Guest Blogger Devon Sleeth

I am happy to share with you a guest post written by Devon Sleeth.  She is sharing her journey in how she copes with anxiety and offers inspiration for those who are struggling.  Her writing style is really special.

Just Keep Swimming

There are days where I can’t wait to live in a tiny apartment in the middle of a huge city with a busy music related job that I can get to by walking or riding available public transit…But there are also days where I want to drop out of college, move to the beach, and own a tiny flower shop that I get to by riding my bike for five minutes on a sandy road. I’m sure that everyone has felt this way at some point in his or her life, but for me, that is right now. During my senior year of high school I was challenged with a question that is very hard to answer at the age of 18. What major do you want to study in college? At that time, the only thing that really stood out to me was music, as it still does today. I knew that music was a passion of mine and I wanted to make a career out of it, but I wasn’t sure where in the music field I wanted to be. So, I researched online and came up with Music Production. I applied for the program through Ohio University, and with hard work, I finally declared my major at the beginning of my sophomore year of college. After the first semester, I did not enjoy my classes at all. So naturally, fear and anxiousness set in. I began the search for a new field of study. My mind raced with questions like; “What do I want?” “What does God want?” “Will this set me back a couple years?” “Should I suck it up and continue?” Needless to say, I was struggling with the choice. After talking with my Mom, my Dad, my Step-Dad, my Advisor, and God, I finally decided to combine two of the things that I really like. I decided to study Music Journalism. I felt good with the decision, but I was still very anxious because I didn’t know if it was the right choice. This was something that caused me anxiety many times. Eventually, I had to tell myself that worrying about my choices would not change the outcome. What is supposed to happen will happen whether I want it to or not.

Here it is, almost one year later, and I am back in the same boat. Except this time, the boat (AKA my brain) is filled with insomnia, lack of motivation, anxiety, self-doubt, anxiety, headaches, confusion, anxiety, stress, and lots of questions. I have been fighting myself about where I am supposed to be and what I am supposed to be doing. The truth is, I am currently not happy with the situation that I am in. All of this is making it so much harder to get out of bed and go to class, because I am questioning whether these classes even mean anything to me. The battle is endless in my brain. While all of this is piling on my shoulders, there is one thing that keeps me a float. God has a plan for me. While I don’t have a clue what it is at the moment, it is there. So I tell myself, in the midst of this struggle, I need to trust that there is a place for me in this world and that I should never stop trying to find it.

“When life gets you down you know what you gotta do? Just keep swimming.” Take life day by day and eventually everything will make sense. So when you are thinking about dropping everything and moving to a place where there are no research papers due, no needy bosses, no 4 AM alarm clocks, or no group projects (if this magical place even exists), tell yourself to stop, breathe, and just keep trying even when nothing makes any sense.

By Devon Sleeth

 

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

How does Orange is the New Black handle Mental Illness

If you are a Netflix viewer you may have recently watched Season 4 of Orange is the New Black and could not have missed the storylines with mental illness.  It was not a subtle portrayal.  Mental illness was everywhere.

The character who saves another inmates life was hearing voices and experiencing delusions.  They gave us the back story and she was a person with mental illness who lost her job as a journalist when her mental illness started to get worse.  Loly ends up homeless and eventually arrested for disorderly conduct.  She gets slammed on the ground by two police officers who come upon her because people in an upscale neighborhood were complaining about her being there.  The police throw her on the ground and handcuff her while calling in to dispatch how she may be “drunk” or “psychotic.”  This is how she ends up in prison.  The police officers obviously don’t have crisis intervention training nor mental heath first aid.

By the end of season four Loly gets locked up in the forensic psych unit for allegedly murdering someone.  She starts to scream and cry while the audience is shown someone in the background who is yelling and is restrained forcefully.  Everyone in the prison knows you don’t want to get sent to the “psych unit.”  It does foster a bit of the stereotypical way we view inpatient psychiatric care, then again it is a prison so the psych unit might be portrayed appropriately.

The one thing that bothered me about this scenario was the fact that she had to have a mental illness and be accused of murder.  Everything else was really handled so well.  It is likely that a consequence of untreated severe mental illness can be joblessness and homelessness.  It happens more frequently than we like to believe.  But the murder part I could do without (spoiler alert:  she actually didn’t do it but thinks she did).

