Bringing Mental Illness into the Light

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Rejection hurts. It stings my heart and crushes my soul. When it happens more than I can count on one hand in a matter of three days, well, it makes for a shitty week. Makes me wonder if it’s worth all the effort.

This morning I unconsciously pulled a teeshirt out of my dresser drawer. I was immediately reminded of what drives me as I pulled the shirt over my head, stared at my reflection in the mirror. What pushes me to continue on through the no’s, the unreturned phone calls, the doubts in my mind.

I’ve heard these doubts whispering in my head before. They were gossiping amongst themselves, loud enough for me to overhear, when we launched our Kickstarter in 2013. Even when we surpassed our goal, they still kept on chattering through our auditions, rehearsals, right up until I walked on stage with my cast for our debut show. Once our cast took to the podium, one by one, we finally silenced those doubts.

So they’ve returned, and I’m not surprised. I have to once again focus on our mission, why we came together to raise our voices for the greater good.

The gray tee with maroon block letters I was wearing today is one of my biggest reminders. VIRGINIA TECH. We will never forget.

I often wonder what would have happened if one person would have been courageous enough to have been the net that could have prevented the awful tragedy of April 16, 2007. One person reaching out. One person noticing. One person providing help.

I know it’s so much more complicated than that, believe me.

I remember when the news broke, where I was, what I was doing. Shaking. On the phone with my brother, a VT alum. Then my husband,  also an alum. Staring at the TV in disbelief.

The power of This Is My Brave lies in the vulnerability of the people who decide to stand up on stage and tell their story through a microphone, or publish their words to our community’s blog. We’ve been through the unthinkable. But we’ve made it to the other side. We’re stronger, better equipped to continue the fight. Ready to make a difference.

We all have our struggles in life. What if, instead of pushing those issues and problems and fear of being judged down deep inside of us, we made a bold move and opened up?

I used to be afraid of people finding out that I have bipolar disorder. But ever since I stopped hiding, I’ve noticed something huge. The vast majority of the time, the person on the other end of the conversation says, “me too.” Or, “someone close to me is suffering from depression,” or “my mom/dad/brother/sister/aunt/cousin/etc./etc./etc. has a mental illness.”

It’s everywhere.

Which is why I won’t give up. I won’t stop talking about mental illness because we’re all affected by it. And I want to change lives by continuing to bring true stories into the light. If just one person is helped by this work, it’s all worth it.

Move over insecurity, I have important work to do.

Pushing past my fears to run an 8k

#running4brave Bipolar Mom Life This Is My Brave fundraiser

I’ve hated running for as long as I can remember. This fierce hatred stemmed from the Presidential Physical Fitness Challenges we had to endure in grade school. Middle school was rough enough with puberty. Why did they have to throw in a rigorous athletic test which we had to perform in front of our peers?

I could care less about doing the most sit-ups or pull-ups or push-ups. I just wanted to get through it. Especially the mile. The dreaded mile. It seemed like an impossible task to run an entire mile without stopping.

I’d make it through a lap before the monster would begin to take over. The monster being my horrendous blood sugar which would end up taking a nosedive. My breathing would become shallow, my knees ready to buckle as my sneakers hit the track, and I’d begin to lose control. If I tried to talk, my speech came out slurred and jumbled. I was afraid. But instead of telling anyone I needed help, I hid my weakness until I was able to regain control of my body, which I could usually do by slowing to a walk.

Walking when everyone around you is running is not a great feeling.

My best friends from growing up who I danced with for years

My best friends from growing up who I danced with for years

My blood sugar issue continued to follow me through my high school and college years. As a dancer, I had a few embarrassing episodes during recitals. Front and center during one dance number, the excitement of being center stage reached a peak towards the end of the song and I nearly passed out from the severe drop in my blood sugar. I pretty much wanted to quit life after that moment, and almost gave up on dance all together. I didn’t know what was wrong with my body, and was too afraid to ask for help.

 

Similar to how many young people feel about mental health disorders, I’d imagine.

