Finding ‘Sorority Sisters’ in the Psychiatric Unit

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I sat with three other moms on ugly green wedges of modular seating in the lobby of the hospital’s psychiatric services building. It was a Tuesday evening and we were waiting for our daughters to finish their first session of group cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for kids with bipolar disorder. At first, we wrapped ourselves in cocoons of awkward silence. Our eyes bounced from our phones to the clock on the wall or – whenever it dinged, rolled back its heavy doors with a groan and deposited someone into the shadowy room — the elevator.

I glanced at the pretty Asian woman sitting next to me. I remembered her kind smile when we’d all dropped off our girls – who ranged in age from 11 (Sadie, my daughter) to 15 – in the stuffy, windowless conference room on the third floor.

“Does your daughter have bipolar disorder, too?” I asked, tentatively, feeling like an idiot as soon as I did. Duh. Why else would she be here?

She nodded. In a soft voice she told me that Lily, 15, had only recently been diagnosed. But she’d had problems since she was 12 and had been hospitalized four times. Thanks to lithium, Lily was doing better, although the drug made her lethargic and slow. Her father also had bipolar disorder.

“He passed away a few years ago,” Lily’s mother whispered. Tilting her head back, she pantomimed raising a bottle to her lips. “He drank a lot,” she said, lowering her arm. “He didn’t know he was bipolar.”

The matter-of-fact way she delivered this news hit me like the jolt of plunging into an icy lake. I was reminded, once again, just how deadly this illness can be. And how lucky we are that, in spite of her struggles, Sadie isn’t much sicker and is getting the help she needs. Lily’s mom asked how old Sadie was when she was diagnosed. Her eyes widened when I said 6. The woman sitting across from us leaned forward, listening intently to our conversation.

“How old was your daughter when you knew something was wrong?” I asked her.

“Right away,” she replied, grimacing. “Amy cried all the time when she was a baby.”

Her husband’s denial about their daughter’s condition led them to divorce. She sighed and folded her arms tighter across her chest. “Amy just goes into a really dark tunnel sometimes” she said, shaking her head.

The rest of us nodded. We all knew that tunnel. We knew how the strain of raising a child with a mental illness could chip away at even the most solid marriages. We knew what it was like to watch our girls flounder in school and lose friends. We’d felt the sting of skepticism from our own friends, relatives and others when we uttered the words “pediatric bipolar disorder.” We knew about clinging to the hope that each new medication would be the one that would prevent our child from ever crawling back into that tunnel.

The only mother who hadn’t yet spoken, a blonde woman with tired eyes, rose from her seat. She shared that her girl, Kylie, who was 12, had originally been diagnosed with ADHD. “I sobbed when the doctor told me she had bipolar disorder,” she said.

The illness had ravaged her sister’s life. More nods. We’d all seen adult family members sidelined by bipolar disorder and robbed of their potential. We’d watched them succumb to addiction and push away those who love them with their erratic moods and behavior. And we knew how the lure of suicide, with its promise to end their pain forever, always clouded their futures.

Our formerly subdued group was suddenly chatty as a gathering of sorority sisters — which, in a way, we were. Talking over each other, we swapped stories and compared notes on symptoms and medications. We didn’t slow down until the elevator chimed and one of the older girls from the group swished past us in her long bohemian skirt, signaling the 90-minute therapy session was over. Sadie was the last one to pop out of the elevator.

“How’d it go?” I asked as we headed to the parking lot, though the grin on her face answered my question.

“Really good!” she said. “But it went by so fast.”

I knew how she felt. I was pretty sure spending time with other girls who had bipolar disorder would help her.

I hadn’t anticipated how therapeutic it would be for me to hang out in the lobby with their moms.

The names in this story have been changed to protect identities. 

Odonnellanddaughter
Dorothy and her daughter.

This essay was originally published on Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers

 

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To Brandon Marshall, Who Helped Me Face My Mental Illness

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Dear Brandon,

Even though you have one of the most “alpha-male” careers as an extremely accomplished NFL wide-receiver for the New York Jets, you have inspired a little girl to put back together the pieces of her life.

A little over a year ago, my older brother Wes told me about you and about your story. I remember distinctly we were at my younger brother’s away football game in Greensboro, North Carolina. I was in the midst of a manic episode, but it was on the decline.

I had just withdrawn for the third time from my semester at Clemson University where I should have been a junior.

“Have you ever heard of Brandon Marshall?” He asked me. I told him I had heard your name but I didn’t know anything about you. He told me about how you wore lime-green cleats during a game for mental health awareness. He told me about how you were fined by the NFL for the cleats and that you matched the fine to donate to mental health organizations.

