A Year Called Nora

I’m sitting here, watching the clock creep closer and closer to midnight, and I have no idea where the year went. It flashed by in a few blinks and with some of the biggest changes in my life so far.

Every year that I write down my reflections, or my summation of the year, the theme is always the same: growth and rollercoasters. But every year, it happens again: unbelievable highs and lows and growth that I didn’t think was possible.

The year started off so optimistic with being a newlywed and exploring an exciting new city. My marriage was great, Charleston was great, life was great…and then I got the positive double line on a pregnancy test.

I feel so ungrateful writing about this because I know that pregnancy is a painful topic for so many people, but my stomach sank. Babies weren’t in my life plan for several years. I still wanted a few more years to enjoy marriage before a baby came along. Most importantly, my closest friend had been trying to conceive for years without hope, and this felt like I was stealing any of her happiness and replacing it with unspeakable hurt. Most of February and March passed by in a very guilty blur.

Of course, family was thrilled. My other friends were over the moon. Having to finally tell that friend the news about a baby was gut wrenching. I started off the conversation apologizing and crying, asking for forgiveness and that she wouldn’t hate me. I repeated “please don’t hate me” over and over again…and the response was just a little more than a click on the other side of the phone. I’m not going to act like this amazingly forgiving and generous person and say that I handled it in the most perfect way. I’m also not trying to act like a victim. It was one of the most defining moments of this year- and for sure the  single most painful one- but it happened, I’ve given her space, and any friendship we can salvage from this will contain hurt on both sides.

March also included my official bipolar diagnosis. I was already scared about being a parent before reaching a point in my life where I “felt ready”, and this added to my list of reasons why parenting worried me so much. What if the ups and downs continued to grow more extreme? What if I became too unstable to be a safe influence for my child? What if I broke and wasn’t able to recover? I started medication and regular psychiatry visits and held on to the comfort that I had a supportive core group that would fight with me through the mess.

Then Nora happened. She rushed into the world, heedless of the stress and fears that had been consuming me for the past nine months, and things changed. They weren’t completely healed or better, but I had now entered into the next phase of life that didn’t have a do-over option.

The first month felt like I was in hell. She screamed constantly, I couldn’t breastfeed her, and there was a little voice in the back of my head telling me that I was failing. I was trying to live with very little sleep, an extreme change in hormones, and attempting to regulate my meds. At one point, my panic attacks got so bad that my husband almost had to take me to the hospital. The sleep deprivation kept me so foggy that I don’t really remember much of that month, but I think that’s for the best.

I hope this doesn’t seem like a long list of complaints, but instead like an open window into this year void of all of those life filters. It was hard. It was painful. It was also full of growth (surprise). I now know that I have a really good support system all over the world. I know that I can figure out the cause of a problem and figure out a solution. I know that my body can do incredible things, even when it’s not at peak physical condition. I know that I have a husband who can lighten the darkest parts of my moods and calm my brain when it races too quickly. I know that I can keep a baby alive and happy all by myself on those days where my husband is working a twenty-four hour duty day and I have nobody around to really call on for help. I know that I can hang on to reality, even though it’s an ugly fight to do so.

I lived through this year. Many of the moments that are the most vivid were the difficult ones, but there were some really bright moments as well. Holding Nora for the first time. Starting our breastfeed journey with the support of women who have turned out to be amazing and supportive friends. Seeing the first sparks of recognition followed by the most precious smile when I walk into Nora’s room in the mornings. Feeling her head get heavier and heavier on my shoulder as she finally calms down and falls asleep. My life has completely changed thanks to one tiny person who has already taught me so much. I lived to survive another year, and I know I’ve come out on the other side with a little more confidence, wisdom, and strength.

photo by Lindsey Tuscany Photography

Not Crazy

*breathe in*

“You are worthy”

*breathe out*

“Crazy is a word used by ignorant people”

*breathe in*

“You are loved”

*breathe out*

“You are not a burden”

When you live with a mental illness, there’s a tendency to overthink every word, every action, and even every thought that crosses your mind. There’s a continuous battle going on in your head between the one voice who is constantly breaking you down and the other voice who tries to be realistic and uplifting. It’s exhausting and unrelenting, and when someone states that you’re just crazy, it’s incredibly damaging to your health.

