Posts tagged mental illness
Side effects may include: atheism
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I quit taking two of my psychotropic medications and suddenly, I believe in God again. [ NOTE: I did this under my doctor's care and according to his orders. I didn't quit my meds just because I wanted to. Don't do that! ]

So, yeah. Apparently one of the side-effects of mood stabilizers is atheism. At least, for me. Somehow, these drugs seem to shut down the God-receptors in my brain. Here’s how it happened:

Last month I developed a rash from Lamictal. It gave me a good scare because my doctor had warned me that sometimes Lamictal can cause a FATAL rash (Google “Lamictal rash” for fun pictures).

Anyway, so there I was with two rashes. One on each leg. And I was like: OMG WHAT IF THIS BECOMES FATAL? So, I went to the doctor and they took me off the medication immediately. And then wonderful things happened:

1. I didn’t die,

2. the rashes went away

3. and I began to feel my life again.

Mood stabilizers numb me out. I mean, sure. I don’t have mood swings. I don’t have mania. But I also can’t feel ANYTHING. Everything is just blahhhhhh.

In the past three weeks I’ve felt my life coming back to me. It’s like my emotions are coming back to life. And here’s the best part: I have faith again. Remember how just last month I was deep in the throes of a spiritual crisis? I mean, I was doubting EVERYTHING about my faith right down to whether the Resurrection was real. Also of note: I was on TWO mood stabilizers.

What if my doubts were the result of medication? What if the mood stabilizers also numbed out my spirituality?

That freaks me out. But it’s also kind of a relief because for awhile there I thought I was becoming an atheist. I was reading memoirs about people losing their faith. II was reading research about how lack of dopamine in the brain affects the ability to believe in God. I was getting all depressed because I felt alone in the universe and very, very small. So insignificant. I wondered if God even cared about me anymore.

I don’t know what to make of all this. I didn’t realize that my faith in God was so dependent upon brain chemistry. Does my faith require a certain combination of neurotransmitters in order to exist? At the very least it seems to require a certain combination of neurotransmitters in order for me to FEEL like my faith exists.

Is my faith so weak that it falls apart when my brain isn’t producing the right chemical balance? Or is my faith’s sensitivity an indicator of its great strength? I can’t decide which it is.

Regardless, this experience has shown me in unequivocal terms that I am a deeply spiritual person and that I rely on my spirituality to help me get through life. I need prayer. I need words from Scripture. I need the Sacraments. These things nourish and sustain me. They ease my anxiety. These things provide true and real comfort to me.

But in order for me to feel my faith, I can’t be numbed out completely on psychotropic medication. It’s a delicate balance, finding the sweet spot where the medication is helping me but not causing intolerable side effects. Becoming an atheist is, for me, an intolerable side effect!

This whole thing has made me question whether faith is something within our control. I used to believe that faith was something I was in charge of; something I could manipulate simply by doing x,y and z. Praying, reading Scripture, doing Bible Studies, going to church...I simply assumed that if I did all of these things then I would have a vibrant faith.

Little did I know that my faith was more about whether or not I was on mood stabilizers.

This makes me wonder if faith is something God gives to people rather than something people get as a result of working at it. It seems to me that faith is more of a gift, something God gave me rather than anything I did or didn’t do in order to have it.

Of course, there are “best practices” for creating an environment where faith can grow. It helps to have a faith community. It helps to be married to a believing spouse. It helps to know how to pray and read Scripture. It helps to know how to meditate. But ultimately, I’m beginning to believe that faith isn’t something we work for, faith is a gift. It’s something given to us.

Honestly, this makes a lot more sense to me. It also gives me greater compassion for those who simply can’t believe. I used to think that unbelievers were choosing their lack of faith. I sort of looked down at them, assuming that if they just prayed more, hung out with other people of faith and engaged in faith practices, then they would have faith. But I don’t believe that anymore. I mean, I lost my faith not because I got disillusioned with the church or because I wasn’t praying or going to church. I lost my faith by taking a few pills every morning. And I got it back by not taking those pills. So, yeah. It wasn’t like I chose it. It just happened.

Once again this makes me ask the question about whether or not what I believe is real and true. But that question no longer bothers me. It’s real enough for me. That’s all that really matters. I have a mustard-seed faith and even if it can’t be proven scientifically, the truth is that it provides me with tangible benefits. It makes me a less anxious person. It makes me a more loving and compassionate person. It helps me live according to my values. It’s a faith that works even if it’s a faith I didn’t work for. It’s just there.

This past Easter was one of the happiest I could remember. I could FEEL my love for Jesus again. I felt such gratitude for His friendship; such gratitude for His love for me. And I was relieved to discover that Jesus hadn’t gone anywhere. My bout of atheism hadn’t changed anything for Him. He remained faithful. He remained loving. He continued to offer me the Eucharist. I find that so comforting. I find it so truly wonderful that God loves me with such unconditional love. And that that love is not dependent on whether I believe in it. That love just IS.

