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survival
  • Bipolar, Natural Disasters and Emotional Tsunamis

    Tuesday May 15th was just an ordinary day. Until it wasn’t. The kids went to school and then to the town Parks and Recreation program for after care. The husband and I went to our respective jobs. My husband’s work is outside and weather dependent, so he was watching for rain all day, planning to leave work about 30 minutes prior to the predicted heavy rains were to start. Me, I have standard hours, but on that particular Tuesday I do nursing home rounds and start at 7 am, so I tend to leave when the work is done, between 4 or 4:30 in the afternoon. I got home at 4:45 pm when my cell phone buzzed with an alert: TORNADO WARNING! TAKE SHELTER NOW! My mind filled with thoughts. 

    The kids weren’t here.

    How close was my husband.

    This isn’t tornado sky.  (If you lived through one, you know what I’m talking about).

    I want the kids.

    I called my husband. He was turning onto our road. We live approximately five minutes from the school. I told him about the warning and asked him to go get the kids, that they should be with us. He said okay. I went inside and watched the sky from the picture window in the kitchen. And watched. And watched. Then it shifted and I saw it. The sky turned this orange-blue-grey that’s indescribable. It was then that I knew, and with that the kitchen turned dark as night and I ran for the basement. The rains came with winds, tree branches and leaves smacking and beating every window as if asking to be let in themselves for shelter. Loud, fast and furious. I could hear and see trees falling in the backyard and hope nothing would hit the house. Alone, and by myself, I had a moment I thought “so this is how it ends.” My husband called to say he couldn’t make it to the school due to falling trees and was only as far as the house in front of us, taking shelter there, fearful to drive down our long driveway due to the amount of trees on our property.

    When the storm passed, my husband burst into the house to find me. I had just come upstair to assess what happened. Twigs and leaves were coating every window of the house, shining green. We went up to his car in our neighbor’s driveway together with one goal in mind: get the kids as soon as possible. Outside we quickly assessed damage, numerous downed trees, power lines ripped off our home, ripped off the utility pole halfway down our driveway; however still being in shock not really having a true idea of all the damage done. We got into the car and attempted to make our way to the town hall to pick up the kids. We were blocked at every possible route tried. Downed tree. Downed lines. Downed utility pole. Utility pole snapped in half, dangling. Downed trees being held up by the utility lines. After over two solid hours of this, bringing the time to about 7:45 pm, friends contacted us and had an extraction plan to get the kids. They could walk on a path from their property through several yards to the school and get the kids (School and town hall are side-by-side), walking them back to their home with a chance to eat and dry clothes if needed. We agreed. Better for them to be out of the aftercare program and with friends at that point since we had no idea how long we would be. [Side note: Our school principal and Park & Rec staff stayed that night until every single last child was picked up, which to my understanding, was well after 10 pm. I do not know the exact time, nor does it matter. What matters is the dedication they showed to our town’s children in a time of crisis.]

    We continued driving, continued being blocked at every possible option to get to our friend’s home. Stuck in traffic, trees, lines, downed poles. Miraculously this town of diverse opinions came together. People would get out of vehicles, assess the situation and decide how to best proceed. Text message each other what roads were blocked, what roads were passable, what roads had one lane open. We finally made it to our children after approximately 3.5 hours of driving. One of them simply hugged us and cried for a solid ten minutes. I cannot imagine how they must have felt in that storm despite being the the safest spot in the entire town. What good is that safe spot if your parents are not there to protect you?

    Once the kids were collected we had to get home. That meant walking back up the road we parked the car on, past giant trees to the car. We then had to navigate our way back home which took time, another 1.5 hours to figure out what routes would get us back to the house safely. When we reached home, we parked a quarter of the way down the driveway to stay away from the felled lines.Using iPhone flashlights, we navigated our way down the driveway and lawn to stay away from the lines. I stayed on the driveway, stepping over the lines, as I was in high heels with no toes and my husband and the kids were in the grass farther away. I could see the lines clearly and could easily avoid them. My husband is yelling to get on the grass, that I was going to get killed and not listening to me that I could easily see where I was stepping and in no danger. Was I stupid for wanting to stay dry for a moment? Was I stupid for wanting to salvage shoes? Was it my bipolar disorder telling me I could easily handle the risk? I have no idea. I’m still here to write this blog that much I know.

