When You Feel Pressure to Be ‘Well’

I struggle with bipolar disorder and anxiety, and while I’ve been managing my bipolar disorder, I’ve recently had a lot of problems with the anxiety. In my role as the Executive Director of a nonprofit peer-run recovery center, I feel like I have to be a prime example of perpetual wellness. Deep down, I know this is an unreasonable expectation of myself.

Even though I’m in recovery, I’m still going to experience difficulties at times. That’s what recovery is about! It’s not puppy dogs and rainbows 100 percent of the time, and what I’ve come to realize is that despite my leadership role, it’s still OK to struggle at times. I’m human. Although it feels like I’m failing when I experience difficulty, I have to remind myself it’s not failing — but rather means I’m a step closer to victory “once again” over this annoyance we call mental illness. When I say “once again,” I’m referring to the non-linear process of recovery.

For about the past two years, my anxiety has caused me to struggle intermittently with obsessive thoughts. My thoughts get stuck in a continuous loop and it’s like watching a never ending videotape reel in my head. Recently my medication has been adjusted, which has helped. I receive cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps tremendously. Peer support, of course, also plays an integral role in my recovery. I have one support person in particular who I know is always there. I also have a very supportive husband and family.

It’s challenging being in a leadership position and feeling like I have to maintain an image. I put unnecessary pressure on myself to live up to my own standards. Who am I kidding, right? The truth of the matter is, I need to be more open with my struggles. When I’m open I have the opportunity to help others by sharing my own experiences.

I have a condition that has to be managed just like the rest of my peers. But I’ve hidden my symptoms so well at work, most of our newer members seem shocked when they find out I’m a peer with a mental health issue just like them. While I’ve never hidden the fact I have bipolar or anxiety, I guess I’ve just never felt the need to discuss it often.

This article is the beginning of letting my authentic self shine through. Things are not always as they appear. When you see everyone around you leading happy, white picket fence lives, I’d bet it you dug a bit deeper, a different picture would be painted. Those living with depression, anxiety, etc. sometimes don’t wear their emotions on their sleeves. I think it’s important for more individuals to be open about their struggles so no one is left to feel alone. Even if you’re in a leadership role as I am, don’t feel like you have to hide behind a mask. Being open is how we’ll overcome the stigma of mental illness. We are in this together! It’s time to unite!


A Letter to Myself After My First Dissociative Episode

Dear Charlie,

You sit there in an office. A year and a half later, you find yourself sitting again. Today, you had your first dissociative episode. With this letter, you attempt to find a grasp on reality. It’s so easy to say, “I am alive, yes, here are my knees and elbows.” It’s so easy to have thoughts of suicide too. You’re used to those by now.

Your mania is something you welcome with open arms. You hear voices and can truly identify with Russell Crowe’s performance in “A Beautiful Mind.” Depression is something you sit and revel in. You welcome darkness into your life.

Fighting it is something you gave up on long ago. In doing so, you have creeped into a world where you accept yourself. You find solace in your dark moments.

You sit there in your car, wondering why your lovely therapist and family can’t fix the way you feel. Trust me, you do feel better, but bipolar disorder and life throw you some heartbreaking truths. Adapt.

Evolve into a new person, my dear friend, because you have miles to go. But listen close, you have a fast horse, and many well-lit inns along the way. When you are lost, think of Frost’s words.

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep

And miles to go before I sleep.”

Because the woods will get dark. And as much as you would like to spread your light throughout this world, the whole place can seem bleak. There will be nights that never seem to end.

Sometimes that dark paranoia will creep up to your car and tap its knuckles on the glass. It whispers, I’m here. Sometimes, you see or hear things other people don’t.

Recall how during Inception, Leo spins a top to tell what reality feels like.  Tonight, you drew a tattoo on a piece of paper. The artist traced it and placed it on your body. You went with your sister and her friends. That small sun with seven rays is your spinning top. Press on it to pump sunshine into your blue and black veins.

