How Outsiders Can Help

One of the biggest worries of a mentally ill person is that they are a terrible burden on their friends and family. As an outsider, most of what you can contribute is verbal. Regularly remind your loved one that they are not a burden, they are not going to lose you, you love them, and that it’s okay to be upset. Physical contact is also very powerful: a hand on the back, a squeeze of the hand, or a hug can make an enormous difference in the current mental state of your loved one in crisis. If it’s appropriate to your relationship, lay with them and hold them, or let them put their head in your lap so that you can pet the side of their head. This sounds very basic and very infantile, but the difference you’ll make is enormous. Just being present with your sick loved one is powerful. Try to listen without judgment, and try not to give advice, only reassurance that they’re safe and loved. If your loved one is very sick and not making good choices, keep them at home. Even a trip to the grocery store could be catastrophic for their state of being. If they’re not making sense, do not let them cook or drive, and keep a close eye on them to keep them safe.

If your loved one is suicidal, take them immediately to the emergency room, because they’re going to need to Continue reading

Practical Advice For Living Successfully With A Mental Illness

There is a multitude of things I had to learn to manage when I got sick. There are many practical, everyday tasks that must be fulfilled in order to stay in the game. In all of my trial-and-error learning, I’ve figured out some very crucial things. If you’re mentally ill, I hope you learn to do all of these things too.Above the Spiral CC

The first and biggest is managing medicine. You have to take every dose at the right time every day, or it’s not going to work for you. If you feel like your medicine isn’t helping, this may be the culprit. Even the perfect medication only works if you put it in your body on time, every single day, and that is a much bigger undertaking than one would assume. I strongly recommend putting alarms on your phone for every dose-time. When I started, I had to put a backup alarm on, too, for ten minutes after my dose-time, because I got used to hearing the alarm, turning it off, and then forgetting about it and not taking my medication. If your memory is impaired (as mine is), this will be even more challenging, but if you stick to this routine, you will eventually Continue reading

Sometimes I Can Only Sit And Feel Hard Things

Since my mental illnesses presented 12 years ago, I haven’t been able to do much. This website is the largest thing I’ve accomplished since I was 19, and I’ve only been able to do this by building it slowly, little by little. It has taken me over a year. There are whole weeks when I make no progress. The past year has been more productive than I’ve been in a long time and has been the easiest year to handle since I was diagnosed. For that, I am incredibly grateful. Living well with mental illness takes skills, and I’m working on mine every day. I am making progress.Sunflower CC

In college, I abandoned school in the middle of spring semester four out of four years. Springtime always makes my symptoms more intense and sometimes even unbearable. Most of my time at Oberlin I couldn’t do simple self-care tasks like laundry, or go to class or parties; I basically could do nothing but stay in my room, sit, and try to cope. Sometimes I’d use an episode to make a painting, and god, those paintings born of episodes are the darkest ones I’ve made. None of them are on this site yet, and I burned many of them one night during a manic episode. I thought it would be cleansing. It was just destructive. I get a lot of “great” ideas when I’m manic, and Continue reading

The Abnormal Life

 

A person with multiple severe mental illnesses, like myself, will never lead a “normal” life. We are not neurotypical, and cannot lead neurotypical lives. We live our own special brand of lives. These lives can be worthwhile, rich, and rewarding, even though they do contain immense suffering.

Of course, trying to get as close to normal as possible is the first big goal of treatment. Medicine, therapy, and coping skills are meant to help minimize symptoms and pain. Medication is more than half the battle, so seeing a psychiatrist and making sure you keep up to date on prescriptions is the biggest single step you can take. If you do not yet have medical treatment, you will need to work out a plan to get to a psychiatry appointment. You can involve loved ones in this. Do not be shy about asking for help. Your quality of life is on the line, and I guarantee you that you have at least one person in your life who does not want you to suffer. Ask that person to take you to the doctor. You deserve to have treatment. You deserve to live in less pain. You deserve to have your needs met.

Finding the right medicine can take time, but sticking with it until your cocktail is correct is worth the time and suffering of the trial and error process. The long-term goal is remission, and the short-term goal is the amelioration of pain. It can feel hopeless, but please don’t give up. Continue reading

Can A Bipolar Person Ever Be Happy?

I’m happy. Not always. Not even every week. But my life has meaning, regardless of how ill or healthy I am in the moment. Because of this, on days when I feel normal, I am happy.

I’m from Texas. I’m on disability income because of bipolar, and I live in my hometown. I have a healthy sense of self, loving friends, a cat, a good psychiatrist, a great therapist, and parents who live nearby. I also have mixed-state episodes, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, psychotic episodes, dissociation, random pains and sometimes insomnia. Sometimes I also have suicidal ideation.

My life now, at 31, is better than it has ever been.

