Life with Bipolar Disorder

Have you ever stopped to think what it may be like to live with bipolar disorder?  Probably not, unless you have a loved one who is impacted by it or you are personally affected.  So I want to take a few minutes to describe what living with bipolar disorder is like for me.

First of all, living with a mental illness affects your self-esteem and confidence.  There is not many things worse than getting a psychiatric diagnosis by our cultural standards. This is why I get so passionate about mental health awareness.  You cannot receive treatment for something if you don’t know what you are dealing with and yet the moment you get that “label” it can change how you think about yourself and how others see you.

Second, treatment is available and in most cases it works.  The downside is that it can take ten years to find the right combination of medications that work for each person.  Now for a moment imagine what it would be like to constantly change medications.  I believe I have taken more than 30 different meds before finally finding the right combination.  It is a long frustrating journey.

Third, medications have side effects.  It takes time and sometimes learning lessons the hard way before you understand for most people you can never stop taking medications for the remainder of your life.  No matter how many articles I have found where people say they get along great without medications, in my experience it is never an option for me not to take bipolar meds.  Even though the side effects of weight gain and slow metabolism feed into that whole idea of lack of confidence and self-esteem, it is still far better to be overweight than mentally unstable.

Finally, once you have recovered no one would ever know you live with an invisible illness.  You cannot see bipolar disorder and unless I hadn’t told the world I live with it you would never know.  This is one of the many benefits of recovering and that I can attest is something you can do!

Living with bipolar disorder is just a fact of life for me.  But the journey was long and arduous before I could get to this point.  If you are a family member of a loved one who lives with bipolar disorder keep the faith your loved one will get better.  And if you live with bipolar disorder keep on fighting it will get better.

Mental Illness A Family Disease

This past week I have come into contact with several people who have loved ones who are struggling with mental illness.  I can understand their pain because I have lived the experience myself.

I remember the day when I was 19 years old and found out my mother had almost died during a mental health crisis.  I had just arrived home from a rather tumultuous freshman year of college, my Olympic dreams nearly shattered and my mother, my biggest supporter unable to help me and in fact needed me to help her.

When someone you love has a mental health crisis you don’t have a lot of time to come up to speed on all the terminology that healthcare professionals start to throw around.  Psychosis, manic-depressive, schizophrenia, involuntary commitments, state hospital vs. private institution, etc..etc…etc.

We didn’t have the internet over thirty years ago, so I packed up my notebook and headed to the library.  (After all these years I have still kept my notes). I was on a crash course to understand a jargon that was foreign to me.  Cancer I understood.  Mental illness I could not comprehend and yet I had to find a way to help get my mother back again.

It was one of the most difficult times of my life.  People who do not have a loved one with mental illness cannot understand the enormous amount of pressure it is to keep secrets about why someone is or is not available.  In some ways it is like their lives get erased, if only temporarily.

For me in all my youthfulness, went about telling people that my mother had a mental breakdown.  Most often I got surprised and shocking looks and often a change in conversation because people did not know what to say.

The sad thing is here we are over 30 years later and things have not changed much.  We are still talking about the stigma of mental illness, our society continues to fear what they do not understand and people living with mental illness still live in secrecy and shame.  And those family members with loved ones still don’t have a basic understanding of mental illness.

The only way I know how to help with change is to talk about mental illness and continue to share my personal journey in the hopes it may help other people.  I dealt with my difficult situation the only way I knew how which was to talk about it.  It helped even if most people did not understand.

One of the most unsatisfying lessons has come full circle.  Someone who I had admired most disappointed me the most during my mother’s illness.  But sadly years later this person who showed no compassion would be struck with her own mental illness.

There is no mincing words:  mental illness is a cruel disease that affects the entire family.  The best thing we can do is be kind to one another.  You never know if your family will be affected by mental illness too.

More than a Label

Today I have reached a milestone in my recovery journey.  I no longer think of myself as mentally ill.  Oh yes, I still have to live with bipolar disorder and manage it, but I have been enjoying a period of sustainable wellness.  To be honest, I never thought this day would happen.

