Mortenson and the people he's helped

So I have another week of student teaching under my belt.  It’s going pretty well so far.  I am settling in, which is good news considering that I was consumed by doubts and uncertainties before taking on this latest challenge.  With Dr. Levinson, I have paralleled this challenge with when I started my first graduate program back in ’05.  I had been in an inpatient treatment program and was making great progress.  The jump to higher education would not only mean leaving Union House, a place I had grown very accustomed to, but also academic rigors I had net yet faced.  I was consumed with doubts and negativity but I decided to give this new undertaking a go.  And once I got started and immersed into the program, got used to dorm life, again, and met great people; I realized for the first time what I was capable of.

Student teaching has caused another similar realization.  I can be productive at 7 am after a nightly dose of Seroquel.  I can be both engaging and strict while maintaining my good humor.  I can discipline without being overbearing.  I can be respectable and imposing at the same time, and I can help kids learn and grasp new information in a thoughtful and introspective way.  If I couldn’t do any of these things after two weeks of student teaching, I would be once again, looking for another career.

We are currently on spring break and a few weeks after we return, I am going to be teaching the book Three Cups of Tea.  It is about a mountain climber turned philanthropist who makes it his life’s work to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan after villagers from Korphe nurse him back to health following his failed attempt to climb K2.  Greg Mortenson fell in love with the people and their customs, and believed the best way to fight terrorism and extremism is through education.  He has been remarkably successful with his endeavors.

Reading the moving book has inspired me to think philanthropical as well.  As I read I thought, wouldn’t it be great to give back to a community in need the way Greg gave to the people in the book?  I thought about all the doctors that helped me along the way, all the people whose stories I internalized, all the therapeutic places I stayed.  My road to a complete recovery was a long and at times, treacherous one, but it was a successful journey.  I was able to find salvation in a mental health system that fired on all cylinders.

I was driving in the car with my dad following a round of golf on our first 70 degree day of the spring and I told him about my epiphany while reading the book.  “I think that’s a great idea,” he said.  “You could speak to people who are coming through the same system that you endured years ago.  Maybe your way in is to write a book.  You should write down your experiences and try to publish something,” he said.

I didn’t want to tell him that I already have written down most of what I went through during my psychosis and the years that followed.  I don’t know if I’m ready for it to be published, maybe that’s why I kept it to myself.  I do have a voice and I am searching for a forum in which it can best be heard.  This is one way to get my story out, but I want to make a wide-scale difference like Mortenson has. 

I don’t think now is the time to start moving mountains.  Most of my focus these days is on trying to establish myself in the teaching world, but one day, I want my voice to be heard so that others experiencing setbacks due to mental illness can better cope with what they are experiencing and hope for a better tomorrow.

Jumping in With Both Feet

I started my student teaching this week and I was thrown right into the fire. I arrived bright and early Monday morning to find my cooperating teacher preparing a lesson plan for the day. She came down with bronchitis and wouldn’t be attending class all day, which left the teaching responsibilities firmly on my shoulders. Usually cooperating teachers ease student teachers into the classroom by letting them take a lesson here or there. We generally observe for at least the first week. I taught three hour-and-a-half blocks my first day on the job. I think it went pretty well. The substitute sat in the corner of the room and read while I did my thing. On day two, my cooperating teacher wasn’t back so I taught again. The experience was fun and exciting and overwhelming at the same time. While I am learning a great deal with little previous experience, I still need the time to prepare for the journey that lay ahead of me. The students have responded to me pretty well. I think most of them respect me, even though I am new and don’t know them yet. And most of them seem eager to learn. It’s hard to motivate 7th graders to be both respectful and eager, and I seem to be doing a pretty good job of it.

One thing that was appealing about teaching was that I would be my own boss. I have had less than ideal experiences with bosses since I joined the work force a few years back. I started at a newspaper in a high stress environment. At first, my boss was pleasant for he most part, but in time he turned into a disgruntled tyrant. Sure we had strict deadlines to meet, but there is a way to ask something of an employee while maintaining a level of professionalism and respect–he didn’t seem interested in maintaining either. He would yell and spit and curse and completely demean us on the job. Since he laid me off, he has been relieved of his position.

My last boss was in a tutoring lab at my graduate school. She was a friend of mine before I started working for her, which I felt would allow our work relationship to stay comfortable and peaceful. But the boss in her slowly took center stage and she became both demanding and difficult. Late in my two-year stint in the lab she began to ask that tasks be completed minutes before she needed them done. This did not make for a very productive work environment for either of us. Luckily, since I left the lab and started student teaching, we have gone back to our old friendship so no permanent damage was done.

