Beating Bipolar: Fake It Till You Make It

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I am one of the lucky ones.  I have made it back from a stage 4 mental illness.  I am currently enjoying five years of stability with only a few intermittent depressive episodes.  I am virtually symptom free.  I manage my illness well with the help of an excellent psychiatrist.

One of the biggest losses I suffered was the loss of confidence.  It felt like I had fallen off a cliff.  This confident, respected, Olympic athlete and professional had turned into a shadow of myself.  I walked with my shoulders bent forward hoping no one would notice me.  For the most part I stayed isolated so I would not feel bad.  When I came out to play life I let people push me around a bit, question my abilities in subtle ways and sometimes put me down.  More than anything, I doubted myself.

I had been standing in the ring with my biggest competitor-bipolar disorder.  It punched me so hard and knocked me down so many times I did not know if I could get up again.  When I did my legs were wobbly.  I lost countless bouts.  Then, I began to win.  Small wins multiplied.  I kept pushing myself.  Every person I met along my journey good or bad, helped me to re-build my confidence.  Every experience turned into a learning opportunity.  A confidence building exercise.

Confidence is a very tricky thing.  You can’t get it without making mistakes.  You can’t get it without being willing to put yourself out there and look foolish.  You have to be willing to know playing the game means you are going to lose sometimes, and quite frankly losing hurts.

Winning back confidence is one of the greatest gifts I could have ever received.  It means that I can go out on any court in life and lace up my sneakers.  I can draw upon all those experiences, including working at the Shoe Department vacuuming floors, and know that with grit and determination I just worked my way back to the starting team!

On April 24, 2017 I was the keynote speaker at a statewide event.  It was my 73 talk in two years.  I gave my first talk on mental health to a group of people who came to listen because they supported me and they wanted to see what I had to say.  My second talk was to a group of 400 middle school students.  Some people say if you can talk to middle school students you can talk to anyone.  I think that’s true.

What I know for sure is that you can’t be willing to step in the ring without having some confidence.  What I am most proud of is I never gave up.  Even when I left a conversation feeling a little weird and a lot unsure of myself.  I walked away and licked my wounds, put a smile on my face and kept going.

So how do you build confidence?  Step up to the line and take that first shot.  Eventually it will go in.  You can’t be afraid to lose or fail or miss the shot.  And even if you are afraid you “fake it till you make it.”  Works every time.

 

The Danger of Stigma

I posted on Facebook today this:  “Stigma is shame.  Shame causes silence.  Silence hurts everyone.”  I was struck by a comment from one of my friends who said, “Stigma is the root of all suffering whose ripples expand and touch countless others…”  Wow.

Her comment really struck a cord with me.  I know from my experience how much stigma impacted my willingness to get help and stay with a treatment plan.  Stigma caused me to internalize a tremendous amount of guilt because I had this mental illness “label.”

I don’t believe in labels, but I do believe in diagnosis.  Without the correct diagnosis I was put on the wrong medications and it made my underlying condition worse.  It is important to know what is going on and if it takes a “label” to help someone I am okay with that.  But the fact that we even think of mental health conditions as labels means we have a problem.

I read a great deal about mental illness.  I don’t read as much about mental health because I have a good understanding of what it takes to be mentally healthy.  But as I researched information for an upcoming talk I am giving I found there is such a difference between what mental health advocates use to describe a mental illness.  Here are some of them:  mental health issue, mental health concern, brain disorder, mental health condition, and finally mental illness.  All of us advocates are trying to make it okay to talk about mental illness.  We are all trying to fight against the stigma.  Some do it in a different language because of the great stigma attached to the words mental illness.

Here is the question I ask myself – what words make the most impact?  I find myself using them all interchangeably.  But I have to say there is a big difference between a mental health issue and a severe mental illness.  An issue is something we can get over a severe mental illness is something that requires a life long battle.  I believe if we are going to educate we have to be real and raw.  Let’s get real about what we are dealing with and then let’s work to help people know it is okay to get help.

Experience is our greatest teacher.  I have been on this journey with mental illness for more than 30 years.  Trust me when I tell you the stigma of mental illness is dangerous and we must do everything in our power to eliminate it.  Lives are at stake.

