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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A Different Path

A-Different-PathPhoto Credit: Zach Dischner via Compfight cc

Some may say I took the easy path to becoming a writer. The cowardly path. I was too scared to follow my dreams as an undergrad, so I took the safe route. I found a job, got married young, started a family five years later and now that I have the stability of a loving, supportive husband who has a stable job that pays well, I have the ability to be an artist. I’m not arguing this because it’s true.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t scary at times. We settled in an area of the country where it’s very difficult to make ends meet on one income. Artists don’t become artists for the money. They do it because there is an innate drive living inside their hearts which compels them to keep creating and sharing their work. The hope is that one day, the compensation will follow. All things considered, my husband and I are more savers than we are spenders. Our idea of a splurge is taking a couples vacation to Mexico for our 10-year anniversary. Lucky for us both sets of parents jump at the chance to watch their grandkids for a week.

So yes, I feel very fortunate to be able to write and stay home with my kids while they’re young. I see each day just how fast this time is passing. Which is funny because I’m simultaneously sad about their “baby” years almost being over and {maybe a little too} eager for their school years to begin. I anticipate long, quiet stretches of six hours a day where I can devote some serious time to our newly-formed non-profit and all the exciting projects my partner and I keep dreaming up. And then there’s the memoir that’s relentlessly floating around in my mind. I want to plan and write and get it all out on paper so that I can re-work, re-write and re-organize the thoughts from my early struggles with my illness, still so vivid in my subconscious.

These days I see clearly the path which I’ve found myself peddling on, a steady pace keeping me in shape for the hills ahead. This path is one on which I eventually tell my whole story, hopefully encouraging people from all walks of life to be brave and stand up for what they believe in but are too afraid to say out loud.

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This is Friday

Friday mornings we’re up by 7:30am at the latest. I’m downstairs in my fuzzy yellow bathrobe, attending to priority number one: coffee. I talk the kids into cereal or oatmeal because it’s faster and less messy, even though they’d prefer pancakes or waffles if I could let them choose.

Three minutes later I look over and they’re deep in conversation together so I listen in. He talks of his excitement over his friend coming over to play later in the afternoon, a playdate arranged by the mommies since the two boys seem inseparable at school lately. She ponders what color tights she’ll wear from the rainbow of colors Grandma got her at Target the other day. Friday mornings mean her brother and I get to watch her gracefully twirl and shake and jump while my heart bursts with pride and joy. I melt at seeing how much she loves to dance.

By the time 4:30pm rolls around, we’re anticipating Daddy’s arrival home. He’s the pizza master, and since I’ve been thawing the dough since noon, it’s ready to go and so are our appetites. The kids and their father eat the meat, so they cover their side with turkey pepperoni. Mine usual is mushrooms and yellow pepper slices, whatever veggies are left in the fridge by week’s end. While it cooks we talk about our days. I show off Instagrams from the morning’s dance class and any from the afternoon that I’ve taken. We’re thankful it’s Friday. We have the whole weekend ahead of us, together.

I convince the kids to pick up the toys and puzzles scattered around the family room while the pizza cools, fresh out of the oven. We make it a game with a timer to see who can beat the clock. He hands me a glass of red wine, cheers, and we sit down to our family dinner. Everyone oohs and ahhhs over Daddy’s pizza skills and I vow to never cook again, again. Why cook when your husband is perfectly capable?

The movie starts at 7 and by then we’re all ready for some serious cuddling time. We line up: big person, little person, big person, little person, and stretch the big red furry blanket out over all of us. Phones are left on the kitchen counter, ipads and laptops and turned off. I don’t know a time I am more complete than when I have my children in my arms, my husband squeezing my hand from the other end of the couch, and I stop and appreciate all that I have.

This is Friday night with a three and a five-year old.

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Sure, there are squabbles and timeouts and messes to be cleaned up after every meal and snack. I’m highlighting here, for posterity.

The last few weeks this has been our new tradition. Lucky for us, our kids have only just begun to be exposed to the incredible world of Disney. Our past few Fridays have included The Lorax, Tangled, Brave, Frozen, all but one on loan from our best friends. Not sure what it will be tonight, but one thing is for sure: I love how we do Fridays.

#TGIF and Happy Weekend, everyone!

Best Day of My Life

{Have you heard the song ‘Best Day of My Life’ by American Authors yet?}

I woke up this morning to the sound of my daughter stirring in the room next to ours. Peeking into her room, I saw her sitting up smiling brightly in her teeny toddler bed, still tangled up in the flannel sheets with her lovey beside her.

Her eyes met mine and I managed a sleepy grin and a “Good morning, Sweetie” as I walked over to turn off her fan.

She hopped out of bed and I opened my arms wide to hold her and start our morning off with a hug. Her legs wrapped around my middle, wrists gripped snug behind my neck, she declared the perfect start to our day:

“This is going to be the best day evah!”

Yes, my sweet girl. With that attitude, you’re right. It’s another day we have together.

I made chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast because that’s what’s on the menu for the best day ever, of course. As I flipped the last of the golden brown circles into the pan, I eavesdropped on the conversation between my two littles at the kitchen table. They were exchanging giggles over whether to feed their Transformers tangerine slices or bites of pancakes, and I couldn’t help but catch it on video.

They play together while I do dishes and between sudsing up the pan and rinsing it off I look up through the steam to notice the snow that has started to fall outside the window. In the back of my mind I’m hoping this is the last time we see the white stuff this winter, but as I dry off the pan I am reminded of my daughter’s declaration and with that I remember the art project I had been saving for an occasion just like today.

A few minutes later the kids are elbow-deep in tempera paint when my son looks up at me and says, “Mommy, sometimes my dreams look like this.”

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And I think, you know what bud? My dream looks like this, too. Except it’s not a dream. It’s real and it’s every day.

It’s the best day ever.