JMU women's water polo - where I met my college best friends

JMU women’s water polo – where I met my college besties

In college I played club water polo all four years, despite almost drowning during one game my freshman year. I was somehow able to get to the side of the pool – I think one of my teammates may have jumped in after me sensing my level of distress. You’d think I would have dropped the sport at that point out of shame, but I stuck it out. The friendships created through my years of dancing and playing polo were what kept me going. I could struggle through my health issues but didn’t want to let go of those friendships.

This was all happening before the world wide web exploded, so naturally I turned to books to try to understand what was going on with my body. A few I found explained that I was experiencing hypoglycemia or a sudden drop in blood sugar. After mustering up the courage to talk with my family about this weird thing that was happening to me, I learned that both my mom and my brother experienced similar issues. I was never formally diagnosed with a condition, but simply learned how to manage my blood sugar on my own through diet, as many of the books I read advised.

My issues with blood sugar caused me to settle into a comfortable, low-impact workout routine once I graduated from college, got married, and started a family. I’d go to the gym and log 45 minutes on the elliptical, sometimes doing a little weight training, but never pushing myself to do more than I thought I was capable of.

Then one day a friend asked me to run a 5k with her. I figured it would be fun to challenge myself, and I had heard of the Couch-to-5k training plan, so I signed up. Getting outside to run 3-4 times a week was invigorating. Before I knew it, I went from running one minute, walking two, to running five minutes then ten, until eventually I was running the entire 3 miles with limited blood sugar issues. Within the next year I ran two more 5k’s. And just this month I ran my fourth 5k in honor of my friend Anna’s son Jack who tragically left this world too soon.

#running4brave This Is My Brave fundraiser

Lucky Leprechaun 5k in Reston. That’s me in the black knit cap and fluorescent yellow jacket.

I never thought I’d do more than a 5k until I met Annie.

Annie has such a big heart and from the first time I met her it was like we had known each other for years. She told Anne Marie and I that she wanted to train for her first half marathon and at the same time raise money for our This Is My Brave high school program. She’s been blogging about her training and each week on thisismybrave.org. I’m continuously impressed by her drive and commitment to reaching her goal. I couldn’t very well sit on the sidelines knowing that an 8k is only 1.8 more miles than a 5k.

I say “only” now. Sitting here tapping away on my laptop from the comfort of the couch.

But on Thursday I went on a training run and it felt great. I know I can do this, and would love your support. If you believe in me, please donate to our #running4brave fundraiser on Crowdrise. All proceeds will be used to create a This Is My Brave high school program to help teens realize they are not alone in dealing with mental illness. With the money raised we’ll be creating a comprehensive video program featuring teens from our spring productions which we hope to be able to offer to Loudoun County Public Schools this fall as an assembly.

Your contribution will make a difference. Annie and her team of runners has already raised nearly $3,000 and we need your help to get to the overall goal of $5k. Every contribution counts. Thank you so much for your support.

#running4brave

Books that heal & inspire

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This is the fifth post of a 12-week series on How I Learned to Manage My Bipolar Illness by Cultivating a Healthy Lifestyle.

Reading is one of my passions. Lately making time to read has been a challenge. Still, knowing that a good read can be extremely beneficial to my mental health, I do my best to fit it into my schedule.

My favorite books tell stories straight from the heart. So naturally, I gravitate to memoir. I find other people’s true life stories fascinating, mostly because I like to learn from the experiences they write about. It’s almost as if I’m living vicariously through them while reading their words.

Ever since my diagnosis, I’ve sought out books dealing with mental illness and all the devastation, sorrow, exhilaration and exhaustion that comes with it. I wanted to know I could find a way to live with bipolar disorder. I wanted to find examples of people who were not only overcoming their illness, but living highly successful lives despite their mental health disorders.

I just finished reading Resilience: Two Sisters and a Story of Mental Illness by Jessie Close with Pete Earley. I was captivated from page 1 of this unimaginable story of Jessie’s lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder. It wasn’t until adulthood that she was finally properly diagnosed and received treatment. Her illness controlled her life until Jessie realized that she wanted, and deserved, a better life. Through the help of her family and sister, actress Glenn Close, Jessie was able to turn her life around. She became a leading advocate for mental health awareness when she joined Glenn in founding Bring Change 2 Mind. I highly recommend Resilience if you’re looking for a story about hope.

