Leaving the Seclusion Room (some not-so-crazy notes on recovering from mental illness)


I will forever associate spring with an up-close-and-personal encounter with crazy, with losing my mind in an over-the-top kind of way.   And, indeed, my March Madness of 1990 ended life as I knew it.

Spring means many forms of March Madness

 I was teaching English at a Christian university, suffering through a not-so-pleasant spring break when I began to clearly crumble.  In Oklahoma—the branches still bare but budding–I began obsessing over trees and branches and the potential messages (I believed) they brought—their effort to lead me elsewhere—to another realm (I thought), an alternate dimension, parallel to the world around me. 

a parallel place

I wanted desperately to go there, wherever there was, and that longing ached me into action, muscled me to bring branches indoors and decorate my walls with them.  I was suddenly aware, acutely aware.  The sculptural quality of bare branches stunned me, spoke to me.

In my mind bringing branches inside was a sacramental action—an effort to access the bare bones of reality—reality stripped of ordinary distraction—the holy hollow at the center of everything. 

at the center of everything

It was that sacred space I longed for, that place I wanted and was obsessed with seeing.  I brought branches indoors in an effort to recreate that space.

However, in addition to this, I felt compelled to tear up the carpet in my rental apartment’s living room, to strip the floor clean and access the concrete beneath—a more solid surface on which to stand.

So I stayed up all night, utility-knifed my carpet into carry-able strips, stood a ladder beside the dumpster, climbed rung upon rung and deposited my former floor within.

 A rug literally ripped out from under me, I was hospitalized the next day at a state psychiatric facility, where I walked the halls and fingered the walls for weeks, as all around me sentences bloomed into branches, a dazzling display of crazy.

a dazzling display of crazy

I don’t remember arriving at Parkside Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma; neither do I recall anything about the admissions process.  I don’t remember how my dog came to be kenneled at the vet’s office, who took me to the hospital or if it’s possible I even drove myself.

Indeed, it’s these gaps in memory that I remember most, the fact of forgetting , the empty space where the story should be—gaps  I fill in and flesh out with details recorded in the journals I kept.  For example, the night I so unceremoniously removed the carpet from my living room, the night before the hospital admission I allude to above, I described an intense sense of alienation and confusion:

I know other people must not experience the world in the way I do, because if they did, the world would be a very different place and I wouldn’t feel so strange—so marginal—so near the edge and falling off. . . .

on the edge and falling off

I feel like I can’t be true to myself and live in this world, like I want to wear bones on my clothes—on the outside pinned to me.

Skeletal fashion statement aside, I remember that Parkside Hospital had three floors and a basement—the first an intake unit and small lobby, the second a locked but moderately restricted unit, and the third a locked but highly restricted one.

I was admitted to the third floor.  I remember a day room at one end, 4 dormitory style rooms at the other, and a hallway connecting the two. The hall had a nurses’ station along one wall, an elevator on the other. 

With windows along two walls, the day room was large, filled with wooden tables and chairs, where we patients spent most of our time:  played games, watched television, ate meals. 

The patient rooms were bare and barrack-like, with a partition down the middle—two beds, two wardrobes and a desk on one side— the same on the other.  Bathrooms, one per room, boasted a toilet and shower stall, as well as a sink with metal mirror above—no glass allowed, lest patients break it and purposefully injure themselves.

Behind the nurse’s station was another hall that was locked and off-limits to patients.  Here were a number of seclusion rooms, each with a single bed bolted to the floor in the center—each equipped with 4 point restraints—wide leather cuffs that strapped wrists and ankles to the bed.   I spent time alone in these rooms when I was particularly distressed, but only once in 4 point restraints. 

I walked the hall between these dorms and day room, repeatedly, regularly.  The antipsychotic medication made me restless, so I paced, feeling the walls with my palms, an effort to comfort myself, to calm the cacophony of crazy that worsened every evening. 

One nurse was kind and would sometimes walk with me, attempting to reassure me and lessen the aloneness, as I tried to quiet the chatter in my head, the echo of children’s voices saying senseless, sing-song rhymes.

a dizzying sing-song of children's voices

But mostly I walked that hall alone, alternately fighting and forgetting a psychosis that whiplashed between extremes of nothingness and nowhere.

This whiplashing made me acutely aware of my own nothingness, the fact that at the center of myself a huge hole swallowed and indeed devoured all I thought I knew about myself and the world around me.

I was nothing.

The world around me a vacuum—nothing but emptiness sucking.

