Remember – Mental Illness is The Enemy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

Living with Mental Illness

Struggle

When I entered the world of living with bipolar disorder it took me many years to learn about the illness. Sometimes the descriptions of the symptoms I would read about would not apply to me, so I never could really get a handle on how the illness was alive and well inside of my brain. I had a hard time determining how bipolar disorder was affecting my day-to-day living. Until it became so debilitating that it was hard to ignore the obvious.

This is the thing about mental illness—it is complex to diagnosis, difficult to live with, and hard to explain to other people who have no idea what it is like to live in the world when you struggle with a mental illness.

But some of us have a need and desire to educate the general population about various disorders. Yet we are sometimes afraid to talk about our mental illness for fear we will be discriminated against or thought less of because we live with these disorders. Wow! Is it any wonder that many of us live in isolation after we become ill?  It’s just not fair.

I don’t know a great deal about other mental illnesses but I do know a fair amount about bipolar disorder. I have numerous experiences on both sides of the fence, as a caregiver and as a person who lives with the illness. I know enough to have gained a tremendous amount of respect for this mysterious illness that impacts my brain. It can bring me to my knees with emotional pain with a depressive episode or it can make me so manic I can’t sit still. Whatever end of the spectrum I am fighting I am always on the lookout for the next major episode. I don’t get a chance to relax and chalk up my limited amount of sleep to “too many things on my mind.” Instead I have to monitor myself and ask the question, “Am I getting manic again? Should I call my doctor?”

In between my hypervigilance I try to live a “normal” life. I take care of my new adopted puppy, cut the grass, go to the grocery store and work a part-time job.

I’m looking forward to an upcoming trip to Washington, D.C. where I will attend the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) national conference.  When I go there I am planning on joining other members in a National Action Day.  This is where we will go to Capitol Hill and tell our story to our congressional members and ask them to support mental health services. It is an opportunity to share in two minutes what has affected me my entire life. I hope I can articulate what it’s like to have a mental illness disrupt your life. Then I want to explain how with proper treatment and a lot of hard work how some of us can and do recover.

We never get “cured” but we go on and live our lives in spite of the enormous challenges we have been given. We move on and learn to live our lives in the world of mental illness. It’s not always full of pain and sorrow.  Sometimes it simply becomes the “way it just is.”  I think you just get used to the struggle.

 

 

 

 

Disclosing a Mental Illness

shhh-its-a-secret

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.

I am not a failure, am I?

Sometimes I Feel Like A Failure

Does having a mental illness make you feel like a failure? As much as I know I am far from a failure I still have my moments when I look at former colleagues and think, “What the heck happened to me?” Of course I know exactly what happened—mental illness dropped on my doorstep and interrupted my life, as I once knew it, but sometimes I have to remind myself of this fact.

Believing we are failures because we have a mental illness is really part of self-stigma. It’s fits right under the category of blaming ourselves for having an illness. I suppose it is in part a way to try and make some sense out of various behaviors and in an effort to take back some control over the situation we point our fingers at the person looking back at us in the mirror.

Self-Stigma: Shame & Blame

In times when I am suffering with a depressive episode I shame myself into believing it’s my fault, as if I really have any control over the illness. The shame makes the situation far worse and really adds to the bad feelings I already have about myself. I made a point to stop the shaming the last time I was sick. It’s already hard enough as it is to get well again but I learned I needed to be a better friend to myself.

Why Can’t I Be “Normal?”

If only I was normal I wouldn’t have to deal with all these things. Mental illness can take you out of mainstream society. It can interrupt your life with hospitalizations, frequent doctor visits, therapy, medication side effects, loss of work and all these things can cause a withdrawal from life. Stepping out of my daily course of living has made me feel like a complete failure. And then the voice of reason kicks in and I hear myself say, “If it weren’t for bipolar disorder life would be different.”

