Getting off the bipolar rollercoaster!

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I was having a conversation with a mental health care professional.  We were discussing the need to treat bipolar disorder.  The conversation was inspired by a young man I met who had his first episode of bipolar disorder.  I’ll call him Matt.

After he was released from the hospital Matt came to talk with me at his mother’s request.  He told me about smoking a lot of marijuana with high THC levels.  And I replied, “Not sure if you know this but it can cause psychosis in people who are at risk for mental illness.”  He answered, “Yeah.  I know.  They told me that at the hospital.”

We continued our discussion and it was clear to me after three weeks in the hospital Matt was still not stable.  He admitted to “cheeking” his medications.  The hospital than begin to give him injections.

So, as I was discussing with the psychologist about what happens to people with bipolar disorder who have had psychotic episodes and don’t stay with a treatment plan, I said, “Matt is headed down a bad pathway, if he doesn’t stay with his treatment.”  The psychologist looked at me and said, “None of us have a crystal ball Amy.”

Well…I wouldn’t claim to be clairvoyant but I am rather intuitive.  More importantly I have seen my family members struggle without the proper treatment (my sister had over 40 hospitalizations), I personally have had my own challenges and every single person who I have met with bipolar disorder road a rollercoaster until they got the proper treatment.

I had another experience just a few short weeks ago with a person who I helped get to the hospital.  She was released long before she was stable.  I was livid.  She is now a missing person.  Her brother said to me, “I can see how people become homeless.”

I’m not intending for this to be a downer blog post.  There is a lot of hope when it comes to mental illness and bipolar disorder.  I live a meaningful, productive life.  But I also have been on that rollercoaster ride.  Even if I’m not a psychic, I know with 99% accuracy, if you don’t take bipolar disorder seriously, it will destroy your life and will impact the lives of everyone in it.

The mental health care system is terribly broken.  And mental health care professionals must start educating people about their conditions, including the possibilities of what can happen if the proper treatment plan is not in place.

I see two doors.  Door number one is not taking medication and staying on a high-low rollercoaster that wrecks havoc and keeps us sick.  Door number two is difficult.  But we learn everything we can and keep learning about wellness strategies, how to recognize symptoms, how to deal with depressive episodes, how to keep fighting.  It’s not an easy peaceful path.  But door number two…is the audience choice on Let’s Make a Deal.

We can’t allow our frustrations with something we deal with on a daily basis to keep us from persevering.  If you live with bipolar disorder, you must learn as much as you can about this illness.  It is manageable, treatable and you can learn to live with it.  Doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.  But as with other illnesses a person who has it must take responsibility.

None of us bought the ticket for the rollercoaster ride bipolar disorder takes us on.  But when you can get off the ride, life gets a whole lot better.

Winning against bipolar disorder with my faith as my anchor

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“As I lie in my bed trying to squeeze out the suicidal thoughts, the horrific pain of being all alone without one friend in the entire world, and the mortifying realization that in that moment I couldn’t care for myself, I turned to what had always gotten me through the tough times.  I turned to my anchor, which is my faith in God.”

There are a lot of stereotypes and misunderstandings about bipolar disorder and those of us who live with it on a daily basis are subject to these misperceptions.  Just last week I was giving a talk at a conference on the stigma of mental illness and addiction.  Most of the feedback was positive, but there was one person who said, “Bipolar disorder is an excuse for bad behavior.”

What?

After speaking for an hour on stigma and sharing some very personal stories about bipolar disorder, the needle never moved in this person’s mind.  And then I realized most people have absolutely no clue what those of us who have lived a lifetime with the impact of bipolar disorder have struggled through.  I’ve never once thought bipolar disorder was an excuse for anything.  A reason, yes.  An excuse, never.

My first episode was way back in 1999.  I was a director in a corporate office with a multi-million budget to manage.  Not only did I have a manic episode, I had a psychotic episode.  I ended up in an inpatient psychiatric care facility, which made me feel crazy.  And when people questioned my views and insights, I wondered if they thought I was crazy too?

