I’m Back

I owe much of my ability to function in the world to this element – lithium. I can hold a job, take care of my family, and be a functioning member of society. Note to my fellow psych patients – DO NOT “tinker” with your meds. After a two week journey through hell and back I’m slowly coming back. If I could sing 🎤, I’d be on the rooftops I’m so happy about it!

Setbacks

“Ok so lesson learned… again.  Don’t tinker with your medication without talking to or working with your doctor.  I know this to be true.  I don’t know why I did it but here I am.  I’ve been unable to work and hardly functional.  The good news is that I was able to reach out to my doctor and set up an emergency appointment for this week.  The bad news Is that the hardship I’ve put my family will linger much longer.  Having a mental illness during a time of such social and political unrest is hard enough without becoming destabilized because of your own misjudgment.  I’m trying not to be too hard on myself but that’s the way it goes.”

That’s the message I posted on my Instagram account @bipolarmomlife recently.  So the question remains, why do we do this to ourselves?  I’ve posted before about the reasons why we (meaning those of us with mental illness) mess with our medications.  But knowing the reasons and making the thoughtful choice to stop ourselves and work with a doctor instead seem to be at a mismatch… at least for me.  Now I’m left struggling to stay afloat and anticipating the process of helping my family to heal again once I’m stabilized again.

I have no particular words of wisdom for this post.  Just an honest reflection of where I’m at and it is very uncomfortable place to be.  I hope the next time I am tempted to make a self-imposed adjustment I remember what it felt like to be in this emotional space and reconsider.  I hope.

One Day at a Time

Please forgive me for the lack of posts.  I’ve no excuse other than my older kids being home with school closed and therefore more of my time being used up.  I’ve witnessed a variety of reactions to COVID-19 and the resulting quarantine we are all under.  For some, the result has been deep anxiety and panic.  For others, such as myself, I’ve been oddly calm.  The cancellation of school and all related activities has apparently been right up my alley.  I love homeschooling, extra time playing outdoors with my kids, and the general slowing down of life.  We’ve spent plenty of time riding bikes, playing in dirt, hiking, and doing puzzle and much less stressing about school mornings, getting to swimming on time, and my husband being stuck late at work.  We’ve no doubt been using screens more too but I find I’m not as worried about it because of all the other things we are doing too. 

It also helps that Spring finally sprung and wildflowers exploded all over our area.  I find Spring intoxicating and it does wonders to lift my spirits.  I was speaking to a therapist the other day about how much better I feel with a slowed down pace of life and warmer weather.  She kindly reminded me that I needed to find another way to recharge my batteries other than an enforced quarantine related to a worldwide pandemic.  Too true!  It’s sad that this is what it took to get me to slow down and recharge.  Advice noted and when this all passes, I will need to make some serious changes to ensure I don’t get so run down again. 

Not all is roses though.  I’m reminded daily, if not hourly, of the suffering going on in the world and all around us.  But for those of us with mental health challenges, I also know that I need to create a boundary for myself.  If I spend too much time reading the news or allow myself to get consumed by anxiety, I’m not going to be able to take care of my family.  It’s only a matter of time before this hits closer to home and our community.  We are prepared for that and take extra precautions to keep us all healthy.  In the end, all we can do is take one day at a time, and that is exactly what I am doing.

Stay safe all!

Reaching Out, Looking In

It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to write to you all.  My goal for writing every few weeks has been difficult to maintain between work and graduate school, but I’m still here!  Lately I’ve been more active on Instagram (@bipolarmomlife) because it’s quick and easy to write a short note of inspiration or even just to check in with readers.  But lately I’ve been receiving messages that have left me feeling rather sad.  There are so many of my fellow readers out there suffering due to the chaos mental illness has brought to their lives.  They are asking for advice and wanting to know how I “do it all” or how to begin picking up the pieces of their lives after yet another episode.  I have a few thoughts about this both from what I’ve experienced myself and from what I’ve seen as a psychiatric nurse that I’ll share with you.

