Bipolar Disorder Taught Me That I’m a Gift, Not a Burden

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Dear Bipolar Disorder,

I filled up a whole journal dedicated just to you, BPD.  My cursive letters swirling around; every word different, but every meaning the same. In high school, you decided to keep me low, keep me worthless, which I told my journal.

“I’m so stupid, I deserve to die. I’m so worthless, life is wasted on me. I’m such a burden, why does anyone claim to love me? I’m so ugly, how do people not vomit after looking at me?”

Always at my side like a shadow, your pitch-black fingers wrapped around every thought I had, and even the purest thoughts became stained.

My family surely thought you were going to be the death of me. Senior year, I became friends with the other girls in the psych hospital three different times. My grandparents had already lost a daughter, and now you made them fear that they would a granddaughter, too? How disgusting.

I fought you constantly with medications. Instead, you became ice-cold water, crashed down upon me, and rusted everything. You tidal-waved me again and again, rusted every set of armor I had. I still got up. You made me breathless, but you could not drown me.

Finally, I found an armor that, while chinked, could stand up to you. You saw this, and regrouped.  You realized that I could swim, but you knew I couldn’t fly.

You made me think I could, though. You waved a white flag and signed a peace treaty with me. You let me think that my medicine made you innocuous, that we could live side-by-side in harmony. Your fingers, no longer black, but the brightest, shiniest, most intense white, found their way back into my brain. You told me that, yes, driving 110 miles per hour was a good idea. You told me that sex was inconsequential.

Death got in your way, though. It didn’t stop you, just made you change your approach. When my grandfather died, you jumped at the opportunity to whisper worrying-nothings in my ear. You called up your good friend, General Anxiety Disorder, got together for brunch, and really brainstormed ways to make me miserable.

If I thought you were bad, BPD, I had another thing coming with GAD. He did a great job. For about a week after Grumpy, my grandfather, died, he made me hallucinate. Do you know what it’s like to feel like there’s a demon floating above you as you try to sleep? Do you know what it feels like to think its tongue is working its way into your ears? Do you know what it’s like to go to school with zero hours of sleep because of this, feeling crazy from the night before? I do.

GAD made my chest burn, and my stomach churn. And now when I get heartburn, I wonder what’s making me anxious. Do you know how hard it is to go to school when you have a panic attack a week? That didn’t stop me though. Even with all your BS, I’ve never failed a class.

Eventually, I decided I’d had enough of you, and I found a new psychiatrist. I told her about you, about everything, really.

It’s been about 9 months on my new medicine. I haven’t had a cigarette in seven and a half months. I’ve had one panic attack in this time. I’ve lost 40 pounds. I never skip class just because I feel like it. I do my homework and I listen to my professors. I find silver linings. I’m living on my own. I’m happy. And the best part is I know you can’t stand it. Good.

So I guess here’s what I would really like to say to you:

You put me through hell. You made me do things I regret tremendously. You made me think that I was worth nothing more than casual hookups. You put me in the hospital three times. You almost killed me.

But you know what? You also taught me that I am stronger than anything this world has to throw at me. By making me feel worthless, you taught me that I am worth the world. By making me feel like a burden, you taught me that I am a gift.

sydney palmer the mighty

By keeping me in the dark, you taught me to always look for the light. You made my life either black or white, but I’ve learned that this world is a mix of grey. You tried so hard to break me. And yeah, maybe you gave me a couple dents; maybe I cracked in a couple of places. But you failed.

I am whole. I am unbroken. I am beautiful, and smart, and funny, and caring. I am an important part of this world, no matter how many times you told me that the world didn’t need me. I love myself a million times more than you ever hated me. I am so much more than you. You will never control me again, just watch.

Not yours anymore,
Sydney

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When I Ventured to the Mysterious Hallway of My Middle School

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There was a mysterious little hallway tucked away at Armstrong Middle School that nobody, at least nobody I knew of, had classes in. You saw kids once in a blue moon wander in there, but for what? Who knew?

When the computer lab opened up in that hall, kids started to notice the different world they stepped in. It turned out to be a place called “K wing” but properly known as the special education department.

In 1999, when I was in the sixth grade, I was introduced to the world of the K wing. I spent some time in special ed when I was younger, but this time, I wasn’t a student.

After being caught up in some nonsense preteen melodrama, I vented to my guidance counselor that nobody understood the struggles I faced as a person with a disability. As a matter of fact, my exact words to her were, “I am the only one in this school with a disability. Why isn’t there anyone else like me?”

