When your touched by mental illness-perspective changes

Twenty years ago I was admitted involuntarily to a psychiatric hospital and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I remember the devastation I felt emotionally. I was embarrassed and worried I’d lose the intellectual credibility I had worked hard to gain. I was concerned people would treat me differently and look at me strangely. I felt helpless when relationship dynamics changed.

My concerns came true. People did treat me differently, at least for a period of time. For awhile I was able to regain ground and my social standing only to lose it all again with the next hospitalization and manic/psychotic episode.

My phone stopped ringing. I was no longer sought after. Life as I knew it would never be the same.

Much of what I experienced is familiar to many people who live with mental illness. It’s common to live in social isolation, be unemployed, struggle to complete daily activities and deal with managing the symptoms of an illness.

In short, those of us who live with mental illness have suffered to varying degrees, but nonetheless have suffered.

In my case, I’ve also been the family member helping loved ones deal with their mental illness. At this point in my life I simply accept these challenges as a part of my life. I’ve learned to adapt to the cards I’ve been dealt.

I chose to rebuild my life with a passionate purpose on educating others about mental illness. I do this because I love to teach and speak. But most of all I love to help others.

This past week when President Trump so boldly proclaimed mental illness is the cause of mass shootings. While also suggesting we should reopen mental institutions. His comments frustrated, disgusted and hurt. So I wrote a Facebook posts about it.

There is so much ignorance, fear and lack of knowledge when it comes to mental illness. And yet when I read the comments on my Facebook posts and saw the number of people who reacted, I realized the statistics about mental illness don’t lie. Millions of people are impacted by it. Family members struggle to help their loved ones. They “get” it is not helpful to blame people with mental illness for all the horrible things people do.

When my brain got sick I didn’t instantly turn into a dangerous, violent person. Neither did my family members. And neither did the many millions of people who live with mental illness.

I don’t know why some people buy guns and plan mass shootings. Some say they are loners and isolated. Some say they are mentally ill or temporarily insane.

What I do know is we have a public health crisis with mental illness and suicides. I do know people are very reluctant to seek help because of the very same stigma people perpetuated this past week. “Mental Illness is the problem not the guns.”

Believe me when I tell you it’s bad enough having a chronic illness, but the pain of the stigma can be worse than the illness itself.

I have this perspective because of my experiences. And I’m going to continue to share it every chance I get.

Being silent is not an option.

What if we thought of mental illness as neurological conditions?

I was recently giving a couple talks on mental illness. I was searching for images to use in my slide presentation. My first search was for a kid who had cancer. The most common image was a smiling young person without any hair. The photos elicited compassion and understanding. We all know cancer sucks and those who survive beat it.

My next search was for a woman with mental illness. Most common images were a distraught, emotional woman with her head in her hands, unkempt hair flailing and often tears. The man with mental illness returned raging men and James Holmes the Colorado theatre shooter. Those images weren’t exactly ones that sparked compassion. More so fear. Fear of possibly being the distressed woman. Fear of being a victim at the hands of an unstable mass shooter.

Why is this important?

In a country with over sixty million people living with mental illness we are still perpetuating the idea that people are completely unstable, distraught and aren’t fighters of their illness. We bring it on ourselves. We all should just be able to tell ourselves to feel better, act better, look better and be normal. Some people think we can pray mental illness away. Prayer helps, but often doesn’t cure. It’s helpful in healing, but not in preventing.

But what if we started thinking of mental illness as a neurological condition? An illness that effects the brain? Would that matter?

I would argue it would make a significant difference. Think for a moment about epilepsy. It was not long ago epilepsy was considered a demonically possessed condition. Yes unfortunately you read that right. Imagine someone having a seizure in church or in a crowded restaurant. How would people react?

I was in a business meeting several years ago in a room with hundreds of people. One of my colleagues had a seizure. They immediately cleared the room and gave her space and privacy. We all knew she had epilepsy, a neurological condition. She continued working without any repercussions or penalties.

