Seeing the light in the darkness of depression

A lot of people struggle with something. Whether that’s having overly busy schedules, trying desperately hard to meet all of life’s demands and perhaps added challenges of dealing with life and a health condition. But what I’ve learned in trying to find a balance of all these things is that even in our most difficult times having hope can be the game changer.

In my role as a mental health advocate I often hear very challenging stories of people living with mental illness or their loved ones walking the journey with them. It’s not superficial conversations. These connections with other people are deeply personal. I feel grateful that I can be a person who can bear witness to the struggles of others, because even in those very trying stories having hope keeps people going.

Anyone who had ever been handed the card of depression knows how important finding something positive to hold onto gets one through the tough times. There’s a reason depression is the number one disability in the world. It causes the regular struggles in life to be much more difficult.

There’s an image I am using in my upcoming talk this week in Athens, Ohio. It shows an entirely dark room with a door open and a crack of light shining through. It reminded me of a day when I was sleeping 16 hours a day during a depressive episode. As I lay in bed I squinted my eyes when the sun slightly shined through the crack in the blind. A tear streamed down my face, as I held onto the hope that one day I would recover.

No matter your challenge, your struggle or the mountain your climbing, know that eventually if you keep striving toward the light-things will get better.

In my view hope is a life saver.

Humble lessons learned from my jail cell

“Guilt and shame played a large part in my inability to accept my progression of illness. I was so accustomed to being capable of problem solving, setting goals and accomplishing them. When bipolar disorder held me in its’ claws I felt so responsible. I felt like a failure. I had failed myself because there must have been something I could have done differently to have had a better outcome.” ~Jail Journal-January 18, 2013

Those were the words I wrote in a journal I kept while spending three weeks in a small jail cell in Montana. I usually don’t think too much about my time being incarcerated, but I shared my story today and give a talk next week, so I was looking for perspective.

I remember having these incredible realizations about what I was going to do with my second chance at life. I wrote about how I intended to help other people. I sketched out my vision for my future–and I’m actually living it as I write these words.

My humble reflection today is really about the lesson of acceptance. While I sat there in that cell I came to appreciate who I was as a human being. Seems like a strange place to find inner wisdom. But I used the time to write. It was my coping mechanism.

I set in motion coming to terms with how my untreated mental illness got me in such a jam.

“Guilty feelings nearly destroyed all my confidence and self-worth. Of course it did not help that I had gained 80 pounds from various medication side-effects and a wicked depressive episode. I had morphed into an unrecognizable person right before my very eyes and I hated the reflection looking back at me from the mirror.” ~Jail-1/18/2013

What I have come to powerfully embrace is that mental illness is not my fault. I humbly accept all of my life experiences as my journey. And the best part about all of it is…I no longer live in shame.

I accept me. Greatest lesson ever.

Learning self-acceptance: Tip Number 1

I’ve spent most of my life striving for excellence in almost everything I’ve tried to do. The one area that clearly challenged me the most was learning how to accept myself, in the midst of much turmoil caused from untreated (under treated) bipolar disorder.

As with most things in life we want to accomplish or change it takes a great deal of hard work. In the next few blog posts I’d like to share tips for self-acceptance.

Today’s blog will focus on insecurities.

1). Know your insecurities

We all have insecurities. The things that make us self-conscious and undermine our confidence. But when we start to identify how those insecurities make us feel we can fight back, take control about how we feel about ourselves.

Inspite of all my accomplishments (Olympian, Master’s Degree, Director Level in business, running my own business) I found myself stuck on one big insecurity-the fact that I have a mental illness. It was loaded with negativity, self-destruction and tore my ability to view myself as a whole person.

Until I came to realize that inspite of my disability the person who existed inside of me was still there and in fact had learned so much from having come through the other side of near insurmountable circumstances. I came to realize I was now in a position to help teach others.

I learned my biggest insecurity could be turned into my greatest asset. It mattered most how I viewed myself. Did I see myself as a broken person? You bet. But after I identified and gave that insecurity a name, I could work on healing.