Now I have a new boss, my cooperating teacher. I knew she was tough with the kids after observing some of her classes before I started my actual student teaching this week. Now I am finding that she, at times, is similarly tough with me. I have to constantly remind myself that she is only trying to best prepare me for the field, which I know she is; but I want her to think of me more as a colleague and less as a student, which I guess I am both. I can’t complain with my current situation because I truly feel that she has my best interest in mind. She does compliment me when I do a good job, and she is a far cry from my first boss so I have that to be thankful for.

Giving Back…

So I talked to Dr. Levinson about my in-class dilemma the other day. He said that there are times and places when disclosing one’s illness becomes comfortable and even necessary, and that a classroom filled with my peers might not have been the best venue. I agreed with him, but our conversation did beg an important question. I wanted to hear from the veteran doctor about the various patients he has treated over the years. I guess what I wanted to know was whether or not there was truth the what my classmates were saying about mental illness. Is the prognosis for all mentally ill patients dire and dark? Am I an anomaly? Are we all just waiting for me to slip back into psychosis one day?

Thankfully, the doctor alleviated my concerns. He said that the type of patients one treats depends on where he practices. When he was practicing at Psych Rehab, where I started my treatment, Levinson saw mostly patients with negative symptoms which include lack of motivation, improper hygiene and a great deal of what he termed deterioration. He said that with each episode, the brain can recoil from the trauma which causes patients with deterioration to come back a shell of their former selves. Patients that have had ten or twelve episodes can no longer function because of the trauma to the brain. Levinson said that I have never shown any signs of deterioration, that my brain is in tacked and that I shouldn’t ever experience any negative symptoms.

To answer the more important question, the doctor said that since he started his private practice, he has seen many patients like me, that recover completely with therapy and medication. “You are not an anomaly, Josh,” he assured me. I felt great hearing that. He said that about one-third of his patients recover completely, one-third recover partially, and one-third have a hard time functioning. I was glad that he could put me up against other patients he had treated and give me a realistically good prognosis. The clients I have seen at Rehab frighten me. They are disheveled and dirty and often mumble incoherently to themselves. I was glad to know that in time, I would not end up like them.

I met with my medication doctor yesterday and he informed me that he is doing research on individuals coping well with their diagnoses. He invited me to come and speak to a group of Psych residents who have had limited contact with patients with mental illness. Most of their training has been in methodology and research, so to hear a real patient talk about his experiences will be beneficial to them. I felt honored that the doctor would consider me for this talk. He told me that I have a good handle on things and that I am very intelligent and articulate about my past symptoms and my present state. I jumped at the offer. I can’t wait. It is my way of giving back to the Psychiatric Community that served me so completely and effectively over the years.

The Professor and the Madman

I was in class last night and we were discussing a recent novel we read called The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. The book chronicles the making of the first English Oxford Dictionary. A man by the name of William Minor had a big part in compiling, over many years, much of the information that went into the book.

The author takes an in-depth look into the life of this peculiar man. He started out as a picture of academic achievement, attending and graduating from Yale in the medical field and later serving as an Army doctor for the Union during the civil war. It was after confronting the horrors and atrocities of war that Minor began to experience psychotic problems. He suffered from extreme paranoia which proved to be his ultimate undoing. In a psychotic rage, he shot and killed an innocent man in London because he thought the man was stalking him at night while he was asleep. He was found innocent of the crime due to his growing insanity and spent most of his adult life in an asylum in England.

A man by the name of Murray heard about Minor’s career and academic achievements and propositioned him to assist a group of scholars in compiling the first OED. This work became Minor’s obsession while he was tucked away in his asylum. It was his only contact with the outside world. Murray and Minor later struck up a friendship when Murray visited Minor in the asylum. Surprisingly, he did not seem to harbor any prejudice toward Minor and basically accepted him for whom he was and thanked him for all of his hard work over the years.

Our class discussion focused on mental illness and how treatment today differs from the way Minor was treated a century ago. Different classmates had different things to say. A couple of peers discussed their experiences dealing with mentally ill family members. One girl related that she was afraid of her cousin because he has Schizophrenia. She said he would come over to talk to her dad and she would hide in her room, (who was the crazy one?). The general sentiment in the class was that people with mental illness should be locked away because they can’t function.