There will always be a point where the magnitude of what we’ve just gone through, be it a manic or depressive episode or a period of psychosis, begins to become clear and the dust settles.  Maybe your spouse has left you as a result or you’ve lost your job or become estranged from your family.  The weight of that moment can feel insurmountable.  BUT if you sit with it and allow for some space to develop between you and your actions, you’ll find that as time goes on, you become stronger and more capable of picking up the pieces.  Perhaps this looks like getting back on medication for some of you.  For others, it’s apologizing and agreeing to go to therapy, or starting to look for another job.  The point is that healing is always possible from that moment forward.  No, you can’t change the past or what you’ve done, but you CAN rebuild.  Those moments of despair will not last forever even though it often feels like it at the time.  Sometimes it just takes someone to remind us of this!

I, under no circumstances, have it all figured out or manage to do it all.  I recently shared my January mood chart on Instagram.  It was HORRIBLE!  Believe me, it was much worse to experience than it looked on paper. I nearly dropped out of school.  Rage and Remorse were the name of the game for me.  Once I realized how negatively it was effecting my family, I went back to my doctor to change the plan.  I explained to my children that my actions were NOT their fault, and apologized to them and my husband.  And then… I worked on rebuilding.

Someone also asked me what I meant by the unconditional self-acceptance I referenced in my last blog post.  By this, I in no way mean that the goal is to be meditating on a mountain-top in a state of complete ecstasy and freedom from inner-turmoil.  What I mean is that we are able to look at all aspects of ourselves without the negative self-talk.  We accept the fact we are all works in progress.  We can summon self-forgiveness when we experience setbacks and move on a little wiser for it.  Self-acceptance is not complacency but rather something we have to practice as life provides us with teachable moments.

I hope this helps a little.  As for now, all four of my boys are screaming for dinner so off I go!

Self-Acceptance

New Year’s Day hike

New Years is my favorite holiday.  There’s something about reflecting back upon the year that’s about to pass and setting my intentions for the future that fills me with hope and motivation.  I’ve decided self-acceptance is the name of the game for 2020.  Last year was full of facing some hard truths about myself and learning how to best set myself up for success.  This year will likely be more of the same, but I hope to bring some more self-compassion to the picture. 

I’ve learned, for example, that I am just not a Christmas person.  I never look forward to it and find the whole ordeal extremely stressful.  I can’t wait to put the decorations away when it’s all said and done.  This year, I followed suit with my plan to order the food instead of cook it myself, as I did for Thanksgiving.  This helped immensely but I still found myself irritable, depressed, and just wishing the day would pass as quickly as possible.  It’s the same way year after year and I’ve always pushed through but never did anything to make a positive change.  After yet another dismal experience this year, I realized something.  Instead of staying home, opening gifts, and cooking a big meal, I would love spend the money on an experience instead.  If taking a trip is not in the budget, then even getting away for the day would suffice.  Going to a nearby National Park, packing a picnic, and spending the day hiking or climbing trees with my kids sounds perfect.  Each of my boys can draw straws to see which sibling to buy a gift for and then receive one from mom & dad or Santa and that’s it. We can spend the day focusing on what the season is really about rather than worrying about getting a turkey in the oven, what’s on TV, cleaning up the aftermath of the morning, and all the other hassles that have become enmeshed with what should be a sacred day.  I’ve been like a round peg trying to fit myself in a square hole for so many years that the idea I could actually change something never occurred to me.  I opted to beat myself up for being so miserable instead of working with myself and accepting that no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be signing up to sing Christmas carols.

My goal is to bring this awareness to other areas of my life I want to change.  What do I want and what can I realistically handle?  This is key when you are living with a mental health condition.  There’s no sense in setting a goal like getting up extra early to exercise before everyone else wakes up when getting solid sleep is so critical for me.  I’ll need to find another time.  Ultimately, when we bring compassion to self-awareness, we get acceptance.  And isn’t that our highest goal?

Giving Thanks and Letting Go

Apparently you can’t put a candy thermometer in a turkey and then back in the oven… who knew?!?!

