What if we thought of mental illness as neurological conditions?

I was recently giving a couple talks on mental illness. I was searching for images to use in my slide presentation. My first search was for a kid who had cancer. The most common image was a smiling young person without any hair. The photos elicited compassion and understanding. We all know cancer sucks and those who survive beat it.

My next search was for a woman with mental illness. Most common images were a distraught, emotional woman with her head in her hands, unkempt hair flailing and often tears. The man with mental illness returned raging men and James Holmes the Colorado theatre shooter. Those images weren’t exactly ones that sparked compassion. More so fear. Fear of possibly being the distressed woman. Fear of being a victim at the hands of an unstable mass shooter.

Why is this important?

In a country with over sixty million people living with mental illness we are still perpetuating the idea that people are completely unstable, distraught and aren’t fighters of their illness. We bring it on ourselves. We all should just be able to tell ourselves to feel better, act better, look better and be normal. Some people think we can pray mental illness away. Prayer helps, but often doesn’t cure. It’s helpful in healing, but not in preventing.

But what if we started thinking of mental illness as a neurological condition? An illness that effects the brain? Would that matter?

I would argue it would make a significant difference. Think for a moment about epilepsy. It was not long ago epilepsy was considered a demonically possessed condition. Yes unfortunately you read that right. Imagine someone having a seizure in church or in a crowded restaurant. How would people react?

I was in a business meeting several years ago in a room with hundreds of people. One of my colleagues had a seizure. They immediately cleared the room and gave her space and privacy. We all knew she had epilepsy, a neurological condition. She continued working without any repercussions or penalties.

On the other hand, I suffered a severe bipolar depressive episode while working in the same industry as the person with epilepsy. I was questioned as if I was faking to get time off from work. Eventually I was fired.

If I had a “medical condition” would it have been socially acceptable to be fired?

Would there be outrage in a community if a child who had a seizure in school and while siezing he kicked a resource officer. Without intent to harm. Would we expect him to be charged with a crime?

The same thing happened to a young boy who had a psychotic episode. He was charged with felony assault and sentenced to probation. He is nine years old.

The way we categorize and label is inherently important in the world we live in. Language and words matter.

One day there will be more brain research. We will better understand mental illness. One day we will have more compassion and understanding and images will represent a more diverse group of people fighting for their lives.

My name is Amy Gamble, I have bipolar disorder, a brain disorder and it’s not my fault. I am a warrior.

My Daughter is not anxiety

Today it is my pleasure to welcome guest blogger Elizabeth Gramby. She’s a West Virginia native, cooking/food enthusiast and mental health advocate. Elizabeth began her journey writing early on as a way to find hope in dark places. Her writing took off when her daughter experienced a major depressive episode which almost took her life and landed her at an inpatient facility. This was a catalyst for Libbi to increase her passion for helping others, especially moms, through writing. Her goal is to fill gaps so her readers are able to find light, breath and hope while supporting their loved ones through their mental health journey.

 It’s funny, as I look back, I never really thought about stigma until my daughter was diagnosed with a mental illness. Probably just like you I had heard of mental illnesses, often not in a kind way. Usually in a sarcastic or adjective way. I had an aunt that had a mental illness but it wasn’t really talked about much.
You may have the same story in your family. Now, I realize that stigma is the reason families don’t talk about it and it’s the reason that people diagnosed with a mental illness often isolate themselves and feel shame. Stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” And it’s real, but the mark isn’t on us, its in them.
I read an article that said “The stigmatized individual is “reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one” (Goffman E. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Simon & Schuster; New York: 1963). It’s so true.
Many may see people suffering from a mental illness that way, they may see my daughter that way. They couldn’t be more wrong. Stigma is why families keep it under wraps, it’s why some blogs are written anonymously. But it’s also why I have decided to come forward, to speak out and to tell you that my name is Elizabeth Gramby and my daughter has a mental illness. We have decided to be open and honest, to take a step towards advocacy, to let you know that we are not ashamed and you shouldn’t be either.
Just like a pancreas can malfunction, a brain can too, yet the resulting disease is perceived differently, therefore the person is as well.
My daughter has Generalized Anxiety and Panic Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder but those are her diagnoses, not her identity. She does not bear a mark of disgrace, she is not tainted or to be discounted. Quite the opposite.
My daughter IS smart, witty, kind, creative and beautiful. My daughter is NOT anxiety.
Her anxiety makes her FEEL petrified, weak, depressed, embarrassed and angry but those things do not define her. I think that so often we talk about our feelings in a way that describes who we are. That we inadvertently label ourselves and determine our course, often in the wrong direction. Im #sad #weak #worthless, we are not how we feel, we are so much more.
I am no expert on Anxiety and Panic Disorder, I am not an expert on different kinds of eating disorders. I am, however, a mother helping my daughter overcome these things and let me tell ya, it’s no walk in the park.
I won’t go into a drawn out, detailed account of her struggles here as not to bore you, but for background I will say that she is 23 years old and the very first signs of this storm happened her freshman year of college. We didn’t realize at the time what was looming, we attributed it to stress and adjusting to college life. Christmas break of her sophomore year we realized that this wasn’t something that she could just manage until it passed, it wasn’t passing, it was getting worse. So off to the doctor we went and 3 medical withdraws from classes, 9 medications, 2 psychiatrists, 4 therapists and 2 hospital stays later, here we are.
 As a mom, I feel helpless, but I’m not. I’m doing what I can, providing some guidance, support and all the understanding I can muster, I’m trying to be her rational voice when she can’t find hers. If I’m really honest, I feel angry. My girl has so much to offer, so much life, humor, talent and compassion yet at times she feels afraid to come out of her bedroom, afraid to eat, just…afraid.
What if we told anxiety to take a flying leap and gave it the middle finger on the way down?
What if we felt all the feels, but were defined by God? Looked through our state of mind and pressed into our knowledge, stopped being overwhelmed by our emotions and started focusing on God’s overwhelming love and peace.
What if we felt sad, but were joyful in the knowledge of Psalm 126:6? Hopeful in knowing that though we may be weeping, our tears will water the most valuable of seeds that will harvest laughter, excitement and love if we don’t give up.
What if we felt weak and took pleasure in it, boasted in it as in 2 Corinthians so that we may then feel the power of Christ rest in us and revel in HIS strength.
What if we felt worthless but prevailed as valuable, fruitful and worthy children of God?
Let’s try it shall we?
Let’s stand side by side, be open and honest about what’s happening and how we feel. Let’s work together to remind our loved ones of who they are while working through how they feel. Let’s keep the truth alive in their lives while they battle with the lies that their disorders tell them. We are not helpless or alone and they are not defined by their diagnosis.
I don’t know your situation, your diagnosis or your name, but I do know your fear. I believe that if we work together, through advocacy, honesty and education, we can fight against the stigmatic way that people see us and against the negative way we talk to and label ourselves. Remember that the stigma isn’t on us or our loved ones, it’s in those who don’t understand. We don’t carry it or wear it, they perceive it blindly.
I’m proud of my daughter and the fighter that she has become.
Let’s fight this fight together.
Elizabeth Gramby

