BringChange2Mind

February 2, 2011

Jessie Close: A Late-Life Diagnosis

Filed under: Guest Blog — Tags: , , , , — BringChange2Mind @ 10:29 am

Months ago my friend, Linea Johnson, asked me to write about how it feels to have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder so late in life.  I was 49 years old when I went to McLean Hospital near Boston and was put on several medications that finally began to bring me some relief from depression and mania.

My immediate reaction to Linea’s request was, “oh, I can write that easily and quickly!”  The opposite has been true.  When I explored my feelings about how my bipolar behavior kept me from so much, I felt such angst, such sadness, that I became overwhelmed and unable to write about it.  But I persevered.  These are not questions I hadn’t thought about over the years.  They are questions that stay with me.

Linea’s request brought a lot into focus and caused me to realize that I have spent the last seven years learning how to listen to myself.  The medications I take are an integral part of self-discovery.  I lived many years without medication, then I was put on the wrong medication, and I drank alcohol even with medications on board.  Self-discovery began happening when I finally began to feel normal: not manic, not depressed, not anything but me.  And sobriety.  Then, further down the road, I crashed up against a wall of shame and disappointment.  When I began thinking about it I realized how many careers I’d run away from, how many wonderful opportunities I had thrown away because of either being manic on the job or depressed into a stand still.  When depressed I usually quit whatever it was I was trying to do, when manic I alienated people with my loud and energetic, inappropriate self.

I walked away from a career in radio because of depression and attempted suicide.  I walked away from a possible career in television because I was too afraid that my mood would change and I’d be incapable of doing what the job called for.  I didn’t know what I was dealing with, just that I “switched”.  I ran away from a career in journalism because I drank so much one night that I didn’t show up the next morning for an important interview, with Rosalyn Carter of all people.  I was fired.  And yes, several years ago I wrote her an amends.

When I thought about the past, which I have done for years now, I suffered all that I’d done to the people I love, from affairs to pretending I was sick when hung-over or depressed.  I would see myself in my mind’s eye, see that I was a nothing, a nobody, a person deserving of contempt.  But then, because of medication, I couldn’t run away anymore.  I couldn’t lie down with shame.  I wasn’t depressed so I became productive.  I wasn’t manic and could no longer blame a happy mood or overly long work hours on mania.  I was forced to take stock of myself but it became inherently clear that I didn’t know how.

I was lost in a lifetime of conflicting reasons, moods, real sadness and clinical depression.  How was I ever going to figure out what had been real sadness, depression, real happiness, mania, and all the vagaries in between? And drinking made it all the more complicated.  I remember vividly, when I quit drinking, standing outside my house screaming “I don’t know how to be angry! I don’t know how to be sad!”   “I don’t know how to be anything!”

Even now, seven years later, I search my mind and body when I’m feeling up or down.  I search for indicators of mania or depression.  If the feeling is uncomfortable for too long I call my psychopharmacologist and we do a few tweaks on my medication.  I’m usually feeling better in a short while.

I do believe that without living so many years with untreated bipolar disorder I wouldn’t have had such a difficult time with focusing on what’s real and what isn’t.  I think all of us who suffer from bipolar disorder wonder when our mood shifts dramatically; we question whether it’s the disability or situational.  It’s taken me many years now to figure out those parameters but I’m getting pretty good at it.

January 5, 2011

What Remains

Filed under: Story — Tags: , , , , , — Marc Peters @ 9:00 am

I spent my entire freshman year, at Syracuse University, walking the fine line between manic and psychotic. Finally it was too much for my brain to take and as Spring Break ended and my friends were returning to class rested and rejuvenated, I found myself staring at the blank walls of a hospital room.

I fought my way back to campus and my final three years at Syracuse were a mix of brief respites of joy and the endless pain of recovery and adjusting to a new life. When my friends were out partying or toiling away in the library, I was holed up in my dorm, fast asleep. The exhaustion from the readjustment was enough to knock me out, but more so than that I was watching my sleep habits carefully to make sure to avoid restless, manic nights. As much as I wanted to rejoice at making it back to campus, I couldn’t. My thought processes were considerably slower after my bipolar diagnosis and subsequent pharmaceutical regimen. It took me three hours to complete homework assignments and readings that would have taken me thirty minutes in the past.