For several years I battled very severe depression with brief moments of manic episodes, but none that were ever enjoyable.  I fought countless days to function and wondered if I would ever become a contributing member of society again.  Well, the days have arrived.

In this recovery journey I have read numerous articles about people who got sick and then got well and moved on with their lives.  I could see it was possible, but I did not know if it would be possible for me.  But now here I am.

Because of where I have evolved too, I no longer feel the need to write about pain and sorrow.  I am not drawn to write about my past demons.  I am at peace with my past and so it shall stay there.

But what I hope to do is write about how I have recovered.  The ins and outs the ups and downs.  The journey has been nothing short of a miracle and at any time along the way I could have chosen to give up.  But…I didn’t.  That’s the biggest secret and it is obvious….you can’t give up no matter how tough it is and how much it hurts.  You must persevere and continue to expect a good outcome.

So I am beginning to live my newly created life.  Filled with dreams and possibilities and potential.  I have learned I am so much more than my diagnosis, I am truly beyond bipolar disorder.  Although there was a time in my life when it completely consumed me.  By the grace of God that time is over and that book has ended.

The new book has begun.

If you have a mental illness I want you to know that it is possible to get well.  You can have a satisfying life and contribute to your community.  Believe in the possibilities.  And most importantly don’t give up.  You may be very surprised how things turn out.

Eat, Pray, Love = Recovery

The other day I was pondering on what has made this year feel good and what could make next year even better.  Because I live with a chronic illness, bipolar disorder, I measure my days very often by how I feel.  It struck me that living in recovery really boils down to the simple phrase from the movie Eat, Pray, Love. 

This past year I have been able to do all those things and enjoy many good days in a large part because this is what I have chosen to focus on.  Doesn’t mean I did not or still won’t have bad days, heck we all have bad days, but it gives me the strength to pick myself back up and face the next day with a renewed spirit.

To me, the whole essence of recovery is learning how to live again.  How to be engaged from a social standpoint.  How to enjoy the little things in life, like a meal with friends and family.  How to reengage with God, by attending church and praying.  How to get back up and open the emotions that were once numbed by pain.  How to love again.  How to let passion drive your purpose.

I really made it a point last year to re-build my life again.  If you have never had to start over, you might not have an understanding of what that takes.  But I can tell you that more often that not, an untreated mental illness can wreck havoc in one’s life.  I have written about the loss, pain and suffering I have personally experienced and I am familiar with many other stories of similar struggles.  So, focusing on re-building a life is not only important it is a necessity.  It is part of the recovery process.

What I take from my own experiences is that sometimes when we get beat up, we start to focus on all the things that have negatively impacted us.  We forget the positive things and the blessings we have collected.

I have also learned that to continue to highlight only the negative will drag you down in a heart beat and keep you down for an eternity.  If you struggle with depression, it is even more difficult to find hope than it is to find hell.  But hope is imperative to recovery and belief in a better way to live gets you there.

For me, I stay inspired and motivated by thinking about the ways I can make my life better.  As the new year approaches, I want to continue to keep my recovery journey as simple as possible.  I have learned when I focus on something, a goal, a dream, a vision, I have the ability to make it happen.

This formula has worked well for me and I hope by sharing it with you, it might help you in your own recovery journey.  Keep it simple.  Enjoy the journey.  Focus on the positive.  You are more than an illness, a label, or a diagnosis.  Recovery is possible.  Celebrate the victories!

In short, Eat, Pray, Love!

 

 

 

 

Reconciling the Past and Staying in the Present

Reconciling the Past

Many spiritual teachers typical focus a great deal on “staying in the present moment.” For those who don’t live with bipolar disorder it’s still a great challenge not to hold on to the past. Because I live with bipolar disorder I feel like it might even be more difficult for me to “let go” of the past.

While I know it’s not healthy to hold on to the past and certainly even less healthy to ruminate about it, I still find it difficult not to get stuck sometimes in a time when life might have been a little easier. I also have those moments when living in the present actually triggers my thoughts and takes me back to a different time and place.