Finding Inspiration

I’m sure not everyone who experiences a mental illness has felt like a failure. But I am willing to bet many people have and I want to speak to those people. I want to tell them to lift up your head and hold it high; hold back your shoulders and walk with confidence; start believing you are so strong because you have faced off with adversity and you have won; you are a valuable member to the community; and you will find your way to recovery. Above all you are not a failure.

Mental illness can cause so much pain and many personal struggles. I have learned that I cannot give it any more power over me than what it deserves. I have approached it in a way that says, “I have a mental illness and it’s not my fault, and I’m going to pick up the pieces and move forward with my life. No mental illness is going to stop me from living a healthy, happy and productive life.” It’s my mantra and I believe it!

 

Mental Illness is no “gift!”

I have heard people say having bipolar disorder was a blessing as if the positive things about me had to be related to the illness. Mental illness is no gift. I don’t think I ever sat around after having a terrible cold and said, “What a wonderful gift that I was so sick.”

I recently read a blog by Natasha Tracy, which was titled Do the mentally ill have to be extraordinary to be accepted? She makes several points about how most people with mental illness are simply average, everyday folks trying to get along in this world. Not all of us are off the chart creative artists, famous world changing researchers or Nobel Peace Prize winners. We are simply “normal” people who happen to have a mental illness.

If you think about it, it’s kind of a shame that we have to put people on a pedestal to find some kind of acceptance. I think it falls right in there under the good ole’ stigma category. If we aren’t exceptional than what is our value in society, after all we have a mental illness. Oh my, so taboo.

It makes me sad to think about how common mental illness is and how we as a culture still fail to realize this fact. Consider that according to the National Institute of Mental Health over 57 million people suffer with a diagnosable mental illness each year. I’m sure you’ve seen the statistics–about 1 in 4 Americans have a mental illness.

Mental illness is common—yes. Mental illness is a gift—far from it.

I remember a day when I went to see a new family physician. She had known me from my days as a local “famous” athlete (from a very small town). When she found out I had bipolar disorder she said, “I knew there was a reason you could make the Olympic team. It must have been all that manic energy!”

I was so stunned I didn’t know what to say. How could someone who was a doctor actually think having bipolar disorder helped me to become an Olympian? Ridiculous. If anything I had to overcome the depressive episodes in order to get myself out of bed. The last thing I would have ever thought was “how lucky am I to have depression. It’s just so great! I can’t wait for more weight gain, so I can be slower on the court.”

I’m always amazed at how people find ways to accept they have a mental illness. It is not my place to judge others, but if I am voicing my own opinion I would be hard pressed to ever find any illness as a gift. I think of things like, suffering, symptoms, a lifetime of medication, doctor visits, therapy, significant losses, and I just shake my head knowing there is no way I could ever be grateful for having bipolar disorder.

I believe accepting yourself exactly how you are is far more important than getting on the band wagon to appreciate mental illness as a gift. I accept myself for who I am and I accept that I live with a mental illness and believe that I am no lesser of a person because of it.   It took me a long time to get to this point. But nowhere along the way did I ever pay some kind of tribute to living with a disease. It’s just not logical.

 

 

 

Mental Disorders Facts and Statistics

I wanted to share some interesting facts and statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health. If you click on the link it will take you to the actual site where additional information can be found.

Did you know……

  • Eating disorders have the highest rate of mortality of any psychiatric disorder

o   Go to the NIMH home page and under the tab “New at NIMH” you’ll find the twitter chat link about Eating Disorders.

Anxiety disorders including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder collectively are the most common mental disorders for Americans

o   http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml#part7

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is one of the most common childhood disorders and can continue into adulthood

o   NIMH ADHD Information

Bipolar disorder effects 2.6% of the U.S. population. Of this amount 82.9% is classified as “severe”

o   NIMH Bipolar Disorder Statistics

Borderline Personality Disorder effects 1.6% of the U.S. adult population

o   NIMH Borderline Personality Disorder Statistics

Depression effects 6.7% of the U.S. adult population

o   NIMH Depression Statistics

Schizophrenia effects 1.1% of the U.S. adult population

o   NIMH Schizophrenia Statistics