 

 

4 Reasons Why It’s Hard to Share a Mental Illness Diagnosis

Since I have been publicly sharing my bipolar disorder diagnosis I have had some very interesting responses from other people.  Most of the time people are very supportive, however, when they start to know a bit more about the struggle sometimes the questioning looks begin to happen.  Here are my top four reasons Why It’s Hard to Share a Mental Illness Diagnosis.

#1 – People wonder if you are “crazy”

The general public has so little information on mental illness they don’t have a true idea on what the struggle really is about.  Granted there might be some “crazy” times in the world of a person who lives with severe mental illness.  But I have also personally experienced many times where I am really rather quite normal.  If I am really “crazy” you will know it.

#2 – They think you are always sick

Had a bad day?  Stressed out over life changes?  Not in a good mood?  The moment I am not my usual friendly self, sometimes I get very strange looks from people who mean very well, but don’t realize I am not always sick.  There are days when I am simply having a bad day.  Everyone has those days.  I just don’t get the leeway like everyone else.

#3 – People don’t believe you can recover

When I say I struggle and I battle and I fight bipolar disorder, this really means I manage it.  I work extremely hard at being “normal.”  Not everyone can get their illness to the point where they feel as if they have recovered.  I am not one of those people.  I have several occasions where I have been either extremely manic or so depressed I could not get out of bed, but I always get better and return to a fairly high level of activity.

#4 – Oh the stigma

There are countless misunderstandings about mental illness that is created as a result of stigma.  Stigma is shame.  Shame causes silence.  Silence hurts us all.  This is my number one reason why I am an advocate.  There more I talk about living with bipolar disorder, hopefully the more people will see that I am more like everyone else than I am different.  I just happen to struggle with an illness that effects my brain.  Does that make me a crazy, wacko, nuts or psyhco?  I don’t think so.  The more people come into contact with someone who is open about their mental illness the faster we can eliminate stigma.

My message to those who live with a mental illness is:  Keep talking about it or start talking about it.  Don’t be afraid.  Because all of these obstacles I mentioned can be overcome.  That’s how change occurs.

 

 

Football & Recovery

I am an athlete.  I might not be in Olympic caliber condition, but I will always be an athlete.  I am not the greatest fan in the world, but I did watch the superbowl.  I really could have cared less who won or lost, but I became fascinated with the way Tom Brady handled being behind by so many points.

Stressful.  Frustrating.  Emotional.  Yet he never quit.  You can dislike Tom Brady and the Patriots, but you cannot discount the fact that this guy never gave up.

In my world of recovery and mental health advocacy I cannot think of a better comparison for how I feel about my recovery journey.  I made it all the way back.  I looked back today and thought about how many years and I do mean years, where I struggled relentlessly.  It doesn’t mean that those years never had a good time or two, it just means they were long, hard, and draining.

As I sat in my new NAMI of Greater Wheeling office today I really just wanted to pinch myself.  I started on this mental health advocacy journey three years ago and since then I have worked my way to becoming an Executive Director of a non-profit organization.  One that focuses on advocacy for people with mental illness and their family members who support them.  I have found my passion and my cause.

If you knew where I was four years ago, you might not believe I could make a comeback.  If you want to find out what happened and how I did it…watch for the release of “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor.”  It will be released in April.

No matter what people say about me the one thing they can never discount is the fact that I never give up.

 

Why having a mental illness makes you strong

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I have been putting the final touches on a book I am writing, “Bipolar Disorder My Biggest Competitor.”  It has made me look deeply into myself as a character in a story.  It is the strangest thing reading about this character and knowing it is me.  But this experience has had a profound impact on how I see myself–sometimes victim, sometimes hero, and yes sometimes villain.  But always strong.

If you live with a mental illness you know exactly what I am talking about.  The times when you lie in bed feeling miserable and wish the depression would stop haunting you.  And then you do it–you make yourself get up and get out among the living.  In that moment you beat it.  You won.

How about the times when you thought you might never get well again, but kept battling and recovered?  Even in those darkest moments you found the beacon of hope glaring through the fog.

Then there are those times when you get “the look” from other people who know you live with a mental illness.  It strikes the chord of paranoia and you wonder, “What is she thinking about me?”  But you coach yourself through it and tell yourself, “It is okay.  I really don’t know what she was thinking.”  You overcome the negative thoughts.  You beat “the look.”

