A Letter To All The Bipolar Warriors

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Every so often I take a look at the blogs I have written over the past four years and see which ones people view the most.  Tonight I noticed one of the most popular was “Rebuilding a Bipolar Life.”  It was written almost four years ago.  It had to do with my quest to work on my spiritual self.

Another blog that has been very popular has been “Bipolar Disorder Destroys Life and then what’s next?”  It was written a little over three years ago.  If you’ve been following my blog or Facebook page you probably know I have found my “what’s next.”

After reading the blogs and comments I’m inspired to write a letter to my fellow bipolar warriors about some of the things I’ve learned from reflecting back in time.

Dear Bipolar Warriors,

I’m not sure where you are in the journey of living with bipolar disorder.  You may be newly diagnosed and confused as heck about this illness.  You might still be struggling trying to find the right combinations of medications.  Like me, you may have experienced a significant amount of loss because of bipolar disorder.  Maybe you’re kicking it and have mastered how to live well with bipolar.  Wherever you are on the journey here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

Living with a chronic mental illness is challenging.  Okay.  That’s clearly an understatement.  There are challenges with people who are close to you understanding the illness, accepting that sometimes you’re not always going to feel well and giving you a chance to live to your potential when you are well.  There are complications with relationships.  It all gets better over time.

Some days it gets frustrating to have to fill pill boxes (I fill three weeks at a time).  But looking back I can tell you there was a time when I would sit on the edge of my bed, dump the pills in my hand and begrudge having to take them.  I would think, “I’m sick.  Why me?”  Then I would swallow them and go to bed feeling “less than.”  Fast forward over three years, it’s just part of my every day habit.  The pill boxes make it easy.  It’s a habit and I rarely ever forget to take the medications.  That’s what has been keeping me healthy.

But.  It doesn’t mean I have to like the whole process.  I don’t like having to call in the pharmacy for all my meds.  It’s a pain.  Some days I wish I didn’t have to do this, but it’s all part of managing the illness.  Without meds I have no idea where I’d be and I’m not ever going to take that chance to find out.  One could say, “Been there, done that.”  If you’re curious about that journey you can find my book  “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor” on Amazon.

I am a strong proponent of finding the right combination of medications.  Besides my own story, I have my mother and sister’s examples and almost all the people who I have met needed medications to deal with this very tricky illness.  But it’s a bear finding the right ones.  Don’t give up.  Keep trying.  If you don’t like the doctor you are seeing, find a new one.  Learn about the medications for bipolar disorder.  Click here to find information on medications.

I can also share with you that recovery is possible and very likely if you have the knowledge, determination and access to care necessary.  But it’s also the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.  For those who don’t know, I’m an Olympic athlete and that was pretty darn challenging.  Recovery makes training for the Olympics seem easy.  And let’s not forget recovery does not mean “cured.”  It means different things to different people.  For me, it means I can use my talents and skills and contribute to my community.  It means I live a peaceful existence.  And I mange my illness to the best of my ability.

But.  There are other warriors out there who are in pain.  They’re having a frustrating time with dealing with bipolar.  Medications are causing bad side effects.  I understand.  What I can tell you from experience is don’t give up.

I’m gonna sum it all up and say what has worked for me might not work for you.  But I can tell you that you must have a desire to get well, dedication to find a successful treatment plan, discipline to stick with the treatment plan and the determination to beat this very challenging competitor.

Good luck warriors.  You are not alone.

Amy

Brave souls change hearts and minds!

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Photo: “This is My Brave” cast in Wheeling, West Virginia 

There’s a special feeling when we can be a part of something far bigger than we could ever accomplish alone.  This is my overwhelming feeling of having participated in Youth Services System and NAMI Greater Wheeling’s “This is My Brave Show,” which was held last night at the historic Capitol Theatre in Wheeling.

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Photo:  The Experience Church Worship Team & Audience

If you aren’t familiar with “This is My Brave” let me shed some light on it for you.  It’s a national non-profit organization co-founded by the amazing Jennifer Marshall.  The purpose of the show is to allow those who live with mental health conditions (mental illness & substance use disorders) to share their stories through creative expression-poetry, original music, essay.  The intent is to impact the stigma of mental illness through story telling.