Over the next 12 years, I struggled through 10 hospitalizations, a three-week stay in jail and worst of all losing most, if not all of my friends and some family members.  No one wants to be around people who are not mentally well.  It’s just a fact.  Maybe after a first episode, people may give you the benefit of the doubt.  But when the struggle goes on, everyone including family members get worn down.

I was fortunate.  I had a few strong and tough family members who have borne witness to my entire journey.  They stood with pride when I became an Olympian.  They dealt with their own disappointment when I started to struggle with my mental health.  And they hung on to see me recover and flourish again.  They believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.

I was also isolated for a long stretch of time.  I went weeks without having any family member in my home.  But I had two things that helped me bear the unbearable pain and suffering of relentless depression and suicidal thoughts.  I had my three dogs who I absolutely consider a gift from God.  And I also had my faith.

As I lie in my bed trying to squeeze out the suicidal thoughts, the horrific pain of being all alone without one friend in the entire world, and the mortifying realization that in that moment I couldn’t care for myself, I turned to what had always gotten me through the tough times.  I turned to my anchor, which is my faith in God.

Did prayer instantly solve my struggles?  No.  But it gave me hope.  And in those moments of struggle and despair, hope is the one thing that kept me going.  And that is why I feel anchored, even though managing bipolar disorder can wear me down.  I keep going because I’m driven by a higher power.  I’m driven to help other people.  I have found my calling.  And I am grateful to have a purpose.

If you’re struggling with a mental health condition, I can tell you the first thing you’ve got to do is work on getting stable.  If you have bipolar disorder, a treatment plan is 99.9% always going to include a medication regimen.  There’s just no and’s, if’s, but’s or reason to think you’re going to be the only person in the world who can manage a chronic, severe mental illness without medication.  If that’s your choice and it works for you – great.  But from experience I can tell you it’s not gonna work out well.

Secondly, I believe in mind, body and spirit.  When you combine getting stable with a personal recovery plan, spirituality is a big component of being well and balanced.

It helps to take small pieces of this very overwhelming journey to manage a mental illness.  And the one thing that’s required to have a healthy and happy life is a lot of hard work.

For those of you reading who have family members struggling, I just want to reach out and give you a big hug.  It’s not easy being you.  But whatever you do, don’t give up hope.  You’ve got to become the best salesperson in the world in selling to your loved one the whole idea that it’s okay to get help.  In fact, it’s a sign of strength to reach out.

Finally I want to finish by saying thank you to all my readers.  I’ve been blogging now for over four years.  Those who’ve been with me along the way know what journey it has been.  Thanks for all your support.  It matters.

Amy

 

Brave souls change hearts and minds!

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Photo: “This is My Brave” cast in Wheeling, West Virginia 

There’s a special feeling when we can be a part of something far bigger than we could ever accomplish alone.  This is my overwhelming feeling of having participated in Youth Services System and NAMI Greater Wheeling’s “This is My Brave Show,” which was held last night at the historic Capitol Theatre in Wheeling.

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Photo:  The Experience Church Worship Team & Audience

If you aren’t familiar with “This is My Brave” let me shed some light on it for you.  It’s a national non-profit organization co-founded by the amazing Jennifer Marshall.  The purpose of the show is to allow those who live with mental health conditions (mental illness & substance use disorders) to share their stories through creative expression-poetry, original music, essay.  The intent is to impact the stigma of mental illness through story telling.

The sixteen cast members in our show inspired the audience and made a lasting impression on all those who attended.  Those who shared struggle with and persevere daily through challenges related to depression, anxiety, panic attacks, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, binge eating disorder, suicide attempts and alcoholism.  Our show had an added bonus with the Experience Church Worship Team (aka-the band), kicking off the show with their inspiring and impactful musical talents.

