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.

Audience photo

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

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10 ways to stay mentally healthy in a crazy world!

peaceful

 

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

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

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

Take the Stigma Poll

 

Mental Illness Baggage and Coping

Serious Mental Illness Baggage

Serious mental illness-depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, OCD-come with a great deal of baggage. It does not mean that people can’t recover and go on to lead healthy, happy and productive lives. What I mean is that if we aren’t careful those of us living with a SMI will start to have a collection of negative past experiences that when compounded make it difficult to deal with.

This collection of baggage is something that usually begins with the onset of illness. It can include a negative experience from a hospitalization or with providers, it can be with a pile up of personal and financial losses, it simply can be an interruption of everyday life as we once knew it. One of the problems with all these things is how we cope and deal with it affects our mental health and we are already dealing with illnesses that impact our mental wellness.

My Experience with Bipolar Depression

I have a major bipolar depression problem that I have been fighting since I was in high school. It has taken me years to finally understand how the symptoms of depression manifest in my brain. Only within the past year have I been able to identify the negative thought process that often comes from the Lies Depression Tells You. But the reason I bring this up is to say that having depression makes it even more difficult to deal with the baggage. Sometimes it is just flat out more difficult to cope.

How I Cope

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand how losses have affected me. It wasn’t until today that I read an article that stated how difficult job losses are that I realized the impact my job loss had on me. I took some time to let the article digest and then I did a little exercise where I wrote down on paper all the things that happened as a result of that job loss.

For some reason writing things down seem to help validate the importance of them. It also has a way of releasing some of the negative emotions that come from holding it all in. It’s a coping strategy I am using more and more everyday.

In a time when politicians are trying to figure out what kind of changes they should make to the mental health system, I just get stuck on one fact–serious mental illnesses are difficult to live with but the point is many of us are living with these illnesses. We might not all be working in high paying jobs but many of us are dealing with the everyday baggage that has been left on our doorstep while maintaining our responsibilities as parents, caregivers, employees and as independent adults.

My hope is that we collectively will continue to share our thoughts and feelings about mental illness and in that sharing we can continue to find a peace of mind. At the end of the day it’s not going to be any one thing that helps us manage, but a collective number of things we do to help us live our lives. After all we deserve to have a life too!

The Lies Depression Tells You

Depression is…

I have been blessed not to have many physical ailments, however, I feel like I have been “cursed” with depression (I know that’s not true). Depression is the kind of illness that makes any physical illness worse. It affects the mind, body and spirit and does so with a relentless grip that causes emotional torment. A therapist once told me, “Depression tells you lies Amy. You can’t believe those lies.”

Given you know how terrible depression really is what do we do to survive through the episodes? What are some ways we can get through the times we are sick? If depression lies to us then who can tell us the truth and will we listen when they do?

The Lies Depression Told Me

I recently just got well from another major bipolar disorder depressive episode. It lasted about 4 ½ months. It got worse before it got better and it took a medication change to help me begin to feel better. I had a few suicidal thoughts but nothing like I have had in the past. Mostly the thoughts that said, “You’re never going to recover. You’ll always be depressed.” I knew that was a flat out lie and I knew right away that I was dealing with the symptoms of depression.

I survived this last episode by recognizing the lies immediately. I called them what they were and it seemed to stop the endless torment that can happen. I began to think about other things and kept acknowledging what I was dealing with. I gave myself a break and stopped beating myself up for sleeping 14-15 hours a day. I believed I could trust my doctor to prescribe the right medication, at the right dosage that was going to help me. When hope ran away I ran after it.

Surviving A Depressive Episode

What also helps me is to research specific topics about depression. This works if I can concentrate long enough to read the article because sometimes my concentration goes by the way side when depressed. But I focused on doing a little bit at a time—read a little here—research a little there. I read anything to get some form of relief.

It helped me to seek out positive stories about people who had recovered. I liked learning their stories and allowed myself to be lifted up by their celebrations. I turned to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance and explored some of their resources. I even returned to one of the DBSA peer group meetings.

5 Helpful Strategies

In summary here are the strategies I used to help me survive my last depressive episode:

1)   Recognize the symptoms and don’t believe the lies

2)   Have patience and forgiveness for not being able to complete daily activities

3)   Look for positive examples of people who have recovered—it will provide HOPE

4)   Look to someone you trust to help you (maybe a physician)

5)   Believe things will get better—they always do!

