What Hurting My Ankle Made Me Realize About Having an Invisible Illness

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Several weeks ago, I fractured my ankle. It has a cast on it and I have to use crutches. As one who has an invisible disability of bipolar disorder, postpartum onset, I’ve discovered several differences between having a visible challenge and an invisible challenge. In particular, I’ve noticed the following four things:

1. People showed more compassion for my visible challenge.

I noticed the compassion and empathy I’ve received during this visible challenge far outweighs what I’ve ever received as a result of my invisible challenge. Even when the invisible challenge is known to others, the compassion received is minimal unless the other person has direct experience with an invisible challenge.

2. It’s easier to share experiences when you have a visible challenge.

It’s amazing how easily people share they were on crutches or had broken a bone. This seems to be the complete opposite when you have an invisible challenge. With an invisible challenge, many don’t feel comfortable sharing their experience with others. In fact, I found that others won’t even tell me they’re also facing an invisible challenge unless I share first.

3. People are more willing to help and assist you when you have a visible challenge.

The offers I’ve received to help me during this visible challenge have been plentiful.  Whether offering transportation or help with practical support, I’ve been amazed by how many people have reached out to assist me. In contrast, the offers I’ve received to help me with my invisible challenge are minimal, and usually only come from individuals who also live with an invisible challenge.

4. I experienced better medical care and treatment for my visible challenge.

Now this one doesn’t surprise me —  I’ve been getting excellent care for my ankle, from orthopedic care to home health care since I cannot drive. On the contrary, I’m often viewed through my diagnosis of bipolar disorder when seeking other medical treatment — even if it’s for an adverse reaction to a medication. Why? Invisible challenges should receive the same medical care and treatment as visible challenges. This observation, in particular, helps me stay motivated to continue my advocacy efforts. No one should receive sub-standard care just because they’re facing an invisible challenge.

So as an advocate for mental health, I now have a perspective I didn’t have before. I’m thankful I’m able to see what it’s like to have a visible disability as well. It’s important to recognize the need for assistance and support regardless of the type of challenge one is experiencing.

Follow this journey by visiting Jennifer’s site.

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To the Parents of a Child Who Has Bipolar Disorder

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Dear Mom and Dad,

Your child has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I understand your concern. But as a person living with the illness, the clearest and best advice I can give you is to recognize. This word comes with three definitions. Each one, in my experience, will help tremendously.

First, you must recognize this illness is real. This is not something your child has made up. Unfortunately, there’s a good chance friends, family and society will downplay this fact. You might hear your child is just being a typical kid. Or that she’s “just being difficult.” Or he simply “lacks motivation” But listen to me — they’re doing those things for a reason. If it doesn’t seem normal, listen to your gut. Investigate. Care enough to find out what’s wrong. Accept your child with bipolar.

Next, recognize the symptoms and behavior are not your child’s fault. They cannot help what’s happening to them. This isn’t a personality flaw. I know it will be difficult as parents to manage and comprehend your child’s behavior. Now that I’m older, and have had bipolar for 20 years, I can recognize (there’s that word again) my behaviors, so I feel your frustration. If your son or daughter could will it away or make it disappear, most likely they would. Mental illness is very confusing, especially to those who do not have it. It’s impossible to know what it’s like.

As a child, I clearly remember experiencing my mom’s turbulent, fluctuating behavior and trying to make sense of it. She also had bipolar disorder. My sisters and I would wonder how she seemed OK one moment and out of control the next. Now, fast-forward many years and I can tell you why — it’s the unfortunate nature of the illness. You may be discouraged and saddened every time these behaviors occur in your child. How could they not be in control? Trust me, during these moments, they’re not in the driver’s seat.

Your child did not choose bipolar; bipolar chose your child.

And, most importantly, even though this may not make sense, recognize they might say they’re OK even when they’re not. This happens sometimes when we don’t want to worry you. Dig deeper if you have a feeling something’s wrong. Then, react. Be proactive. My father did everything for me, but even then something was missing. It was action. Sometimes, I just needed someone to put in a car and take me to the doctor. I needed him by my side. It may seem silly to continually ask the same question, “Are you OK?” but nothing matters more than the health of your child. You can change it up by asking in a different way, like, “I know it must be tough going through this, but know you can tell me anything. I will help you.”

You can also enlist the help of someone with lived experience (like myself). We’re out there, and we’d love to help. We’ve been in those shoes. A person with bipolar who has rode the wave can show your child they can survive and thrive despite their diagnosis.

So, dear Mom and Dad, I ask you to stick close, hold their hand and love your child harder than you have ever loved. The outcome is well worth the effort.

