7 Things I learned at the psych ward

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Does the title of this blog scare you?  Does it make you laugh?  Does it make you cry?  Make you shudder?  It might do one or all of those things.  Most people NEVER want to admit they have been to a psychiatric hospital.  I can’t say I would have ever dreamed I would be talking about this out loud.  But the path between me and a psych ward is pretty long ago and I feel like there is something to be learned from every experience.  And as a mental health advocate I believe we should never be ashamed from getting the help we need.  In this spirit I share…

Here are seven things I learned at the psych ward:

#1)  It is NO fun to be LOCKED up

My first trip for inpatient care was 17 years ago and I was terrified when the door locked behind me.  I understand the door is locked for patients and public safety, but it does not discount my feelings of fear.  It reminded me of all the bad things I had ever heard about mental institutions.  Yes, even though I might not have been in my best frame of mind I still had thoughts and feelings.  There are places that do not lock the door, but those are few and far between.  No sugar coating.  Being locked away was a degrading feeling.

#2)  Most people there are “normal”

What is normal anyway?  Well, that’s your average everyday person who has goals, dreams and a life outside of the hospital door.  People from all walks of life visit the psych ward every single day.  They are just normal people – husbands, wives, daughters, sons – they just happen to be struggling with an illness.

#3)  The staff is a reflection of society (stigma exists)

There are good people, bad people and somewhere in between who work in the psych ward.  I have been treated extremely well by many people, but I have also been discounted, discouraged and disenchanted.  Some staff are very knowledgeable and willing to teach about a specific illness and others can’t wait until their shift ends.  Just a reflection of society.

#4)  You don’t recover in the hospital

Think about being hospitalized for any physical illness.  A person who has had open heart surgery is not going to get well over night in the hospital.  We are a quick fix culture, especially when it comes to mental illness.  But it takes time and effort to fully recover.

#5)  Some people are more sick than others

Mental illness is on a continuum.  Every disease has common signs and symptoms but will manifest differently in each person.  Some people will never get well and probably need to be in a hospital for continuous care.  But most people can get better.

#6)  Some places are better than others

I have been in a hospital that had a swimming pool and basketball court, but that’s the exception.  I have also been to a place that did not have enough chairs for everyone to sit. The most important thing is that a person gets the right kind of care that they need and clearly some places do provide it and others do not.

#7)  They don’t want to keep you there

Contrary to popular belief psych wards do not want to keep people there.  One of the biggest issues we have in America is the poor mental health treatment that is available.  It is often poor because people who need treatment can’t get treatment and if people get treatment they don’t keep people long enough – the average inpatient stay in the United States is 7.2 days.  For some illnesses that is not long enough.

The Need to Feel Understood!

Doesn’t everyone have a desire to be understood?

I have always thought a good connection with someone meant she really understood where I was coming from. Then, bipolar disorder came into my life and all bets were off. It’s hard enough for those of us who suffer from bipolar to understand our illness let alone other people who have no experience or knowledge about mental illness.

But if I had a wish I would hope for more people to embrace people with mental illness and attempt to understand some of the challenges we face.

Over the holidays I spent some time reading stories of people who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Each story was unique to the individual but there were many common themes. I found myself shaking my head because I truly understood what the individuals were talking about. I hadn’t been in their shoes, but mine were a similar type.

You probably know the story well. The struggle to find out what is wrong with you sometimes taking years to finally get a proper diagnosis. The unwanted and yet necessary hospitalizations trying to get stabilized and then counting up the casualties caused by erratic behavior from unstable mind. The trials and failures of multiple medication regimens and the subsequent fall out from the all too often minimized medication side effects. And have I mentioned all the while your struggling your supposed to find a way to live your life. Be the mother, father, sister, brother, partner, employee that you have always been without disclosing anything is wrong.

I think for years I used to cry when describing the journey. Now, I kind of chuckle with how ridiculous it is to expect ourselves to put on a front that nothing is wrong, when it seems like your whole world is falling apart. Often times because it is.

But how strong we must be to overcome and persevere the hand we have been dealt. I don’t claim to have handled my illness in a perfect way, but I handled it the best way I knew how. If I was more informed, had access to better treatment providers, had people in my inner circle who could talk to me and reach me with good solid advice, and the “ifs” can go on and on.

