A Letter To All The Bipolar Warriors

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Every so often I take a look at the blogs I have written over the past four years and see which ones people view the most.  Tonight I noticed one of the most popular was “Rebuilding a Bipolar Life.”  It was written almost four years ago.  It had to do with my quest to work on my spiritual self.

Another blog that has been very popular has been “Bipolar Disorder Destroys Life and then what’s next?”  It was written a little over three years ago.  If you’ve been following my blog or Facebook page you probably know I have found my “what’s next.”

After reading the blogs and comments I’m inspired to write a letter to my fellow bipolar warriors about some of the things I’ve learned from reflecting back in time.

Dear Bipolar Warriors,

I’m not sure where you are in the journey of living with bipolar disorder.  You may be newly diagnosed and confused as heck about this illness.  You might still be struggling trying to find the right combinations of medications.  Like me, you may have experienced a significant amount of loss because of bipolar disorder.  Maybe you’re kicking it and have mastered how to live well with bipolar.  Wherever you are on the journey here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

Living with a chronic mental illness is challenging.  Okay.  That’s clearly an understatement.  There are challenges with people who are close to you understanding the illness, accepting that sometimes you’re not always going to feel well and giving you a chance to live to your potential when you are well.  There are complications with relationships.  It all gets better over time.

Some days it gets frustrating to have to fill pill boxes (I fill three weeks at a time).  But looking back I can tell you there was a time when I would sit on the edge of my bed, dump the pills in my hand and begrudge having to take them.  I would think, “I’m sick.  Why me?”  Then I would swallow them and go to bed feeling “less than.”  Fast forward over three years, it’s just part of my every day habit.  The pill boxes make it easy.  It’s a habit and I rarely ever forget to take the medications.  That’s what has been keeping me healthy.

But.  It doesn’t mean I have to like the whole process.  I don’t like having to call in the pharmacy for all my meds.  It’s a pain.  Some days I wish I didn’t have to do this, but it’s all part of managing the illness.  Without meds I have no idea where I’d be and I’m not ever going to take that chance to find out.  One could say, “Been there, done that.”  If you’re curious about that journey you can find my book  “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor” on Amazon.

I am a strong proponent of finding the right combination of medications.  Besides my own story, I have my mother and sister’s examples and almost all the people who I have met needed medications to deal with this very tricky illness.  But it’s a bear finding the right ones.  Don’t give up.  Keep trying.  If you don’t like the doctor you are seeing, find a new one.  Learn about the medications for bipolar disorder.  Click here to find information on medications.

I can also share with you that recovery is possible and very likely if you have the knowledge, determination and access to care necessary.  But it’s also the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.  For those who don’t know, I’m an Olympic athlete and that was pretty darn challenging.  Recovery makes training for the Olympics seem easy.  And let’s not forget recovery does not mean “cured.”  It means different things to different people.  For me, it means I can use my talents and skills and contribute to my community.  It means I live a peaceful existence.  And I mange my illness to the best of my ability.

But.  There are other warriors out there who are in pain.  They’re having a frustrating time with dealing with bipolar.  Medications are causing bad side effects.  I understand.  What I can tell you from experience is don’t give up.

I’m gonna sum it all up and say what has worked for me might not work for you.  But I can tell you that you must have a desire to get well, dedication to find a successful treatment plan, discipline to stick with the treatment plan and the determination to beat this very challenging competitor.

Good luck warriors.  You are not alone.

Amy

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Brave souls change hearts and minds!

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Photo: “This is My Brave” cast in Wheeling, West Virginia 

There’s a special feeling when we can be a part of something far bigger than we could ever accomplish alone.  This is my overwhelming feeling of having participated in Youth Services System and NAMI Greater Wheeling’s “This is My Brave Show,” which was held last night at the historic Capitol Theatre in Wheeling.

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Photo:  The Experience Church Worship Team & Audience

If you aren’t familiar with “This is My Brave” let me shed some light on it for you.  It’s a national non-profit organization co-founded by the amazing Jennifer Marshall.  The purpose of the show is to allow those who live with mental health conditions (mental illness & substance use disorders) to share their stories through creative expression-poetry, original music, essay.  The intent is to impact the stigma of mental illness through story telling.