I am walking away from this experience having learned (once again) that God is so much bigger than I thought He was. And I am so so grateful for that. God is bigger than my imagination. God is bigger than big. Love is bigger than I imagined it. Love is not dependent on my ability to conceive it or categorize it or control it. It’s entirely OUT of my control and that is the most wonderful thing of all.

Side-effects of faith may include: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

 

Life on Abilify: is it worth it?
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Untreated, bipolar disorder is a burr of restlessness constantly bothering my brain. I feel like something is wrong even if everything is actually ok. I’m always convinced something terrible is just about to happen. I’m up and down all the time. Manic one day, depressed the next. There are mean voices in my head telling me I’m a horrible person, telling me I should just kill myself. Sometimes the voice shouts at me. Sometimes I see things that aren’t there—shadows of people following me. These things are always on the periphery of my vision. I can never really get a good look at them.

But if someone asks me to explain what’s wrong in my life, what I’m worried about, what I’m restless about, I have a hard time pinpointing anything. By all accounts, everything is pretty much ok. Nothing is terribly wrong. My kids are healthy, I have a roof over my head and food on the table. I get to create art and stay home to raise my kids. I should be happy. I should feel normal.

But when my bipolar is untreated, my brain won’t give up until it’s found something—anything—to be suspicious about. My brain can collect evidence of wrongness even when there’s no wrongness to be found. At various times in my life I’ve become unwaveringly convinced that I didn’t have enough pets (I had five), that my husband was cheating on me (he wasn’t), that the FBI was spying on me (they weren’t——I think), that I desperately needed an RV (I hate camping). Let’s just put it this way: my untreated bipolar brain likes to lie to me. And many, many times in my life I’ve believed those lies.

Initially, Abilify was a life-saver. No more psychosis, no more suspicions that the FBI was spying on me, no more paranoia. No more dramatic mood swings. No more mean voices in my head.

Everything just leveled out and got really quiet. My brain changed from a storm-tossed ocean to a glassy smooth lake. Worn out and exhausted from the months of mania and depression, I was content to just rest in this newfound quiet. I didn’t even mind that I was putting on weight at an alarming rate. I just wanted to eat and rest.

But eventually, I began to notice that not only was I on a glassy smooth lake, but there was no wind in my sails, either. Everything—everything— was flat.

Sure, I wasn’t irritable anymore. The usual things that annoyed me—a barking dog, grumpy customers at work, traffic noise, jerks on the highway, the kids being too loud—just didn’t bug me. I didn’t get angry, either. One time I tried to hang onto my anger but it was slipped through my fingers like sand. I couldn’t stay angry. I couldn’t feel it. The same thing went for joy. I no longer feel joy. I don’t feel happy about anything. I don’t have that creative spark I’ve always had. I used to be super ambitious and driven to create. But my motivation and drive to create have simply dwindled away.

Even my facial expressions are flat. My husband says he has a hard time reading my emotions now because they don’t show as much on my face. Sometimes I’ll catch him chuckling when he looks at me and when I ask why he’ll say: “You have that blank, innocent look on your face again.”

But here’s the thing: there are no emotions to read. I feel very little of anything. I don’t feel happy but I don’t feel sad, either. Everything just feels sort of numb.

I can watch violent movies now and not be bothered. But at the same time, beautiful music no longer moves me. I can see a beautiful sunset and think: Meh, no big deal. Before, this would inspire me to write poetry. Now, I just yawn.

That’s another thing. I yawn all the time. I can sleep and sleep and sleep. I’m always sleepy. Not tired, just sleepy. I feel as if I’m never fully awake. I can drink a gallon of coffee and not feel perked up in the slightest. I can drink coffee at 8pm and it won’t keep me up.

My sex drive has totally disappeared. I feel asexual. Like I could go for the rest of my life without sex and not miss it too much.

The one thing I do feel is the absence. I miss things. I remember what it used to feel like to feel intimate, to feel alive, to experience the joys and sorrows of life. I feel the absence of those things.

Everything is flat except my appetite. In two months I’ve gained 23 pounds and I’m still gaining.

I’ve had to buy bigger pants. Sometimes it seems like eating is the only joy I have left in life. Nothing else makes me happy.

But I’m worried about going off Abilify because what if the emotions come back too strongly? I’m worried that even a lower dosage of Abilify will bring back the roller-coaster emotions again. What if the mean voices come back? What if I start seeing shadows again? This is all just so hard.

I’m going to see a new psychiatrist this week. I’m hoping he’ll be able to help me.




 

I'm always a nihilist at 2am.
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I’m always a nihilist at 2am. Then again, it’s 2am. Here's a handy little life-hack: don't try to solve all the world’s problems at 2am. Or when you're tired. Or when your chronic illness flares up.

