National Mental Health Awareness Week

What is mental illness?

nami 2A mental illness is a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.

Serious mental illnesses include major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and borderline personality disorder. The good news about mental illness is that recovery is possible.

Mental illnesses can affect persons of any age, race, religion or income. Mental illnesses are not the result of personal weakness, lack of character or poor upbringing. Mental illnesses are treatable. Most people diagnosed with a serious mental illness can experience relief from their symptoms by actively participating in an individual treatment plan.

Learn more about treatment and services that assist individuals in recovery.

bingo

Find out more about a specific mental illness:

Find out more about conditions sometimes related to mental illness:

What does recovery look like?

As people become familiar with their illness, they recognize their own unique patterns of behavior. If individuals recognize these signs and seek effective and timely care, they can often prevent relapses. However, because mental illnesses have no cure, treatment must be continuous.

Individuals who live with a mental illness also benefit tremendously from taking responsibility for their own recovery. Once the illness is adequately managed, one must monitor potential side effects.

The notion of recovery involves a variety of perspectives. Recovery is a holistic process that includes traditional elements of mental health and aspects that extend beyond medication. Recovery from serious mental illness also includes attaining, and maintaining, physical health as another cornerstone of wellness.

The recovery journey is unique for each individual. There are several definitions of recovery; some grounded in medical and clinical values, some grounded in context of community and some in successful living. One of the most important principles is this: recovery is a process, not an event. The uniqueness and individual nature of recovery must be honored. While serious mental illness impacts individuals in many ways, the concept that all individuals can move towards wellness is paramount.

Merely Agog

Mental illness by the numbers

Check out NAMI’s fact sheet, Mental Illness: Facts and Numbers, to find out more about mental illness.

(Thanks to Kitt O’Malley for posting the information from the NAMI website.)

Kiss Me

In my fevered state, I’ve been looping this song of Ed Sheeran’s.  Sweet comfort.

Mildred’s Grog

Mildred's Grog

Oh, for a cup of grog.  Or a hot toddy.  Just when I thought I was shaking off the annual lung crud, I’m back to being feverish and sore-throatish.  Methinks a secondary infection is taking naughty advantage of me.  I’m afraid this means a trip to the quack on Monday if this new development doesn’t skedaddle by then.  Poo.  Ah, well.  At least the first round of depression has come and gone.  That’s lovely.  So much easier to deal with one bully at a time.

Der Rapid Cycle

BrunnhildeI’m at that phase of The Chest Cold/Bronchitis Opera where initial mania (Ooo, goodie!  I get to sleep all day and eat Raman Noodles!) gives way to the longer aria of depression.  I’ve been singing this part for several years now, and sometimes the Dark Solo can go on for months.  As can the bronchitis itself.  It’s a nasty, double whammy.  Sorta like Brünhilde losing her immortality AND getting thrown on a pyre.  Heh, Heh.  That Wagner.  What a cut up.

This season, though, I’m finding the depression to be different.  Not easier—that strum und drang never gets easier—but simpler.  This time, I have the gifts my mom left me to help me through the whole Ring cycle—her almost-new Honda and a small monthly income from investments.

sisyphusI’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—the stress of poverty kills.  The hopelessness and desperation it creates turns a person into a sack of mindless meat.  It yanks away the will to live and leaves said person on bloody knees.  It’s a weight that can’t be shucked off or reasoned with—like Sisyphus’ stone (Oops.  Wrong Mythos).

I thank my mom every day for taking away my need to choose between medicine for chest blight and gas for her wonderful car.  I thank her for taking away the stress of being squashed-flat by poverty.  Eliminating that stressor has already made a huge difference in how I deal with my bipolar disorder.  Now I have a real chance to manage it.

But I still have to manage it.  Last week, someone asked me if, since I had a little more money and didn’t have the stress of my Peer Support job, I’d ‘get over the whole bipolar thing now.’  I wasn’t sure how to answer.  It’s not like a cold sore that flares up when you get nervous and then fades away.  It’s not a case of hives.  It’s a mental illness.  I still have to strap on my breast plates and take the stage.  Every single day.  And belt out that damned song.

