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.

 

 

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.

 

When the good day arrives!

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One of the things I learned in a recovery workshop is to create new dreams after having your life interrupted with a psychiatric illness. I created a dream to become a mental health advocate, but I soon learned that creating a dream is one thing and living it is another.

I think my impatience is a result of having too much time on my hands. Not all days but some days a few hours of free time can feel like sitting in the dentist chair having my teeth pulled. When I am feeling good and overall having a good day I feel like I can accomplish so much more.  But on those bad days, like yesterday, I have no desire to do anything.

I wish I had a crystal ball that could tell me when the good days would bless me with their presence. I could be so productive if I had something of value to do. But what kind of job out there rewards people for having outstanding days periodically? There are so few that I have found I need to get creative and figure out a way to utilize my time more wisely.

Yesterday I read an article about a research project that NAMI conducted. It said that people with mental illness had an 80% unemployment rate in the United States. From everything I have read it seems that most other countries fall about in the same statistical ratio. So what does this say about mental illness and employment? The article does not address those of us who may be underemployed, which is an entirely different issue too.

What are we supposed to do when we have those good days?  I guess reading and writing is one way to spend time in a valuable manner. I just have to keep from getting too frustrated with myself because I recognize having too much time on my hands is not the best thing for my mental health. I am a goal directed individual and the more goals I can have for myself the better I feel.

The problem comes when I start wishing there was an immediate “feel good” solution for me on those days when I am far more capable of doing complex tasks.  These are the times when I focus hard on positive self-talk. It’s really easy to go down the path of “let’s beat up Amy today,” even though I know it is not a healthy thing to do. I may say something like, “If I tried harder I could accomplish more.” “I need to be more organized with my time.” Then I get all excited about having a new plan of action and I wake up the next day and getting out of bed may be the best I can accomplish.

This up and down road makes it a harder to check off the “to-do” list. It also makes it more difficult to have consistent approaches to various goals ultimately making it harder to have achievements. Certainly it is not impossible, just more difficult.

If I had one wish I would hope for more resources to be placed in helping those of us living with a mental illness to have working projects where we could utilize our skill sets. Maybe a collaborative writing project where we contributed to a group writing project. I don’t know the answer. I just know I need something I can feel good about.

Bipolar Disorder Cheated Me!

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Do you ever feel like your mental illness cheated you out of something? There are some days when I open my eyes after a long night’s rest and I just lie there in bed. I start thinking about what my day holds for me. What do I have to accomplish? Do I work today or am I going to have to figure out how I can be productive for the day? At times I get frustrated with this merry go round. I am tempted to fall back into dreaming about the past where getting up in the morning guaranteed I was going to have a full plate of activities and things to do.

In my recovery journey I came to realize that having a sense of purpose was one of the most important parts of getting well and staying well. Of course it is not always easy to accomplish this goal, but when I do I feel so much better about myself.

Today is just not one of those days. Today I feel like I have been cheated. I feel short-changed in the game of life– all my past dreams and ambitions stolen away from me because I ended up with a rather severe case of bipolar disorder. This vicious illness robbed me of my life as I once knew it.

There I said it. I have made it clear that I loathe bipolar disorder. I am not one of those people who like the manic highs with endless creative energy. I hate everything about this disorder. Some would say because it is a part of me I must hate myself too. But I don’t really look at it like that. I look at it as an illness separate and apart from me. It may affect my moods, but it does not influence the positive aspects of myself anymore than I like being thought of as a negative person when I am depressed.

It’s an illness. A nasty mental illness. I don’t think people who have cancer love their disease, nor do they romanticize it. There is nothing positive about living with an illness whether it is mental or physical. It is exactly what it is—an illness.

I know some people will take issue with me and in attempt to make me feel better about having a mental illness they will point out all the famous people and celebrities who also have lived with bipolar disorder. This does not make me feel better. It only tells me that mental illness does not discriminate. It also tells me that people who have lived with or currently live with a mental illness have done some pretty extraordinary things. I am grateful for those stories. But it still doesn’t make me feel any better on a day-to-day basis of struggling with my own illness.