On the other hand, I suffered a severe bipolar depressive episode while working in the same industry as the person with epilepsy. I was questioned as if I was faking to get time off from work. Eventually I was fired.

If I had a “medical condition” would it have been socially acceptable to be fired?

Would there be outrage in a community if a child who had a seizure in school and while siezing he kicked a resource officer. Without intent to harm. Would we expect him to be charged with a crime?

The same thing happened to a young boy who had a psychotic episode. He was charged with felony assault and sentenced to probation. He is nine years old.

The way we categorize and label is inherently important in the world we live in. Language and words matter.

One day there will be more brain research. We will better understand mental illness. One day we will have more compassion and understanding and images will represent a more diverse group of people fighting for their lives.

My name is Amy Gamble, I have bipolar disorder, a brain disorder and it’s not my fault. I am a warrior.

My Daughter is not anxiety

Today it is my pleasure to welcome guest blogger Elizabeth Gramby. She’s a West Virginia native, cooking/food enthusiast and mental health advocate. Elizabeth began her journey writing early on as a way to find hope in dark places. Her writing took off when her daughter experienced a major depressive episode which almost took her life and landed her at an inpatient facility. This was a catalyst for Libbi to increase her passion for helping others, especially moms, through writing. Her goal is to fill gaps so her readers are able to find light, breath and hope while supporting their loved ones through their mental health journey.

 It’s funny, as I look back, I never really thought about stigma until my daughter was diagnosed with a mental illness. Probably just like you I had heard of mental illnesses, often not in a kind way. Usually in a sarcastic or adjective way. I had an aunt that had a mental illness but it wasn’t really talked about much.
You may have the same story in your family. Now, I realize that stigma is the reason families don’t talk about it and it’s the reason that people diagnosed with a mental illness often isolate themselves and feel shame. Stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” And it’s real, but the mark isn’t on us, its in them.
I read an article that said “The stigmatized individual is “reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one” (Goffman E. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Simon & Schuster; New York: 1963). It’s so true.
Many may see people suffering from a mental illness that way, they may see my daughter that way. They couldn’t be more wrong. Stigma is why families keep it under wraps, it’s why some blogs are written anonymously. But it’s also why I have decided to come forward, to speak out and to tell you that my name is Elizabeth Gramby and my daughter has a mental illness. We have decided to be open and honest, to take a step towards advocacy, to let you know that we are not ashamed and you shouldn’t be either.
Just like a pancreas can malfunction, a brain can too, yet the resulting disease is perceived differently, therefore the person is as well.
My daughter has Generalized Anxiety and Panic Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder but those are her diagnoses, not her identity. She does not bear a mark of disgrace, she is not tainted or to be discounted. Quite the opposite.
My daughter IS smart, witty, kind, creative and beautiful. My daughter is NOT anxiety.
Her anxiety makes her FEEL petrified, weak, depressed, embarrassed and angry but those things do not define her. I think that so often we talk about our feelings in a way that describes who we are. That we inadvertently label ourselves and determine our course, often in the wrong direction. Im #sad #weak #worthless, we are not how we feel, we are so much more.
I am no expert on Anxiety and Panic Disorder, I am not an expert on different kinds of eating disorders. I am, however, a mother helping my daughter overcome these things and let me tell ya, it’s no walk in the park.
I won’t go into a drawn out, detailed account of her struggles here as not to bore you, but for background I will say that she is 23 years old and the very first signs of this storm happened her freshman year of college. We didn’t realize at the time what was looming, we attributed it to stress and adjusting to college life. Christmas break of her sophomore year we realized that this wasn’t something that she could just manage until it passed, it wasn’t passing, it was getting worse. So off to the doctor we went and 3 medical withdraws from classes, 9 medications, 2 psychiatrists, 4 therapists and 2 hospital stays later, here we are.
 As a mom, I feel helpless, but I’m not. I’m doing what I can, providing some guidance, support and all the understanding I can muster, I’m trying to be her rational voice when she can’t find hers. If I’m really honest, I feel angry. My girl has so much to offer, so much life, humor, talent and compassion yet at times she feels afraid to come out of her bedroom, afraid to eat, just…afraid.
What if we told anxiety to take a flying leap and gave it the middle finger on the way down?
What if we felt all the feels, but were defined by God? Looked through our state of mind and pressed into our knowledge, stopped being overwhelmed by our emotions and started focusing on God’s overwhelming love and peace.
What if we felt sad, but were joyful in the knowledge of Psalm 126:6? Hopeful in knowing that though we may be weeping, our tears will water the most valuable of seeds that will harvest laughter, excitement and love if we don’t give up.
What if we felt weak and took pleasure in it, boasted in it as in 2 Corinthians so that we may then feel the power of Christ rest in us and revel in HIS strength.
What if we felt worthless but prevailed as valuable, fruitful and worthy children of God?
Let’s try it shall we?
Let’s stand side by side, be open and honest about what’s happening and how we feel. Let’s work together to remind our loved ones of who they are while working through how they feel. Let’s keep the truth alive in their lives while they battle with the lies that their disorders tell them. We are not helpless or alone and they are not defined by their diagnosis.
I don’t know your situation, your diagnosis or your name, but I do know your fear. I believe that if we work together, through advocacy, honesty and education, we can fight against the stigmatic way that people see us and against the negative way we talk to and label ourselves. Remember that the stigma isn’t on us or our loved ones, it’s in those who don’t understand. We don’t carry it or wear it, they perceive it blindly.
I’m proud of my daughter and the fighter that she has become.
Let’s fight this fight together.
Elizabeth Gramby

