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.

 

 

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!

true-strength-is-being-able-to

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.

Is Forced Treatment for Mental Illness Okay?

psychward

There is a word for not knowing when you are sick and it is called “anosognosia.” Like everything in the world of mental illness there is controversy about it. Some people don’t believe it exists at all, while others have developed extensive research projects defending it as a term.

But let’s cut to the chase. Is there ever a time when someone with a mental illness may not know he or she is sick? The answer to that question is “yes.” I don’t know if people can deny that is true, but many people who are experiencing psychotic episodes do not know they are sick. Some people who experience full-blown manic episodes have lost insight and don’t know they are sick. When this happens family members are left to try and find a way to get their loved one treatment in the hopes of bringing them back to reality.

Forty years ago the Supreme Court ruled that in order to be committed involuntarily one must be found “a danger to himself or others.” Some states have added language to include “an immediate danger.” Sometimes this is interpreted to mean even if a person may become a possible danger to himself or others, unless it is happening in the moment the person cannot be forced into treatment.

The problem with this law is that it really discounts situations when people are unable to competently judge for themselves when help might be necessary. Although many who have mental illness may never become a danger to themselves or others they may still benefit from treatment intervention. The bottom-line is you cannot legally make someone take medications.

I have been on both sides of this issue. I have filled out papers in the court house to have a family member committed during a manic episode, only to watch the system fail and for her not to get treatment. It took about three months before I was able to get her much needed help. In the meantime, I lost a number of sleepless nights and had to deal with the danger of someone not in her right frame of mind.  Just standing by waiting for the “shoe to drop.” Something bad would have happened if I had not have finally gotten her treatment because she had some major physical health issues and needed hospitalization. Without a mental state she may not have been able to communicate those life threatening physical symptoms.

In my own situation I have been involuntarily committed. Each time this happened I did not know I was ill. No matter how much anyone reasoned with me I felt like I was “fine.” I could not understand why people wanted me to get “locked up” for treatment.

Did the fact I was taken against my will into treatment cause me trauma? You bet it did. But if I were to sign a psychiatric Advanced Directive I would give family members who I trust the ability to make decisions for me, if I am unable to make them myself. And as a person who has benefited from treatment I want that intervention to take place.  All this can be spelled out in an Advanced Directive.

I understand the arguments on both sides of the fence. One where people have been fighting for mental disability rights for years to remove the archaic treatment and/or abuse that took place in mental institutions. They have brought freedom of choice for the mentally ill population. The freedom to accept or refuse treatment based on patients rights.

What if you want treatment when you are well, but refuse it when you don’t know you are sick? What should happen to you? What if the treatment team recommends more high-risk treatment like electro convulsive therapy (ECT)? Do you have a right to deny specific treatment options or are you at the mercy of the providers who evaluate you?

So many questions and not one clear cut example that makes this issue any less charged. I think the best solution is to write an Advanced Directive while you are well and put that in a place where everyone can find it. This way at least some of your wishes have a chance at being carried out.

For those who can’t get a loved one treatment, my heart goes out to you. It’s just a tough position to be in all the way around. This definitely makes the case for more education, information and awareness for mental illness, so people can be in a better position to make informed choices. It’s not perfect but who wants to go back in time to the 1960’s where anyone could have someone committed into an institution. That’s not a just solution either.

For a heart-wrenching story from the Washington Post about the inability of a family to help a man in need of treatment read Behind the yellow door, a man’s mental illness worsens. It will make you think about whether or not forced treatment is humane.

To read more about Advance Directives click here Advanced Directives Information.

 

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!

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Consumed with a Mental Illness Diagnosis

Sometimes dealing with mental illness can be completely overwhelming and all consuming. This happens in bipolar disorder when symptoms break through or there is some kind of relapse causing either a manic or depressive episode and in some cases both at the same time. But in other times when the illness is relatively stable it becomes really important to focus on other things beside your diagnosis.

Recently I had to remind myself that I had more experiences than simply my visits to the psychiatric hospital. During one of my depressive episodes I didn’t even feel good about my Olympic experience. Someone ask me about it and I just kind of shrugged my shoulders like it really didn’t matter anyhow. This is what can happen when we get so bogged down in dealing with recurring symptoms and managing a disease. It takes a toll on the balancing aspect of life and becomes a central focus of our lives.

As I began to remind myself about the good things that I had experienced or the things I considered accomplishments I had to balance those thoughts without allowing myself to get sad because I didn’t feel like the person I used to be. It was like thought dominos falling from one good example to “why did I have to get this illness?” It was a fight that I eventually won and came out on the positive side of things.

But it is really easy to see how people who suffer from mental illness can become so into their own thoughts that it actually makes the conditions worse. When we are to inside ourselves without some kind of external stimulus we begin to believe all the things we tell ourselves. We need to remind ourselves always that we are more than our illness, more than a diagnosis and certainly not a label.

As I took a look back and identified things I was really proud of, I highlighted my Olympic experience as being something that I would always cherish. No amount of mental illness drama was ever going to take away my positive feelings about marching in those opening ceremonies, with all the world watching. For a moment in time I was a part of something much bigger than myself and I had to remind myself that this experience still mattered regardless of how my life had twisted and turned.

I also started looking at other people who I thought were good examples of how to live with adversity. I began to think about one of my old college basketball coaches from the University of Tennessee, Pat Summitt. A few years ago she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Instead of drifting into despair she took action and created an organization with a mission to help fund Alzheimer’s disease research. If Pat wasn’t going to give up how could I? My illness was far less severe than Alzheimer’s. “There must be something I can do to make a difference in the world of mental illness,” I thought to myself.

I made myself start focusing on the whole picture of “Amy,” and stopped viewing myself as a broken down version of a picture perfect past. The ruminating began to stop and I started to gain better self-esteem and more confidence. I could tell by the way I walked and the way I talked I was getting better everyday. Essentially I put myself in training to “get outside” my own head.

All these things in combination with reading other people’s stories have really helped me out of a dark abyss. There are few things that are worse than suffering from continual depressive symptoms that are debilitating, but I knew I needed to put myself in a position where I could focus on the things I could control and let go of the things I could not.

I won that battle by insisting my doctor put me on a medication that had some evidence of working in depression. I also advocated for removing a medication that was causing severe side effects. These are the things I could control. And for my part I became focused on understanding the psychological aspects of grieving from mental illness losses. In short, I made a plan and I stuck with it.

Getting better has allowed me to lift up my head and recognize I don’t have to think of myself as “lesser.” Just because I can’t say I work at a big Fortune 500 company anymore I’m not any lesser of a human being. I have those experiences, yes, but even that does not make me any better or worse off than anyone who does not.

The next time you can’t stop thinking about your diagnosis try getting outside your own head and think about “you” the whole person and not just the person with a label. It might make a small difference in your day.

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?