By October 2, 2014Blog

Housecleaning makes me happy. I can usually gauge my overall mental health by my level of tidiness. Clean clothes, bed made, light in the windows, mugs in the cupboard. Good, I’m good. Ready to face what comes. But if I find myself stockpiling rags and detergent, I need to pause and question why. I haven’t forgotten to do the laundry or scrub the tub. In fact, I may have done so repeatedly, if my abraded knuckles are any indication. Embarrassed, I keep this to myself. I live alone, but I hide the receipt.

When I’m aware of my secretive behavior, I write a note to share with my therapist. In the first few minutes of our session, I’ll recount the activity, no matter how trivial. She might detect something that I’ve overlooked. For instance, if I haven’t cleaned house in weeks, and the kitchen is uninhabitable, it’s a clear indicator that something’s amiss. Balance is jeopardized. Self-esteem tanks.

Without a sense of accomplishment or purpose, reaction takes over. I can’t leave the house. I stay inside. And I hate it. I clean everything. I fold and unfold my socks. I organize the cereal boxes and soup cans. I count the number of straws in the pack. I recount the number of straws. I organize the cans and boxes. I fold and unfold the socks again. I clean everything. And I hate myself. I take all the food I just organized and chuck it. Flush the milk down the toilet. Scrub away the evidence. Housecleaning makes me normal.

Schizophrenia is perplexing enough without the comorbidity of obsessive compulsive symptoms. Yet here I am, up to my elbows in secrets and bleach, trying to make sense of a world gone troppo.

It is the way my brain interprets data, therefore it must be me. And although I don’t want to believe it, by that logic I am my illness. To quote Winston Churchill, “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.” Psychiatry named that key the overvalued idea.

The DSM-IV defines an overvalued idea as “an unreasonable and sustained belief that is maintained with less than delusional intensity (i.e. the person is able is to acknowledge the possibility that the belief may or may not be true). The belief is not of one that is ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture.” As challenging a concept as this is for me, if I can hang on to it long enough, I might return to the tenet of advocacy that I am not my mental illness after all.

An intrusive thought can derail my calm. A series of them can induce anxiety. These thoughts are not consciously generated. They show up on their own. Having a single frame from a different movie wind up in the main feature of your everyday life is disorienting. Experiencing it as reality is debilitating. Thought disorders do precisely what they are meant to do: disorder one’s thoughts. Conceding to this truth is essential to mental health. The next, and more daunting step, is imperative: talk about it.

We live in a culture where control is everything and to be out of control is unthinkable. I am stronger than my culture when I can acknowledge to myself that those single frames are simply out of place. I am not in control of the overvalued idea or how it presents itself, but when I can resist my rococo solutions to the finger trap puzzle presented by my neurology, I can get my game on and go straight to the note pad. My sessions can help me understand my diagnosis and its multifaceted nuances, but the opening bid is on me. Do I keep my secrets? Do I hide in shame? Do I benefit in any way from the gag order my self-stigma places on me? No. I do not. And because this is my life, I do what I need to survive.

I start by being honest. I write the first thought that comes into my head, no matter how embarrassing. I read it to my therapist and let her be my guide. It’s our movie now, and we’re past the opening credits. Past the back-story, the action sequence, and the nostalgic montage. It’s our alliance and it’s my recovery. I organize the cans and boxes. I count the number of straws in the pack.

I open the drawer and show her the receipt. I wash the windows of my soul, clean the corners of my heart. I get down and dirty not because I’m ashamed, but because this kind of housecleaning sets me free.


  • Gina says:

    You do so much more than I do. I don’t feel motivated, but when I just do it I feel better….for a little while

    • Laurie says:

      Gina, I have the same problem with motivation. When I plan to do just one small task for the day and can’t get it done I feel an overwhelming sense of failure in myself. I get so discouraged, and the small task becomes a huge monster I have to face yet again. When I am productive it seems to come from out of the blue, but it also gives me just that small time frame of feeling better just like you said. If we could only find someway to make it last longer….
      Take Care,

  • Henry Boy says:

    Gina, thank you for posting. It is encouraging. That’s where my motivation comes from: being able to share how we deal with our diagnoses. And you’re right – it does feel better, whether it’s for a little while or longer. Cheers!

  • Eric says:

    Love you, Henry.

  • katina says:

    Henry this is a great idea ! Writing those things down right away and sharing them with the therapist. Well I had a really good therapist but she moved out of the city that I live in. I have not been diagnosed or shall I say understood, but I have a parent that is schizophrenic and I have been dealing with her illness since I was 10 years of age so I am no stranger to mental illness. I started going to council because growing up me and my siblings never had any understanding of what my moms illness was we were just told that she had to go to the hospital for a while from time to time right in the middle of the holidays oh well it became the norm for us! thanks a lot

  • April says:

    Hello. This is my first time to read your blog. I subscribe to BringChange2Mind and try to make time to read at least some of the articles I get. I am so touched by this piece. Please know that I am really grateful for your courage to share. If it brings some peace and healing to you, I am so glad. I hope you also know that it has done something important over here with me. I’m not sure how to describe it. I guess I sometimes feel sad that so much of human life involves suffering without witness, and anytime a person builds the bridge to share with others, it is an unexpected and deep comfort to me as a fellow human being. Thank you.

  • Henry Boy says:

    To all three of you, Eric, Katina, and April, thank you for your encouragement and thank you for taking the time to read “Secrets”. I have been writing for BC2M since July 2013, so if you would like to, there’s a lot to read. 🙂

    I started my note writing idea a while ago when I understood how much schizophrenia had affected my “working memory”. There’s a lot of data out there to read about the symptoms, so when I hit on that it made perfect sense! Write it in the moment so I have it for later. I text myself when I’m out for a run or grocery shopping. Very handy! I am sorry to hear about the trouble you and your siblings went through to understand your mom’s illness; therapy’s a good place to work on a lot of things, especially at your own pace. I hope you can meet a new therapist. I recommend it – works for me. 🙂 Thanks!

    @ April:
    It is always a privilege to meet one of our subscribers. Hello! 🙂 One of my heros growing up was the painter Vincent Van Gogh. He spoke frequently of sadness. As a boy I never understood why, but it always touched me deeply. As an adult living with schizophrenia, I spend much of my time isolating, which doesn’t help, so I try to stay involved where i can – like writing back to our readers – to help stem the loneliness and be an example for others who need to know that it’s possible to beat that symptom sometimes. I like your bridge analogy. I live in a city of bridges. Thank you.

  • Maverick says:

    During the “Coping Skills” segment of presentations I do about my recovery with Bipolar Disorder, I mention laundry. I sometimes isolate and lay around on the weekends, and laundry is a wonderful coping skill. It gets me off the couch, makes me productive, and the end result is a necessity of life: clean clothes.

    When I get around to it, washing dishes can be highly therapeutic; I haven’t the slightest clue why. Could it be the hot water?

    The other issue I relate to is working memory. The note-taking seems like a great tool. I do it for many areas of life except therapy sessions. Perhaps they would be more targeted and effective.

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Sir Henry.

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