My Story Isn’t Over – #SemicolonProject416

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It rained today. Hard, pounding raindrops came down in sheets and I remember the bitter hatred I have towards this type of weather. How frustrated I get with the wetness, the dreary clouds that hang around until the storm finally passes. And then I realize – that’s the takeaway.

With my form of bipolar illness, I lean towards mania, rather than depression. Three or four nights off meds and with poor sleep and I’ll end up manic to the point of hallucinating, needing intravenous antipsychotics and a week in the mental hospital to return me to a semi-normal state. Then there are the weeks of recovery afterwards. I don’t dare mess with my treatment plan. It’s as much a part of my life as breathing and eating. It keeps me in the middle and for me, that is a beautiful place to be, especially with a household to run with two little ones looking up to me and counting on me to stay healthy.

But the rain. It’s still coming down, relentlessly soaking everything without a roof over its head. Rainy days can so easily take me back to the year of my life when I was so smothered by depression that I contemplated ending my own life to make the pain stop. I had been diagnosed a few months earlier with Bipolar Disorder Type 1, had to resign from a career I had worked so hard at, and was afraid the confidence that used to sparkle in my eyes would never return. I felt so far gone. I couldn’t see an end to the stormy fog I was living in.

The hardest part about the year I was being suffocated by depression was that I didn’t have people to look up to. People who had been in the dark, murky trenches of mental illness and yet had emerged stronger and more equipped to keep going. Because when one is diagnosed with a mental illness it never goes away, we must find a way to live with it and manage it so that it doesn’t manage us.

I recognized my suicidal thoughts, was absolutely terrified by them, and although I was ashamed by these feelings I was experiencing, somehow found the courage to tell my husband and parents and my psychiatrist who then changed my medications. Within a few weeks I started to feel better, the thoughts began to fade, and I was able to lift my head above the fog. I chose not to end my story, and because I was able to get help and support, I am here today advocating for mental health awareness through my blog and my show, This Is My Brave.

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These conversations don’t have to be hard. The more we open up and talk about mental illness, the more people will realize that it’s an illness like any other and that with proper treatment and support, anyone can overcome mental illness to lead happy, successful lives. The more we share, the more we encourage others to be vulnerable, and this ripple effect is the change that the mental health community needs to break down the ignorance that surrounds societal views on mental illness.

We are human. We live with mental illness and we want to be heard. We can persevere because our stories matter.

#THISISMYBRAVE

How We Write

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My friend Anna Whiston Donaldson from An Inch of Gray recently asked me if I’d want to join in on a blog hop about writing. I consider myself a complete amateur writer, a rookie really, so I was completely honored and flattered and of course said yes even though I don’t have much of a repertoire to share. I thought I’d at least give it a shot.

I first met Anna online when I found her blog through another blog I follow, Momastery. I learned of her family’s heartbreaking loss of their Jack and I read Anna’s words with such admiration for her strength. And then, after I wrote a post about my experience at the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat, I was so excited to see a comment from Anna pop up on my blog. A few weeks later, I introduced myself to her when we were waiting in line at Glennon’s book signing, and asked her if she wanted to meet up for lunch sometime to talk writing.

Anna’s book, Rare Bird: A memoir of loss and love, comes out in September and I am so proud of her brave decision to write about her grief in a way that I know will help not just other parents who have lost a child, but anyone confronted with a sudden loss of a loved one you imagined would be in your life forever.

As for my writing process, here goes…

1. What am I working on?

Ever since attending the Wild Mountain retreat, I’ve been writing for WhatToExpect.com’s Word of Mom blog. Which reminds me, I’ve been meaning to pitch a new article idea to my editor for the past week and a half and haven’t gotten around to it yet because of all.the.stuff.on.my.desk. I also recently started blogging monthly for the International Bipolar Foundation, but mostly my writing is featured right here on my blog. I’m also the primary writer for my show’s blog, This Is My Brave, which is the current 3rd child in my house right now.

