Friday, 17 May 2013

Is it okay to have a bad day?

Seriously, is it okay? And not only is it okay, is it sometimes good to let yourself have a bad day?

Let me give you a synopsis of my life changes. I'm an American. I married an Englishman last August and moved to the UK to be with him in November. Though I've become very close to his family, all of my family and friends are 4,000 miles away. I'm not working, but I am looking for a part time job (that's all my illness will allow me). I'm fairly isolated, but not really by choice. I need a certain amount of social interaction, not a lot, but some. I had learned to cope pretty well with my illness the last several years. I had a part time job which got me out and gave me a sense of accomplishment and belonging. And my close friends and family were there for support and the occasional lunch date. But now...

...I feel lonely. Very lonely. I am able to talk to my sister and mother on a somewhat regular basis and email and write friends. But it's not the same. My husband is amazingly supportive, but he can't do it all and frankly I think he is just now coming to realise how bad my illness really is. I had explained it to him at length, told him my stories, and gave him things to read to help him understand, but it's different when you see it live in living colour.

The last few months the distance and isolation have worn me down. I've been slowly slipping into a depression. I'm treading water, and I'm exhausted. While my husband is wonderful and supportive, he can't play all the roles. He can't be my sole source of interaction. He does get me out some for a lunch or card night at his sister's house. Little trips into town so I can peruse the charity shops, a type of shopping trip I actually enjoy. But over the last few months, I've started to feel guilty about all this. He's out working for ten hours then has to come home and entertain me. I can see the fatigue in his face. I can tell he just wants to come home, sit on the sofa, and sip a glass of wine and let the stress of his work day fade. And so I feel guilty.

I have learned a lot of natural techniques for handling my illness. I don't take medication with the exception of an occasional anti-anxiety pill. (I know the topic of meds is a hot button, so let me state that I neither support or admonish the use of meds, it's simply my choice.) I engage in short activities that distract me and give me small senses of accomplishment. I paint, bake, hike, and play video games (don't laugh, it's a great distraction). Most of the time, I enjoy these activities and look forward to doing them. However, when my illness creeps up on me, it takes a ton of energy to do these things. I have days when washing the dishes exhausts me and I'm ruined for the rest of the day.

So my guilt for making my husband feel like he needs to entertain me all the time has made me try to hide my growing depression. The depression makes me not want to do anything and I'm fatigued. To fight the depression, I make myself do my activities which exhausts me more and the joy they usually give me is tainted. I keep struggling to stay "up" but the spiral down has begun. Crying spells, anxiety attacks, catatonic time loss, hysterical outbursts, appetite changes, and erratic sleep patterns are taking over.

I've done what I consider to be the cardinal sin of mental illness. I hid my feelings. I stuffed down the growing anxiety and pain. I didn't allow myself to have a bad day and now I'm paying for it. I also have been keeping my feelings from my family back home because I don't want them to worry, so they don't even know what's happening now. And now it's getting so bad I feel guilty I haven't told them. It's just a big vicious cycle isn't it?

My husband clearly knows that I'm not well now since the last couple weeks have been a nightmare. We are struggling but working to get through it. In my lucid moments, I remind myself that it will get better. That I have found joy and contentment. That I have a wonderful loving husband. That it's spring and the world is beautiful. We are spending a week in a cottage in Wales next week and I'm hoping the time together and majestic landscape will help bring enough balance back into my life that I can get back on track.

Living with my illness is better than drowning in it.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Limitations: How I Climbed a Mountain

If you have a mental illness, one of the hardest things to accept is limitations. Old adages like "you can do anything you put your mind to" frequently doesn't apply to us. We have limitations.

I've struggled my entire life with this concept. There have been so many times when I know I can't do something but the society norm (or my mom) has made me feel inadequate if I can't. Work is probably the most prominent example. I'm not opposed to working hard, in fact, I tend to work harder than my immediate peers in an effort to convince myself that I am normal, even above average. Up until nine years ago, I held jobs that required many hours, a lot of responsibility, and loads of stress. Well in actuality, I sought out the responsibility and worked more hours than required. And looking back, I am sure much of my stress was self induced. My point is that for about seventeen years, my work life was peppered with everything from minor breakdowns to complete nuclear mental collapses. All because I hadn't accepted my limitations.