This fine is nothing compared to the conversation started and awareness raised,” you wrote on Twitter afterwards.

In almost an instant, you had become my hero.

I went home and looked up more about your story. That you have borderline personality disorder (BPD) and went through the difficult but necessary journey of piecing back together your life and making sense of it all at McLean Hospital.

Then, you opened up about your BPD and told the world at a press conference.

 

Even though we’re so different, we are so the same. I saw myself in your story. I thought wow, this man really understands me and what I’ve been through. Which is strange, because we’ve never met. Also the fact that you’re a pro-athlete and I’m a 5’3 college student. We look different, but I understand you. I’ve lashed out. I’ve felt like I didn’t belong. I’ve felt rejected. I’ve been unsupported. I’ve been misunderstood.

I also have the same desires you did to inform people of what I’ve been through. To give people an opportunity to understand. To not hide. To use our story. Your wife Michi said as she was getting wrongfully arrested, “Someone is going to learn from our story.

She was right.

Not just someone, many someones. And I am one of them.

I cannot thank you enough for putting the whole team of mental illness on your back. Thank you for your honesty and vulnerability in a career that seems to inspire the opposite.

Thank you for unknowingly welcoming so many out of their shadows and into the light.

Thank you for messaging me back today and telling me how you were so proud of me. I nearly fell over in my class and that’s not an exaggeration. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face or the joyful tears from welling in my eyes as I flashed back to that moment this time last year when I first heard your name.

Thank you for all that you’ve done for this community and for the world. Can’t wait to paint the world lime green together.

Sincerely,

The young woman you inspired to break free from the shame and chains of her illness.

p.s. I’ll be keeping the Lego Brandon Marshall figurine that my brother got me on my dresser, always.

To learn more about Brandon Marshall, check out his organization Project 375. Click here to donate to Growing Project 375.

 

Related: NFL Player and Under Armour Are Teaming Up For Mental Health

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When Reddit Judged Me for Being a Mother With Bipolar Disorder

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I’ve have written about my triumphs and hardships with bipolar disorder many times before. I write so others know they’re never alone. In my writings, I would neither judge or condemn someone for choosing to have children or choosing a life without children. Their choices are none of my business, and who am I to judge anyway? Who are any of us to judge another person?

Who indeed.

I’ve never claimed to be the best mother in the world because, well, that would be ridiculous. But I do know I’m a good mom. My daughters are everything to me and I take care of myself to not only be healthiest person I can be, but the strongest mother to my children.

Once, while looking over my personal blog, I was alerted someone had shared one of my posts to Reddit.* It was a blog I had written called “You Can’t Have Kids, You’re Bipolar,” about a comment I’d received — someone thought I should feel guilty for having children because I have bipolar disorder.

I decided to make my way to Reddit to take a peek at what was being said about the piece; surely people would see my point, right? As my eyes scanned her post, my stomach churned.

There were over 80 comments calling me everything from “psychopath,” “unstable,” “selfish” and “unfit.” Even a disgusting comment about how I should’ve been forced to undergo sterilization was upvoted and replied to with like-minded ignorance.

I was blown away. I reached out to my community of mental health advocates, reposting the original article I had written with all of the Reddit comments copied and pasted at the end to highlight the stigma and ignorance.

Their support was amazing, and I’m so thankful for the community of mental health advocates in my life. The people who know what it’s like, or take the time to ask what it’s like, are the ones who would never judge another person. These are the people who are changing the world, one small act of kindness at a time.

And since stumbling on that Reddit post, I’ve come to a few conclusions of my own:

It’s sad people in this world honestly believe hate is the way to treat someone with an illness. I’m sad some people would choose to remain ignorant.

And even after reading and rereading the comments by people who’ve never met my lovely children or me, yet still felt justified in their judgment, I couldn’t help but feel bad for them. I asked myself, if given the opportunity to speak to those faceless strangers, what would I say?

While everyone is entitled to their beliefs and opinions, you don’t know me or my children. Spreading ignorance is harmful, and you have absolutely no right to judge someone you’ve never met. People who are diagnosed with an illness might read those words and lose hope.

I wrote that piece to let other parents know being diagnosed with a mental illness doesn’t mean you can’t be an amazing, loving parent. Please stop adding to the stigma we fight every single day.

It’s exhausting, and it’s taking time away from my beautiful children.

*Editor’s note: The post has since been removed.

Follow this journey on The Lithium Chronicles.

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What You May Miss When You Dismiss Someone as a Drunk

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When I was in my mid-to-late teens, I had a problem with drugs and alcohol. For the best part of four years, I continually got high and drank myself into oblivion. Most people who saw me during that time could’ve dismissed me as just another addict or drunk. And I guess that’s what I was. That’s how I looked, right? But to really know what was going on, you’d have to look deeper. Sadly, very few people ever do.

