My Time to Stand Up to Stigma

eecummingsquote

 

“I’m ready to not be anonymous anymore.” I said, tensing up slightly at the sound of my voice.

Even as that statement came out of my mouth two months ago at my Listen To Your Mother DC audition, I didn’t yet fully believe what I was saying. I still saw the faces of my parents in my head, grimacing at the reverberations of my words. I sensed a dark hook pulling me back into my closet of shame. It took a trip to the opposite coast for a long weekend at a writers’ retreat a few weeks later to demonstrate to me why I no longer need to hide.

 

I think the shame stems from my upbringing. In fact, I know it does. My family culture taught me that we don’t air our dirty laundry. That we should never appear vulnerable for fear of appearing weak.

 

When I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in the spring of 2006, my Mom and I took long walks around the townhouse community where my husband and I lived at the time. She led me in praying the rosary. I followed along, because at the time I had no idea what else to do. At the time we grasped at whatever made us feel better. Or she did, at least. I was pretty numb from all the meds I took. And so I just repeated the prayers, over and over again, like the good little Catholic daughter I appeared to be. What she wanted me to be. Not her daughter who just found out she has a mental illness.

 

In going through treatment and therapy, I hid mainly, curled up in my closet of shame. I felt embarrassed and ashamed that I had suffered two manic breaks, both of which hit me out of nowhere and forced me to spend almost a week in a psych ward to be brought back to reality. My hospitalizations were traumatic and harrowing, from the injections of anti-psychotics that I received, to the night I spent in the isolation room because I thought my roommate was a monster. I had no one to talk to about the torment it caused me. Only my closest three girlfriends knew that I had been grappling with a psychiatric illness. They were there for me, but only so much as they could be. So much went unsaid, for fear of feelings being hurt. My world had been rocked to the core, and my personality had crumbled in humiliation. Because of the sudden shock of it all, I experienced severe anxiety attacks and subsequently had to resign from a job which I loved and excelled at.

 

In the course of four months I had gone from the peak of my career as a rock-star recruiter, pulling in six figures at the tender age of twenty-six, to the darkest, most desolate time in my life. I felt so alone, despite the fact that my parents and husband were doing everything in their power to figure out what would get me well. They listened when I cried practically every day for nine months straight. My husband wrapped his strong loving arms around my frail body each and every night in bed so that I could turn off the racing thoughts and fall asleep to the sound of his steady heartbeat. I am forever grateful to them for staying positive and focusing on the end goal of getting me to see that it didn’t have to be this way. That life was worth living. Because I couldn’t see further than a step ahead of me back then.

 

We took things one day at a time in 2006, only consulting with our closest friends and family in the times when we needed extra help or advice. After several months of seeing and hearing me struggle with suicidal thoughts, my parents were desperate to find a doctor who could prescribe the right meds to bring their bubbly, confident, smart daughter back. She had all but disappeared and by this point they were ready to do anything to prevent me from taking my own life.

 

The thoughts of killing myself were only fleeting thoughts, bouncing in and out of my brain. My head was overflowing with chemicals from the drugs I was on, that I sometimes wondered if the thoughts were a product of my meds. The morbid curiosity I was struggling with made it tough for me to connect regular, day-to-day thoughts like, “I wonder what I should make for dinner tonight?” or “How many minutes do I want to sweat on the treadmill today?” In my messed up reality I felt like I didn’t have anything to live for anymore. A very selfish part of me thought my pain would magically disappear if I just swallowed a bottle of pills. It was as if I were trudging through thick, gooey mud in my depressed mind every day when all I longed for was the ability to return to normal.

 

By some miracle of God (or maybe my Mom’s rosary prayers were finally answered), my Dad was able to get me an appointment with the Chief of Psychiatry at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, MD, near where I lived. That meeting, on a warm October evening the day before Halloween, was a night I’ll never forget.

 

Dr. Post explained why Lithium was a good choice for me and that I should be open to giving it a try. He listened to my fears and addressed all of my concerns. He even gave us his notes from that meeting. I cried hard as I confessed my extreme grief at not being able to have children because I’d be taking Lithium for the rest of my life. Dr. Post assured me that this simply wasn’t the case. I would just have to work closely with my doctors before, during, and after the pregnancy and I could even stay on my medication – in fact, he strongly recommended that I do – since the risk of birth defects while on Lithium is so low. The benefits of staying on medication during the pregnancy and after, foregoing breastfeeding, greatly outweighed the risks of not taking the meds.

 

Within three months on my new medication, I began to feel my old self emerging like cheery daffodils poking through the cold, wet spring soil. But instead of opening up and telling our friends and family how happy we were that I was starting to feel better, my Mom kept praying on those  beads, and mouths were kept shut. The whispers shared between the family regarding my health continued, even as I began to surrender to my desire to share my feelings of what it was like living with a mental illness. The writer in me just wanted to be able to talk openly about how I was working hard to get well. I wanted to show the world that I had been through hell and back and I turned out okay. In fact, I was better than okay. I was ready to start writing my story. I started my blog, Bipolar Mom Life, but was gently encouraged by my family to keep my identity a secret, so as not to jeopardize future employment opportunities or my relationships with our neighbors or people in the community. And so for nearly two years I remained a prisoner of my parent’s mortification over the illness, complete with hands in cuffs and duct tape over my lips.

 

It’s been seven years since I was handed my admission into the club of mental health consumers. We’ve had two healthy kids and I’ve had two more hospitalizations, both times because I put my babies’ health before mine. They are my world, along with their Daddy. It only took me seven years and a few months from my first manic episode to figure out that I’m going to be okay. That I don’t have to hide anymore. That if I can help just one person by sharing my story then it’s worth it.