Then there was the character Mr. Heely.  He is the inmate counselor who walks into a lake with the intention of taking his own life.  In just the right time he gets a phone call from work and realized Loly’s delusions about saying their was a dead man buried in the garden were actually true.  By the end of the show he is voluntarily admitting himself to inpatient psychiatric care that is actually scripted quite well.  The last season shows him sitting on his bed knitting – minus the knitting needles which they don’t have in a psych unit because people may use those to hurt themselves – the gist is right on the money.

The courage of him taking himself to the psych unit is amazing.  One of the few men on the show and he admits himself for psychiatric care…wow!  This is a little more hard to believe because it is very difficult for males to admit they have a problem let alone seek treatment.  But good for the show creators to lead us in the proper direction of how it should be done.

One of the main characters is called “Crazy Eyes.”  She actually had been doing quite well with her mental health until the last few episodes.  But as the name implies she does have a tendency to get a little “crazy.”  She gets violent after being provoked and beats someone up.  She goes into a “zombie” like trance and then has a horrible accident.  The way the character has been developed you know she is a short fuse away from having some type of tragic accident.  But she is also vulnerable and that point is made very well.

Overall, I would have to give the creators of “Orange is the New Black” an A- in trying to tackle mental illness.  They obviously put a great deal of thought into how to delicately dramatize a person’s fragile mental state.  A significant amount of time was spent teaching us about hallucinations and delusions through a character’s suffering.  I like how they did not shy away from any of it.

I can see how all of it might just be very close to reality.

 

 

 

Feeling “Less Than”

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There are days when I see myself as “less than.”  Less than what?  Less than the general population who gets up and goes to work everyday.  Less than the people I used to work with who have risen high on the Corporate America success ladder.  Less than even some people who have recovered from mental illness and seem to have left their struggles in the dust.

I feel less than fulfilled with my current life.  I make a point of spending my time writing everyday, which gives me tremendous value.  But my overall everyday life pales in comparison to my past life before I was really hit with bipolar depression.

So I ask myself the question, how can I exists without feeling “less than” as a human being? For starters, I am aiming to make my comparison a little fairer.  What do I mean by making it fairer?  Well, it’s not fair to compare a basket of eggs with a basket of oranges. After bipolar disorder took me down hard I had to recover from a series of major episodes.  The fact that I am capable of doing all that I currently do is a tremendous success.  But comparing my life now with the past and before bipolar disorder really wrecked havoc is simply not a fair comparison.

I am willing to bet I am not alone in feeling “less than.” I am sure there are other people out there who feel like they were so much better before a mental illness disrupted their life. I want to say to them, “you are not alone.” It does not make you feel better to know other people suffer the same plight, but it certainly puts things into perspective. It allows you to realize other people are carrying the same or similar torch.  Plowing away each day, trying not to get caught up in letting the “less than” feelings dominate.

Part of the problem with feeling “less than” nags at the self-esteem and tears down self-confidence. Many of these feelings are so “normal,” but somewhere along the way we forget to address them. We end up with an overflow of bad feelings about ourselves and we don’t know what to do about them.

I have truly found that if I hit the nail on the head with something I at least have a chance at knowing what to do with it.  So if I call out a day when I am really feeling “less than” I will acknowledge that feeling. I can then talk my way through the bad thoughts I may have about myself.  The more I realize the thoughts are very “normal” for some reason the more strength I gain.  Instead of going through my day feeling worse about myself, I can grab onto what I do well and build upon that instead.

I have always heard it is not a good idea to compare yourself to others, so why would I want to compare my life to someone else? Not a good idea. I have to keep reminding myself that I am not “less than” just “different.” And that “different” is simply okay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m Mentally Ill But Don’t Pity Me

I see you there trying not to stare at me. When I glance at you your eyes quickly dart away. You pass me by and are afraid to say “hello,” out of fear as if what I have may be contagious. When you do make eye contact you search my eyes to see if I am “sane.” You are one of those people who have seen me in my worst moments.

Don’t pity me for life could be so much worse if I lived during the time when the mentally ill were institutionalized. I may have been placed in an ice bath or had a lobotomy. You may have left me restrained for days on end. I could have been deprived of my most basic human needs. In your effort to “treat” me I could have been sprayed with a hose.

You wonder why we fear the mental health system. You wonder why we mistrust and question everything they tell us is good for us. We are vulnerable because we need help, yet often don’t know where to turn.

