When we bend, we don’t break!

I never understood how people could consider a mental illness a “gift.” The very idea of having a disability be a gift made me cringe with disgust. How could anything that caused so much pain, disappointment, embarrassing situations, and extensive losses ever be anything but a freaking curse?

And then 2020 arrived and here we all are in the middle of a dramatic, traumatic worldwide pandemic. Ironically for me to change my perspective about bipolar disorder being a gift, it had to be an earth shattering situation. A metaphoric tsunami.

At last I see the gift.

I’ve seen many articles written about how hard of a time this is for especially people who have serious mental illness. I’m not in that statistic. This time, while not easy for me, this situation I’ve used as a personal growth and reflection opportunity. That is my secret to surviving.

Here is how I see my gift working for me.

Everyday I wake up starts with a mental health check-in. How did I sleep? How are my thoughts? Am I groggy or do I have lots of energy? Do I feel depressed? Am I hopeful? Optimistic? Or do I just feel like going back to bed and sleeping away the blues? I accept whatever I feel. I don’t resist it.

I’ve learned how to manage a mental health condition by monitoring my thinking, emotions and behavior. I watch and reflect on how my brain functions.

Sounds exhausting. But when your brain never shuts off it must be occupied with something productive. So I give it tasks.

When I can’t slow my thoughts down I read to focus. I read and read and read because it’s productive and it helps me to apply my gift.

And as quickly as I can hone in on structure, tasks and discipline it’s as if a switch turns off in my brain and all I want to do is feel the breeze on my cheeks. I drift off in a free wheeling creative space that allows me to relax and dream and just be.

I never really understood how bipolar disorder affected me because it’s simply always been a part of me. Intense focus and goal driven behaviors, high achievement, and a level of empathy that hards to find. Followed sometimes in a flashing moment with a pensive subdued mood, without a care for consequences.

As I’ve learned to successfully manage bipolar disorder I’ve been given many insights to human behavior. Mostly my own. But I understand and grasp mental health to a degree I never would have if it weren’t for this great challenge in life I’ve been given.

The beauty of the gift is being able to share these insights and accumulated knowledge.

This time we are living in is best managed like a tree that is bending in the midst of a tornado. When we bend we don’t break.

Traumatic events can feel like they go on forever and continue to repeat. We are living daily in a real time traumatic event. But it doesn’t have to go on forever, nor does it have to repeat in our minds.

Staying in the present moment is a healthy coping strategy in handling everyday stress and in managing traumatic events. Bipolar disorder and all the subsequent related events around it gave me the gift of knowing and feeling how powerful the present really is.

It’s savoring all the little things in the moment. Simple things. Your child’s smile. The scoop of ice cream you put in your bowl anticipating the cool sweetness you are about to taste. For me it’s putting up a bird feeder and watching all the beautiful birds have a feeding party among different colors, shapes and sizes of nature’s gifts.

Sometimes when we are going through tough times it’s hard to see the good in that situation. Negatives don’t suddenly turn into positives. But what can happen is realizing our brains are built to bend in difficult circumstances. And when we bend we don’t break.

Because of bipolar disorder, my new found gift, I share these insights with you, because without it I might have broken long ago.

Be safe friends. There are hidden gifts in every circumstance.

Amy Gamble

Football & Recovery

I am an athlete.  I might not be in Olympic caliber condition, but I will always be an athlete.  I am not the greatest fan in the world, but I did watch the superbowl.  I really could have cared less who won or lost, but I became fascinated with the way Tom Brady handled being behind by so many points.

Stressful.  Frustrating.  Emotional.  Yet he never quit.  You can dislike Tom Brady and the Patriots, but you cannot discount the fact that this guy never gave up.

In my world of recovery and mental health advocacy I cannot think of a better comparison for how I feel about my recovery journey.  I made it all the way back.  I looked back today and thought about how many years and I do mean years, where I struggled relentlessly.  It doesn’t mean that those years never had a good time or two, it just means they were long, hard, and draining.

As I sat in my new NAMI of Greater Wheeling office today I really just wanted to pinch myself.  I started on this mental health advocacy journey three years ago and since then I have worked my way to becoming an Executive Director of a non-profit organization.  One that focuses on advocacy for people with mental illness and their family members who support them.  I have found my passion and my cause.