I don’t know what you’re thinking right now. But please, put the key in the ignition and start driving. You have a hell of a life in front of you. Turn the music loud and roll the windows down. Scream at the top of your lungs. Love hard and fast.

You’re about to fall flat on your face. Get ready for a fight, every day for the rest of your life. It’s going to be one epic, soul-crushing saga, but I’m going to let you in on a little secret. You do it.

Use your voice as a weapon. It’s strong, but for some reason you kept it quiet for way too long. You are the light in your life. Shine wildly.

You are going to be looking for something in the next few years. It is a place where you can call your own. A home. A place you find peace. The very place you consider a nightmare has the secrets to your dreams. Your brain is a beautiful place.

See the beauty in each moment as they drip down the hourglass. Your life is going to end, but that day is not today or tomorrow or the next day after that.

How you think about love is going to change drastically. Trust, not empathy, is what will help you through it.

Stay alive. Every second is worth it. You will learn how to fly.

And when the day winds down, and you feel tired, the voices might bark loudly. Ease yourself into the sensation of the cool pillow on your cheek. Your head resting, aching for another chance at an incredible day. Morning always comes. Breathe in and out. Feel your heart beat.

Tomorrow is eternal.

With all the love in the world,

Someone who has your back no matter what

Follow this journey on Adventures of a Little Boy.

5 Real Reasons I Speak Openly About Bipolar Disorder

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 13. Looking back, this was both a blessing and a curse. I was lucky to receive my diagnosis at a young age and have time to gain some insight and stability by my early 20s. However, the shame a young teenager can feel carrying a diagnosis such as bipolar disorder can be detrimental. I hid my diagnosis – and the self-harm, ER visits and hospitalizations – from my peers. When I was hospitalized in the mental health unit at age 17, I felt like my entire world would end if anyone I knew found out. I took me several years, two manic episodes, a few depressive episodes, three hospitalizations, multiple ER visits and a suicide attempt to realize owning my struggle was going to be an important part of my recovery. Since my suicide attempt in 2009, being forthcoming and open about having bipolar has had many benefits, and there are many reasons why I continue to disclose my illness without fear.

1. It leads to acceptance.

It wasn’t until my 20s and after my first true manic episode that I was able to accept my diagnosis as a fact of life. I will never forget the morning I had been up all night and had done something impulsive and embarrassing. I was telling my mother what I had done and talking very quickly. I paused and said, “I am so manic right now, aren’t I?” After that moment, I realized I needed to seek treatment for my illness and was soon able to get on the right track. I wasn’t automatically better, but being able to tell people in my life about my diagnosis helped me to find support I could turn to while I was struggling.

2. It reduces stigma.

In my opinion, recovery can be a great time to disclose your diagnosis to others, especially if you’re celebrating successes. It makes people who might not otherwise be empathetic realize people with mental illness are just like them. Once someone realizes this, I believe it’s easier for them to have empathy when someone is struggling and symptomatic as well. The majority of people are shocked to find out my diagnosis and I try to use my stability as a platform for fighting stigma whenever I can.

3. It helps me reach out to others.

Because I’m so open about what I’ve been through, people will reach out to me when they have a family member who is struggling, or when they’re struggling themselves. Hearing about my journey makes others in a similar situation realize they aren’t alone. Once I realized how passionate I was about helping other people like me, I decided to pursue a career in advocacy. I don’t always disclose my diagnosis and my story, but sometimes it is relevant to the situation and helps clients know the person they are talking to understands where they are coming from.

 4. It’s part of my parenting journey.

Being open about my diagnosis has been a large part of my parenting journey. I’ve had to make decisions and seek support that will allow me to be the best mother I can be. I don’t plan on hiding the fact I have bipolar disorder from my children. My hope is that they’ll look back and see this as something we faced with strength. I want them to know there’s no shame in having a mental illness, and if they end up being diagnosed with one as well, I want them to know that, as their mother, I’ll be a strong ally. 