    We went inside, lit candles, and went to bed. My husband blew out all the candles once the kids and I were tucked in as to not risk falling asleep with them on. The kids were still stressed and refused to sleep in their rooms that night (and every night since without power), bunking with me. I spoke to my office manager, explaining my traumatized children, and the war zone of a town I was in and she graciously told me to not worry about the following day’s schedule and to take care of my family and home.

    The next morning we assessed our property, seeing lines ripped off the house, calling electricians and having the weatherhead reattached and getting on the list for EverSource (our local power company) to come reattach the lines to our home. Spend the day stacking and collecting downed branches and cutting wood until the rain began again making the task impossible. Breakfast was Starbucks, lunch was McDonald’s and dinner was Katz’s deli with friends in the same situation. In the rainy afternoon, we walked around the roads near our homes marveling at how destructive mother nature can be.

    Our front neighbors opened their home to us for showering as they have a generator, thus we’ve been able to stay hygienic. Texts have been pouring in from friends in neighboring towns offering their homes to us for whatever we need. This storm has shown us the best of people, not the worst.

    I have done well for the most part and tried to keep it all together. However I feel myself starting to crack. It’s day 3 (considering storm day as day 0) of no power. With all the line damage near my home I don’t know when it’s coming back. I know when EverSource says, but I know what my eyes tell me. There’s a major incongruency there. I need to replace the contents of my entire refrigerator. The thought of it is daunting and stressful and anxiety provoking. I haven’t been sleeping despite my medications. I’m losing compassion for others yet keeping my feelings to myself because I’m scared to verbalize them and make them real. I try to think this isn’t Texas or Puerto Rico or Katrina. However my brain isn’t allowing me to separate them. Is that my bipolar talking to me? I don’t know. I’m cracking and feeling unsafe and vulnerable. I KNOW that’s my bipolar talking. Because I handled Tuesday well and did what needed to be done. I need a shred of normalcy in my day, but my brain is not granting me it. It’s granting me ruminations and obsessions of what happened. It’s focusing on worst case scenarios, not actual case scenarios. That’s my bipolar talking too. I can recognize it.

    Today, I have to learn to make the healing the begin. As the town heals, I have to learn to heal my brain. The question is how. Introspection when one isn’t ready for it is hard, but like everything else I will get through it. If I have to crash through a tsunami of emotions to do it, so be it. Hope my team is ready.

     

  • Nevertheless, She Persisted

    From time to time, I struggle with writer’s block. I think to myself that I have nothing to say and that I have nothing to say in which people want to hear. I often view it as normal and part of the process of a writer/blogger. In the advent of a rare snow day resulting in the closure of my office, I anticipated spending the day writing and drinking tea. The reality is I spend the day binge-watching Empire and asking my husband what I should write about. He suggested politics. I laughed.

    Until I didn’t. This week, a quote making the rounds in the news has sat with me as I rolled its words and meaning around my head.

    “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” This was a statement Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in defense of his cutting off Senator Elizabeth Warren from remarks during a confirmation hearing for the position of Attorney General. Women all over have adopted this as a new rally cry in defiance of a new administration in Washington, which has been less than friendly to women’s rights. I digress however, as this is a blog about life with mental illness.

    “She was warned.”

    I was warned, sort of. I see this as more of the stinging rebuke once passed onto me by a therapist who chose to give up on me as a patient than take the time to assess if my diagnosis of postpartum depression needed to be revisited. I was deemed by the provider to still have the diagnosis, but that I was unruly, untethered, wild, and unable to be properly treated. And so, with the unruliness statement and the subsequent discharge from the practice I had my warning. I had the warning that I was too sick to manage, too sick to be treated and too sick for other providers to consider.

    “She was given an explanation.”

    In time, I was given an explanation. It took a second suicide attempt and hospitalization to get one. It was explained to my husband and I that I was bipolar. The diagnosis of postpartum depression, while once fitting, no longer applied. It was an explanation that I would need to hear over and over and over before I could really hear it. I would be hospitalized two more times before I would begin to understand what this explanation, what being diagnosed with bipolar disorder really means. This explanation still needs to be repeated to me from time to time as a refresher to best grasp the implications for my family and myself. I have an explanation no matter how many times I need to hear the words that I live with bipolar disorder.