 

 

Mental Illness Recovery

The “Recovery Movement” in mental health has been around for several years. I have read different opinions about recovery and I think it’s important to understand what recovery actually means.

A Recovery Definition

According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness recovery is a process that includes having an initial diagnosis, learning about your illness and the treatments available, sharing information about your illness with friends and family and finally doing something to help other people with your illness. Nowhere in this definition of recovery does it talk about resuming your life where you left off before your diagnosis.

Before I read this explanation from NAMI I really thought recovery meant I could pick back up with my life as I once knew it. But realistically I had to learn that I had to accept the fact that I now had limitations I had to consider. I have heard the argument that everyone has limitations and while I agree with this I am coming from the standpoint of when you get sick and because of whatever illness you have, your life as you once knew it has changed. It has become a “life interrupted” by mental illness.

Severe Mental Illness

I will be the first one to admit I love it when I read success stories about people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, post traumatic stress disorder or anxiety disorder (classified as severe mental illness) who are living examples of people who have been able to get out and work full time jobs. They have either gone back to work or have changed careers. I get excited thinking about the possibilities for my own life.

Overcoming Obstacles

At the same time, I have to be honest and tell you that we have tremendous hurdles in getting to this endpoint. Our disorders may go into remission but often times we still have to continue taking medications, going to the doctor and/or therapy visits, and closely monitoring our symptoms. So the most important point is that recovery in no shape or form means “healed.”   If anything it means people who have learned how to overcome many obstacles and lead a healthy, happy and productive life. I think people who are living with mental disorders have a strong inner strength. Part of recovery is being able to recognize those key strengths and use them to our advantage.

I am glad there is a recovery movement in mental health. I like the idea that younger people can be given a sense of hope that the proper treatment can help them go on to achieve their goals. But I also think it has to be tempered by the fact that severe mental illness is really difficult to manage and if you are managing it well you are a superstar in my book!

Mental Illness is no “gift!”

I have heard people say having bipolar disorder was a blessing as if the positive things about me had to be related to the illness. Mental illness is no gift. I don’t think I ever sat around after having a terrible cold and said, “What a wonderful gift that I was so sick.”

I recently read a blog by Natasha Tracy, which was titled Do the mentally ill have to be extraordinary to be accepted? She makes several points about how most people with mental illness are simply average, everyday folks trying to get along in this world. Not all of us are off the chart creative artists, famous world changing researchers or Nobel Peace Prize winners. We are simply “normal” people who happen to have a mental illness.

If you think about it, it’s kind of a shame that we have to put people on a pedestal to find some kind of acceptance. I think it falls right in there under the good ole’ stigma category. If we aren’t exceptional than what is our value in society, after all we have a mental illness. Oh my, so taboo.

It makes me sad to think about how common mental illness is and how we as a culture still fail to realize this fact. Consider that according to the National Institute of Mental Health over 57 million people suffer with a diagnosable mental illness each year. I’m sure you’ve seen the statistics–about 1 in 4 Americans have a mental illness.

Mental illness is common—yes. Mental illness is a gift—far from it.

I remember a day when I went to see a new family physician. She had known me from my days as a local “famous” athlete (from a very small town). When she found out I had bipolar disorder she said, “I knew there was a reason you could make the Olympic team. It must have been all that manic energy!”

I was so stunned I didn’t know what to say. How could someone who was a doctor actually think having bipolar disorder helped me to become an Olympian? Ridiculous. If anything I had to overcome the depressive episodes in order to get myself out of bed. The last thing I would have ever thought was “how lucky am I to have depression. It’s just so great! I can’t wait for more weight gain, so I can be slower on the court.”

I’m always amazed at how people find ways to accept they have a mental illness. It is not my place to judge others, but if I am voicing my own opinion I would be hard pressed to ever find any illness as a gift. I think of things like, suffering, symptoms, a lifetime of medication, doctor visits, therapy, significant losses, and I just shake my head knowing there is no way I could ever be grateful for having bipolar disorder.

I believe accepting yourself exactly how you are is far more important than getting on the band wagon to appreciate mental illness as a gift. I accept myself for who I am and I accept that I live with a mental illness and believe that I am no lesser of a person because of it.   It took me a long time to get to this point. But nowhere along the way did I ever pay some kind of tribute to living with a disease. It’s just not logical.