It’s an extraordinarily powerful process to define our insecurities. They can be overcome and even turned into a great asset.

Name it. Acknowledge it. Shine a light on it. Be patient with yourself. Over time your deepest, darkest fear can become your biggest asset.

Amy Gamble

Getting off the bipolar rollercoaster!

rollercoaster

I was having a conversation with a mental health care professional.  We were discussing the need to treat bipolar disorder.  The conversation was inspired by a young man I met who had his first episode of bipolar disorder.  I’ll call him Matt.

After he was released from the hospital Matt came to talk with me at his mother’s request.  He told me about smoking a lot of marijuana with high THC levels.  And I replied, “Not sure if you know this but it can cause psychosis in people who are at risk for mental illness.”  He answered, “Yeah.  I know.  They told me that at the hospital.”

We continued our discussion and it was clear to me after three weeks in the hospital Matt was still not stable.  He admitted to “cheeking” his medications.  The hospital than begin to give him injections.

So, as I was discussing with the psychologist about what happens to people with bipolar disorder who have had psychotic episodes and don’t stay with a treatment plan, I said, “Matt is headed down a bad pathway, if he doesn’t stay with his treatment.”  The psychologist looked at me and said, “None of us have a crystal ball Amy.”

Well…I wouldn’t claim to be clairvoyant but I am rather intuitive.  More importantly I have seen my family members struggle without the proper treatment (my sister had over 40 hospitalizations), I personally have had my own challenges and every single person who I have met with bipolar disorder road a rollercoaster until they got the proper treatment.

I had another experience just a few short weeks ago with a person who I helped get to the hospital.  She was released long before she was stable.  I was livid.  She is now a missing person.  Her brother said to me, “I can see how people become homeless.”

I’m not intending for this to be a downer blog post.  There is a lot of hope when it comes to mental illness and bipolar disorder.  I live a meaningful, productive life.  But I also have been on that rollercoaster ride.  Even if I’m not a psychic, I know with 99% accuracy, if you don’t take bipolar disorder seriously, it will destroy your life and will impact the lives of everyone in it.

The mental health care system is terribly broken.  And mental health care professionals must start educating people about their conditions, including the possibilities of what can happen if the proper treatment plan is not in place.

I see two doors.  Door number one is not taking medication and staying on a high-low rollercoaster that wrecks havoc and keeps us sick.  Door number two is difficult.  But we learn everything we can and keep learning about wellness strategies, how to recognize symptoms, how to deal with depressive episodes, how to keep fighting.  It’s not an easy peaceful path.  But door number two…is the audience choice on Let’s Make a Deal.

We can’t allow our frustrations with something we deal with on a daily basis to keep us from persevering.  If you live with bipolar disorder, you must learn as much as you can about this illness.  It is manageable, treatable and you can learn to live with it.  Doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.  But as with other illnesses a person who has it must take responsibility.

None of us bought the ticket for the rollercoaster ride bipolar disorder takes us on.  But when you can get off the ride, life gets a whole lot better.

Winning against bipolar disorder with my faith as my anchor

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“As I lie in my bed trying to squeeze out the suicidal thoughts, the horrific pain of being all alone without one friend in the entire world, and the mortifying realization that in that moment I couldn’t care for myself, I turned to what had always gotten me through the tough times.  I turned to my anchor, which is my faith in God.”

There are a lot of stereotypes and misunderstandings about bipolar disorder and those of us who live with it on a daily basis are subject to these misperceptions.  Just last week I was giving a talk at a conference on the stigma of mental illness and addiction.  Most of the feedback was positive, but there was one person who said, “Bipolar disorder is an excuse for bad behavior.”

What?

After speaking for an hour on stigma and sharing some very personal stories about bipolar disorder, the needle never moved in this person’s mind.  And then I realized most people have absolutely no clue what those of us who have lived a lifetime with the impact of bipolar disorder have struggled through.  I’ve never once thought bipolar disorder was an excuse for anything.  A reason, yes.  An excuse, never.