What about those days when the trusted family member makes a joke about your mental health?  You feel horrible but can’t get any compassion from the people closest to you.  But you hang in there and keep fighting.  You hope tomorrow will be better.

Believing mental illness makes you strong is opposite of what people have told us about it.  Remember every battle you have had to fight, every bit of shame and guilt you have faced head on, and every medication you have to take just to feel somewhat “normal,” these are the things that make you strong.  Stronger than you may think you are.

 

Time to Talk Mental Illness

It’s hard to believe it is 2017!  I am not sure where the time has gone, but I do know after all these years of living with the stigma of mental illness it is for sure past time we talk about it.  There are so many anti-stigma efforts and I do feel like we are moving the needle some, but it is not enough.  And from my perspective it is not happening fast, it is a slow drip-drip-drip.

I never thought I would have to live with some illness called bipolar disorder that many people really did not understand and if you said you had a manic episode they really would not know what you meant.  Really I wasn’t sure what it meant for many years, until I studied it so much so I could manage it.  In reality, everyone with bipolar disorder experiences it a little bit differently.  Clusters of symptoms may be the same, but how we behave and handle our illnesses are generally not a carbon copy of it.

We have to talk about mental illness because quite frankly it is so complicated it is hard to understand.  Some illnesses are easier than others but I would argue for even the people who have anxiety disorders they will find not everyone understands how debilitating that can be.  Many people believe you should just be able to take a pill and “get over it.”

With 1 in 5 Americans living with a mental illness that equates to about 20% of the populations.  Yes, there are far less of us who have severe mental illness like bipolar disorder, major depression and schizophrenia, but we still represent million of people.  This really means that everyone knows someone who has a mental illness…and if you think you don’t it is probably simply because they don’t talk about it.

I want you to ask yourself the question, “If I found out my best friend had been struggling with severe depression for years, would that change how I felt about them?”  What about if you found out your sister had been struggling with postpartum depression with psychotic features would you know what that meant?     How about your boss at work who seems to have major mood swings between being very gregarious and not talking at all.  What do you say?  What do you do?

If we don’t talk about mental illness we will continue to find ourselves in these socially awkward situations where we don’t know how to react or what to say.  Granted it is not as bad as it used to be, but it could be a lot better.

Of course I don’t believe everyone should write a blog or a book about their struggles with mental illness.  But I do believe people should not have to be afraid to tell others they are struggling with a mental illness.  It is truly a shame to have to keep something a secret that occupies a great deal of time and effort.  Managing a chronic mental illness is a HUGE effort.  There are doctor and therapy appointments, medication side effects to deal with, prescriptions to refill, and symptoms to deal with.  It is at times a very hard road to journey on.

My one wish is that other people could feel more free to talk about it so there will be a greater understanding.  Maybe then those who live with mental illness will feel more supported.  Maybe then there will be more research dollars to help fund better treatments with higher efficacy.  Maybe then there will be better access to care.  Maybe then people with mental illness won’t be housed in jails and prisons.  Maybe then our society will be more compassionate.  Maybe….just maybe people won’t have to suffer in isolation.

Guest Blogger Devon Sleeth

I am happy to share with you a guest post written by Devon Sleeth.  She is sharing her journey in how she copes with anxiety and offers inspiration for those who are struggling.  Her writing style is really special.

Just Keep Swimming

There are days where I can’t wait to live in a tiny apartment in the middle of a huge city with a busy music related job that I can get to by walking or riding available public transit…But there are also days where I want to drop out of college, move to the beach, and own a tiny flower shop that I get to by riding my bike for five minutes on a sandy road. I’m sure that everyone has felt this way at some point in his or her life, but for me, that is right now. During my senior year of high school I was challenged with a question that is very hard to answer at the age of 18. What major do you want to study in college? At that time, the only thing that really stood out to me was music, as it still does today. I knew that music was a passion of mine and I wanted to make a career out of it, but I wasn’t sure where in the music field I wanted to be. So, I researched online and came up with Music Production. I applied for the program through Ohio University, and with hard work, I finally declared my major at the beginning of my sophomore year of college. After the first semester, I did not enjoy my classes at all. So naturally, fear and anxiousness set in. I began the search for a new field of study. My mind raced with questions like; “What do I want?” “What does God want?” “Will this set me back a couple years?” “Should I suck it up and continue?” Needless to say, I was struggling with the choice. After talking with my Mom, my Dad, my Step-Dad, my Advisor, and God, I finally decided to combine two of the things that I really like. I decided to study Music Journalism. I felt good with the decision, but I was still very anxious because I didn’t know if it was the right choice. This was something that caused me anxiety many times. Eventually, I had to tell myself that worrying about my choices would not change the outcome. What is supposed to happen will happen whether I want it to or not.