I have numerous limitations that I have tried to overcome throughout my life by simply forcing my way through the situation. Sometimes this works, but frequently it doesn't. I've accepted I can't work a full time stressful job. Part time with flexible hours is best for me. I can't run. I broke both my feet as a teen, that coupled with a less than stellar cardiovascular system and minimal coordination, limit me from most athletics. So now I enjoy walking/hiking in the woods a few times a week.

A major phobia that has grown over the years is that of heights. I don't ever remember being scared of heights until about six years ago. I went to an amusement park with a friend and we went up in one of those giant swings (300 feet up). As soon as we started getting above the tree tops, I felt my chest constrict and I couldn't breathe. The anxiety was paralysing. I closed my eyes tight, white knuckled the  handlebars, and tried to go to my "happy place" in my head. I do my best to keep my feet on the ground now.

However, as someone with mental illness, it's all too easy to let our fears and anxieties keep us from experiencing life. I think sometimes the trick is to find a way to outsmart our fears. If you would've told me I would climb a mountain someday, I would've laughed in your face. Mountain climbing brings to mind steep cliff faces high above the ground with muscular people rigged up in special harnesses, with ropes and pulleys and such. Hell no! I have neither the strength, endurance, or mental stamina for such an endeavor. But a little over a week ago, I outwitted my fears in the mountainous North Wales.

My husband and I were on holiday staying in a quaint cottage across from a pair of mountains. We planned going on some nature walks and the visitors guide in our cottage recommended numerous ones including one leading up between the two mountains to a hidden lake. So our first morning, we got dressed, slipped on our hiking shoes, packed lunch in a rucksack, and started our way up the rolling pastures leading to the lake. I tried not to pay too much attention to how far and long we had gone, because I knew I would start thinking we needed to turn back. We took short breaks when I got a little tired and took in the beautiful scenery. My husband would scamper up rocky outcroppings while I rested. Before I knew it, we had come to the lake. There was a sheep path gently meandering up the side of the larger mountain and my husband suggested we walk up a bit and find a nice place to eat our lunch. So up we went. 

As we ate our sandwiches, I looked around at my surroundings and realised we were actually quite high up, but it didn't scare me since I wasn't staring over a cliff edge. When I looked up the side of the mountain, I noticed we really weren't that far from the top. I could tell the climb the rest of the way would be a lot more challenging for me, but I knew I could do it. I started making my way up slow but steady. My legs were trembling and heart pounding as I reached the top. I did it! I climbed a mountain!

I'll never run a marathon or go sky diving, but this chick found a way to outwit my limitations. I didn't eliminate them, but I learned that sometimes you have to find back doors so that you don't miss out on the things that make life worth living.

Addiction & Mental Illness: Part One

As if being crazy isn't enough, people who have mental illness often find themselves abusing drugs. In fact, mental illness and drug abuse tend to go hand in hand. The crazies use drugs to escape their heads and drug addicts will alter their reality so much they start to go crazy. It's a vicious cycle that once embarked upon in either direction, becomes exponentially harder to control than either problem is individually. I'm stating this as fact based on my personal experience. When I had a complete mental breakdown in my early thirties, I delved into an unseemly world I didn't know existed.

Let me back up a bit first. The cracks in my psyche started at a very young age. I had bouts with anxiety and depression as far back as childhood, though I didn't know what was going on, I just knew something wasn't right. In my mid teens, the stress of peer pressure and wanting to fit in caused me to spiral into a couple years of quickly cycling hyper manic episodes and severe depression. At the age of sixteen, I snapped one night and next thing I knew I was waking up in an institution under heavy sedation. I had no memory of how I got there or how much time had passed. It was horrifying. I ended up spending six months at an inpatient psychiatric facility. But it wasn't enough.

