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.

 

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:

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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?

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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.”

 

Pushing Myself to Write a Book

5325613416_0964491115Photo Credit: Honey Pie! via Compfight cc

You say you want to write a book. You say this, and yet, you let days slip past without writing anything but emails or tweets or status updates. Those are never going to turn into a book.

You say you want to write a book. And yet, the days keep passing, the weeks and months that put more and more distance between you and your experiences of mental illness. They are beginning to feel more and more like harrowing nightmares that you’ve woken up from all sweaty and breathing fast.

But they weren’t nightmares. They were real life. And you better get these experiences down, out of the corners of your memory where you buried them for safekeeping, or else they may fade away completely.

Just write it already.

I’ve got a new Ed Sheeran album to inspire me. Plus, binders full of tips and tricks I was fortunate enough to acquire from a dear online friend who I’ll be meeting a year from next month.

But then summer schedules get in the way. My body moves like it’s stuck in quicksand. Each morning the early sunrise finds me digging myself out after staying up too late because after a 7:30pm yoga class is the only time I have peace and quiet to write and surf the internet. Walking into a quiet house at 9pm, grateful the kids are asleep, the dishes await me. The laundry needs to be folded. Trash taken out because it’s full to the top.

Still, I’m grateful my husband at least watched the kids and put them to bed so I could have my time.

Seventy-five minutes of pure blissful stretching, sweat rolling down my legs and arms as I melt into the poses which center me. Class leaves me tired, yet energized. These past three weeks of practicing yoga twice a week have begun to chisel my body and mind. Next items to tackle are prioritizing my schedule and sticking to it.

When there’s camp in the morning with only an hour and a half before early pick-up so that he doesn’t have to miss swimming and then dance class in the afternoon for her, the moments for writing are consumed by responding to emails and texts. And phone calls from my love in the middle of the day or on his way home, just checking in to see if I need anything.

I wish it didn’t take me an hour to get warmed up when I finally sit down at my desk and the clock reads 10pm. Discipline and focus are what I lack. I know this, and yet still have to click around for awhile, loosening up my typing fingers. It’s something I want to work on this procrastination issue I have. Wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t struggle with this monkey on my back.

Baby steps. Other women writers with families have written memoirs. I’ll get there. I have a feeling my memories will protect themselves inside my head until I’m ready to resurrect them in the order that makes the most sense for this book that is sleeping in my heart. One step at a time.

Help Me Reach {or exceed!} my goal for Climb Out of the Darkness 2014

ClimbOut2014

Going through a postpartum mood disorder is something no woman should have to experience alone. Which is why I am so passionate about Postpartum Progress and all of the incredible programs this non-profit organization provides through the connectivity of the internet.

Back when I had my first child almost six years ago, there weren’t many people talking openly about postpartum mental health. Sure, there was the literature you’d see in the waiting room at the OB’s office during your monthly visits and the brief articles in pregnancy magazines. But no one really talked about the kinds of postpartum mood disorders, or, more importantly, what they felt like.

None of my friends ended up having PPD, or at least none that I knew of. And even though I had been diagnosed with Bipolar Type 1, and had been hospitalized twice for mania before my pregnancy, I honestly thought I was in the clear. I thought that part of my life was behind me and I no longer needed to worry about a mental breakdown of those sorts since I had been “in remission” for over a year and was completely med-free during my pregnancy. Looking back now I can’t believe I was worried more about PPD than PPP, especially given my previous manic episodes.

I know exactly why. Depression almost killed me in 2006. Two manic episodes, two weeks apart, two hospital stays and I was left a shell of former self. I had been crushed from the outside in, and stayed that way for an entire year. My career came to a screeching halt. I would wake to anxiety wrapped around my entire body, making me wish I could just end it all. I dreaded going out with friends because everyone was always talking about work and family and I was terrified I’d never be able to return to the work that I loved, and was even more fearful of not being able to have the children which I desperately wanted.

The silence surrounding mental illness was part of what made it so hard to pull through that year. I wanted someone to talk to. I tried. But whenever I would try to bring it up, awkwardness would inevitably kill the conversation.  I felt so ashamed. Blank stares, no words, uncomfortable silence. That damn silence. So I stopped trying.

I don’t remember exactly when I found Postpartum Progress, but I do remember how I felt. These are my people. They understand me. They understand what I went through. They understand all the pain and suffering and how unbelievable it feels to come out on the other side. And they want to talk. And listen. And help society to understand that maternal mental illness is just like any other illness. When we’re able to get help and we have support, we can get well and be the mamas we’ve always dreamed we would be. I’ve become friends with a number of phenomenal, passionate, empathetic women through Postpartum Progress who encouraged me to continue sharing my story. I peeled off the layers of shame and found my voice as an advocate.

This coming weekend, women all over the world will be climbing mountains, hiking trails and speaking out about postpartum mood disorders during the 2nd annual Postpartum Progress Climb Out of the Darkness. They’ll be climbing with their friends and families to raise money for Postpartum Progress which will help the organization continue to focus on its key initiatives: raising awareness, fighting stigma and providing peer support for pregnant and new mothers.

My family and I completed the climb last year by ourselves, but this year I volunteered to lead Team McLean, here in Virginia, in a hike at Great Falls National Park on Sunday. I am so honored to head up this wonderful group and can’t wait to meet them all in person. Whenever I meet people who have walked similar roads to mine, I feel an instant connection.

Our team has done a tremendous job fundraising, but we still have time! Personally, I am only $290 away from my goal of $1,000 and would be so appreciative of your support. The minimum donation on Crowdrise is $10, but no donation is considered small in my eyes. If I’m able to raise $1k by this Saturday, June 21st, I’ll earn a ticket to the first ever Warrior Mama Conference in Boston next July and I would SO LOVE to be there to hug all these warrior mamas I’ve gotten to know online over the past few years.

Here’s the link to donate: https://www.crowdrise.com/jennifermarshall3-cotd2014/fundraiser/jennifermarshall3

We’re #BackInTheWorld! {See if you can spot me and Owen in the video! Vivian took the picture.}

Thank you so much to David Gray for the use of his new single, Back in the World, from his new album, Mutineers. LOVE THIS SONG.

Your donation will help bring a voice to postpartum mood disorders. It will encourage conversations that will help heal mothers who may be suffering in silence. Please consider donating to this life-saving organization today. Thank you so much!