Today marks 6 years blogging

beach sunrise

{sunrise this morning, Bethany Beach, Delaware}

Today is my 6-year blogiversary. 

I still remember the day I decided to begin blogging about my story. I started a free WordPress.com blog using a domain name I had purchased. I remember pausing before hitting “submit” on bipolarmomlife.com, thinking for a moment about the brand I was about to create. It was intentional. I wanted other moms out there, other families dealing with bipolar disorder and parenting, to know that they weren’t alone and that it does get better. I wanted women to type “bipolar” and “mom” into Google and find me. That’s how it all started.

Six years have felt like an instant. My son was only two and my daughter wasn’t yet a year old when I started writing out the story of how bipolar had seemingly devastated my life. I was ready to begin writing my way through the pain of my past to heal myself. From my very first blog post:

Bipolar I is my diagnosis but I try not to let the label get to me too much. I definitely think about it on a daily basis, but I’m not embarrassed or ashamed of it anymore like I was back when I was first diagnosed. Sure, the stigma is still there, but it’s beginning to fade.

Each time I took to my laptop to tap out the thoughts and feelings swirling in my head from the memories of my struggle, I chipped away at the internal stigma that had attached itself to me when I was formally diagnosed with mental illness.

My blog was my safe, anonymous corner of the Internet for a year and a half. Friendships were forged from comments back and forth supporting each other’s writing, validating each other’s pain and progress. 

And then an opportunity arose which would change the course of my life. An editor from WhatToExpect.com found my blog and asked me to write for them. It was my first paid writing job, and she wanted me to use my voice as a parent living with mental illness. That was a huge turning point for me. It was when I made the decision to put my name and face on my writing. 

I knew that I’d never be able to make the impact on reducing stigma the way I wanted to until I put my true identity on my story.

So I took a risk. 

I worried about future employment. I wondered if people would turn away from me. I feared what I didn’t know.

I know now there was nothing to be afraid of in the first place.

None of my fears came true.

If I wouldn’t have taken the risk to open up about my bipolar disorder, I wouldn’t be where I am today. The day I stopped hiding my mental illness was the start to living a richer, more authentic life. 

About five months after my first freelance article hit the internet with my byline {What Landed Mom in the Psych Ward was the link bait AOL.com used to tease the article, complete with our family photo}, I launched what would eventually become This Is My Brave, Inc. Only most people don’t know that I failed first.

I first launched the concept with a woman I met at a writer’s conference. She was lovely and we hit it off instantly, but after working on the idea for a few weeks together, we began to have intense creative differences. The idea was to create a show featuring people who struggled with mental health issues, to provide a creative platform for them to share and end the stigma. We called it, “Don’t Call Me Crazy” but thankfully it didn’t pan out. {Funny enough, there is now a Netflix series with the same name.}

A few weeks later, licking my wounds, I tried again. As fate would have it, I was introduced to Anne Marie Ames, the woman who would become my Co-Founder, at a mutual friend’s party. Within a few months we had launched the concept on Kickstarter and the rest is history. This fall we’re putting on our 31st show. 

The magic behind This Is My Brave is the lifesaving power of storytelling. It’s seeing people who have endured so much pain reach a point in their life when they have some perspective. They are ready to use their voice. I’ve seen people transform from being a part of our shows and our organization. It’s as if a physical weight has been lifted off their shoulders and they can finally breathe. It’s freeing to be able to talk about the invisible parts of ourselves out loud. And it shows others they are not alone. That it does get better, and that we’re all connected.

If it weren’t for this blog, I don’t know where I’d be right now. Thank you to everyone who has ever read, commented, shared. I appreciate your support more than you’ll ever know. 

My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward

My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward

Feb 4, 2014 – One of my dear friends from college sent me a link to The Moth podcast on which Mark Lukach told his story about supporting his wife through her struggle with mental illness. On May 2, 2017 Mark published his first book, My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward

Two weeks after my friend Jen sent me the link to Mark’s story, we were on vacation in Florida for my grandmother’s 90th birthday. I sat my family down – Ben, my mom and my dad – around the kitchen table to listen together. Tears flowed. Giulia’s story had so many parallels to my own. I was so moved and impressed by how her husband could articulate what he had went through as he watched her struggle with her illness, helpless at times but he never gave up on getting her well.

