Thursday, April 24, 2008

Lessons from an Anti-Normal Life

In another life, I worked with homeless, mentally-ill adults. I was incredibly young, naive, and idealistic. It was a great on-the-job learning experience for me, and my clients became some of the best teachers I've ever had.

I've carried the stories of these clients close to my heart for the past ten years. One client's story has been much on my mind lately. His name was Scott, and he suffered from schizophrenia. We were peers in that we were both in our early 20s, from white, middle-class backgrounds, but our lives could not have been more different. He lived on the streets and was plagued by delusional thoughts telling him he was the devil, that he would die young, that he was a death-row inmate. I wanted him to try medication in the hope that the thoughts might quiet enough for him to hold a job, get his own apartment, and have a wonderful future ahead of him. He made excuse after excuse why he couldn't follow a medication regimen. Finally, after offering to bring him his medication nightly at the local shelter, he told me: "I do not want to be like you. I do not want a normal life. This (schizophrenia) is what sets me apart from other people. I'm different, and I want to stay different. Your life is fine for you, but this life is what I know, and I don't want change it."

After that conversation, my work with Scott became much easier. I no longer tried to foist a life on him that he didn't want, and instead focused on how he could live safely while still hearing dangerous thoughts. He explained to me that when thoughts come to him about dying young or being the devil, he thinks, "I know they're not true, but they're still happening."

Scott's ideas about dangerous thoughts have stayed with me. I often catch myself having thoughts that "I know are not true, but they're still happening." My mind especially likes to blow things out of proportion when I'm feeling tired, stressed, or unhappy.

I like Scott's way of thinking about thoughts that may visit us from time to time. It seems a fruitless enterprise to cease all negative ideas from entering our thought space. But Scott's way of coping allows us to acknowledge the presence of these thoughts while denying them validation. His willingness to be set apart, to live an anti-"normal life" has taught me something about living my own "normal" one.


Angela: mom2girlsgirlsgirls: said...

I like that: I know they are not true, but they are still happening. I'm going to remember that the next time I struggle with those ridiculous negative thoughts that occasionally plague me.

Shannon said...

Angela, I'm glad that Scott's ideas are helpful for your thinking about negative thoughts. He would really like that.