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
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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.

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Fayetteville, AR- December 2016; photo by Cavalier Photography

Shards of a Story

September is National Suicide Awareness Month.

I’ve written about my depression many times before. I write about it partially as an encouragement and to help remind others that depression and other mental health struggles aren’t things to be ashamed of, but should be talked about. They’re some of the hardest kinds of battles because you often feel like there’s no way to win. However, I also write about my struggles for very selfish reasons…I write because it helps me remember I’m not alone either.

There’s a huge difference in allowing yourself to be vulnerable in your writing and vulnerable in your everyday life. I tend to find it much easier to be completely open in my writing, partially because I don’t see the responses to my thoughts. However, with the more people I know in person who tell me they read my blog, I’ve gotten intimidated. I’ve let my blog-writing take a back seat. I’ve been far too concerned with their thoughts on my writing. I’ve muffled my voice, but I’ve got to stop. I need to start writing my thoughts again, no matter how they might make me look to my outer circles.

I mention that it’s suicide awareness month because this issue is one closest to my heart. It’s something I haven’t really talked about much because there is such a negative stigma that surrounds most of the mental health world. This hits so close to home, and for the longest time, I was too ashamed to tell anybody even a fraction of what was going on in my mind.

The first time I ever encountered suicide, I was maybe 9 or 10 years old. A girl I went to church with, a girl who was no older than 9, killed herself. I don’t remember many of the details, and I don’t even remember how my parents explained it, but I do remember how after it happened and people learned of what happened, it was never really addressed again. It wasn’t to be talked about.

The first time I hurt myself was maybe a year later. I don’t remember wanting to hurt myself because I felt sad or angry or even really emotional at all. What I do remember is wondering how much it would take to feel pain and if anyone would ever notice. I still have the scars on my left knee. Nobody ever mentioned it.

Things started to get worse in high school. Thoughts of just feeling invisible, of believing that even if I did die, nobody would really miss me, were constant whispers in the back of my mind. It started to feel like those thoughts had always been there, so I was never really concerned about them. When you’re in the depths of something like that, the emptiness and worthlessness seems completely normal. You can’t recall feeling another way.

Toward the end of my marriage was when my mental health took a complete nosedive. I suffered through a miscarriage, both parents being diagnosed with cancer, and I can just remember feeling like if I talked to anyone, if I brought up the stress and pain I was struggling with, I would just become a burden to that person. I didn’t have enough faith that I could mean enough to another human being to actually let them know how badly I was struggling. I had to drop classes, I couldn’t fathom holding a job, and I had gained so much weight that I stayed on the couch in the same sweats and tshirt for days at a time. It’s still incredibly difficult for me to admit this now, but I felt like death was the only way out. The only way to escape the constant hell I was living in.

Thankfully, my thoughts had gotten so dark that they even began to startle me. Most days, I just lived as my life was still running in a completely logical path, but the days that were so foggy that I couldn’t remember what I had done the hour before…those days shocked me into trying to find some sort of help.

I still don’t know how, but I found the perfect therapist on the first try. Granted, I cried through most of our sessions for the first few months, but for the first time in a long time, I didn’t encounter a feeling a guilt tied to the crying. I felt like I could talk to someone and have my thoughts, my issues, my struggles actually matter. I started to heal, and with that, I started to really write.

Writing has probably been the best wellness practice for me. Being able to read back a few months and see how my thoughts twist and turn from healthy to dangerous and back to healthy is a difficult thing, but also a gift. In my darker moments, I’m able to find those bits of writing where I’m feeling completely inspired to move forward with life. Some of those excerpts are almost disgustingly chipper.

I don’t have a solution. I don’t have an answer to what is most likely going to be a life-long struggle for me. What I do have is growth. I have encouragement. I have the knowledge that this daily mental fight is not one that is as isolating as my brain wants me to believe. Thanks to this awareness month and other people willing to be open and vulnerable with their struggles, I’m able to be willing to accept my story and look forward to even more healing and growth. I’m able to know that talking about it, being able to discuss struggles with others is the first step in healing. It’s time we learn that sharing both the wins and losses in our battles with mental health issues not only helps ourselves, but the people around us as well.

Niederrad, Germany- October 2014
Niederrad, Germany- October 2014

listening to: We Fall by Emile Haynie

Brain Bruises

“It’s important that we share our experiences with other people. Your story will heal you and your story will heal somebody else. When you tell your story, you free yourself and give other people permission to acknowledge their own story.” -Iyanla Vanzant

I went camping this weekend. Actually, if I’m honest, it was more of a blend between camping and glamping. We had a cabin, running water, and electricity, but we still cooked everything over an open flame in the fire pit outside. The details of the trip aren’t really relevant to this post or the thoughts in my head right now though, so I’ll just move on.

I went on this trip with three friends I went to high school with. We were all in choir together, but with them being a grade below me, they knew each other far better than I did. About halfway through the second day, one of them asked me a bit hesitantly if I had been married, or if she had just imagined it. Admittedly, it is a bit of a touchy subject, but I really don’t mind sharing it with people because of the simple reason that I feel a bit of relief and a sense of calmness after getting it off my chest yet again.

This is why I write what I write, and this is why I share so much of my personal struggles: it’s always felt healing to me. I think our culture has become such a culture of secrecy and false exteriors. It has become so important to create the illusion of “everything is perfectly okay”, but the consequences of living that way are incredibly detrimental to our health. So I write about divorce. I write about insecurities. I write about depression.

Lately, I’ve been caught in the midst of another depressive period. It shows itself in the lack of energy to do much of anything, in the feeling of utter exhaustion, in the inability to feel emotions even a fraction as brightly as last year, and in the annoyance and irritability of the people who tell me to just “cheer up”. The difference is that I’m able to recognize the symptoms this time around. The last time it was this bad, I felt completely lost and like I was drowning without any way to be saved.

There’s this quote I love about depression by Jeffery Eugenides that says, “Depression is like a bruise that never goes away. A bruise in your mind. You just got to be careful not to touch where it hurts. It’s always there, though.” Yes, last year I was doing better. I was the healthiest I had been in close to a decade. But the thing about depression is that once you’ve truly been held captive by it, it’s so easy to be recaptured. Sometimes there’s almost a relief to not feeling emotions as strongly anymore. It sounds twisted, but there’s some sort of comfort in the familiar nothingness. However, the comfort is coupled by a terror that this time, you might not get back out of the hole, that you might not get to be healthy and feel anything anymore.

The reason I write this is because practicing a life of openness and honesty, a life of true vulnerability, means sharing the struggles along with the triumphs. After writing about my struggle with depression over two years ago for the first time, I was able to really see and experience that I wasn’t nearly as alone as I felt. Depression is such an alienating experience, but writing about it helps take the edge off.

So this is who I am: I’ve had high moments, moments where I still feel joy and excitement, but the empty nothingness is very present in my day to day life, and the road to recovery will be one that I’ll be trudging through for a very long time to come. I’ll continue writing about it, because sometimes that’s the only thing I can do.

Bluebonnets at Black Rock Lake Park, Texas - April 2015
Bluebonnets at Black Rock Lake Park, Texas – April 2015

listening to: Phosphorescent