The reality is many of us who have bipolar disorder struggle and then we fight to get our lives back on track. We continue to reach out and search for information, education and resources and hope for the best. We must learn to live in the present and take one-day-at-a-time.

In the meantime, most of us would like others outside of the mental health world to understand our illness. I don’t expect people to know as much about it as I do, I just want them to know enough to offer compassion and support. I want them to read stories like I did, and realize the path is a tough one and I’m not to be blamed for what happened to me. I didn’t choose freely to struggle with a serious mental illness, it just happened to me.

It’s part of our human condition to desire others understand us. We all have issues, challenges and problems these things just get more magnified and complex when living with bipolar disorder.

I know you can’t make people understand you, but you can hope for others at the very least to have some compassion, and pray one day they’ll gain the knowledge to understand.

Rebuilding a Bipolar Life

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Rebuilding a life is not easy. I am not the first person to venture out and attempt it and I surely won’t be the last. But when it is “you” it sure seems like an uphill battle. When I started this journey I said to myself, “What the heck is the first step I am going to take? Where do I start?” The answer came back in various forms but eventually it led me to write a plan. Not like some extensive business plan, but something where I could look at my life split up into categories.

It’s not the least controversial but I started a thoughtful process of thinking about my “spiritual self.”  Bottom-line is I figured out that I was/am mad at “God.”  Even though I will be the first to tell you that I prayed daily when I was on the verge of suicidal depression. Without my faith I don’t know if I could have made it.

But then as time passed I began to ask why God would ever allow bipolar disorder to destroy my life? Some people have suggested that you need someone to blame for the bad stuff that happened so it is very natural to blame God. They say he can take whatever you need to dish out—so blame away. But the problem with it is it does not provide a sense of relief or a salve for the wounds. It’s just a place to put anger.

My spiritual side also includes my “heart’s passions” too. I don’t know about you but when I am depressed I have very little passion for anything.  My spiritual self just seems dead, like I am a “numb” shell of myself walking around without any feeling, except sadness. Since I have spent so much of my time in the past six years in and out of depressive episodes, my zest for life went on strike.

I discovered breathing life back into my spiritual self was/is crucial for rebuilding my life. How can I have the strength and courage to push forward in other areas of my life without having a solid foundation of spiritual strength to draw from?

The first step in changing anything is recognizing you need to change it. I began asking myself a series of questions. What do I do about my anger with God? Do I see a traditional pastor and have him pray with me? Do I seek out a new church and sing along with religious songs? Do I take a walk in the park and curse God? How do I resolve these spiritual wounds?

As with the other areas of my life I am rebuilding, it all starts with one small step at a time. I may have a vision in the future where I am really in touch with my spiritual self and all of my anger issues with God have been resolved. I am working in that direction, but I am not quite there yet. I have learned this journey is a very long one and as I work to breath life into my existence I can work on all areas of my life at one time. I seriously doubt I am the first person to ever blame God for this nasty mental illness.

My spiritual being is very important to me and perhaps just knowing I have the passion and desire to make these necessary changes are proof that my spirit is very much alive and well. I am less angry with God now that I have really learned to accept “what is.” I may not like what has happened to me because of bipolar disorder, but I do need to accept it.  Spiritually, I can feel myself living once again.

 

 

Are you addicted to Bipolar Disorder?

Recently I watched a video clip about ABC’s new show Black Box. If you haven’t seen Black Box it is about a neuroscientist who also lives with Bipolar Disorder. The strange thing to me is that they say she is “addicted to bipolar,” because she loves the manic highs. I don’t think I have ever heard it put that way before, but I suppose it is because I have a rather opposing viewpoint. (You can view the video here Black Box Video)

When I retrospectively look back at the times I have had manic episodes, I really don’t find a lot of positive aspects. During those episodes I have bought things I didn’t need, got involved with some people I would never let my dog talk too, almost lost my life, and really the list goes on and on. High intense manic episodes have made me want to adhere to a treatment regimen that works not seek out more mania.

I don’t dislike Black Box but I wonder what the basic viewer thinks about bipolar disorder as a result of watching it? To my knowledge the main character has yet to experience deep levels of depression—which we all know is where the disorder spends most of its’ time. We also know that in treating bipolar disorder it can take an average of 10 years before finding the right combination of medications. Not so simple as saying the character could have a wonderful, symptom free life if she only took her medication as prescribed.