Episodes are awful (I’m heading into one right now, and I am not at all excited about it). My brain’s response to stress is to shut down completely, dissociate, hallucinate, panic, and cry. My body shakes and spasms, I get dizzy and lightheaded, and I have very uncomfortable physical sensations. Because of this, I do not hold up at all in the workplace. No one really appreciates that kind of behavior on the job. I was lucky enough to get granted disability, which lets me live with just enough money to get by. I can’t make any “fun” purchases, but I can pay for my rent, electricity, and Netflix. I save what I can to make occasional “major” purchases, like getting an eye exam for a contacts prescription, which is what I’m saving up for now. I do struggle sometimes. But I’m satisfied.

When I was 18 I was on top of the world. I graduated high school in the top 5% of my class, I had won several contests for classical singing, and I was accepted to a handful of colleges, including Oberlin Conservatory, which is world renowned for their undergraduate vocal program. I had tons of friends, and I had high self-esteem and a fun life. I went off to college at Oberlin and the fun intensified. There were so many interesting people and ideas that were brand new to me. I turned 19, and after a couple months, bipolar presented. All of those happy and wonderful things, bit by bit, were taken from me.

Between 19 and 30, I longed to go back to age 18. It was the happiest I’d ever been. When I turned 31, I shifted into the new “best” time in my life. I am happier now than I was at 18. My happiness is deeper and more fulfilling. My life is beautiful. But that is not the important part.

The important part is that I still have episodes. I still have depression. I still have severe psychosis, dissociation, anxiety, paranoia, and panic. I have to find my happiness in the time between episodes. I am so lucky that I get to have those times now; for years I did not. It took 11 years to find the right combination of medicine, and 4 years of weekly therapy to learn enough coping tools to not jump straight to suicidal ideation in episodes. But I did it. Now I’m here.

Not having a job is not the worst thing in the world. I used to feel guilty for accepting government help as well as the help of my family before I realized that societies and families exist for the purpose of us keeping each other safe and alive. That is the point of communities and social support systems. I would have died if I did not accept the help that was offered.

My work is keeping myself healthy. I have to exercise, eat well, stay on a sleep schedule, take all my medicine on time, shower, do laundry, go to all my appointments, and socialize with someone in person at least once a week. Those things take up every bit of my ability, and I can’t achieve all of them every day. If I’m depressed, for example, I can eat and sleep, and maybe shower. My overall goal is to do all those things when I am expected to, but it is important and healthy to lower your expectations of yourself when you’re struggling with mental illness symptoms. I do all the work I am able to do, and I adjust according to my current capabilities.

I’m glad to not have a job. I would be having episodes every day, and I don’t like that idea at all. I also like being able to determine my own priorities for how I spend my time. In the time between episodes, things can feel so wonderful, and I’m free to do things like write on Quora, go for walks, or work on my website. I am very sensitive to the moments when I feel okay or calm. I’m able to be grateful for a happy thought or feeling. I can pay close attention to the good. Mindfulness helps me tremendously with that.

Even though I can still feel miserable, I am at peace with my symptoms. I will probably have them for the rest of my life and will need to stay on top of my treatment. In all the healthy minutes, hours, or days I am granted, I am able to see how lucky I am. I’m living my own personal happily ever after, just with the addition of episodes of misery. When the episode goes away, my happiness comes back. My real life is beautiful. I often can’t see that in episodes. Sometimes I believe things are so bad that I should kill myself. But when the storm passes, I get my life back, and it’s still beautiful.

So yes, there are bipolar people who are still sick and have good lives. I can be happy, and then sick, and then happy again. My life’s work is staying alive, and I’m even starting to get good at it. This website is a byproduct of exactly that. It’s all about survival at first. Once you get past survival, it becomes about living. Here I am, happy. Here I am, living.

 

Continue reading

Can Two People with Mental Illness Be Friends?

 

It can be excellent for people with the same mental illness to be around each other or be friends. This is beneficial is because those two people will have something in common that most people are not familiar with. They will be able to share coping skills, insights, affirming words of wisdom, and empathy. Because of having a shared perspective, mentally ill friends are more likely to feel less alone in their struggle because they have a friend by their side who has struggled in the same ways they do.

