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Posts Tagged ‘mental illness’

Few things give me greater satisfaction than having friends (or even just acquaintances) come to me as a resource when faced with questions relating to mental health. Perhaps in part it’s nice to know that, despite my sometimes quirks or slightly “off” behavior, they still consider me a valuable source of information and even wisdom. It’s nice to be valued, to be needed, to be seen as able to dispense tidbits of guidance. It’s even better to feel that maybe, just maybe, everything I’ve gone through can help someone else, that I can maybe help cut short the long journey for them just a little, provide a quicker route that still gets them to a good destination.

I can tell you about my therapists, my psychiatrists (i.e., medicine-dispensers) and medications, the books I’ve read, the ups and downs and ins and outs. I can talk about the wacky ways my mind is able to play tricks on me, despite my hyper-awareness that it can, and a sort of vigilance about trying to think clearly and navigate life from a kind of emotionally handicapped state. I can share the surreal-ness of dealing with others who have been in worse shape than I have ever been, of their living in (and trying to reason from within) realities that just don’t line up with the reality the rest of us know. I can look back on my own experiences and say, “I wish I could have seen the whole picture from the beginning, because I would have gone right to ___.” Man, does it feel good to think that I might be helping someone jump over hurdles with relative ease and speed that I’ve had to walk around, re-jump, and move around countless times.

Again, in this latest discussion, a friend and I agreed that it would make life so much better for everyone if all of us could just open up about our real challenges. Most of us have something, a weakness or an addiction or a habit or an illness, whatever, that we find embarrassing or shameful somehow, that we would really rather NOT talk about. And there are plenty of stigmas left in our culture about lots of problems, including mental illness. It just doesn’t help that there aren’t really clear-cut answers (let alone even questions) about how our minds and emotions, etc., work. The science is much clearer with other health problems. So it makes mental illness still hazy and misunderstood and even a little scary for people who don’t have to face it head-on regularly. If just more of us SPOKE UP! Whatever your shame, your stigma, your weakness, your difficulty, just talk about it. Yeah, unfortunately, you’re probably still going to be judged and misunderstood by some, maybe many. But you could help so many others.

oven mitt

I feel so weak and so isolated sometimes, and then nervous about talking about my experience. Because like most everyone, I just want to be liked, to be understood, to be respected and appreciated. And that stigma can put a big roadblock in the way of that satisfying goal. But I want to help other people. I want to pave the way for less stigma, for more understanding, even for better science (somehow). So, I talk. I write. I blog. I’m open. It can be nerve-wracking and painful. But I’m doing it anyway. Because I’m glad I can help. So call me or write if you have questions or need advice for a family member or friend. Reach out. Sometimes you might need oven mitts, but pretty much I’ll always be happy to talk, if I can help someone else.

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I’ve been thinking about this idea for a long, long, LONG while, and I’ve put it in words now after reading some others’ blogs. Here it is: My mental illness is NOT an excuse for people with whom I interact to just write off anything I say or do that they disagree with. And yes, this extends to opinions that I have that are carefully considered, based on life experiences and, yes, even my interactions with YOU, who are so eager to chalk up my opinions to craziness.

I’m not going to say that in my darkest moments (and the times I feel most ashamed of myself and my behavior) I never say something I regret or that I don’t even completely, 100%, mean. I do. But, honestly, DON’T WE ALL? We all get tired, angry, frustrated, annoyed, irritated, strung out and worn out, and say and do things we don’t mean or that we just regret. So in this way, I’m really no different than any “normal” person, if you’d like to use that easy but non-precise terminology.

Here’s what really, really, REALLY bugs me: when I choose to discuss an issue with someone who is treating me poorly, in an effort to improve the relationship or our necessary interactions, and then that person essentially throws up a wall and refuses to talk because they don’t like what I have to say. People do that a lot anyway, sure. But I am convinced that some people through the course of my life have been all too quick to throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to anything I say. If it’s something they don’t want to hear, they say, “You’re overwrought. You don’t know what you’re saying.” and then either studiously ignore me or what I tried to discuss, or they react with righteous indignation, even putting a burden of guilt and shame on me for daring to be open. They might even point the finger at me outright and denounce me to others. Not cool, people, not cool.