The sixteen cast members in our show inspired the audience and made a lasting impression on all those who attended.  Those who shared struggle with and persevere daily through challenges related to depression, anxiety, panic attacks, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, binge eating disorder, suicide attempts and alcoholism.  Our show had an added bonus with the Experience Church Worship Team (aka-the band), kicking off the show with their inspiring and impactful musical talents.

The audience feedback has been nothing but positive.

Many people have said the IQ on that stage was beyond impressive.  Translation – people with mental illness can be smart.  Multiple people said, “it was fascinating to see the broad range of socio-economic levels and diversity of those impacted by mental illness.  Translation – mental illness does not discriminate.   One gentleman said, “I’m not affected by mental illness and I never realized what people go through.  This show helped me understand what others deal with.  I’m so grateful to be here tonight.”

And…the overwhelming comment by numerous people, “This show is inspiring.”

This morning I received this amazing quote from one of our cast members, Mr. Bill Hogan.  Bill writes,

“I have been involved in a bunch of stuff in my almost 90 years but never have I been so “electrified” by a group or an event as I was last night.  I love the word mystery and last night the wonder of it all, that unidentifiable power that charged the people on the stage as a group and as individuals was wonderful and gave everyone in that theater, on stage and off , a sense of joyful peace.  Everything was lined up the way it is supposed to be.
I am thinking of a quote  by W.B. Yeats  “ Go forth teller of tales. And seize whatever prey your heart desires.  Have no fear. Everything exists.  And everything is
True. And the earth is but dust under our feet.”  I am truly blessed to have been fortunate enough to have been part of a great happening.”

And that my friends sums up my feelings of being a part of something greater than myself.  Being part of a movement to shed light on mental illness, one person and one story at a time.  As Jennifer Marshall says, “Storytelling saves lives!”  Indeed it does.

Jennifer Marshall and Cast Photo:  Jennifer Marshall speaking to the cast of “This is My Brave” Wheeling, West Virginia

10 ways to stay mentally healthy in a crazy world!

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As a person who lives with bipolar disorder, I’ve had to learn how to manage my illness and how to stay mentally healthy.  My experience as a college basketball player playing for the legendary coach Pat Summitt and my days of striving to become an Olympic athlete helped shape how I deal with surviving in this crazy world.

Here’s my top 10 list of how to stay mentally healthy in a crazy world!

1) Know what you’re thinking

When you live with bipolar disorder and learn how to manage it, you quickly learn about racing thoughts.  But the truth is lot’s of people have anxiety and that can also cause thoughts to race from one subject to the next, making it difficult to concentrate.  If the thoughts are negative it can turn a good day bad in a heart beat.

What I’ve found helpful is to pay attention to what you’re thinking.  I check in to see what my thoughts are telling me.  Am I saying, “I’m not worth anything.” Am I telling myself, “I’m a failure.”  Whatever negative thing you are telling yourself effects everything you do in your day.

My old coach Pat Summitt used to always tell me, “Amy, you’re your own worst enemy.  You’re too hard on yourself.”  I would sit across from her desk and nod.  I knew she was right, but I didn’t know how to fix the problem.  I was striving to be perfect, beating myself up when I made mistakes and torturing myself mentally with repetitive thoughts.

So, if you’re going to stay mentally healthy, take time out during the day or in the moment and think about the things you’re telling yourself.  Learn to replace those negative thoughts and it will change your day for the better.

2)  Keep the negative news in perspective

Every night my 82 year old mother can’t wait to turn on NBC news and watch Lester Holt.  In fact she’ll turn on the television and say, “Gotta watch Lester.”  I roll my eyes and laugh.  If I don’t have anything else to do I’ll sit and watch the news with her.

But what I’ve found is that almost every news story is filled with negativity.  We get told over and over again everything that is wrong with humanity.  If we watch the local news it can be worse.  One station spends about 15 minutes going through all the people who went to court for the day.

It makes people look bad.  But in my 20 year career working for Fortune 500 companies, traveling all around the world with my sports teams and for personal fun, and working with an advocacy group–I have found most people are good.  Most people care about others and want to live a peaceful and happy life.

