Category Archives: mania

10 Things I Wish People Knew About Bipolar

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It’s been nearly seven months since I first walked into the behavioral health clinic and basically said, “I need help.”  I wasn’t surprised to hear the words, bipolar disorder, that day (I knew.  You can read my story from the beginning here), but I was surprised by much of what followed.  Treatment has been both harder – so, so much harder – and more rewarding than I thought.  I’ve found unexpected encouragement from some people in my life, and unexpected absence from others.    I’ve found a lot of support and information… and even more misunderstanding and judgment.

Ever since that day, I’ve been devouring every related article, website, and social media account that I could get my hands on.  The relief of knowing that someone else gets it, and the feeling of validation and comfort that comes with, “Oh my gosh, this is describing ME!” is immeasurable.  At the same time, there is so much information out there, much of it repetitive and/or of dubious quality, that it’s hard to know where to begin if you’re a loved one wanting to understand.

Here then are ten of the top things I want people to know, and misconceptions I’d like to dispel.  It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but merely a place to start.

1. It doesn’t look the way it looks in the movies.

A quick Google search will yield you a nice little list of a handful of movies with characters with bipolar (or characters with unnamed mental health issues that present a lot like bipolar.)  I think I’ve watched them all.  And while some are of course better and more accurate than others, in general they’re full of stereotypes, and/or appear as if someone was just going down a checklist of symptoms, trying to hit them all.  Also, what movies tend to portray the most is unmanaged bipolar, not the day-in, day-out, un-sexy business of taking meds, going to therapy, and making a concerted effort to get enough sleep.  Movies are meant to entertain and shock and awe, so it only stands that they’re going to emphasize the wildest and the craziest extremes.  It’s important to remember though that the face of bipolar may also be the guy minding his own business next to you on the train.  Your doctor.  Your neighbor. Your mild-mannered mail man.   It won’t sell movie tickets, but it’s also me… cross-legged on my couch in my furry pajama pants, drinking tea, and watching the Cardinals lose (again.)

2. It is different for every person.

Like any illness, mental or otherwise, bipolar is not one-size-fits-all, and can manifest itself in many different ways.  Just because your brother is prone to violent and angry outbursts when manic, it doesn’t mean that that same symptom applies to every other person with bipolar.  Yes, there are common symptoms used for diagnosis (more on that in later points), but the intricacies and variations are infinite.  It is both unfair and inaccurate to presume to know exactly how bipolar presents for any one individual, unless you are intimately involved in the day-to-day life of said individual.  Even then, so much of bipolar is intrinsically wrapped up in a person’s inner psyche, and not something you can see anyway.  Don’t assume.

3. Depression doesn’t necessarily mean not leaving your bed all day.

Depression, the first half of a bipolar diagnosis, is often portrayed (again, think of the movies) as a person who is nearly catatonic.  Unable to leave bed, unable to eat, unable to really do anything but exist in a haze of sleep and crying jags.  And yes, absolutely, this version of depression is very real.  But equally concerning, and equally real, is something called “functional depression.”  I am intimately familiar with this form of depression, as it’s the type of depression in which I most often find myself.  With functional depression, the person is able to go through the motions, albeit in a fashion that is greatly hindered.   Depending on how brave of a face this person can muster, you may not even know anything is wrong.  People who are functionally depressed may still go to work, take their kids to dance class, and show up at church every Sunday.  Outwardly, they may be doing everything they need to do, while inwardly they are completely withdrawn, immobilized, disconnected, despondent.  They might have lost all pleasure, and all interest, in life.  Last spring, just before I’d bottomed out and finally decided to seek help, I was in the middle of taking my daughter to lengthy dress rehearsals several times a week for a theater production she was a part of.  I was contemplating suicide, and no one had any idea.  Even now, seven months later, seeing that sentence terrifies me.

4. Mania doesn’t necessarily mean wild flights of out-of-control fancy.

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There’s a scene in the movie Mr Jones where Richard Gere’s character dances on a 2×4 (sans harness), high above the ground, in the midst of an manic episode.  I think this is the sort of thing that people think of most often when they think of mania (the second major piece of a bipolar diagnosis):  extreme, dangerous, and devil-may care.  And it happens, to be sure.  People experience euphoria.  They may have hallucinations.  They may become sexually promiscuous.  They may engage in any number of risky behaviors.  A lot of times someone’s manic episode will be the thing that lands them in the ER for the first time, leading to a proper diagnosis.  But mania doesn’t always equal danger.  It doesn’t have to mean amazing and exciting.  It doesn’t have to mean wild and out of control.  For me (and for a lot of people) it’s somewhere in between all of the above.  It’s staying up all night to write, or create, or plan, because sleep suddenly isn’t really needed.  It’s feeling like you can be anything, or do anything, or experience anything.  It’s feeling that the world is at your fingertips.  It’s bursting with great ideas and big plans, and spending lots – and lots – of money to make them happen.  It’s talking too fast, because you’re just too excited, and your mouth won’t keep up.  It’s motivation; motivation to do more projects than most people do in a decade.  It’s a whirling and swirling and unending rush of adrenaline.  It’s crying every time you go for a walk because the trees and the sky and the cracks in the sidewalk are just so. damn. beautiful.  So is it a good feeling then, some might ask?  I’ll be honest:  it does sometimes feel like a positive in that it does bring euphoria.  It does bring such a rush of ideas.  It does bring so much creative energy.  The problem is that along with that creative energy comes restlessness, and racing thoughts, and a feeling of wanting to crawl out of your own skin.  And through it all, no matter how good it may feel in the moment, it’s all happening with the knowledge that the crash is coming.  Like a tidal wave it’s coming, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

5. It’s not just about depression and mania.

Depression and mania of course get the most air time, but the symptoms don’t end there.  There are actually a lot of different symptoms, many often occurring at the same time.  There is something called a “mixed episode”, which as the name implies means that elation and depression are present at the same time.  There’s the propensity for addiction.  All or nothing thinking.  Irritability.  Impulsiveness.  Sleep disturbances. Memory issues. Racing thoughts.  Agitation.  Sexual symptoms.  Anxiety (this is currently the most debilitating piece for me, particularly in the “bridge” phase between depression and mania).  There is lack of – or too much – energy.  There’s fatigue, both mental and physical.  There’s physical pain.    Symptoms can last for weeks or months at a time, or they can be rapid cycling, meaning that you’re never quite sure what may be coming when.