The audience feedback has been nothing but positive.

Many people have said the IQ on that stage was beyond impressive.  Translation – people with mental illness can be smart.  Multiple people said, “it was fascinating to see the broad range of socio-economic levels and diversity of those impacted by mental illness.  Translation – mental illness does not discriminate.   One gentleman said, “I’m not affected by mental illness and I never realized what people go through.  This show helped me understand what others deal with.  I’m so grateful to be here tonight.”

And…the overwhelming comment by numerous people, “This show is inspiring.”

This morning I received this amazing quote from one of our cast members, Mr. Bill Hogan.  Bill writes,

“I have been involved in a bunch of stuff in my almost 90 years but never have I been so “electrified” by a group or an event as I was last night.  I love the word mystery and last night the wonder of it all, that unidentifiable power that charged the people on the stage as a group and as individuals was wonderful and gave everyone in that theater, on stage and off , a sense of joyful peace.  Everything was lined up the way it is supposed to be.
I am thinking of a quote  by W.B. Yeats  “ Go forth teller of tales. And seize whatever prey your heart desires.  Have no fear. Everything exists.  And everything is
True. And the earth is but dust under our feet.”  I am truly blessed to have been fortunate enough to have been part of a great happening.”

And that my friends sums up my feelings of being a part of something greater than myself.  Being part of a movement to shed light on mental illness, one person and one story at a time.  As Jennifer Marshall says, “Storytelling saves lives!”  Indeed it does.

Jennifer Marshall and Cast Photo:  Jennifer Marshall speaking to the cast of “This is My Brave” Wheeling, West Virginia

Getting passed the whispers!

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I was in the store shopping yesterday. It was a store I frequent quite often and they know my face well. I’d always had good experiences, but yesterday changed all that. As I went to check out I turned my back on the three ladies standing behind the cash registers. As I suddenly turned around they were whispering just loud enough that I caught they were talking about me.

Like most people, I assumed it must be bad if you have to whisper about someone. I told myself I wasn’t going to let it bother me, but of course it did. And the thoughts were off and running to the races.

I’m a very big woman. I’ve always been a “big girl.” Certainly taller than most women and for sure much bigger all the way around and because I stand out in the crowd I’ve taken my fair share of wise cracks and disparaging comments. So, it’s safe to assume if someone is whispering behind your back, it might not be a positive compliment.

Then…I went down this pathway about how I’m sure I’ve been a topic of some not so nice conversations about my mental illness. But I just keep pushing the envelope on that one. Don’t really think anyone has the **lls to say something to my face. But you never know.

A few days ago I sat down with a reporter from one of the local newspapers. He was writing an article for his weekly sports column called, “Unsung Heroes” When he ask me for an interview I was hesitant. I really don’t see myself as a hero. But I agreed because it was another opportunity to put mental health conditions in the spotlight. Another chance for people out there struggling to read that article and know they are not alone.

I never thought anything of it. I’d already written a book that was pretty revealing, so what’s another public newspaper article. Right?

Well, I’ve learned a few things about myself. #1) I’m not as sensitive as I used to be; #2) I’m still human; and #3) Raising awareness for mental health conditions/mental illness is my number one priority.

It’s nice to know when you find your passion. I fell into mine because I found other people who were taking up the flag in similar ways across the country. The interesting thing is there’s no one quite like me. What does that mean? Small town girl, All-American, Olympian, Fortune 500, mental illness, jail and mental health advocate—and as it all sunk in to my mind this weekend I realized the responsibility I have to continue on this pathway.

A calling as it turn out, is by far more important than the whispers that may come.

Click here…in case you haven’t gotten a copy of my book.

A little bit of hope

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I have been blessed the past three weeks to travel around the state of West Virginia and speak about mental health to college students.  One campus had a young man who had died by suicide a few months ago.  He had been a member of one of the sports teams and suddenly quit.  He began isolating himself and stopped hanging out with friends.  Those things he did are warning signs of suicide.  But people around him didn’t know those signs.  Now they do.

