I have bipolar disorder and it’s not my fault

I’ve been really open about my struggles with bipolar disorder.  Before I had a good handle on this illness it really rocked my world.  I’ve come to learn that bipolar disorder will destroy your life if you don’t get the proper treatment and learn how to manage the condition.  It can be life threatening during times of severe depression episodes and suicidal thoughts.  It can put us at risk during manic episodes which often lead to psychotic episodes.

After my initial diagnosis I felt terribly ashamed.  The other day I was thinking about an analogy people might be able to relate to.  If you’ve ever had a night of drinking way too much alcohol and you engaged in embarrassing behaviors, the next day you might wake up with not only a hangover but guilty feelings about your behavior.  The things you said and did while drunk didn’t take away the fact you said and did those things.

This is what happened to me during manic and psychotic episodes.  I’d say and do things and then when I was stable I’d have to deal with the guilt of what happened.  The guilt leads to shame and the terrible tapes rolled in my head about what a bad person I was for having been sick.

But after many years of learning about bipolar disorder, I don’t feel badly about what happened to me while sick.  I’ve come to learn that I have bipolar disorder and it’s not my fault.  What is my accountability is now that I’m stable I need to manage my condition so well I won’t ever end up in a compromising position again.

But if for some reason I have break through symptoms, I’m not going to be ashamed.  I’m going to be proactive and do everything I can to manage my condition.  And if I have moments where I feel a little paranoid, make up a story or two based on that paranoia, I’ll live with it too.

One day people are going to realize mental illness doesn’t make you crazy, it just makes us vulnerable.  I wouldn’t blame myself for having cancer.  I’m not going to blame myself for having a mental illness.  And neither should the general public.

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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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.

 

Facing the Truth

Her blinders have been removed

She has taken her gloves off and removed her coat

She sits in stillness with peaceful knowing

Knowing from the soul

Inspired by the spirit

 

The storm came along with no warning

It whirled and twirled devastation

Leaving people shocked, hurt, stunned and dismayed

The creation of fear perpetuated

Numbness permeated and opened wounds

 

Left behind were the remnants of missing pieces

The young woman and old soul stood strong

But the powerful force of the storm threw her to unconsciousness

When she awoke it was apparent to her she was the storm

Crushed by the aftermath of viewing what she left behind

 

Deeply saddened with what she unknowingly had done

Egoically embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty

Incapable of seeing what the mirrors were telling her

Her prayers were answered one day

She ask to be shown so she could heal

 

She prayed for strength and courage

She prayed for forgiveness of self and others

She lay helpless crying for hours in her bed

She faced her naked body and viewed her own destruction

 

Overtaken by grief, hurt, sadness, disappointment

But inspired by unconditional love

 

She is a person hurt by her past

She is a human being

She is not defined by labels

She is not willing to give up

She is walking her journey one step at a time

 

Who is she?  Who is this woman with such great strength?

She is not alone

 

@amyjgamble

amygamble.com

 

Beating Mental Illness

How do you beat a mental illness?

There are many different ways to overcome a mental illness.  In my view my greatest victory came when I was no longer absorbed with my diagnosis and everything that negatively resulted because of it.

This meant I had many months and years of healing.  I grieved for my losses and gave thanks for all my gains.  But I had to face each one of these challenges, give it a name and work to overcome it.  I delved deep into every emotion I felt.  I challenged myself to be okay with the disappointments.  I gave in to not worrying about changing the past.

I learned every single thing I could about bipolar disorder.  I needed to know my enemy to beat my enemy.  Because I don’t perceive anything positive about having an illness.  I don’t like mania because I lose my good judgment.  I abore depression and can find no positive aspect about living with it.  Unlike some people who believe their illness is a part of them I refuse to embrace it.  I fight for wellness.  I manage bipolar disorder to the point where I rarely have any symptoms.

How do you win?

Winning in life is a personal definition.  We all have our own views as to what that looks like.  When it comes to mental illness I define winning as equivalent to recover.  So if I recover I win!

I have recovered and continue to recover. Each and every experience has moved me closer and closer to living the life I have created for myself.

I wanted to be a mental health advocate and that is what I have become.  I wanted to speak about recovery and I will be giving a keynote speech in November.  I wanted to be more involved in the community and now I am on two non-profit boards.

I am winning because I have chosen to fight.  I deal with the naysayers who want to keep me stuck in a nice and neat bipolar box.  But I refuse to be pigeonholed in that way.  I have broken through to a new frontier where I can finally look at myself and all of my experiences.  Much bigger than only a mental illness diagnosis.

I am winning by putting my life back together.  What was once rich and fulfilling before bipolar disorder has now returned to that level of enjoyment.  Rebuilding life means I am actively engaged in creating my own masterpiece.  I am not allowing others to paint a picture of how they think my life should look.  I truly enjoy beating the odds and defying all the negativity that can come from having a mental illness.

In short here is what it takes to beat mental illness:

#1-Information and education

#2-Providers who will listen and work with you

#3-A fighting spirit

#4- Live authentically

#5-A vision for recovery

#6-A dose of healing potion to deal with the past

#7- Refuse to settle for less than you deserve

You beat mental illness by facing it toe to toe and never giving up the battle.  Fight. “Never give up.  Never give in.  Never never never.” ~Winston Churchill

How does Orange is the New Black handle Mental Illness

If you are a Netflix viewer you may have recently watched Season 4 of Orange is the New Black and could not have missed the storylines with mental illness.  It was not a subtle portrayal.  Mental illness was everywhere.