If you knew where I was four years ago, you might not believe I could make a comeback.  If you want to find out what happened and how I did it…watch for the release of “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor.”  It will be released on August 22!

No matter what people say about me the one thing they can never discount is the fact that I never give up.

 

7 Things I learned at the psych ward

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Does the title of this blog scare you?  Does it make you laugh?  Does it make you cry?  Make you shudder?  It might do one or all of those things.  Most people NEVER want to admit they have been to a psychiatric hospital.  I can’t say I would have ever dreamed I would be talking about this out loud.  But the path between me and a psych ward is pretty long ago and I feel like there is something to be learned from every experience.  And as a mental health advocate I believe we should never be ashamed from getting the help we need.  In this spirit I share…

Here are seven things I learned at the psych ward:

#1)  It is NO fun to be LOCKED up

My first trip for inpatient care was 17 years ago and I was terrified when the door locked behind me.  I understand the door is locked for patients and public safety, but it does not discount my feelings of fear.  It reminded me of all the bad things I had ever heard about mental institutions.  Yes, even though I might not have been in my best frame of mind I still had thoughts and feelings.  There are places that do not lock the door, but those are few and far between.  No sugar coating.  Being locked away was a degrading feeling.

#2)  Most people there are “normal”

What is normal anyway?  Well, that’s your average everyday person who has goals, dreams and a life outside of the hospital door.  People from all walks of life visit the psych ward every single day.  They are just normal people – husbands, wives, daughters, sons – they just happen to be struggling with an illness.

#3)  The staff is a reflection of society (stigma exists)

There are good people, bad people and somewhere in between who work in the psych ward.  I have been treated extremely well by many people, but I have also been discounted, discouraged and disenchanted.  Some staff are very knowledgeable and willing to teach about a specific illness and others can’t wait until their shift ends.  Just a reflection of society.

#4)  You don’t recover in the hospital

Think about being hospitalized for any physical illness.  A person who has had open heart surgery is not going to get well over night in the hospital.  We are a quick fix culture, especially when it comes to mental illness.  But it takes time and effort to fully recover.

#5)  Some people are more sick than others

Mental illness is on a continuum.  Every disease has common signs and symptoms but will manifest differently in each person.  Some people will never get well and probably need to be in a hospital for continuous care.  But most people can get better.

#6)  Some places are better than others

I have been in a hospital that had a swimming pool and basketball court, but that’s the exception.  I have also been to a place that did not have enough chairs for everyone to sit. The most important thing is that a person gets the right kind of care that they need and clearly some places do provide it and others do not.

#7)  They don’t want to keep you there

Contrary to popular belief psych wards do not want to keep people there.  One of the biggest issues we have in America is the poor mental health treatment that is available.  It is often poor because people who need treatment can’t get treatment and if people get treatment they don’t keep people long enough – the average inpatient stay in the United States is 7.2 days.  For some illnesses that is not long enough.

A letter to my younger self

Dear Amy,

I want you to know there will be times in your life when you will struggle with a mental illness called bipolar disorder.  I know it sounds complicated and the truth is-it is complex because we are talking about your brain.  But if you learn everything you can about how to manage your symptoms and find a good treatment plan you will do great.

But I want you to know fighting your way back to health will be the hardest thing you ever do.  There is such a stigma with mental illness a lot of people are not going to understand.  You will find out who your real friends are and who you can rely on.

More than anything be true to yourself.  You don’t have to publicize you live with bipolar disorder unless you want too.  But you MUST be honest with yourself about your illness.  Some people can survive and thrive without medications, but you are not one of them.  In fact, most people with bipolar disorder need medications and there is no shame in that.

Whatever you do-don’t deny there is a problem.  It will set you back in life to pretend this serious illness will magically disappear on its own.  When is the last time you ever heard a brain tumor disappearing without intervention?  As much as you want it to go away, you can’t wish this away.  The sooner you accept it the faster you can get well and live your life.

You are going to need help along the way.  Doctors and therapists can be tremendous support on the road wellness.  But remember they are also human and not perfect.  They will make mistakes sometimes.  You have to find the right fit for you and never be afraid to ask questions or even disagree with providers.  The best ones will welcome an open dialogue.

In life we don’t get to choose what we get and what we don’t.  You are going to feel frustrated at times and you may have moments when you think, “what’s the point?”  But I want you to hold on to hope and never give up trying.