For example, during my last stay in a psychiatric hospital (in 2008), seven of the other nine people on the ward were bipolar like me. We had a very good and helpful time with each other by sitting around sharing our stories. I think I healed more from spending time with them than from the daily group therapy sessions. There was no infighting or hostility. Some bipolar people are mean or hostile, but it is not a symptom of bipolar. Those people would be mean and hostile without bipolar. Basically, some people just suck, and some of the people who suck happen to be bipolar (or blonde, or Chinese, or left-handed, or optimistic… get it?). It was incredibly helpful to me to be around all these vastly different people who shared my struggle. Some of them were people I never would have talked to on my own, but since we had this massive thing in common, I gained wisdom from everyone there, even those who had very different opinions, levels of education, and political leanings than I do. Continue reading

Hallucinations

My favorite hallucination I’ve ever had was a flock of black angels flying over the highway. I leaned out my window to look as we drove under them. I was severely sleep deprived, manic, and on a medication that I hadn’t yet figured out was affecting me badly, so I didn’t know right away that it wasn’t real. Usually, I can fact-check and try to reason through the situation if something comes up that doesn’t make sense. These angels felt very real to me. I got to watch them for about 45 seconds before they were gone, and because they disappeared, I could confirm that it had been a hallucination.

My hallucinations are caused primarily by bipolar episodes and sleep deprivation. Depression can sometimes play a role, and mania is a guaranteed hallucination factory. Sleep deprivation, though, causes the most intense visions, and they last all day. I’ll see smoke billowing in the air everywhere I go, people dressed in black walking up and down stairs, hundreds of birds in the sky, and bugs on my skin. Less often I have auditory or olfactory hallucinations, where I hear or smell things. Least often I have the physical sensation of touch. That one throws me for a loop every time.Meeting Myself CC

There are good, bad, and irrelevant hallucinations. Now that I’m on beneficial medication, most of mine are just irrelevant; they don’t actually impact my life. I count myself lucky for that. Most people who hallucinate don’t know or believe they’re hallucinating at the time it happens. I don’t know immediately, but I can often use logic to determine what’s real and what’s not. Continue reading

Suicide; The Perpetual Question Mark

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The truly tempting thing about suicide is that it’s a solution to pretty much everything. Not a constructive solution or a solution other people want you to use, but still a solution. We can opt out. Once you realize you’re strong enough to end your own life, that knowledge will never go away. When you’re happy and engaged in life, that knowledge makes your life better because of the profound meaning there is to be found in the awareness of death and the empowerment of choosing to live. But when you’re feeling awful and you get to feeling awful enough that you think you’d do anything to change the way you feel, the knowledge that you could kill yourself becomes lethally dangerous.

Suicidal ideation is a very dangerous symptom. It can be caused situationally or purely chemically; by life events or medicine and chemical imbalance. If you’re experiencing suicidal ideation, it can be tremendously difficult to ask for help. If you’re past ideation and you’re fully suicidal, seize any moment of doubt in your plan that you find and TELL SOMEONE. There are way worse things than going to a hospital. If you’re strong enough to kill yourself, you’re definitely strong enough for a 3-day hold. Sometimes those three days is all it takes to restart your life. You see a psychiatrist and a therapist, and they prescribe medicine and evaluate you during your stay to make sure the medicine is working and you are safe from self-harm. You go to the hospital to get better.

I’ve had two failed suicide attempts and three psychiatric hospital stays. The first attempt Continue reading

Helped, but not cured

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With episodes, no matter how many tools I use, I still hurt deeply. I cannot be cured. The goal of medicine and coping strategies in my case is to ameliorate my symptoms, not eliminate them. I do have good days. Sometimes I can string them together for a while, but this is how my brain works, and I don’t get to trade it in. Sometimes the idea of living sick for the rest of my life makes me very, very depressed. It can even lead to a thought spiral, which in its own right can trigger an episode.

I can lessen my pain; I cannot eliminate it. Having to live in this consciousness has the unfortunate consequence of being aware that I’m in pain. It’s deep and broad, and sometimes I get swallowed up and go very far away. So far I’ve always come back.

I’ve tried to kill myself twice. The first was hanging; my neck didn’t break and I got caught and was cut down. The second was an overdose of lithium. I planned that one much more thoroughly, and it was not at all an impulse decision. I had to wait two weeks after I finalized my plan so that I could get my refill and have enough to take ten grams or 10,000 milligrams. Eight grams is the lethal dose. I don’t know why I survived, but I’m sure my liver is shot. The good news for me is that it’s only been two times that I’ve tried to commit suicide in the course of eleven years, and my last attempt was only two years into my diagnosis.

Almost everything is much easier now. I’m able to handle my episodes with more strength and sometimes even grace. There is a steep learning curve in bipolar and mental illness, and you have to master things like pharmacies, insurance, doctors, prescriptions, refills and of course your own survival skills that you build as you grow. I know now that I have to be my own advocate as a patient because getting health care of any kind is not a “customer is always right” situation. You either work the system the way it is, or you go without.

Not being cured of bipolar, ever, is discouraging in the extreme. I have to be vigilant with my meds, my exercise, my diet, my sleep schedule, and my mindfulness in order to stay alive. Then, depending on the day, I throw in some other coping tools to help whatever needs helping. I’ve made it to thirty-one years old and twelve years bipolar. I’m pretty damn proud of that.

By Emily Harrington