Many of you may already know that I have a history of Bipolar Disorder. And if you didn’t know, now you do. Recently, someone asked me how I have dealt with this disorder and if I could offer some input for a loved one of theirs who is suffering from depressive episodes. I unfortunately did not have adequate time to elaborate on how I overcame my mental illness. So I am dedicating this post to that person (who will remain anonymous due to privacy issues) and giving the topic the time it deserves and needs.
If you have never suffered from mental illness or have never loved a person with mental illness, it can be quite a staggering and confusing concept. There is so much stigma attached to the entire idea of “mentally ill”. And that is the worst possible thing for the people who suffer from it. Because more than anything, it is important to feel normal in order to overcome the pain caused by mental illness. In order to feel normal, we need to be able to talk about it without eyebrows being raised or judgments being passed.
With that being said, I am going to let you know some of the truths that I have learned as a survivor of mental illness. I do feel an obligation to share what I know as I have come out on the other side in one piece a stronger, healthier person. I have been medication free for 9 years and I am much better for it.
*This choker necklace was provided to me for review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
What I know:
1. Mental illness is a very real thing just like any physical illness. It is caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain and it should be treated with the same compassion and seriousness as any other illness.
2. Like any severe physical illness, mental illness can very much be life-threatening. People who suffer from depression, mania, bipolar episodes, psychotic breaks, etc. are very susceptible to death by overdose, by suicide, or by reckless behaviors. Oftentimes, these behaviors really are out of that person’s control. I want to stress it here…people die as a direct result of mental illness. It is not a joke. Please take it seriously.
3. Drug and alcohol use or abuse and other reckless behaviors are symptoms of the underlying illness. These are methods which a person in mental and emotional anguish use to numb the pain.
4. Mental illness is very painful. It is a very dark place. It is a very confusing place. Especially for someone who has been newly diagnosed. Often, a doctor will give a diagnosis, a bottle of pills, and send you on your way. It is scary, frightening, embarrassing, and there is so much unknown.
5. Treatment is extremely individualized. And there are countless ways to treat it. Some treatments work for some people. Other treatments work for other people. Some people struggle to find the right treatment. It is a difficult road to travel and very frustrating mostly in the beginning stages when you are trying to find the best treatment for you.
6. Types of treatments include medication (anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication, mood stabilizers, anti-psychotic medications, and the list goes on), talk therapy, bibliotherapy, behavior therapy, psychotherapy, support groups, electroconvulsive therapy, art therapy, music therapy, and various complementary and alternative methods (i.e., massage, chiropractic, acupuncture, acupressure, etc.).
7. Any one of these therapies or a combination of them could work. But again, each person’s symptoms are unique to that person, so each treatment will consist of a unique combination of methods.
8. Whenever a new treatment is introduced, it is important to be patient and give it time to see if it works. However, if sufficient time has passed and the treatment is not working, try a new one. Eventually, you will find the magical combination that works best for you. (This is true of medications and other therapies).
9. It is so important to be patient with yourself. I know from experience that with patience and lots of hard work you can come out on the other side.
10. It is equally important to talk about it with your loved ones, your support system, your friends. There is absolutely no shame in being ill. There is only shame in not at least trying to make yourself better, in accepting defeat.
What methods worked for me:
1. Medication. Initially, medication saved my life. There was so much chaos inside my own head that medication was necessary to calm it down enough so that I could properly deal with the illness. Finding the right combination of medications for me was a long, frustrating road. Either the medication worsened the symptoms, did nothing for the symptoms, or caused unacceptable side effects. After about 2 years of trial and error with dozens of different medications, the cocktail that worked best for me was Depakote and Lithium. Yes, there were side effects that I had to deal with. Water retention required a daily dose of Hydrochlorathorazide as a diuretic. Tremors were a daily and quite annoying side effect (I could not eat soup without spilling it everywhere due to trembling hands). And the weight gain was unbelievable (80 pounds in 6 months). But it was all necessary at that point in time.
Once I was able to quiet my mind enough to try other approaches, these methods worked wonders for me.
2. Journaling. I was always writing. It was an outlet for me to express what was inside my head without judgment from others.
3. Bibliotherapy. Reading everything and anything that I could get my hands on that dealt with my diagnosis. If I was going to beat this thing, I needed to know everything there was about it. (I will provide a list of books that I found most helpful at the bottom.)
4. Talk Therapy. I was fortunate enough to have fantastic therapists and one amazing psychiatrist. Most psychiatrists will only prescribe medication, mine spent hours at a time in talk therapy sessions with me before prescribing anything. In fact, it took her two years before she would even give me an official diagnosis. If you have a therapist and it is just not working, that is okay. You need to find another therapist. One that is compatible with you and your needs.