There will be times when you reflect back and thank your mother for giving you the gift of faith.  You may not be overtly assertive about your relationship with God, but you will get down on your knees and pray for God to get you through the tough times.  Without your faith you won’t make it because you will have some very difficult times and that will require a great deal of faith.

You will get a good handle on bipolar disorder and once you do the sky is the limit.  So don’t ever let anyone tell you to keep your dreams small.  You are good at dreaming big and I want you to keep doing that as long as you live.

Finally, take one day at a time.  Everything you need will be provided for you, maybe not what you want but what you need.  And when you figure all this stuff out don’t forget to reach back and help other people.  Because at the end of the day that’s what life is all about.

Your friend,

Your older self

Beating Mental Illness

How do you beat a mental illness?

There are many different ways to overcome a mental illness.  In my view my greatest victory came when I was no longer absorbed with my diagnosis and everything that negatively resulted because of it.

This meant I had many months and years of healing.  I grieved for my losses and gave thanks for all my gains.  But I had to face each one of these challenges, give it a name and work to overcome it.  I delved deep into every emotion I felt.  I challenged myself to be okay with the disappointments.  I gave in to not worrying about changing the past.

I learned every single thing I could about bipolar disorder.  I needed to know my enemy to beat my enemy.  Because I don’t perceive anything positive about having an illness.  I don’t like mania because I lose my good judgment.  I abore depression and can find no positive aspect about living with it.  Unlike some people who believe their illness is a part of them I refuse to embrace it.  I fight for wellness.  I manage bipolar disorder to the point where I rarely have any symptoms.

How do you win?

Winning in life is a personal definition.  We all have our own views as to what that looks like.  When it comes to mental illness I define winning as equivalent to recover.  So if I recover I win!

I have recovered and continue to recover. Each and every experience has moved me closer and closer to living the life I have created for myself.

I wanted to be a mental health advocate and that is what I have become.  I wanted to speak about recovery and I will be giving a keynote speech in November.  I wanted to be more involved in the community and now I am on two non-profit boards.

I am winning because I have chosen to fight.  I deal with the naysayers who want to keep me stuck in a nice and neat bipolar box.  But I refuse to be pigeonholed in that way.  I have broken through to a new frontier where I can finally look at myself and all of my experiences.  Much bigger than only a mental illness diagnosis.

I am winning by putting my life back together.  What was once rich and fulfilling before bipolar disorder has now returned to that level of enjoyment.  Rebuilding life means I am actively engaged in creating my own masterpiece.  I am not allowing others to paint a picture of how they think my life should look.  I truly enjoy beating the odds and defying all the negativity that can come from having a mental illness.

In short here is what it takes to beat mental illness:

#1-Information and education

#2-Providers who will listen and work with you

#3-A fighting spirit

#4- Live authentically

#5-A vision for recovery

#6-A dose of healing potion to deal with the past

#7- Refuse to settle for less than you deserve

You beat mental illness by facing it toe to toe and never giving up the battle.  Fight. “Never give up.  Never give in.  Never never never.” ~Winston Churchill

Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor

It’s no secret that I have struggled with bipolar disorder for several years. What may be less known is that I have also fought hard to overcome numerous setbacks and personal losses as a result of my illness. I don’t like that I have had to deal with an illness as cruel as bipolar disorder can be, but the more I focus on how unfair it is the less time I have to live a full life.

I know for sure I am not the only person who has suffered because of bipolar disorder. There are many kindred spirits out there who can relate. So I dedicate this post to all of you reading, looking for some words that may bring peace to your heart.

You see, I know a great deal about believing in the American Dream and living that dream to some extent. I also know first hand what it’s like to lose almost everything at the hands of a mental illness. I think the worst loss for me was when I lost my sense of self. I was once a confident, young woman who thought creating dreams, setting goals and accomplishing those were simply a way of life. It was my way of life and it worked well for me.

Then I met this fierce competitor. Not in the form of a human being, but an invisible force that took away my ability to function. There has been no greater challenge for me than to find my way back to a stabilized person. Even making my way to the Olympic Games was in no way a fraction as difficult as it has been to fight bipolar disorder.