Because I’m that type of person. I don’t like having any kind of relationship with someone, whether it’s family, friends or acquaintances, or even work associates, that essentially forces me to bury any hurts or problems. I like to TRY, at least, to resolve the issue, to bring it to light and talk about it and free all from the burden of darkness. I think it’s much kinder to everyone. It does generally involve the peeling back of a scab, but then that sore is much more likely to heal over and not scar or get infected. It’s worth the initial discomfort.

But it angers me when my efforts are met with derision, nastiness, and blame. I have also tried to be somewhat open about the mental illness with which I struggle on occasion. And that, unfortunately, is seen by some people as a free pass, as a way to characterize my opinions as simply the effects of a frenzied mind. And they’re not. I might end up being not as soft and kind as I generally am (I think I’m pretty good at phrasing things well most of the time), and I do regret that. But that doesn’t mean that what I have to say is wholly without merit. If there’s a problem festering in our relationship, it’s NOT ALL ON ME. Face it: it might be you. Or at least partly you.

Let’s not be too quick to peel blame off ourselves and throw it back on another person, especially someone who is an easy target like one afflicted with mental illness. Let’s stand courageous and brave and compassionate and stop deflecting. Please just don’t write me off. My thoughts, opinions, and concerns have value. Please treat them accordingly.

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In some of my most challenging hours, I’ve told my husband I feel it’s unfair to him he’s had to deal with me and my mental health issues. (This cuts both ways, though, since I’ve also told him during similar moments that if he thinks it’s hard to deal with me — which he’s never said but which I assume he must think, since that’s how I roll [and we know what they say about assuming] — that it’s even more difficult to be me and to deal with me because I have to be with myself 24/7. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could just leave the room or the house and leave myself behind sometimes? Sigh.)

Sure, we’d talked about my issues before we married. Sure, he seemed to be OK with them. But honestly, how much experience did he really have with them? Even I hadn’t had a whole lot of experience with them — at 23, looking back, at least, I was just in the early years. Yes, I’d had some bad episodes, but in part I think I felt they were behind me because they came after some really big challenges, including a major heartbreak and beyond-disappointing treatment by the best friend I thought I’d marry. I really had no idea just how much a part of me those episodes would become, that they’d keep visiting, keep creeping down on me from the darkened attic in which I’d locked them away. But as in those gothic tales I love, the crazy wives in the attic never stay away permanently. Mine screams and yells and sometimes escapes, even setting fire to my life on occasion. No, I might lock her up again, but I can hear her every so often up there, pacing the floorboards and sometimes even moaning.

Nope, if I had no idea what I was in for, there is no way my husband did. And my heart aches for him because of that. At those times of difficulty, when I’m overtaken by darkness and crying hopeless, bitter sobs, I wish he could have a wife who’s not incapacitated for hours or a few days at a time. I just feel bad for him. He’s a great guy. He’s a great husband and has been unflaggingly supportive. I know he’s felt utterly helpless, unable to do anything for me, but he’s there, always hovering and ready to do whatever he can. I always appreciate that. Lesser mortals would have packed up and left long ago, I feel.

But it makes me realize that none of us ever has any idea what life will hold. We can make the best plans, predicated on our best educated guesses and experience, and we can move forward with certain expectations. But life always has surprises up its sleeve. At this stage of my life, I know that spouses can be unfaithful; they can leave; they can change their personalities and life goals entirely; they can even die far too young. Despite great education and job training, unemployment can strike for months, even a couple of years. Illness or disability can effectively rob someone of a functioning spouse. Things happen. And not just little things.