In reading Mark’s book, I had a glimpse of what my family and husband must have gone through during the early stages of my illness. The research, navigating the system, figuring out how to best support me as I called my parents sobbing every day for a year. Actually, their response to my depression seemed intuitive. Both my parents were so supportive and patient with me as I struggled to understand what was happening to me. My mom and I are similar in our typical impatience with nearly everything, but this was different. It must have hurt them to see me in such pain. 

This was brought to light in Mark’s storytelling. He was able to so eloquently take the reader into the thoughts and emotions running through his mind as he watched his wife lose hers. I often think about how terrifying it must have been for Ben and my family to see me lose control of my thinking. To this day Ben has a hard time talking about it.

My guess is this book was as therapeutic and healing for Mark to write as participating in This Is My Brave has been to me and my storytellers. Each time we are able to unpack those complicated memories from our experiences with mental illness, we relieve the burden of holding onto those heavy secrets. 

Loving someone who lives with a mental health issue is definitely not easy. But I don’t think a person has ultimate control over who they fall in love with. And with the statistics on the number of people living with mental health issues, chances are high most relationships face these challenges. In our case, and in Mark and Giulia’s, the journey only made us stronger. It changed my relationship with Ben for the better and I wouldn’t change a thing. My guess is Mark and Giulia wouldn’t either.

To order My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward, use our This Is My Brave Amazon Smile link and we’ll earn a tiny donation. {I had pre-ordered the book and was lucky to receive this beautiful coloring page from Mark and Giulia’s son Jonas when it shipped in February. Been meaning to write this review ever since.}

Fun side note: Since connecting with Mark and Giulia on Twitter a few years ago, we’re hoping to meet in person this summer since Mark’s family still owns a beach house at Bethany Beach and my parents just bought one. It’s neat when internet friends meet up in person. Today is also Mark’s Birthday! Happy Birthday, Mark!

I Landed in the ER after watching ’13 Reasons Why’

Four days ago I finished watching the Netflix series ‘13 Reasons Why’ and drafted an opinion piece which I published Monday morning. The show rocked me to my core. So much so, that I landed in the Emergency Room of my local hospital. This is the story of how and why that happened.

emergency room after 13 Reasons WhyI live with type 1 bipolar disorder. For those who aren’t aware of the various types of bipolar disorder, Bipolar Hope Magazine is an amazing resource and they have an informative section on their website which describes the types of bipolar and different symptoms. In a nutshell, my type of bipolar disorder means that I lean towards the manic side of the condition. If I’m not careful to protect my sleep, I could find myself launching into a manic episode. It doesn’t happen overnight, rather, over the course of several nights of getting little to no sleep.

As I mentioned in my opinion piece, I put my mental health at risk by choosing to watch the show. I didn’t know how risky it was to begin watching the show because I’ve been mentally healthy for the past 7 years. The last time I was hospitalized for a manic episode was, ironically, exactly seven years ago this month, when I was 5 weeks pregnant with my second child. I thought since I had been so stable for so long, it couldn’t possibly be that risky to watch a few episodes.

I was wrong.

I started watching the show Friday evening, and got through four episodes (binging) before forcing myself to shut it off so that I could get some sleep before flying to Cedar Rapids, Iowa for my nonprofit’s show the following night. Our Iowa Corridor This Is My Brave show was incredibly moving and inspiring, as all of our shows are, and I was so excited to get to spend time with the show’s producers and cast members afterwards. We went out to a local bar and played Cards Against Humanity while eating and hanging out. I had a blast. But unfortunately didn’t get to sleep until 2am EST, and awoke at 6am Sunday morning. I usually sleep well when I’m on the road, but I had so much on my mind having started watching the show the night before and wanting to continue watching.

I pushed play on episode 5 shortly after waking up, and was able to finish the series in the airport on my way home on Sunday. I was furious by the time I finished, and reached out to several of my friends via text to see if they had watched and to get their thoughts. Everyone seemed to have similar feelings, but slightly different reactions. Overall, the few people I was able to connect with directly were shook up by the show, but were glad it was out and was opening the eyes of the public.

At that point I began thinking about those in my circles who were already vulnerable, sensitive. How would they take it if they had watched? How would teenagers react to the show? Especially if they didn’t have solid support systems in place, if they were already in a tough place, if they didn’t have the energy or resources to access proper mental healthcare.  