6. It is more than just “ups and downs.”

“We all have ups and downs.  Why would you feel the need to label it as bipolar?”  Well first, I didn’t label it bipolar, medical professionals labeled it bipolar.  Second, yes, absolutely… we all have ups and downs.  When I’m doing really really well, I have ups and downs.  Bipolar is a very different thing than “ups and downs” though.  It is completely, 100% normal to have ups and downs.   It is NOT normal to have “downs” so low that you no longer see the point in living, and to have “ups” so high that you no longer feel the need to sleep, or to make prudent decisions.  When I first heard this comment, several months ago, I felt frustrated and insulted.  Today I recognize that it just comes from genuine ignorance, and I feel happy (really) for this woman who does not have to experience the actual and extreme “ups and downs” that bipolar brings.

7. In order to be managed, it first requires treatment.

Bipolar treatment may include any combination of:  medication, natural therapies, lifestyle changes, psychotherapy, etc.  I carry no shame in saying that my treatment currently includes medication (a cocktail of three different meds at the time of this writing), though many people certainly try to shame me.  Some comments are overt, and others are more subtle about it, but the judgment is still there.  I won’t defend or excuse my own choices, but I will simply say that for me, I have absolutely zero doubts about the path that I’m on.  I tried all the supplements, the herbs, the oils, changing my diet, getting enough exercise… and for me, it wasn’t enough.   Taking the right medications at the right time quite literally saved my life.  As did therapy – which I fought tooth and freaking nail at the beginning, but that ended up becoming one of the most important things I’ve ever done.  Without appropriate treatment – no matter what that treatment ends up looking like –  people tend to either self-medicate (with things like alcohol, drugs, compulsive behaviors) OR they continue to cycle through the elation and the depression, going through lengthy periods of dysfunction.  I have done both, and I recommend neither.  Bipolar doesn’t go away on its own.  It doesn’t go away by force of sheer will power.  It doesn’t go away by talking about it with a friend, no matter how understanding that friend might be.  One of the most insensitive things someone said to me in the early days of diagnosis came in response to my confiding in her that I’d had to admit to the psych doctor that I’d been suicidal.  “But didn’t the feeling go away once you said it out loud?”, she asked me.  It doesn’t really work like that.  Saying things out loud was what served as my impetus for getting help,  but it for sure didn’t help in and of itself.  Admitting you need help is hard.  Doing the actual work needed to help yourself is even harder.  If your friend/family member/loved one is seeking professional help, support them.  Support them like crazy.

8. Managing bipolar is a full-time job.

There’s no “cure” for bipolar.  It can be managed, but it doesn’t go away.  Dealing with bipolar is a lifelong, 24 hours-a-day job.   There are good days and bad days, good weeks and bad weeks.  At the time of this writing, I’ve been in a dip for the past couple of weeks, and am trying to give myself lots of gentleness and grace as I work my way through it.  Medication helps.  Therapy helps.  But they’re just the beginning.  The day-to-day management, the will-I or won’t-I make the commitment to stay as well as possible is all on me.  And it’s hard.  And it’s tiring.  And it would be SO EASY to let myself slide back into the safety of the darkness of depression, or into the numbness of a strong Captain and Coke (or five).  I know I can’t skimp on sleep.  I know I need to regularly take my meds and my supplements.  I know I can’t skip appointments. I know I need to keep up with exercise and eating right and doing all the effing hard inner work that I complain to my therapist about every week.  And sometimes  a lot of the time, it pisses me off that it’s all so much work right now, but I do it.  Because I owe it to my kids.  I owe it to my husband.  I owe it to MYSELF.

9. You don’t understand it… unless you do.

I think a lot of the time we so badly want to be supportive that we say things with the best of intentions that just aren’t truthful.  Or helpful.  Or kind.  At the top of this list is “I understand.”  Please, please don’t say this if you don’t in fact have personal experience.  Having a bad fight with your husband or going through a funk because you can’t lose those last 10 pounds sucks, and I’m really sorry you’re experiencing that.  Truly.  But it’s not the same thing as living with a mental illness.  It’s just not.  Like so many other things, you can’t understand it unless you live it.  I’m living it myself, and I’m still figuring it all out.  Being supportive doesn’t need to (and shouldn’t) include words like, “I know how you feel.”  To this day, the best thing anyone’s said to me about it all was this:  “That sounds really hard.  I’ll be thinking of you and sending you love while you work through this.”

10. It doesn’t define who a person is.

It always makes me cringe a little every time I hear the word bipolar used as a major descriptor.  Especially since it’s so often used in a negative way.  Ie:  “My bipolar brother just went to jail again.”  “My stepfather is such a jerk.  He’s bipolar.”  People with bipolar can go to jail, sure.  And yup, they can also be jerks.  But so can anyone else.  Having bipolar doesn’t need to be a negative, nor does it excuse negative behavior.  It is one piece of a very big, very complicated, very intricate whole.  I’m not a “bipolar person.”  I’m still ME.  I’m creative and dorky and love my pets more than I love most people.  I like coffee and movies and office supplies.  I love the smell of the desert when it rains, and laughing till I cry around the dinner table, and getting new tattoos.  I get excited when there’s a new episode of my favorite TV show.  I’m me.  I’m you.  I’m all of us.  A unique, imperfect, multi-faceted human.  Not a diagnosis.

