded like a crock, but I gave it a try and it honestly was the biggest factor in my recovery. I took it both individually and in a group, and learned a lot about myself and how my attitude makes all the difference. My AHA moment was when I was sitting in a theatre watching a show, and I started thinking about something that had happened 15 years earlier. I was totally focused on it and starting to feel the rage well up inside me, when I became aware if it, and emlpoyed the methods from CBT. I distracted myself with a pain stimulus (grinding my toes into the soles of my shoes for a few seconds) to bring me back to the present, then pictured a stop sign and screamed STOP inside my head. Within seconds, like magic, the noise was gone. I was really shocked that it worked, and was suddenly feeling wonderful that I had conquored my problem. I enjoyed the rest of the show, and as soon as the lights came up I told my sister what had happened.

    It's NOT an easy or short process. My mother has also been receiving help to deal with the rapes and physical abuse in her past. These things happened before she even met my father, but because I was in front of her she always took her rage out on me. Now that I am away from her and she is getting counselling, she and I can visit and spend time together without animosity. Her counsellor taught her that her rage has nothing to do with me, and ecnourages her to deal with her own problems and also nurture positive relationships in her life. She even wrote me a letter last year with a list of reasons why she was proud of me. I read it, hugged her, and cried for several minutes. That was a huge step forward in our relationship.

    So I'll end this very long post by encouraging you to look within yourself and decide what it is you want and need. It's absolutely not your fault that you were abused. However, the only way to recover is to decide to seek out ways to deal with the past and leave it behind, so you can focus on the present. I wish you the best in your journey to recovery.


  3. Armedwithjello, thank you so much for your response to Anonymous and for sharing your experience.

    Anonymous, I'm so sorry if I made it seem like the answer to all the problems of the world can be found in a stiff upper lip or a positive attitude. Believe me, I struggle REGULARLY with staying positive and more than I would like to admit get down (especially during hormonal swings, to which I get more and more sensitive as I get older). I also don't want to give the impression that my life is all fun and games, or that it has ever been easy. I have some very serious stuff going on right now in my personal life, someone very very close to me tried to commit suicide just after the holidays and I'm trying to figure out how I can best support him, and I struggle to balance having three young children and keep my business not only alive but thriving. It's not always easy by any stretch. More important than that, I don't think anyone would say that I have always had it easy. We were very poor growing up (my father made less than $5,000 a year and we rolled pennies to get together enough money for groceries) and both my parents were active alcoholics until I was 10 years old and my mother got sober. She met someone in recovery and they got married within the first year, so I went from having two absent parents for one reason to having three absent parents for another.

    I think if I hadn't had people helping me – professional people, like therapists, psychiatrists, counselors, etc – I may never have gotten to the point where I could employ the power of positive thinking. Or thinking at all, for that matter, I was so lost and confused. It wasn't until I got sober myself in 1995 that I was able to start making changes in my life. I know that I am not to blame for the factors that were in place in my life that led to me being an alcoholic and mentally ill. I guess the reason I am so positive now is because I am so freaking grateful that I have overcome those challenges. I am pretty clear on what my life would be like if I were still walking that crazy path I was walking in my twenties.

    I hope that if you are able to take away one other thing from my message other than the power of “la-tee-da” thinking, it's that no matter how bad the past may have been, change can happen, and the present can be better. It may not be perfect and it certainly won't always be good, but it can be better and it can get better, if we just keep on doing the best we can to be better people ourselves.

    I'm so sorry for the pain you've had in your life and I'm so ANGRY that any of us has to go through those kind of horrific things when we are young and should be enjoying learning and living. I pray that for every bad thing that happened to you TWENTY good things will come your way now and in all the years to come.


  4. Thank you all so much – sorry for my first post, was just bummed out more than usual that day.

    No, it's been over 40 years and to date I have no friends – I do try but they always end up being the wrong kind – either users or similar

    No kids – the state ensured that through forced sterilization

    No family – they disowned me practically at age 7

    No hobbies – every time I start one circumstances end up ensuring I can't continue and/or people say mean things to make me feel bad and quit

    I have, in the past, sought out help but only to be told that there's nothing wrong with me. Recently this even happened with my local MD, she told me that limited mobility and a very wrong, brown vaginal discharge is nothing wrong and 'it'll just go away' (as soon as I pay $100 for the 5 min. visit) *sigh*

    But there is the tiniest spark of hope that is my soul and I've obtained some subliminal self-help audio tapes that give positive messages under the music. That way I'm not turned off by seemingly false glib remarks.

    I've only been using them for about 3 weeks now but I'm starting to see a little bit of change in my internal perspective and maybe that's what I need.

    But I really do want to let you guys know that your virtual pat on the back and detailed advice is very much appreciated. Thank you, thank you, I hope to be brighter for the next 40 years!


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