I have mental illnesses. Bipolar I disorder, borderline personality disorder and anxiety disorder. I didn’t receive this diagnosis until about two years ago. Prior to that, I lived misdiagnosed. My first diagnosis came after I tried to kill myself when I was 15. First it was psychotic depression, then schizoaffective disorder and then major depressive disorder. I had a constantly changing diagnosis and received little actual help. Nobody knew what to do with me. I was suicidal, psychotic and reckless.

Because I wasn’t receiving the help I needed, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

I didn’t consciously decided to be an addict or a drunk, but my emotional pain was tearing me apart; I just needed it to stop. The only method I could think of was drugs. I needed to not exist for a while. Drugs took away my cares. They took away everything. I didn’t get addicted to the drugs, I got addicted to the feeling they gave me.

There were drugs I took to calm me down, some I took to keep my weight down and others that completely took me away and obliterated everything. And of course there was the alcohol. I was drinking nearly every single night and binge drinking two or three nights a week.

I was a mess, I won’t deny that. But it was how I coped. It was the only thing I could find to make me feel better. I was 16 years old with a care team that wasn’t equipped to deal with serious mental illness. There was no psychiatrist in my town, my therapist was useless and my doctor didn’t know anything about mental illness because it wasn’t his specialty — he was just a general doctor. What do you even do with that? So I helped myself instead.

So before you judge someone for having a problem with drugs or alcohol, take a minute to look beyond what you see. You don’t know why or how they ended up in the situation they’re in, nor are they a bad person for it.

I’ve been clean of drugs and alcohol for more than five years now. I’ve finally found a brilliant care team that took the time to correctly diagnose me and get me the medication and help I so desperately needed. I’m fairly stable. I’m a work in progress. We all are.

That is just my story, and a small part of it at that. Everyone has a story and it’s never as simple as you might think. Don’t be so quick to judge others before you know the reasons behind what they do. I turned to drugs out of desperation and pain. I’m not a bad person for that. I was in a bad place mentally, and I just needed help.

Follow this journey on Always Unstable

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.

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These People Will Challenge What You Think You Know About Bipolar

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10 Things I Wish My Loved Ones Knew About Living With Bipolar Disorder

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To my loved ones who don’t understand my bipolar disorder,

It’s been a year since I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The past year, through my hard times, my recovery and my new found strength, some people have struggled to understand me and what I’m going through. This is me trying. This is me telling you what I wish you understood about my mental illness.

1. Bipolar disorder is not something I’ve made up.

I didn’t not make up bipolar disorder to excuse my bad decisions. Bipolar disorder has a medical definition, and it’s very real.

2. It’s not fun when I’m manic.

I’m a young adult who takes pride in being able to get good grades, run a business and pay my bills. There’s nothing more frustrating than coming out of a manic episode to find my credit card has several hundred charges to it, or that I missed some major deadlines for school.

3. I’m not giving up. 

I want you to know no matter how far I fall, I’ll always climb back up. I’m determined to live a successful life. I won’t give up, so please, don’t give up on me.

4. When I forget things I’m not just being neglectful.

When I say I can’t remember something, it’s not me being neglectful or choosing not to remember. Sometimes things are harder to remember. I don’t know why, but believe me, it’s not by choice.

5. When I cry, I’m not looking for attention. 

I’m not even looking for sympathy. I cry because I’m tired of fighting with myself. I cry to release the stress, anger and frustration I carry within. I cry because I know when I’m done, I’ll get back up and keep pushing through.

6. I’m sincerely sorry when I snap at you. 

It’s not on purpose and it isn’t a choice. I wish I could control my outbursts, but when I’m in a bad place I lose control of those things. Know I will come back to you to apologize every single time.

7. There are days when the stress of life is just too much. 

This doesn’t make me weak. Please understand my disorder makes dealing with stress much more difficult. I might need help with things you feel are simple.

8. I’m trying. 

You might not see it on the days it’s 4 in the afternoon and I’m still in my pajamas, but if I’m out of bed and being semi-productive, I’ve won a huge inward battle.

9. I still look for your approval.

Despite my disorder, I’m constantly trying to be the girl you once knew.

10. I will always love you. 

Even if you don’t understand my disorder, what I’m going through or why I am the way I am, I will always love you. You have been there for me since the day I was born, and I cannot imagine how my life would be without you.

 A version of this post originally appeared on Defying Shadows

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to anyone you wish had a better understanding of your experience with disability and/or disease. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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