“Oh, but you’re not the only one,” she reassured me. “Meet me in the K wing tomorrow. You’ll be surprised at what’s in there.”

The following day, I walked into a large room with a group of about 12 teens of various disabilities, doing everything from passing out their homework assignments to learning how to make coffee for the teachers — minor tasks aimed at helping them be successful in the adult world. Some were in wheelchairs, others used little picture devices that reminded me of a modern iPad. But all of them were like me — a teenager just looking for acceptance and strength.

I became captivated by their world and got to know plenty of them on a personal level. They enjoyed having someone to spend their homeroom period with them.

“I think I might make this a thing,” I thought.

From that moment, I figured I could make a difference, even if it meant sticking out like a sore thumb. The plan to be as normal as possible went out the window, but I didn’t care. Each homeroom period, I made an attempt to be there. I was eventually added to their homeroom roster.

A few good friends came out of it, and a lot of great friends from the mainstream classes wanted to join in on the fun. Soon it became a thing.

Eventually, word got out that the kids our fellow student body made fun of were actually cool. We shared stuff in common like music, movies, cartoons and the like.

We were the K crew.

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From our time together, we made friendships that lasted a lifetime — not to mention we gained a better understanding of what life was on the other side of the hallway.

Eventually, we had it set where some of the younger kids who were caught teasing would spend a week with us to learn the same lessons we learned on our own. By volunteering our time, we made a small indent on our student body.

We learned what would soon be referred to as inclusion. I guess you can say we were the “O.G.’s of Inclusion,” as the kiddos put it. We learned we are all the same, despite what society and our peers had to say.

What started off as a simple tour in an attempt to ease my teenage woes became something beautiful.

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Why I’m Congratulating Myself After My Son’s Public Meltdown

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I haven’t always been vulnerable. Autism made me this way. It’s not a complaint, just a fact.

A week into his summer vacation, my son, Jack, told me he was bored. Well, he typed to me that he was bored. On November 7, 2012, our world was been turned upside down when our otherwise nonverbal son spelled out on a stencil board, “I am trying” and “I am really smart.”

Jack has progressed to typing on an iPad, and we can have some pretty productive conversations some days. It’s not, however, all rainbows and flowers now that Jack can type. He still has autism. And, quite frankly, it affects him tremendously. It sucks.

He types that he wants to learn on a regular basis. I appreciate his eagerness to learn, but when he typed he was bored, I decided we needed an adventure. Adventures in “autism-land” require a lot of patience and time. I need to be mentally ready for the stares. (We attract a lot of attention just with a service dog. But add in headphones and a kid who weighs 115 pounds and still holds Mom’s hand? People stare.) There’s also always the potential for aggression. This is just a part of Jack’s autism, and it ebbs and flows depending on a long list of items that may or may not be present. I need to be ready to have Jack’s impulsivity take over just when I think everything is going smoothly.

He likes history and battles, so I thought a trip to the Gettysburg Battlefields, only an hour away, was perfect. I enlisted the help of his amazing sisters. They were dead to the world in a teenage slumber when I happily announced, “We are going on an adventure!” Kudos to them — they came with little to no complaining. I was pumped. I could do this!

I was immensely proud of how the girls handled the stares and mumblings from bystanders. The “special” attention we get is a bonus from my perspective — preferred seating, fast service and going to the front of most long lines. For my teenage daughters, however, it just makes us stand out even more.

Our afternoon is going along swimmingly when, just like that, it starts. The aggression. Hair pulling, pinching, grabbing and screaming. Imagine the scene. It doesn’t look right when a kid pulls his mother’s hair. It doesn’t look right when a kid grabs his sister’s face while the other family members quietly try to pry his hands off her. It doesn’t look right when a big boy is having a tantrum equivalent to that of a 4-year-old.

Herein lies the vulnerability. To be in public, I have to admit we are a different family. We are louder than most, and sometimes, our behavior makes people stare with crazed eyes and mouths agape.

But today, I am congratulating myself for doing it. Our day ended a bit earlier than I predicted, but I put us out there, and we all handled it like champs. Autism might suck some days, but my family rocks every day.

This post originally appeared on Hardly Getting By

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10 Reasons You Should ‘Light It Up Blue’ on World Autism Awareness Day

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In 2007, the United Nations declared April 2nd of each year as World Autism Awareness Day. A few years later, a global autism awareness initiative to honor the day was born — Light It Up Blue. Every April 2nd, people all over the world “shine a light” on autism by wearing blue, making their social media profiles blue for the day or shining bright blue lights outside their homes.