The sixteen cast members in our show inspired the audience and made a lasting impression on all those who attended.  Those who shared struggle with and persevere daily through challenges related to depression, anxiety, panic attacks, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, binge eating disorder, suicide attempts and alcoholism.  Our show had an added bonus with the Experience Church Worship Team (aka-the band), kicking off the show with their inspiring and impactful musical talents.

The audience feedback has been nothing but positive.

Many people have said the IQ on that stage was beyond impressive.  Translation – people with mental illness can be smart.  Multiple people said, “it was fascinating to see the broad range of socio-economic levels and diversity of those impacted by mental illness.  Translation – mental illness does not discriminate.   One gentleman said, “I’m not affected by mental illness and I never realized what people go through.  This show helped me understand what others deal with.  I’m so grateful to be here tonight.”

And…the overwhelming comment by numerous people, “This show is inspiring.”

This morning I received this amazing quote from one of our cast members, Mr. Bill Hogan.  Bill writes,

“I have been involved in a bunch of stuff in my almost 90 years but never have I been so “electrified” by a group or an event as I was last night.  I love the word mystery and last night the wonder of it all, that unidentifiable power that charged the people on the stage as a group and as individuals was wonderful and gave everyone in that theater, on stage and off , a sense of joyful peace.  Everything was lined up the way it is supposed to be.
I am thinking of a quote  by W.B. Yeats  “ Go forth teller of tales. And seize whatever prey your heart desires.  Have no fear. Everything exists.  And everything is
True. And the earth is but dust under our feet.”  I am truly blessed to have been fortunate enough to have been part of a great happening.”

And that my friends sums up my feelings of being a part of something greater than myself.  Being part of a movement to shed light on mental illness, one person and one story at a time.  As Jennifer Marshall says, “Storytelling saves lives!”  Indeed it does.

Jennifer Marshall and Cast Photo:  Jennifer Marshall speaking to the cast of “This is My Brave” Wheeling, West Virginia

10 ways to stay mentally healthy in a crazy world!

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As a person who lives with bipolar disorder, I’ve had to learn how to manage my illness and how to stay mentally healthy.  My experience as a college basketball player playing for the legendary coach Pat Summitt and my days of striving to become an Olympic athlete helped shape how I deal with surviving in this crazy world.

Here’s my top 10 list of how to stay mentally healthy in a crazy world!

1) Know what you’re thinking

When you live with bipolar disorder and learn how to manage it, you quickly learn about racing thoughts.  But the truth is lot’s of people have anxiety and that can also cause thoughts to race from one subject to the next, making it difficult to concentrate.  If the thoughts are negative it can turn a good day bad in a heart beat.

What I’ve found helpful is to pay attention to what you’re thinking.  I check in to see what my thoughts are telling me.  Am I saying, “I’m not worth anything.” Am I telling myself, “I’m a failure.”  Whatever negative thing you are telling yourself effects everything you do in your day.

My old coach Pat Summitt used to always tell me, “Amy, you’re your own worst enemy.  You’re too hard on yourself.”  I would sit across from her desk and nod.  I knew she was right, but I didn’t know how to fix the problem.  I was striving to be perfect, beating myself up when I made mistakes and torturing myself mentally with repetitive thoughts.

So, if you’re going to stay mentally healthy, take time out during the day or in the moment and think about the things you’re telling yourself.  Learn to replace those negative thoughts and it will change your day for the better.

2)  Keep the negative news in perspective

Every night my 82 year old mother can’t wait to turn on NBC news and watch Lester Holt.  In fact she’ll turn on the television and say, “Gotta watch Lester.”  I roll my eyes and laugh.  If I don’t have anything else to do I’ll sit and watch the news with her.

But what I’ve found is that almost every news story is filled with negativity.  We get told over and over again everything that is wrong with humanity.  If we watch the local news it can be worse.  One station spends about 15 minutes going through all the people who went to court for the day.

It makes people look bad.  But in my 20 year career working for Fortune 500 companies, traveling all around the world with my sports teams and for personal fun, and working with an advocacy group–I have found most people are good.  Most people care about others and want to live a peaceful and happy life.