My first episode was way back in 1999.  I was a director in a corporate office with a multi-million budget to manage.  Not only did I have a manic episode, I had a psychotic episode.  I ended up in an inpatient psychiatric care facility, which made me feel crazy.  And when people questioned my views and insights, I wondered if they thought I was crazy too?

Over the next 12 years, I struggled through 10 hospitalizations, a three-week stay in jail and worst of all losing most, if not all of my friends and some family members.  No one wants to be around people who are not mentally well.  It’s just a fact.  Maybe after a first episode, people may give you the benefit of the doubt.  But when the struggle goes on, everyone including family members get worn down.

I was fortunate.  I had a few strong and tough family members who have borne witness to my entire journey.  They stood with pride when I became an Olympian.  They dealt with their own disappointment when I started to struggle with my mental health.  And they hung on to see me recover and flourish again.  They believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.

I was also isolated for a long stretch of time.  I went weeks without having any family member in my home.  But I had two things that helped me bear the unbearable pain and suffering of relentless depression and suicidal thoughts.  I had my three dogs who I absolutely consider a gift from God.  And I also had my faith.

As I lie in my bed trying to squeeze out the suicidal thoughts, the horrific pain of being all alone without one friend in the entire world, and the mortifying realization that in that moment I couldn’t care for myself, I turned to what had always gotten me through the tough times.  I turned to my anchor, which is my faith in God.

Did prayer instantly solve my struggles?  No.  But it gave me hope.  And in those moments of struggle and despair, hope is the one thing that kept me going.  And that is why I feel anchored, even though managing bipolar disorder can wear me down.  I keep going because I’m driven by a higher power.  I’m driven to help other people.  I have found my calling.  And I am grateful to have a purpose.

If you’re struggling with a mental health condition, I can tell you the first thing you’ve got to do is work on getting stable.  If you have bipolar disorder, a treatment plan is 99.9% always going to include a medication regimen.  There’s just no and’s, if’s, but’s or reason to think you’re going to be the only person in the world who can manage a chronic, severe mental illness without medication.  If that’s your choice and it works for you – great.  But from experience I can tell you it’s not gonna work out well.

Secondly, I believe in mind, body and spirit.  When you combine getting stable with a personal recovery plan, spirituality is a big component of being well and balanced.

It helps to take small pieces of this very overwhelming journey to manage a mental illness.  And the one thing that’s required to have a healthy and happy life is a lot of hard work.

For those of you reading who have family members struggling, I just want to reach out and give you a big hug.  It’s not easy being you.  But whatever you do, don’t give up hope.  You’ve got to become the best salesperson in the world in selling to your loved one the whole idea that it’s okay to get help.  In fact, it’s a sign of strength to reach out.

Finally I want to finish by saying thank you to all my readers.  I’ve been blogging now for over four years.  Those who’ve been with me along the way know what journey it has been.  Thanks for all your support.  It matters.

Amy

 

People with mental illness need heros

I spent Saturday afternoon at the movie theater watching Black Panther. I came home and watched Wonder Woman. Wow! I absolutely love the superheroes. I enjoy the plot line of good conquering evil.

The truth is everybody needs a hero, but people with mental illness really need superheroes. We need to hear from the people who are living well with their illness. We need to learn from those who have conquered, those who know how to deal with their struggles.

Here are a few people who I’ve found inspiring:

Jennifer Marshall is the co-founder of This is My Brave. She wanted to find a way to help fight stigma so Jennifer created a platform where people who live with mental illness can share their stories. Jennifer lives with bipolar disorder.

Gabe Howard has so many mental health advocacy titles I don’t think I know all of them. I do know Gabe is a writer and speaker, has won many mental health advocacy awards, and was a past board member of NAMI Ohio. He often does many creative podcasts. Gabe lives with bipolar disorder.

Ellyn Saks is a professor of law at the University of Southern California. She has written a book called, “The Center Cannot Hold,” and has a great Ted Talk. I admire her strength and courage for speaking openly about her journey with schizophrenia.