I had no idea what hand I’d be dealt in life when I was still growing up in my parents’ home; I still had little idea when I was a young adult. Even now, I’ve got a better idea, but I also am much more aware that plenty can life ahead of me, supposedly halfway through this mortal existence. Yeah, I wish my husband hadn’t gotten handed the mentally-ill me. But he did also get the really amazing me, who’s capable and really useful and fun and cute to boot. I’m not as thin as I’d like, but I look pretty young still and I’m attractive. Not bad, I think! 🙂 Plus, I cook, I bake, I am a great gift-giver, I’m clever and creative, I pay bills, the list goes on … I’m really handy to have around.

So life has its challenges. It delivers a lot of unpleasant surprises. That’s the case for both me and my husband. But life has also been really good to us in so many ways, and we still have each other. There are yet many good and bad surprises ahead. In some ways, I’m not really eager to find out what they are. Yep, the disturbed wife in the attic will keep re-emerging; I’ll keep locking her up. And all kinds of strange things will emerge from the closets and from behind the bushes outside, even. But I’m just going to keep going and do the best I can to handle whatever comes a-knockin’. ‘Cause that’s life. And since I’ve made it this far, I’ll just try to make it further. 

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I’ve just had another week (couple of weeks? month?) that ended horribly for me mentally. I ended up nearly incapacitated with hurt, anger, and hopelessness, curled up on my bed in a puddle of tears and surrounded by tissues that I’d flung wherever. And something that has struck me (yet again) is how difficult it is to explain this outcome and all the little triggers, inner and outer, that lead to it. I still am convinced that most people do not have the least idea how to deal with someone in this situation, or clearly on their way to it. This even (maybe especially?) includes family members, who have known me for years and have varying levels of knowledge about the struggles I face periodically, but who still just don’t KNOW what it’s like to be me at those moments or how to be WITH me.

I can’t blame them, most of the time, honestly. In their place, I might be unsure what to do or say (and how to handle any lightning bolts that come zinging my way out of the storm) and possibly just find it easier (safer?) to wait until that storm was over, the clouds all blown away, until I came near again. But when it comes down to it, in my own place, I can’t help at those times but feel angry and resentful that few people do know how to approach, how to offer support. And if family members, who are supposed to love me and be there for me, just as I’ve always tried to do the same for them, cannot be there for me, what does that say about them, or even about me? Those moments leave me mostly alone, feeling abandoned. I mentioned on Facebook, to friends, that that medium is a dicey place for trying to reach out for true support. How in the world do we use the one medium that keeps us in touch most readily to really connect, to really help each other, when it generally is limited to use as a place for sharing mundane details of day-to-day life, news of our kids’ accomplishments, and photos that show us in vacation spots or in our best moments? I do appreciate that when I put out that little message, some friends offered their support and care, just saying they were thinking about me. That did mean something. A lot, really.

But in real life, how in the world do I get support from those whom I need when I’m giving off a really bad, hopeless, negative, angry, and, yeah, even “crazy,” vibe? Most normal people would run away, far and fast. This is been one of my biggest concerns over the years as I’ve struggled with this beast of mental illness. I’m a pretty “normal” person most of the time, and people say they find me to be upbeat, happy, blessed with a great smile. I care and really put myself out there to help others. I do spend a lot of my time and energies trying to help those around me. But sometimes life just gets to me or I end up spending too much of my energies on others and then run dry in my own well.

boiling waterIt’s kind of like I’m boiling water on the stove, and as long as there’s still water in the pot, even if it’s only a half-inch of water, everything’s fine. But the second that water boils off, the pan is in big trouble. And despite my best efforts to balance my life (ha!) over the years, it’s still a really tricky act to pull off successfully, and I burn out sometimes. The pan bursts into flames as soon as it gets dry, and I need to be removed from the burner, cooled down, and filled back up again with water. Those are the times I need loving friends and family who, armed with oven mitts, are willing to help me cool off and refill my reserves. I sit on the stove sometimes and whistle like crazy, wondering where my mitted friends are, because it’ll take a lot longer to get myself filled up on my own merits. If left for too long, I stay hot and just get angry.