Here it is, almost one year later, and I am back in the same boat. Except this time, the boat (AKA my brain) is filled with insomnia, lack of motivation, anxiety, self-doubt, anxiety, headaches, confusion, anxiety, stress, and lots of questions. I have been fighting myself about where I am supposed to be and what I am supposed to be doing. The truth is, I am currently not happy with the situation that I am in. All of this is making it so much harder to get out of bed and go to class, because I am questioning whether these classes even mean anything to me. The battle is endless in my brain. While all of this is piling on my shoulders, there is one thing that keeps me a float. God has a plan for me. While I don’t have a clue what it is at the moment, it is there. So I tell myself, in the midst of this struggle, I need to trust that there is a place for me in this world and that I should never stop trying to find it.

“When life gets you down you know what you gotta do? Just keep swimming.” Take life day by day and eventually everything will make sense. So when you are thinking about dropping everything and moving to a place where there are no research papers due, no needy bosses, no 4 AM alarm clocks, or no group projects (if this magical place even exists), tell yourself to stop, breathe, and just keep trying even when nothing makes any sense.

By Devon Sleeth

 

The Courage to Share

It was three years ago when I started to blog.  I really enjoyed meeting so many people from all over the world.  What writing about mental illness came down to was the “Courage to Share,” an honest story sometimes filled with pain or struggle.

What I have learned is when I have been willing to share my story with others I receive so much in return that I almost feel overwhelmed by the amount of support.

One thing I hope I have been able to do is to offer hope to people who live with mental illness or their family members.  Someone said to me today, “Mental Illness is just so sad.  I don’t know how you can find fun or joy in what you do.”  I was surprised by the comment.  Sure suffering is plentiful when it comes to mental illness but hope is alive and well.

I truly believe the book I have written “Bipolar Disorder My Biggest Competitor” will be real in that there are struggles-but also be filled with the hope for recovery.  

Most of all I want to encourage others to share their stories in any format.  It is a gift that keeps on giving.  The courage to share is the grace in healing.

Amy

New Book is Coming Soon!

Just wanted to let you know I have been working on a memoir called “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor.”  The day is getting closer, but I still have lots of work to do.  I will keep you updated when it is finished.  I am looking for a Mental Health Awareness Month launch date!

The story will really highlight lots of injustices those with mental illness deal with.  I am hoping the book will give a voice to many people who often don’t have one.

So…stay tuned for more updates!  amygamble_1amygamble_2amygamble-upright_nospine

 

Pleased with progress 

When I started on this mental health advocacy journey I did not have any idea what to expect.  Three years ago I began blogging anonymously just to be able to express some of my frustrations of living with a mental illness.

My anonymity lasted about six months and at that point I decided I would rather live authentically and maybe I could help a few other people by being honest about my struggles.

That one step of courage has led me down a path filled with blessings.  I have met and intereacted with hundreds of people following my heart to raise awareness for mental illness.  People from all over the country and in some cases all over the world.  There are many kindred spirits who have picked up a banner to raise the flag for our cause–mental health advocacy!

Starting this new year I am already taken back by the invitations I have been receiving to speak about mental illness.  I am overwhelmed by the interest and willingness for different professional groups to have the desire to learn more about the issues and challenges of living with a mental illness.

My inbox is pleasantly surprised to be invited to the parties.  The places where people are gathering to shed light on mental illness and suicide.  Advocacy is happening and our culture is beginning to shift in how we start having these dialogues.  

For my small part in pushing the cause forward-I feel proud.  Mostly because I was willing to be vulnerable to help make a difference.  And it seems that honesty has some power to help fuel the movement even if in a small way.

No matter who you are or where you are fighting for your cause…keep up the work.  Eventually people will hear you and change can happen.  One day we will end the stigma once and for all.

Here’s to powerful social change in 2017! It is time stigma goes down in history.