Suddenly my experience of myself shifted.  I was not who I thought I was.   

an altered awareness

I was nobody.

I was nowhere.

I saw myself stripped of all seeming substance, of all that seemed solid and predictable in the face of free-fall.  I was naked and drowning—bare to the glare of what others called crazy.

If I was indeed, out of touch with reality, as the doctors told me, what did that mean?  And if I couldn’t trust my own mind, what could I trust? 

What could I trust?

Inevitably, this possibility that I couldn’t or shouldn’t trust myself terrified me.  And my mind, though insane, was adaptive enough to not consciously fear itself.  Instead, I displaced this terror in all directions, becoming terrified of everything and at the same time terrified of nothing.   I couldn’t articulate exactly what I feared.  I was only and always overcome with dread.  I knew something was terribly wrong.

As I look back on it now, I imagine I wanted out, but not so much out of the hospital, as out my own mind, a mind that, if insane, was no longer an asylum in its own right.  As Anne Sexton said:

I am in my own mind,

I am locked in the wrong house.  (“For the Year of the Insane”)

 So in the end, it was terror that made me walk that hospital hall alone–alone in the most existential sense–exiled not only from the rest of the world by mental illness, but exiled by mental illness from myself.

This is the terror of mental illness.

This is the terror from which, now, more than twenty years later, I am largely recovered–a writer and artist living in Lexington, Kentucky–my bipolar symptoms finally well-managed by medication.

Recovery from mental illness is possible, and at the very least new developments in psychopharmacology allow those with psychiatric illnesses to live relatively normal lives.

During the month of May, Mental Health Awareness Month, please remember the struggles faced by folks with mental illness.  Please donate to NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.  Share stories like mine with those you love, and encourage others to talk about and write and blog about their own battles.  Let those who live with mental illness (and their families) know they’re not alone.

The world is still a staggeringly beautiful place, and those of us who struggle with psychiatric illness make it a richer place to live and love.  We hope big hopes.  We dream ever more enduring dreams. 

Recovery is possible.

66 thoughts on “Leaving the Seclusion Room (some not-so-crazy notes on recovering from mental illness)

  1. This post is outstanding. It’s so well written. I love your writing style – detached and yet so present in each of the events you describe. It’s an amazing insight into mental illness.

    I also really like the artwork that you’ve included. When were each of the pieces created? During your hospitalisation, recovery period or more recently? I’m curious to know.

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    • Thanks so much! I am thrilled to hear this piece communicate for you. The artwork was done over a number of years, since that hopitalization, most since the late 90s–some more recently. Thanks for asking about the art.

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  2. Beautiful artwork, Kathy! Have you heard about Akiane? I wrote about her on my Miracle Mama blog and posted a video. Akiane began seeing visions of other worlds/dimensions when she was 4 years old. There is also a link to an interview done just last year (called Conversations) when she was 15. You may find her story very interesting.

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  3. What a beautifully written and heartfelt post! Thank you so much. And again, I absolutely love your art work! Outstanding! 🙂

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  4. Thank you for sharing you experience, Kathy. Your words were beautiful and terrifying to me at the same time. And your art perfectly describes your sense of space at the intervals in your true story. It takes courage to live through what you did and to write about it so clearly later.

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    • I agree that it takes guts to write about this stuff. Thanks for recognizing that. I’m not sure that it takes courage to live through it, only because I had no choice. Well, suicide maybe, but not for me. There was no way out but in and through. Now, it takes a bit of courage to face the hard facts, or maybe its an ongoing form of insanity. Thanks for recognizing the message of hope I’m trying to share. I just hope my story will enCOURAGE others! I appreciate your reading and taking the time to comment!

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  5. Thank you for bringing your story to beautiful life in full public view. In my opinion, the number one reason people do not receive proper mental health care is due to the stigma our country (the world?) places on those whose illness lies within their mind.
    Your art is beautiful, you words profound.
    This May not only marks Mental Health Awareness Month, but also the birthday of a dear friend of mine who committed suicide 3 1/2 months ago due to her mental illness as well as Mother’s Day which will be a heartbreaking reminder to her children and husband that their mommy and wife has passed away. I hope to see such deaths be prevented in the future because of intelligent women (and men) like you who are working to remove the stigma mental illness carries.
    It shouldn’t take courage to write about things like this. Does it take courage for a cancer survivor to tell her story? No, it takes pride and gratitude that she lived to tell the tale. It should be no different for survivors and victims of mental illness. One day, I hope mental illness will be regarded as just that, an ILLNESS which cannot be prevented and does not discriminate. One day, I hope more people will choose not to hide in shame about being mentally ill but be proud to have gotten help and make their way through!
    Blessings.