I’m always a nihilist when my mental illness flares up. It's hard to stay cheery about life when all I can see is unending struggle.

Both of the following statements are true:

  1. God is good.
  2. Chronic illness sucks.

I have to remind myself that one truth does not cancel out the other.

When my illness is flaring, it’s easy to see everything that’s wrong with my life. I have no friends, my oven is broken, I’m overweight and I keep forgetting to pay my credit card bill. It’s at these moments when I need to just calm down and give myself a break.

I shouldn't task my brain with the impossible task of fixing everything all at once.

On my Facebook page, a reader named Sandra noted that those who suffer from chronic illnesses are more prone to a nihilistic outlook on life. This resonated with me. Nihilism suggests there is no ultimate meaning to life; that the rules, mores and morals governing our lives are arbitrary, the conventions of whatever dominant system is in power. The lack of meaning is what resonates with me.

When you're in constant pain or dealing with a never ending, chronic illness—it’s really hard to believe God has some grand purpose for your life.

Chronic mental illness has also forced me to re-examine the very premise of that idea. Throughout my childhood and early adulthood, I always heard that God had a grand purpose for my life, that God’s plans for my life could be found in the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”(Jeremiah 29:11)

But how does this verse apply when faced with the reality of constant, daily battle with chronic illness? When I look back through my life—and especially when I consult my gratitude journal—I can see the fingerprints of God throughout my days. I can see the blessings and the gifts bestowed upon me. But the grand purpose? Participating in the great work of God in my generation? No, I don't see that. Maybe it's not there. Or maybe God's definition of "plans to prosper" me are much smaller than I imagined. And maybe that's OK.

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I suppose learning to find the blessings in my life may mean learning to grapple with the constraints of my chronic illness. The poet does not give up hope when confronted by the constraints of a sonnet. Rather, perhaps, the rules and limitations of a sonnet provide a fine chisel to refine the poet’s choice of words. Could it be the same be said for me?

Could my life's purpose find its fulfillment under the refining chisel of mental illness?

Maybe what I don’t like is the fact that this requires discipline. Finding life's purpose and meaning doesn’t just happen by itself. I have to work at it. I have to struggle, even.

I have to remember that I was made for the struggle. Perhaps the struggle itself is the meaning I’ve been searching for because in the struggle I find strength I didn’t know I had, I find courage in the face of fear, I find love in the midst of pain. I wouldn’t have found these things if I didn’t have to struggle.

Perhaps the illness isn't a curse after all. Perhaps it is a gift.

 

 

"Blessed are the manic for they shall obtain mood stabilizers" #BipolarStories Part 3

Here's a handy guide for surviving a manic episode:

  1. Temporary tattoos. I repeat. TEMPORARY tattoos. You do not need to come out of a manic episode and discover you’ve had PEACE LOVE DONUTS permanently tattoo’d across your chest.
  2. Same goes for body piercing. You don’t need to discover, post-mania, that you’re now the proud owner of a septum ring. Faux nose rings are your friend.
  3. Hide the credit cards. Better yet, have your spouse/significant other/best friend keep them for you until the mania passes. I know you feel really strongly that you just MUST HAVE that $2,300 Vitamix blender. I know you truly and fully believe it will change your life forever and that you must have it NOW so you can start whipping up all those kale smoothies but wait. Borrow your friend’s Vitamix. And remember this: you don’t like kale.
  4. No, you don’t need a brand new RV. I know you really, really think you've become an outdoorsy person. But that's just the mania talking. How do I know this? Because you hate camping, that’s why. You’re an indoors kind of girl. You like fuzzy socks and indoor plumbing. You like books and crocheting by the (indoor) fire.
  5. I know! I know! You’re gonna become a real adventurer! You’re gonna sell everything and live out of a van like all those sexy hipsters on Instagram.
  6. But no, you’re not.
  7. Because you’re 40 now and maybe living out of a van was cool and hip and amazing when you were in your early twenties, but now you have children and animals and a mortgage.
  8. Also, you are a person who requires Netflix, a full-size bathtub and a toilet at 2am every night. Camping is not your dealy-o. Just say no to #vanlife.
  9. Get off of Craig’s List. You don’t need to come out of this episode to discover a beatup 1959 Shasta camper parked in your driveway. Because, no, you’re not gonna restore this camper from the moldly floorboards up. These things require experience. Experience which you do not have.
  10. I know you think your husband is ruining all your fun but believe me, you’ll thank him when this is over. (Thanks, Matt).

MEET MY THREE BEST FRIENDS

Meet my three best friends: Lofty, Booty and Billy. These are my nicknames for Zoloft, Wellbutrin and Abilify. Together, these friends of mine work hard to keep my brain from careening off a cliff. They are basically the guardrails of my mind. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes my mind is driving so fast that even the highest guardrail is no match. When I’m manic, almost nothing can stop me. My brain is like a car going downhill without brakes. It’s exciting and utterly terrifying. Mania would be awesome if it weren’t followed so hard by crushing, black-out depression.

