Mental Health, Let's Talk About it.
I was diagnosed Bi-polar II this year and if I’m being honest, coming out as bipolar was a lot harder than coming out of the closet. When I came out as queer, I came out to a community that was knowledgeable about sexuality and ready to support me. When I came out as Bi-polar, I realized how much silence there was in my community regarding mental illness. Each time I came out to a friend I first had to educate them about mental illness before they were ready to support me. So for the month of May, the Love Les team decided to take a break from our normal features to interview friends of the blog about their experiences with mental illness. - Les
Before we dive in, here’s a glossary of terms mentioned by our guests. Take a minute to read these before hearing what they feel like for our friends. Addtionally, you can learn more about each of these at NAMI.
Depression: "Depressive disorder, frequently referred to simply as depression, is more than just feeling sad or going through a rough patch. It’s a serious mental health condition that requires understanding and medical care. Left untreated, depression can be devastating for those who have it and their families. Fortunately, with early detection, diagnosis and a treatment plan consisting of medication, psychotherapy and healthy lifestyle choices, many people can and do get better."
Anxiety Disorders: "We all experience anxiety. For example, speaking in front of a group can make us anxious, but that anxiety also motivates us to prepare and practice. Driving in heavy traffic is another common source of anxiety, but it helps keep us alert and cautious to avoid accidents. However, when feelings of intense fear and distress become overwhelming and prevent us from doing everyday activities, an anxiety disorder may be the cause."
Obsessive-compulsive Disorder: "Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by repetitive, unwanted, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and irrational, excessive urges to do certain actions (compulsions). Although people with OCD may know that their thoughts and behavior don't make sense, they are often unable to stop them."
Eating Disorders: "When you become so preoccupied with food and weight issues that you find it hard to focus on other aspects of your life, it may be a sign of an eating disorder. Ultimately without treatment, eating disorders can take over a person’s life and lead to serious, potentially fatal medical complications. Although eating disorders are commonly associated with women, men can develop them as well."
Bipolar Disorder: "Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes dramatic shifts in a person’s mood, energy and ability to think clearly. People with bipolar experience high and low moods—known as mania and depression—which differ from the typical ups-and-downs most people experience. If left untreated, bipolar disorder usually worsens. However, with a good treatment plan including psychotherapy, medications, a healthy lifestyle, a regular schedule and early identification of symptoms, many people live well with the condition."
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: "Traumatic events—such as an accident, assault, military combat or natural disaster—can have lasting effects on a person’s mental health. While many people will have short term responses to life-threatening events, some will develop longer term symptoms that can lead to a diagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)."
Mental health, let’s talk about it.
Anxiety feels like getting a job that you are unqualified for because you lied on your resume and in the interview. You spend each day walking around acting as though you are competent, but every gesture, glance, or thing spoken makes you feel as though everyone knows.
Depression is like a molten lava cake. On the outside, it looks like any other cake. On the inside, the center is entirely different than what is expected and threatens to break through the outer layer at any moment.
I’ve lived with OCD my whole life (only recently received a diagnosis) and dealt with some disordered behavior regarding eating and exercising throughout college.
The day last summer when I received an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder diagnosis was also the day I received my first prescription for psychiatric medication; I remember it as the day that the fog began to lift and the world began to exist in full color. If before my mind had been clouded with obsessions and anxieties and cloaked in shades of grey, that day marked a new period of my life. Thanks to medication, counseling, and the invaluable encouragement of family and friends, my mind feels like a new place now: no longer foggy and grey, I experience my mind as a place where colors are vibrant and clear. I am grateful.
I had my first depressive episode right before I graduated high school. I turned to alcohol to medicate my depression, not realizing it was a depressant. Alcohol was liquid courage. I was like a chameleon, using alcohol to become who I thought you wanted, needed or expected me to be. All the time feeling very hollow inside. I had a hole in my soul...there was never enough and I always wanted MORE. And more was never enough.
At 23, I knew something was wrong in my life, I felt crazy, I had no idea what it was, but intuitively I felt like it was a spiritual problem. I joined a Presbyterian Church in Telluride, Colorado, and asked for help. It was not long before the pastor asked me directly, “Amy, do you have a problem with alcohol?" And I said “Yes - I’ve had a problem since I was 15.” Shortly after, I waved the white flag of surrender.