While I could make the point that every single mental illness is misunderstood in the public eye, I feel that bipolar is even more misunderstood and stigmatized than most. There’s this comic perception that being bipolar means experiencing extremely high manic episodes where everything is wonderful and perfect followed by extreme lows. In truth, bipolar can present itself in a variety of ways, which is one of the reasons why it’s so tricky to actually diagnose. My hypomania is often presented as if my life is put in fast forward. I have more energy, which makes me feel like I can take on more tasks, but then my mind starts to go too fast. Even though I’m aware of my racing thoughts, when I’m in the moment, it’s an adrenaline rush and I don’t want it to end. However, this leads to a severe lack of sleep, and in the worst scenario, hallucinations.

I’ve only experienced one true episode of hallucinating, but I can still close my eyes and relive the entire thing. As I laid on my back on my living room floor, I saw the popcorn ceiling of my old apartment rolling in waves, covered with what almost looked like an oil spill. I could see all of the atoms making up my surroundings shimmering and moving. I could feel every single cell in my body shifting. It caused me to take roughly a month off of work, and I felt unsafe to be at home by myself for a while. This was a high that led to a crash of being unable to keep food down and really make many coherent thoughts. My biggest fear through all of it wasn’t that I was unhealthy, but that it would cause the people around me to perceive me as “crazy”.

I’m not crazy, and deep down I’m aware of that fact. It’s a constant battle to remind myself that this is an illness that I have to find a way to live with, and having other people refer to this illness as craziness just makes that fight all the more difficult. In typical fashion, I tend to joke around about my mental illness in an effort to make those around me more comfortable. I very rarely am completely serious, but I’ve started to realize that jokingly referring to myself as crazy just hurts the overall fight against mental health stigmas. Words have power. Words alter a person’s perception. Be careful about word choices, especially when trying to change the stigma surrounding mental health.

Isle of Palms, South Carolina- May 2017

The Fear of a Single Word

It’s been a little over a week since Josiah and I announced that we were expecting a baby at the end of September. For the past couple of months, my emotions about pregnancy have been mixed. On the one hand, I’m thrilled to see us become parents. I have a nervous excitement about the opportunity to raise a human with all the qualities that Josiah and I treasure so much.

I’m also scared. This was a total surprise for us. We had planned to really start talking about starting a family after Josiah’s first round of deployments. I selfishly wanted more solo time to get used to having my life partner gone and unavailable to talk for months at a time. I wanted to feel as mentally healthy as possible before adding anything else to our life.

And then last week happened. Last week, I got the official bipolar diagnosis. Bipolar. An intimidating word to be tied to any person, but for someone who is stepping into motherhood for the first time in six months, I’ve been terrified.

Suspicions of this diagnosis first popped up in early 2013, but the therapist I was seeing decided I was struggling with ptsd and major depressive disorder. Bipolar isn’t something that doctors and therapists like to easily diagnose because it can be a word that haunts someone for the rest of their life. But my symptoms have worsened in those four years. Untreated, they’ve started to affect more and more of my life. My depressive cycles have gotten harder to battle through, and my hypomania has left me wondering what kind of person I really am on multiple occasions.

So I’ve started medication. I’ve begun keeping a more dedicated record of my emotions. I have doctors that are helping to monitor my brain and the warning signs I might not think are important. But the fear is lingering. The fear that I won’t be able to be the kind of mother I really want to be because of my mental struggles. The worry that I’ll go through episodes while Josiah is out of the country and I’m the temporary sole caregiver of our child. The very real reality that our children will grow up knowing that sometimes their mother won’t be able to be as mentally present as they need me to be.

I know that both Josiah and I are blessed with families that would do absolutely everything they can to help us be the best parents we can be. Being willing and able to ask for that help is a constant battle for me. There are so many parenting stories I’ve been reading about mothers who struggle with postpartum depression, anxiety, and various other mental conditions. However, I don’t see many moms who struggle with bipolar. I don’t hear many successful parenting stories where a parent with bipolar was still able to provide their children with a healthy, loving, and positive environment. Part of me hopes that I’ll be able to start writing that kind of life story for our new family. Mental health is such a touchy writing subject because it makes so many people uncomfortable, and one of my goals with this blog has always been to change that stigma. But writing about it doesn’t make the fear any less real.