Hence, the meds.

Wellbutrin keeps me from getting too depressed, Zoloft prevents me from getting too anxious and Abilify gives me the ability of maintaining a steady mood all day.

At this point in my life, I believe it's my moral obligation to take my meds. 

HELLO INSOMNIA, MY OLD FRIEND

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One of the side effects of my medication is that I have trouble sleeping. As someone who used to sleep deeply and well for most of her life, this is extremely irritating. Well, it was irritating until I began to learn how to use those quiet, insomniac hours for something good. Like writing. Which is what I’m doing right now at 3:01am.

    There was a time when I would have viewed insomnia as more than enough reason to quit my meds. Sleeplessness was not a sacrifice I wanted to make. Insomnia felt wasteful. It made me anxious about how tired I would feel the next day. I’m not saying I’ve gotten to the point where I enjoy being awake when everyone else is sleeping, but my perspective has shifted.

    For one thing, now that I view taking my medication as my personal moral responsibility to myself and those around me, quitting my medication is not an option. This means that insomnia is an unpleasant side effect but it is still better than being wildly manic or crushingly depressed. This is the price I pay. And for the sake of my family, I pay it gladly.

While nothing seems to help my insomnia, what has helped is viewing these wakeful hours from the ancient Christian perspective. Christians have a longstanding tradition of praying through the night. Monks and religious pray the liturgy of the hours and rising at 3 or 4am is not uncommon. Their schedules and timetables are determined by a summons to prayer.

I, too, am finding that these quiet, early morning hours can be redeemed through prayer. They do not have to be wasted. They can be shaped for the glory of God. Through prayer and meditation, I find a freeing self-forgetfulness.

To be clear, self-forgetfulness is not self-erasure. It is not destroying the self God created for me, as me.

It is the ancient Christian understanding that I am created for a purpose—to bring God glory with my life. It is a grateful acknowledgment that I am free from the entanglements of my feelings, my character flaws, even my mental illness. In Christ, I am a new creation. 

Self-forgetfulness is not self-loathing or self-hatred. Rather, it is loving the sacred self God made in me which bears the image of His own self. The beauty of my self is owed to the One whom it reflects: God. Just as the beautifully sculpted marble reflects the skill of the sculptor, so, too, our selves reflect His skill and limitless glory. We do not look at a statue and think: wow, this statue really did a great job sculpting itself! We look at a statue and think: whoa, what amazing artist created this sculpture?

The saints held everything loosely, including their own lives. The only thing to which they clung was God’s will. And even doing God’s will was not something they believed they could accomplish in and of themselves but only through the power of the Holy Spirit. Clinging without grasping. Holding fast without needy desperation. Saying with Queen Esther, “If I perish, I perish.” Understanding and fully accepting that their lives were not about them. But about God and the work God was doing through them.

When I look at these insomniac hours, I begin to feel comforted: that my suffering is not meaningless.

My suffering can be offered up for the benefit of others through prayer; my obedience to treatment and taking my medication provides the opportunity of these hours to cooperate with God’s work; and that, most poignantly, by using these hours to pray I can, perhaps, in some measure, relieve the pain my dearest friend Katherine felt on the night she took her life. These were the hours of her death. These have become the hours of my new life in Christ.

 

"Blessed are they who mourn for they shall be comforted with Xanax" #BipolarStories Part 2
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Four days after my trip to the hospital, my psychiatrist asks me if there is a triggering event that led to the downward spiral of my mental health. Basically, it all started nine months ago: the day I found out my best friend died by suicide. It was a day that would catapult me into full-blown bipolar illness.

a life unfinished

Katherine died in the dark, early morning hours of Monday, January 16th, 2017. 

I’ve read that suicide is impulsive—that even the most carefully constructed suicide plans are made by terribly ill brains that think death is the only option, the only way to be free from pain. 

I think that’s what happened with Katherine. I don't think she realized how much we loved her and needed her. She had no idea how much she would hurt us by leaving. She was worn out and depressed and, as she wrote in her suicide note to me, she felt like she didn't belong in this world. So, she started drinking heavily and one night, after posting on Facebook that she was "just so tired," she lay down on her couch and ended her life. 

She left her condo in a state of dishevelment. Dirty socks on the floor. Dishes on the counter. Half unpacked boxes from a move two years prior still stacked in the guest room. A life unfinished. A life abandoned.

The night before Katherine died, I was coming down with a cold. It was Sunday, January 15th. I could feel that heavy, solid-as-cement feeling weighing down my head. I went to work that night, anyway. Slogged through. I got off around 8pm feeling sick and bone tired. As I drove home, Katherine came to mind. I hadn’t heard from her for a couple days. I knew she was struggling. I just didn't know how severe it had become.