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Bipolar (and mental illness in general) still very much comes with a stigma, largely due to misunderstanding and/or fear.  It’s why I continue to talk about it, and write about it, despite the people who tell me not to, or are uncomfortable with hearing about it.    I’m here to ask you to get comfortable with your discomfort.  It’s not just that I think it’s okay to talk about it… I think that we need to talk about it.  So many people are afraid to mention it, afraid to ask questions.  But I’ll tell you what: when I know that you know, and the topic is deliberately avoided?  It is so much more awkward than even the most awkward of questions.  It’s an illness, not an elephant.

I have learned so much in the past seven months.  So, so much.  Bipolar has forced me to learn, and to grow, and to do all those hard and adult things that productive people are supposed to do.  Calling it a blessing doesn’t seem quite right, but there is a greater good to be found, and I think that’s okay.

But some days?  Some days it just really, really sucks.  And I think that’s okay too.

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Broken: How Therapy’s Destroying Me

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I recently whined to a good friend about having to go to therapy.  It was the morning of my appointment, and I wanted – with every little fiber of my being – to stay home.  “I know it’s hard,” she said.  “But don’t you feel better afterwards?”

“No,”  I told her.  “Most of the time, I feel worse.”

Having no basis for comparison, I have no idea if it’s it normal or not, but I dread it.  I do.  I sort of leave one appointment, and immediately start stressing out about the following one.

And I mean, there are positives.  I like my therapist… he is warm and good at what he does.  There are those rare times I leave feeling good, having made some big breakthrough or something.   Sometimes I gain a deeper appreciation of the absurdity of it all.   Sometimes we laugh.  Sometimes I leave with a helpful new tool for dealing with worry or anxiety or any of the other perks that come with being me.  Sometimes I go home having learned something really huge about myself, or about life, or about how the mind works.

But… yeah, it’s still pretty much breaking me.  And even on the good days, it’s all just so MUCH.  So exhausting.  So emotionally and mentally draining.

The other day, I realized something (In the shower, because that’s where I do my best thinking.  I also tend to do a lot of thinking in my car, but there are so many things to distract me when I’m driving.  There’s not much to distract me in the shower, unless I’m running out of conditioner, and have to keep reminding myself for the rest of my shower – conditioner, conditioner, conditioner – so I won’t forget to write it on the shopping list when I get out.)  I realized that my brokenness, my feeling raw and ripped open and vulnerable, no matter how unpleasant it is, serves a real purpose.  It’s a precursor – a necessary precursor – to healing.  Sort of like how doctors sometimes have to re-break a bone in order to set it so that it can heal correctly.  I’m the broken bone.

And I hate it.  I hate everything about it.  I hate uncovering more broken bits that need attention.  I hate talking about myself.  I hate worrying that I’m being too ______  (fill in the blank).  Too annoying, too crazy, too whiny, too narcissistic.  I console myself with the fact that maybe to a therapist it’s like I was when I was teaching yoga.  All the new people worry that they’re not flexible enough, or that they’re doing the poses wrong, or that they’re being judged.  And I – and every other teacher I’ve ever known – think they’re rock stars just for showing up.  Every single one.  Every single time.  It would make me feel a lot better if I could think of myself as a rock star, just for showing up.

But I’m not a rock star.  I’m a human.  A human who’s working and fighting but raw and bruised and bloody from the battle.  A human who’s broken.  And sweet baby Jesus, I didn’t think I could get more broken than I was when I first walked into his office three months ago.  I was wrong.

It’s a weird thing, therapy.  Did you ever think about it?  It’s just an odd, odd thing.  Baring the most shameful, embarrassing, painful parts of your psyche to … a stranger?  And there’s a professional rapport there I guess, and a certain amount of trust, but … you know NOTHING about this person.  And for all the sharing you do, for all the emotional gut-wrenching stripping, you might as well be completely naked.  Now that I think about it, because I’ve really never looked at it in that way before, I’m pretty sure that I’d find being physically naked preferable.  I’m not even kidding.

So this is me, naked.  Barenaked (anyone remember that song by Jennifer Love Hewitt in the early 2000’s??).  I’ll be okay.  I will.  I WILL.  But right now, I’m not too okay.  I’m naked and afraid and vulnerable and would legitimately be contemplating drinking right now – at nine in the morning – if I hadn’t given up drinking, one of my favorite things, in my quest to face my issues and finally be well.

This is hard you guys.

A dear friend recently, and aptly, described it like this:

It’s like cleaning my damn house

Every time I think “surely I’m almost there”

Some new closet of junk appears

The closets are killing me.  So very many closets.

I know my online presence has been a little scarce lately, but I’m still here.  Still plugging.  Still learning.  Still broken. And naked and…. in a closet, apparently?  (Sorry, way too many metaphors for one blog post.)  But I’m here.  And after all the hard work and time and tears I’ve invested in myself over the last three months, I feel confident in saying that I’ve no plans to go anywhere.


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And Then My Husband Made a Joke – Part Six

bipolarJune 2, 2016

Yay, you made it to the end!  If you’re confused by that, and you’re coming here for the first time, you might want to go back to the beginning.

I started writing these last several posts for two reasons (and I realize that it would have made much more sense to mention this at the beginning of the story, instead of the end.  But I’m doing it at the end.  Let’s just make peace with it.)

I started writing them for two reasons:

To process.  This part was entirely selfish (a healthy kind of selfish, I believe).  I was dealing with a lot of new information, thoughts, and feelings, and once enough time had passed that those thoughts and feelings starting cohering themselves into words, I needed to start putting them down and getting them out of my head so I could move through them, and

To connect with others.  A lot of people don’t understand the need/desire to open up about stuff like this.   There’s a definite segment of society with an attitude of “We’ve all got issues, so what?  Doesn’t mean you need to blab about them all over the internet.”  Or “Why would you want to share something so private?”  Or “Why do you think anyone would care about your problems?” And this is why:  First, I think it’s important to stand up and say – again and again – that there is no shame in mental illness, and no shame in seeking help.  Second, no one wants to feel alone, especially when they are struggling.  When all of this peaked for me, it helped me in ways I can’t even express to see others telling their stories, being open with their struggles, and giving hope about recovery.  Hope!!  And so, whether this is shared with 10 people or 10,000, if ONE is helped in some way, if ONE feels a little less alone, if ONE finds a new sense of solidarity, if ONE feels a little more hope…. it’s worth the vulnerability it took to share it.