Another campus had a young woman who died by suicide.  She had a diagnosed, serious mental illness.  I believe all family members who have loved ones who live with mental illness should be trained in mental health first aid.  They should know the warning signs of suicide.  Before it’s too late.

I go to college campuses to shed light on mental illness.  I want people to know there is help and there is hope.  Sometimes I get to hear the stories that inspire me and keep me fired up about spreading this message.

I had a college athlete approach me and say, “Ahh…I kinda struggle with this stuff.”  I smiled.  He knew I understood him.  It didn’t take a lot of words to hear the emotional pain in his voice.  His struggle is depression and often times that means a battle with suicidal thoughts.  When he shook my hand and said, “Thank you for sharing your story.”  It was a gift to me that in some small way I spread a little bit of hope.

Then, a few days ago I received an email from a man who had experienced a lot of tradgedy in his life.  He was overwhelmed with grief, depression and was self-medicating with alcohol.  He told me, “Thank you for what you do.  You just might have saved my life.”

I didn’t respond to his email right away.  I was overwhelmed with the responsibility of my work.  On some level I knew how important educating people about mental illness and suicide is.  But on a deeper level grasping the fact that your work can help save someone’s life takes every word I say when I give these talks to a hire level.  But the work is not about me.  It’s about reaching people of all ages, one person at a time, and allowing the gifts, talents and skills I have been blessed with to help other people.

As I’ve become more visible, I’ve received some healthy feedback, mostly positive.  But there are people out there who don’t understand why I would do this work.  Why I would write a book that would highlight some of the most difficult experiences in my life.  I did it and I would do it again.  Because sometimes all some folks need to hear is “you’re not alone in this fight.”

Turns out–a little bit of hope saves lives.  I’m humbled by this work.  I’m honored for this calling.

 

 

Remember – Mental Illness is The Enemy!

Several years ago I received a call from a friend of mine who wanted to tell me she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  It was a rather traumatic diagnosis for her to hear.  Certainly life threatening, but also treatable.  I was impressed with how she dealt with it.  She made cancer her enemy and did everything she could to fight against it.  And you know what?  She beat it.  She is now over 15 years cancer free.

What I’ve learned about mental illness is that it is also life threatening.  From the first time I experienced suicidal thoughts as a sophomore in college to the relentless dogging of “you should just kill yourself” tapes that played in my mind a few years ago.  I learned from the time I was twenty years old that depression was and will continue to be my number one enemy.  It threatens my life and makes me vulnerable at times to the hopeless thoughts that wander aimlessly into my brain.

The difference between cancer and mental illness is that there is a cure for many types of cancer.  There’s no such thing for mental illness of any kind.  Of course there are medications that make it more tolerable, but nothing that takes away all of the symptoms.  It’s a fight.  Sometimes a daily battle and other times an intermittent harsh reality of living with a chronic illness.

If you ask most people if they were afraid of cancer they would say, “yes.”  No one wants to get cancer.  But people are afraid of mental illness for all the wrong reasons.

Many people have no concept of what it’s like to suffer from so much anxiety a person can’t leave their house.  People still believe a person with depression just isn’t trying hard enough and he’s just plain lazy.  Those with bipolar disorder are labeled as trouble makers and moody.  People with schizophrenia – just plain crazy.

When my friend went to the doctor for her breast cancer consultation, I went with her.  As a matter of fact, I jumped on a 2 hour plane flight to go to her doctor appointments with her.  I wanted to show support.  I wanted her to know she wasn’t alone in the fight against her number one enemy.  The disease that was threatening to take her away from all of us much to soon.

This is how we all should rally around those who are struggling with mental illness.  The enemy is not the person who has the illness.  The enemy is the mental illness.  It’s the disease that causes an interference in thinking, emotions and behavior.  It affects the most important organ in our entire body – the brain.

