A Beacon: Day by day

There are telltale signs of the next hurdle, if we know what to look for.

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—Mari Fielder

Not every day is going to be a winner. Mental illness is practically defined by its unpredictability. A person’s symptoms can follow a strict schedule for years, and then change without warning. Tried-and-true meds abruptly fail, or their side effects greatly worsen, or those same meds start worsening what you were taking them for in the first place. I’d seen it all long before I began at Daybreak, and most of it through firsthand experience.

There are tells, if you know what to look for, though we don’t always catch them in time. Sometimes the arrival of symptoms is as regular as clockwork, and you can see the dark clouds looming on the horizon from miles away. We try to be as prepared as we can for those moments, but as anyone on this Island knows, when it comes to storm prep, ultimately nature always decides the outcome.

Let me tell you about the equinox. Vernal and autumnal, both. Twice a year, equal length of day and night, all that jazz. Around those times of year, times I love dearly, I’m actually at my very worst. My symptoms break right through my meds, and when I’ve been unmedicated? Those times have been memorable. Though there have been some notable exceptions, these times were when I experienced much of my more profound delusions, with psychotic episodes that lasted weeks.

This pattern has been consistent throughout my life, and yet, twice a year, it completely blindsides me. When it happens, it is in spite of a lifetime of learned self-vigilance. I scrutinize my thoughts and actions, the least minutiae, every hour of every day. I ask my allies for little checks on my behavior if ever I’m in doubt, or if I’ve no doubts. That’s something else I look for: certainty. A strong delusion leaves no room for doubt. It becomes reality, what is, what was, and what will be, a winding labyrinth of details. I’ve had people try to guide me out of them, but successes were few. A tough one can survive any scrutiny, frantically laying rails just ahead of the runaway train of your unconscious mind.

So twice a year, I have intense moments where I become convinced that my meds will never work again. This year, I had extra meds at the ready, just trying to prepare, and my equinox-cursed brain still mostly shrugged it off. My wife would sense my distress from across the room, and reminded me: This is temporary. I’d remember, until I didn’t. Your brain is the home address of your every fear. No one knows better how to scare you. A life where I never come up for air again, trapped in a prison of my own mind for the rest of my life? That is my greatest fear.

Reading this might leave you wondering how I got through a month and a half of this with a full-time job. It is not despite Daybreak that I get through days like this, but because of it. There were days where getting out of bed, getting ready for work, daily incidentals all took Herculean effort. Mired in confusion, waiting for my morning meds to do their job — more than once, I nearly forgot what I was doing, and started writing something on the computer, as if there weren’t a job waiting for me.

Through force of will I get to the clubhouse. There I am surrounded by people who know, in some cases, exactly what I’m going through. There’s no need for masking at Daybreak. If you’ve never had to do it, you’ll never understand how exhausting masking is. Some of us are quite good at hiding our afflictions, at least for a time. I burned out on several decent jobs because I couldn’t sustain that effort. It is a partitioning of the mind, dedicating this isolated part of yourself to present as “normal” as possible. Just outside the placid eye of this storm, your symptoms rage on, threatening to surge past your defenses at any moment.

In the time between when our members arrive and when we start morning meeting, many of our regulars and even some of our occasionals like to catch up a little, one-on-one. I’m candid about when I’m having a rough day. At first it was simply my newly adopted policy of openness. Now, it’s more. I love the support I get on these days. There are more volunteers in the kitchen, and they definitely go easier on me. They still count on me, but with their support, and Daybreak staff’s, I have all I need. I’m always staff first, but I’m more than a little bit a member, too. Our peer-based approach means I participate in the program much as they do. And, you know what? It works.

Matthew Fielder lives in West Tisbury with his wife Mari. He is a staff member at Daybreak Clubhouse, and a caregiver to his grandmother and great-aunt. 

To begin the referral process, or to learn more, visit daybreakclubhouse.org, or call 508-696-7563. They’re here to help.

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Serving Hands Food

Daybreak helps run Serving Hands Food Distribution, under the umbrella of the Vineyard Committee on Hunger. Food is donated by Island businesses, including Cronig’s Market and Island Grown Initiative, as well as ordered through the Greater Boston Food Bank. The next one is Friday, May 26, starting at 11:30 am, at the First Baptist Church Parish Hall, 66 William St., Vineyard Haven.