If I have stopped taking my medication it is because of a few key reasons:

1) I didn’t think I had bipolar disorder—I was in denial

2) The side effects of the medications were so bad I couldn’t tolerate them

3) I started to relapse and didn’t recognize I was getting sick—so I stopped the meds

There has not been anytime in my history with this illness that I said, “I love the mania and I am addicted to it.” Most of the time I didn’t even know what the mania was let alone want more of it. It was more like living with something that was so natural to me. My normal was experiencing “highs” and “lows” and I thought everyone experienced the same kind of thing. I’ve never known what normal is because I’ve never had normal for an extended period of time.

Do I miss the mania now that I have a treatment regimen that works? If I miss anything it is the energy to do things, some of which is controlled by medication and some of it is a side effect from medication. What I miss more than mania is a life that was fuller before I got so sick with bipolar disorder that I could not function.

I know it’s hard to portray characters in the media with mental illness, but I wish they wouldn’t glamorize bipolar disorder. I wish they would take real live people and tell their stories. I doubt that many of us who have really suffered with this illness would say we are addicted to it.

I’m Mentally Ill But Don’t Pity Me

I see you there trying not to stare at me. When I glance at you your eyes quickly dart away. You pass me by and are afraid to say “hello,” out of fear as if what I have may be contagious. When you do make eye contact you search my eyes to see if I am “sane.” You are one of those people who have seen me in my worst moments.

Don’t pity me for life could be so much worse if I lived during the time when the mentally ill were institutionalized. I may have been placed in an ice bath or had a lobotomy. You may have left me restrained for days on end. I could have been deprived of my most basic human needs. In your effort to “treat” me I could have been sprayed with a hose.

You wonder why we fear the mental health system. You wonder why we mistrust and question everything they tell us is good for us. We are vulnerable because we need help, yet often don’t know where to turn.

Don’t pity me for life could be so much worse. We hear the stories about psychiatric institutions closing and we see the remnants of old historic asylums turning into haunted houses. Is there any wonder why? Human suffering cries out from the lonely graves of those who came before us and weathered the storm of archaic psychiatric practices.

Yes the mentally ill have been a persecuted group for hundreds of years. But things have gotten better—haven’t they?

Don’t pity me for life could be so much worse. It’s hard to look at me now that I am mentally ill. I’m not welcome in your group anymore. I don’t fit with your perfect lives for mine is rather messy. But with these words I write I have a voice, I have a chance to make a difference.

Don’t pity me for life could be so much worse. Yet you look at me with such disgust and use my illness to make jokes. I am a human being who happened to inherit a mental illness. Yet I refuse to sit quietly in my chair.

I want you to stand up for me and fight for better treatment. I want you to hold my hand and walk with me in my journey for a good life. I want you to understand my pain and suffering, but take note of me as a survivor. I am not a mere shadow from the past; I am not someone you can just push aside.

Don’t pity me for life could be so much worse. If you don’t do anything just say a little prayer. I am here to fight for a better tomorrow and I am not going away.

Don’t pity me because I believe life can be so much better.

 

Mental Illness Makes You Tough!

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Living with a severe mental illness is not for the faint of heart. You really have to be tough “minded” to handle the many trials and tribulations we face. Consider being able to successfully utilize your mind to climb the corporate ladder only to have that same mind fail you by losing touch with reality.

Imagine having your sister make her way through college and graduate with honors. Then a few years later imagine getting a call from a social worker, four hundred miles away, telling you your sister was placed in the psychiatric ward for evaluation. Forty plus hospitalizations later and an immeasurable amount of heart ache for everyone involved just can’t be described with words.

Imagine being a freshman in college and learning your mother had a manic episode rolled into psychosis and jumped from a 30-foot balcony in her confusion.   Imagine the pain, despair, and confusion those emotions can be when you are living through it.

Some people would say they just “can’t imagine.” Besides who would want to put themselves in your shoes with such human tragedy. These are the stories that never make it to the vernacular of the general population. They have no reason or purpose for hearing or listening to some of the challenges those of us touched by mental illness have had to deal with. I’ve only briefly scratched the surface of my own personal examples. Sometimes they are too painful for even me to recall.

But this brings me to my point, you have to be pretty darn tough to pick up the pieces and move on from life’s disruptions mental illness causes. If you suffer from a mental illness, often a chronic disorder, you will have to learn how to live with it your entire life.  If someone you love gets diagnosed, you will have to learn how best to support him or her.   And the bottom-line is you learn how important it is for life to go on because it does with or without your active participation.