Michael Phelps the most decorated athlete in Olympic history has joined the ranks of mental health advocacy. He is using his Olympic platform to raise awareness for mental illness. Michael lives with depression.

Brandon Marshall is a wide receiver in the NFL whose struggle has been borderline personality disorder. Brandon has partnered with “Bring Change to Mind” and has worked hard at promoting men’s mental health.

So these are a few of the people who I have found inspirational. It’s not that they haven’t struggled or have been cured. What they have done is shine a light so people know more about mental illness.

We can have a picture that says a person with mental illness looks lots of different ways. And we can be inspired by their willingness to share part of their journey with us.

Like many of the evil doers in the superhero stories Mental illness doesn’t play fair. Mental health advocacy is not straight forward like other illnesses with advocacy efforts (think pink). We aren’t fighting for research dollars for one illness, but many. We are fighting stigma hard, only to have our progress nearly wiped out when the loud voices with access to national media platforms make an overly generalized link between mental illness and violence.

We need lots of heroes out there to help fight the battles, because I’m afraid a few inspiring superheroes are not quite powerful enough to take on the world.

But they sure do shine a bright light for the rest of us. It’s up to us to follow the path.

“Crazy and insane” comments from an NRA spokeswoman

After watching the CNN town hall meeting held in Florida regarding the terrible school shooting tragedy, I was disheartened to hear the NRA spokeswoman use such terms as “crazy, insane, monstrous.” The acts of the shooter were incomprehensible. But those of us who live with mental illness should never be lumped into a small group of people who are violent.

The NRA spokeswoman also said “the mentally ill” should be put into a “criminal database” and be prohibited from having guns. I’m in agreement that people who have mental illness should not have guns. It’s my personal viewpoint. But criminalizing mental illness will keep people from getting the help they need.

Further, what should qualify as diagnosis that make owning a gun illegal? Does that mean a person with depression goes into the hospital with suicidal thoughts and gets flagged as a dangerous mentally ill crazy person? Or is criminalizing mental illness only reserved for the psychos like me who have bipolar disorder? Because In fact I’m the real insane monster.

Do you see how absurd this is?

I don’t want to see innocent people get hurt or killed. I think there needs to be steps taken to keep people from obtaining guns who shouldn’t have them. But the kind of words we choose to debate what should be done matter. Knee jerk reactions usually have far reaching and usually not good outcomes. Fear drives people to react and results in horrendous name calling and labeling.

My hope is wiser heads will prevail on solutions. We as a society have allowed the issues of an abundance of access to military type weapons, lack of intervention to appropriate mental health care and an overwhelming swing toward not allowing proper intervention to help someone with mental illness get stabilized.

But something very important to ponder is to ask why many other countries who have as much mental illness as the United States, but don’t have mass shootings. Or are those of us with mental illness in the United States just different than the rest of the world? That’s what the NRA is arguing. And to me their solutions to the problem are as far fetched as believing mental illness is the sole cause to all the violence in the United States, when we know only 5% of all violent acts are committed by those who have a mental illness.

I’m bothered by people who are given a national platform who do harm to millions of people by calling for the criminalization of people with mental illness. Although it’s a small effort, I’ll be giving a talk today with college students encouraging them to get the help they need if they have signs and symptoms of mental illness. But can I with clear consciousness tell them there won’t be any negative consequences to getting help? I don’t know the answer. But I do know not getting help is a bad choice.

I have bipolar and I am not violent

I had an opportunity to teach a group of school teachers about mental illness. After last weeks Florida school shooting I was prepared for questions about mental illness and violence. It’s beyond sad this is an ever occurring topic.

But what happens to those of us who live with a mental illness when the public, president and politicians point the finger quickly at mental illness as the sole explanation for the violence? It’s a complicated answer.