I was about to disclose my illness to the class. I wanted them to see a living, breathing member of the mental health community who was highly functional and achieving both academic and personal success. But did I want them to know about my haunted past? I did comment though, I felt like I needed to defend myself and the people I know. I said that I used to run a creative writing therapy group for people with mental illness, and that not only were they capable of expressing themselves through their writing, but some of them were in meaningful relationships and holding down jobs. All of this is true. I could have said that I was diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder in 2004, and since, was capable of holding down a steady job, marrying the love of my life and months away from earning my second Masters Degree. I don’t bring this up to toot my own horn, I just want people to know that a diagnosis doesn’t mean the end of one’s functionality, it could in fact mean the beginning.

The tale about Minor was a sad one, but as I related in class, a person’s functionality depends on when he is diagnosed and how he responds to medication. Today’s therapy is not complete isolation like it was for Minor; it’s talking or writing through difficult experiences and religiously taking prescribed medication.

Career Ambitions

I’ve undergone a very rigorous interviewing process in recent weeks. A network of charter schools in the city has shown interest in me. Some of the schools are brand new so they are staffing for an entire grade of teachers, which is good news for prospective teachers looking for a job like me. Because the charter schools are privately funded it looks like they have the resources to hire new staff, unlike the other Chicago Public Schools that are so over-budget, they would rather increase class sizes than replace retiring teachers.

I went to a recruitment event today for the interested charter schools and the pervading conversations among teachers there were about the dire conditions of the public school system in our city. It wasn’t just talk about CPS’s overwhelming debt, but it was about the financial circumstances of our country in general. There were people from all different walks of life–people entering their second or in some cases third careers; one guy just got a music degree from Harvard of all places and was having a difficult time even getting called for interviews. All the talk made me thankful that at least two of the eight schools within the network are interested in me. I’ve had one interview and I have another one lined up for next week.

The discussions about the state of our economy were depressing. But the discussions made me think that I was going into a very noble profession. What better way to turn our country around than educating our youth. I think through education we can start to pull this nation out of the doldrums of financial crisis. I know it is a very idealistic sentiment, but I truly believe in this mantra. I think things have to be fixed from the ground up and that means focusing on improving our schools so that we put out thoughtful and competent professionals.

These charter schools seem to really be building something. They focus on discipline as a way to get through to the kids and help them create high standards and expectations for themselves. And based on their test scores and the success rates of their students, many of which are going on to high education, these schools are the bright spot in an otherwise suffering public school institution.

Like I said, I feel fortunate for having been considered to be a part of something so special, I just hope something materializes at the end of these rigorous interviews.


My great-aunt passed away last week. It was a difficult and emotional time for my family. Auntie lived a full life, she was 100-years-old when she died. She was sharp until the very end. She never had any children so my cousins and I became like her surrogate grandchildren. She was a very special lady.

One of the things the Rabbi said at her funeral was that she had a connection with young people, and she did. Every time I called or visited Auntie, she made me feel like I was her special great-nephew, like I was somehow different from the others. No doubt she made each of us feel that way, but that was her gift. At a recent interview for a teaching position, I brought up this quality to the principal. I told him that I will try to emulate Auntie’s way with my future students. I don’t often share personal information with perfect strangers but Auntie was so excited for me to enter the field and I know she is with me as I pursue this career.

On another note, I have been asked on applications  and during brief interviews, why I want to teach English. I’ve had to think hard about my response considering the fact that they will assess me based on my feedback to this million-dollar question. I think about working with kids for a living and I can’t think of a more rewarding occupation. I also think about my love of reading and exploring literature and teaching English would allow me to do just that. So I guess my answer it both, I want to educate young minds and watch them develop into mature, introspective thinkers and readers; and I want to further my love of books by analyzing literature for thematic content. I can’t wait to get started.

Uncle Walt

For my last grad class we are reading classic poetry and I happened upon a poem by Walt Whitman called To a Stranger from his masterpiece Calamus. After reading it for the first time, it didn’t really grab my attention, but after discussing the poem as a class and being enlightened by other English minds–the poem definitely resonated with me.

Coping with my illness hasn’t been easy, sometimes I feel like I’m doomed and I refer to my psychotic experiences as being part of my plight. The biggest hurdle I had to overcome early on was letting go of my past. During my rambunctious teenage years, I hung with a fast crowd and did fast things. I drank too much, slept too little and experimented too much. As a result, I was disillusioned and confused as a young man.

