The year was 1996, and the date Oct. 17th. This was the 10th anniversary of my father’s death, and the day I was diagnosed. Though I didn’t know it yet, it was already the start of a hellish year in which I discovered myself, lost three family members in 7 weeks (one of which was my brother), and my stepfather had a massive stroke. I was homesick, scared, and not always on my best behavior. Be it a surprise that I was hospitalized for mental health issues? I think not.
On that day, I learned I had bipolar disorder. Though this diagnosis would change in some ways over the years, my anxiety disorder combined with the bipolar made life a bit more complicated for an average person. I, thankfully, am not an average person. Nor shall I ever be.
My life really didn’t turn upside down, but I began to understand perhaps why I acted or behaved in some of the ways I did. PLU had hired a psychiatrist from the area to come in on Wednesdays, and I saw Dr. Marsha Cain on the behest of Leah Stock, a PLU counselor. Turns out my lack of sleeping, hypermoods (that drove a number of my friends crazy back then), tendency to spend money I didn’t have, and my not so cute behavior of “I’m so cute and perky that I am annoying” led Leah to believe there was and is an underlying problem to be concerned over.
Though this diagnosis really didn’t phase me until after I got out of college (as PLU didn’t really offer any support back then for students with new disabilities) I don’t remember coming to terms with my disability until after my good friend Brie came with me to TACID (Tacoma Area Coalition for Individuals with Disabilities) and attended my first peer support group meeting in 2001. Eventually I became a facilitator of these meetings, and was able to help others through their problems as well, but this took some time. I started attending regularly and it was refreshing to know I wasn’t alone in my struggles for sanity, to find the right “medication milkshake,” and my inability to find the peace that will never quite reach my ever busy mind.
Over the years my diagnosis would change and be altered a bit in order to treat me better. I was first diagnosed with Anxiety Disorder, then added Bipolar II, that was later changed to Bipolar I with PTSD as well. Now, am an ultradian cycler, and the anxiety I’ve struggled with since I was a kid is actually the predominant disability that has helped me manage so well with the Bipolar disorder. Where many individuals with Bipolar are disorganized and have difficulties with dates, times, meetings and so on… My anxiety over not being ready, on time, with all my crap together has helped me be on top of things. Not all, things, but some. Come to my house and you will see how I creatively organize in piles. Lots of piles. See my desk at work, I color coordinate everything and prioritize with folders and have a pretty clean desk. (Why does this NOT work at home??)
“Controlling,” is what my husband might call it. And being as he is pretty good at being perpetually late to things, even church, this has tried my patience and my ability to adapt just a bit. (But not much!). But as we know that line from Days of Thunder: ”Control is an illusion, you infantile egomaniac. Nobody knows what’s gonna happen next: not on a freeway, not in an airplane, not inside our own bodies and certainly not on a racetrack with 40 other infantile egomaniacs.” So, I have learned to let go sometimes.
From this experience I’ve learned to advocate for myself and others. Though currently overwhelmed with new found mommyhood, my advocacy has fallen off the wagon. I’ve always had a passion for advocating for others; whether it is people with disabilities, my brother obtaining access to the general education classroom, being a job coach for individuals with disabilities, teaching special education for six years, or serving on the GCDE (Washington State’s Governor’s Commission on Disability Issues and Employment). I realize that the only way I was able to be successful in going to school, getting my masters, achieving my national certification, in being a mother, and being able to remain emotionally/mentally healthy through all of this was because I have an awesome support system.
While attending the peer support groups at TACID, I realized that many individuals didn’t have the type of support system I did, and this made their struggles exponentially more difficult. I was able to stay out of hospitals, learn to be good to myself and set boundaries and establish goals and achieve them because I had the help and support of family and friends. Many of the individuals at TACID didn’t have this access, had burned bridges, or had families that were not supportive of them. With this, their needs were not met, and their sanity more tenuous.
I do not know how much some of my friends understand that I owe so much of my current mental health to them. Especially, my husband, who though he doesn’t always understand where I am coming from (often another galaxy altogether) but has always tried to be supportive.