I like learning about what’s going on in the world, but I’d rather not be inundated with negativity.  Watch the news, but realize the whole world isn’t going to hell.

3)  Focus on what you can control

We have become a fear based culture.  Almost to the point we are paranoid about where we go and what we do for fear of running into someone who wishes to do us harm.  Paralyzing fear keeps people from venturing out and living life in a carefree way.

The truth is we can’t control what happens. In fact, we have little control over few things.  I’ve found the key to stay healthy is to find the things I can control and focus on those things.  It’s much more pleasant than worrying about all the things that could happen. 

I’ve also noticed that trying to change someone else’s views or opinions is like walking up the Rocky Mountains with no shoes on.  I can’t control the fact that some people refuse to listen to an opposing viewpoint.  It’s hard to do.  But in finding the best solutions to challenges or problems it’s great to have different perspectives and experiences at the table.  We just can’t control who is willing to listen and who is not.

I practice taking a deep breath and keeping things in perspective, realizing there is very little I can control.  But how I look at things is one of them.  I choose compassion and empathy, it’s something I can control and it makes me feel good.

4)  Balance social media

I was having a conversation with my friend Betsy.  We were talking about how important it is to balance how we use social media.  She said, “I’ve disconnected–deleted all my social media accounts.  I was spending sometimes 8 hours a day on social media.  Almost addicted to Facebook and Instagram likes.”

I thought about what she was saying and then ask myself the question, “How much time am I spending on social media?”  The answer was it ebs and flows.  I’m not addicted to it, but I try to use it constructively.  I don’t allow myself to compare my life to others, especially because I know people often portray their lives as perfect on social media.

Balance is the key.  And remember there was a day when counting the number of “likes” just didn’t matter.  I find it helpful to simply disconnect at times.  It helps me stay grounded in what’s most important.

5)  Learn how to stay present

There is no greater joy to me than having an intimate conversation with someone who is fully present.  We can all sense when someone is paying attention to us and when they are not.

It’s a discipline to learn how to stay in the present.  But I’ve found it to be the most helpful way I can live.  Sometimes my past has been painful and staying in the present keeps me far away from reliving the pain all over again.

6)  Surround yourself with positive people

There are a few people in my life I can’t avoid, but I cringe when they get on a negative roll and don’t stop.  It’s as if the world is coming to an end and every human being in it are evil.  Well, I’m exaggerating-but sadly only a little bit.

But seriously I’ve learned the more I’m around positive people we lift each other up.  We focus on the positive experiences and share those with each other.

When I have a depressive episode it’s even more important to be around someone who is positive.  They always Life my spirits and help me keep on fighting.

7)  Check your attitude

Oh…this is an important one.  Attitude is everything.  How we approach challenges and problems.  How we feel with agree and disappointments.  Having a positive attitude even in the darkest of times fuels the fight for survival.

8)  Practice gratefulness

One of the things that helps me in my continuing recovery journey is being grateful.  The little reminders of things and people I’m grateful fills up my heart.  I take a deep breath and thank God for giving me my new day.  I’m grateful for all the people who have crossed my path.  I’m grateful for the ability to put things in perspective.  Honestly, when I feel gratitude it makes me happy.

9)  Learn to say “no”

The is a tough one for me.  I like to help people, but have realized I can’t do everything.  I have to set limits to stay healthy.  I have to know my boundaries.  And above all I’ve learned that it’s okay to say “no.”

10)  Don’t be afraid to get professional help

Staying mentally healthy is critically important to everyone.  But sometimes we need a little bit of extra help.  Some days it’s just nice to talk to a therapist who is completely removed from the situation.

Sometimes people need a little extra help with medications to get through some tough times, difficult and overwhelming anxiety, depression etc.  And for those of us with chronic mental health conditions it’s imperative we stay with our treatment plan especially if it’s working well.

If you had cardiovascular, respiratory, or digestive problems would you seek professional help?  Things that effect our thinking, emotions and behavior-our mental health-sometimes need professional help too.  Don’t be ashamed to get the help you need.

Hoping my top 10 list helps somebody today.  Wishing peace.  Amy

When do we talk about mental health?

