Monday, October 10, 2011

For World Mental Health Day, On Finding Acceptance and Serenity

When I first started blogging, I didn't have a clue what I was doing. I knew I had a story to tell, but then, doesn't everyone? I was frustrated and mad at the system, confused about diagnosis, and labels. I was trying to build my life back, one step at a time, one word at a time.

I knew the following: I was diagnosed as "Manic Depressive" (later Bipolar) when I was 23. I never believed it. I refused to believe it, despite the fact I saw psychiatrists and took psychiatric medication. I had a total of nine psychology courses in my life, three as an undergraduate, six as a graduate student. I knew about these things, what to look for, symptoms, how to apply therapy. I had various therapists and tried such therapies as CBT, Jungian, Freudian, Eriksonian, Gesalt, Group therapy, Women's only Group therapy, Art, Music, Dance and Writing therapy. I've done Primal Screams. I've been hypnotised. I've spent hours on the couch, analyzing everything from my first memory, my dreams, even my orgasms. I've taken close to 50 different psych meds, and endured ECT all to try to "get well". And in the end, after almost 27 years of this, I've realized one thing. I cannot change until I want to.

It's like the old joke, "How many Psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?"
The answer is telling- "None. The lightbulb has to want to change."

I stopped drinking when I was tired of being sick and tired all the time. Tired of my head hurting, my mouth feeling like it was enveloped in cotton. Tired of sneaking drinks, drinking to oblivion on weekends. I realized I had to stop when I was taking eye openers, and shaking so hard I could not hold my morning cup of coffee. Once I made up my mind to stop, the rest was relatively easy; at least on paper. I stopped drinking and worked the steps. That WAS hard. The first year was incredibly hard. I craved it. But I was afraid where my last drink took me, and on this September 26 I collected my 15 year coin. What got me through? Substituting Diet Peach Snapple, for every time I wanted to drink, and hanging out at the local 24 Club.

My 24 Club has long been shut a few years ago due to the economy, and I've never been able to find a home group since. But I stayed sober. I wanted it. Freedom from depression and bipolar has been more tenuous, more allusive.

One of the things I've noticed, is there doesn't seem to be the stigma with Alcoholism as there is with Mental Health issues. Maybe some of it is due to shows like A & E's wonderful "Intervention." People who abuse alcohol and illegal drugs are tangible to people. When you get clean and sober, your life changes. To this day, I can recall how wonderful my first glass of orange juice tasted without vodka in it. It was the greatest thing I ever drank.

But knowing there is something wrong with your brain-that's a hard thing to deal with and accept. You can change a bad behavior, but when your behavior is caused by something you cannot control- your brain- that is enough to make anyone scared worse than a Halloween story. Having a brain not working scares people. To know that things we cannot understand, Serotonin levels, DNA, can cause such things, can destroy you. A parent may not accept that their child isn't perfect. A spouse can't understand a mood swing, and know it's something they can't control, that they weren't responsible for. The person experiencing these mood swings is also scared and frustrated by their feelings. Knowing it's something wrong with your brain, can make you feel helpless. If you have a problem with your eyes, you see a doctor and get a pair of glasses. If you have problems with your teeth, you see a dentist. If you have problems with your brain, who do you see? Is this failing your fault, or is it something that is not in your control?

In my case, I felt it was my fault, something I felt I could just keep trying to work on and eventually I would win. I didn't tell anyone I had this, never put it down on any job applications, never discussed it with my friends. When I was diagnosed, my doctor told my parents I would never lead a successful life, and he urged them to place me in a state institution, because "there was no cure." I wouldn't be able to hold down anything but the most menial job. I would never marry, never have children. With one broad stroke of the pen, he destroyed my dreams of finishing a PhD, and doomed me for many years of self imposed celibacy, or me dating men who would abuse me because I didn't think I deserved a guy who would actually love me. I felt less than human.

Then I met someone who instead of being ashamed of the Bipolar word, was thrilled he had it. He would introduce himself to everyone with his name, and say "I'm bipolar" after that. It shocked me. How can you be proud of something that will eat you up and spit you out as a shell of what you once were? How can you be happy you were given a living death sentence?

He didn't see it like that. He saw it as something to be proud of. To him, being diagnosed was like his Eureka! moment, he came out openly, and was proud. He told me, I was in the closet, I needed to first, admit I was bipolar, and then-tell people I was. If I had no problem going into an AA meeting and saying "Hi, my name is Susan, and I'm an alcoholic", shouldn't I do the same with "Hi, I'm Susan, and I'm Bipolar?"

I couldn't do it. To me, it was a badge of shame, a Scarlet B I wore on my chest. After this person and I were no longer friends, I did realize something, as I started to write to heal from that relationship. My brain was not my fault. After all it's a bunch of gray matter and if the wiring was different, it wasn't anything I did. I had to work around it. I started to be proactive in this recovery, just like I had done all those years ago when I stopped drinking. I started questioning every script, researching every med on the internet. Did I need this med? Did I need such a huge dose? Another thing I noticed as I began to read other people's blogs, is how different people were than me. I read so many blogs by people in their twenties and thirties who weren't struggling. They accepted the diagnosis, what they were struggling with were meds and therapy. They were at a place in their life, where I wasn't at yet. It made me happy, gave me hope. People getting married, raising children, all who had the same label as me. People who were living bits and pieces of the life I wanted to have. I gathered strength from them, and decided I would write about my life, so people would understand what it's like to be in my head, but also to spare anyone the heart ache, the anguish, and physical problems I've had in my journey to wellness.

