An honest take on mental illness

In the spirit of Mental Health Awareness Month I am revealing my struggles with mental illness.

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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.

It’s titled:

“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).

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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!

About britta326

blogger, picture-taker, diaper-changer, runner

21 thoughts on “An honest take on mental illness

  1. You are a brave woman Brittany. I know you are helping so many others with your willingness to open up. Great job. Prayers for continued healing.

  2. You’ve educated a lot of people with this blog. Maybe others will finally understand that bipolar is a illness, like any other illness, that can be treated. I applaud your courage in writing it. Hugs! Aunt Nancy

  3. amen amen amen and a little woman too. This is a brilliant piece Britta. And a beginning to dialogue for many who will now open their own doors to you and others because of the courage that you’ve exhibited in being vulnerable and enabling the rest of us to be vulnerable too. Like me. Mental illness is a part of my story. I am so incredibly proud of you and grateful to you for day-lighting our stories in way that will undoubtedly empower many who’ve felt powerless….

    • Thank you for telling me that you know about about mental illness first-end. We are warriors, and I just hope more people come forward and get treatment. It’s live changing.

  4. You are a badass, and so, SO brave to talk about this. You are a fabulous mom who is raising two amazing kids, and I am so proud of you for taking the plunge and getting this out in the open!

  5. Britta,
    You should have a trophy! I loved ever single word you wrote. You always have had a wonderful smile.
    I am going to just wait for your BOOK! Britta, you are a terrific writer. Our Patrick would loved to read your writing. Actually, Pat could of talked with you to speak for hours.
    Please Britta, write to help so many !!!

    Thank you dear Britta for writing “your
    story”.
    I have my issues too and I never thought that I would be a lady that talks to a person then can’t remember what I was going to say?

    Have a great summer and you have a wonderful family!🎉
    Your old friend,
    Deb

    • Deb, Your encouragement means so much! I will do everything I can to keep writing more of my truths if it will help others. I wish Pat were around to talk shop with me. He would have been a great person to have in a writing group. I wish you a wonderful summer and happy times with your family!

  6. Thank you for sharing your story. It will help others know they are not alone in the struggles of healing. Only when more people become public about mental illness can the stigma be removed through education. Bravo! For taking this step to educate and remove the stigm.

  7. It was hard to hear about your suffering Britta. I have tears. Part of it could be my own struggles, mentally parenting during early toddler years. Your dream of writing “down the road” is a misnomer. You ARE a writer, right now, doing what writers do. Sharing their unique voice….more, more more Britta!!

    • Thank you Elle for being a part of my life. You are a special person and yoga instructor reaching many people with your words and poses and flow. Your encouragement about my writing gives me confidence to share more. I feel held back at times because of my struggles, but I hope getting this story out of me will make way for new works with less undertone. Namaste!

  8. Britta, thank you for sharing your story. I remember you from school (I was a year under) and even then I admired your personality and strength.

    I, too, had/have bulimia and am Bipolar. No children, though. I’ve been in treatment for the past 10 years and these are things I -still- don’t readily talk about.

    There’s a lot of shame and embarrassment associated with them, likely from my upbringing, and I’ve been trying to unlearn those judgments for the past several years but, man, they’re hard to shake!

    I have great empathy for others struggling with mental illness, but none for myself. Acceptance seems to be a process.

    Posts like yours make that process easier. So, again, thank you. I appreciate your honesty and openness about your struggles that so many of us can relate to, though I am sorry that you’ve gone through all you have.

    Jenn

    • Hi there. I applaud you for commenting, and I hope you feel good about it. You should!

      That is great that you have been in treatment — so important, as is acceptance, which is where I am at right now. I am sorry that you do not have empathy for yourself. I have empathy for you.

      It took me a long time to write this blog post because of the shame that you understand. Now that I’ve put it out in the open, I am ready to make living with bipolar a way of life.

      Your term “unlearn” resonates with me. When you live inside your head for so long and blame yourself or try to brush off your problems or listen to intrusive thoughts it hard to turn things around. I wish you continued strength and more light in your life.

      If you look at the header on my blog (cool that you use WP, too!), you can click on “Contact” and get in touch with me privately if you want to continue this conversation. I am open to talking more to you if you are. 🙂

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