Yet, those who have mental illness are often left to fend for themselves.  Especially when they aren’t fun anymore.  When the struggle is the most difficult and support is truly needed, many are left isolated and alone.  That isolation leads to a worsening of symptoms.  A more complex illness.

I want people to know that my bipolar disorder is a serious life threatening illness.  I manage it well.  But the moment I let my guard down, the minute I miss a day of taking medication, the days I don’t get enough sleep, is when the enemy threatens my life and everything I have worked hard for.  The enemy nearly destroyed me and I’m not going to let that happen again.

I just wish everyone knew mental illness is the enemy.  And if we are not diligent it will continue to steal our loved ones from us in one shape or form or the other.  Sometimes the difference is having a team to fight the illness with us.

The next time your loved one complains of depression symptoms or has a panic attack, offer compassion and a kind word.  Sometimes all it takes is saying, “Are you okay?  How can I help?”

 

“Is bipolar disorder contagious?”

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I’m driving home from the store with my 82 year old mother and we start talking about my book, “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor,”  In many ways the book has unleashed good ole’ Esther.  Since I wrote about some of her struggles with bipolar disorder, she has talked more about it in two weeks, than I believe I have heard in more than 30 years.

Tonight she says, “People need to understand when you’re psychotic you don’t know what you’re doing.  But people don’t understand.  They think there’s something wrong with you and that they’ll get it too if they hang around you.”  “Mmm…is bipolar disorder contagious?” I asked jokingly.  “Some people think it is.  Like you have some horrible disease and if they come around they’ll get it.”  I laughed and we continued our drive home.

Then it hit me, after 30 years my mother finally articulated how bad she felt when her relatives stopped coming around.  They literally stopped inviting her to their houses.  She became an outcast.  The “crazy” sister.  Shame on them.  It’s not like all their lives were perfect either.

So, as a family member of a loved one with mental illness, I’m quick to defend my mother and sister.  But when it comes to me living with a mental illness and becoming an outcast myself, I sort of just give everyone a pass.  I suppose it’s because for so long I felt like I caused my own suffering.  It was my fault I had those episodes.

I ask my mother, “Who was there when you went through your first tough time?”  “You were,” she answered.  “Your dad didn’t know what to think.  But he would come in the house and ask me if I was doing alright.  He didn’t understand it, but he tried.  I’ll give him that”  I smiled and said, “There were a few people who I could have thrown under the bus in my book.  They did some not so nice things.  But I wanted to take the high road.  And truthfully, I didn’t want to spend time having a pity party for myself.  My life is far too blessed to feel sorry for myself.  I am exactly where I am supposed to be.”

However, as we drove further down the road I realized Esther really did have a point.  Some people treat bipolar disorder like it’s contagious.  As if a brain disease can magically rub off.  Perhaps that’s why they stop answering calls, not returning text messages or give you all your pictures and press clippings back, as one uncle did with me.  He had become ashamed of who I was, and when I needed him most he turned his back on me.

At the end of the day I just move on and say, “I’m not crazy, just contagiously bipolar.”  Whatever that means.

 

 

I AM Depression…

I’m the fog clouding the pathway of your life journey. Sometimes I come even when the sun shines. I’m eerie and heavy. I make it hard for you to see. I cause deep emotional pain. But I’m invisible to others. Only you know I’m here.

My presence is haunting. I get inside your mind and shout ugly things. I scream, “You’re not worth anything. You’re a failure! You’re lazy.” Then, I sliver up to you when you least expect it and tell you the world would be better off without you. I tell you I’ll make the voices stop, if you’ll just make a deal with me.

Then, you cry. I like it when you cry. I like to see what effect I’m having on you. When you wipe your tears I’m still here. You can’t cry me away. I don’t like other people around you, because they tell you to fight me. I convince you—you’re better off alone.