Getting to H.O.P.E. through recovery

When I started this blog over five years ago I was in the beginning stages of my recovery journey. Well, not really the beginning, as I had gotten ill many times and resumed a relatively normal life. But the last time I had a major set-back it was a doozy. Filled with life changing experiences including a brush with almost dying in the wilderness.

A lot has changed in five years. I’ve successfully learned how to manage bipolar disorder, helped coach many family members whose loved ones live with mental illness, spoken and/or trained over 12,000 people. Honed my skills as a mental health advocate and learned how to manage a nonprofit organization.

None of this would have been possible without a focus on my mental health. Here are three things that were game changers for me.

1) Embracing grief.

It may seem strange to think about having a diagnosis of mental illness causing grief. But it’s not just getting passed the self-stigma and learning to accept I was going to have to deal with a chronic health problem. It was also grieving for the hopes and dreams that were lost or had to change because I now had limitations I never had to consider before.

Grief was also about dealing with the loss of relationships and friendships that were no longer viable for one reason or another, but very often as a result of having a mental illness. Loss is loss. Sometimes even more painful when those we love leave our lives and grow distant because we are no longer the person we once were.

Grief fuels depression and depression makes grief more painful. Living with frequently long episodes of bipolar depression I managed to have a double whammy of emotional pain.

When I didn’t know I was grieving I sort of just trudged along. After I realized it was grief, I became empowered to allow myself to process the many stages of grief. There’s something interesting which happens when we acknowledge reality. It’s very freeing and empowering to look truth in the eye and give in to the flowing stream. I learned you can fight many things but you cannot deny griefs purpose.

2) Paying attention to thoughts.

My mind is my best friend and my worst enemy. When not stable I can’t keep up with the many grand ideas given to me during mania. I learned medications that slowed me down actually helped me to harness the power of my creativity without it being a run away train.

In this process of healing and understanding how bipolar symptoms manifested in myself I began to pay very close attention to my thoughts. I ask the question what am I telling myself? This simple question continues to allow me to understand where my energy is going. If my thoughts are not positive about myself or they are constantly negative it’s my cue depression may be lurking in the shadows. I fight my thoughts when I’m depressed because I know depression tells us lies.

