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.

 

Why having a mental illness makes you strong

strength-quotes-picture

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.

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

 

I witnessed stigma in the making today.

blogstigma

Today I had the opportunity to attend a lunch n’ learn on bipolar disorder.  The gentleman presenting was a clinical psychologist who I have known from being on a working group together.  He is a very nice man.  However, today I witnessed one of the things that contribute to the stigma of mental illness in an astounding way.

His talk started out very informative about bipolar disorder signs and symptoms.  He explained really well about mania, depression and everything in between.  But then the whole talk took a downward turn.  He started sharing six stories about people he had involuntarily committed.  If the story had been told from a factual standpoint on how people with bipolar disorder can put themselves at risk, I would have been fine with it.  Except the stories told were laughed at and even the audience laughed as well.  At one point a YouTube Video was shown of a man who said he was experiencing a manic episode.  It was over the top.

I guess you had to be there to really understand my perspective.  I did not want to be rude and get up and leave, so I sat through a very painful hour of stigmatizing people with mental illness as crazy, looney and psycho with no hope for recovery.  At one point I considered raising my hand and saying, “I am one of those bipolar type I patients who have recovered.  What can you say about me?”  I decided against that strategy.

What I did do is tell the organizer who joked about having a manic episode based on all the criteria he just learned that the talk needed to be more balanced.  Yes there are people with bipolar disorder who run naked in neighborhoods.  Yes there are people with bipolar disorder who are homeless.  But there is also another side.  These people are someone’s wife, husband, friend, daughter, son, brother, sister etc.  .

Rather than embarrass the speaker I decided to have a private conversation with him at the end.  I said to him, “I have bipolar disorder type I.  Did you know that?”  “No I didn’t know that,” he said rather surprised.  And then I said, “I have my own sensational stories.  But I am also an Olympian, have a master’s degree and have worked in Corporate America for many years.  And by the way, people do recover.”

I think he was shocked that I said that to him.  Of course I was very diplomatic, but it really struck a cord with me.  I will have the opportunity to speak with this audience in March.  I plan to spend a great deal of time talking about stigma.  I hope what I say will help repair some of the damage that was done today.

Second Chances for Life

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Idaho National Forest

Four years ago I almost lost my life because of untreated bipolar disorder.  During a manic and psychotic episode I drove 3300 miles until finally landing in the mountains, lost on foot in the Idaho National Forest.

In the middle of winter, after two days of surviving without a coat, socks or backpacking gear I was rescued by two people riding ATV’s.  I don’t think I would have survived the elements for one more day.  My only injury was dehydration and frostbite.

Because of my experience I am a person who feels very strongly about finding the right treatment regimen.  I am adamant that bipolar disorder left untreated can lead to unwanted and serious consequences.

But I can also say that it is imperative to find the right treatment team.  I was under the care of a physician and therapist at the time of my episode.  But I lost insight into my illness and then stopped all my medications.

For a very long time I blamed myself for what happened.  Then I realized that having bipolar disorder is not my fault.  Where I am accountable is making certain  I do the best job possible in managing my illness.

The first time anyone shed light on bipolar disorder signs and symptoms was in the hospital in Idaho.  I wish more treatment facilities would take the time to educate patients about their illness.  It made a world of difference to me.

This experience among others, has taught me not only about bipolar disorder but also about myself.  I learned that even in my most compromised state of mind I had the will to live.  I learned just how strong I have been.  I learned it was not my time to go.

With this second chance at life I want to make sure I help educate others about mental illness.  I want to help eliminate stigma because it dramatically affects all of us.

I also want to share I have recovered.  Even though I have been to a stage 4 mental illness I have gotten better.  I work.  Give talks.  Write.  Advocate.

No matter where you are in your struggle with mental illness, know you can get well.  It is a fight but it is possible.  I am living proof.

“Never underestimate your ability to make a difference in someone’s life.”