I couldn’t bring myself to try and process any of the trauma of that fateful Spring semester. I did not yet have the words or the courage to express how I was feeling – even to my closest friends and mentors. It was a lonely time for me. I was trapped in my own head and couldn’t see beyond my reality of the moment. I had yet to see any college students step forward and say “I have a mental illness. This is my struggle. Look at how I’m thriving.” The only examples I had to look to were the adults with whom I shared an inpatient stay – hardly a comfort.

My last visit to Syracuse in Fall of 2009 brought up many painful memories. Walking around campus meant retracing my footsteps on a journey that I don’t look back on with pride. I still have vivid flashbacks of manic conversations. I remember things I said that I can’t believe. I remember actions I took that shock me. You would think that with all that pain, I wouldn’t want to come back. Thankfully, those memories aren’t all that remain.

I’m just getting home from my most recent trip up to Syracuse. I had the opportunity to visit with the mentors that I’ve kept in touch with over the years, my extended family that supported me even when I didn’t know how to ask for their help, and the wonderful friends I made along the way. The amazing thing about when you are made vulnerable by circumstances beyond your control is that it invites those around you to draw near. Even now, I am so open about my struggles not only to set a positive example for those who are facing similar adversities, but also because it fosters a connection with people that I have yet to replicate any other way.

For those of you of you out there who haven’t been able to disclose your illness to people around you, just know that for all the stigma and misunderstanding there is also hope and love. I still hold on to the painful memories, the anxiety that they bring, and the shame I can’t seem to leave behind. I know one day I’ll have to shed that weight if I’m going to grow into the person I want to be, but in the meantime it helps to have the bright spots too. I’m so incredibly grateful for the people that have remained in my life and seen me through my highest highs and my lowest lows. I’m so thankful for what remains.

November 22, 2010

Food and Coping

Filed under: Story — Tags: , , , , , , — Linea @ 6:10 pm

photo by Linea JohnsonCoping with a mental illness is hard. Living with the thought that this is a life-long thing is painful. And sometimes, even when we are happy and “stable” we find ourselves trying to cope with this fact.

I am about to admit something big. I, as many of you readers know, am very open and honest with the public and even strangers, but this one is very hard for me. In my past I didn’t know what a mania was. In the depths of that hurricane, when everything was whirling around me I tried to find my own ways to cope. I found that my doctors kept giving me the wrong medications leading me to get sick or manic and I decided I would find ways to soothe it myself. So I tried alcohol. I tried drugs. I tried self-harm. And eventually I altered my relationship with food to an unhealthy place thinking that it made me feel better.

That was five years ago. But today, this month, I find myself struggling again. As you know from my last post I have hit a bump in this bipolar ride. I have at this point finally found a way out of the hurricane, but my coping habits have yet to return to normal. Today I once again find myself struggling on the line between disordered eating and an eating disorder.

Why is this the hardest thing for me to admit? Why do I hold such a stigma to this and not to my other symptoms and diagnoses? When I was young I didn’t understand eating disorders. I didn’t know that they were deeper and different things than vanity and our culture’s influence. Though these may play a part in my relationship with food it is something stronger. It is, as many people who are well-versed in ED know, much about control. Control of the changing climates of bipolar. It is also, for me, about punishment and anger. Punishment from an extreme perfectionist for not being able to “fix it” and anger for not being able to control my mood swings.

I find it very important to address eating disorders because I find these very misunderstood in our society. I feel that I am even hesitant to write about it because I still don’t fully understand the jargon, the reasons, and the power they hold. But I do find it crucial for us to have a conversation about healthy coping skills.

