As I venture further and further into the world of mental illness, a world that is still new to me, the learning process is heartbreaking, intense, enlightening, joyous, and infuriating. In order to have a clearer perspective of other people's experiences, and to be able to back up theories with research and statistics, along with the knowledge I have gained through the clinical psychiatric aspects of my baccalaureate in nursing, I am also taking courses which are more centralized to mood disorders. My most recent one was in Mental Health First Aid, and in November I will be attending a conference in depression in pregnancy and post-partum, and another dealing with addiction as a means of self-medicating.
The more I learn, the more I am demystifying the false representations I, like so many others, have associated with mental illness. When I experienced my most severe bout of major depression three years ago, there were periods where my thoughts were so entirely devoid of reality that I'm surprised I was not admitted to the psych ward. Looking back, I maybe should have had immediate care which would have perhaps diagnosed my other ailments rather than have had me running around town, at once counting the pills in the bottles in my bedside drawer and unpredictably flying to the other side of the country to seek refuge in a hotel room where I was uncertain as to whether I would ever return to my family home -- preferring the threatening whispers in my head to the familiar sounds of dishes being washed in the sink and kids running up and down the stairs.
Thanks to medication, psychiatric care, and psychological intervention, I am fully functional. I do deal with periods of depression that take me down for a few weeks, but I am not as incapacitated as I was during my first major crisis. My manic bouts unfortunately are not as obvious, and I am often only aware that I had one once it has passed, my credit card bill arrives, and the subsequent depressive aftermath has me plunging to the ground like a corpse being thrown from the top floor of a high rise.
As I begin to feel more comfortable sharing my journey with friends, family, and colleagues, I realize that false representations of mental illnesses are more common than the promotion of their actuality. In order to smash some of the misconceptions about mental illness and the people who live with them, read on to find out what people with mental illness can actually do.
1. We can have jobs. I feel that this does need to be elaborated upon because I've been asked on more than one occasion, "How can you work if you're bipolar?" I can't always. When I'm in a serious depressive state, I have had to take a couple of weeks off while my psychiatrist has readjusted my medication in hopes that the newest cocktail will be my saving grace. But in the last three years, this has happened once. For the most part, people suffering from major depressive disorder, anxiety, OCD, bipolar l and ll, ADHD, and schizophrenia have productive lives and successful careers. Keep in mind that like any physical ailment such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, fibromyalgia, but to name a few, mental illness has periods of remission in which the person is able to live a stable lifestyle for sometimes weeks, months, and even years.
2. We can shower, comb our hair, and even apply mascara without taking an eye out, if you so choose to...apply mascara I mean, not take an eye out. Unless in a psychotic state, mentally ill people are not slovenly unless it's of their choosing. Even during my worst state of mind, I would muster my last ounce of mental energy to climb into the shower. This is not to say that I spent my time parading my Louis Vuitton bags and Michael Kors accessories through the mall. I won't lie; sweats and pyjamas were my outfits of choice, but then again, not many people, mentally ill or otherwise can really say different.
3. We can smile and laugh even when we only want to lay down and die. I've been told, "You don't sound/act depressed to me." I'm not sure what depression is actually supposed to sound like, but for me, it's more of an actual cutting ache in my heart that takes my breath away. Even as I'm chatting with friends and family, or laughing at something someone said, my mind continues to wrap itself around a jagged piece of metal that slowly sheers away at my brain matter, leaving it and me in fragments of suffering. Tears are constantly pooling in my tear ducts, and one word from someone; one wrong tone, and the sharpness behind my eyeballs will pierce them with such ferocious intensity that I will drop to my knees clutching at my face as I muffle my wails of despair.
4. We can worry about other people more than for ourselves (see #3 where I muffle my wails of despair). It's not my intent to have my entire family join in on my lifetime of grief. More than anything I fear that my children will inherit this demon. I worry that one of them will tell me that they too wonder what it would feel like to step before an oncoming semi; its velocity and weight crushing the human body like a Diet Coke can. I pray that my misery can remain shoved at the back of my brain where nobody can see it, or if they do, that I can conveniently blame it on a sad movie playing in the background during those times when the demon has escaped, whipping me with its razor sharp tail as it travels through my soul.
5. We can fight back. We can tell you that it's not in our head. I can appreciate those who have Jesus in their lives, and feel that He has taken away their mental illness. But it's disrespectful to me and my faith to assume that I haven't prayed long and hard enough, and as such I am still suffering from bipolar ll disorder because I haven't accepted Jesus into my life. Don't make me go there. Mental illness doesn't just disappear. It requires careful attention to detail and some of us dealing with several issues require actual teams of medical professionals. This shit isn't going anywhere by itself now, if ever. Lucky you if it did, but for most of us, it sometimes quite literally sucks the life from us. And if you're at that point of the illness, I pray you seek a suicide hotline, family member, friend, or medical professional.
Do not minimize my illness by stating that it will pass; that it's just a phase. Trust me, I'd love for it to pass too. I'd love for this to be "just a phase." Because imagine how much more I could do if I wasn't so wrought with anxiety that I have to cancel bridal showers, family dinners, and avoid friends. I can't overcome the symptoms of my illnesses. But I can write about them. That I can do.
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