    “Nevertheless, she persisted.”

    And how. This diagnosis, this challenge, has not kept me down. I persist due to my family. I persist due to the psychiatrist who thought “what the hell, I’ll take her on.” I persist due to my own bullish tenacity to prove others wrong. I persist to prove my old therapist wrong. I persist to prove any and all naysayers wrong. I can and did achieve a fragile state of remission. I persist to demonstrate to the attending psychiatrist during my last hospitalization that she was right. She told me I needed to get better and use my voice, my knowledge, my medical training for good rather than self-pity.

    Nevertheless, I Persist.

    And so can you.

  • Dear Former Therapist

    Dear Former Therapist, 

    When you told me I needed to leave your practice that day in 2012 because I was too surly, too out of control, I was too beyond your help, did you know how sick I was? When you left my family and myself without a safety net, could you understand the consequences your actions would later have?

    Would you realize how many therapists would turn me down, citing I was too acute to accept into their practice? Would you know once I found one willing to tackle the challenge of healing my mind, it would take over a month for me to actually be seen? Would you know that they too would find me so ill that they would demand I agree to a higher level of care first?

    Did you see the decline coming? Did you recognize what was happening, woven into the surliness you were refusing to work with? I wasn’t sleeping save a few hours with a cocktail of medications. I was drinking to self-medicate feelings away. I was a waif of a human being, frail, scared and unable to cope with sight of my own shadow. Did you understand what diagnostic clues the trail of self-destruction would lead to? Were you able to see through the muddy waters of all my symptoms and recognize I was misdiagnosed with post-partum depression?

    Could you have predicted that I would attempt to take my life on more than one occasion in the months that followed? Why did you not see, with your expertise that my diagnosis was so much more than depression? Why did you not recognize I needed a new treatment plan written for the mania I was experiencing, which we now know is bipolar 1 disorder.

    Do you understand how much anger I have held in the ensuing years since toward you? Do you understand how much pain could have been avoided with a proper diagnosis rather than a reluctance to do the work and see me – really see me – for the lost, sick individual I was?

    Today I write to not only ask you these questions, but also tell you I forgive you. I Forgive You.

    Your mistake, your failure to properly diagnose me has only made me stronger and more determined. Determined to never accept inadequate care again. Determined to always have my voice heard by my providers.

    Determined to ensure patients never feel they are alone in their journey. Determined to create partnerships with patients, for if the patient buys into their treatment, they are more likely to adhere to the plan over the long term. Determined to foster autonomy when feasible and recognize when it is not.

    I will not fit into the box you tried to place me in.

    Sincerely,

    Your Former Patient

  • Saying Goodbye to an Icon and Lessons Learned

    Everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE, has had an opinion or thought on the loss of Carrie Fisher suddenly last week to a heart attack. Myself included. However, before taking my thoughts public I needed time to process the loss, what it meant and what message was getting lost in the coverage.

    Carrie was an OG mental illness advocate. She spoke openly and frankly in a time that was unpopular to do so.  She wrote with right balance of passion, gravitas and humor regarding the subject. She talked about her disease, her addiction struggles and her experiences with ECT. She talked about her family relationships for better or for worse.

    “We have been given a challenging illness and there is no other option than to meet those challenges. Think of it as an opportunity to be heroic – not ‘I survived living in Mosul during an attack’ heroic, but an emotional survival. An opportunity to be a good example to others who might share our disorder. “ (November 2016)

    She was (and still is) everything I yearned to be, as I related to her story on so many levels. For starters, I once fancied myself Princess Leia as most little girls in the late seventies, early eighties did. However it runs much deeper than that. I saw pieces of my story run parallel to hers. The period in which we are unable to accept the illness, the drinking, the ECT. The courage to say, “hey, I’m having a relapse and shit happens”.

    When I found my feet, my voice, and gained confidence in both myself and my abilities, she spoke to me once more. “Stay afraid. But do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow”. (April 2013)

    Her death stings me. It hurts more than the loss of Robin William’s laughter. Carrie was everything I wanted to be and now in death, everything I hope I’m not. She lived her life exactly the way I hope to live the remainder of my days. Her death, while it has called to attention the differences in heart disease between men and woman, has the ability to shed light on a greater issue: the decreased mortality of those with serious mental illness. 

