When the good day arrives!

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One of the things I learned in a recovery workshop is to create new dreams after having your life interrupted with a psychiatric illness. I created a dream to become a mental health advocate, but I soon learned that creating a dream is one thing and living it is another.

I think my impatience is a result of having too much time on my hands. Not all days but some days a few hours of free time can feel like sitting in the dentist chair having my teeth pulled. When I am feeling good and overall having a good day I feel like I can accomplish so much more.  But on those bad days, like yesterday, I have no desire to do anything.

I wish I had a crystal ball that could tell me when the good days would bless me with their presence. I could be so productive if I had something of value to do. But what kind of job out there rewards people for having outstanding days periodically? There are so few that I have found I need to get creative and figure out a way to utilize my time more wisely.

Yesterday I read an article about a research project that NAMI conducted. It said that people with mental illness had an 80% unemployment rate in the United States. From everything I have read it seems that most other countries fall about in the same statistical ratio. So what does this say about mental illness and employment? The article does not address those of us who may be underemployed, which is an entirely different issue too.

What are we supposed to do when we have those good days?  I guess reading and writing is one way to spend time in a valuable manner. I just have to keep from getting too frustrated with myself because I recognize having too much time on my hands is not the best thing for my mental health. I am a goal directed individual and the more goals I can have for myself the better I feel.

The problem comes when I start wishing there was an immediate “feel good” solution for me on those days when I am far more capable of doing complex tasks.  These are the times when I focus hard on positive self-talk. It’s really easy to go down the path of “let’s beat up Amy today,” even though I know it is not a healthy thing to do. I may say something like, “If I tried harder I could accomplish more.” “I need to be more organized with my time.” Then I get all excited about having a new plan of action and I wake up the next day and getting out of bed may be the best I can accomplish.

This up and down road makes it a harder to check off the “to-do” list. It also makes it more difficult to have consistent approaches to various goals ultimately making it harder to have achievements. Certainly it is not impossible, just more difficult.

If I had one wish I would hope for more resources to be placed in helping those of us living with a mental illness to have working projects where we could utilize our skill sets. Maybe a collaborative writing project where we contributed to a group writing project. I don’t know the answer. I just know I need something I can feel good about.

Bipolar Disorder Cheated Me!

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Do you ever feel like your mental illness cheated you out of something? There are some days when I open my eyes after a long night’s rest and I just lie there in bed. I start thinking about what my day holds for me. What do I have to accomplish? Do I work today or am I going to have to figure out how I can be productive for the day? At times I get frustrated with this merry go round. I am tempted to fall back into dreaming about the past where getting up in the morning guaranteed I was going to have a full plate of activities and things to do.

In my recovery journey I came to realize that having a sense of purpose was one of the most important parts of getting well and staying well. Of course it is not always easy to accomplish this goal, but when I do I feel so much better about myself.

Today is just not one of those days. Today I feel like I have been cheated. I feel short-changed in the game of life– all my past dreams and ambitions stolen away from me because I ended up with a rather severe case of bipolar disorder. This vicious illness robbed me of my life as I once knew it.

There I said it. I have made it clear that I loathe bipolar disorder. I am not one of those people who like the manic highs with endless creative energy. I hate everything about this disorder. Some would say because it is a part of me I must hate myself too. But I don’t really look at it like that. I look at it as an illness separate and apart from me. It may affect my moods, but it does not influence the positive aspects of myself anymore than I like being thought of as a negative person when I am depressed.

It’s an illness. A nasty mental illness. I don’t think people who have cancer love their disease, nor do they romanticize it. There is nothing positive about living with an illness whether it is mental or physical. It is exactly what it is—an illness.

I know some people will take issue with me and in attempt to make me feel better about having a mental illness they will point out all the famous people and celebrities who also have lived with bipolar disorder. This does not make me feel better. It only tells me that mental illness does not discriminate. It also tells me that people who have lived with or currently live with a mental illness have done some pretty extraordinary things. I am grateful for those stories. But it still doesn’t make me feel any better on a day-to-day basis of struggling with my own illness.

So on days like today, when I would rather have stayed in bed all day long, I consider it a success to have let my feet hit the floor. I hold on to the fact that I am in no way alone in the battle against a mental illness. And I know that I am not alone in having those days when I feel like I have been cheated.

I am not willing to pretend my journey with bipolar disorder has been or will ever be easy. Some days I win and some days the whole idea of having this illness gets the best of me.  When that happens I look for the small wins and hope for a better tomorrow.

 

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.

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!

 

The “Hearing Voices Simulator”

On Monday Anderson Cooper from CNN interviewed Mental Health Advocate and Clinical Psychologist Pat Deegan. Pat, who also lives with schizophrenia, created a “hearing voices” simulator that Anderson experimented with. For 45 minutes one day he wore the IPOD that cranked voices into his ears. As part of the experiment he had to do puzzles and a math quiz while wearing the ear buds. If you are interested you can watch the interview with Anderson Cooper and Pat Deegan on CNN. It was fascinating to hear how much difficulty he had trying to complete tasks and it even affected him while walking down the street.