Whether it be with my current job situation or my past career I can’t help but wonder where I would be without this illness. This mental war doesn’t happen relentlessly, but it does affect me everyday. I realized this when I started paying more attention to my thoughts. A little thought monitoring in an attempt to stay more in the present led me to realize just how much I dip back into the past.

Then there are the times when I feel I have to try to make sense out of a bipolar episode and the subsequent fallout from those times. There are days when it makes me so tired I often find myself going back to bed just to stop the unwanted memories.

What helps me focus on the present?

There are times when I can successfully take a deep breath and bring myself into the present. It also helps me to recognize sometimes I overestimate the “good times” from the past. After all my “before bipolar life” was not perfect either. Then again, when I do look back I realize bipolar disorder was affecting me from the time I was in high school, maybe even sooner.

It is no secret my life did not turn out the way I wanted it too. But I tell myself anyone who gets taken out of her life because of any illness is not necessarily living a dream life. I am not so sure a dream life exists anyhow, although I would have like to have known a life without so such struggle and pain. I simply did not get that opportunity.

Each day is a new start, a clean slate. A new day is a chance to try and live fully in the present focusing on the days gifts. I try to practice acceptance of “what is” and fully embrace exactly where I am.

I do consider myself a relatively positive person, but I have realized the tough times have caused me to become a little more cynical than I would like to admit. I don’t sit around waiting for the “shoe to drop.” But as I become more aware of my thoughts it shed some light on the disappointing views I hold close inside.

Once I was a dreamer and I was really good at setting goals and reaching my dreams. I still hold hope that my dreams will come true, even if those dreams consists of simple everyday living that inspires my soul and not grandiose dreams that go up in smoke after the end of a manic episode. The truth is through the proper treatment I am blessed without having mania and that is surely a plus. Now I focus on reconciling my past and staying in the present without giving too much credence to wishing my life was different.

Paying attention to my thoughts has given me a new-found realization that I am glad I have found. It’s not an easy task to stay in the present moment, but it is where life takes place. We all know the past cannot be changed and the future is not guaranteed. The present is all we truly have. I just wish the past would leave me alone and not grab my thoughts backward.

Maybe one day I’ll figure out how to focus most of my energy in the present. At the very least it will give me a peace of mind and that’s all I really hope for.

 

 

Bipolar Disorder Destroys Life and Then What?

Bipolar disorder not only disrupted my life it destroyed it. Every area of my life that I call my Pie of Life was affected: spiritual, financial, relationships/friendships, work, physical health and mental health. It took me a very long time to identify and process how each of these areas have been mutilated by an uncontrolled illness. But after recognizing the destruction I had to literally go back and start to pick up the pieces.

After I got my symptoms under control, I started to tell myself things like, “you deserve a life again.” But having a life meant facing the fall-out of all the things I no longer had and that was a terribly painful process. What also made it worse is that I had no “battle buddy” to walk the journey with me. I had a few family members but none who I really talked too about what I was going through on a daily basis. I might mention my struggles every now and then, but I never hashed it out.

I did utilize the services of a therapist and she was very supportive as I went through the “damage control” process. I found her most helpful as a support person for dealing with my last episode that resulted in a hospitalization. She helped me recover from the trauma inpatient care can sometimes inflict. As a matter of fact, I recently read someone’s blog where she was talking about how her therapist suggested she might have developed PTSD from a recent hospitalization. I have also been diagnosed with PTSD from things that happened during my episodes and then my subsequent hospitalizations. Trauma is trauma. Sometimes it does not necessarily matter, as much how we get to that point for the end result is similar.

Picking up the pieces of a shattered life is not a lot of fun. It is difficult to identify where you are going to start, let alone find the confidence to take one baby step forward and try. I found returning to my Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance group very helpful. Even though I have to admit I was skeptical that I would find as much support as I did. I simply did not know where to turn as I started piecing my life back together again, like a complex jigsaw puzzle with a million little pieces.