When I was growing up, I remember seeing all my friend’s parents preparing for the holidays.  There would always be family coming in town and that meant lots of food to prepare, sometimes days in advance.  I watched the mothers in the kitchen and around the house, getting everything ready for their guests and I was always filled with a sense of sadness that no family would be joining us for the holiday season.  I grew up as an only child with a half-brother and half-sister growing up on the opposite side of the country where the rest of our family was located.  The result was usually a lonely holiday season magnified by what I saw all around me – other families coming together to celebrate.  I vowed that when I grew up, I’d have a big family and cook and get things ready just as the mothers I saw as a child.

Fast forward a few decades and here I am with my big family – 4 rambunctious boys, a husband, and usually another relative or two coming into town.  Sticking true to my promise, I’d start preparing weeks in advance.  I’d buy food, prep, cook what I could beforehand, and map out what needed to go into the oven and get made the day of.  Every year I’d make it through but instead of loving the holidays, I began to dread them.  My stress level and anxiety would go sky high and when it was all said and done, I’d breathe a huge sigh of relief and thank the stars that the holidays only came once a year. 

I was not the glowing example of what I had seen in my childhood.  I was irritable, high strung, and well… let’s face it… miserable.  But every year I kept at it, hoping it would get better and I would find that inner peace and joy for the season.  Spoiler alert – it never came.

So this year I decided to do things differently and take what I have come to learn, and ultimately accept about myself, to heart.  For starters, I don’t handle stress well.  Extreme stress will usually trigger an episode.  So rather than fight this truth about how I am wired, I decided to work with it and do what I could to reduce the amount of stress I put myself under this year.  This meant letting go of one of my biggest dreams – cooking dinner for the family.  It sounds simple but for me this was a major loss and humbling experience.  I wasn’t going to be that glowing woman who got fulfillment from cooking.  I decided to order out from one of the local markets and got an entire meal (including breakfast!) for Thanksgiving.  The day before, my dad and I went to pick it up and I was already seeing the benefits.  I wasn’t panicked.  I wasn’t irritable and upset.  I simply felt prepared and ready for the next day.  Imagine that!

Thanksgiving turned out to be enjoyable, relaxing, and fun.  I had more time to spend with my family, a delicious meal, and the sense of failure I thought would come for not cooking up a storm all day never came.  The next day I didn’t feel a huge wave of relief that it was over nor did I deal with the dreaded exhaustion that always followed.  I was simply at peace for getting to enjoy Thanksgiving rather than survive it.

So I guess the moral of my story is this: Don’t be afraid to let go and redefine what you consider to be success.  Yes, it was a little bittersweet to let go of some of my dreams, but if I had continued to rigidly hold on to them, I’d only have gained another miserable holiday for the books.  Mental illness, and life in general, come with certain limitations – this is a truth.  And as often as I feel like I fight being bipolar, I am continually learning to make small adjustments in my life to help myself lead a more balanced life.  The result is gratitude in, frustration out!  And isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about?

Who Needs Meds, Anyway?

There is one question I have heard repeatedly over the years: “Why do psych patients always stop taking their meds?”

The answer to this is multilayered and complex, but allow me to shed some light on the subject.  Of course I cannot speak for anyone other than myself but I’d imagine that there are many who can identify with this.

1. “It wasn’t that bad.”  Once I have been stable on my meds for a period of time and more distance is created between me and whatever episode I most recently experienced, be it mania or depression, the less I can get in touch with what it must have been like to be in that emotional space.  The idea I could have ever been that bad off becomes something I can’t fathom – and then doubt begins to creep into the picture.

“Maybe I wasn’t really that bad.”

“Other people overreacted.”

“It was caused by a stressful event and that has passed.  Things will be different now.”

Whatever the reason or rationale, the thought that I could somehow do it again and make it through, knowing what I know now, is possible.  Once that possibility takes root in my mind, I’m likely to stop taking my medications again soon, or at the very least, cut back on the dose.