My personal connection with this day started almost 23 years ago when I was diagnosed with autism. I dealt with countless obstacles. I wish I’d had a “Light It Up Blue” campaign to start a pivotal conversation about how to improve the lives of those with autism.

Today, I can say I’ve overcome many of my obstacles. I’ve become a national speaker, a bestselling author and an employee with Autism Speaks. I now work closely with the Light It Up Blue campaign, and it’s been a dream scenario in many ways. I’m proud to report that for the third year in a row, the city hall in my home town, Jersey City, New Jersey, will be “lighting up blue.”

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In honor of the day, here are 10 reasons I believe you should go blue on World Autism Awareness Day.

10. More than 3.5 million Americans and counting are living with autism. This year, in all our materials we’re making it our mission to tell people that we’re dedicating this campaign to helping them as much as we can.

9. To help encourage our politicians to enact legislation in all 50 states that will help people living with autism. By “lighting it up blue,” we can raise awareness about autism to our public officials, which will hopefully initiate more of a push to help our community.

8. It helps support autism research. Autism Speaks has been around for 10 years now and has put $525 million dollars toward our mission. We want to help find out what causes autism so we can help people with autism progress.

7. It’s a great way to meet new people in our community. This April 2nd, you’ll probably find one or two people who are either wearing blue, posting about blue on social media or lighting their houses blue. When you do this, you open yourself up to engaging with our community in a unique way.

6. The blue lights look amazing. Buildings and events all over the world went blue last year. Some of the most iconic landmarks in the world have gone blue, and it’s a beautiful sight every year. Using blue Phillips light bulbs at your house looks just as cool.

5. It’s fun! This year, Autism Speaks came out with a Light It Up Blue “selfie sign” that people can use to tell us where around the world they will be going blue.

4. It shows those in our autism community that they’re not alone. Many times when I consult with parents who have loved ones on the spectrum, they mention they feel alone or not part of the community. Even if you’re not personally affected by autism, you can show your support with Light It Up Blue and give people who are affected a light to look toward.

3. It supports people like me. I wish more than anything that Light It Up Blue existed when I was diagnosed with autism at age 4. Now when I see people go blue, I see that there’s so much awareness being spread around to help those who know or are personally affected by autism.

2. Approximately 500,000 individuals with autism will reach adulthood within the next decade. When we “light it up blue,” we have the opportunity to share with our community that autism is a lifelong disorder and kids with autism are growing up before our eyes.

1. It can help start a conversation. More than anything else, we hope Light It Up Blue will give us the opportunity to educate the world about autism and help better our community.

Need help getting started? Click here to learn five ways you can Light It Up Blue on World Autism Awareness Day.

Register here to tell us where you will be “lighting it up blue” this year.

This post originally appeared on KerryMagro.com.

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When Someone Told Me I Had the ‘Good Cancer’

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Good and cancer shouldn’t be used in the same sentence, period. Yet I heard it multiple times last summer after being told I had cancer. I sat there in disbelief. Not because I had breast cancer (I have been waiting for that shoe to drop for a while), but because there was absolutely nothing good about having it.

My experience has been that some doctors and medical professionals might use this phrase in an effort to soften the blow. Saying you have the “good cancer” is a way to make you feel better about where you fall on the spectrum of survivability. But for me, being told I had the good cancer diminished the disruption to my life, and the permanent changes to my body, that this disease would bring. While the intentions are good, it is misguided.

Does that mean that my mom had the bad cancer because she eventually died from it? Let’s say for argument’s sake I have a better type of breast cancer than she did. After all, my diagnosis revealed that I was only stage I and although my cancer was invasive, it was relatively small. I also have tubular cancer, which is a slow grower. The chances of it having spread outside the breast were pretty minimal. I was even told I could get away with a lumpectomy and only six weeks of radiation.

I suppose that is all good, but I still wouldn’t say I have the good cancer. For treatment, I elected to have a double mastectomy. Some might say that was a pretty aggressive choice. However when my mom was diagnosed 20 years ago with breast cancer, I was bumped into the high-risk category. Since then, every four months like clockwork, I have been checked. It has been a never-ending cycle of mammograms, ultrasounds and MRIs. In recent years, instead of feeling like I was taking care of myself, I began to dread these appointments. I worried that this would be the time my ticket was pulled.

When my last biopsy came back positive, honestly, I wasn’t surprised. My doctors had been watching that spot for a while. Having this cancer diagnosis finally gave me the permission to put an end to the routine check-ups and the worry that came along with each and every one of them. Choosing a lumpectomy would have still caused me to look over my shoulder. I would have always be waiting for the report to come back telling me I had another tumor. I have sat in the radiology consultation room enough to know that I just wanted to be done.

