The Time to Talk Openly About Mental Illness

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Photo Credit: Thomas Rousing Photography via Compfight cc

 

When I tell people I have bipolar disorder, I usually find myself explaining that I have Bipolar Type 1, since most people don’t realize there are different types. When asked about what I do for work, I tend to mention that I live with mental illness since my story led me to create This Is My Brave and they’re both so tied together. I take it upon myself to educate them because the more people who understand that my condition is treatable and manageable, the more accepting our world will become, one person at a time.

How I got to where I am today

I wasn’t always so confident when talking with people about mental illness. In fact, I remember quite vividly how terrifying it used to be to attend social gatherings after my illness emerged. It was as if embarrassment oozed out of me because of having to quit my job to take care of my mental health. I knew the small talk would at some point gravitate to conversations about work, and I often had to leave the room so that I wouldn’t start sobbing right there in front of my friends.

This went on the entire year following my diagnosis. I eventually learned how to skirt my way around the career discussions, simply suggesting I was taking some time off to regroup, a “sabbatical” of sorts. No one really felt comfortable inquiring about how I was doing otherwise, and I wasn’t in a position to be able to talk about it. Not yet anyway.

Even once I had found a medication that was working well to stabilize me, I still wasn’t ready to talk openly about my condition. Looking back now it’s apparent that my heart hadn’t fully accepted my illness as the life-long condition it is. A part of me was holding out for my bipolarness to go away after a few months of medication. The medication worked, and I was willing to take it. Until two little pink lines showed up on a white stick.

Throw in pregnancy and new motherhood

Bringing a new life into the world was a big decision. My fierce determination to have children without psychiatric medications in my system was not met with success. Yes, with my first pregnancy I was able to maintain stability until four weeks after my son’s birth. But the trauma of postpartum psychosis was a horrific price to pay.

Attempting to remain drug-free during at least the first trimester of my second pregnancy was also met with a less-than-desirable outcome. I never intended to be hospitalized at 5 weeks pregnant, forced onto antipsychotic medication to bring me down from the mania radiating from my every pore. But it had to be done. My mental health had to be put before the baby, as difficult a decision that was for me to have made for me.

Six years + stability = my turn to open up

Six years isn’t a magic number, but it was the amount of time my story needed in order to reach the point where I was ready to share it. I began blogging here, and even though I started anonymously, my gut told me soon my mask was going to be removed. Shedding the shame and embarrassment was easy. Today saying, “I live with bipolar disorder,” is like telling someone what I ate for lunch yesterday. It just is something in my life.

Staying committed to my medication, healthy sleep, and my doctor’s appointments is a promise I do not intend to break. My family is way too important to let my mental health slip.

Getting people to listen is a lot harder. But each time the door opens for me to tell someone I live with bipolar disorder and I’m okay, you can bet I’ll take advantage of it. It’s my hope that by continuing to share my story, others will be able to find the voice inside them telling them it’s okay they share, too. Collectively our voices are changing the way society thinks about mental illness and mental health. So let’s keep the conversations going.

 

Being Known as Bipolar Mom

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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

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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

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{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.