I can see all of this now, as 15 years have gone by, and I have been so successful in evaluating myself, my behaviors, my moods and learned to be totally honest with myself. If I am half a$$ed in evaluating how I am doing and not being completely truthful, then something gets missed, and I head for a hill or cliff that I really should not try jumping off from. (That is also for another post).
So today, I’m being honest. My depression has come back and I am cycling more. Not too much, but enough to notice that I am feeling really burnt out right now with Sunshine and feel like I need a break. Hubby works a job that is a 1.5 hour commute away, or tries to work from home. He ends up working 12 hr days to make up for inability to work as effectively while away from the office. (*Note, I do talk about myself in 3rd person often).
This puts more pressure on mom, less time to self, and Heather is with Sunshine for 23.5 hours of the day. At some point, Heather needs some major alone time, and I would hate to leave hubby at home for a day to fend for himself with Sunshine and her moods…. but that day looks to be coming soon if I do not get some alone time to decompress and just “be.” Some mothers would say that this is not fair for the kid. But in all honesty, I have recognized that in order for me to be the best mommy I can be, I have some needs that must be met or I will not be that emotionally stable.
I believe this current emotional state was precipitated by a large swing in anxiety and my needing to take medications again to alleviate some of the panic and anxiety that I could not work through. As I have found taking some medications to treat one disorder (anxiety) tends to cause side affects (more rapid cycling) in another disorder. Thus, at times, quantifying the need to take a medication to manage that as well.
I have maintained pretty good mental health without being on medications for the past year. This was due to my pregnancy, leaving a stressful work environment, and continuing to breast feed after Sunshine was here. I do not wish to discontinue breast feeding Sunshine, but if after further evaluation I need to go back on medication, I hope that I may still be able to supplement breast milk once in awhile.
I also have to thank the counselor and ARNP that have both helped me through the way. It has taken years for me to find people who work with me to decide the best route to go with medications, not just have someone dictate what I need to take and not explain why. I have advocated for myself and I know myself better than they do, so can explain why the side effects of a medication outweigh the benefits it may do for my mental health. This has always been key in managing my health, and journaling the side effects and how I have been doing has always helped me back my thoughts and feelings up with the practitioners I have worked with. My current ARNP, rocks!! She was a midwife as well, and also has bipolar disorder. We are discovering what works and I love that we research and explore together.
On another note: Mental illness is becoming a bigger issue in the PacNW and there have been ads on t.v in support of being open and learning more about mental health. I am so glad to see they are doing this as the stigma is so devastating for many, and I’ve been on the receiving end and burned in the past by revealing my disability. No doubt, I will still be burned again, but I have a voice and choose to use it in these instances. However, a note to those in the communities we live in:
Mental Illness is NOT a disease, but a disorder. Disease has always connoted something communicable to me, and that somehow others could catch it. Disease has been used more by doctors for diagnosis in the DSM V and for those without disabilities who need to feel safer by placing those who are different in a neat and tidy box.
Mental Illness is a disorder. Where life is “disorderly.” Where things tend to fall apart, and usually do, and we may lack the ability to pick things up (like those without the disability so easily do). To continue on is not so easily done, or often impossible. Where life is unorganized, doesn’t make much sense, or indeed, scares the crap out of some of us and our ability to cope is hindered, altered, changed, or gone completely. Where our ability to relate to others is either diminished or greatly expanded by our experiences of looking at life not just through “rose-colored glasses,” but a kaleidoscope of hues from experiences we’ve lived through, suffered, and come out on the other side forever changed.
To me- mental illness is not a disease. It’s simply an ever changed life, where a disorder can lead to chaos. Where the black and white world of decisions and choices to “the normal people”, seem like a myriad of grays to those of us “crazy people” that live with the disability. At times, it can be living in a perpetual state of drama and “emergency functioning,” or a state of total numbness and apathy.
To me- mental illness was the tool given to me in which to see others differently, and to experience life more richly, deeply, more emotionally than others. Often scary as all get out, often intense, but still filled with the same joys and sorrows that others experience. Just experienced in a different way.
So, to my fellow supporters- THANK YOU!! To those I don’t know but are reading my blog for the first time, may it shed some light for you. To my fellow unique and special beings with mental illness: Blessings to you on your journey and may you find what will sustain you in this life, this great adventure.
To everyone, don’t forget to giggle!