Don’t pity me for life could be so much worse. We hear the stories about psychiatric institutions closing and we see the remnants of old historic asylums turning into haunted houses. Is there any wonder why? Human suffering cries out from the lonely graves of those who came before us and weathered the storm of archaic psychiatric practices.

Yes the mentally ill have been a persecuted group for hundreds of years. But things have gotten better—haven’t they?

Don’t pity me for life could be so much worse. It’s hard to look at me now that I am mentally ill. I’m not welcome in your group anymore. I don’t fit with your perfect lives for mine is rather messy. But with these words I write I have a voice, I have a chance to make a difference.

Don’t pity me for life could be so much worse. Yet you look at me with such disgust and use my illness to make jokes. I am a human being who happened to inherit a mental illness. Yet I refuse to sit quietly in my chair.

I want you to stand up for me and fight for better treatment. I want you to hold my hand and walk with me in my journey for a good life. I want you to understand my pain and suffering, but take note of me as a survivor. I am not a mere shadow from the past; I am not someone you can just push aside.

Don’t pity me for life could be so much worse. If you don’t do anything just say a little prayer. I am here to fight for a better tomorrow and I am not going away.

Don’t pity me because I believe life can be so much better.

 

Mental Illness Makes You Tough!

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Living with a severe mental illness is not for the faint of heart. You really have to be tough “minded” to handle the many trials and tribulations we face. Consider being able to successfully utilize your mind to climb the corporate ladder only to have that same mind fail you by losing touch with reality.

Imagine having your sister make her way through college and graduate with honors. Then a few years later imagine getting a call from a social worker, four hundred miles away, telling you your sister was placed in the psychiatric ward for evaluation. Forty plus hospitalizations later and an immeasurable amount of heart ache for everyone involved just can’t be described with words.

Imagine being a freshman in college and learning your mother had a manic episode rolled into psychosis and jumped from a 30-foot balcony in her confusion.   Imagine the pain, despair, and confusion those emotions can be when you are living through it.

Some people would say they just “can’t imagine.” Besides who would want to put themselves in your shoes with such human tragedy. These are the stories that never make it to the vernacular of the general population. They have no reason or purpose for hearing or listening to some of the challenges those of us touched by mental illness have had to deal with. I’ve only briefly scratched the surface of my own personal examples. Sometimes they are too painful for even me to recall.

But this brings me to my point, you have to be pretty darn tough to pick up the pieces and move on from life’s disruptions mental illness causes. If you suffer from a mental illness, often a chronic disorder, you will have to learn how to live with it your entire life.  If someone you love gets diagnosed, you will have to learn how best to support him or her.   And the bottom-line is you learn how important it is for life to go on because it does with or without your active participation.

When I reflect back upon my numerous lived experiences with mental illness I think about how I managed to emotionally cope and deal with these major issues often without the help or support of other people. I was expected to accept the situation, cope with it, put on a happy face and move on.

It reminds me of a time when I was working as a sales representative for a Fortune 500 company.  I had just received a call in the morning that my mother had been taken to the psychiatric hospital and admitted. I was still relatively young and deeply affected by her hospitalizations. As a matter of fact when I picked up my manager at the airport I was holding back the tears.

We drove a little while in silence, until she finally asked me what was wrong. I debated for a moment but then I told her what had happened to my mother. She looked at me and said, “Well I guess you’ll just have to focus extra hard on selling your products today.” It was like someone had taken a knife and stabbed me in the heart.

I guess all the years of living with mental illness have made me a stronger person. It has also exposed me to the ugliness of stigma. The very idea that people can be so cold and callous about brain disorders and all the situations we have to deal with.

But as I write these words I truly believe the next several years are going to whiled a wealth of information about serious mental illness. I think we will see attitudes begin to change and people will start getting a clue about what we have to deal with on a daily basis.

I hope some people will finally realize how tough you have to be to live with mental illness. I can’t wait for that day to come and I can’t guarantee I won’t tell people “I told you so.”

When the good day arrives!

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One of the things I learned in a recovery workshop is to create new dreams after having your life interrupted with a psychiatric illness. I created a dream to become a mental health advocate, but I soon learned that creating a dream is one thing and living it is another.

I think my impatience is a result of having too much time on my hands. Not all days but some days a few hours of free time can feel like sitting in the dentist chair having my teeth pulled. When I am feeling good and overall having a good day I feel like I can accomplish so much more.  But on those bad days, like yesterday, I have no desire to do anything.