Wellness. We all take different roads to get there, but hopefully we all get there in the end. I think I've gotten there. Maybe I would have gotten there quicker, had we had social media back in the 80s and 90s. In the long run, it doesn't really matter.  I've gotten to Serenity, something I never thought I would get to in my lifetime. I still haven't gotten to Acceptance. Some days I can accept this diagnosis, other days, I question it, still struggling. I take every day one day at a time. I may have bad days, and stumble, but all in all, I'm getting better. To me, that is the most important thing.   One day at a time, I am getting better.


KathyMorelli said...

Nice post abt acceptance & struggle with mental illness. What I notice too abt moodiness, etc...people aren't willing to accept that sometimes we can't all be sunny & in a good disposition all the time. Sometimes we are sad, sometimes we are down..and this can happen and then resolve itself with some help...of course I don't think that we can take these moods out on others or that a long-term condition s/b ignored, but human beings sometimes are not feeling up to par mentally & emotionally just as we sometimes get colds..

susan said...

Hi Kathy,

I found that people understand if I am blue, but if it goes on for more than a few days, I'm told to "snap out of it", "quit wallowing". If I am happy for more than a few days, everyone wants to call the p-doc ASAP. Life gives you highs and lows. Most of the time I am in the middle, or low grade functioning sad. Having a mood chart has been beneficial to me. My biggest thing with the serious depression- before it goes to those dark thoughts is isolating. I am working on not isolating so much.

Sharon Pernes said...

This is a great post, thanks for sharing it.
I was diagnosed about 5 years ago and have been very vocal about mental health since then. I wasn't vocal at the beginning, but once I was what I call 'in remission' I began to share my story. To me talking about my illness and how I am living a good life (with much help from meds and therapy) will help others understand that there are many people who have this disease and that taking meds can be life saving. I want to educate people about mental health. Hopefully the stigma will go away someday.

Rossa Forbes said...

Nice post, Susan. I've been blogging a lot recently about how the diagnosis dooms us. The diagnosis is not the cause of the condition - the trauma is- but the diagnosis prevents healing because it inspires fear and hopelessness in people. You've demonstrated how this works, and I've seen it in my own actions regarding my son. I say the hell with the diagnosis. It means nothing in so-called mental illness, bit it sure wreaks havoc with our lives.

Adam Glenn said...

What a great post! Thanks for sharing. I think we are all dealing with our illness one day at a time, just like you.

Becky said...


I struggled with the, "there is something wrong with your brain" and ultimately have come to believe, the reason I could not accept it, is because it is not so...I as you know, still struggle, but whatever my mood--it is not evidence of disease or defect--even when I don't like how I feel or the feeling lasts longer that I want it to.

Over time with effort to change my behavior, and my thoughts--I don't say the same things that I used to when I am depressed. I am certain that is why I do not stay depressed--

One of the things I have an issue with is once a person has a diagnosis, EVERYTHING is then viewed through a lens that seems to frame all behavior, emotion and mood as a symptom, by us and those around us---I believe this is sometimes harmful, and way too much of a black and white sort of analysis; of what in all reality should be, IMO be viewed in shades of grey--and maybe even tie-dyed!

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Astralis said...

This is an awesome post!

For many people (including me) it's difficult to believe that positive attitude really helps to deal with mental illness. I used to think: "I'm too depressed to think positive, there's nothing good in my life, so shut up everybody." And it true, when you're severely depressed, it might feel that you will never feel better.

One of the most important thigs is to realize that when you're feeling better, it should be not taken as granted - you have to work for it or it doesn't last very long.

I'm diagnosed with bipolar disorder, avoidant personality disorder, social anxiety disorder, and I've also been addicted to amphetamines and opiates. After I got my BP diagnosis, and I was told that I need to be on medication for the rest of my life, I felt like I was "in the end of the line." My life was officially over. When I had to leave my studies (couldn't concentrate on reading etc.), I felt like I had nothing left. Then I started to abuse drugs and got addicted more quickly than I could have ever believed.

I've always been a spiritual person (I'm n
ot religious, but do believe in some kind of Higher Power). Rediscovering spirituality again, I started to accept my mental illness and addictions, realizing everything has a meaning, like a lesson of understanding life. I've finally stopped fighting against my issues – I just started to fight for something: well-being, happiness, recovery.

The Blue Morpho said...

A really informative and moving post. For me a diagnosis helped a lot. Being able to put a name to that faceless fear inside me helped me to take a step back from it. That said, like others I sometimes put too much stock in the acronyms for my MIs. It is better to take three steps back, and realize we are whole people, not pieces with labels, and work from there.
Adventures in Anxiety Land

Jen Daisybee said...

Hi Susan,

I'm glad you're still writing uplifting, encouraging posts like these! I agree that we must accept that we need assistance and take an active role in our own recovery. I used to take meds without researching them. Now I'm prediabetic from meds, and I don't do that anymore. I also speak out publicly about mental illness through NAMI and other places and this has helped me to spread awareness that, yes, people can recover, even from psychosis that lasts for years (as I have Schizoaffective Disorder), and life can improve, and there is hope. I am currently having a really hard time, but I am also working actively with my doctor on improving this situation, therefore, it has a chance of getting better before I become completely suicidal. I know now what the symptoms are to look for, and when to tell a professional what's up. It's important that we all do that.

I also agree with you about alcoholism - it is easier for people to say they're alcoholics, in my opinion, because there are meetings all day, every day in most places in this country, for that, but there are no daily mental health support groups across the country. My NAMI chapter has a goal of starting a daily support group, though I'm not sure it will work out. I think the fact that so much stigma and ignorance exists really prevents many people from getting the help and the supports they need.

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