Rebuilding a Bipolar Life

spiritual_meditation

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.

 

 

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 Lies Depression Tells You

Depression is…

I have been blessed not to have many physical ailments, however, I feel like I have been “cursed” with depression (I know that’s not true). Depression is the kind of illness that makes any physical illness worse. It affects the mind, body and spirit and does so with a relentless grip that causes emotional torment. A therapist once told me, “Depression tells you lies Amy. You can’t believe those lies.”

Given you know how terrible depression really is what do we do to survive through the episodes? What are some ways we can get through the times we are sick? If depression lies to us then who can tell us the truth and will we listen when they do?

The Lies Depression Told Me

I recently just got well from another major bipolar disorder depressive episode. It lasted about 4 ½ months. It got worse before it got better and it took a medication change to help me begin to feel better. I had a few suicidal thoughts but nothing like I have had in the past. Mostly the thoughts that said, “You’re never going to recover. You’ll always be depressed.” I knew that was a flat out lie and I knew right away that I was dealing with the symptoms of depression.

I survived this last episode by recognizing the lies immediately. I called them what they were and it seemed to stop the endless torment that can happen. I began to think about other things and kept acknowledging what I was dealing with. I gave myself a break and stopped beating myself up for sleeping 14-15 hours a day. I believed I could trust my doctor to prescribe the right medication, at the right dosage that was going to help me. When hope ran away I ran after it.

Surviving A Depressive Episode

What also helps me is to research specific topics about depression. This works if I can concentrate long enough to read the article because sometimes my concentration goes by the way side when depressed. But I focused on doing a little bit at a time—read a little here—research a little there. I read anything to get some form of relief.

It helped me to seek out positive stories about people who had recovered. I liked learning their stories and allowed myself to be lifted up by their celebrations. I turned to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance and explored some of their resources. I even returned to one of the DBSA peer group meetings.

5 Helpful Strategies

In summary here are the strategies I used to help me survive my last depressive episode:

1)   Recognize the symptoms and don’t believe the lies

2)   Have patience and forgiveness for not being able to complete daily activities

3)   Look for positive examples of people who have recovered—it will provide HOPE

4)   Look to someone you trust to help you (maybe a physician)

5)   Believe things will get better—they always do!

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Lifestyle Changes After a Mental Illness Diagnosis

When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder the last thing I wanted was to change my life.  I wanted to continue with my fast pace lifestyle and highly stressful career.  But over the next several years after that initial diagnosis I had to learn about what kinds of limitations I had and how those limits were going to change my life.  What I did not realize was that everyone has limitations no matter who they are or what circumstances they have and realizing this fact helped me to adjust to the limitations I had to incur.

Some of the biggest changes were the following:

1) Give up business travel = Change my career

I could no longer travel 3-4 days per week to different cities because traveling was far too intense and interfered with my sleep schedule.  It took me years to realize sleep was and is my biggest indicator for wellness.  If I wanted to function well I was going to have to protect my sleep patterns and monitor how much sleep I was getting per night.  Traveling for business had to stop and that meant a career change.

2) Understand the Disease = Monitor my moods

I had to learn how to monitor my moods.  One of the keys to wellness and recovery is to know when you feel well and know when the illness symptoms are breaking through.  It seems like it should be obvious to monitor symptoms, but for me it took years to learn the difference between mania, depression and normal moods.  The truth is I strive for the most wellness I can have and one step in doing that is stringing lots of good days together by focusing on the things I can control that makes me feel well and eliminating the things that don’t.

3) Discovering Acceptance = Living in the present

Acceptance is about being okay with exactly how things have worked out.  I continually strive for acceptance on a daily basis.  Sometimes I find myself resisting “what is” and I may get stuck thinking about what life was like before I had to make changes, so I constantly work at acceptance.  I have learned acceptance is not a destination it is a state of being.

Slide1Life after a mental illness diagnosis meant I had to make some changes in my career, I had to learn about the illness and understand how it affects me and finally I had to experience the stages of acceptance in order to live peacefully with my own destiny.  Now I am ready to take on new challenges in my life.  What stage are you in with acceptance?