I wish I had a crystal ball that could tell me when the good days would bless me with their presence. I could be so productive if I had something of value to do. But what kind of job out there rewards people for having outstanding days periodically? There are so few that I have found I need to get creative and figure out a way to utilize my time more wisely.

Yesterday I read an article about a research project that NAMI conducted. It said that people with mental illness had an 80% unemployment rate in the United States. From everything I have read it seems that most other countries fall about in the same statistical ratio. So what does this say about mental illness and employment? The article does not address those of us who may be underemployed, which is an entirely different issue too.

What are we supposed to do when we have those good days?  I guess reading and writing is one way to spend time in a valuable manner. I just have to keep from getting too frustrated with myself because I recognize having too much time on my hands is not the best thing for my mental health. I am a goal directed individual and the more goals I can have for myself the better I feel.

The problem comes when I start wishing there was an immediate “feel good” solution for me on those days when I am far more capable of doing complex tasks.  These are the times when I focus hard on positive self-talk. It’s really easy to go down the path of “let’s beat up Amy today,” even though I know it is not a healthy thing to do. I may say something like, “If I tried harder I could accomplish more.” “I need to be more organized with my time.” Then I get all excited about having a new plan of action and I wake up the next day and getting out of bed may be the best I can accomplish.

This up and down road makes it a harder to check off the “to-do” list. It also makes it more difficult to have consistent approaches to various goals ultimately making it harder to have achievements. Certainly it is not impossible, just more difficult.

If I had one wish I would hope for more resources to be placed in helping those of us living with a mental illness to have working projects where we could utilize our skill sets. Maybe a collaborative writing project where we contributed to a group writing project. I don’t know the answer. I just know I need something I can feel good about.

Bipolar Disorder Cheated Me!

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Do you ever feel like your mental illness cheated you out of something? There are some days when I open my eyes after a long night’s rest and I just lie there in bed. I start thinking about what my day holds for me. What do I have to accomplish? Do I work today or am I going to have to figure out how I can be productive for the day? At times I get frustrated with this merry go round. I am tempted to fall back into dreaming about the past where getting up in the morning guaranteed I was going to have a full plate of activities and things to do.

In my recovery journey I came to realize that having a sense of purpose was one of the most important parts of getting well and staying well. Of course it is not always easy to accomplish this goal, but when I do I feel so much better about myself.

Today is just not one of those days. Today I feel like I have been cheated. I feel short-changed in the game of life– all my past dreams and ambitions stolen away from me because I ended up with a rather severe case of bipolar disorder. This vicious illness robbed me of my life as I once knew it.

There I said it. I have made it clear that I loathe bipolar disorder. I am not one of those people who like the manic highs with endless creative energy. I hate everything about this disorder. Some would say because it is a part of me I must hate myself too. But I don’t really look at it like that. I look at it as an illness separate and apart from me. It may affect my moods, but it does not influence the positive aspects of myself anymore than I like being thought of as a negative person when I am depressed.

It’s an illness. A nasty mental illness. I don’t think people who have cancer love their disease, nor do they romanticize it. There is nothing positive about living with an illness whether it is mental or physical. It is exactly what it is—an illness.

I know some people will take issue with me and in attempt to make me feel better about having a mental illness they will point out all the famous people and celebrities who also have lived with bipolar disorder. This does not make me feel better. It only tells me that mental illness does not discriminate. It also tells me that people who have lived with or currently live with a mental illness have done some pretty extraordinary things. I am grateful for those stories. But it still doesn’t make me feel any better on a day-to-day basis of struggling with my own illness.

So on days like today, when I would rather have stayed in bed all day long, I consider it a success to have let my feet hit the floor. I hold on to the fact that I am in no way alone in the battle against a mental illness. And I know that I am not alone in having those days when I feel like I have been cheated.

I am not willing to pretend my journey with bipolar disorder has been or will ever be easy. Some days I win and some days the whole idea of having this illness gets the best of me.  When that happens I look for the small wins and hope for a better tomorrow.

 

Disclosing a Mental Illness

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Disclosing you have a mental illness is a very tough decision. There are so many issues associated with telling even your friends and family, much less being open about your illness in a public forum, like social media.  From my viewpoint if we are to actively change the stigma associated with mental illness it is important for those of us who live with mental illness to feel comfortable in disclosing it.

