“I am Bipolar” vs. “I have Bipolar Disorder”—Not Just Semantics.

It happened several years ago.  I was working through some difficulties with my medication.  It became an issue at work.  I had to miss almost two weeks of work.  Finally, I told my boss and she was understanding.   And so it went.  I started to tell people about my illness.

One day, I was out with two co-workers and I hadn’t yet told them. Somehow it came up over the course of the conversation.  Here’s how it happened.

“I am bipolar” I said.  Simple statement.  But, my coworker’s response changed everything.

“You HAVE bipolar disorder.  It isn’t who you ARE.”

I think a lot of people see having a mental illness in the first way I said it.  It is what defines them: either in their own eyes or how other people view them.  And that statement is often true.  You say someone is bipolar and then…you think to yourself…that explains everything…you forget every other aspect that makes that person who they are.

The problem with this perception is that it doesn’t provide a window into the reality of living with a mental illness.  I ran a marathon.  I have been a teacher.  I adore fashion.  I love travel.  I socialize with friends.  I went to a highly regarded university.  Wait…that sounds like a “normal” life.

I am in no way saying that my life has been perfect or easy or what has been traditionally defined a “normal”. My illness has had a profound affect on my life.  No doubt mania left untreated could destroy my life.  The depression has been at times debilitating.  But, if I take my medication and work really hard at it, my life can pretty much resemble a “normal” life.

We elevate survivors of cancer as courageous.  Their battle is difficult.  Their battle has been physical.  Mine mental.  But, the brain is part of our body too.  It is just the least understood and we fear what we don’t understand.

Saying I am bipolar is just part of me.  It doesn’t define me.

I will continue to put the term normal in quotes. I read somewhere that mental illness counts for 30% of all medical disabilities.  That’s a significant number.  Question: Would we call someone “abnormal” if they had cancer?

I’ll Deal With It Later: Finances in America

Another piece of mail.  Throw it in the unopened stack.  This is the way I lived for a very long time.

Then, the late fees started.  Calls from the creditors came.  My credit rating plummeted.  The heat got shut off.  My phone was disconnected.  My mom had to settle a small credit card judgment that came in the mail.  I was in my mid twenties.  Why was this happening?

In my case, I was making money but didn’t want to deal with bills.  It seemed like such a chore to take out my checkbook, write a check, put a stamp on the envelope.  Who has time to buy stamps?  A budget?  What’s that?

It was so much more fun to go out and drink or buy clothes.  Charge please.  Those were my symptoms manifested in my own life.

But, what about individuals  all across America without  a diagnosis? Buy now. Pay later.  We are an instant gratification culture.  As consumers and as a government.  Our collective mental wellness is flawed.

I don’t have a sound understanding of the fiscal cliff debate.  I know three things we need: more tax revenue, smart budget cuts and responsible tax cuts for working families.  These ideas aren’t new at all. But, I know the government needs to think smart and act now.  This is the new (or not so new) normal though.  We have let debt spiral out of control because we can’t step back and make the hard decisions.  Compromise.  That is what we teach our kids. I’ll deal with it later…is unacceptable.

First issue: more revenue.  Our government needs a balanced budget and the only way to get there is by finding ways to generate revenue.  Taxing the wealthy at a higher rate so we can provide more government programs is an essential part of living in a democracy.  It is the morally right thing to do.

Second issue: smart budget cuts.  Here is where in the real problem lies.  The government won’t cut defense spending but it is willing to make large cuts to education, social service and health programs.   The argument for streamlining federal, state and local government bureaucracy is a good one but…

Want a less violent society? Education and early intervention.  Want a more productive workforce? Education and workplace wellness programs. Want innovation?  K-12 education and investments in higher education.  Want workers to show up to work at all? Afford health care.

Third issue: responsible tax cuts for working families.  Families struggling to make ends meet need the Child Tax credit and the Earned Income Tax credit.  It is one of the ways to bring families out of poverty and keep money going into our communities and local economies.

Our government needs to act but we as consumers need to act.  We can’t keep spending and spending.  If we want to raise taxes on the wealthy, those of us in the lower income brackets need to also start thinking about our responsibility to spend wisely.

Homeland: A Real, Raw Portrayal of Bipolar Disorder

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Spoiler alert…

It is clear that the writers of Homeland have done their research.  Claire Danes plays Carrie who is at the same time brilliant and troubled.  Carrie is a CIA analyst trying to uncover a American POW who has been turned.  Her theories stretch the boundaries between what is considered plausible and a real reach…

Carrie has hidden her disorder from her colleagues (the viewer must suspend disbelief here…this would never go undiscovered in the actual CIA).  How many of us have had to hide our illness from our employers?  Her friend discovers her antipsychotic Clozapine and she dismisses it.  I have a mood disorder, so what?

The mood disorder only becomes a problem (there are also some substance abuse and insecurities but I won’t elaborate…) when she gets a concussion as the result of explosion due to a bomb.  She becomes manic.  It was a little unclear to me whether it was the concussion, a medication issue or both.

Her close friend finds her screaming for a green pen.  She needs a green pen. Only a green pen.  She is overcome with ideas.  Her friend Saul doesn’t recognize his brilliant friend.

