A little bit of hope

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I have been blessed the past three weeks to travel around the state of West Virginia and speak about mental health to college students.  One campus had a young man who had died by suicide a few months ago.  He had been a member of one of the sports teams and suddenly quit.  He began isolating himself and stopped hanging out with friends.  Those things he did are warning signs of suicide.  But people around him didn’t know those signs.  Now they do.

Another campus had a young woman who died by suicide.  She had a diagnosed, serious mental illness.  I believe all family members who have loved ones who live with mental illness should be trained in mental health first aid.  They should know the warning signs of suicide.  Before it’s too late.

I go to college campuses to shed light on mental illness.  I want people to know there is help and there is hope.  Sometimes I get to hear the stories that inspire me and keep me fired up about spreading this message.

I had a college athlete approach me and say, “Ahh…I kinda struggle with this stuff.”  I smiled.  He knew I understood him.  It didn’t take a lot of words to hear the emotional pain in his voice.  His struggle is depression and often times that means a battle with suicidal thoughts.  When he shook my hand and said, “Thank you for sharing your story.”  It was a gift to me that in some small way I spread a little bit of hope.

Then, a few days ago I received an email from a man who had experienced a lot of tradgedy in his life.  He was overwhelmed with grief, depression and was self-medicating with alcohol.  He told me, “Thank you for what you do.  You just might have saved my life.”

I didn’t respond to his email right away.  I was overwhelmed with the responsibility of my work.  On some level I knew how important educating people about mental illness and suicide is.  But on a deeper level grasping the fact that your work can help save someone’s life takes every word I say when I give these talks to a hire level.  But the work is not about me.  It’s about reaching people of all ages, one person at a time, and allowing the gifts, talents and skills I have been blessed with to help other people.

As I’ve become more visible, I’ve received some healthy feedback, mostly positive.  But there are people out there who don’t understand why I would do this work.  Why I would write a book that would highlight some of the most difficult experiences in my life.  I did it and I would do it again.  Because sometimes all some folks need to hear is “you’re not alone in this fight.”

Turns out–a little bit of hope saves lives.  I’m humbled by this work.  I’m honored for this calling.

 

 

Remember – Mental Illness is The Enemy!

Several years ago I received a call from a friend of mine who wanted to tell me she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  It was a rather traumatic diagnosis for her to hear.  Certainly life threatening, but also treatable.  I was impressed with how she dealt with it.  She made cancer her enemy and did everything she could to fight against it.  And you know what?  She beat it.  She is now over 15 years cancer free.

What I’ve learned about mental illness is that it is also life threatening.  From the first time I experienced suicidal thoughts as a sophomore in college to the relentless dogging of “you should just kill yourself” tapes that played in my mind a few years ago.  I learned from the time I was twenty years old that depression was and will continue to be my number one enemy.  It threatens my life and makes me vulnerable at times to the hopeless thoughts that wander aimlessly into my brain.

The difference between cancer and mental illness is that there is a cure for many types of cancer.  There’s no such thing for mental illness of any kind.  Of course there are medications that make it more tolerable, but nothing that takes away all of the symptoms.  It’s a fight.  Sometimes a daily battle and other times an intermittent harsh reality of living with a chronic illness.

If you ask most people if they were afraid of cancer they would say, “yes.”  No one wants to get cancer.  But people are afraid of mental illness for all the wrong reasons.

Many people have no concept of what it’s like to suffer from so much anxiety a person can’t leave their house.  People still believe a person with depression just isn’t trying hard enough and he’s just plain lazy.  Those with bipolar disorder are labeled as trouble makers and moody.  People with schizophrenia – just plain crazy.

When my friend went to the doctor for her breast cancer consultation, I went with her.  As a matter of fact, I jumped on a 2 hour plane flight to go to her doctor appointments with her.  I wanted to show support.  I wanted her to know she wasn’t alone in the fight against her number one enemy.  The disease that was threatening to take her away from all of us much to soon.

This is how we all should rally around those who are struggling with mental illness.  The enemy is not the person who has the illness.  The enemy is the mental illness.  It’s the disease that causes an interference in thinking, emotions and behavior.  It affects the most important organ in our entire body – the brain.

Yet, those who have mental illness are often left to fend for themselves.  Especially when they aren’t fun anymore.  When the struggle is the most difficult and support is truly needed, many are left isolated and alone.  That isolation leads to a worsening of symptoms.  A more complex illness.

I want people to know that my bipolar disorder is a serious life threatening illness.  I manage it well.  But the moment I let my guard down, the minute I miss a day of taking medication, the days I don’t get enough sleep, is when the enemy threatens my life and everything I have worked hard for.  The enemy nearly destroyed me and I’m not going to let that happen again.

I just wish everyone knew mental illness is the enemy.  And if we are not diligent it will continue to steal our loved ones from us in one shape or form or the other.  Sometimes the difference is having a team to fight the illness with us.