5. Psychotherapy. Getting deep into the the reasons and causes of what is going in your head is so scary. Self-examination is exhausting. Psychoanalysis is super threatening and intimidating. I cannot even describe the level of exhaustion that results from this process. But in the end, all I can say, it is so worth it.
6. Education. As I was becoming healthier, I started taking classes toward my Masters in Mental Health Counseling. This process provided so much more clarity on the road to complete healing.
7. Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.). Most Bipolar support groups did not work for me. I would often become very frustrated and annoyed with the other members of the group. I found too many that spent the time in session really just complaining about their symptoms and never attempting to find ways to help themselves. Until one of my Masters classes required us to attend an A.A. meeting. I never was an alcoholic so never would have thought to explore this option. But the methods used in recovery were so helpful to me in so ways. See The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. They really can be applied to anything.
8. Knowing my triggers. Discovering and being able to articulate what exactly triggered my episodes of mania and depression was a key component to preventing the episodes from happening. All of the above methods were instrumental in helping to learn what these triggers were. One big trigger of mine was lack of sleep. If I missed a night of sleep for whatever reason, the result was about 3 weeks of complete and total mania where I could not sleep which ended in an downward spiral into depression and often psychotic breaks from reality. Very scary stuff. So now I know…sleep is very important.
9. Art therapy (sort of). I never really attended art therapy sessions, but I found so much solace in refocusing my attention on something artistic. I would often sew by hand and the concentration required not to stick myself with the needle was enough to move my brain into calmer territory. Coloring provided the same solace (I wish they had adult coloring books back then).
10. Exercise. I am not going to lie, I hate exercise. But there is so much truth behind the healing powers of exercise-induced endorphins. At the moments when I literally felt that I could take no more, a walk or a jog in the fresh air worked wonders. When you are depressed, it is one of the most difficult things to motivate yourself to do. But if you can just get yourself started, it is nearly miraculous how much it helps. Seriously, do not underestimate the healing powers of exercise.
11. Positive self-talk. This is so important. When a person is depressed, there is so much negative self-talk coming from all directions. From things others have said to you, from your own skewed self-perception. These “voices” are so destructive. And finding a way to silence them is of the utmost importance. I was able to quiet them over time by reinforcing to myself the positive. Repeating uplifting and positive mantras in your head. Mine were often song lyrics like “Ain’t nothing gonna get me down” and “I’m not crazy, I’m just a little unwell.”
12. Most importantly, self-reliance. Yes, creating support systems and talking to loved ones and finding community are all so helpful and necessary. But becoming self-reliant is the most important. Because at the end of the day, you have to live with you. You cannot escape yourself. You are always in your own presence. And only you can help you. Knowing when to ask for help is crucial, but becoming self-reliant will save your life.
Dress: Old Navy (No longer available. Similar in black here).
Jacket: Fort Drum Exchange.
Choker: Faux Leather Velvet Bowknot Shape Choker (c/o Zaful).
Combat Boots: Corcoran Tanker Boots.
*This list contains books that cover a variety of different mental health diagnoses as well as some that are merely inspirational and helped me through hard times.
*Castle, L. R. (2003). Bipolar Disorder Demystified: Mastering the Tightrope of Manic Depression. New York: Marlowe & Company.
Chase, T. (1987). When Rabbit Howls. New York: Jove Books.
Coelho, P. (1997). Manual of the Warrior of the Light. New York: Harper Collins.
Didion, J. (2005). The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Hornbacher, M. (2008). Madness: A Bipolar Life. New York: First Mariner Books.
*Jamison, K. R. (1999). Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide. New York: Vintage Books.
Kaysen, S. (1993). Girl, Interrupted. New York: Turtle Bay Books.
“Renee” (1951). Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl: The True Story of “Renee”. New York: Meridian.
Schreiber, F. R. (1973). Sybil. New York: Warner Books.
Schiller, L. & Bennett, A. (1977). The Quiet Room: A Journey Out of the Torment of Madness. New York: Warner Books.
Simon, L. (2002). Detour: My Bipolar Road Trip in 4-D. New York: Washington Square Press.
*Viorst, J. (1986). Necessary Losses: The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies, and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow. New York: Fireside.
West, C. (1999). First Person Plural: My Life As a Multiple. New York: Hyperion.
Wurtzel, E. (1994). Prozac Nation: A Memoir. New York: Riverhead Books.
*The books marked with an asterisk are more informational while the other books are either inspirational or an individual’s personal story of mental illness.
And now on to the business of linking up.
Your favorites from last week!
I do hope this post has brought some clarity, some understanding, some helpful tips, some encouragement, and some support to those who suffer from mental illness, those who love someone who suffers from mental illness, or those who simply have a desire to be more educated about mental illness. I am by no means an expert, but having lived through it and survived, I definitely feel an obligation to share what I have learned.
Sharing my truths on the edge,
Linking up with these Fabulous Link Ups.