I’ve spent the past three years publicly talking about bipolar disorder, my psychotic episodes and the consequences of my untreated, under treated mental health condition. As confident as I am owning all of who I am, I get a little rattled and defensive when people say mental illness caused the shooting. I get upset being stigmatized into a small group, though disturbing number of people who commit horrendous crimes.

But something happened to me tonight as I taught the class and openly shared my experiences with bipolar disorder. I could talk about the fact more than 14 million people live with serious mental illness-and very few are violent. And I can also say that sometimes people with mental illness can be violent. Probably more impactful was the fact I was the “teacher” living with bipolar disorder, openly talking about it and saying, “I’m not crazy, whacko, looney, nuts, dangerous, or violent. I’m just a person with bipolar disorder who takes medication so I can live my life productively. For the most part, I’m just like everyone else.”

And as satisfying as it is to have an honest and open conversation about mental illness, most people aren’t as fortunate as me. Most people don’t have a platform where you can look people in the eye and tell them you have a mental illness and you aren’t violent. Even if they were terrified of me they were a captive audience there to of all things learn from me.

I have found there is no greater confidence builder than being open about my bipolar disorder. But I’m also realistic in knowing not everyone has the freedom in sharing that information.

Many people do believe those with mental illness are violent-end of story. That’s probably the same people who say, “It’s time to bring back mental institutions and lock me’ all up.” That was sadly an actual comment on Facebook to an article written about the Florida school shooting. I cringed when I read this…

Then, reality set in. We don’t even have enough funding for research or current mental health treatment, where are we going to find the funding to put over 14 million people in institutions that don’t exists. It’s just people scared and uniformed lashing out with what terrifies those of us with mental illness-the threat of being locked up against our will.

I digress…anyhow the point is all these comments people say about those with mental illness matter. It effects people. No one wants to be assumed as violent. Would you?

When you’re having a discussion about a mass shooting, perhaps we should consider all the facts and not try to simply blame mental illness as the only cause. There’s more to the story.

And by the way, most people with mental illness aren’t violent.

Sorry Patty Duke, bipolar disorder ain’t a brilliant madness!

I really respected Patty Duke as an actress and as an outspoken mental health advocate. She owned her illness publicly when it wasn’t cool to talk about such things. And she wrote a book called “A Brilliant Madness: Living with manic-depressive illness.” It was even a New York Times best seller. I still have my copy.

But…as much as I have heard how people with bipolar disorder are so smart and creative, artistic, bold and flamboyant I just want to call B.S. on the whole theory that an illness could make me special. I believe that those who are selling bipolar disorder as some magical, cool way of thinking are selling those of us who deal with this condition on a daily basis a big lump of coal.

It’s a real disservice to tell someone bipolar disorder can be a good thing. Is there anything good about spending many days in bed or suicidal because your so depressed you can’t get up? Is there something good about being off medications you don’t think your bipolar gift needs and then you become manic, get arrested and end up in jail? Or better yet can you find a mental health professional who will tell you, “you just think differently than other people. You don’t have to take medications, unless of course you want to.”

Oh my the stories I hear. All because we can’t seem to come to a clear consensus that having bipolar disorder is nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s no gift either. I’ve seen one to many lives ruined because people are trying to sugar coat the realities of bipolar disorder. This is a difficult illness to live with.

And…by the way…there is lots of hope. It’s not all doom and gloom. There are effective treatments. Lots of credible information online and in books. There are healthy coping strategies that one can learn. There are ways to live a good life, while also managing a chronic illness.

But for heavens sakes please stop telling people bipolar disorder is a special gift.

The other day I was having a rather deep conversation with my mother. She said, “I’m sorry I gave you the bipolar gene. I wish I could take it away.” I replied, “That’s okay, you gave me Olympic genes too. Gotta take the good with the bad.”

I’m athletic because of hard work and good genes. I’m intelligent because that’s how I was born. I have bipolar disorder and learned how to manage it. Not because I view it as a brilliant madness, but because I know it’s a wicked illness that will take you to hell and back if you let it.

Learn to manage the illness. Find the right medications. And find your brilliance in something other than madness.

Amy Gamble