I’m also a member of the Warrior Mama Editorial Team for PostpartumProgress.com which means I have a week each quarter where I’m responsible for writing content {or recruiting new writers to produce content} for the blog. And I will also be participating in their Mother’s Day Rally for Mom’s Mental Health for the third year in a row which is a 24-hour celebration of the importance of emotional health for new mother’s on Mother’s Day. I would like to write a memoir someday, but I’ve learned that with all I have going on right now, my memoir project is taking a back seat because I need sleep to not become manic. I’m hoping once the kids are in school I’ll have some dedicated time to organize my ideas for the book, but for now I collect my thoughts on scraps of paper which I stuff into a shoebox {thank you, Priscilla Warner for that idea!}. Hey, it’s a start.

2. How does my writing differ from others of its genre?

When I first became sick with bipolar illness, my father and I would scour the shelves of Barnes & Noble to find books about people who had it. I was desperate to find a book that told me how terrible things were for someone, but that they got through it and came out okay on the other side. There weren’t many like that. Most were by doctors and were more clinical in nature. I wanted a book that was beautiful to read, and told an exciting story. And that was before I even starting thinking about having kids with a bipolar diagnosis.

When I searched the shelves again several years later when I was expecting, there were hardly any memoirs about women going through pregnancy and parenting while living with a mental illness. These days there are a few to choose from, and plenty of bloggers out there sharing their stories which I think is so wonderful. I get emails every week from women {and men} who have found my blog and are thankful to have found my story. But there’s more to it than just the tale of a young woman who got married and had a great job, and then got sick and had to learn how to get well. I want my writing to speak to the fact that I was ashamed of my illness, scared to talk about it out loud, afraid of how others would judge me. But when I found the courage to speak my truth, I finally overcame those unnecessary feelings and emotions. I learned true power of vulnerability when it comes to mental illness. And those extra things are what makes my writing different.

3. Why do I write what I do?

I write about my life with mental illness for several reasons. I find tremendous personal satisfaction from putting my words out there and then receiving comments or emails or recognition in person from individuals who have been touched in some way by my story.

I also write to help remember, if that makes any sense. My memory is terrible but I am constantly amazed at how much I can recall from manic episodes and also from my year of depression. Remembering those feelings and emotions helps me to stay on my recovery path.

And I write because I believe putting my story out into the universe could potentially help launch a much-needed social change. I hope that my writing will help influence the decrease of discrimination against people living with mental illness. We are regular, every day people who happen to have an illness in our brains. But with proper treatment, medication and support, we can lead perfectly healthy, successful lives. I want the world to know this.

4. How does my writing process work?

Ah, process. Well, I’m a writer. And like most writers, I procrastinate. No matter how hard I try to work ahead, it usually doesn’t work. For me, I need the house to be still and quiet for me to find my concentration, and that means either waking up before everyone else, or staying up late. I’ve tried the morning thing and it doesn’t work for me. Either I step on the wrong spot on the stairs or the sounds of making coffee in the kitchen wakes a kid up, and then I got up early for nothing.

So I write at night, and occasionally in the late afternoon/early evening if my husband takes the kids out of the house. But usually it’s within the 9-11:30pm time frame that I get my best work done. I’m careful to always get to bed before midnight, because I’m a little like Cinderella in that I turn into a pumpkin {a manic one at that} if I don’t get 7 hours of sleep. So midnight is a hard stop for me. With blog posts I usually like to write them, let them sit overnight, then edit and publish in the morning. But with my procrastination habit, I don’t always have the time. With my articles I write for other sites I generally have a rule that I write it ahead of time and let it sit for a day or two before editing and submitting for publication.

I also tend to jot ideas down in the car a lot, which is why I keep a tiny notebook and pen in my cupholder to scribble notes at stoplights. I find driving helps me to drum up ideas. Also, and this is the most annoying thing about my process – without fail, I almost always come up with an idea right before I fall asleep at night. Which is why I always have a pen and notepad on my nightstand.

So I hope I didn’t bore you with all the minutia of my writing routine. I feel so lucky to have people who stop by here weekly to read my words and I hope you’ll keep visiting. Thank you for your support and encouragement over the years.