Alone. I’m the only one who controls you. I love polluting your thoughts. It gives me pleasure to watch you fall deeper into my grasp. My ultimate goal is to fill you up with nothingness. You’ll only be a shell of yourself. People will leave you alone. You won’t be fun anymore. But I will be with you. I won’t let go. Please don’t try to fight me.

You start to whisper a prayer. I hate prayers. Prayers are hopeful. Prayers destroy my power.

You take yourself to the doctor and ask for help. I hate the doctor. The doctor will help you.

You get a pill box and start taking medication. I hate medication. It causes my power to fade.

You make yourself fight me, but I’m a tough opponent. I’m not going away easily.

You start reaching out and talking to others. They know my secrets.

You win the battle. But there will be more. I’m always lurking. Waiting to reappear.

I AM depression.

 

Time to Talk Mental Illness

It’s hard to believe it is 2017!  I am not sure where the time has gone, but I do know after all these years of living with the stigma of mental illness it is for sure past time we talk about it.  There are so many anti-stigma efforts and I do feel like we are moving the needle some, but it is not enough.  And from my perspective it is not happening fast, it is a slow drip-drip-drip.

I never thought I would have to live with some illness called bipolar disorder that many people really did not understand and if you said you had a manic episode they really would not know what you meant.  Really I wasn’t sure what it meant for many years, until I studied it so much so I could manage it.  In reality, everyone with bipolar disorder experiences it a little bit differently.  Clusters of symptoms may be the same, but how we behave and handle our illnesses are generally not a carbon copy of it.

We have to talk about mental illness because quite frankly it is so complicated it is hard to understand.  Some illnesses are easier than others but I would argue for even the people who have anxiety disorders they will find not everyone understands how debilitating that can be.  Many people believe you should just be able to take a pill and “get over it.”

With 1 in 5 Americans living with a mental illness that equates to about 20% of the populations.  Yes, there are far less of us who have severe mental illness like bipolar disorder, major depression and schizophrenia, but we still represent million of people.  This really means that everyone knows someone who has a mental illness…and if you think you don’t it is probably simply because they don’t talk about it.

I want you to ask yourself the question, “If I found out my best friend had been struggling with severe depression for years, would that change how I felt about them?”  What about if you found out your sister had been struggling with postpartum depression with psychotic features would you know what that meant?     How about your boss at work who seems to have major mood swings between being very gregarious and not talking at all.  What do you say?  What do you do?

If we don’t talk about mental illness we will continue to find ourselves in these socially awkward situations where we don’t know how to react or what to say.  Granted it is not as bad as it used to be, but it could be a lot better.

Of course I don’t believe everyone should write a blog or a book about their struggles with mental illness.  But I do believe people should not have to be afraid to tell others they are struggling with a mental illness.  It is truly a shame to have to keep something a secret that occupies a great deal of time and effort.  Managing a chronic mental illness is a HUGE effort.  There are doctor and therapy appointments, medication side effects to deal with, prescriptions to refill, and symptoms to deal with.  It is at times a very hard road to journey on.

My one wish is that other people could feel more free to talk about it so there will be a greater understanding.  Maybe then those who live with mental illness will feel more supported.  Maybe then there will be more research dollars to help fund better treatments with higher efficacy.  Maybe then there will be better access to care.  Maybe then people with mental illness won’t be housed in jails and prisons.  Maybe then our society will be more compassionate.  Maybe….just maybe people won’t have to suffer in isolation.

New Book is Coming Soon!

Just wanted to let you know I have been working on a memoir called “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor.”  The day is getting closer, but I still have lots of work to do.  I will keep you updated when it is finished.  I am looking for a Mental Health Awareness Month launch date!

The story will really highlight lots of injustices those with mental illness deal with.  I am hoping the book will give a voice to many people who often don’t have one.

So…stay tuned for more updates!  amygamble_1amygamble_2amygamble-upright_nospine