I landed around 8:30pm and grabbed an Uber home. I normally enjoy chatting with the driver, but on this particular ride I needed to connect with one of my close friends. I called my This Is My Brave Co-Founder Anne Marie Ames. She and I have been friends for four years, and I needed to tell her how the show affected me. We talked the entire ride home, and agreed to catch up again during the week.

My husband had let our kids stay up late so they could see me, so I hugged and kissed my little people and got them tucked in by 9pm. My husband knew how I was feeling because I had called him from the airport, and he knew that I wasn’t sleeping well. The plan at that point was to focus on sleep all week, make it a priority again. On the flight home from Chicago I had jotted down my feelings and initial reaction to ‘13 Reasons Why’, and I told him I felt that if I was able to get them organized into a piece that made sense, I’d likely sleep better. I started pulling my thoughts together, tapping away at my laptop, and he went up to bed.

I crawled into bed around midnight, as it had taken me longer than I had hoped to draft my reaction. But I did feel better once I got it out, so I was hopeful I’d be able to get some quality sleep.

Only, instead of crashing and sleeping hard, my sleep was broken and riddled with nightmares. I woke at 5:30am, and since my husband was already downstairs doing his normal early morning workout in the basement, I grabbed and pen and paper and let my feelings flow again. I shot off a draft of my revised piece to two friends and by then it was time to wake the kids and get them off to school.

I recognized my symptoms of hypomania and immediately told my husband that I was going to call my psychiatrist at 8:30am when they opened to get an appointment. He said that he thought that was a good idea and off my family went to work and school. I normally find relief in the calm of the morning once the house is quiet and I’m on my own. But instead I found myself feeling that familiar current of mania beginning to rush through my blood and anxiety creeping in.

I still hoped I could relieve some of these symptoms by publishing my reaction to the show. I felt a little better after hitting Publish on Medium, but things escalated quickly from there.

I picked up my kids from school and took them out for frozen yogurt, one of our favorite treats. I hadn’t seen them all weekend, so it was fun to catch up. As we were sitting there, Kelly, my best friend from college called to see how our Cedar Rapids event had gone. I told her it was amazing, as all our events are, but that I had a lot on my mind. She caught on immediately that I wasn’t in a good place, probably based on the tone of my voice, but I told her I couldn’t talk because of where we were and the kids were with me. She offered to pick up the groceries I said I’d be running out for later that evening, so that I could head to bed early instead. She agreed to meet me back at my place in ½ hour.

{One of the things Kelly asked was critical for her to know how I was doing mentally, and she knows this from being there when my very first manic episode came on back in December of 2005. She asked me where I was on a 10-point scale. I was at a 6-7.}

When a person with type 1 bipolar is at a 6-7, it means that they’re in a hypo-manic state. A person can very quickly go from a 6-7 to a 9-10, meaning they need to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital, if things aren’t addressed in an urgent manner.

Once we were home, I did my best to summarize for Kel why the show 13 Reasons Why’ affected me so deeply. She’s a teacher, and hadn’t heard of the show, but when I told her how I had met a friend of mine for coffee that afternoon, she had a better understanding. The friend I met up with had been directly impacted by suicide, as her son Jay took his life last year, and now the family is pursuing a lawsuit because Jay’s guidance counselor had been alerted by a friend three weeks before he took his own life. The counselor had neglected to contact Jay’s parents. You can read about it in the Washington Post.

Little did I know, Kelly had already set an emergency intervention plan into place, even though she may not have noticed it at the time. While she was picking up the groceries for me, she called my husband and let him know that she was concerned about me. She also texted another one of our close friends from college who had a friend who was a pharmacist. (What can I say? It takes a village.)

When Ben got home, he found the kids happily playing video games, while Kelly and I were sitting in the dining room trying to figure out a plan. I needed Ambien to ensure that I got a solid night’s sleep. The only problem was that I hadn’t used a sleep medication in seven years, so we didn’t have anything (expired or otherwise) in the house. We called my psychiatrist’s office to see if we could get through to an after-hours line. We left a message for my doctor’s medical assistant, but by then it was already 6pm and we were running out of time. We called my regular pharmacy, but my psychiatric medication info was out of date. (Side note: I use a mail-order pharmacy to fulfill my regular mood stabilizer prescription which I’ve been on for the past 7 years at the same dose.) The pharmacist at my regular pharmacy recommended an over-the-counter sleep aid, but we weren’t convinced that would work for me given my level of hypomania.