2. “Why me?”  One of the most powerful motivators for stopping meds is a resentment over the fact that other people seem to manage their lives just fine without being on a medication, so why not me?  Why do I need a pharmaceutical to be “normal” and behave like everyone else?  There is, perhaps, a hint of self-judgement in this one.  An internal criticism develops and suddenly the act of taking pills every night, becomes an act of self-loathing rather than a measure to keep myself mentally well.  I feel chained to a drug in order to exist, and that is a hard pill to swallow.

3. “It’s not me, it’s you.” In the middle of mania, there is the complete inability to recognize that I am my own source of turmoil.  Everything is caused, in my mind, by extrinsic factors well beyond my control.  Any ordinary person would react as I am reacting to whatever stressful situation is occurring.  This is a time when it’s nearly impossible to get me to a doctor or to recognize that I am the one causing the problems.  But the same mindset begins to creep in during times of stability.  As the aftermath of mania or depression fades, so does the ability to see that the behavior was generated by my own means.  My mind normalizes the behavior and blames it on others.  Losing accountability means losing motivation to stay medicated.

4. “Big pharma.”  This is a tough one for me.  Mainly because I prefer to live my life as healthy as possible.  This means eating a clean diet, using homemade cleaning products, only taking medication when absolutely necessary, exercise, time outdoors, etc.  Along with this comes various blogs and magazines I subscribe to about how to live a cleaner and more natural life.  Rarely do these outlets provide praises about psychotropic medications.  Rather, I get blasted with how I am slowly killing myself by taking Tylenol for a headache and the conspiracy of big pharma over things like cancer treatments or the psychiatric population.  And where does one draw the line between what is truth (there are always studies or research to back up their claims) and what is a fiction and biased, hysterical, conspiracy theory mindset?  Either way, once the seed is planted, taking my medication becomes an act of shame and guilt.  Damage done.

5. “Friends and Family.”  There are always those patients who want to take their medication and would fully plan on cooperating with their treatment regime if it weren’t for pressure and judgment from friends and family.  They hear things like, “You can do it alone.  You don’t need those drugs.”  Back before I was diagnosed, when I was in the trenches of this illness, I turned to a friend.  I told them how deeply depressed I was, not recognizing that I had come down from a damaging manic episode.  I mentioned that maybe I should go see a doctor.  She looked at me and said, “Whatever you do, stay away from doctors!  You don’t need them and they’ll just put you on a bunch of poisonous medications.  You can snap out of it with a little willpower.”  I can’t tell you how crushing that was to me.  I had the sense of what I needed to do to help myself and that moment dangerously delayed my treatment.  Needless to say, I didn’t keep that person in my life for long but for others, it’s their very family saying these words.  And the sad thing is that their words have nothing to do with the patient, and everything to do with their own insecurity.

6. “Side Effects.”  This is a real and true issue.  Many medications come with several unwanted side effects.  I’ve been lucky in this department to not suffer terribly from any physical side effect that would render my medication as off limits.  However, It’s a careful balancing act.  In order for me to express myself creatively through writing, photography, music, etc. I need to be on a lower dose of medication.  On a fully therapeutic dose, I find myself not interested in those things as much.  I’m mentally stable, but also feel a bit dull and I miss my more vibrant, playful, creative self.  However, the tradeoff is more mood lability.  Allowing that to continue, effects my relationship with my children and husband.  The obvious answer is to go back up to the full dosage, but it’s not so easy for me.  To do so would also mean saying goodbye to what I consider to be an important part of myself.  For some, it’s dealing with a bad tremor, weight gain, hair loss, etc.  Rarely, severe side effects can be life-threatening.  Someone may find a medication that works well for them but the side effect trade-off isn’t worth it and there is no easy solution.

This is only a partial list.  But as you can see, it is never just one thing that causes someone to go off their meds.  Be sensitive and understanding.  Unless you’ve been there and walked in these shoes, you don’t know what it’s like.  Remember that.

Coming Out

Like most big decisions, “coming out” about your mental health is one that needs to be made carefully and is oftentimes full of conflict.  I didn’t make the decision to disclose intimate details of my personal life to the world without going back and forth about it for months before and even months after I published it.  As much as I would like to give an enthusiastic thumb’s up to anyone debating on whether or not to spill the beans, I am far too aware that every person’s illness, family, employment, and belief system add layers upon layers of complexity to the issue.   So allow me to walk you through my decision-making process and you can decide for yourself if disclosing your mental health condition is right for you.