So on days like today, when I would rather have stayed in bed all day long, I consider it a success to have let my feet hit the floor. I hold on to the fact that I am in no way alone in the battle against a mental illness. And I know that I am not alone in having those days when I feel like I have been cheated.

I am not willing to pretend my journey with bipolar disorder has been or will ever be easy. Some days I win and some days the whole idea of having this illness gets the best of me.  When that happens I look for the small wins and hope for a better tomorrow.

 

Disclosing a Mental Illness

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Disclosing you have a mental illness is a very tough decision. There are so many issues associated with telling even your friends and family, much less being open about your illness in a public forum, like social media.  From my viewpoint if we are to actively change the stigma associated with mental illness it is important for those of us who live with mental illness to feel comfortable in disclosing it.

I recently read an acticle about disclosing your mental illness diagnosis on-line. The author was an advocate, but chooses to blog and advocate anonymously. I have no problem with her choice, but I wonder about the impact you can make as an advocate living anonymously? Isn’t it important to demonstrate that many people living with serious mental illness can recover and contribute to society?

When writing my blog I decided it was important for me to feel comfortable being completely open and honest about who I am. I wanted people to know I was not ashamed for having a mental illness. In fact, I have worked very hard to live my life without living in shame for an illness I did not ask for and believe is no different than a physical illness from that standpoint.

But then I started thinking about all the reasons why people could judge me and look at me differently because I live with bipolar disorder. I thought about the stigma associated with the illness and how people may judge my competency without ever talking to me or reading anything I may write. I began to fall into the trap of worrying about things that I cannot control.  I worked through my fears and doubts and moved forward with disclosure in a well thought out way.

For all the reasons why you should never disclose your mental health issues, there are equally a number of reasons why it is a good idea for at least people close to you to know. I was always afraid people would not be my friend if they knew about my condition. The truth is some people didn’t want to be friends with someone who had a mental illness, as if I had some kind of contagious disease. But others seemed to accept it and offer love and support.

After deciding I was going to live my dream and become a Mental Health Advocate, I put a great deal of thought into disclosing my illness. My focus is on raising awareness and creating opportunities to have a dialogue about mental illness so that others may understand. I wanted to jump on the band wagon and help eliminate stigma. I really felt like if people knew I was an Olympic Athlete who was affected by a mental illness they could see that it does not matter what your socio-economic status is or what parade you may have walked in, mental illness can affect anyone. It also helps other people who are suffering with the illness to know someone else who is living with it.

So—for all these reasons I felt like it was a good idea to disclose my illness. I let my Facebook friends know the other day on a status update that I was a Mental Health Advocate, writer and speaker and I lived with Bipolar Disorder. The support I received touched my heart and gave me more strength to keep on walking down the disclosure path.

I can’t tell you what is right for you, but I can say I feel empowered to share my journey. And I am glad I no longer hang my head in fear or shame.

The Strengths Recovery Path – Part 2

“Sometimes psychiatric problems take over our life. Everything about our life can come to reflect our psychiatric history. We may feel like a psychiatric diagnosis spells the end of our chances for experiencing love, fun, or success. We can feel trapped in a life that is very limited and become bored, depressed and end up with negative feelings about ourselves1.”

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When I read this quote I said, “Yes, absolutely true for me.” It is very difficult to pick yourself back up after having your life completely interrupted by a mental illness. But once you have received treatment the next step is to work on putting your life back together again. I know this is what I had to do. And it is hard work, but so worth it when life starts to unfold its’ many surprises.

This is why I am a huge advocate for recovery programs. Putting energy into healing and mapping out a future is so critically important in this process.

The first step in recovery is having are basic needs met.  Such as, housing, food, and clothing.  After those basic needs are met what we want to focus on is answering the questions, “How do I have a fulfilled life in spite of my psychiatric disability, a.k.a. mental illness?” We want answers to questions about “What’s next for me? What can I do for a career? How can I still be a good parent, wife, husband, partner, friend?”  What are some ways I can contribute to my community?

