In the spirit of Mental Health Awareness Month I am revealing my struggles with mental illness.
Lately I have been thinking about what got my blog started. I decided to go back and read the very first post I ever wrote, almost five years ago.
“First post as I try to learn WordPress… You gotta start somewhere, folks.”
The body is a whopping 23 words long:
“So I was thinking… Most of the information I process and concepts I learn in life seem so obvious after I learn them.”
(Wow, I was like SO smart back then. And, damn I have gotten long-winded since then).
Over the last year I have had pain in my right forearm in wrist. I’ve put off going to an orthopedic doctor because I feared I had an injury that would require me to stop writing and stop doing yoga until it healed. As a writer and someone who enjoys exercise, those orders would not mesh well with my commitment to practicing them regularly. Even worse — as a person living with mental illness, those orders would be part of a death sentence because writing and exercise are an integral part of my treatment plan.
I started this blog in July 2011, three months after I had my first psychotic episode that led to being diagnosed with a bipolar disorder and an anxiety disorder. I was deeply embarrassed and ashamed of the complete loss of control I felt during the paranoia, hallucinations, delusions of grandeur, insomnia, mania, and intrusive thoughts. I completely lost my grip on reality and was involuntarily hospitalized. The racing and incoherent thoughts, sleepless nights, impulsively, agitation, and reckless behaviors were not a pretty sight.
Earlier this month I realized that the pain in my right forearm and wrist was not getting any better. I finally went to the doctor and found out that I have tendonitis — a problem, but not a death sentence. They gave me an arm strap and instructed me to go to physical therapy to learn about tendonitis and how to treat the problem. Without batting an eye I made an appointment. I wanted my forearm and wrist to get better as soon as possible and in order for me to do that I would have to learn about it and take a first step.
When I got out of the hospital I was confused and sick and had an armload of medication, including antipsychotics, none of which I knew how to use or wanted to take. At the time, I didn’t even have a local doctor. On top of that I had a three-month old baby — my first baby — to take care of. What kind of mother am I to have been separated from her baby because she went off the deep end? I told myself: Take the medicine, find a doctor, ignore the diagnosis, go off the medicine as soon as I felt better, and most importantly don’t tell anyone about all the craziness. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite so simple and neither is the mental health care system. I termed my problems “postpartum struggles,” a likely explanation, but little did I understand at the time, that it was much more than that.
As I sit here typing in a public cafe I am wearing my arm strap over my sore tendons. I could care less if someone noticed it or saw this outward sign that something is wrong. I am not ashamed or embarrassed or at all bothered that I didn’t have control over this happening to me. The way I am made plus wear and tear over time led me to this place, and rather than ignore the pain, I will treat it as any normal person would because I don’t want it to get worse.
Since being diagnosed with a bipolar disorder, and even though all the pieces of the puzzle added up, I still didn’t want to believe it or write publicly about it or, God forbid, talk about it because of stigmas. On the outside I would remain the happy, positive, chatty, high-functioning, capable person I’ve always been and take my medicine quietly or refuse to take it all together. When my brain malfunctioned I would isolate or cope as best I could if I started to see-saw between extreme mood changes, that what I now understand as, mania and depression. I would bury my feelings when things got rocky, and I would not talk about the heart of the matter or past situational traumas that played a role in my diagnosis. I could do this, I thought, just like I did my senior year of high school when I had an eating disorder called bulimia and didn’t tell anyone. I’m an ace at this game. I got this. Struggle silently. It’ll pass. I can deal.
Before I went to the doctor to have my forearm and wrist checked I made no secret about it. We all have problems in this life — every single one of us. I am no different from the next person. However when we keep our problems a secret they poison us. When we talk about our problems we feel better. It would be easy to talk about my tendonitis with people and joke about falling apart if anyone asked me about it. Or if it was aggravating me and I just needed a sympathy hug, I’m sure someone would help if I asked.
