Being Known as Bipolar Mom

Bipolar MomSummer Beach Trip, August 2014

Back when I started my blog three years ago, I guess I had the right idea when it came to choosing a name. It was me in that moment. I was a mom with bipolar, and I wanted a website where other moms with bipolar and other mental illnesses would land. And regular people, too, for that matter. I wanted my site to show up in search results. I was determined to get my story out there to help others who were going through similar experiences. Determined to make an impact, no matter how small. My heart told me that if I could reach people through my writing, I could help change the way people viewed mental illness in our society.

I knew in the back of my mind that I was so much more than my illness, but I needed a platform. So I built it, giving it the most obvious name. I set out on a quest and had no idea where it would lead me.

My words appeared anonymously at first, I had to test the waters. I wrote just words and only shared photos where faces weren’t recognizable to protect our privacy. But blogging behind a mask felt disingenuous and a bit like I was hiding something. It didn’t take long for me to realize my story was one I needed to tell with my real name. I wasn’t ashamed of the fact I had an illness in my brain. I deserved to have a voice, an authentic one, and I was ready to share my real life through not only my stories, but also through real photos of me and my family.

You see, until we put a face on mental illness, the face of a person who has learned to manage their illness so that the illness doesn’t control them, society will continue to stigmatize those who live with mental health disorders because they don’t understand. They don’t understand what we go through on a daily basis, they don’t understand how hard we fight to educate ourselves on the best medicines and treatments for our conditions, and they don’t understand how to support a person who is struggling with a mental illness. They fear what they don’t know. They don’t know it’s possible for a person with a mental illness to fully recover and live a beautiful, productive, successful life.

We can begin to change this ignorance by simply being open. By sharing our story when we have the opportunity. By letting go of the shame and embarrassment we inherited when we were diagnosed. And by not being afraid of being treated differently because of having a mental illness, but instead looking at it as a chance to educate someone and make a difference.

These days when Mary Lambert’s song Secrets comes on the radio, me and my kids sing it loud and proud. It’s no longer a secret that I live with bipolar disorder. I am sometimes recognized as “Bipolar Mom” when at networking events and I’m okay with this. I am a mom with bipolar disorder and my mental illness allowed me to become an advocate. I’ve rediscovered my love of writing and my blog guided me to create This Is My Brave with my creative partner, Anne Marie Ames, providing a platform and community for others living with mental illness to do what I’ve done.

I couldn’t imagine life any other way.  Happy Mental Illness Awareness Week, friends.

Today is National Depression Screening Day. Do yourself a favor and spend 2 minutes taking an online assessment of your mental health.

 

What I Wrote to a Reader Who Asked for Advice

image (3)

Dear Scared and Confused,

Thank you so much for writing to me. I’m deeply grateful to hear that my words touched you enough to reach out to me. I know how you are feeling because I was once in your shoes, although was only hiding it from my friends and extended family as my husband and parents all knew how desolate I was at the time. I was living in the deep, dark hole of depression for a year. It sounds to me like you’ve hit the place I was at when I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. It was my rock bottom. I would cry at anything and everything (even at work), my anxiety was suffocating and paralyzing at times and I felt it every single day, and I had similar thoughts to yours in terms of wanting to just end it all. I was so tired of fighting.

Here’s what I want you to know. The fact that you’re recognizing all this is a good thing. It says to me that there is that fire in your belly that I had which told me that this wasn’t how I wanted my life to pan out. I wanted more. I wanted true happiness, not a fake smile on the outside even though inside I was miserable and the world was painted only in gray. I wanted to wake up excited about my life, not feeling anxiety crawling up my skin. I wanted a future that included a family and at the time I couldn’t even fathom taking care of another life when I could barely take care of myself.

You can do this. You are strong – I can tell this from your email. You’re raising two kids! And at a young age, too. I know that you’ve tried a handful of different meds already, but you’ve said yourself: they’re obviously not working. You need to keep trying. I tried probably ten different meds until I found the one that works for me. It takes time. It takes trial and error. It takes persistence and teamwork. I’ll explain more in a second, but here’s the first thing I want you to do.

Call your health insurance provider. I know this sounds daunting. But trust me, they have trained individuals who you can talk with who can help you. When you get on the call, navigate your way to mental health. If there isn’t a specific menu option that gets you directly there, just speak with the first representative you get and ask to be connected to a mental health rep.