Often times I found myself searching for answers to those questions outside of me.  I seemed to have lost so much confidence and my self-esteem suffered enormously. I frequently doubted my ability to be anything more than a “mentally ill patient.” Getting sick knocked me so far down that I only saw myself as weak and damaged. This is why I sought validation of my self-worth outside of me.  But I quickly learned I was going to have to restore my inner confidence while I worked to create new dreams and goals for my life.

One of the things that helped me in the Recovery Program was developing a vision for my life. Stepping back and creating new dreams and outlining the long-term and short-term goals that were going to help me get there. Part of my vision was to become a Mental Health Advocate, specifically focusing on raising education and awareness. I have begun to live that dream and the more I walk down that path the better I feel.

But if I am honest I would tell you that I wrote that vision four years ago. It has taken longer than I expected to get to living my dream, but that’s because I had some setbacks along the way. The good news is I never forgot my vision. This is why it is so important to create a vision or have a dream. When you create it you can work within your limitations, not viewing them as obstacles, but viewing them as a hurdle.  Hurdles were meant to be jumped over!

The most important thing to realize if you or a loved one has a psychiatric disability is that there are many things that can still be accomplished. You just have to find the right path.

 

1”Pathways to Recovery: A Strengths Recovery Self-Help Workbook.” University of Kansas School of Social Welfare, 2002. Page 127.

Struggling with Depression

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I am slowly waking up from a bipolar depressive episode. I raise my head up, look at the calendar and ask, “Where has all the time gone?” I may have seemed like I was present the past few months, but I’ve really just been hanging in there fighting the depression symptoms.

When I start to feel better I often find myself tempted to ruminate about the past. Oh the days when life was so much better—the times when I had friends over for dinner—oh heck just the times when I had some friends to call. How lonely life can become when you struggle with a mental illness. Especially when you struggle with depression, an illness that causes you to isolate yourself from others.

I contemplated taking a walk today, but I haven’t gotten there yet. I don’t know what I’m waiting for other than the symptoms from my latest medication to “wear off.” I think the doctor got carried away with pushing the dose of the new medication and the side effects are starting to cause me to sleep longer. I am so frustrated, it’s as if I’m constantly beating my head against the wall wondering when the wall is gonna break yet knowing that is not possible.

I want relief. Relief from the loneliness. I want involvement and yet I don’t know if I can keep my commitments. I want friends. Yet I don’t know if I have anything to talk about except my illness struggles and my past successes. Who wants to sit around hearing old tales about the past? People live in the present. They have lives. I feel like I have an existence. I try hard to stay positive and look for opportunities to “live.” But in all actuality I am struggling day by day with lingering depressive symptoms.

Depression keeps me from living to my potential. Sometimes the best I can do is get out of bed in the morning and that’s a huge accomplishment. The fact that I am trying to write is success. What I write is not inspiring or hopeful like I want it to be. I write about the struggle and the pain. I wish it could be different. All I can do is keep trying, that’s what I would tell a friend with the same challenge.

On a positive note, I do work part-time. It makes me put on my make-up and get out of the house. It’s not my ideal job, but it serves a lot of purposes. I work a few hours every week. Nothing I can’t handle even in the midst of fighting depression. I think about working more, but I don’t think I can handle it. I question my ability to handle stressful situations without triggering my illness.

So, I read and I write. Hoping that somehow I’ll get a pearl of wisdom to jump off the page into my heart. I might feel something click and maybe I’ll smile. Maybe I can relate to someone just like me and in that moment I won’t feel as bad.

 

 

Take the Stigma Poll

 

Mental Illness Recovery

The “Recovery Movement” in mental health has been around for several years. I have read different opinions about recovery and I think it’s important to understand what recovery actually means.

A Recovery Definition

According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness recovery is a process that includes having an initial diagnosis, learning about your illness and the treatments available, sharing information about your illness with friends and family and finally doing something to help other people with your illness. Nowhere in this definition of recovery does it talk about resuming your life where you left off before your diagnosis.

