Mental Illness Struggle and Hope

I was reading an editorial by Mary Gilbert, the Executive Director of NAMI national, and she was discussing the colors of the NAMI logo.  The color blue -representing the long struggle people who live with mental illness have; and the color green – representing the hope of recovery.

When we talk about struggle I reflect back on my own journey with mental illness.  I have often called bipolar disorder my biggest competitor.  It has caused me a tremendous amount of emotional pain in long periods of depression.  Equally challenging has been my bouts with mania that have rendered me incapacitated during those episodes.

I am also reminded in Ms. Gilbert’s article that even though some people do recover, many people never get that chance.

Even though I have been fortunate to learn how to manage my illness, it has set me back in life in many ways.  It affected me professionally and ended an otherwise successful career in business.  The weight gain from medications stole away at my confidence and self-esteem.  And the mere idea of living with a disability forced me to face my limitations in ways I never expected.

But in spite of all these personal struggles I still believe in the hope of recovery.  While I am not capable of sustaining a high level position in Corporate America, I celebrate that I am capable of teaching Mental Health First Aid to a group of college students and others.

Every step I take to strive for living as a Mental Health Advocate, it gives me strength to know I can help others who may be less fortunate than myself.  I am thrilled at the possibility of changing someone’s course if they are encouraged to seek help, before the mental health condition gets to Stage 4.

The fact that struggle and hope can exists together is a broader concept of the human condition.  Those of us who live with a mental illness know first hand how incredibly challenging a life can become when hit with a mental disorder.  And I believe that anyone who has survived their mental illness and have fought for recovery understands just how much hope means.

Without hope there is nothing but darkness.  Yet there are times when I have felt hopeless.  Times when I wanted to give up.  Days when I ask God, “Why did this happen to me?”  But in the midst of my struggles I made a conscious decision not to give up.

I was describing how difficult it was for me to recover to a friend who is also a counselor, she struck a chord by telling me, “If it was so difficult for you, the former Olympic Athlete, can you imagine how difficult it is for others who are far less fortunate than you?l

I stepped back from that conversation and found myself thinking about how many resources, friends, family and even just access to treatment, I have been blessed to have.  The truth is I needed every tool and skill and experience that I had acquired in life to make it.  Without even one small part, I could not have recovered.  The mountain was quite frankly too difficult to climb without all the supports.

So for the people who are struggling I can tell you that I understand how difficult it is.  For the family members with loved ones who are having a difficult time, I offer compassion.  And for those who are trying to fight to recover I can’t say enough how important finding hope is. 

 Sometimes hope is all we have in the battle against mental illness.

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“Fast Girl” Book Review

How can a three time Olympian, married woman and mother, successful motivational speaker and business woman become an escort in Las Vegas?  Seems like a tale from a fictional fantasy book, but it is a true life story of Suzie Hamilton, a woman with undiagnosed and untreated bipolar disorder.

I have to admit that anytime I hear about someone writing a memoir who lives with bipolar disorder I immediately look to purchase the book and read incessantly until I finish.  “Fast Girl” will definately raise your eyebrows and keep you turning the pages wondering, “how could any of this have happened to an All-American Girl?”

For those of you who live with bipolar disorder or have a loved one who lives with it, I believe you will understand.  It is the extreme of manic behavior, which is partially triggered from taking an anti-depressant.  I found that as warning number one for people who live bipolar disorder and who are improperly diagnosed with depression.  We know that SSRI’s (like Zoloft) can trigger mania and that is what happened to Ms. Hamilton.

For the skeptics out there who do not believe that can happen, it is well documented in scientific literature.

The second lesson from the book is paying attention to one’s family history.  Ms. Hamilton’s brother died by Suicide as a result of his bipolar disorder.  Learning more about the illness and having discussions about the many symptoms may have prevented the author from having a difficult journey.  But I do not fault her for not knowing because most of us have no idea we are dealing with a mental illness, because we typically are not educated enough in our culture about mental disorders.

The third lesson or insight is about how out of control and harmful behaviors can become during a manic episode.  Anyone who lives with bipolar disorder can relate with his/her own personal story of how mania disrupted their lives.

Finally, even in the midst of complete public humiliation Suzy Hamilton was able to persevere and seek help for bipolar disorder.  She was able to recover and is willing to share her very difficult journey with others.  She has opened the dialogue about mental illness on a national stage and yet another conversation about mental illness can take place.

If you are looking to gain insights or just want to read a very interesting story, I highly recommend the book “Fast Girl.”

The Bipolar Disorder Canyon

It seems like yesterday when I hiked the Grand Canyon, but in reality it has been many years ago.  Much time has passed and most of the last 15 years I have spent battling a mental illness.  It has consumed my energy, stolen away many of my dreams, and kept me from doing the things I love to do.

But somewhere deep inside of me I have tapped into the fighting spirit, the very same spirit that led me to hike that beautiful canyon and strive relentlessly back to the top of the mountain.