Don’t be fooled.  The fat lady sings because she has to, not because the show is over.  This is one show that never ends.

Pulling the Plug

I am What I amAfter my session with Luke Skywalker yesterday morning, I decided it was time to call it quits on my stint as a Peer Support Specialist.  I’m quite proud of myself for hanging in as long as I did, and for staying relatively stable through the stress and uncertainty.  I learned a lot about what I need and what I will tolerate.  But, I have bronchitis now, and that means being sick for at least a month.  I was waiting for something to tip the balance on whether to stay or go, and this is it.

The part of me that thinks in black and white wants to consider this a failure, but I’m not having any of that.  I may be returning to a less stressful life, but I’m not the same person I was when this whole job journey started.  I’m more flexible and resilient than I was.  I bring all that back with me.  And, who knows?  There still might be a job out there for me.  But, first, there’s bed and Kleenex.

The Magic of Showing Up

Collage art, Greeting cardsI figured flying to England and back would give me a cold.  And I thought the spotty sleep over there mixed with the inevitable drop in adrenaline might bring on depression.  Check and Check.  What I really hoped for, though, was magic.  Alas, no.

I hoped a break from this weird job I started in July might help me see a clear path.  Stay or Go?  Jump in with both feet and start setting up mental wellness support groups?  Or resign and look for a position with less chaos, less pressure, less ambiguity?  You’d think leaving the freaking country might shift one’s perspective, throw a little light into the shadows, turn the fire up under the subconscious, but no.  I’m still sitting just as squarely on the fence, the pros and cons equally balanced.  I’m still in this Neither/Nor space—not able to fully commit, but not able to back away.

Sick and depressed, the impulse is to quit, crawl back into my safe, old life and nurse myself back to health.  But, I don’t know if going back is the answer.  I’ve spent the last two months pushing my Distress Tolerance envelope, and now I have this new space around me.  When the impulse says, “Run!” I can actually take a step back from it and answer, “Wait.”  And when I do that, the emotion and the thoughts settle down, and I simply show up for whatever is in front of me.  Sure, I could take this skill back to my old life, but I’ve had a taste of more.  I can have more if I just wait and stay present.

Yesterday, I felt too funky, physically and mentally, to meet my friend, but I also knew it would be good for me to get out of the apartment and into the sunshine.  So, I went.  Allison and I get together to write, which is always good, and to connect, which is even better.  We sat in our booth, doing our thing, aware of the noise in the booth behind us—two very young mothers with their combined litter of small children eating lunch—when it suddenly got very quiet.  We had heard the bonk of a little head hitting something hard and anticipated the bawl that would follow.  We both turned and saw that the baby was choking.

Allison asked the mother if she needed help, and she rushed the toddler to our booth.  I picked him up without thinking, and started doing the Heimlich.  One.  Two.  Three.  Four.  Out flew a wad of chewed food.  And he started crying.

The mother grabbed him and the whole crew went back to their booth.

I looked at the baby crying in his mother’s arms.  I looked at Allison.  She looked at me.

“I’m glad I showed up today,” I told her.

I believe in synchronisity and looking for lessons in the moment.  But, this was a little much.  My legs felt like jelly as I walked to my car.

Just Show Up.

Well, I asked for magic, didn’t I?

 

Dream-Lag

England Proof

£ £ £

1:30 AM.  I hobble out of bed and drop a couple of Airborne tablets into a glass of water. My back aches, my feet ache, and there’s a tell-tale scratchiness to my throat.  End-of-Summer cold, I grumble, gulping the fizzy water.  Crap.

Or is it from Airplane Air?

What?  I look at Henry who seems to be unusually clingy, sitting with his tale on my toes.  As my eyes focus, I see sacks on my kitchen counter.  A big, white plastic bag covered over by the Union Jack shouts “GLORIOUS BRITAIN—Gifts and Souvenirs.”  A midnight blue bag is quieter.  “Highclere Castle,” it tells me.