With my illness at times a symptom can be paranoia. I learned to question this line of thinking. I search for facts to disprove my paranoia and I acknowledge when that paranoia is based in reality and serves me well as a warning system.

Learning to differentiate between healthy thoughts and those not serving me well helps me approach my days in a positive manner and gives me hope.

3) Having a sense of purpose.

For years I was searching for my sense of purpose. Something which really inspired me, made me want to get out of bed in the morning. Making a difference in people’s life in a positive way was my simple answer to how I could have a sense of purpose.

In the short term my sense of purpose was less prophetic and more practical. Having a job served my short term sense of purpose. A place to go where I was expected to show up on time and contribute something. Feeling needed, wanted, and accepted was an important step on my journey.

Eventually I found work and passion aligned. There’s a saying about how we can make our mess our message. I’ve done that with teaching other people about mental health and mental illness. I’ve done that by sharing my story in many different formats, including my memoir “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor.” (Available on Amazon)

Mixing passion and purpose motivates me even on my worst days. I’ve never once missed a commitment in over four years. And honestly I’ve had plenty of bad days struggling with depression, but I managed to get myself out of bed and see through what I said I would do.

This is why finding a sense of purpose is important to everyone. We all need a reason to get up in the morning and put our feet on the floor, whether you have a mental illness or not. But from experience, having an illness makes this even more important.

This life journey I’ve had I would not wish on anyone, though I’ve had a remarkable ride in many ways. But the hard lessons were tough to get through. And of course the mental illness – biggest and most difficult challenge. However, if your journey is similar to mine or something I say rings true to you-know you are not alone. And I assure you if you don’t give up you will have happiness, opportunity, prosperity and empowerment to live the life you desire. That’s what hope means to me.

Here’s to five more years of blogging…

Amy Gamble

People are finally talking about mental health. Now what?

I’m a huge fan of all those who have been willing to talk about their challenges with their mental health. It’s wonderful to know that we are not alone. I love it when celebrities use their platforms for great causes.

But…we also have to start asking the question what’s next? It’s one thing to be aware of mental health and it’s another to face the harsh reality of waiting for two months before one can see a psychiatrist. Not to mention the enormous challenges for emergency rooms across the country who are often the first stop for those experiencing a mental health crisis.

I’m not worried about celebrities having access to care. They can afford to pay for private care if they have to. But I am concerned about the quality of care for everyone. The fact that medications don’t work immediately and the side effects can make the treatment impossible to stick with.

Talking about mental health is important. I do it often. But figuring out ways to help others get the care they need when they need it may just be the most important problem that needs solved in a generation.

Almost everyone is talking about mental health. Yay!!! Now let’s do something about the care people need.

Overcoming the pain from disappointment

Sometimes the worst part of mental illness are the dreams left behind. The shattered and tattered remnants of a life once filled with promise and opportunity. There is no greater healing than acknowledging the pain, feeling it and then moving forward with what can be.

Things can really be difficult. It’s hard to always stay positive and optimistic. It’s actually impossible too. It’s hard not to have moments of frustration and despair.

I’ve asked myself the question, why do things always have to be so hard?

And then I answer myself.

Because I’m striving to live my best life despite my challenges. Of course I haven’t completely forgotten about the pain. It keeps me humble and honest. It motivates me to help others. My pain is the fire that keeps me going.

Last week I had a chance to teach a group of kids about mental health. The younger group I read the old book, “The Little Engine that Could.” I was encouraging them to think positively and believe they could accomplish things.

As I sat there looking into those kids bright shiny eyes, I felt so touched. If I had stayed stuck on my past I would never had the chance to see all those kids eyes light up with joy because in that moment I brought my best self to share with them.

I’m still in the process of telling myself “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” But when my book ends I know I’m going to say ,

“I thought I could. I thought I could.”