I realized early on in my recovery that my old friends, guys who still drink heavily, were in fact triggers and sources of stress that hindered my continued recovery. As a result, I cut ties with almost all of them. I don’t know if this was a harsh decision. I probably would have found a way to cope with having them around if I really tried, but the easy way out in this case was my way out.

I miss them. I’ve seen one or two of them on the street in the city at different times and was forced to completely ignore them. How strange that felt, for both of us if they in fact saw me too. I stopped calling them or contacting them and my only interaction with the old group of guys was at our ten-year high school reunion two years ago, and at a friend’s golf outing once a summer.

Then this poem struck me and it captivated the way I feel about these lost and fractured relationships. Whitman wrote:

“You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with me,/I ate with you and slept with you, your body has become not yours/only nor left my body mine only,/You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass, you take/of my beard, breast, hands in return,/I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone or/wake at night alone,/I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again,/I am to see to it that I do not lose you.”

A lot of my fellow students said that they thought Walt was creepy by writing all of this about a stranger, but a few felt that maybe he knew the subject of this poem. That was how I read it, that he knew the person he was writing about but had damaged their relationship so irreparably that he couldn’t even bring himself to interact with him/her.

I have dreams where I’m walking through my old high school cafeteria and I pass a table that is occupied by all of my old buddies. I look at them, they look at me and I just raise up and hand and say, “hi,” and then walk off. Is there still a connection? Is there still a bond between some of us, any of us? Has time and my psychotic past damaged the relationships irreparably? I don’t know the answer to any of those questions.

The only way to find the answer is to try to rekindle these ancient connections. I think about coming forth to the old guys with everything I’ve been through, my run-ins with the law, my multiple trips across country, my peculiar behavior, but what good would it do? I still have to sit at bars with them and stare at my glass of water while they pound Vodka and Red Bull. I still have to stand idly by while they pick a fight with the guys standing at the pool table. I’m not that person anymore, nor will I ever be.

So my contact with the old guys is through my words on this page. It is an inhuman contact, one that once was but will probably never be again. How sad that makes me. I think of them like Uncle Walt does his stranger; we once were companions but now mere faceless memories.

A Big Step

I taught my first lesson today and it went very well. The wife of a childhood friend of mine is an English teacher in Winnetka and she graciously gave me the opportunity to teach her seventh grade English classes today. I was a ball of anxiety during my drive north to the school. I had some things prepared but I didn’t know how I’d fair in front of the students. I was excited but at the same time extremely nervous.

I introduced myself and got right down to it. To my surprise, the students were well-behaved and willing to engage in a meaningful discussion. I tried to relate the topics to their real lives, so as we discussed SE Hinton’s The Outsiders, we talked about how the students’ felt to be privileged members of society. We talked about the luxury of having amazing resources at their fingertips in their suburban school, and we discussed how students their age from the city were faced with more dire circumstances when it came to their schools and education.

One student in particular related his experience growing up in Chicago and then the transformations that occurred since his move to Winnetka. He had an interesting and unique perspective that the other students did not enjoy. He expressed how thankful he was to have classes where there were accessible computers and desks. This student really struck me as an insightful and mature kid. He seemed hesitant to contribute and even a little uncomfortable when he talked, but everything that came out of his mouth was genuine and eloquent. I could tell that he was afraid his fellow classmates would judge him for being different from them, like adolescents tend to do, but he continually related his lived experiences with those of the Greasers and the Socs from the novel. It made for an excellent discussion.

When I met with the cooperating teacher following the class, she told me that she was surprised at the response I received from this particular student. She said that he usually sits silent through her classes and when he does draw attention to himself, it was for being goofy or off task. She was really impressed by the way he related to me and she said that he really seemed to confide in me and trust me as a mentor. She said sometimes boys tend to gravitate toward male teachers and show them a certain respect that they do not exhibit to female teachers. She said that some of these kids’ fathers are real assholes, all they do is work and they don’t spend quality time with their children. She said that some of the boys will see me as a father figure, not just a teacher.

I was glad to provide support for the student and I hope other students will trust me and confide in me in the future. It is such an empowering experience to be in front of a class and lead a discussion, I can’t wait to do it for a living. For the most part, over the last couple of weeks, my concerns about teaching have been reconciled with a few minor adjustments and changes in my mindset. I am now taking half of my Seroquel dose in the afternoon with my lunch which makes me less tired in the morning because of the dose reduction at night. And, I am starting to see myself as a professional following his dreams and passions. I will ease into teaching successfully because it is something I enjoy and really want to do, and I truly believe this. My experiences during my first lesson perpetuate my strong feelings about being an educator.