I had a second psychotic episode in May 2013 a few months after having my second child. For me, this started to seal the deal that maybe the doctors knew what they were talking about. In addition to that I learned a new term — postpartum psychosis. I felt a little better naming one of the beasts, but I still thought the word bipolar was a very icky word, so I didn’t acknowledge it or include it in my vocabulary even though it continued to fester inside of me. I would tell myself that mental illness is a personal weakness, and because I am not a weak person, I don’t have a mental illness worthy of discussion.
The physical therapist told me that if I do the exercises regularly and come back to therapy I should start to feel better in about four months. I learned so much about lateral epicondylitis, the fancy name for my condition. I was fascinated by the term and as I learned about the treatment, none of which is laden with stigmas. I was amazed by how open I was able to be about where the pain was and answer any questions she had about my medical history. Imagine that.
Last November I started feeling “off.” My mind wouldn’t stop chattering and I had a few things trigger me mentally. I felt myself losing a grip as I became hypomanic. I knew enough at this point that I needed to see my doctor immediately. That appointment would turn the tables for me. I started to accept that I have a mental illness unrelated to pregnancy. I wanted to understand why and how this happened to my brain. I agreed to psychotherapy. I agreed to let her adjust the dosage of medicine I take.
When I was receiving physical therapy this morning I scanned the room. It was a big room with all kinds of equipment and technology and professionals and patients. There we all were gathered in one giant room together. The trained professionals were doing their jobs and trying to help the patients. The injured patients were trying their best and letting the professionals help them. As I looked around I realized, we all just wanted to get better. We all just wanted to heal from whatever body part we were trying to heal. We all wanted to lessen the pain and move forward in our lives.
I am not the only person that has a bipolar disorder. The problem is I don’t know others who live with this diagnosis because I’ve deemed it taboo in my mind. I am learning, right now as I write and when I publish this blog post, that it’s okay to talk about it — to share, to find others who understand what the heck I am talking about if I want to make reference to something that happened to me in the psychiatric unit of a hospital or what it felt like to be admitted or how hard it was when I didn’t understand the diagnosis, the medicine, the treatment, or the mental health system. Bipolar disorder is a medical condition of the brain, and just like any other organ, it needs to be treated when it gets sick. Currently I am treating my mental illness with acceptance, medicine, psychotherapy, writing, exercise, and most recently opening up about it publicly. Someday I hope I can laugh about some of what I have been through and make fun of myself for things like defacing public property or thinking I was Reese Witherspoon (seriously, I was totally her) or getting picked up by the cops on the night of my first psychotic episode, but most importantly I hope one day I can help others who battle mental illnesses.
Writing openly about mental illness today is a new beginning for me. I am trying to help myself recover and heal. I am trying to let go of some of my past struggles and make peace inside myself, but I have realized instead of trying to let go alone I need to let others who are affected by mental illness (and there are so many of us!) into the fight so I feel less alienated by all of this. Living with a mental illness needs to be part of me intrinsically and not just something that I stand next to without ever fully accepting it.
Slowly but surely I am winning my battle with mental illness by learning about it and what medicinal and non-medicinal methods work for me, but it is not over because life doesn’t stand still. I’ll have more bumps in the road ahead — we all will. Whether it’s tendonitis or mental illness or loss of a loved one or rejection or failure or cancer or disease or heartache or even something as small as a paper cut, we’ll always have something we are dealing with in life.
I’m just tired of fighting my “thing” in secret. So with my arm band as my badge of honor and my pen as my sword I’ll try to endure a little less alone. As I am receiving more external support, I have become more educated about mental illness and the complicated system that I’ve had to navigate. Maybe one day I can share information and my stories with anyone in need. It’s been a long road leading me to this point, and publishing this blog post is a very big leap. Fingers crossed I don’t regret it or feel bad about myself or get too manicky. I’m irritated that there’s probably a lot of grammar mistakes, but I don’t have time to edit the rest of my life. As I said in my first blog post ever, You gotta start somewhere, folks.
Thank you for reading.
Note: I am extremely thankful to my family and close friends who listened and tried to support me when I was able to share snippets of what I was going through and those who saw me at my worst. Special thank you to the ones who have supported me over the last few months as I’ve “come out” about my struggles with mental illness. I love you guys!