That moment was 26 years ago, and I would not be sober today had it not been for the help and support and love of not one, but two, spiritual communities - the church & 12 Step Recovery Fellowship.
In my first year of ordained ministry, serving two rural churches in SW Virginia, I experienced another black cloud of depression - my third. Another clergywoman said with love, "You know Amy, God doesn't want you walking around with the weight of the whole world upon your shoulders. God wants you to be happy, joyous and free. Please talk to your doctor about going on an antidepressant for a short while."
I'm so grateful that she pointed me towards a medical professional who gave me a questionnaire that showed I was depressed and I began taking an anti-depressant when I was 33. I have said 1 million times "I’m Amy, and I'm an alcoholic." It's only been the last three years that I have also shared this truth, "I'm Amy, and I struggle with depression.”
So I was diagnosed as bipolar when I was a kid. My parents were worried about how often my moods seemed to swing and my pediatrician diagnosed me. Since then, it has always been part of my life.
Usually, I’m incredibly aware of my moods. I know that I can only ever display about 50% of what I’m feeling because that’s a “normative spectrum.” My parents taught me to process my emotions, and so usually I don’t have any problems with controlling them. But there have been times in my past that I’ve realized I’m not as in control of my emotions.
When I was in college, my manic phases helped me stay up and work on my artwork ‘til crazy hours of the morning. My depressive phases are especially hurtful because I tend to be incredibly reckless in those moments.
So I live with this thing called depression. When people hear depression things like mass shootings, suicides, and other tragedies come to mind. But I got help.
I’m not cured, but I can manage my depression with medication, therapy, exercise, and eating healthy. Exercise and eating healthy help, but I need therapy to work through things and medication helps me not sweat the small stuff. Healthy for me means meds, therapy, exercise and eating healthy, every day. I went from barely existing to thriving.
Desecration is probably a good word to describe it.
There are these lines in the beginning of Primo Levi's "The Drowned and the Saved," a book of essays on life in German concentration camps, that have been close to my heart ever since it happened. The lines are taken from one survivor’s account, and they describe the preemptive fear of would-be survivors that someday the story of their suffering would not be believed; that the atrocities they described would be discounted as lies.
My story has only been shared with a few very close people in my life, out of a fear akin to this.
First I feared no one would believe me. In a few cases, I was right. The doubt of those few filled me with shame, and reduced me from a place of affirming my experience for a long time.
What came later was a fear that any mention of elements related to that night would send me tail-spinning. I stepped out of courses where sexual assault was mentioned to dry heave in the bathroom. Sometimes I shook in my sleep, sometimes my hands shook while I was trying to write.
Time has helped. The triggers have subsided tremendously over time, and I feel grateful to be, in large part, out on the other side. But healing continues to be an ongoing journey.
Depression feels like I’m caked in thick mud and there’s nothing I can do to wash it off of me. It whispers in my ear that I’m the only one who actually lives this way. Some days it feels like my pessimism and depression is just a realistic perspective about the world. Other days it’s a whisper in my ear that there’s something wrong with me that isn’t wrong with anyone else. Thankfully there have been those in my life who carried me through the worst days, listened to me, and helped me process these emotions outside of my own head. Prayer and my faith in Christ’s freedom led me to seek out medical help and therapy. If not for the anti-depressants, counseling, and friendships in my life, this perspective would have sunk me. I still live with the demon of depression, but I’m using every medical, social, and spiritual advantage I have to stay above it.
Being diagnosed with narcolepsy was simultaneously wildly scary and greatly comforting. Here was both a great unknown, as far as what it meant for my future sleep health, as well as an answer to what was going on and a newfound path to what could be done about it. There was an actual scientific reason for why I was nearly falling asleep in stop-and-go traffic on drives home and why I could have an entire dream sequence in a 7 minute nap before class.