The character who saves another inmates life was hearing voices and experiencing delusions.  They gave us the back story and she was a person with mental illness who lost her job as a journalist when her mental illness started to get worse.  Loly ends up homeless and eventually arrested for disorderly conduct.  She gets slammed on the ground by two police officers who come upon her because people in an upscale neighborhood were complaining about her being there.  The police throw her on the ground and handcuff her while calling in to dispatch how she may be “drunk” or “psychotic.”  This is how she ends up in prison.  The police officers obviously don’t have crisis intervention training nor mental heath first aid.

By the end of season four Loly gets locked up in the forensic psych unit for allegedly murdering someone.  She starts to scream and cry while the audience is shown someone in the background who is yelling and is restrained forcefully.  Everyone in the prison knows you don’t want to get sent to the “psych unit.”  It does foster a bit of the stereotypical way we view inpatient psychiatric care, then again it is a prison so the psych unit might be portrayed appropriately.

The one thing that bothered me about this scenario was the fact that she had to have a mental illness and be accused of murder.  Everything else was really handled so well.  It is likely that a consequence of untreated severe mental illness can be joblessness and homelessness.  It happens more frequently than we like to believe.  But the murder part I could do without (spoiler alert:  she actually didn’t do it but thinks she did).

Then there was the character Mr. Heely.  He is the inmate counselor who walks into a lake with the intention of taking his own life.  In just the right time he gets a phone call from work and realized Loly’s delusions about saying their was a dead man buried in the garden were actually true.  By the end of the show he is voluntarily admitting himself to inpatient psychiatric care that is actually scripted quite well.  The last season shows him sitting on his bed knitting – minus the knitting needles which they don’t have in a psych unit because people may use those to hurt themselves – the gist is right on the money.

The courage of him taking himself to the psych unit is amazing.  One of the few men on the show and he admits himself for psychiatric care…wow!  This is a little more hard to believe because it is very difficult for males to admit they have a problem let alone seek treatment.  But good for the show creators to lead us in the proper direction of how it should be done.

One of the main characters is called “Crazy Eyes.”  She actually had been doing quite well with her mental health until the last few episodes.  But as the name implies she does have a tendency to get a little “crazy.”  She gets violent after being provoked and beats someone up.  She goes into a “zombie” like trance and then has a horrible accident.  The way the character has been developed you know she is a short fuse away from having some type of tragic accident.  But she is also vulnerable and that point is made very well.

Overall, I would have to give the creators of “Orange is the New Black” an A- in trying to tackle mental illness.  They obviously put a great deal of thought into how to delicately dramatize a person’s fragile mental state.  A significant amount of time was spent teaching us about hallucinations and delusions through a character’s suffering.  I like how they did not shy away from any of it.

I can see how all of it might just be very close to reality.

 

 

 

It’s Time to Ring the Bell

bell

This is a Mental Health Bell:  A Symbol of Hope – which was created in 1953 made of all the chains and shackles from mental asylums in the United States.  The bell is now the symbol of the oldest mental health advocacy group – Mental Health America.

I am a person who lives with bipolar illness and I am also an activist.  I desire to be a part of social change.

There is a movement in the world of mental health awareness.  More people are beginning to come forward and own their illness publicly.  Where you see the most of this happening is with social media.  There are many twitter accounts and blogs of people who live with mental illness advocating for change.  Expressing their viewpoints openly, honestly and courageously.

But what is the change we seek?

I am interested in bringing awareness of mental health conditions and eliminating stigma so people will not feel ashamed to seek help.  I don’t want to feel patronized or discriminated against because I have publicly declared I live with a mental illness.  I chose to share my personal struggle because I wanted to help participate in social change.  I want the young people I talk too to know you can live with a severe mental illness and still be successful.

But I have to tell you even in the places where you would think pure advocates would exists stigma flows well.  There is a term people use to describe those of us who live with a mental illness it is called “consumer.”  I don’t care for consumer because it implies that I am different from everyone else.  It rings with “less than” and sort of implies I am my diagnosis.  But the word is not going away anytime soon.  And neither are prevailing attitudes about people who live with a mental illness.

Change takes time

In 1909 the first Mental Health Advocacy organization was created by a man named Clifford Beers who lived with bipolar illness.  He was hospitalized for three years and was subjected to poor treatment at the hands of his caretakers.  At one point he was placed in a straight jacket for 21 days.  He was also a profound business person on Wallstreet and a Yale graduate.  A year after he was released from the institution he started a movement that helped change lives.

Now is the time

I have discovered that now is my time to ring that bell.  With so many courageous people who have lived before me to show the way on how to become an activist, I am up for the challenge.

The time is now to join the movement.  If you are reading this blog I want to encourage you to get involved in social change.  Join an advocacy group, write a blog, tweet, form a support group, use your voice and ring that bell!

“I decided to stand on my past and look my future in the face.”  ~Clifford Beers, Founder Mental Health America