I should call her, I thought as I pulled into my driveway. I should call her tonight.

But I didn’t. It's a decision that still haunts me.

All I wanted to do was go to bed. Around 9:30pm I pulled the covers over my head and fell into a deep, Nyquil-induced sleep.

At that very moment, 2,000 miles away in Tennessee, Katherine was preparing to end her life. It was 11:30pm, her time. In an hour and a half she would send me an email—her suicide note. But I wouldn’t see it because I was fast asleep by then. In fact, I wouldn’t see the email until two mornings later after receiving a phone call from Katherine’s father, informing me of her death.

I should have called her. I think she wanted me to call her. I’m fairly certain she was hoping I would see her email that night and call her because she left her phone on.

You left your phone on.

Why?

I've asked myself this a million times. You sent me a goodbye email.

But you left your phone on.

Oh my god.

Were you hoping—

that maybe—

Even though it was late—it wasn't too late?

That I was somehow still awake?

Were you hoping that I'd call you?

I would have.

 

are you ok?

I was sick in bed all day on Monday and I didn’t check my email. I didn’t log onto Facebook or Twitter. The next morning I felt well enough to get up and I checked my Facebook messages. A woman I didn’t know had messaged me saying she needed to talk to me about an urgent matter relating to Katherine.

When I saw that message, it was 6:03am on Tuesday, January 17th. My heart dropped. I began texting Katherine frantically. No response. I stared at the screen, willing those little gray flashing dots to appear….nothing. I called her. Her phone rang through. But she didn’t answer. I called again. And again. I left a desperate voicemail for her: “Katherine, call me. I need to know you’re OK.”

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I ran upstairs and pulled up Google maps on my desktop computer. I zoomed in on her address and then slowly zoomed out, looking for hospital markers. I called all the hospitals in her county. Nothing. I called all the hospitals in Nashville.

Nothing.

The worst possibility—the unimaginable possibility—was beginning to dawn in my mind. I pushed it back.

But it wouldn’t go away.

I ran downstairs to the kitchen where my husband, Matt, was preparing breakfast for our children before school.

“Matt, what do I do?” I asked my husband, lowering my voice so I wouldn’t worry the kids. “Do I just start calling the morgues? The coroner’s office?”

Matt shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe she decided she needed a break from everything. What’s to say she didn’t just book a flight and go down to Florida for a few days?”

I understood his reluctance to give in to the worst possibility. No one wants to believe the unbelievable.

“No,” I said. “She’s not spontaneous like that. She plans things like that."

“Then if she’s not impulsive, I doubt she killed her—”

“DON’T SAY IT!” I shrieked. “Don’t say it!”

“Mommy, are you ok?” asked Jorie, one of our twins.

I couldn’t speak. I just stared at her; the horrible possibility becoming a looming inevitability.

“Mommy’s friend might be in some trouble,” Matt explained, as he flipped an egg in the frying pan. He turned to me. “Go ahead and make the calls,” he said. “I’ll get the kids ready for school.”

I climbed the stairs again, my heart thumping wildly. Maybe she accidentally overdosed. I knew she’d been drinking heavily and taking antidepressants.

Once back in my room, I called the morgue in Nashville.

“I’m looking for my friend,” I said to the kind woman who answered the phone. “She’s not answering my calls. She’s not responding to texts. I’ve already called all the—” my voice broke— “hospitals.”

“Well, I can’t give you a positive identification over the phone,” the woman said gently. “But if you give me a description, I can tell you if we have someone here that matches it.”

“She’s 43. White. Her name is Katherine Ray.”
 

“OK...hold on a moment, please.”

She put me on hold and I sat there for what seemed like an hour but which was probably only a few minutes. I bit my nails. I tried to stop crying. Please, please let her not be there.

The line clicked back on. “We do have someone here that matches that description,” the woman said.

I screamed.

“I’m sorry, honey.”

“So, it’s her? It’s really her?”

“I’m sorry but I can’t specifically confirm that or give more information. I’ll have the family call you.”

I could hear the sadness in the woman’s voice. What a terrible job, I thought. To have to break the news of people’s deaths to frantic friends and family members. I felt sudden compassion for her.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you so much for helping me.”

“OK, honey. Just hang on and I’ll have her dad call you.”

A few minutes later my phone rang. It was Katherine’s father. He confirmed my worst fears. Katherine was gone.

After we'd spoken, I fell on my bed and wept like I'd never wept before. My beloved friend was gone. I didn't even know she'd had a gun.

Into the darkness

Normal brains move through grief in predictable stages. At least, this is what I've heard. There's denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But my brain isn't a normal brain. And my brain got stuck. I wasn't "moving on." I was moving deeper into darkness. First came the anxiety, crushing my chest like an elephant. Around 4pm every day, I felt a vise-like grip in the center of my chest. It was hard to breathe. My brain was working really hard to find answers. In the days and weeks after Katherine's death, I developed a morbid curiosity about every last detail of her death. I wanted to know what exactly happened. What were her last words? What did she drink before she died? What was her last meal? Why did she use a gun? I wanted a specific timeline of events. As if having this information would somehow satisfactorily explain why she took her life.