Before I read this explanation from NAMI I really thought recovery meant I could pick back up with my life as I once knew it. But realistically I had to learn that I had to accept the fact that I now had limitations I had to consider. I have heard the argument that everyone has limitations and while I agree with this I am coming from the standpoint of when you get sick and because of whatever illness you have, your life as you once knew it has changed. It has become a “life interrupted” by mental illness.

Severe Mental Illness

I will be the first one to admit I love it when I read success stories about people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, post traumatic stress disorder or anxiety disorder (classified as severe mental illness) who are living examples of people who have been able to get out and work full time jobs. They have either gone back to work or have changed careers. I get excited thinking about the possibilities for my own life.

Overcoming Obstacles

At the same time, I have to be honest and tell you that we have tremendous hurdles in getting to this endpoint. Our disorders may go into remission but often times we still have to continue taking medications, going to the doctor and/or therapy visits, and closely monitoring our symptoms. So the most important point is that recovery in no shape or form means “healed.”   If anything it means people who have learned how to overcome many obstacles and lead a healthy, happy and productive life. I think people who are living with mental disorders have a strong inner strength. Part of recovery is being able to recognize those key strengths and use them to our advantage.

I am glad there is a recovery movement in mental health. I like the idea that younger people can be given a sense of hope that the proper treatment can help them go on to achieve their goals. But I also think it has to be tempered by the fact that severe mental illness is really difficult to manage and if you are managing it well you are a superstar in my book!

Bipolar Disorder is a Thief!

Bipolar Disorder Steals

In case you haven’t heard bipolar disorder is a thief. You know my life was going along just fine until I was hit with a severe bipolar episode. For all practical purposes I had it all—great career, wonderful relationship, plenty of money, a home with a pool, spa and basketball court, and plenty of friends. It didn’t take long from my first episode for my entire life to implode. At the end of the day it’s not the material things I missed most it’s the intangibles.

Actually it took about four years after my intital diagnosis before my life started to be completely disrupted. As you can imagine I spent a great deal of time blaming myself for allowing bipolar disorder to wreck havoc with my daily course of living. But really what’s a girl to do? Did I see the warning signs that if I didn’t get the proper treatment the illness was going to get worse? Nope. I can honestly say that no doctor ever said that to me until I was already living proof that it can get worse. At that time it was a no brainer.

Limited Resources & Stigma

See that’s the thing about mental illness. Because of the stigma and the limited amount of resources for treatment no one really sits you down and tells you the way things are gonna be. Often time they just write out a pile of prescriptions (that frequently make you gain a ton of weight) and they send you out the door. I don’t remember anyone ever taking the time to explain to me that according to the National Institute of Mental Health more than 80% of all bipolar patients experience psychosis. Who knew?

I had to take it upon myself to research bipolar illness long after I had experienced the gut wrenching losses because of the disorder. Often times I have found myself giving a therapist a specific statistic and/or fact about bipolar disease. I have been shocked that they didn’t know it. Then again, without playing too much of the victim role should I really have expected anything better?

Years of Treatment

It took me 13 years before I actually found a physician who could give me more insights about the illness than I already knew.   I don’t understand how people can go to school for more than 10 years and not be able to relate to a bipolar patient. It’s just beyond my comprehension that not only do we have limited resources for mental health treatment we don’t always have the best treatment either. But who is going to listen to that argument?

Being a Voice for Mental Illness

If I’m going to be completely honest I have to say I’m a little bitter. Even though I know hanging on to negative emotions about how things have worked out is not going to get me very far. I still have to admit I’d rather things worked out differently. So they didn’t’ and now I have to continue moving forward with my life. I have learned that if there is something you cannot change you can focus the passion and energy on the things you can change. This is why I am speaking out about mental illness. Because no one should have to suffer as much as this population of people do. I plan to use my energy on helping the cause. At least that’s a positive way to focus my valuable time.