Getting to H.O.P.E. through recovery

When I started this blog over five years ago I was in the beginning stages of my recovery journey. Well, not really the beginning, as I had gotten ill many times and resumed a relatively normal life. But the last time I had a major set-back it was a doozy. Filled with life changing experiences including a brush with almost dying in the wilderness.

A lot has changed in five years. I’ve successfully learned how to manage bipolar disorder, helped coach many family members whose loved ones live with mental illness, spoken and/or trained over 12,000 people. Honed my skills as a mental health advocate and learned how to manage a nonprofit organization.

None of this would have been possible without a focus on my mental health. Here are three things that were game changers for me.

1) Embracing grief.

It may seem strange to think about having a diagnosis of mental illness causing grief. But it’s not just getting passed the self-stigma and learning to accept I was going to have to deal with a chronic health problem. It was also grieving for the hopes and dreams that were lost or had to change because I now had limitations I never had to consider before.

Grief was also about dealing with the loss of relationships and friendships that were no longer viable for one reason or another, but very often as a result of having a mental illness. Loss is loss. Sometimes even more painful when those we love leave our lives and grow distant because we are no longer the person we once were.

Grief fuels depression and depression makes grief more painful. Living with frequently long episodes of bipolar depression I managed to have a double whammy of emotional pain.

When I didn’t know I was grieving I sort of just trudged along. After I realized it was grief, I became empowered to allow myself to process the many stages of grief. There’s something interesting which happens when we acknowledge reality. It’s very freeing and empowering to look truth in the eye and give in to the flowing stream. I learned you can fight many things but you cannot deny griefs purpose.

2) Paying attention to thoughts.

My mind is my best friend and my worst enemy. When not stable I can’t keep up with the many grand ideas given to me during mania. I learned medications that slowed me down actually helped me to harness the power of my creativity without it being a run away train.

In this process of healing and understanding how bipolar symptoms manifested in myself I began to pay very close attention to my thoughts. I ask the question what am I telling myself? This simple question continues to allow me to understand where my energy is going. If my thoughts are not positive about myself or they are constantly negative it’s my cue depression may be lurking in the shadows. I fight my thoughts when I’m depressed because I know depression tells us lies.

With my illness at times a symptom can be paranoia. I learned to question this line of thinking. I search for facts to disprove my paranoia and I acknowledge when that paranoia is based in reality and serves me well as a warning system.

Learning to differentiate between healthy thoughts and those not serving me well helps me approach my days in a positive manner and gives me hope.

3) Having a sense of purpose.

For years I was searching for my sense of purpose. Something which really inspired me, made me want to get out of bed in the morning. Making a difference in people’s life in a positive way was my simple answer to how I could have a sense of purpose.

In the short term my sense of purpose was less prophetic and more practical. Having a job served my short term sense of purpose. A place to go where I was expected to show up on time and contribute something. Feeling needed, wanted, and accepted was an important step on my journey.

Eventually I found work and passion aligned. There’s a saying about how we can make our mess our message. I’ve done that with teaching other people about mental health and mental illness. I’ve done that by sharing my story in many different formats, including my memoir “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor.” (Available on Amazon)

Mixing passion and purpose motivates me even on my worst days. I’ve never once missed a commitment in over four years. And honestly I’ve had plenty of bad days struggling with depression, but I managed to get myself out of bed and see through what I said I would do.

This is why finding a sense of purpose is important to everyone. We all need a reason to get up in the morning and put our feet on the floor, whether you have a mental illness or not. But from experience, having an illness makes this even more important.

This life journey I’ve had I would not wish on anyone, though I’ve had a remarkable ride in many ways. But the hard lessons were tough to get through. And of course the mental illness – biggest and most difficult challenge. However, if your journey is similar to mine or something I say rings true to you-know you are not alone. And I assure you if you don’t give up you will have happiness, opportunity, prosperity and empowerment to live the life you desire. That’s what hope means to me.

Here’s to five more years of blogging…

Amy Gamble