This is what I learned: there were no good answers. There were answers, sure. But none of them explained WHY. None of them gave me peace. All of them just sent me deeper into grief.

I began to stammer. My hands shook. I lost cognitive function. To deal with the anxiety, my psychiatrist upped my Zoloft dosage. This is when I became manic (except I didn't know it was mania). The mania lasted for several months. I barely remember most of it except that I was making poor decisions. One day I decided to lease a new car. Just because. There was nothing wrong with my old Suburban. I just woke up one morning and felt amazing and on top of the world and OH I NEED A CAR TODAY! YAY! LET'S GO LEASE ONE! My husband was not happy with me. I couldn't understand why. Why wasn't EVERYONE EXCITED LIKE I WAS? Another day, I decided to make a bizarre, workout video and post it all over my social media feeds. My kids were not amused. They were mortified. I deleted the video.

The mania ended with paranoia and believing the FBI was spying on me.

It would take some time, but eventually the right combination of medication would finally pull me out of the raving darkness and into the stable light of day.

to be continued....

 

That time Jesus said: "Blessed are the bipolar for theirs is the pharmacy of Heaven." #BipolarStories Part 1

I don’t have a cute little mental illness (if there is such a thing). I have Bipolar II with Mixed Features. Which is just a short way of saying, Significantly Impaired with a lot of different symptoms mixed in. Mood swings. Paranoia. Mania. Depression. Psychosis. Panic. You know, all the really fun stuff. All the stuff that makes my kids super excited about having their friends over.

It’s humbling to admit I have this illness. I would prefer to tell you that I’m actually a really super spiritual person; that my bouts of mania mean I’m a mystic. A saint like St. Thérèse of Lisieux: all emotional and capable of deep love for God. But then I’d be lying. I’m no saint. I’m just your average, garden-variety sinner with delusions of grandeur.

These posts are about untreated mental illness and also, my journey toward a proper diagnosis and medical intervention. It’s about highly effective, medically prescribed drugs which keep me from wanting to claw my skin off my face (fun visual, amen?) and it’s also about learning how to live as a normal, sane person—because when you’ve lived with illness for most of your life, being healthy feels really, really weird. It takes some getting used to.

These posts are also a love story. They're about my husband, Matt, a fine Scotsman who—despite being a mere human like everyone else—has miraculously loved and lived with someone as mentally ill as myself. Basically, he’s Braveheart without the warpaint. Welcome to our odd little love story.

The End of My Rope

The day I go mad dawns blazing hot. 

The heat makes everything worse—like the fact that government agents are spying on me. They're watching me through my computer and tracking my movements through my iPhone. I know this like I know the sky is blue. It's just an irrefutable fact.

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The thing is, I don’t know why they’re spying on me. I don't know what I've done wrong. All I know is that I AM NOT HERE FOR THIS. This is extra basic and not on fleek right now.

What do you do when the CIA is spying on you? Well, you throw an old sock over the built-in camera on your computer, shut off location services on your phone and keep the bedroom blinds tightly closed (in case of spying drones, duh). Take that, ye servants of Satan.

From what I am later told, this episode is brought on by too much Zoloft in my system. Apparently, the Zoloft triggered my underlying illness: bipolar. At the time, though, I don't know that I'm bipolar, only that I've been undergoing various treatments for four years for a variety of increasingly severe symptoms: mostly anxiety and depression.

By midday, I am gnawing on my nails and scribbling in my journal. I’m trying to make a list of things I know to be true. It goes something like this:

  1. I know it is Friday.
  2. I know The State is spying on me.
  3. I know I haven’t done anything wrong. (Have I?)
  4. I know I’m a mom who works part-time as a server in a Greek restaurant—OH WAIT! OMG, that’s it. The State suspects I haven’t properly reported my cash tips. 
  5. Dear IRS, mea maxima culpa. I get it. I know. I’m a horrible person. I’m sorry. I have five kids. They need things like food (not that I cook) but they need things. Like Netflix. And tacos.
  6. I know I’ve been having nightmares—especially that recurring one where I’m arrested and placed in solitary confinement for some crime I don’t remember committing. And nobody will tell me.
  7. I know my family thinks I’m going crazy. Well, THEY are the crazy ones. THEY are the unwell ones. Not me. Nope. And anyway, aren’t we all kind of mentally ill? Aren’t we all a bit touched in the head?
  8. I know that I grew up in a cult. Such a beautiful childhood. So healthy. So happy. Har-har.
  9. I know that I might need help. But I don’t know if I can get it because stupid health insurance companies are stupid about behavioral health. They keep it all hidden and hard to access. They like to give you things you don’t need: like high deductibles. Insurance companies are like Aunt LaBelle who used to hide her cigarettes in the cookie jar and when you went to her house she was like: “Me? Smoke? Never. Here, have an antihistimine”—because you were wheezing asthmatically from all the cigarette smoke that permeated every corner of her house. The point is, insurance companies keep high deductibles in cookie jars.
  10. I know that eight is my favorite number. Eight years old was my favorite age. It was the last time I remember being happy. That was the year I climbed the tallest pine tree in my yard and was able to see the Matterhorn mountain ride several miles away at Disneyland. And that made me impossibly happy. I had only been to Disneyland once and it was addicting. I was like Edmund in The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe tasting Turkish Delight for the first time. Yep, I would totally hand over my family to the White Witch for just one more taste of Mickey Mouse. I could eat that Mouse all day. Ew. But alas, I wasn’t in Disneyland, I was in a cult. Thanks for that tiny glimpse of happiness, age eight. Thanks for showing me what was possible and then yanking it away. I won’t see happiness again for another gajillion years. Cue sobs.

