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!

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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.”

Take the Stigma Poll

 

I am not a failure, am I?

Sometimes I Feel Like A Failure

Does having a mental illness make you feel like a failure? As much as I know I am far from a failure I still have my moments when I look at former colleagues and think, “What the heck happened to me?” Of course I know exactly what happened—mental illness dropped on my doorstep and interrupted my life, as I once knew it, but sometimes I have to remind myself of this fact.

Believing we are failures because we have a mental illness is really part of self-stigma. It’s fits right under the category of blaming ourselves for having an illness. I suppose it is in part a way to try and make some sense out of various behaviors and in an effort to take back some control over the situation we point our fingers at the person looking back at us in the mirror.

Self-Stigma: Shame & Blame

In times when I am suffering with a depressive episode I shame myself into believing it’s my fault, as if I really have any control over the illness. The shame makes the situation far worse and really adds to the bad feelings I already have about myself. I made a point to stop the shaming the last time I was sick. It’s already hard enough as it is to get well again but I learned I needed to be a better friend to myself.

Why Can’t I Be “Normal?”

If only I was normal I wouldn’t have to deal with all these things. Mental illness can take you out of mainstream society. It can interrupt your life with hospitalizations, frequent doctor visits, therapy, medication side effects, loss of work and all these things can cause a withdrawal from life. Stepping out of my daily course of living has made me feel like a complete failure. And then the voice of reason kicks in and I hear myself say, “If it weren’t for bipolar disorder life would be different.”

Finding Inspiration

I’m sure not everyone who experiences a mental illness has felt like a failure. But I am willing to bet many people have and I want to speak to those people. I want to tell them to lift up your head and hold it high; hold back your shoulders and walk with confidence; start believing you are so strong because you have faced off with adversity and you have won; you are a valuable member to the community; and you will find your way to recovery. Above all you are not a failure.

Mental illness can cause so much pain and many personal struggles. I have learned that I cannot give it any more power over me than what it deserves. I have approached it in a way that says, “I have a mental illness and it’s not my fault, and I’m going to pick up the pieces and move forward with my life. No mental illness is going to stop me from living a healthy, happy and productive life.” It’s my mantra and I believe it!

 

The “Hearing Voices Simulator”

On Monday Anderson Cooper from CNN interviewed Mental Health Advocate and Clinical Psychologist Pat Deegan. Pat, who also lives with schizophrenia, created a “hearing voices” simulator that Anderson experimented with. For 45 minutes one day he wore the IPOD that cranked voices into his ears. As part of the experiment he had to do puzzles and a math quiz while wearing the ear buds. If you are interested you can watch the interview with Anderson Cooper and Pat Deegan on CNN. It was fascinating to hear how much difficulty he had trying to complete tasks and it even affected him while walking down the street.

Since I have experienced a few psychotic episodes as a result of bipolar mania I was really glad to know this simulation existed. It is one thing to try and explain what “hearing voices” is like and another to have someone deal with hearing voices. I hope more people will have access to the simulator; especially people in the media who tend to cover mental illness only when a tragedy occurs.

Even though I want the media to better understand mental illness I still contend that one of the best ways to combat stigma is for those of us who live with a mental illness to continue to speak out about our experiences. Sometimes I forget that I live with and write about mental illness everyday. I have been a student of bipolar illness for the past 30 years. Not necessarily by choice but by necessity. My point is the words and their definitions come relatively easy to me.

Speaking My Truth

About a month ago I was reminded that not everyone knows or understands what a person who lives with bipolar disorder goes through. I was giving an old friend of mine a ride to the airport and he ask me why I wasn’t working in the profession I had been in for 18 years. At first I hesitated and then I decided I was going to speak my truth.

I said, “Well I’m not working in the biotech industry anymore, because when I had a bipolar depressive episode the company I was working for fired me while I was on disability leave.”

Jim replied, “That’s terrible. If you were depressed it must have been more depressing to get fired in the middle of being sick.”

“Yeah it was pretty bad. Right around Christmas time too.”

Jim looked at me and then asked, “What is bipolar disorder anyhow?

“It’s an illness where you experience extreme highs and lows and sometimes psychosis,” I was giving him the shorthand version of the illness.

“What’s psychosis?”

“Psychosis is when you see or hear things that other people don’t see or hear. Or you may get delusional believing things that are otherwise not true.”

Jim looked at me kind of strangely and then said, “Well sorry for asking so many questions I guess I just don’t understand. I’m really trying to understand.”

I was really pleased he took an interest and was willing to have a dialogue about mental illness.   I assured him it was no problem and he could ask me anything he wanted about bipolar disorder.

We rode in an awkward silence for a few minutes and then moved on to a different subject. Even though I admit feeling somewhat anxious I felt really proud of myself for having the courage to be open and honest. I figured the worst that could happen is I would lose a friend, and I already knew how to deal with that.

So I am a big proponent of more people understanding mental illness and especially showing compassion to those of us who live with it everyday. I have always been an Anderson Cooper fan, but now I like him even more. I hope he continues to do more segments on mental illness. The more people talk about it the better chance we all have in breaking down the stigma barriers.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Mental Illness and Get Well Wishes!

Slide1I was recently talking with a friend of mine who has schizoaffective disorder and he told me a story about when he was in the hospital.  He said, “It was the most lonely time in my life.  I was sick and in the hospital with my mental illness at the same time my father had a heart attack and was in the hospital.”  He went on to say, “My father got all kinds of cards and gifts, I never got a single card much less a visitor.  It was like I didn’t exist.”

It wasn’t the first time I had heard the same theme to a story I too had experienced.  Hospitalized:   sick, scared, alone and not one word from a loved one.  It sure seems like when you have a psychiatric illness people all run for cover.  Another friend told me, “It’s like everyone just said, “she’s off the deep end again” and left me to fend for myself.”  To which I had no response other than to nod my head silently.

I wonder if we changed the name of mental illness and replaced it with brain disorders would we have more compassion and understanding?  Would people start to realize when a person has a psychotic episode his brain malfunctioned not his character?  How much has to change in order to receive a card or a get well message instead of a non-compassionate “she’s just crazy” comment?

I don’t claim to have all the answers but I do have strong opinions on the subject.  First of all, the last time I remember hearing a friend was in the hospital I immediately felt bad for her.  You see when I hear hospital I think sick.  I don’t start blaming someone for not taking her medicine-I try and understand what if anything I can do to help.

Second, no matter what the circumstances were for my friend who needed hospitalization I wanted to visit her to show my love and support.  She mattered enough to me to to find out about visiting hours and go sit and interact with her for a couple of hours.  It was the least I could do.  Maybe if I wasn’t as close to her I could have simply sent a card or email or Facebook message – just something to show her I cared.

Third, if someone wants to keep her mental illness a private matter I can still let her know I care.  Once again I can send a message and let her know I’m thinking about her.

How many times have you heard the same story about feeling all alone?  Isn’t it time for us to stand up and say, “having a friend who cares makes a difference in my recovery?”  Is it not time to question the rationale for why anyone would be left alone during a time when she needs the most support?  Maybe we simply need to let people know it is perfectly acceptable to send a card to someone in a psychiatric hospital or lying at home suffering in bed from depression.  It doesn’t have to be a social taboo.  The more we tell people it’s alright the more chances we have for change to occur.  Agree?