I like learning about what’s going on in the world, but I’d rather not be inundated with negativity.  Watch the news, but realize the whole world isn’t going to hell.

3)  Focus on what you can control

We have become a fear based culture.  Almost to the point we are paranoid about where we go and what we do for fear of running into someone who wishes to do us harm.  Paralyzing fear keeps people from venturing out and living life in a carefree way.

The truth is we can’t control what happens. In fact, we have little control over few things.  I’ve found the key to stay healthy is to find the things I can control and focus on those things.  It’s much more pleasant than worrying about all the things that could happen. 

I’ve also noticed that trying to change someone else’s views or opinions is like walking up the Rocky Mountains with no shoes on.  I can’t control the fact that some people refuse to listen to an opposing viewpoint.  It’s hard to do.  But in finding the best solutions to challenges or problems it’s great to have different perspectives and experiences at the table.  We just can’t control who is willing to listen and who is not.

I practice taking a deep breath and keeping things in perspective, realizing there is very little I can control.  But how I look at things is one of them.  I choose compassion and empathy, it’s something I can control and it makes me feel good.

4)  Balance social media

I was having a conversation with my friend Betsy.  We were talking about how important it is to balance how we use social media.  She said, “I’ve disconnected–deleted all my social media accounts.  I was spending sometimes 8 hours a day on social media.  Almost addicted to Facebook and Instagram likes.”

I thought about what she was saying and then ask myself the question, “How much time am I spending on social media?”  The answer was it ebs and flows.  I’m not addicted to it, but I try to use it constructively.  I don’t allow myself to compare my life to others, especially because I know people often portray their lives as perfect on social media.

Balance is the key.  And remember there was a day when counting the number of “likes” just didn’t matter.  I find it helpful to simply disconnect at times.  It helps me stay grounded in what’s most important.

5)  Learn how to stay present

There is no greater joy to me than having an intimate conversation with someone who is fully present.  We can all sense when someone is paying attention to us and when they are not.

It’s a discipline to learn how to stay in the present.  But I’ve found it to be the most helpful way I can live.  Sometimes my past has been painful and staying in the present keeps me far away from reliving the pain all over again.

6)  Surround yourself with positive people

There are a few people in my life I can’t avoid, but I cringe when they get on a negative roll and don’t stop.  It’s as if the world is coming to an end and every human being in it are evil.  Well, I’m exaggerating-but sadly only a little bit.

But seriously I’ve learned the more I’m around positive people we lift each other up.  We focus on the positive experiences and share those with each other.

When I have a depressive episode it’s even more important to be around someone who is positive.  They always Life my spirits and help me keep on fighting.

7)  Check your attitude

Oh…this is an important one.  Attitude is everything.  How we approach challenges and problems.  How we feel with agree and disappointments.  Having a positive attitude even in the darkest of times fuels the fight for survival.

8)  Practice gratefulness

One of the things that helps me in my continuing recovery journey is being grateful.  The little reminders of things and people I’m grateful fills up my heart.  I take a deep breath and thank God for giving me my new day.  I’m grateful for all the people who have crossed my path.  I’m grateful for the ability to put things in perspective.  Honestly, when I feel gratitude it makes me happy.

9)  Learn to say “no”

The is a tough one for me.  I like to help people, but have realized I can’t do everything.  I have to set limits to stay healthy.  I have to know my boundaries.  And above all I’ve learned that it’s okay to say “no.”

10)  Don’t be afraid to get professional help

Staying mentally healthy is critically important to everyone.  But sometimes we need a little bit of extra help.  Some days it’s just nice to talk to a therapist who is completely removed from the situation.

Sometimes people need a little extra help with medications to get through some tough times, difficult and overwhelming anxiety, depression etc.  And for those of us with chronic mental health conditions it’s imperative we stay with our treatment plan especially if it’s working well.

If you had cardiovascular, respiratory, or digestive problems would you seek professional help?  Things that effect our thinking, emotions and behavior-our mental health-sometimes need professional help too.  Don’t be ashamed to get the help you need.

Hoping my top 10 list helps somebody today.  Wishing peace.  Amy