I’m tagging two writers I admire, both for their crisp honesty and wisdom. Robin Farr of Farewell Stranger and Arnebya Herndon of What Now and Why will share their answers to these questions a week from today. Check them out – you may find a new blog to follow!

Mental Illness Allowed Me To Find My Gift – My Messy Beautiful

A close family friend who I’ve known since I was a baby invited me to his parent’s house for a Jewish holiday meal one night in 2009, as they did whenever those special occasions roll around. I’m not Jewish, but they treat me like family, so it’s only natural to be at these events, surrounded by friends and loved ones and good food.

After dinner, Dave and I were chatting, catching up on what we both had going on. He described his plans of starting a non-profit with a good friend of his, to give back to the community. I remember my exact first reaction:

“Why on Earth would you want to start a business that doesn’t make you a profit?” although luckily I didn’t say it aloud.

What I forgot in that moment was what Dave had been through. Early on in his life, he had everything going for him. Top athlete, funny guy, made decent grades in school. But in college he got caught up with the new found freedom and after making some bad choices, started doing drugs to self-medicate the pain away. Hard drugs. One night he almost died and so his parents found a treatment facility in California and he went away to get help. He found his recovery path and stayed at the treatment center to become a counselor himself. His addiction led him to a place where he found his gift. And now he had come home and was ready to give his gift away to the world using his non-profit as the vehicle through which to share it.

It would take five more years for me to understand this concept.

Growing up, I painted murals on the walls of my room and wrote in my journal, read poetry and spun dreams of becoming an artist. But when the time came in college to pick a major, I reached for the safe choice: Business, with a concentration in Marketing. That way, I could graduate with a degree that would ensure I’d be able to get a job, while at the same time I’d be able to tap into my artistic side. Really, I was thinking more about money and my future and much less about long-term happiness and making a difference in the world.

I wasn’t following my heart and my lack of follow-through made me envious of my girlfriends who entered the fields of teaching, nursing, and speech-language pathology because they were going to graduate and go out into the world and touch people’s lives each and every day with their talents and they’d get PAID to do what they loved. I wished I could follow my dream of becoming an artist by studying writing or art or design.

But could my creative, business-y work really touch someone’s life the way theirs would?

I was too afraid of the unknown.

Too afraid to fail.

Too afraid to be less than perfect.

Too afraid to expose my feelings through my work.

Too afraid I wouldn’t be able to support myself.

Too afraid of all these things that stood in my way.

They were my fears. And piled up together they appeared as a roadblock to the path to following my dreams.

Upon graduating, I start out in the corporate world with that versatile Business degree and I get a taste of success in the form of bonuses and commissions that keep rolling in as I continue to prove my worth to the company as the top grossing recruiter within the agency. I like this compensation system, and so I work harder and harder. I’m helping people find jobs and I’m helping companies to find talent they desperately need and it feels rewarding all around.

But over the years I become greedy. I work longer and longer hours to pull in the “big bucks”.

At the end of 2005, as I am anticipating the best year-end bonus of my career, the life I had worked so hard to build up to that point, came crashing down around me. I suffered what could only be described as a “nervous breakdown” at that moment. I spent a few nights in a psych ward, but upon my release the psychiatrist I saw attributed the episode to the lack of sleep I had experienced the week before when my husband was away on business travel.

Two weeks later that hypothesis would be proven wrong when my mind succumbed to another manic episode for which I had to be hospitalized on Christmas Day. Talk about the lowest low one can feel. Being left by your family at a psych ward while your mind unravels faster and faster until you’re unrecognizable to even yourself pretty much describes it. That was eight years ago and Christmas, to this day, still brings up mixed emotions for me. More so gratitude now, but fear used to consume my thoughts. Fear that it could happen again, that my life was over now that I was diagnosed with a mental illness. That I’d never have children. That my husband might leave me. That my life was practically worthless now that my brain was sick.

I spent 2006 behind a veil of black. I mourned the life I had to leave behind. My success as a recruiter, my friends at work, my nice, fat paycheck with all those bonuses and commissions. The tears were in endless supply that year, though I tried never to let on to my friends how unhappy I was. I woke up most mornings with anxiety crawling up my spine, and would crumble onto the couch at the end of the day, a mess of nerves and sadness and self-pity.