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to anyone you wish had a better understanding of your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to community@themighty.com. 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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Why I’ve Decided to Come Out of the ‘Bipolar Closet’

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You didn’t know I was bipolar, did you? Secret’s out. I’m out of the bipolar closet.

There’s a reason you didn’t know. There’s a reason most of the people in my life didn’t know, so don’t take it personally. I chose to keep it to myself from pretty much everybody. You see, everyone who suffers from a mental illness knows there is a huge stigma surrounding it. The lack of love and support typically extended to a bipolar person can be crushing. I have experienced it on many occasions from friends and close family members to acquaintances and I dare say people I don’t know, who I’ve met in the grocery store.

To some extent I used to think you can’t blame them because they don’t know about mental illness, but with the number of people suffering in the country — and in the world today — now I think you can blame them, but we have to take a step to educate. Time is up on ignorance. The time has come to make a change!

Several of my hurtful stigma-related issues in recent years are when people tell me some form of their opinion of bipolar disorder, not knowing of my bipolarity. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who think bipolar women shouldn’t be allowed to have children. In the past I’ve never called them out or said anything and maybe it’s insecurity, but maybe it’s really smart to protect myself? I’m not sure, and it’s a pretty fine line between the two. I hate how the stigma always leaves feeling I have something to prove. As if I have to prove I am normal. What is normal anyways?

Statistically one in four adults experience some form of mental illness in a given year. This basically suggest there’s someone (at least one) affected by it in every family. Either they don’t know it, don’t admit it or won’t admit it out of fear — all largely due to stigma. Stigma is preventing people who desperately need help from seeking the help they need to function and lead a healthy and stable life.

My passionate hope is to share my story and the things I wish someone had told me from the day I was diagnosed. My hope is to help others diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Although I know we sometimes have to learn life’s lessons the hard way, it’s also nice to get practical advice, even though it may not immediately be used or particularly asked for, yet.

Those of us with bipolar disorder are all looking for support and to know someone has walked a path before us. We all want to know we are understood, and not alone in this crazy messed-up disorder.

In telling my story, my deepest desire is not only to help others but to fight the biggest fight of my life — to fight the terrible stigma attached to mental illness. Maybe, just maybe, I can show what it’s really like to live with bipolar disorder and how misunderstood it is.

I hope I don’t lose friends over this, y’all. People will always say, “If you lose friends over this, they aren’t your ‘real friends,'” and as true as that is, it would still hurt. Either way, I’m opening myself up. Take me for who I am. I’m still the girl you’ve known all along, only now, I’m actively and openly fighting for a cause I’m incredibly passionate about.

Happy and stable,

Mrs Bipolarity

A version of this originally appeared on Mrs. Bipolarity.

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My New Year’s Offering to Anyone With a Mental Illness

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Christmas is a beautiful time of year. For many it brings joy. For others it can be difficult. But nothing in life is flawless. Even grievances add to the pristine and raw splendor that Christmas brings.

For many of us, it’s a celebration of religion or collaboration with family and friends. While these are all the most important aspects of the holiday, one of my favorite parts is the giving of gifts. Now, before you stop reading because I sound materialistic, I want you to consider this: when you’re given a gift, you’re expected to accept it. Maybe it’s a silly white elephant gift. Maybe it’s homemade and packed deeply with nostalgia. Whether we cherish it or re-gift it, we have a chance to say thank you to someone for showing physically that they care.

Thanksgiving gives us a chance to say we’re grateful. Christmas gives us to chance to show we’re thankful. New Year’s Day can be equally beautiful because it brings hope. On Thanksgiving we muster up something that keeps life worth living. On Christmas we might not be able to give or receive a gift. But the New Year helps us remember to say maybe this new year will be better.

For the New Year, we don’t give gifts. But this coming year I would like you to consider taking an offer.

An offering doesn’t have to be accepted as a gift does. It gives you the chance to say no. Why? Because gifts are meant for your enjoyment. Offers, on the other hand, are given with a sense of duty.

For this new year, I want to make an offer of acceptance. Not to just accept the offer, but accept the offer of acceptance. I told you that holidays are beautiful because they aren’t flawless. People are the same way. As a sister to three siblings with disabilities, as an aunt to two nephews with autism and as a woman that struggles daily with bipolar disorder, I’m an advocate that “imperfection” is beautiful. More times than not, it’s easier to admit that with humility than with pride.

For some our differences are inevitable. For others they are controversial. But without enduring hardships, without conflict, we cannot find resolution.

For this New Year, my wish is that you will accept the offer to accept others. My resolution is to enable you to find freedom in this acceptance. This offer may not be easy to endure, but the hope that will be gained is the gift of a lifetime.

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Why My Kids Know Mommy Has Bipolar Disorder

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Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 11.28.56 AM We don’t have a plan.