And we are afraid of what we don’t understand.

What happens next is a wonderful portrayal of the creative process induced by hypomania.  She has papers strewn all over.  They are all color coated.  Things are highlighted and underlined.  I have been there.  Working on my masterful plans.

Her theory actually ends up having some validity.  Problem.  She makes a phone call.  To the wrong person.  And that phone call gets her fired.  I have never gotten fired but I know the regret of having made that stupid phone call.  Or the in-person conversation.  We then witness the dark depression that follows a manic episode.

The season closes with her getting electro-shock therapy.  I would have like to have this explained a bit more (I must remember it is just a TV show—it makes for more interesting drama).  Although ECT has become much safer and humane, it is my understanding that it isn’t the first form of treatment.  We are left to assume she has tried other things.

I like how this show has presented us with a more honest portrayal of the disease.  We aren’t all psycho killers.

I haven’t seen the second season yet but I am excited to see how the show continues to portray this issue.  I am very curious to see how Carrie’s character evolves.

Flirting with Madness…

When it comes to love, we all have trouble regulating our emotions.  Maybe that is where “madly in love” comes from…to love is to flirt with madness.  That has been the case with all of my relationships or lack there of.

It began in college this love affair with the idea of a man.  I imagined him perfect.  We were perfect.  He was gorgeous.  He was funny.  We had so much in common.  We traveled.  We laughed.

We hadn’t even met.

And so went the course of most of my relationships.  Me not understanding what love really meant.  The root cause: fear.  If you fantasize about someone, they stay perfect.  Nothing goes wrong.

Except in my case everything went wrong.  With each episode, there was a man involved.  And in each case, the guy HAD liked me.  But in my own way, I had pushed them away and the relationship didn’t get very far.  I gave mixed signals.  I had no idea how I really felt.  No self-awareness.

The last guy was the worst because I think he may have been the real deal.  No fantasy.  The real deal.  I realized how I felt in my last hypomanic episode in 2008 (I had met him several years ago and had since moved away). I had changed my medication (turned out to not have been a good idea).  It really was like my brain went haywire.  Some synapse fired and I knew I was in love.  I had felt a connection the whole time.  I know this sounds strangely like the fantasy I have outlined above…BUT I really do think he was and is the one. Despite never really knowing him—any of you reading this know—when you know you know.

Now, here’s where the mania comes in…I thought he was sending me messages through my computer.  I felt overly aware of my surroundings.  I felt like I was part of movie.  Everything was making SO much sense—again.  I actually hallucinated one night and saw him.  I came home one night and followed him behind my house in the rain.  (Surprisingly—you will be really shocked—I never found him).

The really crazy part though was the fact that despite all of the mania I was able to fake it.  No one ever really knew how bad it was because I could function pretty well.   People just thought I was stressed.  Maybe a little too stressed but in touch with reality.  But, I believed all of the craziness for a while.  Only now, have I begun to let go of it all.  Maybe I have held on so long because I really do love him.

But he got away from me.  He is married now.  It is very difficult to accept because as any person with a mental illness knows…the “could have beens” are the toughest.

There are statistics that point to it being more difficult for a personal with a mental illness to have long-lasting relationships.  I think the key is utilizing therapy.  Knowing yourself allows you to give more of yourself to your partner (this is true in any relationship)  When you are happy, you can make someone else happy.

A Tribute to Sandy Hook: Sensible Gun Control

I received this email on one of the many listservs I am on.  It really resonated with me so I am reposting below.  I hope this tragedy is the wake-up call we desperately need.  First, we can tackle the easy solution.  Eliminating automatic and semi-automatic guns. No one needs that kind of firepower unless they are in Afghanistan.  Conduct more thorough background checks.  I was reading an article the other day that Canada has a 28 day waiting period and two people must vouch for you.  If you are truly a responsible gun owner, you can wait.

23 shootings since Columbine.  Daily one-off violence.  That’s not normal.  We must not throw up our hands and say…it happens.  Prevention needs to be the norm.  Not indifference.

~

For all the violence in our world and for all of the problems, I, like most parents, always believed that our elementary schools were a safe haven.  These schools were a place for a child’s imagination to run wild and where we could foster within our children a sense that anything was possible and that any one of them could change the world.

My friends, that innocence ended last Friday.  The tragic mass murder of teachers and children at Sandy Hook Elementary school was a horrific act of violence that has shaken this nation to its very core.  We can no longer console ourselves by pretending that this could never happen in our community, because the truth is it can happen anywhere.

Unfortunately these random acts of violence are not so random anymore.  Our children are being murdered and for far too long we’ve chosen political expediency over common-sense safety measures.  Over the years, as the news stories about each seemingly random mass shooting faded away to other news stories, so did our will to help alleviate the problem.

Those days must end.  We must act now. 

It’s time for a new era of leadership in Washington, not to restrict our freedoms as Americans but to take every little step we can to prevent the tragedies of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook, and the far too many violent gun deaths that occur every day.

When Columbine awoke the nation to school violence, we cried as a nation and pledged to do everything possible to make sure such a tragedy could never happen on a school’s grounds again.  Unfortunately, we have done far from our best.