What narcolepsy is like for me isn't what it's like for all of us diagnosed with such. I am currently managing without medication, but I worry. I worry about future employers who might have a hard time understanding that as a recovering addict medication is not the simple "fix" for me for this diagnosis. I worry about what my employer will say in response to my Sleep Doctor's letter notifying them of my need for a 15-20 minute mid-morning and mid-afternoon nap, which in our culture are usually only reserved for toddlers. I wonder about my ability to demand the care that I need for myself in this world that demands that we perform for others more, better, faster, longer than we dare even think of ourselves.
Yet in order to go, do, or be, all that God would have me to be, I must. Which is why I write now. As I tell people, as you read, I hope it makes it easier for those of us that will struggle to demand for ourselves the care we need from others.
A lot of people think that PTSD only comes from a couple of instances that may happen to them - military trauma or sexual assault.
For me it was due to childhood trauma of growing up with a verbally abusive alcoholic parent. It took a huge toll on my self-esteem and led to a lot of psychological trauma. I was diagnosed with PTSD when I was 21 after telling a therapist all about what happened in the 18 years I lived with the alcoholic. I told her how hard adjusting to adulthood was when I’d try to immerse myself in parties where people would drink. Going to parties frequently led to panic attacks where I would have to remove myself to calm down. The hardest part was seeing people I was close to drink, because my mind only knew one kind of drunk— and that was an angry, cruel drunk.
It took a lot of CBT and EMDR therapy to overcome my conditioned response to being around alcohol. PTSD is treatable and in time you can begin to find peace and coping mechanisms. I’m not saying I’m panic-free but before I couldn’t sit in a bar without feeling jitters.
Now I can sit with my friends in a bar with my glass of water and be peaceful. PTSD has been one of the hardest things to overcome, but making that huge leap of faith by seeking help made a world of difference.
Depression is an everyday battle within yourself. You could be having a good day and it just hits you out of nowhere. It affects not only you, but those around you. I almost let my battles and depression beat me. For me, depression came with suicidal thoughts. The gun that was locked up in my house and driving my car off the side of the road were regular thoughts. I found comfort in those thoughts knowing I wouldn’t have to face my battles anymore. Counseling, faith, and self-acceptance guide me through every day. Don’t let depression defeat you. Life is worth the fight.
I am always prepared for the worst. Need a band-aid? I got you. You don’t know how to find the expiration date of your immigration status? I got you. Need to get to a place in the middle of the night? I will drive you. Final paper, taxes, and sermon due the same week? I’ve had them done for a week. It seems that I have all my ducks in a row at all times. For every single situation in life, I have a plan B, C, and D. And if I don’t, I can pull it off without people even noticing that inside my brain, the end of the world is happening.
There is not a single day I live without worrying. But high-functioning anxiety is more than just worrying. It means imagining the worst of the worst happening: it means thinking your dog is going to choke while eating dinner because he coughed once, waking up at three in the morning because you need to send an email you have forgotten to send thinking he’s going to fire you, almost crashing in the morning because you don’t want to be three minutes late to your meeting (when the one with whom you are meeting is 25 minutes late), doing all the things you don’t want to do because you are afraid of losing your friends, and having over a dozen copies of your birth certificate strategically distributed throughout the world in case you mysteriously disappear. It means having large patches of missing hair because you play with your hair (out of anxiety) so much that it breaks.
And while all these things happen in your brain, everybody sees a collected, well-prepared-for-every-bad-thing-in-the-world person. No one witnesses the exhaustion you go through. Nor the pain. No one understands your acid reflux comes from being worried all the time. All. The. Time. And it’s so lonely… you don’t want anyone to know there is a hurricane inside you, so you hide it and life goes on.
As a person living with Bipolar type I, many folks expect my story to be tragic, hopeless, and foreign. Parts of my story fit that narrative: there are seasons of fear, sadness, anger, dysphoria, loneliness, and devastation. And yet, along with those seasons are seasons of beauty, euphoria, energy, friendship, connection, and understanding. Because of my illness my self-awareness has increased, my self-care has improved, and my self-love has strengthened. My illness and my spirituality and my sexuality are all integrally linked, and as I become stronger in my identity as a gay woman so I become stronger in my identity as a disabled woman and so I become stronger in my identity as a God-embodying woman. Living in this holy body, this sacred body, this loving body has sanctified me and my community, has increased my connection to myself, and has grown me closer to God.