    Mary Lou Sudders, the Massachusetts Secretary of Health recently remarked those with serious mental illness have a decrease in mortality of 25 years compared to their peers. If we expect to live until 85-90 years of age, then Carrie was right on schedule at age 60 according to that statistic. Countless studies published in journals highlight this issue along various themes. What all the data agrees on is cardiovascular risk is the highest and cardiovascular disease is the most common co-morbidity / cause of death.  Journals agree providers miss the mark in treating co-morbid illnesses in the mentally ill whether it is difficult to suss out a real versus somatic complaint, patient misinterpretation of symptoms, or bias against the patient for their psychiatric diagnosis to begin with.

    I am stung by Carrie’s death as it is too soon. It is my reality without vigilant care on my part. It is my reality unless I insist my PCP and my psychiatrist work as a team. It is my reality unless I change very stubborn habits. I have a lot to live for. And I intend to savor every year I have.

    Perhaps the best way to honor Carrie is talk about mental illness and medical co-morbidities.

    “I am mentally ill. I can say that. I am not ashamed of that. I survived that, I’m still surviving it, but bring it on”.   (December 2000).

     

  • My Bipolar Holiday Survival Guide

    OH, the holidays. A time of cheer, joy, festivity and goodwill. It is also a time of lights, noise, stress, pressure and emotional dysregulation. I know, it’s oh-so-shocking that one is unable to be jolly, however not everyone is able to sprint from Halloween to New Year’s with the enthusiasm (or even the faux enthusiasm) of a 6-year-old hopped up on candy canes and eggnog.

    Which gives us our start: not everyone is as merry and happy as you.

    The holidays are hard for some people. The holidays are hard for many, many reasons that do not even necessarily include mental illness. Be mindful of this fact when encountering fellow man that is not eagerly plotting his Elf on Shelf exploits or posting photos of their tree. A 2014 survey from NAMI found that 24% of those with a diagnosed mental illness find that the holidays exacerbate their illness up to 40%. One survey respondent who suffers with major depression shared that the holidays highlight all that is challenging about living with depression. 

    Not everyone has someone to celebrate with.

    While the world is off planning and attending holiday celebrations and talking with parents and siblings about the Christmas or Hanukkah menu, there are folks who are spending the holiday alone. Perhaps their anxiety doesn’t permit them to leave the house and enjoy the company of others. Perhaps they suffer from SMI and are in the hospital, on the streets, in jail or worse. Perhaps they are just isolated. There are sadly, far too many reasons why someone might be alone on the holiday. Have compassion. Extend an invite. Provide some companionship. If your schedule allows, volunteer.

    But I’m the one with a mental illness. I hate this time of year.

    Me too, sister. Me too. It was not always this way either. Repeat after me: I will do self-care.

    If I keep my own mental health in mind first and foremost and I can participate in the season. How?  Carving out a safe place for when the noise is too much. Last year, during peak squeals of delight and early morning Lego building, I snuck out to my local Starbucks who was open. The twenty minute round trip care ride with a piping hot chai latte was enough to recharge me for a few hours.

    I have to become more realistic about what I can and cannot do. For me, having small-ish children this can be challenging. However I cannot say yes to every single thing the kids and others want to do. I am happy that after two years, I have a break from the Polar Express train ride. Maybe next year, if the kids are still into it we can return. I avoid the mall at all costs and do Christmas shopping online. It saves me the stress and I don’t end up grabbing things off of Target end caps because “ooh! Look! Shiny! Pretty! On Sale!” 

    It is also important for one, including myself, to step back and think about what is the most valuable and treasured aspect of the holidays personally. Is it the meal? It is tradition? Is it volunteering? Focus on that, the one thing you can identify that does feed your soul during this time. Also the answer is personal and different for each of us. This question has no wrong answer.

    In the meantime, you will find me continuing my clean eating quest this month, avoiding the Salvation Army Santas with those darn bells and say Hi if you see me sneak out to Starbucks on Christmas morning.

    P.S. The most heartfelt thank you to those employees working on the holiday. You have no idea how much those few minutes mean to me.