From there, tell them you need to find a new doctor. Now, when you said you know you need to find a new doctor and therapist, I’m not sure whether you were seeing your OB-GYN for your depression, or your primary care doc or a psychiatrist. You NEED a psychiatrist. There are good ones and there are not so good ones. Ask the mental health rep to recommend an in-network psychiatrist. (Side note: I apologize if this is all stuff you already know, please don’t think I’m being condescending, I just want to give you the best advice I have.) One of the biggest problems in our country with mental healthcare is that there is a shortage of psychiatrists.

Find one that’s relatively close to your house or work, and make an appointment for as soon as possible. In fact, when you’re on the phone with the mental health insurance rep, as them for a list of the 10 closest psychiatrists to your location (home or work), and work your way through the list. You can even check out their websites as most these days have them and it may give you an idea of their practice. You’ll want more than one or two to call because sometimes they won’t be able to see you for a month and you need help now. I don’t want you to wait.

Finding a therapist is secondary, but also very important. The new psychiatrist you see may even have a recommendation for a therapist, which is another reason to see the psychiatrist first. Please make time for this as soon as possible. Your life is so important and I know you can do this.

If you feel it’s too much to do all this, maybe your husband could help you. He sounds like my husband. I was so lucky to find and marry him. He stood by my side and never once wavered, even though I would sob in his arms practically every day. I felt so disconnected from him, even though looking back I remember every night of that year I fell asleep in his arms because they made me feel safe and protected from what I was going through. We’re really lucky to have these guys.

Okay, my other advice. Once you start seeing your new psychiatrist, start a tiny journal just for your recovery. This is something my dad recommended to me, and I now know how valuable my five little journals of that time (and beyond, as I kept it up) are. Here’s what it’s for. Every night before you go to bed (I kept mine on my nightstand so I’d always remember, and in the beginning since I was adjusting my meds, I’d use it during the day), write down three things: The meds and dosages you took that day, any side effects you experienced, and how you are feeling. It’s like a mood journal, but easier. You could also google “mood chart” and there are lots of printables you could use instead, but I like the journal. Probably because I’m a writer. :)

Then, you can take your journal with you to your psychiatrist and therapist appointments and if you forget something you want to share with them, it’s all in there.

The other thing I’d suggest is a possible change in your diet and exercise regimen. When I was sick I wasn’t eating the healthiest foods, but I didn’t know any better at the time. Over the past three years I’ve converted to a mostly vegetarian diet (whole foods) and have eliminated almost all processed foods (think: doritos, cookies in snack packs, even Goldfish that I used to feed my kids), I don’t drink soda anymore (except on special occasions), and I exercise 4-5 times a week. Now I know this may seem like a lot if you’re eating the typical American diet. But think about it: what we put into our body is the fuel we’re giving it to function. If we’re feeding it junk, we’re going to feel like crap most of the time. You don’t have to change things all at once, maybe just try cutting one or two things out at a time to make it a slow transition. I promise you’ll feel so much better.

Lastly, protect your sleep. Bad sleep can do damage to our mental health. For me, broken sleep or no sleep can leave me hypomanic or worse, manic. I have to force myself to go to bed by midnight at the latest, and I usually aim for 10/11pm to ensure I’ll get enough sleep. It’s really important and I know when we’re depressed sometimes the only thing we want to do is sleep, but if we can try to stay on a typical schedule and not nap longer than 30 minutes, it’s best for our brains.

I’m so sorry if this all sounds preachy. I just wanted to be able to send you all my best advice in one email. I want you to know I had another woman email me this week and she was in a similar boat, although we had a much shorter email exchange.  She sent me a follow up email that she made an appointment with her new doc. You are most certainly not alone.

I also want you to know that I know from the outside my life may look like I’ve got it all together, and I haven’t had a manic or depressive episode in over four years, that doesn’t mean that it’s smooth sailing. I have my bad days like everyone. I have to manage my illness every single day. I think about the fact that I live with bipolar disorder every single day. And I have a feeling that once you begin on your recovery journey, you may be like me and want to talk about your story to help others. I couldn’t talk about it back then, but now it’s become my career and I am so proud to be an advocate because I get to help people.

I’m not sure if you’ve read this yet, but I have this short little e-book that talks about my journey and I’d love for you to read it when you have time. I want you to have it in case it might help, so it’s attached to this email.*

You can do this. It will get better. I promise you this. You have the support in your husband and you’ve got my support. Please keep me posted. I’ll be thinking about you and sending positive energy your way.

