Blame it on the weather

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Over the years I’ve noticed my mood changes when the weather changes.  Like most people, in the spring and summer I’m pretty happy.  But when the fall season starts to come I imagine somewhere in my brain there are all these little monsters who take up residence and it’s their sole job to wreck havoc with my mood.  If they can’t succeed in making me really depressed, than they tend to settle for just detached and a little irritable.  It’s in these moments that I wish I had a team of “ghost busters” to come into my brain and rid myself of these terrible creatures.

How much of this is bipolar disorder and how much is “normal?”

I think those of us who have learned to manage bipolar disorder can get pretty hyper-sensitive about our moods.  Maybe monitoring ourselves to the point of over analysis.  But I have to say it’s really difficult to strike a balance between what is just a natural reaction to circumstances and what is the ugly illness that rears it’s head.

But it is true there is actually an illness called Seasonal Affective Disorder.  When the seasons change the lovely depression is ushered in.  She sits in a powerful position sucking the life out of her victims.  She brings a cloud of fog that gets sprayed directly into the frontal lobe, making memory, concentration and just wanting to get out of bed a challenge.  If depression were a person with a name, I’d call her a B**CH.  And sorry ladies I hate to pick on the females, but depression certainly has the male version as well.  That’s the irritable, mean party where nothing that comes out of my mouth is positive.  That depression is clearly a male and he is a B***TARD.

So just when I think I’m going to spend most of my time writing thoughtful articles about vulnerability and maybe even start writing about other topics as well.  I got stopped in my tracks with a nasty episode that’s kind of dragging it’s way through my nice little life.  I can blame it all on the weather, except the past few days have been beautiful.  Blue skies and sunshine.  Not very depressing.

At the end of the day, I’m just taking a deep breath and accepting what is.  I’m gonna go to sleep early and get up at the crack of dawn.  I’m always hopeful the fog will lift in the morning.  But with a mood disorder, you never know what you’re gonna get.  It’s sneaky like that…not very reliable.

Before I sign off I just have to say, “I HATE depression.”  There.  That made me feel better.

 

 

 

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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.

Can you be “normal” when you have bipolar?

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I admit I have dreamt about the days when I wished I was just “normal.”  But what that meant to me was living a life without a chronic illness.  It meant not having to deal with extreme challenges and circumstances.  I was wishing for a life of serenity and peacefulness.  I assumed those who didn’t live with bipolar disorder had all those things.  I learned I was wrong.

The other day I was having lunch with my friend, Bill.  He had recently finished my book, “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor.”  With a sincere look he said to me, “You have a talent for writing.  You should write a lot more.”  And then he looked at me directly and said, “You know you are really unusual?”  Without hesitation I shook my head and said, “Yes, I do.”  In that moment I was actually quite proud he had come to that conclusion.  He followed his statement with, “And I don’t mean because you are an Olympian.”  I nodded.  I knew he meant I’m just different.

What never entered my mind was the fact I was different because I had a mental illness.  That’s not really even half the story.  I’m different and unusual for many reasons.  I’m a bit of a rebel.  I’ve always stood up for other people who might not have been able to stand up for themselves.  I never really went along with the crowd, because I kind of think it’s much more fun to be original.  I like being different and I wear it on my sleeve.

But when I was deciding about what I would write today on my blog, the whole idea of “normal” kept coming to my mind.

On a day when I woke this morning to learn an evil man had gunned down hundreds of people in Las Vegas, a city I used to live in and a place I have visited often–in fact, I’ve stayed numerous times in Mandalay Bay-where the shooter took his wicked perch.

I sat watching the news for a few minutes before coming to work.  As I sat at my computer I couldn’t help but think about the victims and their family members.  I was sad for them and truly for our society as a whole.  To think that we aren’t really safe anywhere we go, is a creator of underlying anxiety for many people.  I personally don’t think too much about things like that-until something like this happens and I’m forced to entertain the what ifsWhat if my sister and brother-in-law were in Las Vegas this month instead of last.  What if our whole family was there at a concert at Mandalay Bay like we were a year ago in July.

So can I be “normal?”  Yes.  I have emotions and reactions just like other people.  I live, laugh, love and cry just like everyone else.  I struggle on days like today, trying to make sense out of why a person would ever do such a horrific act of violence.

 

 

A little bit of hope

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I have been blessed the past three weeks to travel around the state of West Virginia and speak about mental health to college students.  One campus had a young man who had died by suicide a few months ago.  He had been a member of one of the sports teams and suddenly quit.  He began isolating himself and stopped hanging out with friends.  Those things he did are warning signs of suicide.  But people around him didn’t know those signs.  Now they do.

Another campus had a young woman who died by suicide.  She had a diagnosed, serious mental illness.  I believe all family members who have loved ones who live with mental illness should be trained in mental health first aid.  They should know the warning signs of suicide.  Before it’s too late.