I recently read an acticle about disclosing your mental illness diagnosis on-line. The author was an advocate, but chooses to blog and advocate anonymously. I have no problem with her choice, but I wonder about the impact you can make as an advocate living anonymously? Isn’t it important to demonstrate that many people living with serious mental illness can recover and contribute to society?

When writing my blog I decided it was important for me to feel comfortable being completely open and honest about who I am. I wanted people to know I was not ashamed for having a mental illness. In fact, I have worked very hard to live my life without living in shame for an illness I did not ask for and believe is no different than a physical illness from that standpoint.

But then I started thinking about all the reasons why people could judge me and look at me differently because I live with bipolar disorder. I thought about the stigma associated with the illness and how people may judge my competency without ever talking to me or reading anything I may write. I began to fall into the trap of worrying about things that I cannot control.  I worked through my fears and doubts and moved forward with disclosure in a well thought out way.

For all the reasons why you should never disclose your mental health issues, there are equally a number of reasons why it is a good idea for at least people close to you to know. I was always afraid people would not be my friend if they knew about my condition. The truth is some people didn’t want to be friends with someone who had a mental illness, as if I had some kind of contagious disease. But others seemed to accept it and offer love and support.

After deciding I was going to live my dream and become a Mental Health Advocate, I put a great deal of thought into disclosing my illness. My focus is on raising awareness and creating opportunities to have a dialogue about mental illness so that others may understand. I wanted to jump on the band wagon and help eliminate stigma. I really felt like if people knew I was an Olympic Athlete who was affected by a mental illness they could see that it does not matter what your socio-economic status is or what parade you may have walked in, mental illness can affect anyone. It also helps other people who are suffering with the illness to know someone else who is living with it.

So—for all these reasons I felt like it was a good idea to disclose my illness. I let my Facebook friends know the other day on a status update that I was a Mental Health Advocate, writer and speaker and I lived with Bipolar Disorder. The support I received touched my heart and gave me more strength to keep on walking down the disclosure path.

I can’t tell you what is right for you, but I can say I feel empowered to share my journey. And I am glad I no longer hang my head in fear or shame.

Struggling with Depression

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I am slowly waking up from a bipolar depressive episode. I raise my head up, look at the calendar and ask, “Where has all the time gone?” I may have seemed like I was present the past few months, but I’ve really just been hanging in there fighting the depression symptoms.

When I start to feel better I often find myself tempted to ruminate about the past. Oh the days when life was so much better—the times when I had friends over for dinner—oh heck just the times when I had some friends to call. How lonely life can become when you struggle with a mental illness. Especially when you struggle with depression, an illness that causes you to isolate yourself from others.

I contemplated taking a walk today, but I haven’t gotten there yet. I don’t know what I’m waiting for other than the symptoms from my latest medication to “wear off.” I think the doctor got carried away with pushing the dose of the new medication and the side effects are starting to cause me to sleep longer. I am so frustrated, it’s as if I’m constantly beating my head against the wall wondering when the wall is gonna break yet knowing that is not possible.

I want relief. Relief from the loneliness. I want involvement and yet I don’t know if I can keep my commitments. I want friends. Yet I don’t know if I have anything to talk about except my illness struggles and my past successes. Who wants to sit around hearing old tales about the past? People live in the present. They have lives. I feel like I have an existence. I try hard to stay positive and look for opportunities to “live.” But in all actuality I am struggling day by day with lingering depressive symptoms.

Depression keeps me from living to my potential. Sometimes the best I can do is get out of bed in the morning and that’s a huge accomplishment. The fact that I am trying to write is success. What I write is not inspiring or hopeful like I want it to be. I write about the struggle and the pain. I wish it could be different. All I can do is keep trying, that’s what I would tell a friend with the same challenge.

On a positive note, I do work part-time. It makes me put on my make-up and get out of the house. It’s not my ideal job, but it serves a lot of purposes. I work a few hours every week. Nothing I can’t handle even in the midst of fighting depression. I think about working more, but I don’t think I can handle it. I question my ability to handle stressful situations without triggering my illness.

So, I read and I write. Hoping that somehow I’ll get a pearl of wisdom to jump off the page into my heart. I might feel something click and maybe I’ll smile. Maybe I can relate to someone just like me and in that moment I won’t feel as bad.