The Grand Canyon hike is very opposite of a typical hike up a mountain and then back down again.  When you set off to hike the Canyon, you start at the top and descend down 13 miles to the bottom.  While it seems only physically challenging to go up, it is equally difficult to pound down the winding trail to the bold and rushing waters of the Colorado River.

I think hiking is a great deal like living with a mental illness.  When bipolar disorder started to get worse, I descended rapidly into an emotional abyss.  By the time I got to the bottom of understanding bipolar disorder, I had to climb a long way to get my life back again.

There were days when I really did not think I was going to make it.  The challenges were so steep that I wondered if I could overcome the odds and beat my illness.  Winning is something I stumbled upon with every step I took to recover.  I count the small wins, like learning to manage my symptoms and understanding how bipolar disorder affected me.  The large wins were finding a good doctor and searching to find the right combination of medications.

On a long hike a blister that forms is terribly painful and makes it more difficult to continue walking.  Living with bipolar disorder rubs a lot of blisters all over the body.  It is only when those blisters heal that the pain goes away.  Sometimes it takes years for that to happen.

Learning to cope with all the unexpected challenges in life is what makes it all very interesting.  When you are in the desert hiking at over 100 degrees the very intensity of the heat can leave you exhausted.  When it comes to mental illness, equally challenging is dealing with those external factors like stigma, that can drag a person down and keep her in silent suffering for years.  Not being aware of those feelings of shame, blame, guilt and feeling “less than,” strips a person of much needed energy to make the journey.

What do you do when you are facing a steep climb?

What works for me is putting my head down and taking one small step at a time.  Sure, it gets frustrating and at times I can honestly say I have wanted to give up.  But the hopeful promise of reaching the goal I set out to accomplish keeps me in the game.  The blisters have healed and the walk is much more enjoyable.

I have no plans to descend down a mountain that I cannot walk back up again.  I might take a few steps down every now and then, but I really focus on enjoying the view right from where I am standing.

I pray I never need the amount of perseverance or energy that it took to climb my way out of the bipolar canyon.  It’s always going to be there, but I have learned to respect it and cope with what challenges it has caused me.

Don’t let mental illness define you

For many years I refused to accept my diagnosis of bipolar disorder.  I was challenged by a great deal of self-stigma…I blamed myself for my symptoms, I felt guilty for having something wrong. And by no means did I want to be a part of a group that was looked down upon in our society.  I simply did not want to have to deal with my illness, so denying it seemed like I could make it go away.

Like any other serious illness my bipolar disorder just got worse without treatment.  It escalated to the point where I found myself in places that I could never imagine I could end up.  I pushed people away from me, left a successful career in the dust, and became so depressed I could not get out of bed.

Fast forward several years and I am now successfully treated with a proper combination of medications and have moved forward and rebuilt my life.  

But there was a period of time when all I could think about was bipolar disorder.  I dreaded taking the medications because it made me feel “less than” everyone else.  In some ways I felt as if I was damaged.  I was completely devoid of any confidence and my self-esteem was at my all time low.  I measured everything I did through the lens of bipolar disorder and forgot about the whole person that I am.

I have come a long way since then but was struck this evening by my 10 year old nephews awe with how many states I had traveled too.  He was putting together a map of the U.S. And ask me to tell him where I had traveled. When he put the map together leaving out 7 states he said to me, “Look at all the places you have been!”  In that moment he was in awe of me.

It struck me that I needed to remind myself that there is so much more to my story than struggling with a mental illness. It doesn’t even have anything to do with how much I have traveled but more importantly that I had forgotten those experiences contributed a great deal to the person I have become.  

More than anything there have been times when I have wallowed at times in much self-pity thinking my life was cheated because of bipolar disorder when the real focus should be on my experiences in spite of it.

The reasons for my extensive travel are many and they actually have sculpted in a large part my journey in life.  Bipolar disorder contributed to a few of my wondering experiments to strange places but for the most part my adventurous spirit took me down the path of exploration.

I think it is tempting to become so consumed with fighting and managing an illness that we sometimes forget who we were, who we are and who we are becoming.  But one thing I have learned is to make certain I am not identifying myself through only one lens.

Each of us who live with a mental illness are far bigger than a diagnosis.  We are mothers, sisters, fathers and brothers.  We are someone’s child.  We are employees and friends and full of life.

Remember all of who you are and focus on the whole picture that makes up your experiences not just the struggles and the pain, but the joy and happiness that makes you a unique individual.  

It can be an adjustment to think this way, but it is critically important.  You are more than your illness-way more.  And life starts feeling better when you recognize that fact.

Does hypomania scare you?

Ever since my last manic episode I have been monitoring my symptoms very closely.  Sometimes I get worried when I start to see a few signs of hypomania pop up and I have worried about this escalating into a full blown manic episode.

But…I remind myself that as long as I am getting enough rest and taking my medications everything will work out okay.

I have also discovered that after a long period of depression even a return to a normal amount of energy can seem like hypomania.  Isn’t it okay to have a little more energy and feel excited about life?