I look down at Henry, who is purring now.  Emmett is swirling around my ankles.  He never does that.

“Wait,” I tell them.  “I dreamed I was in England.”

They blink at me.

Reality slides.  Could it be true?

In the dream, Richard Armitage stands in rags and make-up to make him haggard and bloody, his face lifted up in profile to the stark spotlight as the audience applauds.  Then, he opens his arm to stage right and looks at me.  Because I’m only six feet away.  And I’m noisy.

In the dream, I sit on a trash bin in the fog of early morning, listening to the ticket-takers at the train station gate joke and tease each other.  Their thick country-British accents flow over me like music.  I sip my good latte from Costa, London’s equivalent to Starbuck’s, and watch the commuters zip into the car park.  Beemers, Volvos, even an elegant Chevy or two.  And they dash (all the Brits I’ve seen know one speed—dash) with satchels and iPhones, through the gate to the train.  I turn back to the little notebook I’m writing in and make a note.

In the dream, Evelyn and I sit on a wooden bench behind the manor house made famous by Downton Abbey.  We watch other tourists cross the square framed by the gift shoppe, offices, a cafe—buildings that used to be stables and workshops.  As Evelyn points out the current Lord Carnarvon and the Countess, indistinguishable from the tourists, we drop back into the stories of our lives.  We go deep, because we share the intimacy of bipolar disorder.  We’re like sisters who own the same family history, a language and context unique to us.  With the sun bright on the cask of purple and pink petunias beside us, we reinforce a gentle bond that started years ago on this blog.

In the dream, I follow Edward, Evelyn’s friend, out the back door to his garden.  Down a stone path past the drained pond (there are ridiculous laws about water safety everywhere), through the velvet Lamb’s Ear, to his herbs.  Sage, Thyme, Mint, more.  I reach and stroke them, bringing my hands to my face to smell.  I breathe in his County Cork accent as well, the sound of my own Irish heritage, and can feel my DNA perking up its ears.

In the dream, I sit stretched across two seats in an airplane, sun from the window cutting sharp across my lap.  My little notebook is open.  What happens now?  I write.  I think things will change.  I don’t know what.  I don’t know how.  This is a marker.

I look down at Henry as he yawns.  I’m holding clippings of sage, thyme and mint that are still green.  “Yeah,” I smile, “Let’s go back to bed.”

Flames Over the Atlantic

In a few hours, I’ll be winging my way across The Pond for my first British Adventure.

I can’t wait to meet my darling blog-friend, Evelyn, who has so graciously offered her hospitality and companionship.  Her eclectic knowledge and far-flung interests never cease to astound.  One look at her blog will tell you that.  We speak a wonderful language that I’m sure no one else can understand.  Part poetry, part trans-continental colloquialisms, part bipolar-brain, we delight in each other’s weirdness.  She was the first person to buy a card from my Etsy sight.  I feel like I’ve known Evelyn all my life.  Here she is with Fred (who seems to speak the same Irritated Cat language as my Henry).

Evelyn & Fred

Then, there’s that other piece of business I’ll be tending to while in London.  A bit of theater.  In the front row.  Agog.

For Hobbit fans, this soliloquy might ring a few bells.  Alas, poor Richard seems to be destined for the torch.  Is it any wonder I’m smoldering?

Evelyn has instructions to box up my ashes and ship me home.  I’ll send up a smoke signal when I get back.

Ghosts in the Fence-Line

She's a FighterA friend once introduced me by saying, “This is Sandy—she has shitty boundaries.”

At the time, he was absolutely right.

I was coerced into a sexual relationship by a doctor who was treating me.  One of my therapists was a sexual predator.  I didn’t see either of them coming.

Since then, I’ve worked hard at keeping control of my own power.  It still takes time to realize I’m being stepped on or pushed, but when the lightbulb goes off, I push back now.  It’s difficult and painful, since the old traumas tend to rise from their graves when I stand up for myself.  I’m told this is a form of PTSD.  Great.  One more acronym for my file.