I actually sat down and made a plan. Even though I had an idea of what I wanted I knew if I could see it written down it may make even a bigger impact on me. So, I took each category of my Pie of Life and wrote it down and gave it a preliminary evaluation. I decided I would share with you my journey as I tediously rebuild my life.

I can tell you that in the area of relationships/friendships I have found great camaraderie in the blogging world. The active followers, viewers and readers have really made a difference in inspiring me to continue to write. It has also given me a connection to many individuals who understand the journey is not for the faint of heart. You have to dig down deep to want to attempt to rebuild your life. I have to give a big “thank you” to those who have encouraged me. I bet you didn’t know you had the power to influence a life when you wrote those comments or clicked on “like.” Little things make big differences!

I hope you will join me as I share the steps I am taking to build my life all over again. This is one way I know I will beat bipolar disorder.

 

 

The Strengths Recovery Path – Part 2

“Sometimes psychiatric problems take over our life. Everything about our life can come to reflect our psychiatric history. We may feel like a psychiatric diagnosis spells the end of our chances for experiencing love, fun, or success. We can feel trapped in a life that is very limited and become bored, depressed and end up with negative feelings about ourselves1.”

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When I read this quote I said, “Yes, absolutely true for me.” It is very difficult to pick yourself back up after having your life completely interrupted by a mental illness. But once you have received treatment the next step is to work on putting your life back together again. I know this is what I had to do. And it is hard work, but so worth it when life starts to unfold its’ many surprises.

This is why I am a huge advocate for recovery programs. Putting energy into healing and mapping out a future is so critically important in this process.

The first step in recovery is having are basic needs met.  Such as, housing, food, and clothing.  After those basic needs are met what we want to focus on is answering the questions, “How do I have a fulfilled life in spite of my psychiatric disability, a.k.a. mental illness?” We want answers to questions about “What’s next for me? What can I do for a career? How can I still be a good parent, wife, husband, partner, friend?”  What are some ways I can contribute to my community?

Often times I found myself searching for answers to those questions outside of me.  I seemed to have lost so much confidence and my self-esteem suffered enormously. I frequently doubted my ability to be anything more than a “mentally ill patient.” Getting sick knocked me so far down that I only saw myself as weak and damaged. This is why I sought validation of my self-worth outside of me.  But I quickly learned I was going to have to restore my inner confidence while I worked to create new dreams and goals for my life.

One of the things that helped me in the Recovery Program was developing a vision for my life. Stepping back and creating new dreams and outlining the long-term and short-term goals that were going to help me get there. Part of my vision was to become a Mental Health Advocate, specifically focusing on raising education and awareness. I have begun to live that dream and the more I walk down that path the better I feel.

But if I am honest I would tell you that I wrote that vision four years ago. It has taken longer than I expected to get to living my dream, but that’s because I had some setbacks along the way. The good news is I never forgot my vision. This is why it is so important to create a vision or have a dream. When you create it you can work within your limitations, not viewing them as obstacles, but viewing them as a hurdle.  Hurdles were meant to be jumped over!

The most important thing to realize if you or a loved one has a psychiatric disability is that there are many things that can still be accomplished. You just have to find the right path.

 

1”Pathways to Recovery: A Strengths Recovery Self-Help Workbook.” University of Kansas School of Social Welfare, 2002. Page 127.

The Strengths Recovery Path-Part 1

JTR-textYears ago I went through a 12 week course called the “Pathways to Recovery.”  The local chapter of the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) sponsored it.

At first I was very skeptical about the workshop. I thought, “What am I going to learn that’s going to help me?” After suffering from a very long major depressive episode, I knew I needed an extra boost to get me up and moving again.

So I enrolled in the program and received this fantastic workbook called “Pathways to Recovery: A Strengths Recovery Self-Help Workbook.” It is filled with a wealth of information. One of the things I like is one definition of recovery as listed below:

“Recovery is a deeply personal, unique process of changing one’s attitudes, values, feelings, goals, skills, and/or roles. It’s a way of living a satisfying, hopeful, and contributing life even within the limitations caused by the illness. Recovery involves the development of new meaning and purpose in one’s life as one grows beyond the catastrophic effects of mental illness.”