Chances are it will happen again. Mania will overtake my brain to the point where I’ll need to be forced into treatment. No matter how hard I work at staying mentally healthy, the statistics show that most people who live with my type of bipolar will relapse. This can be due to meds ceasing to work, life events or changes in sleep patterns.

We probably should write down a plan.

That was the advice given to us as we sat in a dreary office speaking with a new psychiatrist one month before I would give birth to our first child. My entire pregnancy had gone so smoothly. My bipolar disorder appeared to be in remission as I indulged in ice cream every night and marveled at my growing belly. I was so happy with how our life was going.

So when my husband Ben and I met with the psychiatrist, I naturally wasn’t focused on preventative measures. Frankly, I was questioning whether I even had bipolar given how well I had been doing off medication. The meeting was meant for us to have someone in our back pocket should we need her in an emergency. My ego ached for her to shower me with praise for how well I had been taking care of myself.

Instead, she focused on the inevitable hospitalization she predicted I’d face. That’s all I heard. “You’re going to fail at mothering with bipolar, so we need a plan for when that happens.”

Well, f*ck you, lady.

Ben didn’t have the same visceral reaction I did. He told me later that he thought it was good she was preparing us to be prepared. We may not have had a plan written down when we left her office that afternoon, but at least we had her card.

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Eight weeks later my husband was frantically dialing her number as I frantically reorganized our kitchen. I had been getting by on tiny bits of sleep ever since our son was born, and my brain was starting to unravel. I was unable to sleep. Napping when the baby fell asleep during the day simply wasn’t happening. At night I’d get a few hours here or there, but waking up four to five times a night with a newborn was not conducive to my brain getting any real rest.

So it went haywire.

I could feel the sand in the hourglass beginning to slip through. I began gathering all of my journals which held the glimpses of my story since the initial diagnosis two years prior — piling them all in front of the blazing gas fireplace in our family room as an offering of my legacy. Standing near the flames, I felt the heat build against the back of my legs. In my mind I’d rather go to hell than back to the mental hospital, so why not get a jump on the journey?

I had postpartum psychosis when my son was 4 weeks old. I knew it was coming on from the moment I first held him, but I was too afraid to tell anyone. I was terrified of my thoughts, and yet, even more fearful of saying something. They might take my baby from me.

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Thank God my husband didn’t share my same fears. He was anything but afraid of reaching out for help when he realized my mental health had severely deteriorated. He immediately picked up the phone, as painful as I’m sure it was for him. He was my lifeline.

– – –

I heard the kids arguing because they couldn’t agree on a show to watch while I got ready for the day. There was no compromising and so I took the privilege away. Arguing ensued, followed by a whole lot of yelling — ugly, horrible, rage-filled yelling on my part. I yelled with fury at my young children, something I am utterly ashamed to admit. That’s when it happened.

“I’m going to get rid of you, Mommy!” my son threatened, still in his jammies, with all the power and might of his little 4-and-a-half-year-old voice. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did.

“Oh, really? How are you going to do that, bud?” I retorted as I pulled my sweater over my head.

“I’ll put you in the trash can!” he screamed as hot tears spilled down his cheeks.

I could feel his anger squeeze my heart and wring it out. I had become so worthless to him that he wanted to throw me away. I couldn’t blame him. If I had myself for a mommy, I’d probably want to throw her away, too.

I knew in that moment that I was failing him as a parent. He and his sister didn’t deserve to be on the receiving end of my raging temper. There was no way I was going to continue to expose them to my hurtful, cruel, pathetic attempt at discipline. I knew I needed to learn to parent them differently so that their memories of childhood weren’t fraught with what I considered this nightmarish scene that I wished I could erase.

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Right then and there, in my mind, silently to myself I vowed to make some serious changes. I’d find ways to control my anger. I’d learn how to cope. I’d try harder to manage the symptoms of my illness so they didn’t tear my family apart. I finished getting dressed and then got down on my knees and pulled him to me, wrapping him with all that I had left. I cried with him, and we both whispered over and over again our vows to stop fighting and yelling. Baby girl timidly walked over with open arms and joined in on our big hug.

This is where the healing begins. I dropped them off at school and came home to start writing. There’s something about taking pen to paper, taking the time to write out what happened, that helps me to understand how to do things better next time.

The kids are 7 and almost 5 now, and there are still days when I wish I were better at controlling my emotions. But that morning three years ago was a huge wake up call for me. I’ve learned that self-care does wonders for keeping my rage in check. Rage is a symptom of my illness, that, because of my commitment to taking better care of myself, doesn’t pop up all that often anymore. I’m the first to admit I’m not a perfect parent or wife or friend, by any means. I’m human and I’m flawed. It’s the ability to forgive myself and apply the knowledge gained from mistakes that makes me the mother, spouse and friend that I’m proud to be.