I know it’s hard to come near me at those times. I realize that. But I know I’m worth the effort. I know that I am a good, genuinely caring person who uses my talents and resources to be helpful to others. I’m fun, I’m generally kind, I’m pretty handy to have around in a lot of ways. So I give. Even just in a balance-sheet kind of way, I’m worth the investment. But during all those good moments, I still fear that those I care about aren’t taking the time to find out more about the few really bad, challenging moments that are my reality just as much as they are the good ones. I want my friends and family to want to really get to know me, to understand me a little better, so when the storms come, they’re ready for a little lightning. Because when the sun comes back out again, it will warm them even more radiantly.

All in all, this is probably true for every single one of us, whether we have mental illness or not. We need people in our lives who really get to know the whole us so they’re ready for the times we’re not our best selves. But it’s just magnified a lot more with mental illness, and society still places a stigma on it, where many people misunderstand and avoid in their ignorance. I wish we could all do better to stop this from happening. I would be happy to keep all this to myself. I’m not proud of who I am in my dark times. But that’s my reality, one I’m trying to mitigate and improve, bit by bit. So in the interest of increasing awareness and helping others, just by being open and sharing information, here I am, baring my soul. And thanks, from the bottom of my hot saucepan, to those dear friends who have braved the storms and held me until they’ve cleared. The world is brighter in so many ways because of you. Thank you, my dear ones.

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bridgeStill thinking about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. Not just for itself, but for all the implications of the tragedy and what our society should take away from it to improve. I’ve also had some family issues that have played into this topic that have weighed on my mind quite heavily. Again, as I wrote about the other day, I am not going to go into issues of gun control versus unfettered gun availability. It’s an incredibly divisive topic and one that both can’t be solved (most likely) and can’t solve all the problems we’ve been seeing in our society.

Individuals’ mental health and happiness is what either makes our society better for everyone or, conversely, makes it more difficult for everyone, if it’s not tended carefully enough. I firmly believe that families are the central unit of society, and I don’t think that there would be too much argument with me when I say that the family is breaking down. We have many single-parent families and many children who simply are not getting the nurturing they need for a LOT of reasons. Families provide an automatic place of refuge and help when any member has a need of any kind. So what happens when families throughout society are broken? Many individuals have no one to go to for help. Fortunately, some have friends and other caring people in their lives who can be a second line of “defense,” but many others do not have that. What’s left is either no one or the government. Neither is an adequate source of complete help. As much as we try to shore up and improve government programs, they simply cannot replace or do as good a job as families, in most cases.

Yeah, yeah, I’m being an idealist here. But what’s wrong with trying to reach for the best, with trying to get our society back to a place where it truly could make people better and happier? Why can’t we improve those lines of defense and help, and shore up families? It would help so much more than anything stopgap we could create through government (and no, I am NOT saying there should be no government programs; I am saying they cannot replace the ideal).

The truth of the matter is that each of us needs a group of people who care for us and about us and who can be depended on in times of need. Sadly (and please, if you are my friends or family, do not take this as an indictment or rebuke but maybe just a little hint of encouragement), there have been times I’ve felt alone and misunderstood, particularly when I’ve been in my worst places mental-health-wise. I know that it can be difficult to understand and really help me at those times, but it’s still worth a try. (I think I’m worth it! 🙂 ) I so appreciate family members and close friends who have reached out at those times to just talk, listen, or do something encouraging and supportive. Every little gesture means a lot.

I suppose that’s why I feel so sensitive to those around me. I can just feel their pain and loneliness and helplessness sometimes, and I want to be able to help. Sometimes I can do something useful; other times I can’t. But I try and I pray.

Each of us needs help, and those in our circles need help, at one time or another. The people who have done the most heinous crimes in society (particularly who have histories of mental illness that’s unchecked/untreated) have needed someone to pay attention and do something. As I wrote before, sometimes even with our best help, because of society’s lack of understanding of mental illness and the current regulations and laws that are in place, the family members and friends of those who are struggling simply have their hands tied and can’t do a darn thing. But in other cases, something could change if a few more people just listened and saw a few signs.