 

Somehow I have enough presence of mind to ask my neighbor to drive me to the hospital...

The young, fresh-faced volunteer at the ER intake desk looks up at me and says: “Just sign here.”

    “I can’t,” I say.

    He looks baffled. “You can’t sign?”

    I lean forward and whisper, “I’m not ok, ok? I’m not ok, ok? I’m not ok—”

    He sees my shaking hands and a light seems to go off in his head—

Suddenly I am being hustled to a chair, papers are given to my neighbor and I’m told just to wait for a moment. I don’t know what is happening. I just sit when they tell me to sit. I just stand when they tell me to stand. Why is that young lady staring at me? Why are the lights so bright? Why are the sounds so loud?

    “Can you hold me down in my seat?” I say to my neighbor. “I feel like I might float away if I’m not pinned down.”

    She presses a reassuring arm on my shoulder.

    Someone is calling my name.

    OH, NO. THEY FOUND ME.

    I look up to see someone all dressed up in a nurse’s uniform holding a clipboard. NICE COSTUME, FELLAS. I know who you are! You can’t trick me!

    “Elizabeth, they just want to check you in,” says my neighbor.

“I just want to die,” I say.

Her eyes grow wide.

She helps me up and I hobble over to the intake desk again. Apparently, the gig is up. I’m caught. Oh, well. Solitary confinement here I come. Beam me up, Scotty.

I don’t remember much of what happens next except that I am asked a lot of questions, taken to a room with a bed and told to undress, told to swallow a pill, poked with needles and, several hours later, sent home with a prescription for Zyprexa and strict orders to call my psychiatrist the following Monday.

When I ask the psychiatric nurse to let me stay, she says: “I’d rather send you home because I think being around other really mentally ill people will make you worse.”

Apparently, I’m not going to prison, after all. Apparently, I have to keep on living. UGH.

Ever since my best friend died by suicide, I can’t seem to get a grip on this new, horrible reality without her.

Katherine is the reason why I used to laugh and now she’s the reason why I cry.     

I really thought I had a handle on this stupid grief thing. Instead, things got worse (witness: the spying drones, witness the CIA tracking my iPhone).

    I thought I was getting better.

    I thought I was moving on.

    You know, MOVING ON. That’s the thing people say to grieving people. They say: “You’ll always cherish the special memories but now it’s time to move on.”

    I wish people would stop saying that.

Because the thing is, after losing Katherine, I didn’t get better. I got worse. I moved deeper into grief, deeper into a dark hole that spilled itself like black ink all over my mind. Losing Katherine triggered all the underlying symptoms of Bipolar II and it came roaring to life like a beast released from its cage.

Katherine, ever since you died:

I can't figure out what to do with all these things I need to tell you.

I can't seem to remember who I am or why I’m here.

I keep calling your cell phone just to hear your voice.

I can't concentrate.

I forget everything.

I imagine your voice in my dreams.

I wish I would have done more to help you.

I tell you everyday how much I love you, how much I miss you, how much I hope you're OK.

Katherine, why did you have to go?

 

Zyprexa zombie

Zyprexa is not my friend. I learn this after the ER doctors prescribe Zyprexa and it wallops me upside the head and knocks me out for sixteen hours straight. When I wake up, I don’t wake up. I mean, technically. I’m awake. But my eyelids won’t open. My eyelids are all: We hate you right now so we are going on strike. Your eyelids will be closed until further notice. Signed, The Management.

This is perplexing. Also, highly inconvenient. Maybe I should just prop open my eyelids with Q-tips. That’ll work. That won’t be weird at all. My kids won’t mind if I drop them off at school with Q-tips taped to my eyeballs.

This could be a new look for me. Zyprexa Zombie Mom. Somebody get me a TV show, stat. AMC, I have a new show for you: The Walking Q-Tip Head. You’re welcome.