 

I’m ready to not be anonymous anymore.

 

I want to show my kids that it’s important to stand up for what they believe in. If not, then why are we here? I believe that having a mental illness should never stand in the way of anyone’s dreams. I believe we need to educate the world about the various types of mental illnesses so that more friends and family, co-workers and teachers can reach out to those who need help so that they can get the care they need. I believe in standing up, showing up, and writing my way through living with a mental illness. It does not define me as a person; it’s just one aspect of my life which has helped shape me into the person I’ve turned out to be. And I’m pretty damn proud of her.

 

Yesterday I took off the anonymous mask, and emerged from my closet of shame. My voice, my words, my story – they deserve to be told with my real name.

 

My time to stand up to stigma is now.

Comments

  1. Good for you! Well done and keep it up!

  2. Love the courage you show in owning and telling your story. Very inspiring!

  3. Good for you standing up to the stigma! It’s the same thing I’m trying to do. I no longer want to hide my illness. I am single, although I have a boyfriend, but I want someone who will accept me, the good and the bad. It’s really good to read your story, and wonderful that you were able to have children through all of this. That is my dream some day. Either that or adopt.

    • Thank you so much, Nicole! You can do it too – when the time is right for you. You’ll know when that is. It took me a number of years to find my time. Thank you for your support!

  4. You are brave and strong and I am so proud of you!

  5. That was “brutiful.” ;-)

  6. Good for you on being strong and talking about your personal story! As a psychologist it is great to see someone willing to come forward and talk about their struggle. Everyone has imperfections but not everyone has the courage to talk about it and that’s the problem not the imperfection. Your family should be very proud of you.

    • Thank you so much, Betsey. I appreciate your support. It was a decision a struggled with for a long time – whether to go public or remain anonymous. And I believe I made the right choice.

  7. Congrats for coming out of the mental health closet!!! So many people will be helped by your honesty. Good luck to you!

  8. Michelle says:

    Mental illness often has a physiological cause. Hence the lithium to help the chemical imbalance. More power to you for spreading the word. the world is much different than 20 years ago! Enjoy your family and put the occasional dark day in the past where it belongs!

    • I agree with you, Michelle. Something happened at the end of 2005. My brain chemistry was thrown off and it took a good year and a half, but with the help of modern medicine we were able to balance it out again. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  9. Thank you for this post! I feel like I am learning a lot from you, my friend. xo

  10. I’m just now getting a minute to sit down and read this, and I’m so glad I did. Great post. Very proud of you!

    • Thank you so much, Shan! I loved talking with you this weekend and hope we can plan more get-togethers this spring & summer. It’s fun when we girls hang out and talk.

  11. Just found you on wordpress and wanted to say, I love what you’re standing for and you are doing the best thing for your family by doing it! I grew up in family with a mom, brother, and sister who struggled with bipolar type 2. If only my mom had been as open as you, it would have made it so much easier for all of us to understand and for my brother and sister to find help sooner. Our generation will not make the same mistake.

    • Thank you so much, Iris! I’ve read and re-read your comment three times. You don’t know how much it means to me. Thank you for encouraging me to keep writing. Thank you for telling me what I’m doing is important. Thank you for reading and commenting. I really appreciate you, friend.

  12. unluckyinhabitant says:

    I have been going through this nightmare for a little over 4 years– BPII. I can relate to every word you wrote… I have thankfully avoided the hospital thanks to 2 great doctors who I can literally call any time day or night. One even toured the local hospital with me so “just in case” it might be less terrifying. I am still trying to find the “magic combo” of meds– I feel like the shell of the person I used to be (an elementary teacher). I keep trying to believe the family I want is possible. Thanks for sharing and making this hole seem a little less lonely.

    • Thank you so much for reading and commenting!! I hear you – I walked in your shoes. Your doctors sound incredible. Hang onto them, good ones are hard to find. Keep working on the meds with your docs and the right combo will get figured out in time. I wish you all the best in the future. Please keep in touch.

  13. This is really well written! Thanks for sharing!

  14. Stacy Thomas says:

    Thank you so much Jenn for such honesty. I was diagnosed bipolar 2, 18 months ago. It has been a hellish roller coaster for sure. I too have the MOST AMAzing husband! We have 4 children & this all started in my 8th month of pregnancy. Then just progressed from post partum. I am striving & pressing on to being “well”. I am glad I found your blog. I have read a few memoirs of fellow bipolars, which is always helpful.
    I do have a good doc, great support, incredible husband, and most important my Lord Jesus!!
    Keep going, I look forward to more posts;)

    • Hi Stacy! Thanks so much for finding me and writing. I’m so glad that you have a diagnosis now and can work on your treatment plan. It must be such a relief, and to have an amazing husband will make it that much easier to manage together. Thank you so much for your support! All the best to you and your family!

  15. I FELT SHAME AND FEAR WHEN I FOUND OUT I WAS BIPOLAR 2 IN 2015. I BEGAN THERAPY AND REALIZED THEN I WANTED TO BREAK THE STIGMA. I HAVE AND MANY WOMEN CONFIDE IN MY THROUGH FB AND IN PERSON NOW. WOMEN LIKE US SAYING THIS IS US AND IT’S OKAY HELP OTHERS BE ABLE TO SAY THE SAME THING. KEEP ON BLOGGING AND ENCOURAGING OTHERS.

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