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

 

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.

A letter to my younger self

Dear Amy,

I want you to know there will be times in your life when you will struggle with a mental illness called bipolar disorder.  I know it sounds complicated and the truth is-it is complex because we are talking about your brain.  But if you learn everything you can about how to manage your symptoms and find a good treatment plan you will do great.

But I want you to know fighting your way back to health will be the hardest thing you ever do.  There is such a stigma with mental illness a lot of people are not going to understand.  You will find out who your real friends are and who you can rely on.

More than anything be true to yourself.  You don’t have to publicize you live with bipolar disorder unless you want too.  But you MUST be honest with yourself about your illness.  Some people can survive and thrive without medications, but you are not one of them.  In fact, most people with bipolar disorder need medications and there is no shame in that.

Whatever you do-don’t deny there is a problem.  It will set you back in life to pretend this serious illness will magically disappear on its own.  When is the last time you ever heard a brain tumor disappearing without intervention?  As much as you want it to go away, you can’t wish this away.  The sooner you accept it the faster you can get well and live your life.

You are going to need help along the way.  Doctors and therapists can be tremendous support on the road wellness.  But remember they are also human and not perfect.  They will make mistakes sometimes.  You have to find the right fit for you and never be afraid to ask questions or even disagree with providers.  The best ones will welcome an open dialogue.

In life we don’t get to choose what we get and what we don’t.  You are going to feel frustrated at times and you may have moments when you think, “what’s the point?”  But I want you to hold on to hope and never give up trying.

There will be times when you reflect back and thank your mother for giving you the gift of faith.  You may not be overtly assertive about your relationship with God, but you will get down on your knees and pray for God to get you through the tough times.  Without your faith you won’t make it because you will have some very difficult times and that will require a great deal of faith.

You will get a good handle on bipolar disorder and once you do the sky is the limit.  So don’t ever let anyone tell you to keep your dreams small.  You are good at dreaming big and I want you to keep doing that as long as you live.

Finally, take one day at a time.  Everything you need will be provided for you, maybe not what you want but what you need.  And when you figure all this stuff out don’t forget to reach back and help other people.  Because at the end of the day that’s what life is all about.

Your friend,

Your older self

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

Healing from Bipolar Disorder

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I have wrestled with this whole idea of healing from bipolar disorder. Since the illness never goes away, I have thought about how I know when I am actually well again. What constitutes feeling better? Are there markers out there or examples that show us what living well with bipolar disorder looks like?

For me the first thing I look at is whether or not my symptoms of depression are under control. Can I concentrate enough to read, get out of bed or eliminate any negative thoughts that linger on and on replaying with a skip like on a damaged music CD. I don’t know if I can sustain this period of normalcy I am experiencing but so far so good.

The medications I take really keep a damper on the “mania.” I also watch mania like a hawk. I know my illness well enough to know “mania” is not my friend. The biggest precursor to mania is lack of sleep, so I monitor how much sleep I get and I pay close attention to any semblance of racing thoughts that may enter my brain.

For the most part, I have spent most of my time getting very well acquainted with bipolar depression. I have read where most of the time people with bipolar have to deal with more symptoms of depression than any mania. And I have to say I am bothered when people romanticize the “mania.” We all know what goes up must come down and usually comes down with a crash.

I don’t know about you but I get so excited when I start to feel really good, not mania good, just “normal” good. I crawl out from my cave and start thinking about what I can accomplish. What do I want to do now that I am well again? I always find that when I start feeling better I start searching for opportunities to get busier. But I have this “little Amy” on my shoulder that monitors everything I do (it’s only an imaginary Amy not a delusion…:).

This is where I get stuck. In the back of my mind I have a fear that my wellness period will only last so long and I will be right back where I started with some episode of depression or even mania for that matter. I fear the relapse and I hate that I have so much fear about it. I wish I could think about possibilities without having the realism downer inhabit my thoughts.

So knowing I will never really completely heal from bipolar disorder I have to make another plan of action–one that can fulfill me today and give me hope for tomorrow. A plan that helps me live out my dreams but also takes into account the limitations I have to live with. It’s almost a double edge sword because I have always pushed myself to achieve more than I thought possible, and in that push I have been successful. But now I am nearly paralyzed by my fears of having symptoms break through again. The things that were my strengths have become another obstacle I have to overcome.

Healing from bipolar disorder is really in the eyes of the beholder. A doctor might consider staying out of the hospital as a huge success. I would agree with that, but then I say what is next?  And that is when I wonder just how far the healing can continue. Is it enough for me to be okay with being stable or do I need more to feel as if I have truly healed?  Will I ever be satisfied with the status quo?  These are the questions I ask myself and so far I don’t have the answers.

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.

Feeling “Less Than”

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There are days when I see myself as “less than.”  Less than what?  Less than the general population who gets up and goes to work everyday.  Less than the people I used to work with who have risen high on the Corporate America success ladder.  Less than even some people who have recovered from mental illness and seem to have left their struggles in the dust.

I feel less than fulfilled with my current life.  I make a point of spending my time writing everyday, which gives me tremendous value.  But my overall everyday life pales in comparison to my past life before I was really hit with bipolar depression.

So I ask myself the question, how can I exists without feeling “less than” as a human being? For starters, I am aiming to make my comparison a little fairer.  What do I mean by making it fairer?  Well, it’s not fair to compare a basket of eggs with a basket of oranges. After bipolar disorder took me down hard I had to recover from a series of major episodes.  The fact that I am capable of doing all that I currently do is a tremendous success.  But comparing my life now with the past and before bipolar disorder really wrecked havoc is simply not a fair comparison.

I am willing to bet I am not alone in feeling “less than.” I am sure there are other people out there who feel like they were so much better before a mental illness disrupted their life. I want to say to them, “you are not alone.” It does not make you feel better to know other people suffer the same plight, but it certainly puts things into perspective. It allows you to realize other people are carrying the same or similar torch.  Plowing away each day, trying not to get caught up in letting the “less than” feelings dominate.

Part of the problem with feeling “less than” nags at the self-esteem and tears down self-confidence. Many of these feelings are so “normal,” but somewhere along the way we forget to address them. We end up with an overflow of bad feelings about ourselves and we don’t know what to do about them.

I have truly found that if I hit the nail on the head with something I at least have a chance at knowing what to do with it.  So if I call out a day when I am really feeling “less than” I will acknowledge that feeling. I can then talk my way through the bad thoughts I may have about myself.  The more I realize the thoughts are very “normal” for some reason the more strength I gain.  Instead of going through my day feeling worse about myself, I can grab onto what I do well and build upon that instead.

I have always heard it is not a good idea to compare yourself to others, so why would I want to compare my life to someone else? Not a good idea. I have to keep reminding myself that I am not “less than” just “different.” And that “different” is simply okay.