Shifting to a positive attitude can be the difference between doing the near impossible and giving up without trying.

No matter what circumstance you may find yourself in…don’t give up. Things always get better and might just surpass the old dreams you once had.

Amy Gamble

An Olympic training approach to managing bipolar disorder

I was talking with a friend at the National Council on Behavioral Health’s annual conference in Nashville. We had just watched a movie about Andy Irons a world class surfer who had bipolar disorder and died at 37.

It was an emotional documentary. I felt sad. But the emotion that got my attention was anger. Angry at a terribly cruel and devastating illness.

I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty for my ability to successfully manage a serious mental illness that often robs people of life and disrupts any sense of normalcy.

Though I too have succumbed to many tragic experiences because of bipolar disorder, once I set my mind to figuring out how I could manage the symptoms with as little disruption to my life as possible, I successfully am living a healthy life.

But it dawned on me as I said to my friend Carol that not everyone may think to take an Olympic training mentality to conquering a mental illness.

It’s no easy task to become an Olympian. In my view managing bipolar disorder is far more difficult. But applying the same driven mentality can be a game changer for managing bipolar.

For me it comes down to four main components.

1. Desire. The desire to want a life that is manageable and purposeful despite a disability.

The desire to learn how to manage with often much needed medications, which generally have terrible side effects-especially when first initiated.

The desire to fight for a healthy peaceful life.

2. Dedication. Relentless vigilance monitoring symptoms. Advocating for yourself with the doctor. Keeping appointments as if your life depends on it. Because my life does depend on it.

3. Discipline. Finding a treatment plan and sticking to it. Meticulously taking medications every day, without missing a dose. Getting the proper sleep. Exercising even when it’s hard to motivate.

4. Determination. Maybe the most important aspect is never giving up the hope for recovery. Never quitting even when the game seems out of reach. Taking the setbacks in stride and keep on pushing.

I realize not everyone has had the experience of becoming an Olympian. But I also know people can apply these same principles to their own individual situation.

My goal is to share my knowledge with others. Every life matters.

In a sports analogy bipolar disorder can be defeated. But it is an opponent that is always relentlessly trying to take us down.

Fight it as if your life depends on it. Because it does.

One Person Who Cares Makes a Difference: Be that ONE

Several years ago I was traveling through the Denver International Airport during one of my business trips. I was in intense therapy and was having flashbacks on the 1 1/2 hour plane ride from Phoenix.

By the time I got off the plane I was an emotional wreck. I couldn’t stop crying and I was physically shaking. I found a chair and sat down with my head in my hands, looking up only periodically. I didn’t know if I could regain my strength to move on with my day, so I just sat here feeling helpless.

Moments later a young man stood in front of me and said, “I’m not sure how to help you, but are you okay?” I glanced up and looked at him and with a quivering bottom lip I stammered, “Not really.” He then turned to me and said, “I wish I could take all your pain away. I wish I knew what to do to help you. But please know that someone cares about you. Can I call someone for you.”

I shook my head “no” and he walked away.

I stopped crying and sat there a few more minutes. Did the stranger instantly solve all my problems? No. But it did matter that someone cared enough to stop and ask me how I was doing and let me know that someone cared.

In our crazy, busy world we often get so consumed with what we are doing we forget about noticing the people around us. Sometimes we forget to notice those who are even close to us. I want to challenge each of you to notice others. We don’t have to have the right terminology or a scientific procedure to ask a simple question, “Are you okay?” You’ll be amazed at how people will respond.

In a world of complexity the simple solutions reign. Will you be the ONE who changes someone’s day and gives them hope for tomorrow?

 

 

Moved by “God Know’s Where I am”

grief_1350

My heart is breaking. I just finished watching an interview of Linda Bishop’s family about the documentary “God Know’s Where I am.” It’s a story about a woman who was released from a state mental institution floridly psychotic. She was given no medication, no money and they didn’t even make a phone call to her daughter or sister that she was being released. Turns out even a judge ruled she was sane enough and didn’t need a guardian.