The next time your loved one complains of depression symptoms or has a panic attack, offer compassion and a kind word.  Sometimes all it takes is saying, “Are you okay?  How can I help?”

 

“Is bipolar disorder contagious?”

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I’m driving home from the store with my 82 year old mother and we start talking about my book, “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor,”  In many ways the book has unleashed good ole’ Esther.  Since I wrote about some of her struggles with bipolar disorder, she has talked more about it in two weeks, than I believe I have heard in more than 30 years.

Tonight she says, “People need to understand when you’re psychotic you don’t know what you’re doing.  But people don’t understand.  They think there’s something wrong with you and that they’ll get it too if they hang around you.”  “Mmm…is bipolar disorder contagious?” I asked jokingly.  “Some people think it is.  Like you have some horrible disease and if they come around they’ll get it.”  I laughed and we continued our drive home.

Then it hit me, after 30 years my mother finally articulated how bad she felt when her relatives stopped coming around.  They literally stopped inviting her to their houses.  She became an outcast.  The “crazy” sister.  Shame on them.  It’s not like all their lives were perfect either.

So, as a family member of a loved one with mental illness, I’m quick to defend my mother and sister.  But when it comes to me living with a mental illness and becoming an outcast myself, I sort of just give everyone a pass.  I suppose it’s because for so long I felt like I caused my own suffering.  It was my fault I had those episodes.

I ask my mother, “Who was there when you went through your first tough time?”  “You were,” she answered.  “Your dad didn’t know what to think.  But he would come in the house and ask me if I was doing alright.  He didn’t understand it, but he tried.  I’ll give him that”  I smiled and said, “There were a few people who I could have thrown under the bus in my book.  They did some not so nice things.  But I wanted to take the high road.  And truthfully, I didn’t want to spend time having a pity party for myself.  My life is far too blessed to feel sorry for myself.  I am exactly where I am supposed to be.”

However, as we drove further down the road I realized Esther really did have a point.  Some people treat bipolar disorder like it’s contagious.  As if a brain disease can magically rub off.  Perhaps that’s why they stop answering calls, not returning text messages or give you all your pictures and press clippings back, as one uncle did with me.  He had become ashamed of who I was, and when I needed him most he turned his back on me.

At the end of the day I just move on and say, “I’m not crazy, just contagiously bipolar.”  Whatever that means.

 

 

We all recover from something 


When you struggle with something (physical or mental illness), a relationship break-up, death of a family member or loved one, loss of job, and any number of other life’s challenges, they are often all consuming.  They take away from every other aspect in life.

As I have learned from my many struggles, there came a point in time when I just simply got tired of the struggle.  I wanted to focus my energy on the bouncing back part.   I wanted to lift my head up and shout, “I won’t be a victim any longer!”

But…all that is easier said than done.  For every book or article I have read, there is nothing that replaces the “doing” part.  There is a shift in the mind that has to take place, almost like manually shifting the gears in a car.  It takes a conscious effort.  A fierce determination to overcome the challenges and not stay in a self-pity mode, even when it may be justifiable.

I believe everyone is recovering from something.  And no matter what are circumstances may be, we all have things we struggle with and need to overcome.  Every battle is important if it’s your battle to fight.

There are several things I have found necessary in overcoming my many challenges.  I want to share those things with you in a series of blogs.

The most important aspect of my recovery journey has been the willingness to pick my head up and look around.  What the heck does that mean?  Searching for perspective.  Not so I could compare my journey to others, more so because I wanted to allow myself to be inspired.

Inspiration is a heart matter.  Have you ever noticed that when you’re hurt the emotions either keep spilling out or you turn them all off?  I always have a tendency to turn them off.  To numb myself of pain.  But allowing myself to seek inspiration opened my heart to feelings.  And those feelings, those wounds-could now be healed because I allowed myself to take off the bandage and look at it.

It turns out that seeking perspective takes a great deal of courage.  When all I wanted to do was focus on all the ways I was cheated by bipolar disorder, I had forgotten all the ways my talents and gifts had given me a world of opportunity.  I spent way to much time focusing on what I had lost and not enough time on what I had gained.  It all was a matter of perspective.

So, if your challenges seem too great to bear, your losses are mounding up, don’t be afraid to pick up your head, look around and find one thing that inspires you.  And then, watch what happens when you focus on it.  

But it’s not going to be a one time deal.  At least it wasn’t for me.  I would lift my head up, be inspired and then retreat back to the safety of my misery.  Because my misery had become comfortable.  Being inspired was outside of my comfort zone.  My heart didn’t want to participate any longer.

This is when determination comes into play.  Of course I wanted a quick fix for healing my mind, body and spirit.  But that didn’t exists.  Little wins added up to big victories and soon I was well on my way to gaining perspective and living an inspired life.