So here is what I am doing to try to find my way back to health: I am trying to take life one step at a time. I am trying to eat at least three meals  a day and sit with the anxiety that comes with this process. I find that even eating a slice of an apple is painful. I am trying to make a healthy schedule for my life so I can balance work and play. I am being open and honest with my family, my friends, and my medical team. I am using Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) with positive self-talk and challenging the negative and illogical thoughts in my head. I am trying to breathe.

What healthy skills do you use when you feel your life is out of control? How do you take care of yourself when life is not treating you kindly?

June 9, 2010

Finding Dry Land: Linea’s Story

There was a moment in my life when I almost drowned.

Living in the largest dorm in the country with three best friends, experiencing my first serious college boyfriend, living what I thought to be the perfect life of a college kid, I couldn’t have dreamt of anything better. That is, until I turned my back to the ocean and was swiftly and dramatically pulled in by the undertow.

One moment I was there and one moment I wasn’t. It was as if I had suddenly had my brain replaced by someone weaker, angrier, sadder. I didn’t know where I was or what I had set out to do anymore. I couldn’t understand what went wrong. I couldn’t understand why I was suddenly seeing violent images every time I closed my eyes.

Though I didn’t know it, this was a dramatic and intense case of depression. I stopped eating. I broke up with the man who was, at that time, the love of my life. I stopped leaving my room. I stopped all contact with the world, and whether I pretended I was there or not, my eyes were empty.

This went on for several weeks. Floating around Chicago, the city that I had worked so hard to get to. To me this went on for a lifetime. I floated out to sea.

Then my boyfriend, who was now just a friend-friend, called my parents. He called, and just as swiftly as I was pulled under, I was pulled out.

Completely.

My dad arrived from Seattle no less than ten hours after he was called. My life, my room, and my thoughts were packed up and shipped out. Flown back to Seattle and, in my mind, never to return.

Nothing could have been more painful. Nothing could have been more dramatic to me at that point and place in my life. Nineteen years old and suddenly I was forced to leave my friends, my life, my freedom and everything that I had built within the last two years of hard-earned independence.

I arrived home tired, cold, and wet, water still in my lungs.

The next couple of years moved from an undertow to a tsunami. My mind moved quickly from a “simple” depression to a devastating suicidal obsession. Looking back I am amazed I am even here to tell my story.

In the next year and a half I spent time in hospitals for suicide prevention and for overdose recovery. I spent time in apartments, manic and drugged and depressed and dangerous. I spent so many hours feeling completely out of control of my mind and so many hours trying to fight against it with every form of self-medication and self-harm I could find that I am amazed I have the ability to form thoughts or press my fingers to these keys.

It took me a long time to come to terms with what was happening. After having a “wait and see” diagnosis of bipolar disorder II at nineteen I spent many, many months fighting the label and implications before I received my final, “for sure” diagnosis of plain old bipolar I. My months and years of fighting only made things worse and it took me a long time before I realized that if I was good to myself and my body, my bipolar would be good to me. Who knew stimulants could make you manic or alcohol could make you devastatingly depressed? Though it seems obvious, I sure didn’t.

Once I finally gave in and decided to change my life things began to turn around again. Though it took lots of self-care and finding the right doctors, counselors, and meds, my stability allowed me to live the life I had always dreamed of living. My stability was more than just taking care of myself and finding the right help however, it was also my amazing luck to have the opportunities and support network I do. It was this fact that inspired me to begin to make a difference in the mental health world.

Having spent time in the worst psych units with the saddest cases I realized that things must change. I realized that people need to talk about these things. People need to be able to talk about their thoughts, lives, and feelings. We need to be able to share our stories.

So…here I am today, graduating, speaking at conferences, in classrooms and auditoriums, writing and collaborating with mental health and education professionals, working with amazing mental health organizations, writing a book, and volunteering with BC2M. Through my experiences I have realized that I needed to make a difference, and through my opportunities I have hopefully begun to do so. I am so excited and pleased that I have the opportunity to make the differences that I am seeing.

Today I have found my way back to dry land where I can finally stand on firm ground, and it is here that I will help others do the same.

Photo by Linea Johnson

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