The next school year, I was greeted with whispers and rumours and gossip about what had happened to me. The shame was too much and knowing I didn't want to go back to the psych hospital, I started self medicating to kill the increasing pain inside me. I would sneak liquor from my parents stash and cigarettes. I would stay up all night drinking and smoking. Eventually I started getting to know the potheads at school. Marijuana was a great escape. It numbed me, but it made me feel stupid which I didn't like. I started dating a guy in his twenties and he introduced me to cocaine. Now that was exactly what I was looking for. It numbed the pain and at the same time made me feel energetic and confident. I suddenly felt powerful. It was an incredible aphrodisiac for my warped brain. I could be everything I wanted to be when high on coke.

The problem with drugs, especially if you are already mentally ill, is that it makes your "highs" even higher than normal and your "lows" unbearable. To fight the lows, you do everything you can to stay high. So you do more drugs, harder drugs. You'll do anything to keep from feeling low. And many of these drugs not only leave you mentally drained when you come down, but you develop physical withdrawals that can leave you violently ill if the growing addiction isn't fed. Like I said, vicious cycle.

Surprisingly, after only a year, I actually managed to break away from the guy who got me into the drugs and bounced back a little mentally. However, to do it I basically just stopped having feelings at all. If I didn't have ups I couldn't have downs. So I just stayed in the middle, numb. I created a facade so I could function in society. Meanwhile, my emptiness grew and grew.

In my early twenties, I started to do the bar scene. I eventually started doing coke again on occasion with the crowd I hung out with. Now none of these people would I ever consider friends. We did drugs together and partied. That's it. I could let my flamboyant wild facade run wild with these people, because I didn't care what they really thought. I let this fragmented part of my personality take over. And I took great care to keep it hidden away from my real friends and family. I never was high around them, but as I more and more needed to be high, the less and less time I spent with people who actually cared about me. I didn't want them to see this character I created that I secretly hated.

At some point I completely lost all that was me. I had been faking who I was, creating different personalities to show different segments of my world, for so long I no longer knew what was real. I didn't know who I was and I had no idea how to find me. I was tired. Very very tired. Then I met a man. A good man. A man worth attempting to find myself again for. We fell in love and got married. I had quit all my bad habits and replaced them with him and his boys. They were my world. But that was a problem. I basically traded one addiction for another. They were my new drug, my high. And as with all drugs, the high is only great for a while, but then you need more. I needed me. But I didn't know who I was and I had no idea where to find me. The void that was in me once again took over and depression set in...

Focus: That Elusive Bitch

Well here I am writing my second blog entry. Pretty proud of this small achievement. This may seem silly to some, but to those of you like me, you can relate. I have millions of ideas zipping around my brain all the time. I'm fairly intelligent and somewhat creative, but harnessing these abilities is a daunting task for me. I want to try everything. Painting, writing, baking, drawing, hiking, knitting, weight lifting, golf, tennis, yoga, cooking, etc. But I have a deep seeded fear of failure. Even if I know I'm good at something and everyone around me affirms this, I am still scared I will somehow fail. Couple this with my mania and a dash of OCD... Well I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this.

I have at least narrowed my interests to the world of creativity. Art and writing have always been the best outlets for me and where my talents lie (if I truly have any - that's my self doubt creeping in). My brother is the musician and my sister is the athlete. I love music but have zero aptitude. Think Steve Martin in "The Jerk" and that's me. However that doesn't stop me from dancing my little heart out or singing at the top of my lungs, much to the dismay of all that witness these occurrences. And sports? Well I lack a certain coordination that is required. I actually have the ability to trip over my own feet while standing still. Don't believe me? Come on over and I'll sing you a song.

So what do i enjoy doing then? I love to paint! I totally get lost in the colours. When I get an idea in my head and sit down to put it on canvas, hours will pass like minutes. However, I struggle to keep focus on one idea. And I am perpetually fearful that what I create will be total crap. So I get stuck. I have probably only attempted 10% of what has floated through my head. And sadly when the "crazy" creeps up on me, that's when I need to paint most. Since I have so much self doubt and can't nail down ideas all the time, I tend to copy a lot of other works that I like. This at least keeps me painting, and hey that's how all the masters learned, so I am okay with that.