Our friend who is the pharmacist (in California) communicated by text that if I didn’t have Ambien on hand at home, I would need to go to the Emergency Room to get a prescription for it, and that was what she recommended given my symptoms. I argued it was overreacting, but based on my experience living with this condition for eleven years now, and my past 4 psychiatric hospitalizations for mania, I also knew she was right.

Kelly offered to drive me to the hospital while Ben held down the fort at home. I resisted at first, as it seemed dramatic and unnecessary. I wanted to just get an OTC sleep med, and said we could get Ambien the next day from my psychiatrist. But looking back now, it’s a good thing I didn’t resist as I could have ended up in handcuffs again, being carted off to the Emergency Room and then the psychiatric hospital. I didn’t want my kids to have to see that happen, so I happily went along with the intervention plan. 

We joked on the drive over about how efficient my intervention team was and how I was voting her President of the team based on her stellar performance. (In college, Kelly was President of the water polo team and I was Vice President, so it seemed fitting.) We were immediately admitted to the ER, the intake nurse took my vitals, and I was sent back to a triage room with a bed. By that point I had called my parents to let them know what was going on, letting them know the plan and that we had everything under control. They were worried but relieved, and asked that I keep them posted.

The ER doc was really great, and got us in and out quickly with a script for the Ambien that hopefully would do the trick and get me through until I saw my psychiatrist on Wednesday. Ben had called his mom and she was already at our house by the time I was getting my discharge papers, and he met us at the hospital right as I was released so that he could drive me to get my script and Kelly could head home to her family.

Ben’s mom got the kids in bed as I called my parents to update them once we got home around 8:30pm. I ate a little something for dinner, and was crawling into bed by 9:30, ready to let the meds do their trick and lull me into a deep sleep.

Only it didn’t exactly work as planned.

I slept from 10pm until I woke at 1:30am, unable to get back to sleep. Hypomania/mania has a way of doing that to a person. I woke my husband and told him I couldn’t sleep, so I took another dose of the sleep med. I woke groggy at 6am Tuesday morning. Concerned that I had to take two doses, when in the past one dose had worked for me, we called to bump up my psychiatrist appointment, and luckily she had a slot in her schedule for Tuesday afternoon.

My husband was able to take time off from work to drive me to my psychiatrist appointment. We filled her in on everything that had happened, and made a new plan including medication changes. She provided us with her emergency contact info in case we needed it, and answered all our questions. We were in and out in an hour total. My mother-in-law was able to help us with our kids while my husband went back to work for the afternoon and I went to run a few necessary errands, including picking up my new prescription. My therapist (who I haven’t seen since December, because I’ve been “busy”), has an awesome online scheduling tool for current clients. I grabbed one of her only two open appointment slots for Thursday.

Tuesday night we followed the plan. It was extremely difficult to get out of bed Wednesday morning due to the side effects of the medication changes. I haven’t had trouble getting out of bed because of my mental illness for so many years that I forgot what it felt like. It’s hell.

My anxiety has returned due to this “almost-episode,” which is totally normal. It’s just been so long since I’ve felt it that it’s been a little overwhelming. Uncomfortable, yes. Manageable, yes. Especially when I have such an incredible support system and so many resources at my fingertips.

I may have been able to stay mentally healthy for seven years, and yes, that’s a long streak. But if this week has taught me anything it’s that I’m not immune to relapses. I live with type 1 bipolar disorder and I’ll always have it. Like any other chronic condition, it’s lifelong. I’ll continue to kick bipolar’s ass, I know I will. I’m even a little grateful for this week’s experience because I had been feeling like a bit of an imposter lately, having not felt symptoms for so long and getting to do this nonprofit work where I hear stories of individuals overcoming mental illness every week. I’ll forever be a member of the club, my tribe, as I call it. And together we’re ending the stigma surrounding mental health disorders. One true story at a time.