In my mind I couldn’t see past the day ahead of me. My future was so cloudy, it was as if my diagnosis had pulled an eye mask down over my forehead so that my vision was blocked. No more thinking a year, two years, five years down the road like I had been so used to doing. Those days it was about surviving to see the next sunrise. I battled suicidal thoughts and although ashamed to tell my husband and parents about the images in my head, I did. My psychiatrist adjusted my medication and over the course of several months, the thoughts gradually began to dissolve. I was no longer fighting for my life each day, but I was still battling the voice in my head which asked me continuously what my purpose was.

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It’s been almost nine years since I was diagnosed with type one bipolar disorder. I’ve had two kids, and had two more hospitalizations because I was protecting my babies from the psychiatric medication in my bloodstream which I know now I’ll have to take for the rest of my life. I made it through five years of mania and meds and therapy and psychosis and depression and wanting to just make it all stop. And came to the conclusion that the reality of life with mental illness is that it will never stop; you can only learn to manage it so it doesn’t manage you.

Having overcome my mental health disorder allowed me to find the courage to write about my experiences. It may have taken me time to understand the beauty and impact of true vulnerability, but I’m proud to say that I’m there now. Telling the world that I live with bipolar disorder and still love my life has been the most liberating and gratifying step I’ve taken in this career I’ve carved out for myself. Dave is now the first person I go to for advice. I feel lucky to have such a close friend as a mentor so I don’t feel like I’m starting completely from scratch.

I’ve become a mental health advocate and I run a non-profit called This Is My Brave whose mission is to ignite and actively promote a positive, supportive, national conversation surrounding mental illness. Next month my Associate Producer and I will debut This Is My Brave – the show: a live, theater-based production made up of fourteen individuals from the community who will share their stories of living with mental illness through personal essays, poetry and original music in an effort to silence stigma and inspire change.

I found beauty in the messiness of life with bipolar disorder. It’s in the people who lift me up when I’m down and in the people who have opened up to me about the struggles in their life with mental illness.

I’m grateful to have found meaning in my life, and to be able to give hope away to those who might be in the midst of the same painful place I found myself in years ago. I know they can find a way out with the support of friends and family and quality psychiatric care. If I can do it, they can too.

My messy beautiful is encouraging others to share their stories of living with mental illness so that no one has to feel alone.

I’m thrilled to be participating in the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!

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Glennon Doyle Melton is one of my favorite writers because she taught me that vulnerability is okay. Carry On, Warrior taught me that by showing the world that the imperfections that make me who I am, I in turn am giving others permission to share their messy, beautiful with me. I’ve met some of the most loving, supportive friends this year and my hope is that by giving away a copy of this special book, I’ll be paying it forward so that another person can learn the magic of sharing their messy, beautiful instead of covering it up.

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Singing in the Back of a White Police Van

9809202266_096a89dab8Photo Credit: Mikka Bee via Compfight cc

Driving in the misty spring rain to meet two of my closest girlfriends for lunch yesterday, I looked out my window and found myself thinking back to April four years ago.

Beside me on the highway was a white police van, with a fenced divider separating the driver and passenger in the front from the “cargo” in the back. Four years ago I was the cargo in one of those vans and we were traveling on that same road I was driving today. Only, four years ago I was very sick and was being transported to a psychiatric hospital, the exact opposite of my health now, as the years have taught me how to manage my condition successfully.

My 3-and-a-half-year-old firecracker buckled into her 5-point harness carseat behind me, oblivious to the thoughts going through my head, was the size of a poppy seed in my belly when I rode inside that white van.

Except, for this post I don’t want to focus on the crushing sadness of that week – the fact that my husband had to experience sending me to the hospital again, how I had to start back at the beginning on my recovery path again, on psychiatric medications making it a “high-risk pregnancy,” or the fact that I had to leave my precious 18-month old son for a week so that I could get well. Instead, I want to share a side of the story I haven’t written about much before. [Read more...]