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I had the opportunity to speak with a small group of people today about mental health and mental illness.  After I was done speaking one gentleman in the room spoke and said, “With everything I learned today, I don’t understand why we aren’t talking about mental health everyday.  I mean–I never hear about the things you were talking about on TV.  When the hospital does a Health & Wellness Program it’s always about physical health.  Never about mental health.  And this is a public health crisis!”

He was astonished.  I smiled and said, “That’s why more people need to hear about mental health and mental illness.  Everybody has mental health.  Not everyone has mental illness.  But to stay mentally healthy we’ve got to talk about it more.”

When do we really talk about mental health?  Well, it depends upon what you’re calling mental health.  Some people are more comfortable saying mental health problem than mental illness.  I use both words.  But health implies without illness.  But for the sake of the conversation I’m going to talk about both.

Mental Health is discussed when tragedy strikes

About the only time we talk about mental health/illness is when there is a mental health crisis and someone either dies by suicide, is shot and killed by police or if a person with mental illness kills other people.  The news runs 24/7 when something terrible happens.

When the Las Vegas shooting happened, all the news media were posing the question about this evil man’s mental health.  Did he have a mental illness?  Was there a history?  Which all the evidence came back and said he had no history of mental illness, no official diagnosis.

It is true there have been situations where the person who was violent had an untreated mental illness.  But the fact is most people with mental illness are more likely to be the victim of crime than the perpetrator.

Celebrity disclosures stimulate a conversation–but it’s not enough 

On the rare occasions a celebrity comes forward and discloses their mental health struggles, the story usually gets some national exposure.  But it’s a shared secret and then it dies.  It never continues the conversation about how to stay mentally healthy, why it’s important to get treatment early, how it’s imperative to learn about your illness, how mental illness affects everyone differently, how there is a shortage of inpatient hospital beds, etc. The information the public needs is abundant.  But what we get is often misleading and not very helpful, with the exception of knowing if you have a mental illness you are not alone.  And that is pretty powerful.

Employers don’t talk about it

And then of course there are many different situations where our lack of understanding plays its’ way out.  Most people are not comfortable disclosing to an employer they are experiencing a mental health problem/mental illness.  But the number one disability in the world is depression.  Who knew?  Which has significantly high numbers on loss of productivity and loss of work days.  Every employer should be talking about how to stay mentally healthy and how to recognize the early signs and symptoms of mental illness.  And the necessity for getting treatment early.

I’m talking about it every chance I get

Each time I have gone out into the public and had a conversation about mental health/mental illness people come up to me, make eye contact and thank me profusely for starting the conversation.  I remember the first talk I gave to a group of students.  They were relieved I brought the topic up.  They wanted to know if their parents had a mental illness would they get one too.  That gave me an opportunity to explain risk factors, of which genetics is a factor.  Everyone should know mental illness runs in the family just like any other illness.

The statistics tell us 1 in 5 people live with a mental illness.  It’s common.  Anxiety and depression rank highest on the chart effecting a large amount of people.  Everyone should know how to recognize the signs and symptoms, so they can see it in themselves and with loved ones.

When do we talk about mental health?  Not until it’s a public health crisis.  Guess what?  It is.

If you’d like for me to come and talk at your organization or school, please contact me at Amy Gamble Contact

 

 

 

Finding my vulnerability

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“I found it much easier to stand up for other people who may not be able to advocate for themselves than allowing others to help me.  When I finally reached rock bottom and I said those words to my sister, “Help me.  Please help me.”  It was the most vulnerable moment of my adult life.”   Montana Jail Journal- January 18, 2013

In my opinion mental wellness has a lot to do with personal growth.  I know it sounds trite to say, but I was on an expedited train of personal growth while I sat in a small jail cell in Montana because of an under-treated mental illness.  I just didn’t know it. Sometimes when the only thing one can do is think, read and write personal growth opportunities are abundant.

I’ve been reading Brene Brown’s most recent book, “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone”.  I’ve been fascinated with her work and all the many lessons I’m gaining as I read and digest each chapter. I was pleased with myself that I had actually been practicing some of what she suggested.  Having been in pure survival mode from bipolar disorder for many years to finally being well enough to embark upon self-reflection and personal growth is making me very happy.