So what's my point you ask? Of course not. You know exactly what I'm talking about. Focus or rather lack thereof. This has always been so incredibly frustrating to me. And another reason why I hesitate to try new things. I have the tendency to start new activities or projects but then get distracted and abandon them. I am notorious for not completing things, even things I love to do. I hate it. I hate that my illness gets in the way of me completing tasks so simple for others. I hate that it prevents me from fully enjoying the hobbies i love. And it's so embarrassing. People will see the partially completed activities lying around my house and they can't understand why I don't just pick one up and finish it, then the next, and so on. Or why I attend a Zumba class twice with gusto never to be seen again. I wish I knew how to explain to people that I am not a total flake.

Now I have accomplished goals, some lofty ones at that. I have three college degrees of which I'm extremely proud. However, the price to reach such arduous goals was high. I had to sacrifice my "self" and put all my energy into my studies and harness the mania I created. This was always followed by a severe depression. It's sad because I'm so proud I somehow managed to finish these degrees with honours, but I have now accepted my limitations and cannot work to utilise these degrees.

I know this is a large part of the reason I don't emerse myself in many activities. The fear of letting the activity take over and losing my "self" again is horrifying. Obviously the down side is that I don't really accomplish many long term goals. And that is why this blog is a big deal to me. If I can actually keep it going for a little while, that would truly be impressive for me.

So wish me luck, say a prayer, stroke a rabbits foot, whatever your thing is and maybe just maybe I will be able to keep on writing this blog for awhile. Only time will tell.

Hi. My name is Kay. This is my story...

Greetings and salutations! Welcome to my first ever blog about living with mental illness. As anyone who suffers this affliction will tell you, the stigma can be unbearable. Most people attempt to hide their illness (which only makes it worse usually), because the general population doesn't understand it. Even in today's day and age of Internet, people don't get it. And frankly the fact that everyone and their brother is taking Zoloft, Paxil, or the like for what is essentially a temporary case of mild depression, is actually making the situation worse if you ask me.

If I had a penny for everyone I know who has taken an antidepressant for a short period of time, well let's just say I would have a pretty big jar of pennies. These normal, average, healthy people are not mentally ill. They do not have an illness that will be with them forever. They will not be learning coping mechanisms, defining boundaries, and accepting limitations. They will take their low dose of whatever for a little while and keep on going. They will realise one day they hadn't taken the drug for a week and still felt great and will forget why they took it to begin with. I am not one of those people.

I can remember not feeling "normal" all the way back to early childhood.  And as I got older, it only got worse. By my early teens, mood swings, severe depression, and anxiety were becoming the standard. I had no idea what was going on and I knew it wasn't normal. My friends weren't like this. When it got really bad I isolated myself. The rest of the time I created a facade for friends, family, and strangers. The character I created was very self-assured and charismatic. Everything I wasn't. Most people had no idea what was going on behind the scenes. But playing this part was exhausting and in retrospect probably exasperated my mental deterioration. The cracks started to appear to close family and keeping up the facade became more difficult so I went back to isolating myself. It wasn't long before I had my first complete breakdown at age sixteen and was subsequently hospitalised for five months.

Prior to my first institutionalisation and even for years after, whenever I was in a depression, my mom who clearly had no idea how to deal with me, would just say "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" and keep going. It took her some 20 odd years to realise it wasn't that easy. And frankly, if you are like me, someone trying to simplify the situation like that just makes things worse. If it were so simple to just "be happy", don't you think I would? Who would choose to be mentally ill? I didn't choose this anymore than someone with diabetes chose their disease. If they could just wake up and will themselves into having normal insulin levels, I'm pretty sure they would.

Well mom, my bootstraps are broken. But I'm still alive and kicking!

This is my story, my life. I am bipolar with borderline personality disorder. I have panic attacks and I get depressed. But I've learned to live with my illness. Most of the time now, I'm very content (I say content because to me that's a state of being, not just a raw emotion like happy). I still have bad days or even weeks, but I'm surviving and thriving. I have embraced my "crazy". I'm not a psychiatrist or psychologist, but I have spent the last 25 years learning to live with my illness, educating myself, making every day better than the day before. I'm not an expert. I'm just a woman with a story to tell. And I hope it helps someone get through another day.

Let's begin...