Having said all that, I have no intentions of turning this into a mental health blog (and the people cried, “Amen!”)  I don’t want to start writing about bipolar all the time, and I don’t think anyone wants to read that.  I know I’ll write about it from time to time as it’s part of my life, but …. I want to get back to talking about parenting, and unschooling, and the current mess state of American Christianity, and current events, and all the other things that tick people off on a daily basis.

This was just something I had to write about until I felt done.  And as of last night, for now, I feel done.

Because last night, my husband made a joke.  Aimed at me.  And bipolar.  I feel like I shouldn’t actually repeat the joke, out of respect for the people who are raw and sensitive (and/or who don’t use wildly inappropriate humor as a coping mechanism like we do in my family), but to set the scene:  we were all eating dinner, talking about what we perceived must be the pros and cons of long term RV travel as a family.  I said something about nobody wanting to be in that close proximity with me for too long because I’m crazy, he made his joke…. and there was Dead. Silence.

It was only a fraction of a second, but I felt it.  I felt the silence, I felt all four kids look at me, and I felt the unspoken question of, “Wait, is this okay to joke about???”

And then I laughed, because it was funny. And then the kids laughed.

And then we all breathed.

*UPDATE*

It’s now been two weeks since I wrote this last installment (and over 5 weeks since I started treatment), and I didn’t feel right posting it without giving one final little update on where I am today.  The problem is that I don’t really know how to explain where I am today.  I’m…. working on it.  I’m making strides.  I’m celebrating small victories.  I’m taking my medication faithfully, and building routines, and getting exercise and forcing myself to go to therapy even when I don’t feel like it.  

Therapy by the way, is very different than I thought it’d be.  I thought I’d hate it, and it turns out that I DO sort of hate it, just for different reasons than I anticipated.  I like my therapist.  He is kind and knowledgeable and really good at what he does.  But therapy is REALLY FREAKING HARD.  Facing your issues and figuring out your shit when you’ve had the lies of bipolar yelling in your ear for 20 years is excruciatingly painful (especially when you’ve taken looking for answers in the bottom of a bottle of Captain Morgan off the table).  Like, one of the most painful things I’ve ever done kind of painful.  I told my therapist last week that for every issue I’m learning to manage, I unveil another 50 issues that I’ve been avoiding.  A veritable Pandora’s Box of dysfunction.  But I’m doing it.  And I’m learning.  And I’m taking baby steps.  I have some tools now, rudimentary though they may be, and I’m adding to them every week. 

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I had a rough couple of days earlier this week, the worst I’ve had since I started treatment.  I panicked.  I braced myself for the downward slide.  And I did slide.  But I didn’t slide all the way.  Instead I stopped, and I looked around and I clawed my way back up.  Today is Friday, and today I’m smiling.  And I’ll tell you what.  Depression that lasts for three days is a hell of a long way from depression that lasts for six months.  I will take it.  I will celebrate the heck out of it.  I have no doubt that there’ll be more bad days, but I also have hope that I’ll be increasingly equipped to handle them when they come.  Good days are out there somewhere, too.  And they’re so, so close.

I’ll be okay.  We’ll be okay.

Thank you, for reading, and for being so awesome.

xo

 


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Kind Words That Really Helped – Part Five

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If you missed them:  Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four

June 1, 2016

In case anyone ever opens up to you about a mental illness (and please believe me when I say that it takes an ENORMOUS amount of trust in you to do so), here are some of the perfect, and encouraging, and loving responses that my friends gave me when I told them.  Some knew that I’d been struggling, and for others it was completely out of the blue.

“That sounds really, really hard.  Please let me know how I can best support you.”

“I am holding you in my heart.”

“I am happy you were able to get help.  Take it one day at a time.  I’m here if you ever need to talk.”

“I am so glad that you have something to work with.  Onward and upward toward sunshinier days.  This is the start of a brand new chapter for you.”

“Thank you for trusting me to tell me.”

“I’ll be thinking of you.  Please keep me posted.”

“I’m so sorry that you’ve been having such a hard time, and I’m really glad that you were able to seek out help.  I’m so proud of you for taking care of yourself.”

“Oh my goodness, that is a lot.  A blessing to know what you’re dealing with, and to be able to start treating it.  I’m here for you if you ever want to talk.”

“I love you.”

*I could add to this list greatly from all the kind and wonderful messages I’ve gotten since I published my first post about this, but I won’t.  These were the earliest ones, so I want them to stand.  The only thing I’ll add came from just one single person, and I thought it was the greatest thing ever.  She’d written me a very sweet message of encouragement, let me know she was thinking of me, and closed it with “No response needed.”  I responded anyway, but it was so appreciated, and was a very, very cool way to take the pressure off at a time when responding to emails, even kind and wonderful ones, took a lot.*

My personal favorite came from my 8 year old daughter (who is mature beyond her years, and has one of the biggest hearts of anyone I know)  Being the youngest, her level of understanding isn’t quite that of the boys, both because of her age, and because I’m of course a little more selective about what is shared in her presence.  But there’s only so much you can shield.  She walked in on me crying one day, and set about making me this:

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“Everything is going to be okay. Even if things don’t feel okay right now, I promise that everything is going to be okay.”

My heart.

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It’s tempting to close with a list of well-meaning things that absolutely did NOT help (that list is longer) but to just touch on the biggest and most frequent categories of offenders:  Please don’t try to diagnose, treat, or fix.  Don’t minimize what is a serious issue with things like, “Cheer up,” or “You just need a glass of wine, a long walk, a good cry.”  Etc.  And DO NOT say you understand if you haven’t been through it yourself.  If all else fails, trust that your friend is doing what he/she needs to get well  – whatever that path may be –  leave the questioning/counseling/advising/treating to their professionals, and just see them, hear them …. and be there.