Hugs,

Jenn

* I’ve decided to make my e-book free from now on. You can get your copy via the Snippet App in the iTunes store or read straight from their website: https://thesnippetapp.com/web/ (just search Brave, then enter promo code: FreeBrave – no need to enter credit card info). I hope you like it and please share it if it helps you in any way. There are share settings at the end of the book where you can share to your Facebook and/or Twitter accounts.

Rare Bird – A Book About Life

10630719_10203718284749983_1097505622917517681_o 10506848_10203718287510052_6840158110211218808_o
{Anna Whiston-Donaldson’s beautiful debut book Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love launches today and is available on Amazon.}

Death is a part of life. Nothing about this truth is easy to accept. But chances are pretty high that if we love deeply, at one point or another in our lifetime we will suffer tremendous loss.

I haven’t experienced this rite of passage yet in my life. Sometimes I get scared and anxious about losing the people I love the most. How would I survive without them? Would I ever be able to experience joy and laughter again if I were to lose those who send me into fits of giggles complete with tears rolling down my cheeks. Do I tell them I love them enough? Will I ever see them again after they leave this Earth?

I met Anna only after she had lost her son Jack in a tragic flash flood in a town only 25 minutes from where I live. In 2011, when a mutual friend and author/blogger wrote a post about Jack’s accident, I immediately clicked over and read Anna’s blog in disbelief and started praying along with the rest of her loyal readers and the masses of people sending love and strength to Anna, Tim and Margaret.

How could God let this happen to such a loving, spiritual family such as the Donaldson’s? I had a hard time believing it was true. I struggle with my faith, especially in times of crisis like this. This unfathomable tragedy made me doubt Him even more.

At our mutual friend’s book signing in April last year, I spotted Anna in line waiting to congratulate Glennon and get her book signed. Weeks earlier, I was surprised when I saw a comment from Anna pop up on my blog post about Wild Mountain, a memoir writers retreat I had attended in March. She mentioned in her note to me that she wished she could have been there and it was then that I knew she was writing a book.

We made plans to meet for lunch and talked of the craft of writing, but mainly just got to know each other. We spoke of our upbringing and faith, and I was so appreciative of her openness and honesty with me even though it was our first time getting together. I’m an open book, and I loved that Anna felt comfortable enough to be the same with me. It’s just her nature. She’s thoughtful, smart, easy to talk to, funny and I didn’t want our lunch date to end.

At that lunch, Anna gave me a blue Lego heart keychain left over from Jack’s service and to this day it is in my hands nearly every day. This handsome, witty, intelligent young man who I’d never had the pleasure of meeting would from that point on enter my mind whenever I reach for my car keys. I already knew he loved Legos, the bible, and being silly like your typical 12-yr old boy, but I couldn’t wait to read Anna’s book to learn even more about Jack.

I wouldn’t have to wait long. I was honored when Anna handed me an early copy of the book before it hit the pre-order stage (although I pre-ordered my own hardcover copy months ago, now available on Amazon). Once I sat down to read Rare Bird, I couldn’t stop. From the introduction of her own childhood to tales of family life with Jack and his goofiness which made me laugh out loud. I pictured my two kids six years into the future and realized exactly why I loved Anna’s book so much.

It’s about life. And how no matter how hard we try to plan for the future, we cannot guarantee that it’ll unfold the way we had hoped. There will be unthinkable losses, whether it’s the passing of a dear loved one or the news of a terminal illness, forcing us to embrace the past as much as the present. Anna’s words are a reminder that we should never take any moment for granted because no one knows what the future holds. Each day is a gift.

Anna’s writing is captivating from the first chapter to the last. She held back nothing because she knew in her heart while she was writing Rare Bird that her vulnerability would help others. And not just those who had lost a child suddenly. This book to me explained so much about love and life and why we’re here. Plus, it gave me hope for heaven. The signs Jack sent were some of my favorite parts of the book. Anna selflessly shares these intimate moments within the pages of Rare Bird.

I read and loved Anna’s book because I wanted to know what it felt like to experience early grief and also how to walk lovingly beside someone who is on such a journey. I wanted to understand how to wrap my arms around a friend moving through grief or a traumatic change in their life. Because life is hard. And chances are, it won’t reveal itself to us the way we expect.