Like everything else, if it takes too much effort to push back, or the discomfort of it is too much, I bolt.  Run from the danger, run from the past, run-run-run.  But, I’m working hard at that, too—working to stretch my tolerance for distress, which includes the distress of planting my fence posts in the ground and defending them.

I had to do that at work this past week.  I have a set schedule that I can count on now—1:30-4:30, Monday-Friday.  I can plan around it.  I can plan on it.  But some of my co-workers keep trying to undermine it.  “Can you meet with a client at 10:00?”  No.  “Can you come with me at 1:00?”  No.  “If you could flex a bit,” they say.  Or the last straw for me on Monday—”We can wait until you’re ready.”  Ready for what?  To be valid?  To be Normal?

I watched my brain do it’s thing—thrash around with the Ghosts of Boundaries Lost and make preparations to quit the job.  But, then a miracle happened.  I’ve been watching this s-l-o-w shift for a while now.  It’s like my mind puffs out, a little more air in the pink balloon up there, and other options present themselves.  Suddenly, I remembered that my boss is on my side, that she wants me on the team.  So, I sent her a careful email.  “Help.  Do you have any ideas?”

Her response was immediate.  “I didn’t know this was happening.  I’m sorry.  It will never happen again—I’ll make sure of it.”

So, when I met with Luke Skywalker yesterday (my interim therapist), the Ghosts were swirling.  Just walking into his office brings them up anyway—he’s my care-provider, he’s a guy.  The Crypt yawns wide.  He gave me some options—stick them back in the vault for the time being and play a game of Uno with him instead or take them on.  I’m not one for pussy-footing, so I said, “Come on, let’s go.”

Most of that work yesterday was simply staying with the feelings as they rose and fell—terror, shame, guilt, self-hatred, self-recrimination.  There were moments I couldn’t catch my breath, moments I cried so hard it scared me worse than the emotion.  As I write about it now, a sudden swell of despair passes through me.  It’s so strong it washes in the idea that death would stop the pain.  The return of that old impulse, however fleeting, shocks me.  And pisses me off.  How dare those old perverts still have any control over me!

It’s always a restless night when the Ghosts swarm, so I’m heading off to the pool a little bleary-eyed and emotionally hung-over.   But, I’m heading off to the pool.  And then to my new therapy group, and then to work.  Because I’m getting good at mending my fences.  And I’ve got the barbed wire scars to prove it.

“Muddle, Muddle, Soil and Scrubble”

shocked will

“By the ticking of my gums! Yon convicted speaks in tongues!”

This reads like Shakespeare to me.  Just an example of how my brain is functioning these days.

It’s a comprehensive mixed bag, this version of my life.  Enormous gifts and luxury garbled with great loss strangled by stress and cracked open by success.  I don’t have a map for this place.  I don’t know the language.  I’ve given up looking too closely at it because it just makes me pukey.

What I’ve decided to do is just stand still.  If I’m giddy in the morning and too depressed to move by lunchtime, I try to just be that.  If I touch a client in some way or receive a compliment, I try to just feel it.  If I get into my mom’s car and weep when I find one of her nail files (she had millions), I sit with myself through the wave of grief.  If I try to eat a whole pizza for supper and end up getting sick, I listen for the fear that wants to be buried under food.  If I feel a glut of old trauma pushing at me when I work with Ben (because he’s a boy, and I’ve had trouble with boys who “help”), I let it come.

It’s too hard otherwise.  Too violent.  Too disrespectful.

I’m worthy of kindness and attention.  I deserve to be considered.  I don’t have to be anything other than me in this moment.

This lesson is not easy to learn.

Which is why I keep getting the chance to try.

Maybe when I get on the other side of this uncharted, alien landscape I’ll have a better idea of what it was.

Or not.

It really doesn’t matter.

This is what matters.

I’m what matters.

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