Listening Skills

So I haven’t written for a while. Things have been really busy. I’ve been networking with teachers I know to try to set up interviews for next school year. I’ve also been knee-deep in reading for my final two grad classes.

Things with Jamie have been much better. She just celebrated her 30th birthday over the weekend and I surprised her with diamond earrings. Now, I’m sitting in a 7th grade English class, observing a friend of mine and I’m in excruciating pain. This entry is my attempt to distract myself from the throbbing pain in my mouth. Sunday morning I woke up with a severe tooth ache. I called my dentist and I’m seeing him this afternoon, he thinks I need a root canal, yay! Not fun. My dad gave me some Vicodin which I have been popping since last night. I have to be careful because I do have an addictive personality and these pills are awesome. The only relief I have found after two days of extreme pain is the three hours after I pop one of these pills.

My dad and I met with Dr. Levinson on Saturday and something very important came up. We discussed Jamie’s recent comment that when she tells me of a problem, she wants me to listen and not analyze and critique. Levinson said that it’s difficult since that ‘s how I’m used to processing things, especially since I started therapy. My dad admitted that he does the same thing with my mother. He said my mom’s therapist tells him that he can’t play armchair therapist.

Levinson said the best method of consoling your spouse is to just listen. I will heed his advice since Jamie recently told me that she wants me to be her husband, not her shrink. I have to get out of the habit of assessing, passing judgement and evaluating and into the habit of listening and comforting. I think I try to analyze because I know I don’t have the answers. When Jamie tells me that she is mad at her dad for leaving, I don’t know how to react or what to say, so I put on my therapist hat which is clearly not what she needs. Old habits die hard but this is one I have to beat into submission for the betterment of our marriage.

My Insensitivity

So adjusting to married life has been just that, an adjustment. I’ve been preoccupied with preparing for my student teaching and applying to schools for the fall. Jamie on the other hand, has felt a void caused by the absence of wedding preparations that were consuming her life prior to our wedding last month. She doesn’t have a beautiful celebration to look forward to and it has left her feeling a bit empty inside.

The honeymoon stage that we both expected hasn’t really happened which has left us both a bit concerned. Luckily, neither of us has any doubt that we married the right person. There has been no second-guessing of our decisions to marry, it’s just, we both thought things would be a bit more happy at this point.

We were sitting in the car on the way to a movie last week and Jamie decided to open up. I was lost in thought about all the applications I have left to complete when Jamie said, “I’m mad at my dad…”

“For what?” I asked.

“For leaving us,” she said, referring to her father’s untimely death two years ago.

And then, still thinking about my own shit, I said, “You just have to make the best of things and get over it.” It was the most insensitive thing I have ever said. I always tell Jamie I want her to open up more, a habit I have had a lot of practice at since I started therapy years ago. And she finally confided in me to help explain why both of us have felt a bit of a strain in the relationship in recent weeks, and I shot her down, just like that. I made her feel like she wasn’t justified in mourning her father’s loss, or continuing to feel saddened by his passing. I know enough about healing and dealing with loss to understand the mourning process lasts an unspecified amount of time. People can still feel a great void in their lives ten years after the passing of a loved one. Like I have told Jamie, there is no timeline or road map for coping with the loss of a family member or friend.

She looked at me wondering who this insensitive jerk was that was seated next to her. I have prided myself on being supportive and understanding in her times of need, but for some reason, this time, I was emotionally absent. I can’t use stress as an excuse. Even if I have been stressed out about my impending teaching career, I have to make time for Jamie and her needs.

We finally talked about that night in the car and brought some closure to the situation. I admitted to her that that was one of the most insensitive things I had ever said or done and I was sorry for my indiscretion. She said it wasn’t just that situation that was bothering her, she feels as though something is keeping her from feeling truly content and she can’t figure out what that is. At the end of our most recent conversation, she said that she might try to talk to someone professional about her issues. I told her I thought that was a good idea. I am a firm believer in the benefits of therapy since I started my own six years ago. If she could benefit from discussing her problems with a therapist, I think it will make our honeymoon stage more like it’s supposed to be, a honeymoon…

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