(Continue to Part Six)

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Music As Therapy, And My New Friends Chad & Ian – Part Four

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(If you’re coming in late, you might want to read parts one, two, and three first.  Unless you like to start in the middle.  I won’t judge.)

May 31, 2016

Music has played an integral part of my life since I was a little girl.  Whether I was down, or up, or somewhere in between, music moved me.  It inspired me.  It encouraged me.  No matter what I felt, music was there to bring it to the next level.   It brought me joy when I was happy.  It gave me bravery when I was scared.  It comforted me when I was sad.

And if I didn’t want to be comforted, and instead just needed to wallow?  Music was good for that too.

And now, at 42, it still does all of the above.  Whenever I connect with a band or a song or an album I devour it … listening over and over and over until I’ve had my fill.  I crave music.  My soul needs music, the way a man in the desert needs water.  Music is like breathing.  It keeps me alive.  So it should come as no surprise that music has been hugely instrumental  (ha, see what I did there?) in seeing me through the last few difficult months.

I would hear a song that spoke to me, and it would become my anthem.

First, it was “Rise Up”, by Andra Day.

After that, and for the longest time, it was “Bird Set Free” by Sia (who, it should be noted, also has bipolar) The first time I actually heard it was when Dalton Rappattoni (who also has bipolar) sang it on American Idol, and the lyrics just took my breath away.  I listened to her version, and his, on repeat for weeks on end.

On a related note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Dalton and Sia’s bravery in talking publicly about their disorders were more helpful and inspiring and important to me than I can even say.

Most recently, the band A Great Big World – Ian Axel and Chad King – released a new single called “Won’t Stop Running”.  As soon as I heard it, I knew that that was going to be my new song.

I have adored A Great Big World since they first came out with Say Something in 2013.  Their songs are beautiful and catchy – the kind that just reach deep down into your soul, their voices compliment each other perfectly, and they just seem like positive and lovely and genuine guys.  Their songs have been a part of my daily soundtrack for the past three years, and when I taught yoga, I included a GBW song on my playlist every time I could.  Getting to hear them live this year, at a tiny little venue downtown, was one of the highlights of what had been a pretty horrible year.  They are one of my all-time favorite bands, and their concert became one of my all-time favorite concerts.

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I’m a little bit sad that you can’t see Chad’s sparkly pants in any of these photos. They were fabulous.

The song, “Won’t Stop Running” was written about Chad’s journey with MS, but the theme of not giving up was one that is relatable to all of us… no matter what stories or struggles or obstacles we face.  When they realized the overwhelming response they were getting to the song, they started a #wontstoprunning campaign, and invited people to share their own stories on social media.  I was a little bit sad because I wanted to share my story…. but wasn’t sure I wanted to be “out” with it yet.  So I watched while others shared their stories, and Chad and Ian responded here and there, and there were beautiful words of support and encouragement.  I even briefly thought about starting an anonymous Instagram account, just so I could join in the collective group hug.  But then, a couple of days later, they announced that they’d opened an email just for people who wanted to share their stories with them anonymously, and that they’d pick a couple to share.

And so I did.

The next day, I received a lovely and short and sweet and encouraging reply from Chad and Ian (that just happened to come on a really bad day when it was so sorely needed) And then, scrolling through Facebook, I saw that they’d reposted my story.  They posted it on Facebook and Instagram both, where hundreds of people “liked”  it and offered encouragement and kind words and support.  MY STORY!

wontstoprunning1

I was in awe 1) that they did such an awesome campaign for their fans in the first place, 2) that they chose to share my story, and 3) that it felt SO, SO GOOD to be honest about it, even – or especially? – if it was to a bunch of strangers.  I received nothing but support, at a time when I was greatly struggling with the idea of telling even those closest to me, precisely because I didn’t know that I’d receive that same support.

It was huge for me, and it was healing, and it will forever earn Chad King and Ian Axel a special place in my heart.

If you’re struggling with something – anything – I’d definitely encourage you to find the song that speaks to you, too.  If you’re at a loss, feel free to borrow one of “mine” till you’ve found one of your own.  🙂

#wontstoprunning

xo

(Continue to Part Five)


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Bipolar Isn’t Strep Throat. One Step Forward, Two Steps Back – Part Three

bipolar

 

(You can read parts one and two here)

May 30, 2016

Here’s the positive thing about hitting rock bottom:  You’ve got nowhere to go but up.  That thought actually comforted me a lot in the beginning.  I can get better now!  It’ll get easier and easier!  And it’s a nice sentiment for sure, and in some ways it is of course true.  But….. it doesn’t really work like that, despite the people who upon hearing that I had bipolar responded with a chipper – and what felt at the time incredibly dismissive and condescending – “Oh, that can be treated.”  (I realize intellectually that they intended neither of those things.)

And yes it can be treated – although I think “managed” is a better word – but it’s not exactly what you’d call straight-forward.

If you have a minor medical illness, say strep throat, you have a fairly predictable course of symptoms, followed by a fairly predictable recovery.  Barring any complications or special circumstances, you start taking an antibiotic.  Two days later you’ve started to feel quite a bit better.  By five days, you feel almost like your normal self.  By eight days you feel so much better that you start to forget you were even sick, and you have to keep reminding yourself to finish out your course of antibiotics.  At day 10, you’ve finished your medication, you feel fine, and your strep throat is a thing of the past.

Mental illness is more complicated than that.

The main medication I’m on will be slowly titrated up to a maintenance dose over the course of about 6 weeks (assuming it’s the right one for me.  So much is trial and error).  What I’m on now in comparison is barely above a placebo.  Other medications may need to be added or substituted or removed as we go.  And what I’m currently learning from  my therapist are strategies.  Things that I have no doubt are going to help me in the long run, but that are things that I need to practice.   Routines I need to build.  Habits I need to form.  Tools I need to use. There is much I need to learn, and many things I need to understand.  There is work – continual, ongoing work – that I’ll need to do if I want to be well.  This is a chronic illness that can’t be cured.  Learning to manage it is a process, and progress won’t always be linear.  It will zig-zag, and it will spiral.