It has been six months since my life-saving, life-altering surgery. A double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction is no walk in the park. Despite lengthy discussions with my physicians, I was in no way prepared for the way I felt in the weeks and months post-surgery. Cancer wreaks havoc on your whole being, your life and those closest to you. It has no mercy. It doesn’t matter that I have the good cancer.

Recovering has been difficult both physically and mentally but I am healing and adjusting to my new normal. In all likelihood, I will live a long life and die of something other than cancer. That is good, but I will never accept that I had the good cancer. There is just no such thing.

dana freeman the mighty

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How I Learned to Stop Being My Son’s Nurse and Start Being His Mom

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I’m a nurse and a mother. For many years, I prided myself in keeping the roles separated. Sure, both are caregivers performing tasks… but as a nurse, I distanced myself emotionally from patients. It was a form of self-preservation, a manner of coping that enabled me to help people. I felt like a superhero by day and vulnerable mother by night.

My worlds collided on December 9, 2014. My third son, Donovan Grant, was born with Pierre Robin Sequence. Donovan was briefly placed in my arms before he was taken to the NICU for respiratory distress. I was robbed of my bonding moment.

I quickly transitioned from vulnerable mother into nurse mode and emotionally distanced myself to cope with his diagnosis. I put my game face on and prepared for battle. I became task-oriented and introverted. I avoided contact with friends and family. I turned away visitors and opportunities for “company, a listening ear.”

I said I needed to focus on Donovan’s health, but I was afraid. I feared I would see pity in their eyes. How often had I, as a nurse, done the same when caring for families of special needs children, looking at them with pity? I feared they would see the flaw in my armor.

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I buckled down and consumed myself with Donovan’s biggest hurdle: eating. I obsessed over small volumes. I found a sense of calm in my focused state. I was a great nurse and we were rewarded with an early discharge from NICU in time for the holidays. As the NICU nurse walked us out with Donovan’s apnea and cardiac monitors, I lost it. The wall I had built up began to crumble… reality settled in.

I wasn’t clocking out of a shift; I was taking this patient home. He was my son.

Fast forward to three weeks later when we had our first appointment with Donovan’s craniofacial team. I fully anticipated we would schedule Donovan’s cleft palate repair by 3 months of age, after which he would be “fine” and we could get on with scheduling summer vacations and “normal” family life.

Reality check…

We left the appointment with an open-ended plan to “tweak” Donovan’s feedings and return to the clinic in a month. I cried. I was disappointed. I was confused. I was selfish. I’d invested so much hope in this follow-up. I had been naive. I thought we’d be rewarded with an “end in sight,” a scheduled date I could mark on the calendar as the return to normalcy for our family. January 6th was a memorable day; it was the day I grieved the normalcy that “had been” and realized life would never be the same.

I’d been shell shocked, and the days that followed only got worse. The ENT called us the next day to check on Donovan. He said he was genuinely concerned and advised that we admit Donovan to the hospital for airway management.

We packed for a weekend getaway. Donovan ended up in the hospital for thirty-five days. The initial intervention was unsuccessful; Donovan needed surgery. Our ENT proposed a procedure that was fairly new and innovative; he said he had discussed Donovan’s case with his mentor after our first meeting. He said when he looked in Donovan’s eyes he saw fear; Donovan couldn’t breathe. He deserved a better quality of life.

I was overwhelmed with fear and guilt. The past three weeks I had been Donovan’s nurse; I’d been task-oriented and emotionally distanced. I felt I’d failed him as a mother. I’d been in denial, too scared to tear the wall down and connect with him. I allowed his condition to obstruct our relationship. I was afraid to feel, afraid to be vulnerable in the face of something I had no control over. I was afraid of his diagnosis. I was afraid to be his mother.

Donovan was on a ventilator for 6 days. For what felt like an eternity of time I sat vigil at his bedside as a mother. I could no longer provide him the nursing care he needed. I jumped headfirst into the tide of emotions. I cried, I questioned, I bargained, I cursed.

I grieved everything that was and everything I had envisioned our future to be. I forgave. I accepted.

The day Donovan came off the vent was like a rebirth for us. Donovan took his first breath, I heard his first cry, and they placed him in my arms. I lived in the moment. I took him all in. I embraced the fear of uncertainty. This time I was ready to battle disability and disease, not as a nurse, but as Donovan’s mother.

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