This is how my friends I know just how strong you are. If you’ve found your way back to stability from any bipolar episode, you are one tough person. Because this competitor we face does not play fair. It has it’s own set of rules and takes no prisoners.

But we win everyday by fighting the good fight. I know I had to pick up many pieces in my life in order to recover–one step at a time, day-by-day and sometimes moment-by-moment. The biggest and most important part of the fight is to never give up trying.

Part of the challenge is also to remake ourselves all over again. Because often times bipolar disorder has taken us off whatever path we may have been on. It might have kept us from finishing school or stopped us real quick in our career paths. But to fight back means we forge on looking for new opportunities. This is where it really becomes even more difficult.

If you’ve ever been at the top of your game and fallen all the way to the bottom, you know how hard it is to remake yourself. But you made the journey, why stop where you are? This is what I tell myself as I continue to get stronger on my path.

See, no one is there to point us in the direction we need to go, at least not for me. I’ve been fumbling my way around trying to find a sense of purpose for my life. I walked down several paths, only to either quit before seeing it through, or get to the door of something new and run before I opened it. I have even a greater fear of failing than I have ever had in my life. I’m not afraid to step out there and try, I’m just afraid if I try too hard my nemesis will rear its’ ugly head and render me incapable. I wish I wasn’t afraid, but I am.

I try to dream and set goals. I have accomplished a few along the way. But the really big ones elude me. I have had to learn how to be satisfied with the small wins. Because I know in my heart the small wins will lead to bigger ones.

I don’t have a great deal of answers for anyone. More than anything, just know there is someone out there who knows exactly how you feel. And whatever you are trying to do, keep trying. Don’t give up. Eventually we’ll find our way. We always do.

Bipolar Disorder Destroys Life and Then What?

Bipolar disorder not only disrupted my life it destroyed it. Every area of my life that I call my Pie of Life was affected: spiritual, financial, relationships/friendships, work, physical health and mental health. It took me a very long time to identify and process how each of these areas have been mutilated by an uncontrolled illness. But after recognizing the destruction I had to literally go back and start to pick up the pieces.

After I got my symptoms under control, I started to tell myself things like, “you deserve a life again.” But having a life meant facing the fall-out of all the things I no longer had and that was a terribly painful process. What also made it worse is that I had no “battle buddy” to walk the journey with me. I had a few family members but none who I really talked too about what I was going through on a daily basis. I might mention my struggles every now and then, but I never hashed it out.

I did utilize the services of a therapist and she was very supportive as I went through the “damage control” process. I found her most helpful as a support person for dealing with my last episode that resulted in a hospitalization. She helped me recover from the trauma inpatient care can sometimes inflict. As a matter of fact, I recently read someone’s blog where she was talking about how her therapist suggested she might have developed PTSD from a recent hospitalization. I have also been diagnosed with PTSD from things that happened during my episodes and then my subsequent hospitalizations. Trauma is trauma. Sometimes it does not necessarily matter, as much how we get to that point for the end result is similar.

Picking up the pieces of a shattered life is not a lot of fun. It is difficult to identify where you are going to start, let alone find the confidence to take one baby step forward and try. I found returning to my Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance group very helpful. Even though I have to admit I was skeptical that I would find as much support as I did. I simply did not know where to turn as I started piecing my life back together again, like a complex jigsaw puzzle with a million little pieces.

I actually sat down and made a plan. Even though I had an idea of what I wanted I knew if I could see it written down it may make even a bigger impact on me. So, I took each category of my Pie of Life and wrote it down and gave it a preliminary evaluation. I decided I would share with you my journey as I tediously rebuild my life.

I can tell you that in the area of relationships/friendships I have found great camaraderie in the blogging world. The active followers, viewers and readers have really made a difference in inspiring me to continue to write. It has also given me a connection to many individuals who understand the journey is not for the faint of heart. You have to dig down deep to want to attempt to rebuild your life. I have to give a big “thank you” to those who have encouraged me. I bet you didn’t know you had the power to influence a life when you wrote those comments or clicked on “like.” Little things make big differences!

I hope you will join me as I share the steps I am taking to build my life all over again. This is one way I know I will beat bipolar disorder.

 

 

On Break from my Bipolar Self!