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Eiffel Tower, Paris, France- July 2014

The Rollercoaster Year

Like many, 2016 was a rough year. For me in particular, it was probably the year of rollercoasters. The year started off so strong and so full of possibilities, but my mental health kept throwing massive stumbling blocks in my path. With the spring came warning signs, the scariest suicidal and self-harming thoughts I had ever experienced. The summer had the crash. I reached the end of my rope and was so thrown out of whack that I needed a month to recover. The fall topped it all off with regular therapy appointments and a possible new diagnosis. I still haven’t made as much progress as I would like, but I now have some answers as a starting block, and I’ll hopefully be able to move forward with healing and solutions in the new year.

This year was a tiresome one for the world as well. So many deaths, so much fighting, so much hatred across humanity. During the presidential election, my stress got so high that I was physically sick. Especially in these last couple of months, it’s felt like events keep happening and kindling keeps getting added to a fire that could burn down the world. There’s a part of me that’s almost scared to see what could progress in the next year.

Thankfully, in spite of the tough, the worrisome, and the frightening, there has been hope. I’ve accomplished the goal I set for myself a few years ago to see new places and experience new things. I visited two new cities, greatly expanded my professional circles, and further proved to myself that I can fight through difficulties. There has been love and an abundance of smiles. Friendships have strengthened, my family has more than doubled, and my ability to trust and communicate has grown more than I imagined. I’ll be forever grateful that 2016 was the year I said yes. Not only yes to marriage, but yes to accepting help when it was needed, yes to believing people mean what they say, and yes to learning that love can be given freely.

Fayetteville, AR- December 2016; photo by Cavalier Photography

The Suicide Letters

I’ve written three suicide letters in my life.

I’ve never shown them to anyone. One was to my parents, apologizing for leaving them with a mess. One was to a friend that had been through all of those feelings, in the hope that he would be able to explain why I took the actions I did. One was to someone I thought I would spend my life with. I never gave them to anyone or even told anyone about them because I felt guilty for those thoughts and feelings.

This week is National Suicide Prevention Week, and all of this keeps running through my mind. I’m not ashamed that I’ve written those letters- they turned into a form of therapy. I refuse to keep those feels and emotions secret. I may be scared of them sometimes, but I’m not ashamed. Instead, I think they’re really good learning tools. I think it’s a reminder that as much as I wish people had checked on me more, other people need that too. I want to make sure the people I care about are safe. I don’t want my friends and family to ever doubt they are loved by me.

I think that it doesn’t occur to many people that others may need to be checked on occasionally. Perhaps it’s because they haven’t been in those deepest and darkest moments of despair when you don’t know if you’ll ever even feel again. People sometimes just don’t know to reach out and check on their loved ones, to say “you’re on my mind today..I hope you’re still surviving”.

I’m known as the bubbly, chipper person at work. I’m known as the person who has a smile on their face constantly, who is upbeat and sees the positive in almost every situation. That’s my life mask. It’s a really good mask. I just wish that I could be comfortable with showing people what’s under the mask without feeling guilt. Without feeling like it would scare everyone away or that I’m being overdramatic and just desperate for attention. Self-harm, suicide…those are things I’ve been struggling with since elementary school. However, until I verbalized those demons, nobody had a clue that I even dealt with depression at all.

Perhaps the takeaway this week for me isn’t “don’t kill yourself” or “suicide isn’t the answer”. Maybe instead, it’s a reminder for me to continue to reach out to the people I care about. If I’m so good at hiding those moments, there definitely are others as well. Perhaps also, it’s a good way to express to others that their people need reminders of love, that they can’t know what others are battling unless they express genuine care and interest. You never know the demons another person could be fighting. And maybe that’s the most important part: still living. Still fighting. Being open and honest in order to destroy stigmas and to shatter generalizations and to remove stereotypes. Healing only comes when communication leads the way.

Austin, Texas - February 2015
Austin, Texas – February 2015