Mental Illness Makes You Tough!

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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.”

Diagnosis and Labels

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Back in 1999 I was first diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.  I came into the mental health treatment system in crisis.  There were a multitude of reasons why but the bottom line was I was hearing for the first time I had a mental illness and I was feeling as if I was being labeled with some kind of curse.  Of course years later I came to realize the proper diagnosis was a critical step in the recovery process and though I did not want a stereotypical label I did need the diagnosis.

Now I know there are other types of diseases where “labels” negatively affect the person who is ill, (AIDS is one of those diseases that come to mind) but I can only begin to explain how terrible it feels to get that label.  What should have been a time to focus on understanding the diagnosis became a time to come up with all the reasons why it could not be right for me.  You see I had to learn how to accept this Bipolar diagnosis and come to terms with the negative affects from becoming a part of a population of people with illnesses that are largely misunderstood by the general population.

I can’t tell you how many times I cried about my diagnosis.  The energy I expended resisting having bipolar could have far better been applied to getting well.  The insight I gathered over time helped me to peel back the layers of complexity involved in accepting a mental illness diagnosis and subsequently focusing on wellness instead of resisting labels.

When I talk to people today who are recently diagnosed with Bipolar or who may have a family member who has been diagnosed I listen to the unnecessary pain people carry because of the stereotypical labels.  I try to reinforce the fact that many mental illnesses have treatments today that help people carry on and live healthy, productive lives.  All this followed by I know it’s not easy but a proper diagnosis is the first step toward recovery.

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I wish I could get rid of the negative connotations associated with having a mental illness.  But in the meantime I’d say focus on the diagnosis and try to forget about the label.  One of the keys to successful outcomes is early detection, so the sooner you have a proper diagnosis the quicker you can get well or at the very least learn how to live with the illness.

Labels are harmful but proper diagnosis saves lives!