I remember the weekend before my dad died so vividly. On Friday he cheered me on at my Sectionals Cross Country meet and wrapped me in a hug after hearing that I had qualified for state, despite health issues that I was battling. On Saturday morning, my dad woke up to a call from my older sister frantically yelling that someone had stolen her car, but halfway through the conversation, she remembered that she parked in a different spot. My dad laughed at this call, but his laughing stopped later that afternoon when he received the all too familiar call that I had managed to lock my keys in my car, once again. That evening, my dad grilled steaks, and he knew just how we wanted them. Absolutely no pink for my mom and I, but he and my little sister ate them just about as rare as it gets. Afterwards, we gathered in the living room to watch one of my little sister’s nightly productions that consisted of her leaping and twirling across the floor. On Sunday, my dad helped me sort through college applications and comforted me when I broke down about the stupid ACT that I could never seem to do well on.
I remember this weekend so well because it was just another weekend in the Claunch house. I had no idea that my life was about to change forever. I had no idea that in just a few days, on November 7, 2012, my dad would end his life. It was completely unexpected. He had lost his job and we were facing hard times financially, but it was nothing that we couldn’t get through. The truth is that my dad was battling a dark depression that he kept hidden inside himself. He appeared to be full of joy and happiness, but his appearance did not reflect the reality. He did not die from a shot in the head, but from an overwhelming sadness that he didn’t think could be cured.
It has been five years since I lost my dad. 66 months of joy and pain. 288 weeks of reasons to smile and reasons to cry. 2018 days that I have continued to move forward even when I thought it was impossible. My dad’s death does not identify me, but it has shaped who I am today. I admit that sometimes I pretend to be stronger than I am. I emphasize how my dad’s death has led me to be a stronger person, but what I do not express is the dark path that I’ve had to take.
Since November 7, 2012, I have battled depression, eating disorders, and anxiety. I have felt unwanted, not good enough, embarrassed and ashamed. I wasted time worrying that I wouldn’t find friends who could deal with me on the days when all I wanted to do was break down and cry or share stories of my dad. I worried about never finding love because I thought no one would want to deal with someone who will never stop grieving the trauma of her past. I was afraid telling the truth would make run people off. I’ve never been more wrong about anything. I wasted a lot of time worrying about things I didn’t need to worry about. I have scars, but I am surrounded by people who love my scars. I am bruised, but I am not broken. I have been misguided, but I am not lost. I am full of faults, but I am not a failure. I know who I am and I am confident in the person I am becoming, not in spite of my mental illness, but because of it.
There is no way to stereotype someone who is mentally ill because it can happen to anyone, even those you least expect. Those who suffer from mental illness are “normal” people battling a brain disease who need support rather than criticism. Today I am continuing to write my story by taking initiative around my own mental illness. Admitting I was sick was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, but because I had the courage to reach out and ask for help, I no longer suffer from exercise addiction and I have learned how to have a healthy perception of food. I also take the proper steps to treat my depression and anxiety so I never reach the state that my dad did. At the end of my life, I want to be able to look back and say, “My story is not a story characterized by mental illness and this disease will not have the last word.” I miss my dad every single second, but I am not going to give up like he did.
Even in the darkest moments or the loneliest times, I know that there is always a reason to smile, a reason to laugh and a reason to love. Life goes on if you have the attitude to let it go on. I have learned that I will only find happiness if I get out of bed with the intention of bettering the world instead of thinking about what I don’t have or what could have been. My path has not been straight nor smooth, but every step I take only makes me stronger and wiser, so that’s why I keep running.
Imagine if we talked about this more.
“Imagine if we celebrated not just joy and gratitude, but feelings like worry, vulnerability, and so on. Imagine if we, as a community, rallied around the value in feeling and growing from it.”
SHINE and the Confetti Project teamed up to showcase people celebrating their feelings, emotions and mental health. I found it absolutely inspired, so I'm sharing it with you here.