I won’t get better overnight.  One recent article I read said that it took the author a solid four years until he felt that he was really stable…. the thought of which is… daunting.  But even if it doesn’t take four years, it will take time.  Patience is going to be my friend, and I have to learn not to freak out when I have a bad day.  I have to learn to focus on the big picture.

It’s sort of like the worried parents of a selective-eating toddler.  You never want to judge the situation on what they did/did not eat at one meal, because you’ll get a much clearer picture of what’s going on if you look at what they ate during a whole week.  In one meal, there might be five noodles.  Over the course of the week though, you can see, “Hey, he ate an apple!  And an entire yogurt!  And some broccoli dipped in ranch!”

I cannot –  cannot –  compare myself to where I was yesterday, because it’s only a lesson in frustration.  But I can compare myself to a month ago.  I can compare myself to the broken girl who was gutturally sobbing all over the place, begging for…. something, anything, that would take the pain away.

There will be good days and bad days, and that needs to be okay.  I have to say it again:

There will be good days and bad days, and that’s okay! 

I had two pretty lousy days this week, mood-wise, that stood out more than the others.

The first was because I was just really pissed off about how hard it all felt.  I don’t want to go to bed at the same time every night.  I don’t want to exercise.  I don’t want to meditate.  I don’t want to chart my feelings.  I don’t want to take any pills.  I don’t want to go outside if I don’t feel like it.  I don’t want to take another supplement.  It shouldn’t be so hard.  It’s just not fair that it’s so hard.  I want to live like a normal person and not have to think about any of those things if I don’t want to.  I want to stay up till 11:00 and drink a glass or three of wine.  I want to spend my Tuesday afternoons curled up with a good book, not in a therapist’s office, 30 minutes from home, talking about my feelings.

In short, I needed a day to feel sorry for myself.

The second one was set off because frankly, I did something really stupid.  There’s a meme that’s been going around Facebook.   It’s a comparison of two photos.  The top photo is a serene, forest scene with the caption, “This is an antidepressant”, and the bottom photo is a Prozac pill, with the caption, “This is shit.”  Now what I’m personally taking is not even an antidepressant  – it’s not appropriate for my specific situation – but damn if it didn’t piss me off to see anyone else getting shamed for whatever it is they need to take.  I shared the photo on my blog’s Facebook page, NOT for the photo itself, but for a really lovely commentary refuting it…. from a woman who believes in both nature AND pharmaceuticals when necessary.  (I will share it down below, because I really do love what she had to say) Anyway,  I shared this post and in the course of conversation I used the word, “disgusting.”  I said that I thought it was disgusting to call something “shit” that could (and has!) literally played a life-saving role in someone’s recovery.  I concede that it could have been a poor word choice.  A woman commented who’d had a very bad experience with psychotropic drugs – and absolutely, those experiences are out there.  I’m not refuting this.  And there are risks.  And there are unethical doctors.  And there are things to consider.  And my heart goes out to anyone who has had such a bad experience … whether it’s with drugs, alternative treatments, or something else altogether.  She was really offended/hurt/ticked off by my words and told me so.  Not wanting to make things worse, I very, very carefully chose my next words and told her simply that I was glad that she ultimately found what she needed to do to get well.  But that pissed her off even more, because she’d wanted a different response.  She bit back harder, wanting to hurt me (OR, feeling hurt herself, just used me as a convenient outlet in the right place at the right time).  It worked.  I bawled.  And a couple of hours later I pulled down both my Facebook page and my blog itself.   I realized that while I had actually started to enjoy interacting with friends on Facebook again, I was not yet ready for the masses.  My blog/its Facebook page were not going to currently play a part in my getting well.

Fact:  Posting controversial things about mental health treatment when you’re TEN DAYS into your own mental health treatment (and, obviously, still raw and fragile) is not a good idea.

Really though, that woman did me a favor.  The more distractions I could shed to focus on what I really needed to focus on, the better.  One step forward at a time.

Here’s the meme:

antidepressant

And here is Jenny Chiu’s beautiful commentary:

Hello,
I’m Jenni Chiu and this image pisses me off.

May is Mental health Awareness month and I can’t think of a worse way to raise awareness than with this irresponsible image (recently posted by the page Earth. We are one.)

I find the top part of this image to be absolutely true. Meditating outside, breathing fresh air, taking a break from the blue light of my electronics – that all helps my brain and body tremendously.

I find the bottom part of this image to be stigmatizing, and extremely harmful to those who struggle with mental illness. It is irresponsible and IT IS FALSE.

Disclosure: I’m a damn tree hugger. I’ve hugged the hell out of trees. I’ve felt their energy. I’ve sat beneath a redwood and exhaled up into it’s branches, asking it to lift some of the weight off my shoulders. I believe that our modern lifestyles have disconnected some of us from Mother Earth and that by spending time outdoors we are reminded of the balance between us and nature.

Disclosure: There were several years of my life where I was on a cocktail of meds (prozac was one of them) and they literally kept. me. alive.

Depression and anxiety are mental ILLNESSES. Not all illness can be cured with fresh air and sunshine. Sometimes chemical imbalances in the brain need to be supplemented. It may not be the answer for everybody, but it is definitely a life saver for some.

Are meds overprescribed? Possibly.
Can simple lifestyle changes improve our mental and physical health? Certainly.
Should a drug that could keep someone from wanting to die be described as “shit”? Never.

If you manage your mental illness by taking medication, I AM PROUD OF YOU. If you are considering talking to your doctor about medication, I AM PROUD OF YOU.

If you are able to manage a mood disorder naturally, I AM PROUD OF YOU. If you are considering talking to your doctor about weaning off of or changing medications, I AM PROUD OF YOU.

If you have an entire arsenal of mental health tools that include a combination of prescriptions, meditation, art therapy, exercise, sunshine, multiple yoga poses, and several flavors of gelato, I AM PROUD OF YOU.