So much for sanity.

Linda left that institution and wondered through the woods where she came upon an empty farm house. She stayed there for four months surviving on apples from a tree and water from the melted snow. She kept account of her daily activities by writing in a journal. Winter came and she eventually starved to death.

She died with all her civil liberties. She died with her rights on. She died an early death. She died a victim of an inhumane mental health care system that fails people every single minute of every single day. Lives are discarded like a piece of trash.

My eyes are watering with tears. I’m not a crier. But I see myself in Linda’s story. I was the inpatient who was released from the hospital floridly psychotic. Fortunately, I was released to my family. But days after arriving home, I took off on the road again only to find myself lost in the wilderness. Wandering lost, cold with frostbitten feet. My life was sparred.

The system failed me. But I survived in spite of it.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t pinch myself with how lucky I am. I am one of those people society gave up on. Thrust into a broken, incompetent mental health care treatment system. But here I sit today. Sad for the people who weren’t, haven’t been or will not be as fortunate as me.

I’m very unsure of what to do with all of my emotions. For many years working as an advocate has served me well. Now, my heart is heavy with all the tragic stories I bear witness to. Feeling helpless against a giant system with no fix in site.

The heavy, dark sadness stirs my soul. I want people to have civil liberties, but I don’t want people to die with those liberties on. We must do something to change this atrocious system.

To watch the documentary “God Knows Where I am” you can find it on Netflix.

 

 

No one wants to have a mental illness

face-of-mental-illness-2 Really?

Yesterday morning I awoke to a text message from my sister Sherry who also lives with bipolar disorder. She wrote, “I hate bipolar illness.” It didn’t take long for my wheels to start to turn.  Of course you hate this illness.  I hate bipolar too.  I don’t like how it interrupted my life and made my path much more difficult. But I know I can only entertain those thoughts of dread for a little while. If I spend too much time hating bipolar and the fact I have it, I lose out on life.

The fact is no one wants to have a mental illness. It’s hard to come to terms with when we get an initial diagnosis. It’s even harder for loved ones to watch as people destroy their lives because they refuse treatment. I’ve walked in those shoes, so it’s not a judgement simply an acknowledgment of what can happen.

I’m standing on the side line right now watching a young man blow up his life because of his refusal to accept his diagnosis. He’s manic and psychotic. At only 27 years old he’s burning through friends like an out of control forest fire. Soon, he’ll be all on his own to one day, hopefully, pick up the pieces of what is left of his life. I hope that’s soon for his sake.

I’ve spent a great deal of time learning about bipolar disorder and quite frankly other mental illnesses. One the reasons people don’t get help is because no one wants to have a mental illness. I said that once, right? Well, when I was diagnosed with a mental illness it felt like a personal failing. It was as if somehow I had brought it all on myself. There wasn’t much compassion or understanding or anyone who I knew to turn to with questions. I was all alone in my struggle.

Because I felt like it was a personal failing I kept denying it existed. Eventually I did get treatment, but it took a long time to find the right treatment regimen. It was even longer before I learned the necessary lifestyle changes I was going to have to make. On average, it takes 8-10 years from the initial diagnosis before someone gets the proper treatment and that’s if she ever does.

Startling. Right? How can anyone jump right in and accept she has a mental illness, follow a flawed treatment regimen and trust health care providers who too often don’t know jack about what they are treating.

It can get really dark and toxic pretty quick. This is why I only allow myself to entertain the dark side from time to time. I am human, unfortunately. Ha.

The bottom line for this post today is to say no one wants to have a mental illness. But constantly focusing on all the negative things about it are counter productive. Of course I hate my illness. But to be honest it could have been far worse. All things considered I’m one of the lucky ones.

No one wants to have a mental illness but if you do have one please get the help you need. Your life depends on it.

Amy