Now, I talk with my kids about my mental illness often. They know Mommy has bipolar disorder.

They know that I take medicine every day to keep my brain healthy. They know that Mommy needs to get good sleep to be a good mommy (don’t we all, parents?). I talk with them about how I’m helping people who live with mental illness to share their stories through my non-profit. I’m teaching my children that it’s OK to talk about mental illness the same way people talk about other medical conditions. My son knows there are illnesses he can see, like his classmate’s broken arm, ensconced inside a bright blue cast, and that there are illnesses he can’t see, like his Poppy’s heart condition and his mommy’s bipolar.

Someday I’ll tell them about the time our son was 4 weeks old and an ambulance and several police cars showed up at our house, and I was handcuffed and taken away from my baby for a week.

Someday I’ll tell them about how I was so over the moon about our second pregnancy that I barely slept for a week. Instead of rest coming at the end of a long day taking care of a toddler, I’d lie in bed for hours after kissing my son goodnight.

Someday I’ll tell them how my daughter was just a 5-week-old embryo in my belly when she and I were admitted to the psych ward.

For now, we talk about it in spurts. Like when my little girl fetches the mail and my Lithium prescription arrives. I remind them that my medicine keeps me healthy. I’ve shown them the bottle and the pills to teach them that medicine is not candy. When I have a bad day and my patience wears thin causing me to yell a little too nasty at their misbehavior, I know that I’m in need of a time-out. Those are the times when I realize I haven’t been mindful of my self-care, and so I get back on track and take some time to myself. Doing so helps me to be the mommy I want to be for them.

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There may come a day when I recognize mental illness in one of my kids. I’m not afraid. I know we’ll get through it together. I hope that if they ever suspect it in themselves before I do, they’ll have had enough exposure to mental illness to know how to reach out for help. And they can rest assured that their father and I will do everything in our power to get them the treatment they need to get well.

With this strength, armed with the knowledge of a decade’s worth of experience managing my bipolar illness, it’s about time I write that plan. For my kids. For my husband. For myself.

Just in case.

A version of this post originally appeared on OC87 Recovery Diaries.

The Mighty is asking the following: If you’re a parent with a mental illness, tell us about a time you tried (either successfully or unsuccessfully) to explain to your children about your mental illness/mental health issues. How did they react? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to community@themighty.com. 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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The Difference Between a Broken Leg and an Injured Mind

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In college, I broke my leg ice skating. A failed attempt at a pirouette landed me in the ER with a not-quite compound fracture. The pain was unbelievable, and I had to undergo emergency surgery which kept me in the hospital for a few days.

When people asked about me, wondering where I was, everyone responded, “Rachel broke her leg and needs surgery. But she’s in good spirits! What an adorable klutz.”

After I was discharged and finally figured out how to use my crutches, I returned to my classes where everyone was overly nice and overly willing to share their lecture notes. Everyone smiled. My broken leg signified that I was pretty clumsy, but that’s normal for a lot of people. Some people are just clumsy — and they probably shouldn’t be taking ice skating lessons.

In college, I was hospitalized twice for psychotic episodes. One suicide attempt and two weeks spent staggering under delusions and paranoia landed me in a psych ward. It was completely terrifying. The intensity of these episodes was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I lost myself to psychosis and even after the hospital brought me back, it took quite awhile before I felt safe again.

When people asked about me, wondering where I was, nobody said anything. Because nobody knew. I was ashamed and embarrassed. I didn’t want anyone to know that I had bipolar disorder because by definition that made me abnormal. After I was discharged I struggled to reestablish my routine. My illness and subsequent stays in the hospital haunted me and I was ravaged by feelings of emptiness. When I finally returned to my classes I sat in the back by myself. Everyone smiled, but it didn’t feel like they were smiling at me. Or with me. I felt sick, broken and like I could never tell anyone.

Breaking my leg until the bone practically showed and experiencing psychosis were both incredibly painful experiences. The significant difference was that after one injury, I felt like I could share the experience with others. That we could chuckle about my clumsy antics and that it was OK. I was OK.

After the other injury I felt utterly isolated, struggling to hide a part of myself I vehemently hated. Bipolar disorder was not OK. I was not OK. The underlying problem was that while I had the vocabulary to explain breaking my leg, there was no unprejudiced language I could borrow to share my battle with bipolar. The silence of stigma left me feeling worthless and worthy of quarantine for years.

My fibula healed a lot faster than my heart.

This is why I talk about my mental illness. The quicker we discredit stigma the sooner we can all start to heal. No one should have to do this alone.

Follow this journey on Rachel’s blog

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