*****

About a year ago, I wrote a guest post for a website called OC87Recovery Diaries, and in it, I stated that we didn’t have a plan. The reason I’m publishing this post is not to highlight how fortunate I am, but to point out how I almost landed in a psychiatric hospital this week, but didn’t, because we had a plan. It may not have been a formal, executed WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan), but it was darn near close, and it worked.

If you or someone you love lives with a mental illness, it’s important to have a plan. And if you’re in a tough place right now – here are some things I find helpful:

  • Know your local and national mental health resources, including the crisis hotlines. This Is My Brave’s Resources page is a great place to look, or even just Google it and keep that info handy.
  • Make sure you know how to contact your psychiatrist after-hours in case of emergency.
  • Keep a journal that lists the meds you’re currently taking and what’s working for you. Allow those closest to you to have access to this in case of emergency.
  • Don’t be afraid to be completely honest about how you’re feeling. Feeling overwhelmed, triggered, fragile, etc., and sharing your feelings with those you trust is NOT weakness. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. It’s brave to allow yourself to be that vulnerable and it leads to deeper, more close-knit relationships with the people you love.
  • Don’t lose sight of self-care. We often get so wrapped up in our day-to-day lives that we forget to take time out for ourselves, and being too “busy” can lead to burn-out and mental health issues.

Would you like to live on a farm in Canada?

I received what most people would consider to be an odd phone call last week. It left me thinking about what it would be like to live on a farm in Canada. Let me explain…

I was driving to meet my grad student volunteer in DC to finish up a project, when my phone rang. It was a man named Stephen who lives on a farm outside of the capital city of Canada, Ottawa. He mentioned that he found me online googling bipolar, as we both have the same condition, and that he thought maybe I might be able to help him find a family or group of people who might be interested in taking over his farm.

I found the request pretty insane, and Stephen admitted it was a little “out there,” but you never know with the internet. When we put things out via our networks, you never know how far it will go and how you might be able to find a needle in a haystack. So I asked him to send me more info via email, and later that evening, he did.

Here’s his note:

Hello Jennifer,

It was nice to connect with you by telephone earlier today with my rather unusual (insane?) idea of turning over my farm.
I clicked onto your site because I am bi-polar among other things. I’m 62 and as of two years ago freshly divorced type of situation. Messy for sure and a catalyst for soul searching avenues. What I felt made a difference is the setting I put myself in. I bought a historic farm with a water view to boot, and filled it with an insane number of farm and domestic animals. I’m sure you’ve read how some people find being surrounded by animals to be therapeutic. In this vein I thought on a long shot there may be a couple or group of people who wanted to change their life settings. I’d like to say change their life but you and I know better and that “wherever you go there you are” type of outlook. But for sure, being in a different atmosphere, if it is a fit, can be beneficial to one’s health.
My fifty tiled acre farm is located in a small town, about fifty minutes away from my nation’s capital, Ottawa. Yes, I am in Canada but perhaps there are followers of your blog that right now would welcome a move outside of the domain of that new guy in Washington!
My idea is to find someone who is not dirt poor and perhaps has a home-based business which does not restrict them to living elsewhere. I would basically allow them to live here forever without paying rent in exchange for taking care of some of my animals, a deal that would have to be customized between us. I have a car, but no tractor, four barns, a paved driveway and a wonderful stone home built in 1830 with over 3,500 square feet, perfect for a family, inviting for someone who wants to set up some sort of new business as well. My land is currently rented out to an organic farmer but could be used by the new person(s).
So basically, in exchange for taking care of what is in reality my vast pet kingdom you get to run the farm without any charge. You have to pay for the running costs and taxes of course which are not daunting mind you but it still requires an outlay. I bought this property outright and do not have it mortgaged.
I am a two minute drive to every type of store you might need for food, etc. beside a small town.
Bi-polar is not something one “cures” but as you might agree life can be beautiful if you surround yourself in an appropriate way to keep on healing and in this light I think my farm setting might be of use. I plan to go back to Japan where I was living before coming back to Canada a few years ago.
Not sure what else to add here but feel free to ask any questions.
Stephen
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I’ve spoken with Stephen, and he’d be interested in speaking with anyone who’d like to talk with him about this opportunity. So if you’ve ever dreamt of living on a farm, and you’d like to move to Canada, please email my friend Stephen at wonderfulpens@gmail.com.