Well in case you haven’t noticed I have been away several days from the blogging world. I would like to say I was far off somewhere in the middle of an exotic island enjoying a fruit-filled cocktail, but that would be a fantasy.  No, I have just been enjoying the ups and downs of a bipolar life.

Even though I changed medication I still get those lingering mild depression symptoms and when that happens my concentration goes. Not to the point of being unable to carry on a conversation, but to the point where putting pen to paper is nearly impossible. Then, for whatever reason, the concentration cloud lifts and my head gets really clear. Alas, here I am.

I do romanticize about taking a break from my bipolar self. I think about how I will rebuild my life with cool people and we will laugh and talk and genuinely enjoy each other’s company. In that time there will be no discussion about which anti-psychotic has more weight gain and what one costs the most money. None of us would have to worry about whether we missed a dose of medication or added a pill we usually don’t take that knocked us out for a day (that’s me-I slept until 3pm). We could even grab a beer or glass of wine without feeling guilty.

Yes in my unbipolar world there would be no time to laugh at funny things therapists might say to you. Numbers would only be used for phone numbers and not for involuntary commitments (5150). There would be no pain and suffering to discuss because everyone would feel awesome. When we referred to a tool kit – meditation would not be something you would find in it. A tool kit would be about hammers and nails, not coping mechanisms for serious mental illnesses.

Finally, when I woke up every morning I could open my eyes and make believe I was going to feel great before my first cup of coffee. There would be no such thing as a medication hangover. I could ignore many of the bad memories that harbor in my mind because of my illness. It would never bother me again.

Well, it only takes a short time to realize there are a few things I would miss and that is the wonderful people I have met because I have bipolar disorder. And so what – we have different things in common than the average person, but we can find a lot of humor in living our lives with mental illness. They always say – laughter is the best medicine! Oh how I believe it is true!

Thanks for reading friends! And thanks for all your well wishes while I was away.

Healing from Bipolar Disorder

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I have wrestled with this whole idea of healing from bipolar disorder. Since the illness never goes away, I have thought about how I know when I am actually well again. What constitutes feeling better? Are there markers out there or examples that show us what living well with bipolar disorder looks like?

For me the first thing I look at is whether or not my symptoms of depression are under control. Can I concentrate enough to read, get out of bed or eliminate any negative thoughts that linger on and on replaying with a skip like on a damaged music CD. I don’t know if I can sustain this period of normalcy I am experiencing but so far so good.

The medications I take really keep a damper on the “mania.” I also watch mania like a hawk. I know my illness well enough to know “mania” is not my friend. The biggest precursor to mania is lack of sleep, so I monitor how much sleep I get and I pay close attention to any semblance of racing thoughts that may enter my brain.

For the most part, I have spent most of my time getting very well acquainted with bipolar depression. I have read where most of the time people with bipolar have to deal with more symptoms of depression than any mania. And I have to say I am bothered when people romanticize the “mania.” We all know what goes up must come down and usually comes down with a crash.

I don’t know about you but I get so excited when I start to feel really good, not mania good, just “normal” good. I crawl out from my cave and start thinking about what I can accomplish. What do I want to do now that I am well again? I always find that when I start feeling better I start searching for opportunities to get busier. But I have this “little Amy” on my shoulder that monitors everything I do (it’s only an imaginary Amy not a delusion…:).

This is where I get stuck. In the back of my mind I have a fear that my wellness period will only last so long and I will be right back where I started with some episode of depression or even mania for that matter. I fear the relapse and I hate that I have so much fear about it. I wish I could think about possibilities without having the realism downer inhabit my thoughts.

So knowing I will never really completely heal from bipolar disorder I have to make another plan of action–one that can fulfill me today and give me hope for tomorrow. A plan that helps me live out my dreams but also takes into account the limitations I have to live with. It’s almost a double edge sword because I have always pushed myself to achieve more than I thought possible, and in that push I have been successful. But now I am nearly paralyzed by my fears of having symptoms break through again. The things that were my strengths have become another obstacle I have to overcome.

Healing from bipolar disorder is really in the eyes of the beholder. A doctor might consider staying out of the hospital as a huge success. I would agree with that, but then I say what is next?  And that is when I wonder just how far the healing can continue. Is it enough for me to be okay with being stable or do I need more to feel as if I have truly healed?  Will I ever be satisfied with the status quo?  These are the questions I ask myself and so far I don’t have the answers.