In comparison, when it comes to our national security we are willing to quickly adapt.  After the tragic terrorist attacks on 9/11 we all quickly adapted to tighter airport security measures because it was the patriotic thing to do.  When one terrorist attempted to board a plane with a bomb in his shoe, we all gladly lined up to take our shoes off at the airport.  However, since the Columbine shootings in 1999, we have witnessed 23 more school shootings and have reacted by making military style, semi automatic assault rifles easier to purchase.  Let me say that again, after witnessing 23 school shootings since Columbine our elected officials have responded by making assault weapons legal and easier to purchase, some without a background check.

If you listen to the politicians in Washington you would think our nation is equally divided on this issue…we are not.  The overwhelming majority of Americans from across the political spectrum agree that common-sense gun regulations do not restrict our freedoms, but make us safer.

That is why I’m calling on Congress to take immediate action to start saving lives.  We need a new assault weapons ban that makes military style, mass killing assault weapons illegal.  We need to end the use of large scale extended magazines filled with amour piercing bullets, and we must ensure that every person who purchases a firearm goes through a solid background check.

The American people will no longer accept the argument that just because we can’t prevent all gun deaths means that we should do nothing. We may not be able to root out all evil in the world, but that is not an excuse for inaction.

A final message to our politicians in Washington: We expect both Republicans and Democrats to come together to solve this problem.  The American people will no longer accept our elected officials hiding behind opaque campaign talking points.  They will no longer allow either party to exploit our safety for political gain.  Now is the time for real leadership in Washington.  The nation’s eyes will soon fall upon you and they are expecting you to act.  For the sake of our children and our children’s children we must act.  No more school children deserve to die at the hands of military style assault weapons because you didn’t have the courage of your convictions to take action.”

-Paul Hirschbiel

Vertigo

All of a sudden I am in the car.  It is night.  I have no comprehension of what time it is but I see bright lights swirling together in a blur as we speed to the hospital—my final destination for the evening.  I see this huge blow up snowman outside a gas station and he freaks me out.  Oh wait it is the holiday season.  The whole scene is very surreal.   However, everything seems to make sense, perfect sense.

We arrive at the emergency room and I am in great spirits.  Not aware of my disheveled appearance.  I am wearing a blue windbreaker with the hood pulled tight around my head.  I am in the waiting room with the anticipation of a little kid waiting for my prize, rocking back and forth in excitement.  I am on a game show and any minute behind door number one I will win the beautiful house where he and I will live.

When we enter the room to see the doctor, he speaks quietly to my parents and I fidget and roll around on the examination table.  The doctor comes back with papers for me to sign.  I sign on the dotted line to please my parents, having no idea I have just had myself committed.

I arrive on an acute psychiatric ward for the evening and all I see is a lot of self help literature.  They administer some drugs.  I fall right asleep.

The next day I go to take my first ambulance ride.  It is pretty anticlimactic.  There are no sirens or anything.  I chill in the back being taken to my next destination.  The destination: my dream home.

This isn’t my dream home.  I arrive and check in.  I say goodbye to my parents and my little sister in her cheerleading uniform with some roses waiving goodbye, waiting outside because she isn’t old enough to come inside. 

I settle into my room.  I have a little duffel bag with some clothes, a journal, some pictures and toiletries. The psych ward is not as crazy as what is portrayed in movies.  I haven’t seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  However, there is an interesting set of characters.  The first day or two or three…I am pretty out of it and I see flashes.  There is the woman with the frizzy Afro who wears a hospital gown who smells like pee.  I eat school lunch food.  The sandwiches have no crusts and I have a little juice box of lemonade.

Being trapped inside, really distorts my sense of time.  It feels like night most of the time.

It has been three days.  My roommate arrives.  Where to start?  She is there because of a marijuana “problem.”  There is the marijuana problem—which isn’t a problem.  It is just recreational.  Hmmm.  And then, there is her “open” relationship with her husband.  They are how you say? Swingers.  They have a very special relationship with at least one other couple.  I hear all about it.  She is a talker.

I go to the group therapy room.  I am in there sitting on the floor.  I chat with a Vet who is there. I don’t know why he is in there with me.  I tell him all about myself.  How I want to be an actress, all my grand plans for myself.  He is enthralled. I give him my phone number.  All of a sudden his penis is in my hand. A nurse walks by and hurries him out of the room.  I have no idea what just happened. I am very drugged. I don’t see him again.

The medication is working.  Somehow the doctor—the same doctor who I was convinced was a leprechaun in his little green suit a few days earlier—has picked the right combination.  I am lucky.

My razor is returned to me.  I go outside in a little courtyard.  The facility begins to feel less like a jail. I find a girl to talk to that went to my college.  She has a rage issue associated with her lupus.

I am released about 5 days after arriving.  I am a lot better.  Plus, it is expensive as hell to be here.  A week later, I get a collect call from jail.  The vet kept my number.

~

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), over 10 million people in America have bipolar disorder, and the illness affects men and women equally. The average of onset is in one’s early twenties with many patients often reporting experiencing symptoms prior to a formal diagnosis.