Whatever your challenge.  Keep fighting.  Don’t give up.  Pick your head up and find perspective.  Inspiration is within your grasp.  Perspective starts by lifting your head up.

I AM Depression…

I’m the fog clouding the pathway of your life journey. Sometimes I come even when the sun shines. I’m eerie and heavy. I make it hard for you to see. I cause deep emotional pain. But I’m invisible to others. Only you know I’m here.

My presence is haunting. I get inside your mind and shout ugly things. I scream, “You’re not worth anything. You’re a failure! You’re lazy.” Then, I sliver up to you when you least expect it and tell you the world would be better off without you. I tell you I’ll make the voices stop, if you’ll just make a deal with me.

Then, you cry. I like it when you cry. I like to see what effect I’m having on you. When you wipe your tears I’m still here. You can’t cry me away. I don’t like other people around you, because they tell you to fight me. I convince you—you’re better off alone.

Alone. I’m the only one who controls you. I love polluting your thoughts. It gives me pleasure to watch you fall deeper into my grasp. My ultimate goal is to fill you up with nothingness. You’ll only be a shell of yourself. People will leave you alone. You won’t be fun anymore. But I will be with you. I won’t let go. Please don’t try to fight me.

You start to whisper a prayer. I hate prayers. Prayers are hopeful. Prayers destroy my power.

You take yourself to the doctor and ask for help. I hate the doctor. The doctor will help you.

You get a pill box and start taking medication. I hate medication. It causes my power to fade.

You make yourself fight me, but I’m a tough opponent. I’m not going away easily.

You start reaching out and talking to others. They know my secrets.

You win the battle. But there will be more. I’m always lurking. Waiting to reappear.

I AM depression.

 

Football & Recovery

I am an athlete.  I might not be in Olympic caliber condition, but I will always be an athlete.  I am not the greatest fan in the world, but I did watch the superbowl.  I really could have cared less who won or lost, but I became fascinated with the way Tom Brady handled being behind by so many points.

Stressful.  Frustrating.  Emotional.  Yet he never quit.  You can dislike Tom Brady and the Patriots, but you cannot discount the fact that this guy never gave up.

In my world of recovery and mental health advocacy I cannot think of a better comparison for how I feel about my recovery journey.  I made it all the way back.  I looked back today and thought about how many years and I do mean years, where I struggled relentlessly.  It doesn’t mean that those years never had a good time or two, it just means they were long, hard, and draining.

As I sat in my new NAMI of Greater Wheeling office today I really just wanted to pinch myself.  I started on this mental health advocacy journey three years ago and since then I have worked my way to becoming an Executive Director of a non-profit organization.  One that focuses on advocacy for people with mental illness and their family members who support them.  I have found my passion and my cause.

If you knew where I was four years ago, you might not believe I could make a comeback.  If you want to find out what happened and how I did it…watch for the release of “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor.”  It will be released on August 22!

No matter what people say about me the one thing they can never discount is the fact that I never give up.

 

Why having a mental illness makes you strong

strength-quotes-picture

I have been putting the final touches on a book I am writing, “Bipolar Disorder My Biggest Competitor.”  It has made me look deeply into myself as a character in a story.  It is the strangest thing reading about this character and knowing it is me.  But this experience has had a profound impact on how I see myself–sometimes victim, sometimes hero, and yes sometimes villain.  But always strong.

If you live with a mental illness you know exactly what I am talking about.  The times when you lie in bed feeling miserable and wish the depression would stop haunting you.  And then you do it–you make yourself get up and get out among the living.  In that moment you beat it.  You won.

How about the times when you thought you might never get well again, but kept battling and recovered?  Even in those darkest moments you found the beacon of hope glaring through the fog.

Then there are those times when you get “the look” from other people who know you live with a mental illness.  It strikes the chord of paranoia and you wonder, “What is she thinking about me?”  But you coach yourself through it and tell yourself, “It is okay.  I really don’t know what she was thinking.”  You overcome the negative thoughts.  You beat “the look.”

What about those days when the trusted family member makes a joke about your mental health?  You feel horrible but can’t get any compassion from the people closest to you.  But you hang in there and keep fighting.  You hope tomorrow will be better.

Believing mental illness makes you strong is opposite of what people have told us about it.  Remember every battle you have had to fight, every bit of shame and guilt you have faced head on, and every medication you have to take just to feel somewhat “normal,” these are the things that make you strong.  Stronger than you may think you are.

 

Time to Talk Mental Illness

It’s hard to believe it is 2017!  I am not sure where the time has gone, but I do know after all these years of living with the stigma of mental illness it is for sure past time we talk about it.  There are so many anti-stigma efforts and I do feel like we are moving the needle some, but it is not enough.  And from my perspective it is not happening fast, it is a slow drip-drip-drip.