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    • First, let me say how sorry I am for you loss. That has got to be terribly, terribly painful. And I can’t even imagine what that does to children–how confusing it must be!

      And you are right–it shouldn’t take courage to write about this. It really shouldn’t. But I guess, I still fear the stigma to a certain degree. I still struggle with each post I publish. I think, oh, maybe that was too much to share. Maybe no one will want to read my blog any more. But the fact of the matter is, I just can’t be quiet any longer. I just can’t. And I know the only way to get over the stigma that I’ve internalized it talk and write and share and educate. Only sharing out stories will make the stigma go away.

      Thanks so much for sharing your story with me. I know this must be a difficult time for you. I so hope you will come back and share some more, cause it’s also important for people to see and hear and read about the impact suicide has, as well–so important! Agian, thank you, from the bottom of my heart!

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  6. It’s not your fault you feel uncomfortable sharing your journey to stable mental health. It’s the stigma that society has put on mental illness that makes us feel like we should hide our mental pain and struggles.

    I’m so glad to have found your blog! I wonder if my friend had found your blog before she died if it would have helped her. She was diagnosed bipolar exactly one week prior to her taking her life. Her mom was bipolar and all she knew of bipolar was what she witnessed in her mother, which was not good. Lots of chaos and disruption in the family while she was growing up. She thought she would be “just like her mother” and couldn’t handle the thought of putting her family through what she went through as a child. Very very sad. She “had it all” — education, beautiful family, adoring friends and husband, beauty (inside and out) , faith (until her illness struck), lovely home, etc etc etc. The disease she suffered from made her feel unworthy of any of it.

    I started a blog here that discusses the effects such a death has on a family and a community. My friend was a beloved contributor to our neighborhood and school. She was everyone’s friend and the person we all turned to for support and kindness. Her death should not have happened and it should not be forgotten. Her absence is felt in every breath I take. I hope to prevent just ONE person from going down the same path as her. I think your blog will help this effort.

    I look forward to reading more of your entries!

    http://suicideripple.wordpress.com/

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    • I just subscribed to your blog, Jennifer. This is the real price of mental illness–the fear that there is no hope–the stigma that says we’ll be shunned! God bless you effort in beginning this important project! Thanks so much for sharing!

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  7. Pingback: Mental Health Month Blog Party 2011 – Round Up | Your Mind Your Body

  8. I really appreciated this post, and look forward to reading more of your blog! I have PMDD, which for me was a life-altering disorder. I’ve even heard some people compare it to bipolar disorder in an attempt to have others understand what it is like. I blog about it at auntflosvisit.wordpress.com. I look forward to checking out more of your posts.

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    • Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment. I look forward to checking out your blog!`Thanks so much for telling me about it. I hope you will come back and visit often. How great to have you today!

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  9. Pingback: Mental Health Blog Party Favourites | johnalchin.info

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  11. Coming here from World Moms Blog — as others have said, the artwork is evocative. And yes — I know that terror, the feeling of living on the edge of myself, being uncentered, and not knowing how to think with a broken mind or what to do with the stuff it comes up with.

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    • Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment! I’m sorry to hear you’ve experienced this kind of pain. It’s terrifying not to be able to control and manage your own thoughts. I hope you are feeling better these days! And I hope you’ll come back again. It was great having you!

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  12. Yes — I should have clarified. I’ve had high-functioning depression and anxiety off and on for about as long as I can remember, and then the worst was the PPD. But I am pretty baseline these days. When I’ve got some time, I’ll come back and look around the rest of your site.

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    • I’m glad to know you’re doing well! I function quite well these days, also. No one would ever know there was a problem unless I told them. I still have breakthrough syymptoms, but am overall doing well. I’m glad to know the same is true for you!

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  13. This post had a powerful effect on me…by the time I got to the bottom of it, I found myself in tears.
    It was the combination of your story along with your beautiful and evocative artwork, and especially this :
    ‘ So in the end, it was terror that made me walk that hospital hall alone–alone in the most existential sense–exiled not only from the rest of the world by mental illness, but exiled by mental illness from myself.’

    This was amazingly well-articulated Kathy, and I’m glad you directed your readers towards it in your meme post.
    And so glad that you’re so much better now and hopefully past all the fear.