It truly is a challenge to keep the moods in check.  But equally it is important to give myself a little leeway and be alright with a little extra energy.  I just don’t want to ever end up in a full blown manic episode again, but I don’t want to paralyze myself from living.  Finding the balance is what has worked for me.

Because I live with a chronic condition I realize there are going to be those times when I experience some symptoms both manic and depressive.  But I refuse to live in fear.  I stay on top of my symptoms and manga the illness.  If I have a day or two with less sleep than usual I try to monitor it.  I think about how much cafeine I am drinking and how much exercise I have had.  This all helps me to feel more confident about handling this illness.

Since my schedule has become a bit more demanding I allow for extra time when I can unwind.  I am blessed that I can control my schedule to some extent.  But if I have too many early mornings in a row I make sure I have a couple of down days to recover.

Hypomania does scare me just a little, but I refuse to let this illness keep me from living a full life.  The key for me is to monitor, manage and adapt.  It is the best I can do under the circumstances.

Suicide Is Not A Soultion

I read a blog from a very popular writer who lives with bipolar disorder.  She often writes controversial articles but she has a huge following and in my opinion a responsibility to offer hope not encourage people to give up.

So, I decided to write what I believed was true.  In complete contrast to what that author stated I don’t believe under any circumstance that suicide is or ever should be an option to relieve emotional pain.  

Why?  Because things change and often times it will get better.  I can firmly attest to that statement.  Because I know first hand what it is like to suffer with severe bipolar disorder to the point where I did not see anything positive to live for….except my faith in God and love for my dogs.  

When things are most difficult in our lives is when our faith is challenged the most.  Even if you doubt Gods existence or don’t believe at all I challenge you to look for one small thing in life that will give you HOPE!

In my experience, things have always gotten better for me.  The first time I had suicidal thoughts I was 20 years old.  At that time I was a struggling Division I college basketball player at the University of Tennessee playing for legendary Coach Pat Summitt.  I was supposed to be living my dream, but I was caught in the throes of bipolar depression.

Even though I left school because of my mental health and downward spiral, I continued to fight those suicidal thoughts and eventually I got better.

Three years later I was walking into Olympic Stadium as a member of the U. S. Olympic Team.  Had I given up and not fought the battle of taking my own life I would never had seen that things could get better.  

My faith played a huge role in helping me get through those dark times.  I know that emotional pain is very real and sometimes it is hard to live.  But I also know even with a little bit of hope things will get better.

If you have suicidal thoughts don’t try to fight alone.  Share your feelings with someone you trust.  Most often those thoughts are a symptom of depression.  It is very real and scientific evidence suggest there are changes in the brain that corresponds to depression.  But there is also many treatments that do work even for the most difficult cases.

There are many people who have struggled and even survived suicide attempts.  Most of those people will tell you they are so glad they survived.  

Focus on hanging in there for just one more day.  Stay in the present and don’t think too much about suffering lasting a lifetime.  Suffering can lift.  Pain can go away.  You never know what life will have in store for you.  

Fight to survive the tough times and don’t listen to people who tell you there is no hope.  There is always hope.  Even in the worst of times there is always something worth living for.

Overcoming Mental Illness

Struggle.  Persevere.  Hope.  Challenge.  Devastation.  Depression.  Mania.  Psychosis.  Belief.  Move forward.  Let go of the past.  Focus on the small steps that move you forward on your path.

A year ago I was ask to share my story at a NAMI candlelight vigil service.  Prior to that I had publicly acknowledged my struggle with bipolar disorder, but had never spoke about it in a public forum.

In the past I had spoken frequently in my profession and also for the U.S. Olympic team.  But speaking about my personal challenges was an entirely new ballgame.  It really challenged me to dig down and put into words a little bit about my journey.

The best part I found was how healing it could be.  A few months later I was asked to join the local NAMI Board of Directors.  At our first meeting they ask me to work on Community Outreach and Awareness.

Since then I have been blessed to share my story with over a thousand people.  In one year I went from working in a retail store vacuuming floors and selling shoes to becoming a Director with NAMI.

In the next few weeks I will be teaching a group of college students Mental Healh First Aid.  It is an opportunity to share my knowledge with a group of young people.

If you would have ask me a year ago if I could have made it this far in recovery I would have said, “I have dreams but I don’t know how to make them a reality.”  Now I can tell you I know how to recover and I believe it is possible for many people who live with mental illness.

But I want you to know it takes a tremendous amount of hard work to put yourself on the recovery journey.  There were days when my depression symptoms would send me to my bed for countless hours.  There were medication changes and countless doctor visits to strive for symptom resolution.   And….there were doubts.   Doubts  from people who loved me that I could do more.  But a resolve inside of me that took control and refused to give up trying.

The odds were against me.  The challenges steep.  But I found a way to overcome all of those things.

So my message to anyone looking for hope to hang on for just one more day I would say this, “Whatever you do, do not give up trying!  Believe things will get better.  And when the doubts come, put them in the back of your mind and fight.”

“Never give up.  Never give in.  Never.  Never.  Never.”  -Winston Churchill