I go to college campuses to shed light on mental illness.  I want people to know there is help and there is hope.  Sometimes I get to hear the stories that inspire me and keep me fired up about spreading this message.

I had a college athlete approach me and say, “Ahh…I kinda struggle with this stuff.”  I smiled.  He knew I understood him.  It didn’t take a lot of words to hear the emotional pain in his voice.  His struggle is depression and often times that means a battle with suicidal thoughts.  When he shook my hand and said, “Thank you for sharing your story.”  It was a gift to me that in some small way I spread a little bit of hope.

Then, a few days ago I received an email from a man who had experienced a lot of tradgedy in his life.  He was overwhelmed with grief, depression and was self-medicating with alcohol.  He told me, “Thank you for what you do.  You just might have saved my life.”

I didn’t respond to his email right away.  I was overwhelmed with the responsibility of my work.  On some level I knew how important educating people about mental illness and suicide is.  But on a deeper level grasping the fact that your work can help save someone’s life takes every word I say when I give these talks to a hire level.  But the work is not about me.  It’s about reaching people of all ages, one person at a time, and allowing the gifts, talents and skills I have been blessed with to help other people.

As I’ve become more visible, I’ve received some healthy feedback, mostly positive.  But there are people out there who don’t understand why I would do this work.  Why I would write a book that would highlight some of the most difficult experiences in my life.  I did it and I would do it again.  Because sometimes all some folks need to hear is “you’re not alone in this fight.”

Turns out–a little bit of hope saves lives.  I’m humbled by this work.  I’m honored for this calling.

 

 

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?”

 

Family members perspective matters 


I was having a conversation with my sister, Shelley about my journey with mental illness.  I’m not going to lie and say it was a pleasant discussion-it was tenuous.  Why?  Because neither one of us were appreciating our different perspectives.

She was coming from the place of a family member of a loved one with mental illness. The position which says, “If you had only taken your medicine nothing bad would have happened.”

I was coming from the place that said, “Bipolar disorder is a bit harder to manage than you think.  And by the way some of what happened wasn’t my fault.”

After a few days of letting the conversation sink in I came around to seeing what she was trying to say, “Mental illness is a family disease.  Every disappointment, every hospitalization, every tragedy is felt deep within the soul of family members too.”

I understood.  I have sat in the chair as a family member-my mother and another sister have bipolar disorder.  It was a long and arduous journey until they found wellness, until they recovered.  But when I look at them I don’t see bipolar disorder, I see a person.  I see a family member.  I forget about all the times it was difficult.

Family members who don’t have a mental illness have a right to their perspective.  But the problem arises when policy decisions and laws are made for people with mental illness without our perspective too.  Problems arise when we are blamed for our mental illness.

I also realized how much I had moved forward and let go of the past.  But the conversation we had brought back all the memories and flooded my brain with difficult times, struggles and nearly insurmountable challenges.  I was taken back by all I had to process.

Then, I began to think about others who haven’t spent every waking moment reading and advocating for mental illness.  It has provided me with an avenue of healing.  In my mind I’m no longer the distraught bipolar victim-I am a strong mental health advocate.  I challenged my sister to speak up for mental health and bring another family perspective into the light.

I realized all perspectives are important.  I try to understand the pain and sorrow family members feel when remembering what we went through.

But tomorrow is here.  I am alive and well.  And so are my family members.  What we do with our knowledge and wisdom, time and talents to help other people will not take away the pain of old memories, but will make us stronger in how we deal with them.

Giving a gift of understanding to each other is the first step in the process.

“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.

 

 

A Clinical Psychologist Reviews “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor”

Many of you in the land of mental health advocacy have heard of David Susman, PhD.  He write stellar blog, is very active on social media and very supportive of people who live with mental illness.  He’s also a professor at the University of Kentucky.  I ask him to review my book and much to my surprise he agreed.  Here’s what Dr. Susman had to say:

“A First Hand Perspective on Living with Bipolar Disorder”

Amy Gamble’s account of her challenges with bipolar disorder is real, compelling, and moving. Just as the illness itself is characterized by the extreme euphoria of mania and the severe depths of depression, her narrative depicts her personal highs and lows as she struggles to understand and learn to manage this life-altering condition. From her competitive days as a collegiate and Olympic athlete, to her hospitalizations and even incarceration while in the throes of her illness, the reader gets a true sense of the battle she has fought and the slow process of ultimately reclaiming her life. As a clinical psychologist who has worked extensively with many people with serious mental illness, I was particularly impressed by her focus not only on her challenges, but also her description of her journey of recovery and the strategies that have helped her regain stability and a new-found purpose as a mental health advocate. Amy makes a powerful statement when she says “Lives can be saved with a simple message that says help is available and treatment works, and there is no shame in having a mental illness.” I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is personally affected by mental illness and for those who wish to gain a greater understanding of the effects of mental illness and the process of recovery.

“Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor” available NOW on Amazon.

Click here to order on Amazon