If you wake up to live another day… If you open your eyes and face those same demons that left you so exhausted the day before… If you continue to grace us all with your existence, I AM PROUD OF YOU…
and I thank you.

When you are drowning and someone throws you a life preserver, you take it. Pay no mind to the people off to the side judging and telling you it’s not the right size or color… or that it couldn’t possibly work. You take it. You grab it and hold on like nobody’s business.

When you get to shore and dry off… then you can take a breath and figure out a plan. Change things up if you need to. Ask for help if you need to…

Anyone telling you not to grab that life preserver is a dick…
and if you accidentally kick them in the face while you’re paddling your way out of the stormy waters, no big deal…

Tell them to go stop the bleeding with the warm breeze outside.

I love you.
Do whatever you need to stay with us.
xoxo

(Continue to Part Four)


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“Have You Ever Tried to Hurt Yourself?”: A Diagnosis and a Plan – Part Two

bipolar

(Did you miss part one?  You can read it here.)

May 29, 2016

Here’s a question.  Why would someone with admitted mental health issues spend her entire adult life actively avoiding seeking out a mental health professional?  It seems foolish and well, frankly, really stupid doesn’t it?  But there were reasons that, at the time, seemed to be very sensible.

Here are just a few of them, in no particular order:

  •  The stigma.  People have tried to tell me that there’s no longer a stigma, but they’re wrong.  There IS a stigma.  It is everywhere.  And while people do tend to be more open about their mental health than they used to be, there is still the overarching belief by many that it is a weakness.  That it is a choice.  That they could feel better if they just WANTED TO BADLY ENOUGH, Dammit!  It’s not very conducive to seeking help when a large segment of society wants to treat you like a failure just for walking in the door.
  • The woo woo stuff.  The few people that I know who’ve talked about therapy or counselors have been very into sort of new age, touchy-feely, get in touch with the Goddess within sort of thing, and I had no interest in that.  I wanted straightforward, practical advice, not to be told I needed to hug my inner child. (Disclaimer:  I have no issues with other people wanting/needing/connecting to that approach.  It’s just not for me.)
  • I had a bad experience with therapy as a teen.  In hindsight, I guess it wasn’t a bad experience per se, but it was unpleasant.  To begin with, I was there against my will… a mandatory family thing when my parents took in a foster child.  I HATED IT.  Hated the questions, hated the pressure, hating being expected to talk about my feelings when I just Wanted. To. Be. Home.  In my room.  Reading a book.  Not in a weird uncomfortable room with this total stranger who kept asking me questions…. questions that I learned to begrudgingly answer, because if I didn’t my mom answered for me (with how she thought I’d respond) which ticked me off and made the whole thing worse.
  • I didn’t know what to expect.  With the exception of the people in #2, hardly anyone ever talks about this aspect of their lives.  I mean, it’s private, and I get that, but more openness would be so very helpful to those who are new to the idea.  I had absolutely no idea what to expect, and the unknown – particularly when it comes to something as sensitive and personal as  your mental health – is scary and daunting, which brings me to:
  • It was overwhelming and scary.  Even – or especially – when you know you’re at a point where you need professional help (and by all means, I was in that place for a long time), taking the step of actually researching different places/providers (when just getting out of bed is a lot of freaking work), calling someone (when you’d rather suffer a slow agonizing death in the talons of a velociraptor), actually driving to a place and having to see someone (when you’re not even up to seeing your best friends), AND having to face and talk about the messiest, scariest, most personal parts of your psyche with a total stranger is really, really, breathtakingly HARD.

Alas, despite all of the above…. I knew it was time.   So I sucked it up, I made some phone calls, and I found a place that could get me in right away.  I knew that 1) I needed to start with a proper diagnosis, so I went straight to a psychiatrist, and 2) a multi-faceted approach was important, so I chose a facility that offered psychiatric care, therapy, lifestyle support, and an overall holistic view on treatment.

And to make a long story short(er), May 10th ended up being one of the most important days of my life.  It was weird and uncomfortable and scary… but important.   Both people I saw (a psychiatrist and a licensed counselor)  were professional and kind and reassuring and thorough – without veering into the overly caring/condescending behavior that drives me so absolutely batshit crazy.  The bipolar diagnosis was a fairly straightforward one, and I do not mean in any way that it was rushed, or one that they came to quickly.  They asked a lot (a LOT) of questions, they sought clarity, they asked me to word things in different ways when they needed more information.  But what it ultimately comes down to is symptoms, and I read like a text book.

As for my own personal views on the experience?  It was HUGELY powerful.   The simple act of being able to answer questions like “Have you ever tried to hurt yourself?” with honesty… in a non-judgemental environment where no one is shocked, or horrified or phased in any way…. a place where they’ve heard it all before, and are trained to simply listen, and ultimately to help you… It was freeing, and it was healing, all by itself.  And to have a diagnosis?  There were other emotions, that I’m sure will continue to come and go, but in the moment it was pure relief.

And I mean, I knew.  I’ve known it was bipolar for a long time.  But to HEAR it;  to be able to begin treating it;  to be able to create a specific plan to get well;  to finally move FORWARD…  It gave me more hope than I’ve had in a long, long time.  I cried the whole way home that day, which is far from an unusual practice for me, but this time they were largely tears of relief.

The immediate plan was – and is – just to get me stable.  I was prescribed some appropriate medications for my specific situation (a brief word about medications, if I may:  They were, for me, absolutely the right answer for this phase of my treatment.  Will they always be a part of my treatment?  Possibly.  Maybe even likely.  Bipolar is tricky.  I feel no shame in taking them, and no shame in evaluating – and continuing to evaluate –  the role they may or may not play in keeping me well.)  I was also given a lengthy – but somehow not overwhelming – list of homework:  practical things I can do to supplement my medication, and help me work towards getting better.  Which is exactly what I was wanting, and needing.  I’ll see my psychiatrist monthly for now, and my therapist (who is wonderful) weekly.