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  14. Yet another exceedingly belated comment. I just can’t help it when I stumble upon your wonderful posts. This one makes me wonder if many of us (or just me) aren’t closer to the edge than we think, at least occasionally, which is not, of course, to diminish the intensity and seriousness of your experience. There are commonlities in isolation.

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    • I definitely think a lot of creative people often walk a fine line–sometimes really bright people, as well, ones who think deeply. Sometimes I think it hard to not be a serious thinker and not have it drive you a little nuts. So, yes, I agree. I really do! It’s interesting that you think so too. Thanks for sharing that!

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  15. I love your blog. Thank you for finding me. I think the most frightening thing about mental illness is the feeling of enforced solitude. As you quoted “locked in the wrong house.” My daughter is seriously ill, not sure what her exact diagnosis is because she won’t get help or admit to me that she is anyway. Myself – locked in a prison called “severe-depression.” Medication managed it, but at a cost. Overall I feel way better when medicated. But I still feel that dark place is lurking, just waiting for me to miss a pill to come roaring back out and bite my head off. Huggs to you, and thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing your story.

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    • Gosh, Trinity, thank you, thank you for this comment. I felt so sad for you when I read your post this morning. I can’t even imagine what that must be like for you as a mother–especially knowing that your daughter is not in treatment. That’s got to torture for you. You must feel so helpless.

      I know the cost one pays when symptoms are managed by medication. I’ve fought the fog for 20 years.

      Hang in there, my friend. I can’t thank you enough for sharing your story. Huge hugs to you–really huge hugs.

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    • Sorry, I forgot the part about “enforced solitude.” You have said it PERFECTLY. The isolation is deadly. How does one talk about this and with whom? Thank God for the blogosphere allowing folks like us to find one another! I’m here for you, sister, any time you need to vent!

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  17. This is really powerful, Kathy. I am pondering the differences and similarities between mental illness and spiritual experiences. (I have often pondered this.) Thinking about how in deep meditative states one realizes that one is nothing, that we have no substance, that we are no where. I’ve often pondered that mental illness could–possibly?–I could be 100% wrong–sometimes be a premature entering of that deep spiritual realization before the body/soul/spirit is ready to handle it. So instead of bliss, fear and despair results. Wondering what you think of this. Would love to have a long conversation with you about this. (And this was written so poignantly and beautifully, depicting the suffering and different states of mind so poignantly.)

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    • I’m so glad you appreciated this post, Kathy. I wish I knew enough to comment intelligently on your question. All I can say instead is that I have wondered similar things. However, I have not ever successfully reached deep meditative states, as I always get to point where I experience something akin to what I feel when sick and so back off. I would love to get beyond this, but don’t know how. And, frankly, have probably not tried hard enough.

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      • I have another friend who says the same thing. She gets to that place and feels such fear. Perhaps fear is a friend who tells us not to move so fast. Blessings…

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  18. Pingback: We Interrupt your Regularly Scheduled Program to Bring you—another Kathy? « Lake Superior Spirit

  19. Kathryn-
    I’m coming from the world of Post-Partum Depression- It must feel unbelievable that you are helping save lives…..Just when I have started to feel sorry for myself, I now feel blessed that I am being treated in a time period of wonderful medicines and advances in treatments. I am so sorry you went through such an horrific time in the hospital- I am thrilled your story has a happy ending- you deserve all the blessings this world has to offer! Many thanks for sharing such a moving story~

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    • Oh, Kristine, how great to hear from you. I’m sorry to hear you struggled with post-partum depression. But–you are right, it is a blessing to develop these illnesses in an age when medicine is available to help. Kind of miraculous when you stop to think about it.

      I’m happy to hear my story touched you. Thanks so much for your comment. I hope to hear from you again soon!

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  20. I was diagnosed with BP type 2 about 5 years ago after a family violence incident that landed hubby in jail. I was on meds for a year and life had evened out. I asked my doctor to take me off the meds so I could have my second child, always wanted a girl. He reluctantly let me off and I had a great pregnancy and my baby girl! I’ve had a couple rounds of depressive periods since she was born. This spring (at day light savings time) I went manic. Not totally out of control but crazy enough to set hubby off, he hit me again and went back to jail (he’s not coming back this time!). I’ve felt like I was different since about 16 years old, this illness only gets worse with age and stress factors. I’ve noticed season changes, and abrupt sleeping pattern changes affect my mood. I’m afraid I will snap one day and wake up in a hospital, until then I try to manage stress and sadness with regular sleep and good food. Thank you for writing this, I found it via your Freshly Pressed post today.