~William Anthony, Director, Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, Boston University

I liked this definition because it seemed to hit on all the areas that I know has been touched in my own journey of recovery. Many times I have struggled to pick myself back up after having setbacks and I have turned to this workbook for information. I have sat down and made new goals for myself, in light of the fact I could now face my limitations with a different attitude.

In my view I think that is one of the keys in recovery. The honest look into your current situation that says, “I am not the person I used to be, but I still have a great deal to offer. I can make new dreams and goals.”

In the course we spent a significant amount of time identifying our strengths. As a matter of fact, an entire chapter was devoted to help you point out and identify your strengths. The book suggests that we usually have a tendency to pay attention to our problems, personal deficits and weaknesses more than we actually pay attention to what we are good at.

If you want to take a stab at seeing how many strengths you can identify try taking a piece of paper and write down what you think are your strengths. It’s kind of fun. What I realized is that I had about three things I wrote down. They ask the question of whether you found it hard or not. “Yes,” was my answer.

I took a quote from the strengths chapter that highlights something I believe is true:

“If you constantly think of illness, you eventually become ill; if you believe yourself to be beautiful, you become so.” ~Shakti Gawain

The workbook encourages you to move from a problem orientation to a strengths orientation. Here are a couple of examples:

Problem Orientation: Instead of focusing on my problems, symptoms and deficits…Strengths Orientation: I am primarily concerned with what I want, desire, and dream of.

Problem Orientation: Rather than see myself as my diagnostic label…Strengths Orientation: I see myself as a unique human being, with a strong mind, body and spirit.

The whole idea of changing our attitude and focusing on the solution instead of on the problem begins to shift our minds. It is a great way to move from getting down to looking for the “good” things about us. Because everyone on this journey of recovery knows you have to learn how to be kind to yourself and focus on the positive aspects so you can overcome the challenges.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mental Illness and Surviving the Memory Tides

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I think it’s fair to say those of us with mental illness “suffer.” We often experience pain and loss that is incredibly intense and cannot be put into enough words to describe how it actually feels. The cruel thing is we not only suffer with an illness we also suffer when we move along the process in recovery. Additionally, we are usually expected to suffer in silence because no one else can see our illness in x-rays or test results. They just don’t understand what they cannot see.

It has taken me a long time to understand the trials and tribulations of my own struggles with bipolar disorder. Sometimes I feel like I have been sitting in the middle of the ocean and for some reason I survived the “memory tides.” The memory tides hit you with high tides and you nearly drown in snapshots of your mental health journey. Then, for some unknown reason low tide hits and you get bits and pieces of the past without getting knocked over.

There have been times in my own healing process where I have literally gone back to bed because I have been knocked over by such intense memories it wore me out. I would just lie there in bed and let my mind take me wherever it needed to go. In the moment, I recognized I was processing the past and for some reason it was a necessary evil that I had to experience.

I have read that hospitalizations can be traumatizing. Depending on what happened in my hospital stay I would have to agree with that, even though I believe if you need hospitalization it is a safe place to go. But I can say that in my memory tides I have viewed my hospital stays in photographic frames. Play by play I see the faces of the doctors and nurses who cared for me.

Sometimes the memories are so intense I can recall the not so nice things and good things a healthcare provider may have said to me.   But worse than what people said is what they did when I was experiencing a psychotic episode. I have seen the paint peeled walls of seclusion rooms and felt the tight leather restraints around my wrist and ankles. I have had to learn how to cope with the pain of those memories as well.

More than 15 years ago, I was in a small community hospital and  was left in restraints for 16 hours. I was asleep almost the entire time, only waking up to realize I was tied to a bed. They finally let me up when I needed to use the restroom. I felt mistreated in that situation and it took me a long time to heal from it.

So when people say the word “suffer” to me I really get what that means. These experiences drive me to advocate for mental illness, because I don’t want other people to suffer as much or more than I did. In the meantime when the memory tides come I just sit back and brace myself for what I am about to see. Everyday gets better and one day I hope to replace those pictures with something much more pleasant.