Since I have experienced a few psychotic episodes as a result of bipolar mania I was really glad to know this simulation existed. It is one thing to try and explain what “hearing voices” is like and another to have someone deal with hearing voices. I hope more people will have access to the simulator; especially people in the media who tend to cover mental illness only when a tragedy occurs.

Even though I want the media to better understand mental illness I still contend that one of the best ways to combat stigma is for those of us who live with a mental illness to continue to speak out about our experiences. Sometimes I forget that I live with and write about mental illness everyday. I have been a student of bipolar illness for the past 30 years. Not necessarily by choice but by necessity. My point is the words and their definitions come relatively easy to me.

Speaking My Truth

About a month ago I was reminded that not everyone knows or understands what a person who lives with bipolar disorder goes through. I was giving an old friend of mine a ride to the airport and he ask me why I wasn’t working in the profession I had been in for 18 years. At first I hesitated and then I decided I was going to speak my truth.

I said, “Well I’m not working in the biotech industry anymore, because when I had a bipolar depressive episode the company I was working for fired me while I was on disability leave.”

Jim replied, “That’s terrible. If you were depressed it must have been more depressing to get fired in the middle of being sick.”

“Yeah it was pretty bad. Right around Christmas time too.”

Jim looked at me and then asked, “What is bipolar disorder anyhow?

“It’s an illness where you experience extreme highs and lows and sometimes psychosis,” I was giving him the shorthand version of the illness.

“What’s psychosis?”

“Psychosis is when you see or hear things that other people don’t see or hear. Or you may get delusional believing things that are otherwise not true.”

Jim looked at me kind of strangely and then said, “Well sorry for asking so many questions I guess I just don’t understand. I’m really trying to understand.”

I was really pleased he took an interest and was willing to have a dialogue about mental illness.   I assured him it was no problem and he could ask me anything he wanted about bipolar disorder.

We rode in an awkward silence for a few minutes and then moved on to a different subject. Even though I admit feeling somewhat anxious I felt really proud of myself for having the courage to be open and honest. I figured the worst that could happen is I would lose a friend, and I already knew how to deal with that.

So I am a big proponent of more people understanding mental illness and especially showing compassion to those of us who live with it everyday. I have always been an Anderson Cooper fan, but now I like him even more. I hope he continues to do more segments on mental illness. The more people talk about it the better chance we all have in breaking down the stigma barriers.

 

 

 

Social Isolation and Maintaining Friends

I have found one of the most difficult aspects of having a mental illness is the challenge in maintaining friendships. It is not that I stopped caring about other people—it is really because I got sick and was unable to maintain contact with people. It left me in a tough position with a whole bunch of connections yet few I had spoken to in years.

One could argue that people could have contacted me and that is true except my many manic episodes prompted me to change my phone number several times. Even if someone wanted to get in touch with me there’s a good chance they would not know my numbers.

I think that’s the good thing about social media. You can stay in touch as long as you don’t delete your Facebook page, Twitter account, or LinkedIn profile. Unfortunately, I’ve done that a couple of times too. But I have managed to keep most of my connections and this gives me the opportunity to keep up with old friends. It’s not like a good ole’ fashion phone conversation, but at least you know someone is thinking about you when they read your Facebook status and respond with a “like” or a “comment.”

One of the biggest problems with having a mental illness is the social isolation that comes from dealing with debilitating symptoms, like not being able to get out of bed. It could also be that you had an episode and ended up being hospitalized for a few weeks, which also equates to “falling off the face of the earth.” You just kind of disappear for a while until you get well enough to interact again. If people don’t know you’ve been sick or have an illness they wonder what happened to the friendship.

I had a friend who even knew I had bipolar disorder, but didn’t know I had been sick. He simply started thinking I didn’t value his friendship, which was not the truth. I’d gotten sick and there was know way he could know that until I was well enough to tell him. By then so much time had passed the friendship will never be the same again.

Friendships are hard to maintain even without a mental illness. Having one makes maintaining relationships a bit more challenging. I find myself more comfortable being open and honest with people and just letting them know I have bipolar disorder. Not to use it as an excuse but to let them know I might not always be well. I hope my friends understand and if they don’t I’ll have to deal with it.

There are times when I wish I could reach out and talk to someone from my past and explain to him or her why I stopped contacting them. The truth is to many years have passed and I am not sure I can overcome that amount of lost time. Instead I’ll keep focusing on the interaction I do have with social media and look forward to meeting new friends in the future. Hopefully I can stay healthy and not become so socially isolated.