Which is why we have each other to learn from and hold onto.

I love you, Anna. Thank you for sharing so much of Jack with us. He will always be in my heart. And I am here for you holding space.

Stepping Away from the Blog

The good writer seems to be writing{A photo I took on one of our hikes on Mt. Rainer.}
 

I read a piece in The New Yorker online recently by an author I deeply admire. In it, she spoke of how social media – with its ease of sharing, the way it encourages us to gloss over and digest large quantities of information, its impersonal nature – is threatening a writer’s ability to think through and reflect upon his or her life. Will we ever really connect with our readers if we’re so wired to spit out episodes of our life in 140-characters?

We’re all so busy lately. Constantly plugged in. The week before we went on our summer vacation I found myself noticing that it’s been so long since I was last able to sit down and do nothing. Other than the three minutes it takes me to fall asleep after I crawl into bed, hours after everyone else in my house has. And even then I have a to-do list of things still waiting for me running through my head before I nod off. Life is so damn non-stop these days. Dani Shapiro is right – most times these little bits of our life are dashed off on social media to efficiently inform our entire networks. What ever happened to picking up the phone? And why does the entire world need to need to know what we ate for lunch?

We’re such a distracted society. I often find myself thinking back to when my son was a baby (he turns 6 next month) and how people in my life barely used Facebook, Instagram wasn’t born yet, and Twitter was just a toddler. I spent more time on the living room carpet playing with my child than I did on my phone and laptop combined. The ipad wasn’t even an element in the equation in our household yet. Sadly, I can’t say the same today. I know I only have myself to blame.

My blog turned 3 this month. Three years of my life written out in blog posts, shared on the vast interwebs by clicking “publish.” I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished in three solid, fairly consistent years of blogging. And I’m in awe of the incredible connections I’ve made in this virtual world, many of whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in person, who I’ve built lasting friendships with.

The time just feels right to take a step back from this space. I’m not calling it a break because I may get the burning desire to hop back on here and share my perspective on one thing or another. But at this moment my heart is telling me if I put more energy and time into reflecting on the story I want to tell – this memoir living inside me – I’ll become a stronger writer during the process.

One of my idols in the literary world, Cheryl Strayed, wrote a book called Tiny Beautiful Things. When she signed my copy at the Wild Mountain Memoir Writers’ Retreat, she wrote this:

WP_003980

The red-cover collection of letters, her advice on life, love, loss and humanity will blow you away. Cheryl’s inscription refers to her response as the advice columnist Dear Sugar, to the final letter captured in her book. A twenty-two year old had written Sugar to ask one simple question: What would you tell your twentysomething self if you could talk to her now?

photo

Cheryl may have inscribed all the copies of Tiny Beautiful Things the other writers in line handed her with the same note, because it’s rock solid advice from a writer who’s been there. The essay she wrote when she replied to “Seeking Wisdom” included the following paragraph:

“Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit bitching. Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet.”

I know my book has a birthday. It’s coursing through my veins. It permeates my thoughts countless times a day. It’s a part of me and I need to nurture it and develop it and give it wings by first doing the work of practicing to fly. I need to practice my writing with pen and paper and my thoughts and crickets chirping when everyone has gone to sleep and the house is quiet. Staying focused is something I’ve never been that great at. I’m recognizing this now and in recognizing this I’m also realizing that surfing Facebook does not contribute to a page count of my memoir. I want to find discipline in my writing practice to reach my dreams and I know I can do it.

I’ll be posting here less and will be writing more by hand with my flowy, fast pen and my favorite notebooks anxiously awaiting words to fill them up. If anything happens to be born from this more focused writing, I promise to share it with you here. I’ll still be tweeting and Instagramming and taking Facebook breaks only once I’ve put in my writing time for the day offline. I hope to continue to write for What to Expect.com, PostpartumProgress.com, and the International Bipolar Foundation, in addition to running our non-profit, This Is My Brave, Inc., with my creative partner Anne Marie Ames.

I’ve been thinking of doing something like this for a few months, and am thankful I finally listened to my gut and the wise advice of two brilliant writers I look up to. This isn’t goodbye, it’s only so long for now. I hope by shifting my priorities from blogging to practicing the discipline of writing, that I’ll be able to wait, as Dani Shapiro describes, “for the story under pressure of concealment to reveal itself in time.”