Facing the Truth

Her blinders have been removed

She has taken her gloves off and removed her coat

She sits in stillness with peaceful knowing

Knowing from the soul

Inspired by the spirit

 

The storm came along with no warning

It whirled and twirled devastation

Leaving people shocked, hurt, stunned and dismayed

The creation of fear perpetuated

Numbness permeated and opened wounds

 

Left behind were the remnants of missing pieces

The young woman and old soul stood strong

But the powerful force of the storm threw her to unconsciousness

When she awoke it was apparent to her she was the storm

Crushed by the aftermath of viewing what she left behind

 

Deeply saddened with what she unknowingly had done

Egoically embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty

Incapable of seeing what the mirrors were telling her

Her prayers were answered one day

She ask to be shown so she could heal

 

She prayed for strength and courage

She prayed for forgiveness of self and others

She lay helpless crying for hours in her bed

She faced her naked body and viewed her own destruction

 

Overtaken by grief, hurt, sadness, disappointment

But inspired by unconditional love

 

She is a person hurt by her past

She is a human being

She is not defined by labels

She is not willing to give up

She is walking her journey one step at a time

 

Who is she?  Who is this woman with such great strength?

She is not alone

 

@amyjgamble

amygamble.com

 

5 Reasons why I don’t like psychiatric medications – but I still take them

Overview

I am guessing you may have heard the reasons why people don’t like to take medications for psychiatric conditions.  It all sounds so easy, “It’s just like taking a blood pressure pill.”  “It’s no different than taking insulin for diabetes.”  Well, the truth is it is very different and there are several reasons why.  Here is the top 5 on my list.

#1 – They make you gain weight

There are few classes of psychiatric medications that do not cause weight gain.  With the exception of some medications for anxiety, almost all the medications for depression, bipolar and schizophrenia cause weight gain.  I managed to gain a slim 80 pounds!  It seemed like every time I was put on a new medication I gained 20 pounds.  I don’t know anyone who likes to gain weight.  But the reality is medications made me feel better and if I have to work at losing weight that’s just the trade off.  It is a valid concern for those of us with a mental illness.

#2 – Some make you feel like a “zombie” from the Walking Dead

Take a blood pressure pill and you rarely have a side effect.  On the other hand, take some high powered psychotropic drugs and you might feel like a zombie.  Usually this side effect goes away in time, but if it does not I encourage people to talk with their doctor to help adjust the medication or the dosage.  No one wants to feel worse and sometimes that is what happens.  Older medications are notorious for causing lethargy, work with your doctor there are many choices that might not make you feel as bad.  Above anything – don’t stop taking your medication without talking with your doctor first.  There can be some serious effects from stopping abruptly.

#3 – The Stigma of Mental Illness

It is the shame and misunderstanding that comes from stigma.  No one wants to feel as if they are not “sane.”  It is about credibility.  Not being different from other people.  We all want a sense of belonging, but not to a group that is discriminated against.  This no longer effects me much but in the past this really bothered me.

#4 – The medical community does not know the long-term effects

Less funding for research means less understanding for the long-term effects of medications.  Especially for a class of drugs called anti-psychotics.  They are used for many off-label conditions and the long-term effects are truly unknown.  What we do know is that people who have schizophrenia live on average 25 years less than other people.  We don’t know if that is related to medications or a number of other factors.  It’s hard to want to continue taking a medication without knowing what it will do to your body.

#5 – Branded products are expensive

The latest greatest products are extremely expensive.  Some drugs can cost $1600 a month making it impossible for people without great insurance to afford the medications that may have less side effects.  Generic drugs don’t cost much at all and some have been shown to be as effective as the newer products.  If you take 3 or 4 prescriptions a month it gets a little pricey.

So these are my top 5 reasons why I don’t like psychiatric medications.  But here is the disclaimer – I still take them because I know without them I can’t live a good life.  They help my symptoms and make it possible for me to live a “normal” life.  Without the medications I don’t know what would happen to me and I am unwilling to take the risk to find out.  But there are a group of people who don’t believe in them, I am not one of them.  Suffering is not worth going without a medication that is going to make you feel better in the long term.  There are trade offs with everything in life.