When I reflect back upon my numerous lived experiences with mental illness I think about how I managed to emotionally cope and deal with these major issues often without the help or support of other people. I was expected to accept the situation, cope with it, put on a happy face and move on.

It reminds me of a time when I was working as a sales representative for a Fortune 500 company.  I had just received a call in the morning that my mother had been taken to the psychiatric hospital and admitted. I was still relatively young and deeply affected by her hospitalizations. As a matter of fact when I picked up my manager at the airport I was holding back the tears.

We drove a little while in silence, until she finally asked me what was wrong. I debated for a moment but then I told her what had happened to my mother. She looked at me and said, “Well I guess you’ll just have to focus extra hard on selling your products today.” It was like someone had taken a knife and stabbed me in the heart.

I guess all the years of living with mental illness have made me a stronger person. It has also exposed me to the ugliness of stigma. The very idea that people can be so cold and callous about brain disorders and all the situations we have to deal with.

But as I write these words I truly believe the next several years are going to whiled a wealth of information about serious mental illness. I think we will see attitudes begin to change and people will start getting a clue about what we have to deal with on a daily basis.

I hope some people will finally realize how tough you have to be to live with mental illness. I can’t wait for that day to come and I can’t guarantee I won’t tell people “I told you so.”

From Olympic Athlete to Bipolar Patient, Who am I really?

I recently wrote my bipolar journey for Mental Health Talk.  Trish, the founder of the site has lots of opportunity for those people who are living with a Mental Illness to share their stories.

If you are interested in reading about my journey from being an Olympian to getting diagnosed with bipolar disorder here is the link to Mental Health Talk:

http://mentalhealthtalk.info/bipolar-olympic-athlete

I would also encourage people who want to share their stories get in contact with Trish.  The more people who share the better opportunity we all have to continue to knock down stigma and to let others know they are not alone in this battle.

Disclosing a Mental Illness

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Disclosing you have a mental illness is a very tough decision. There are so many issues associated with telling even your friends and family, much less being open about your illness in a public forum, like social media.  From my viewpoint if we are to actively change the stigma associated with mental illness it is important for those of us who live with mental illness to feel comfortable in disclosing it.

I recently read an acticle about disclosing your mental illness diagnosis on-line. The author was an advocate, but chooses to blog and advocate anonymously. I have no problem with her choice, but I wonder about the impact you can make as an advocate living anonymously? Isn’t it important to demonstrate that many people living with serious mental illness can recover and contribute to society?

When writing my blog I decided it was important for me to feel comfortable being completely open and honest about who I am. I wanted people to know I was not ashamed for having a mental illness. In fact, I have worked very hard to live my life without living in shame for an illness I did not ask for and believe is no different than a physical illness from that standpoint.

But then I started thinking about all the reasons why people could judge me and look at me differently because I live with bipolar disorder. I thought about the stigma associated with the illness and how people may judge my competency without ever talking to me or reading anything I may write. I began to fall into the trap of worrying about things that I cannot control.  I worked through my fears and doubts and moved forward with disclosure in a well thought out way.

For all the reasons why you should never disclose your mental health issues, there are equally a number of reasons why it is a good idea for at least people close to you to know. I was always afraid people would not be my friend if they knew about my condition. The truth is some people didn’t want to be friends with someone who had a mental illness, as if I had some kind of contagious disease. But others seemed to accept it and offer love and support.

After deciding I was going to live my dream and become a Mental Health Advocate, I put a great deal of thought into disclosing my illness. My focus is on raising awareness and creating opportunities to have a dialogue about mental illness so that others may understand. I wanted to jump on the band wagon and help eliminate stigma. I really felt like if people knew I was an Olympic Athlete who was affected by a mental illness they could see that it does not matter what your socio-economic status is or what parade you may have walked in, mental illness can affect anyone. It also helps other people who are suffering with the illness to know someone else who is living with it.

So—for all these reasons I felt like it was a good idea to disclose my illness. I let my Facebook friends know the other day on a status update that I was a Mental Health Advocate, writer and speaker and I lived with Bipolar Disorder. The support I received touched my heart and gave me more strength to keep on walking down the disclosure path.

I can’t tell you what is right for you, but I can say I feel empowered to share my journey. And I am glad I no longer hang my head in fear or shame.

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.
 

 

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