I work as a psychiatric nurse.  Ironic, isn’t it?  I work with patients every day who are in the hospital with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, borderline personality disorder, drug addiction, take your pick.  I work with psychiatrists, pharmacists, my nursing peers, behavioral health techs, and social workers all attempting to help these patients put the pieces back together so they can go home to their families and attempt to function in their lives again.  In short, I’m submerged in the world of mental health awareness and care.  My own bipolar disorder has been managed for a number of years now, which is what allows me to successfully hold my job, have a family, and go after what I want in life.  However, that management has not been without setbacks, hardship, sacrifice, and determination.  I have certain limitations I’ve come to accept and there have been times the veil that separates me from my patients, has been thin.  But at the end of the day, I’m just another member of the healthcare team that works to stabilize patients who for whatever reason, have ended up back in the hospital.

I don’t disclose my mental health information to my patients.  Ever.  There have been times I’ve been tempted to over the years, but ultimately it would not be therapeutic for them.  The veil that separates nurse and patient needs to be intact in order to provide the best care possible and disclosing personal information about myself would not only be inappropriate, it would blur the boundaries that are there for a reason.  Our patients are in the hospital because they need supportive care and a firm framework to help them rebuild.  Becoming their buddy isn’t going to help them recover.  Keeping this boundary is just part of the job.

What spurred me to open up to everyone else was more like a slow burning ember that just kept burning until the heat became distracting.  My coworkers oftentimes laughed and shared personal stories at work and there was real comradery between them.  I usually remained silent, guarded, kept my nose in my work.  There were many times I wanted to join in the conversation, but take my naturally introverted self and mix it with a very reckless past full of debilitating mania and crippling depression and it would just about scare anybody silent.  But as time went on, and I grew more confident and comfortable around my working peers, I started feeling less scared and more like I was living a two-faced lie.  On the surface, I was calm, quiet, and very pulled together but that was only a sliver of the truth.  The other side of me, the side my family and very closest friends knew, was very different.  I began to feel the daily burden of keeping quiet about my life experiences as a heavy weight on my chest.  This is when I began thinking about just letting it all hang out and writing about who I really was underneath it all and how my bipolar disorder has both helped and hurt me in my life. 

If you’re going to disclose something deeply personal about your life, then you’d best be sure you’re at a point of unconditional self-acceptance with it.  This was a long journey for me.  I denied my bipolar disorder for well over a decade and it was only recently that I came to accept the fact I have this illness.  However, I reached a point in my life where I was able to look back at all my struggles with a clarity and wisdom that had been lacking in me for a long time.  When I saw the hardship, isolation, and grief I went through, I wanted to give to others what I never had – another person to say, “I see you.  You’re not alone.”  That’s what drives me forward.  It’s the fuel for everything I do.   Don’t forget to check your motives.  Why are you really drawn to tell others?  Is it for attention?  Validation?  Make sure you’re in it for the right reasons or your bound to end up with deep regret. 

Self-disclosure cannot be undone.  There’s no saying, “You know what – never mind.”  Even when deciding to move forward with it, I had my brief moments of panic that I had made a terrible mistake.  I published my post at night with the thought that I could delete it in the morning if I changed my mind.  But when I awoke in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and decided promptly that I had changed my mind, I was already flooded with messages of love and support.  That ended the uncertainty for me.  I knew then that I had lit a spark that might, just might, find the right person who needed to hear what I was saying.  Because in the end, this wasn’t about me, it was about you.  And I’m listening.

Bipolar

Here is the original blog post I wrote, which is what inspired me to create Bipolar Mom Life. I hope it inspires some to be brave and others to know they are not alone.