Eventually I’ll be living my life, learning to control it instead of letting it control ME.  But for right now, this IS my life.  Getting well, getting stronger, learning to live NOT as a “bipolar person”, but as the same complicated, multifaceted, creative, perfectly imperfect person I’ve always been, who also happens to have bipolar.

(Continue to Part Three)


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Essential Oils Don’t Cure Bipolar: A Coming-Out Story – Part One

bipolar

I don’t know how much longer I can fake it
That it’s all alright, that I can do this alone
And I know that life is what you make it
But it’s hard to see stars when you’re always caught in the folds

Every night in my mind it’s a fight
But I won’t stop dreaming
‘Cause this isn’t over
It’s never over

Facing forward
Lights out
I won’t stop running
Falling backwards
Hands tied
I won’t stop running
I’ll take another sunrise
Another hand to hold tight
This isn’t over
I am way too young and I won’t stop running

~ “Won’t Stop Running”, Great Big World

It is a Saturday as I write this;  May 28th, 2016.  It seems important that I note that, because when or if this story is ever shared, I know it’s one that will need to come in bits and pieces over time, not as a one-off post.  In a way, what I’m about to write about is the culmination of what’s actually been going on for years (decades, if I’m being honest) but in many many others it is just the very beginning baby steps of what will become a lifelong journey.

I have bipolar disorder.

I’ve been practicing saying that, even if mostly inside my own head.  I say it very well, don’t I?  Hello, my name is Jennifer and I have bipolar disorder.  Did anyone else just hear Richard Gere in Pretty Woman when I said that?  “Hello, my name is Mr. Lewis and I am very angry with my father.  It cost me ten thousand dollars in therapy to be able to say that sentence.” 

I haven’t (yet) spent ten thousand dollars in therapy, but I am actively going to therapy, which in and of itself is… unexpected.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself, and should really start at the beginning.

It was a cold and snowy day in 1974 when I was born …  KIDDING!  Well, only partly kidding, because it was a cold and snowy day when I was born.  I was born during a snow storm in fact.  That’s completely irrelevant to the story though.  Except that now that I’m thinking about it, it’s actually pretty poetically perfect that I was born during a storm.  I wouldn’t be ME if I’d been born on a calm, quiet, balmy day in June.

I’m just not the calm, quiet, balmy type.

I’ve always been open about my issues with depression and anxiety … and when I say “open”, I mean I’ve written about it a grand total of a whopping 4 or 5 times (out of 1,000 posts) over the course of the 10+ years that I’ve maintained this blog.  But while I was always as raw and honest as I could manage at the time, those posts only told a part of the story.  They were tentative.  Testing.  Dipping my toes in the water as it were.  I feel like I shared a great deal, but I subconsciously held back at least as much as I revealed.

I’m tired of holding things back.  My only personal goal right now is to get myself well, and I believe that part of that process is going to be total, uncensored honesty.

This spring I had a breakdown.  “Breakdown” is a weird word (one that’s a way too often and flippant word of hyperbole) that doesn’t convey the severity of what happened to me, but it’s the only word I’ve got.   As was my usual pattern, I’d just come down from feeling AMAZING. Life was so painfully beautiful it made me cry.  I’d been full of energy.  Full of grand ideas.  Full of huge plans.  I was going to write another book.  I was going to expand my blog.  I was going to start more blogs.  I spent hundreds of dollars on online courses to teach me how to do exactly that.  I was going to CHANGE THE FREAKING WORLD.    I felt like I could do absolutely anything.  And then….. I didn’t.  And then I got depressed.  And then I got really depressed.  And then I wanted to die.  And then, in the middle of taking the 8 year old to play rehearsals, and the 12 year old to football practice, and taking care of the kids and the house and the pets and everything else that comes with adulting, I had a breakdown.  To put it into perspective, the only reason I didn’t end up in the ER was that I found a psychiatric facility that could get me in for an evaluation right away.

Only a couple – less than five – trusted people knew how much I was truly struggling.  Even then, I spared them the gory details.  The little bits I did share here and there though were more than enough encouragement for well-meaning advice.  I just needed to exercise.  I needed more sleep.  I needed to change the way I ate.  I needed to use essential oils.  I needed more supplements.  I tried really hard not to be offended – and deeply, deeply frustrated – because I was exercising.  I was eating well.  I was getting sleep.  I was taking appropriate supplements.  And essential oils?  I tried pretty much all of them that were supposed to be helpful.  Daily.  But the thing is, motivation is great.  Exercise, sleep, and vitamins are great.  But there are some things they Just.  Don’t.  Cure.  I couldn’t fix it.  Sheer willpower was not doing it.  And it was insulting and minimizing every single time someone suggested otherwise.

It was reminiscent to the end of my journey with my gall bladder.  It was full of stones and sludge, it was starting to get inflamed, and there were stones lodged in the common bile duct.  I was due to have it removed, but then it started to get infected.  I ultimately had an attack that lasted about 72 hours, and in desperation called the surgeon’s office for advice.  The overly cheerful woman on the phone told me, “Oh you’ll see a big difference if you avoid things like fried foods.”  Fried foods?  Was she kidding me?  I hadn’t been able to eat ANY fat for several months, and hadn’t been able to keep down anything – at all – for days.  And she was talking to me about fried foods?  I ended up in the ER, where I checked in for a five day stay, one emergency operation, one endoscopic procedure, and a truckload of necessary medications.

She was being helpful to the best of her ability, but I didn’t need to be told to avoid fried foods.  It was so beyond that point.  What I  needed was intervention.  And in this case, I didn’t need to use essential oils.  It was so beyond that point.  What I needed was intervention.  It wasn’t that I was hanging on by a thread.  My thread WAS GONE.  I had no more thread, and I was hanging over a precipice.  The only recourse I had left was to seek the help of a professional.

So I did.

And it was the hardest, and scariest, thing I’ve ever done in my life.

(Continue to Part Two)


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