She writes a great deal about belonging.  It seems like a paradox to talk about standing alone, braving a wilderness and belonging.  But this quote kind of sums it up–

“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” 

This statement rang so loud to me.  All the people who live with a mental illness who are living in shame at this very moment came to my mind.  I’ve been there, I know what that’s like to not have self-acceptance, and therefore not belong.  I’ve felt like an outcast with the people who were closest to me.  When you blame yourself for having a mental illness it’s kind of hard to experience a deep level of self-acceptance.

As I’m blessed to experience a time of peaceful knowing, I keep thinking about all the people who need to hear, “you have a mental illness and it’s not your fault.”  When I sat in an Idaho psychiatric hospital and I let those words resonate inside of me, I could feel the shift in me emotionally.

Self-acceptance is something people pay a lot of money to get.  But it’s really not anything you can buy.  It comes from within.  It’s an internal, quiet voice of strength that tells you you’re okay.  It also means that we accept all of who we are–all our life experiences.

This is something very difficult to do when handed the additional challenge of having a mental health condition.  Think about it-if you’re fighting depression the last thing on your mind is accepting yourself.  But here’s the catch, when we accept our experience for what it is it can actually help us to heal faster.  And certainly if not to heal, than to have the energy to fight depression.

Funny thing is…I can read Brene Brown’s quote and smile.  I have experienced it and believe it is true.

Reading her book prompted me to watch her Ted Talk on Vulnerability.  I could probably watch it 100 times and still learn something.  But this whole idea of vulnerability peaked my interest.  Because as much I hated jail, it was a time in my life when I asked for help.  I was extremely vulnerable.

Yet, though I had a long journey ahead of me, those three weeks in jail changed my life.  I was learning to embrace vulnerability.

There is much of Brene Brown’s research that can really be applied to understanding why it’s so difficult to eliminate the self-stigma of mental illness.  I hope to take a deeper look at that and write about it on a future blog.  Until then, check out Brene Brown’s work.  It’s very enlightening.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s not sexy to be a mental health advocate

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October is breast cancer awareness month.  I didn’t know that until eight days into October.  My realization started when I went to the local grocery store and every other cashier light (you know the one that tells you when their open) was pink.  And they were asking for donations at the register for breast cancer research dollars.  Still didn’t realize it, because people ask for money for everything now.

Then, I went shopping.  Pink shirts for sale everywhere.  I was so impressed.  Everyone, unless of course you’ve been living under a rock, knows pink is the color for breast cancer.  It’s a highly successful awareness campaign that started in full force over twenty years ago.  Heck, even the NFL is “pinked out” in October.  As a mental health advocate I dream about the day when everyone knows mental health awareness is green and guys like Brandon Marshall (click here for Brandon’s mental health advocacy organization) don’t get fined $10,000 dollars by the NFL for wearing green cleats.

But when something is successful it warrants looking at their model and learning from all the good things breast cancer awareness advocacy organizations have done.  In fact, it all peaked my interest in finding out just how much money is spent annually on breast cancer research.

The answer-cloudy.  Mmmm….what do I mean by that?

Well, turns out that breast cancer awareness and research are lumped into one big estimated sum of $6 billion a year.  Of course there are critics who think all money should be research money.  But you don’t get research donations without awareness.

Why is this important to mental health advocacy?  Because the National Institute of Mental Health has an annual budget of only $1.5 billion.  The National Institute of Mental Health funds research for mental illness and neurological conditions (brain illnesses), like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dementia, depression, etc.  All of these illnesses have a fraction of money spent on research.

I compared the annual budget of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, a breast cancer advocacy organization based in Texas, (well known for the trademarked tagline “Race for the Cure”) to that of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the largest mental health advocacy organization in the country.  I found the Komen foundation listed as #54 on the Forbes list of U.S. most wealthy charities with $250 million in annual revenue in 2016.  That’s for one year folks.  On the other hand, NAMI based in Arlington, VA has a little over $10 million in revenue.

In all fairness, NAMI has affiliaties in all 50 states who also have revenue, but I doubt even including all of them would break a $50 million in total revenue.

What’s my point?

How are we going to make sizable contributions as mental health advocates when the largest organization of advocacy only nets $10 million a year?  So many diseases to lobby for research on-so few dollars.  So many issues to battle, so few people to do the work.