No man is an island. No child, no woman. We’re all connected, and while we can’t possibly help everyone out there (I’ve written about that too!), we can each do a little better to pay attention and be sensitive. We can’t solve others’ problems, but we can provide an idea or two if appropriate or we can simply listen or say something kind or encouraging. We can reach out. Build a bridge to someone else’s island.

That can begin in our families. No doubt that if we are related somehow, we should be there for a family member in need, if at all possible. And those in our other circles can benefit from our improved “radar.”

Just do a little better. Keep your eyes open and your ears listening a bit more. Say something, do something. It’ll benefit our whole society.

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After a horrific mass shooting that took the lives of primarily young children, many people’s thoughts turned to the inevitable questions of “why” and “how.” I also noticed, unsurprisingly, many people discussing in social media and analysts addressing on news outlets the issue of gun control. I’ll save my opinions on that topic and address what actually came to my mind immediately after or right before the gun issue: mental health in America.

I read a fine article by a psychiatrist on CNN that was written after school shootings in Ohio, and he made some fine points about major mental illness and how it is handled here in the U.S. He briefly alluded to the changes that occurred in mental health care in the past decades. Basically, people with serious issues were once confined for life to institutions, usually far from home and their families. In trying to change this system, many of these institutions were closed and their inmates sent home for treatment. While this was certainly a more compassionate and family-centered way of helping, it created many holes in the care of those with serious problems.

I want to tread carefully here. As with so many other issues, this is a complex one, with many facets that need to be considered and weighed. I suppose I should backtrack a bit and talk about why mental illness came to mind after these latest shootings: honestly, with most of these events, it is discovered during investigation that the shooter had major problems. Often, these mental problems were insufficiently addressed. I do believe that evil exists and that crimes are committed by evil people and those who are extremely selfish to the point of disregard for others’ lives. But I also have seen in the news just how often these kinds of horrific crimes are committed by people who have major mental illnesses. This isn’t to say that mental illness can’t overlap with evil, but people with mental illness can do some horrible things while basically not in possession of their “right minds.” This is why we have an “insanity defense” in our legal system, and for good reason. Those who truly experience times they are essentially just not themselves or their minds are completely not their own, once treated with medication and therapy, can experience horrible grief and remorse at what they did while under that “alternate influence,” one could say. My heart goes out to not just their victims but themselves because of what they have to live with.

Our society is still not nearly where it could be in not just treating and caring for the mentally ill, but in just understanding it and accepting it as another illness that some encounter in the course of life. I’ve often said it would be a lot easier for others to understand what I go through if I just had diabetes or cancer or something more “straightforward” or strictly “physiological,” rather than something that affects the mind. Too many people simply don’t appreciate what it’s like to experience mental issues, and too many just write them off as something kind of made-up or “all in our head” (that one’s a bit ironic). That creates a society in which those with mental illness don’t really care to admit to themselves that they have problems that could improve with proper treatment, and in which there just isn’t enough support and help for them among the general population and in health care or other parts of society. All too often, those with mental illness fall through the cracks, even more than those with other more “understandable” illnesses (heart disease, diabetes, what have you) don’t get sufficient treatment if they can’t afford it, etc.

I don’t want to see our country go back to institutionalizing everyone with major mental issues far away from society, away from their families and support systems. But I am positive that we need more real help locally, and more firm but compassionate laws that would help those who might be a danger to themselves or others. It just seems that so many who commit crimes that become publicized were schizophrenic or bipolar and weren’t taking medication at the time of the crime. And yes, in these diseases, even those who are receiving care tend to want to quit taking their meds. I hate to say that we should force medication on these people, but sometimes that seems to be one of the best ways to prevent these kinds of crimes. How we do that or at least make tighter regulations on this is, yes, complex and needs to be carefully considered and applied.