Where were we? Oh, yes. Zyprexa Zombie. Let’s discuss how fun it is to show up at your kids’ school in 3 day old pajamas and matted hair. Let’s discuss how many awesome invitations you’ll get to playdates and Moms' Nights Out. Exactly zero.

This is the first thing you need to know about severe mental illness: it is lonely.

    You don’t get invited to things.

    And if you do, the host regrets it.

I mean, there was a time when you got invited to things. But on the day of the party, you were burrowed under your covers convinced the CIA was spying on you through your computer so you didn’t show up for the party. In fact, you completely forgot about it. Throwing the CIA off your tracks was more important. But three days later—in a blind panic—you suddenly remembered: THE PARTY.

You frantically text your friend: Hi, Kate. I’m so so so so so so so so so so sorry I missed the Moms Night Out. I was sick in bed with bipolar 2. It’s a severe mental illness. Have you heard of it? It used to be called manic depression. I can send you some articles if you’d like to read up about it!

    And then you wonder why you never hear from Kate again.

Here’s the second big lesson of mental illness: I am not my feelings.

    Oh, boy. I’m in trouble now.

 Mental illness has taught me that my feelings are not the be-all, end-all of the entire world. The Earth does not spin on its axis because of my feelings. The sun does not rise because I felt like it should. Everything goes on with or without my feelings which is why I need to learn to how to detach.

Detach is a terrible word and I hate it very much. But that’s mostly because I am way too attached to my feelings. I am way too attached to my way of seeing the world. Did you know that the medieval definition of attached was NAILED TO? Yeah. That’s me, alright. I am nailed to my feelings. I can’t go anywhere or do anything because I am nailed to how my feelings feel about where I go or what I do. I am the handmaiden of my feelings. I serve my feelings with gladness and thanksgiving because my feelings are….uh-oh. My feelings are beginning to sound a lot like God.

    Ay, there’s the rub, Hamlet.

 I feel so many things and they feel so very real and yet, those feelings are not me. I am the one having the feelings but I am not the feelings themselves. This is good news because it means I can detach from your feelings. I have the power to change my feelings. Except when I don’t. Except when my neurotransmitters have gone horribly awry and my brain is lacking dopamine and then I'm like: AAAUGH.

 But the point is, once my neurotransmitters are stabilized, it’s actually possible to get a handle on my feelings. This is not to say I don’t feel your feelings. It’s just to say that I don’t let your feelings boss you around. My feelings are not the boss of me. I am the boss of me and if my feelings are getting too out of control, I have every right to put my hands on my hips and say: “GET THEE BEHIND ME, SATAN!”

TO BE CONTINUED..... 

 

My rapidly deteriorating brain and other dust bunnies

Matt says the plumber Did a Bad Job. Matt doesn’t cuss so he says things like: “That dude did a half-butt job patching up the hole” which I find hilariously uncouth.

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I follow Matt into the hardware store because I don’t want to be home alone with my brain. It’s been playing tricks on me lately and Matt is the only person who can take one look at my face and know if I'm losing touch with reality. He’s my DIY psychiatrist. I like to keep him on hand for emergencies.

We're shopping at OSH which stands for Orchard Supply Hardware but I like saying “OSH” because it’s more fun. Usually I don’t accompany Matt on these home repair errands because, well, I used to think it was boring. The world of DIY home improvement is a foreign land to me.

Matt is saying words that sound like English but which I don’t understand:

Rapid Set Stucco Patch

Vapor Barrier Stucco Backing

Stucco Float

Concrete Rubber Bucket

Saw-All

I follow him around like a duckling, listening to him talk with the OSH guy about things I have never heard before and I wonder how it is he has managed to keep this manly world of trowels and wire cutters private from me. Then I remember that for the last twenty years or so I’ve been chasing delusions of grandeur. Also, this manly world is boring.

I pick up a broom and a roll of masking tape. I carry the broom on my shoulder like a fishing rod. I imagine myself as Huck Finn, trawling Aisle 32 for channel-lock wrenches, whatever those are.

Matt says: “Why did you get the corn stalk broom instead of the synthetic, angled broom?”

I don’t have an answer for this except that it looked like how a broom was supposed to look: like something a witch would ride.

“Angled brooms are better,” Matt says and so we switch them.

I feel proud of my new angled broom. Take that, ye dust bunnies. Wouldn't it be wonderful if this new, angled broom could also sweep away the dust bunnies in my mind? Tidy it up? Sweep it clean of its bipolar dirt?

“Am I boring you in here?” Matt asks.

“No,” I lie.

The truth is that I’m bored stiff but I much prefer boredom to being at home with my rapidly deteriorating brain.

“I think you need a nap,” Matt says after we pay for our stucco and trowels and broom.

“Yes, I think you’re right,” I say. “Home repair is exhausting.”