And then there’s this…

#1)  STIGMA. It’s not cool to be a mental health advocate.

#2)  STIGMA. It’s not sexy to go out and raise money for people who have a mental illness.

#3) STIGMA. These illnesses are misunderstood.  They are often not looked at as an illness.

#4) STIGMA.  People are ashamed to come out and say they are living with a mental illness.

#5)  STIGMA. Policy makers don’t understand it, unless it effects them.

#6) STIGMA.  Family members don’t want people to know their loved ones live with a mental illness.

And…

I could go on and on.  You get the point.  We have limited resources for a very complex problem that most people don’t understand and many fear and are afraid to talk about.

So..if you’re reading this please pick up an advocacy banner.  There’s an enormous amount of work that needs done.  The Susan G. Komen Foundation started with raising awareness for breast cancer.  Mental Health Adovocates have to do the same thing.  We have to help one another do this work.

If you’re local to the Wheeling area you can start your advocacy work by showing up at the NAMI Greater Wheeling Walk on October 21 @Wheeling Park.  Registration starts at 10am.

And…

We even have cool tee-shirts.

 

 

 

Getting passed the whispers!

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I was in the store shopping yesterday. It was a store I frequent quite often and they know my face well. I’d always had good experiences, but yesterday changed all that. As I went to check out I turned my back on the three ladies standing behind the cash registers. As I suddenly turned around they were whispering just loud enough that I caught they were talking about me.

Like most people, I assumed it must be bad if you have to whisper about someone. I told myself I wasn’t going to let it bother me, but of course it did. And the thoughts were off and running to the races.

I’m a very big woman. I’ve always been a “big girl.” Certainly taller than most women and for sure much bigger all the way around and because I stand out in the crowd I’ve taken my fair share of wise cracks and disparaging comments. So, it’s safe to assume if someone is whispering behind your back, it might not be a positive compliment.

Then…I went down this pathway about how I’m sure I’ve been a topic of some not so nice conversations about my mental illness. But I just keep pushing the envelope on that one. Don’t really think anyone has the **lls to say something to my face. But you never know.

A few days ago I sat down with a reporter from one of the local newspapers. He was writing an article for his weekly sports column called, “Unsung Heroes” When he ask me for an interview I was hesitant. I really don’t see myself as a hero. But I agreed because it was another opportunity to put mental health conditions in the spotlight. Another chance for people out there struggling to read that article and know they are not alone.

I never thought anything of it. I’d already written a book that was pretty revealing, so what’s another public newspaper article. Right?

Well, I’ve learned a few things about myself. #1) I’m not as sensitive as I used to be; #2) I’m still human; and #3) Raising awareness for mental health conditions/mental illness is my number one priority.

It’s nice to know when you find your passion. I fell into mine because I found other people who were taking up the flag in similar ways across the country. The interesting thing is there’s no one quite like me. What does that mean? Small town girl, All-American, Olympian, Fortune 500, mental illness, jail and mental health advocate—and as it all sunk in to my mind this weekend I realized the responsibility I have to continue on this pathway.

A calling as it turn out, is by far more important than the whispers that may come.

Click here…in case you haven’t gotten a copy of my book.

Remember – Mental Illness is The Enemy!

Several years ago I received a call from a friend of mine who wanted to tell me she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  It was a rather traumatic diagnosis for her to hear.  Certainly life threatening, but also treatable.  I was impressed with how she dealt with it.  She made cancer her enemy and did everything she could to fight against it.  And you know what?  She beat it.  She is now over 15 years cancer free.

What I’ve learned about mental illness is that it is also life threatening.  From the first time I experienced suicidal thoughts as a sophomore in college to the relentless dogging of “you should just kill yourself” tapes that played in my mind a few years ago.  I learned from the time I was twenty years old that depression was and will continue to be my number one enemy.  It threatens my life and makes me vulnerable at times to the hopeless thoughts that wander aimlessly into my brain.

The difference between cancer and mental illness is that there is a cure for many types of cancer.  There’s no such thing for mental illness of any kind.  Of course there are medications that make it more tolerable, but nothing that takes away all of the symptoms.  It’s a fight.  Sometimes a daily battle and other times an intermittent harsh reality of living with a chronic illness.