My church congregation experienced our own violent crime a mere two years ago, in which a man came into our church building after services and ended up shooting and killing our bishop. It was a horrific tragedy, and one that again showed that these kinds of things can happen anywhere, even safe places like schools and churches. We were all comforted by our faith and pulled together in this event, but it left its mark. And yes, the shooter ended up forcing a confrontation with the police in which he was killed by them, and I’m fairly confident that was his aim, to end up dead. And yes, he had mental illness for which he wasn’t taking medication at the time.

We don’t yet know if this latest mass shooting was tied to a shooter with mental illness. But I’m willing to bet it will be. And while we can rightly discuss gun control, we as a society and government would be very misguided to skip over a well-needed discussion about mental illness in America. This protester may have been addressing guns, but let’s please, please, please apply this to mental illness as well. The fate of more people hangs in the balance.

sandy hook shooting

 

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I’ve been fascinated for years by how our own minds can turn inside-out on us. Memories can and often do turn out to be slippery and even downright wrong in any “normal” individual. Brains getting eaten up by dementia lose familiar people and chunks of time entirely. Brains that are schizophrenic or otherwise split can create whole other lives out of nothing.

Stories that take those quirks of the human mind and turn them into horror tales or mysteries are particularly gripping for me. The movie Memento is just one example of a story that turned a character’s reality on its head once it played itself out. Oh, what horrors our own brains can subject us to!

But those stories generally just get me thinking about the mysteries of our minds and the reality of life and its quirks. One tale that shook me and just felt more personal, however, was the true story of mathematician John Nash in the movie A Beautiful Mind. For those who haven’t seen it, skip over this paragraph. But those of you who have will know what I’m talking about: Nash is schizophrenic and ends up realizing that he’s created people and scenarios in his life that are completely fictional — nonexistent. The story here is that Nash, against all advice, decided to just will himself into getting rid of his symptoms, telling himself over and over again that the people he thought were friends simply were not there, even though he could see them.

I love how Ron Howard fashioned this film: he takes the viewers right into Nash’s “reality” and makes us believe that what he sees is real. And it’s not. It’s absolutely shocking, jarring, to find out that what we saw and accepted as truth was not real.

As I’ve learned over the years that some of the feelings I experience — depression, despair, racing thoughts, and so on — are actually just symptoms of out-of-whack brain chemistry, I’ve come to appreciate just how scary it is to be under the control of a brain that is not in itself in control. At times, I’ve been able to kind of step away from my own feelings for a bit and coolly and rationally observe that they are simply constructs of my biology. Some moments I’ve felt extreme sadness or irritability have had no logical basis in reality; they haven’t been caused by any external event that would normally make someone feel sad or angry. I’ve found some comfort in those times I’ve been able to do that; it hasn’t changed entirely how I felt, but it’s made me realize that my biology has hijacked my mind and that I don’t have to be completely a slave to it.

But it’s unnerving nonetheless to know that my brain — basically the seat of who I am — is a traitor. It takes me places I don’t want or need to go. It terrorizes me.

No, I don’t hallucinate. I don’t experience some of the particularly challenging effects of certain brain disorders. But from my own experience, and thanks to that window into Nash’s world that Howard created, I can certainly empathize with those who do experience that. It’s harrowing.

We rely so much on our mind, on our memories, on everything that we’ve stored within and taught our brains. We expect our minds to be infallible, to always tell the truth. We expect them to reflect reality. Because reality is what we think we’ve always lived. But what if our minds aren’t storing memories quite as neatly as we’d thought? What if they are reflecting to us a life in a funhouse mirror?

I guess I’d like to thank my brain for mostly getting it right (I think …). And I’d like to make others aware that some people’s brains just don’t do what they should. That reality is not always real for everyone, that even depression is a state that feels absolutely and terribly real to its sufferer but looks very different on the outside in everyone else’s reality. That sometimes we have to visit someone else’s world so we can help them leave it behind. A bridge must be made between the two realities.

I’m grateful for the people who have taken the time to try to understand my reality, to try to empathize so they can offer the right words or gestures of help. I’m hoping that in writing about my particular mind and where it’s led me, it might help others as they build those bridges.

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