I debated on whether or not to write this post for a very long time.  I’d swing back and forth between feeling like I should just own who I am and throw myself out there until the pendulum would inevitably swing the other way and I’d revert back to the very private person I usually am.  But I’ve been doing some soul searching lately and come to the conclusion that I put up far too many walls for myself.  As a result, I end up holding back and remaining silent rather than reaching out and sharing my experience.  So in light of personal growth, allow me to tell you a little about myself…

I was about 16 when the symptoms first began.  I stopped sleeping.  Sometimes I’d be up for days without so much as an hour to get me through.  My mind raced so horribly fast that I could barely organize a single thought.  To cope with this feeling of the world not spinning as fast as I was, I began feverishly writing pages upon pages of poetry all night long until it was time for me to “wake up” and go to school. I started imagining plans to build businesses and make millions of dollars or perhaps I’d just flee the country.  After a while these thoughts became more bizarre and I thought I could control other people with my mind.  Eventually, I began hearing a voice at night calling the name of an angel who I knew was coming to lead me on a spiritual journey.  My brain was like a huge boulder rolling downhill gaining speed and momentum with each second and nothing was able to slow it down.  In later years, I’d abuse drugs and alcohol in an attempt to curb how fast everything was spinning for me.  My life felt far from my own ability to control.

This high would ultimately be followed by a crippling depression.  I’d withdraw, sleep all day, and fall into a deep pit of hopelessness.  I contemplated suicide daily – the only question being whether or not I was brave enough to pull it off.  These cycles continued for years until I finally managed to drag myself into a psychiatrist’s office, knowing I likely wouldn’t survive another depressive episode.  I was 19 years old when I was diagnosed with Bipolar I disorder.  With the help of supportive doctors and therapists, I was able to get stabilized on a medication regime that has allowed me to get to where I am today.  A wife, mother, nurse, and now advocate.

When I was first diagnosed, I had no idea what was happening to me.  I was scared, angry, and felt very much alone.  Next month, I will be giving my first presentation to a group of high schoolers about the stigma of mental illness.  We’ll cover all levels of topics from what is mental health and the warning signs of mental illness to suicide and how to cope.  I’m trying to give back to the community what I never had – someone who says, “It’s okay.  I see you.  You’re not alone.”  I’m trying to give my patients at work what I always needed – a nonjudgmental ear and understanding heart.  I’m trying to show people that you can make it through some very deep, dark places and still live a life worth celebrating.

My struggle is far from over.  Living with bipolar is something that feels very much in my face every single day.  This is a life-long condition and I will always have to work closely with a doctor for the rest of my life.  But for all those who are feeling alone today, I’m with you.  I’m asking you to celebrate what’s messy, uncensored, and raw. We can be brave and share our stories.  That’s what raising awareness is all about.

Welcome!

Let me take a moment to give you a bit of background about myself and the reason why I am starting this blog.  I am a wife, mother to four young boys, and psychiatric nurse who also happens to live with bipolar disorder.  I was diagnosed back when I was 19 and am 38 now so I’ve been managing this condition for about 20 years now.  Up until a couple of months ago it was all a secret.  Only my husband and a select few other friends and family members knew about my diagnosis.  However, suffering in silence and alone finally ended for me when I decided to come out and publicly share with all that I have this condition.  I thought about it for months after I began to feel more and more like a hypocrite for working in the mental health field and preaching to my patients and family members about ending the stigma and normalizing mental health care – yet here I was living in silence and shame with the same condition for which many of my patients were seeking treatment.  I summoned all my courage despite receiving advice not to go forward with my decision (which I obviously ignored), and wrote a post on my personal blog simply titled ‘Bipolar,’ which I will share with you all on Mercurial Mind.  The response was outstanding.  I received nothing but love, positivity, and encouragement.  From there, I saw a real need to speak out and connect with others who may also be suffering in silence.  I’m trying to build a community of people who need a safe place to be seen, heard, and share their truths.  It’s time to walk the talk and make a change in the way the world views mental health – one step, one voice at a time. 

I will be as open and honest with you all as possible in spite of my natural tendency to smile and say ‘Everything’s great.’ Transparency will be the name of the game and I have no doubt that you’ll see that personal struggle play out here.  But at the end of the day I am here, motivated only by my desire to connect and uplift.  So without further ado, welcome to Mercurial Mind!