If you ask most people if they were afraid of cancer they would say, “yes.”  No one wants to get cancer.  But people are afraid of mental illness for all the wrong reasons.

Many people have no concept of what it’s like to suffer from so much anxiety a person can’t leave their house.  People still believe a person with depression just isn’t trying hard enough and he’s just plain lazy.  Those with bipolar disorder are labeled as trouble makers and moody.  People with schizophrenia – just plain crazy.

When my friend went to the doctor for her breast cancer consultation, I went with her.  As a matter of fact, I jumped on a 2 hour plane flight to go to her doctor appointments with her.  I wanted to show support.  I wanted her to know she wasn’t alone in the fight against her number one enemy.  The disease that was threatening to take her away from all of us much to soon.

This is how we all should rally around those who are struggling with mental illness.  The enemy is not the person who has the illness.  The enemy is the mental illness.  It’s the disease that causes an interference in thinking, emotions and behavior.  It affects the most important organ in our entire body – the brain.

Yet, those who have mental illness are often left to fend for themselves.  Especially when they aren’t fun anymore.  When the struggle is the most difficult and support is truly needed, many are left isolated and alone.  That isolation leads to a worsening of symptoms.  A more complex illness.

I want people to know that my bipolar disorder is a serious life threatening illness.  I manage it well.  But the moment I let my guard down, the minute I miss a day of taking medication, the days I don’t get enough sleep, is when the enemy threatens my life and everything I have worked hard for.  The enemy nearly destroyed me and I’m not going to let that happen again.

I just wish everyone knew mental illness is the enemy.  And if we are not diligent it will continue to steal our loved ones from us in one shape or form or the other.  Sometimes the difference is having a team to fight the illness with us.

The next time your loved one complains of depression symptoms or has a panic attack, offer compassion and a kind word.  Sometimes all it takes is saying, “Are you okay?  How can I help?”

 

“Is bipolar disorder contagious?”

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I’m driving home from the store with my 82 year old mother and we start talking about my book, “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor,”  In many ways the book has unleashed good ole’ Esther.  Since I wrote about some of her struggles with bipolar disorder, she has talked more about it in two weeks, than I believe I have heard in more than 30 years.

Tonight she says, “People need to understand when you’re psychotic you don’t know what you’re doing.  But people don’t understand.  They think there’s something wrong with you and that they’ll get it too if they hang around you.”  “Mmm…is bipolar disorder contagious?” I asked jokingly.  “Some people think it is.  Like you have some horrible disease and if they come around they’ll get it.”  I laughed and we continued our drive home.

Then it hit me, after 30 years my mother finally articulated how bad she felt when her relatives stopped coming around.  They literally stopped inviting her to their houses.  She became an outcast.  The “crazy” sister.  Shame on them.  It’s not like all their lives were perfect either.

So, as a family member of a loved one with mental illness, I’m quick to defend my mother and sister.  But when it comes to me living with a mental illness and becoming an outcast myself, I sort of just give everyone a pass.  I suppose it’s because for so long I felt like I caused my own suffering.  It was my fault I had those episodes.

I ask my mother, “Who was there when you went through your first tough time?”  “You were,” she answered.  “Your dad didn’t know what to think.  But he would come in the house and ask me if I was doing alright.  He didn’t understand it, but he tried.  I’ll give him that”  I smiled and said, “There were a few people who I could have thrown under the bus in my book.  They did some not so nice things.  But I wanted to take the high road.  And truthfully, I didn’t want to spend time having a pity party for myself.  My life is far too blessed to feel sorry for myself.  I am exactly where I am supposed to be.”

However, as we drove further down the road I realized Esther really did have a point.  Some people treat bipolar disorder like it’s contagious.  As if a brain disease can magically rub off.  Perhaps that’s why they stop answering calls, not returning text messages or give you all your pictures and press clippings back, as one uncle did with me.  He had become ashamed of who I was, and when I needed him most he turned his back on me.

At the end of the day I just move on and say, “I’m not crazy, just contagiously bipolar.”  Whatever that means.

 

 

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 on August 22!

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