Here are some of my other favorite memoirs about mental illness:

An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison

Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness by Pete Earley

Learning to Breathe by Priscilla Warner

Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life by Melody Moezzi

The Beast: A Journey Through Depression by Tracy Thompson {Tracy was in our debut This Is My Brave show!}

Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg

Good Cop, Bad Daughter: Memoirs of an Unlikely Police Officer by Karen Lynch

Detour: My Bipolar Road Trip in 4D by Lizzie Simon

Madness: A Bipolar Life by Marya Hornbacher {Marya is in our Boston This Is My Brave show!}

Freefall to Fly by Rebekah Lyons

Perfect Chaos: A Daugher’s Journey to Survive Bipolar, A Mother’s Struggle to Save Her by Linea and Cinda Johnson

I’ve found parts of my own story wedged within each of these books. Reading helps me to realize I’m not alone. In making time to read, I allow myself to get lost in the brave stories of authors like these I’ve listed. I am encouraged by their fierce determination, their drive to get well and stay well, and their willingness to continue to share their experiences to help others.

They are my tribe.

What’s your favorite memoir about mental illness? Let’s connect on Goodreads!

What I Learned After Spending Christmas in a Psych Ward

What I Learned After Spending Christmas in a Psych Ward

This holiday season, while many will be celebrating with cocktails and carols, parties and presents, some might find themselves in the same place I was nine years ago on Christmas Day: a psych ward. If it happens to you, or maybe you’re reading this and you know someone who may go through a similar scenario this year, here are some things to remember.

 

Don’t blame yourself.

Things happen which are beyond our control. Pointing the finger at yourself only makes the initial stage of recovery more challenging. Instead, point your finger three months down the road and remind yourself that it takes time to heal from a psychiatric trauma, and that is just what you intend to do.

 

It will get better.

A new year is a new start. Be sure to carve out at least a tiny chunk of time each day just for you to do something you enjoy. Go to a yoga class, meet a friend for coffee, or read a book in bed. You are important and it’s okay to remind yourself that you need attention too. Always putting the needs of others before your own and ignoring self-care can be detrimental to your mental health.

You’re not the only person this has happened to, even though it may feel this way at the time. Sometimes a stint in a psych ward is just the prescription we need to reset our recovery.

 

Go easy on yourself.

The transition back to “normal” life will be hard. Take lots of warm baths, soaking in the luxury not afforded in the psych ward. Read books that nourish your soul. Write in your journal until you begin to understand your journey. Someday you may want to share it so that others don’t feel so alone.

 

It’s going to be okay.

The first Christmas after {aka the first post-hospitalization anniversary} will be the toughest. All the feelings will come back. Don’t push them away, because that’ll only prolong the experience. Just let them come. There will probably be tears. There will definitely be sadness for the Christmas that wasn’t. But try not to dwell on what was lost, and focus instead on what was gained. Do your best to pull out the camera and take some pictures. Chances are, you don’t have many, if any, from the year before.

 

Know that this doesn’t define you.

If anything, the experience has made you stronger, more compassionate, and maybe it has paved the way for you to find your voice as an advocate. The truth about living with a mental illness is that once you’re diagnosed, it’s yours to live with for the rest of your life. It’s yours to manage, to curse, to medicate, and in time, it’s yours to appreciate.

There is no erasing a mental health condition. Therein lies both the beauty and the beast. The beast launches us up to heights we never thought possible, then hurls us crashing to the ground with a flick of his wrist and an, “I told you so, sucka.” But the beauty lifts us up and helps us lick our wounds, teaching us we are more than our diagnosis and we have important work to do.

 

If you’re ready to begin sharing your story, please consider submitting a poem, song, or essay for publication on our non-profit’s website: http://thisismybrave.org/submissions