 

Hope helps depression


I am somewhat amazed that people still believe depression is something we can just “get over.”  Depression is a real, treatable illness that often requires medical attention.

Outside of traditional medicine I have discovered when I could find even a glimmer of hope I could survive for just one more day.  For someone who does not live with bipolar depression or depression it may be hard to understand I am not being dramatic when I talk like this.

As I was thinking about the title for this blog it took me back to a time several years ago when I was experiencing  months of relentless depression and daily battles with suicidal thoughts. I was already very down when my dog of 18 years died.  The grief on top of my long battle with depression made me numb with emotions.

Just when I started to have a breakthrough my other dog died and it set me back into intense emotional pain.  Sometimes when I look back at where I have traveled from it is easy to see why my struggles were so long and challenging.

I have a memory of one day in particular when I was crying in my bed.  My eyes were swollen with tears, my head ached from crying so long and the suicidal thoughts repeated over and over.  I squeezed my eyes closed and opened just a crack.  I saw light shining through the blinds.  It was not a lot but it was a sign I was looking for.  My sliver of light was the hope that things were going to get better and one day I was going to recover.

I have battled depression for years.  I know that finding hope in a seemingly hopeless state of mind is very difficult.  But I also know that surviving depression boils down to toiling one day at a time.

Each and everyday I find myself depressed I search for something that makes me feel hopeful.  I picture the smiles on loved ones faces.  I find hope and inspiration in the little things in life like my cat rolling over on my feet.

And my solid rock is my faith.  When there is no rainbow I know I am watched over even in the midst of the darkest storm.  In this I find gives me hope and a will to survive even the toughest times.

Hope long enough until you can believe that things will get better.

A letter to my younger self

Dear Amy,

I want you to know there will be times in your life when you will struggle with a mental illness called bipolar disorder.  I know it sounds complicated and the truth is-it is complex because we are talking about your brain.  But if you learn everything you can about how to manage your symptoms and find a good treatment plan you will do great.

But I want you to know fighting your way back to health will be the hardest thing you ever do.  There is such a stigma with mental illness a lot of people are not going to understand.  You will find out who your real friends are and who you can rely on.

More than anything be true to yourself.  You don’t have to publicize you live with bipolar disorder unless you want too.  But you MUST be honest with yourself about your illness.  Some people can survive and thrive without medications, but you are not one of them.  In fact, most people with bipolar disorder need medications and there is no shame in that.

Whatever you do-don’t deny there is a problem.  It will set you back in life to pretend this serious illness will magically disappear on its own.  When is the last time you ever heard a brain tumor disappearing without intervention?  As much as you want it to go away, you can’t wish this away.  The sooner you accept it the faster you can get well and live your life.

You are going to need help along the way.  Doctors and therapists can be tremendous support on the road wellness.  But remember they are also human and not perfect.  They will make mistakes sometimes.  You have to find the right fit for you and never be afraid to ask questions or even disagree with providers.  The best ones will welcome an open dialogue.

In life we don’t get to choose what we get and what we don’t.  You are going to feel frustrated at times and you may have moments when you think, “what’s the point?”  But I want you to hold on to hope and never give up trying.

There will be times when you reflect back and thank your mother for giving you the gift of faith.  You may not be overtly assertive about your relationship with God, but you will get down on your knees and pray for God to get you through the tough times.  Without your faith you won’t make it because you will have some very difficult times and that will require a great deal of faith.

You will get a good handle on bipolar disorder and once you do the sky is the limit.  So don’t ever let anyone tell you to keep your dreams small.  You are good at dreaming big and I want you to keep doing that as long as you live.

Finally, take one day at a time.  Everything you need will be provided for you, maybe not what you want but what you need.  And when you figure all this stuff out don’t forget to reach back and help other people.  Because at the end of the day that’s what life is all about.

Your friend,

Your older self