I never thought I would have to live with some illness called bipolar disorder that many people really did not understand and if you said you had a manic episode they really would not know what you meant.  Really I wasn’t sure what it meant for many years, until I studied it so much so I could manage it.  In reality, everyone with bipolar disorder experiences it a little bit differently.  Clusters of symptoms may be the same, but how we behave and handle our illnesses are generally not a carbon copy of it.

We have to talk about mental illness because quite frankly it is so complicated it is hard to understand.  Some illnesses are easier than others but I would argue for even the people who have anxiety disorders they will find not everyone understands how debilitating that can be.  Many people believe you should just be able to take a pill and “get over it.”

With 1 in 5 Americans living with a mental illness that equates to about 20% of the populations.  Yes, there are far less of us who have severe mental illness like bipolar disorder, major depression and schizophrenia, but we still represent million of people.  This really means that everyone knows someone who has a mental illness…and if you think you don’t it is probably simply because they don’t talk about it.

I want you to ask yourself the question, “If I found out my best friend had been struggling with severe depression for years, would that change how I felt about them?”  What about if you found out your sister had been struggling with postpartum depression with psychotic features would you know what that meant?     How about your boss at work who seems to have major mood swings between being very gregarious and not talking at all.  What do you say?  What do you do?

If we don’t talk about mental illness we will continue to find ourselves in these socially awkward situations where we don’t know how to react or what to say.  Granted it is not as bad as it used to be, but it could be a lot better.

Of course I don’t believe everyone should write a blog or a book about their struggles with mental illness.  But I do believe people should not have to be afraid to tell others they are struggling with a mental illness.  It is truly a shame to have to keep something a secret that occupies a great deal of time and effort.  Managing a chronic mental illness is a HUGE effort.  There are doctor and therapy appointments, medication side effects to deal with, prescriptions to refill, and symptoms to deal with.  It is at times a very hard road to journey on.

My one wish is that other people could feel more free to talk about it so there will be a greater understanding.  Maybe then those who live with mental illness will feel more supported.  Maybe then there will be more research dollars to help fund better treatments with higher efficacy.  Maybe then there will be better access to care.  Maybe then people with mental illness won’t be housed in jails and prisons.  Maybe then our society will be more compassionate.  Maybe….just maybe people won’t have to suffer in isolation.

New Book is Coming Soon!

Just wanted to let you know I have been working on a memoir called “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor.”  The day is getting closer, but I still have lots of work to do.  I will keep you updated when it is finished.  I am looking for a Mental Health Awareness Month launch date!

The story will really highlight lots of injustices those with mental illness deal with.  I am hoping the book will give a voice to many people who often don’t have one.

So…stay tuned for more updates!  amygamble_1amygamble_2amygamble-upright_nospine

 

I witnessed stigma in the making today.

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Today I had the opportunity to attend a lunch n’ learn on bipolar disorder.  The gentleman presenting was a clinical psychologist who I have known from being on a working group together.  He is a very nice man.  However, today I witnessed one of the things that contribute to the stigma of mental illness in an astounding way.

His talk started out very informative about bipolar disorder signs and symptoms.  He explained really well about mania, depression and everything in between.  But then the whole talk took a downward turn.  He started sharing six stories about people he had involuntarily committed.  If the story had been told from a factual standpoint on how people with bipolar disorder can put themselves at risk, I would have been fine with it.  Except the stories told were laughed at and even the audience laughed as well.  At one point a YouTube Video was shown of a man who said he was experiencing a manic episode.  It was over the top.

I guess you had to be there to really understand my perspective.  I did not want to be rude and get up and leave, so I sat through a very painful hour of stigmatizing people with mental illness as crazy, looney and psycho with no hope for recovery.  At one point I considered raising my hand and saying, “I am one of those bipolar type I patients who have recovered.  What can you say about me?”  I decided against that strategy.

What I did do is tell the organizer who joked about having a manic episode based on all the criteria he just learned that the talk needed to be more balanced.  Yes there are people with bipolar disorder who run naked in neighborhoods.  Yes there are people with bipolar disorder who are homeless.  But there is also another side.  These people are someone’s wife, husband, friend, daughter, son, brother, sister etc.  .

Rather than embarrass the speaker I decided to have a private conversation with him at the end.  I said to him, “I have bipolar disorder type I.  Did you know that?”  “No I didn’t know that,” he said rather surprised.  And then I said, “I have my own sensational stories.  But I am also an Olympian, have a master’s degree and have worked in Corporate America for many years.  And by the way, people do recover.”

I think he was shocked that I said that to him.  Of course I was very diplomatic, but it really struck a cord with me.  I will have the opportunity to speak with this audience in March.  I plan to spend a great deal of time talking about stigma.  I hope what I say will help repair some of the damage that was done today.