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    • Sorry to hear you’ve had a bipolar diagnosis. And even more sorry to hear about your husband’s violence. Though manic episodes can feel great at first, they can become even worse than depression when they’re severe. Hope you can keep yourself and your children safe. Thanks so much for this comment. Great to hear from you today.

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      • At least I don’t believe I’m the Queen Mum or something, as my therapist put it. My tip off that manic is coming is the urge to go shopping, I normally stay far far away from shopping (not wanting to be around people/crowds). It’s better now that I know what it is, even if it’s not easily explained. I recently told a friend that I’m BP, she had the sort of reaction as if I’d said “I have cancer”. People (mostly) don’t understand. I am going to keep my kids and I safe, that is yet another battle to come.

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  21. Kathryn you are so heartfelt and authentic, sharing your story from your heart!!! It is such a powerful story and so important to talk about it. Thank you for doing that!! One of my best friends has BP – She is like you, bringing awareness about mental illness in a project she calls ” Madness, Masks and Miracles” – you can read about it here http://juneswadron.com/mental-health/
    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed 🙂 I loved the post on blogging!!!
    Thank you Kathryn!!
    Love

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    • How great to hear from you and know that this post spoke to you. It’s wonderful that your friend is working to make a difference. I will definitely check out her project. Thanks for the link. I appreciate your warm and love! Hugs to you————-

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  22. Hey! I have to get this out of the way first. I lived in Lexington for TEN YEARS. (yeah, I know, that was NOT your point.)

    The art is magnificent, and it illustrates the words so perfectly. I’ve never been hospitalized with my bipolar (though I should have been more than once), though it leaves me with a constant ongoing conspiracy theory that even on medication I have to shut down constantly.

    OK, I’m going back to the father’s day letter, which is where I started, now!

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    • Oh, I’m so happy you took a look at this post! I didn’t realize you had bipolar disorder, or if you’ve told me, I’d forgotten. I understand the struggle with conspiracy theories–all too well!

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  23. Hi Kathy! I wanted you to know I read your post. It’s always touching to hear stories of those who have suffered through the sense of loneliness and nothingness that only the rarest of us endure. You are inspiring to me, both as a survivor of illness and a writer. Thank you!

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    • Oh, thanks for stopping by and reading. It’s been a long road, but one that has been worth the time, effort, and even sometime agony. I loved your mental health post–the first one I’ve ever seen freshly pressed. Hope to hear from you again soon!

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  24. This is so beautifully written and so hopeful. May I ask, is there anything a family member can do to encourage someone to seek mental health help? Is there a right thing to say? If a person is in denial is there anything that a friend can say without angering or alienating? I’ve done so much research on this topic but never find anything helpful. It’s so painful to watch someone you love who suffers from a mental illness go on medication only to go off to crash and burn again and again. Thank you for this post.

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    • Oh, I wish I could offer sound advice, but apart from knowing more about the specific person involved, I wouldn’t dare advise. I suppose love and kindness matter most regardless of the individual. But, I’m sure, you’ve tried that. Have you ever attended NAMI meetings (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill)? They have support groups for friends and family in most places around the US, at least. Those folks could, certainly, offer sound advice.

      Thanks for reading. Thanks for asking. It was great to hear from you. I wish I could be of more help. Blessings to you and whomever in your family is suffering.

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      • Thanks so much for taking the time to answer this. I have not looked into NAMI, but will certainly do so. I appreciate the direction… (I knew there wouldn’t be a magic answer, yet somehow I’m always looking for one anyway…) I look forward to reading your wonderful blog.

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      • Of course, you’re looking for answers, and that indicates your love for this family member. That’s what will help the most! Thanks so much, as well, for stopping back by. Hope to see you around again soon!

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  25. Beautifully evocative, which makes it incredibly enthralling and terrifying at the same time. Your descriptions hit very close to home – for any one with any type of mental illness. Like Kathy above, I also was reminded of spiritual experiences when you discussed ‘nothingness’. In any experience, it’s a sobering concept. Thank you for giving the chance to read this.

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    • Thanks so much for reading, and for your kind words, as well. Mental illness is painful no matter the diagnosis, both for those who are ill and for everyone who loves them. I’m sorry for whatever way these illnesses might have affected you.

      It’s great to hear from you today. Hope you’ll stop back by again soon.

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  26. Pingback: Finding Power through the Pain: A Review of Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor | Lisa A. Kramer: Woman Wielding Words

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