 5. It makes me feel accountable.

The more I talk about my recovery and the journey that brought me here, the more accountable I am to stay well. This means following through with my treatment, whether that means medication, therapy, doctor’s appointments etc., and knowing when I’m not feeling my best. I have many people looking to me as an example, and while that may seem like a lot of pressure, the accountability factor is actually a huge positive for me. Knowing how many people would be affected if I discontinued treatment and became ill again keeps me in check. When you’ve been stable for so long, it’s easy to wonder if you exaggerated your symptoms — maybe you’d be OK without any treatment. It happens all the time, even to those with the best intentions in their recovery. Accountability is a large part of my motivation in recovery, and I’m glad being open about having bipolar has helped keep me in check.

Hilary at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's North Country Out of the Darkness Walk.
Hilary at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s North Country Out of the Darkness Walk.

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.

Comedian Tackles Heavy Topics in Personal Documentary About Mental Illness

British comedian Stephen Fry first opened up about his experiences with bipolar disorder in the 2006 documentary, “The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive,” and BBC One just aired a follow up to the film: “The Not So Secret Life of the Manic Depressive: 10 Years On.” The latest project chronicles Fry’s progress in therapy and examines the life of several other individuals living with mental illness.

Fry allowed cameras to film his therapy sessions with his psychiatrist, Dr. William Shanahan, who’s been treating the star since his 2012 suicide attempt in Uganda, reported Huffington Post U.K. In the film, Fry also discusses how the death of his friend and fellow comedian Robin Williams made him reevaluate his own treatment.

“This is not a condition which is going to go away, you are not talking about curing me, you talking about how best I can cope with something that will live with me,” Fry told Dr. Shanahan during one session. “No matter how well things are going one day, there is always the possibility of me getting it wrong.”

In addition to Fry, the documentary profiles Alika Agidi-Jeffs, a man who rose to fame after a video of him singing on the London Underground was shared on YouTube and viewed by millions. Agidi-Jeffs has bipolar disorder, and he was going through a particularly tough time when the video went viral. Agidi-Jeffs considered taking his own life, but after finding support with his family and a therapist, he’s in a much better place. He now speaks at schools to help break down the stigma associated with mental illness, reported The Guardian.

“I want to remind everybody who’s going through this that they are not their diagnosis,” he told The Guardian. “Don’t let it be what shapes you. When people have the flu they don’t go around saying ‘I am flu.’ You might have bipolar [disorder], but you are not a sickness. It doesn’t define you.”

Fry is currently the president of the U.K. charity Mind, and he hopes sharing this film will continue to raise awareness for others living with mental illnesses. “It’s in the culture more and it’s understood more, and it’s extremely pleasing,” he said in the film’s trailer.

“You have to find a way for us as a society to value everyone including the mentally ill,” he added in the film. “Their difficulties make life harder for them to deal with.”

“The Not So Secret Life of the Manic Depressive: 10 Years On” aired on BBC on Monday, and can be viewed on the BBC One website.

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.

Shot of young african woman working at juice bar and cutting fruits. Female bartender making fresh juice.

3 Ways Veganism Has Helped Me Manage Bipolar Disorder

Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

I am vegan. It still sounds weird when I say it because I had a strong love for ice cream and cheese. Some days I get frustrated because all I want is some chocolate and frozen yogurt. Although going vegan was to help reduce my persistent allergies, I have also noticed it has helped me deal with my bipolar disorder.

How has it helped me, you ask? In the following ways:

1. I have become more patient.

Namibia is a country where fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find and are often pricey. Being a vegan in Namibia has limited my food options. Most of my weekends are now spent driving around from shop to stall looking for reasonably-priced food items that will last me the week. I am not the most patient person in the world. I get frustrated when people don’t show up on time and get angry when I don’t get my way. This anger and frustration has often led to episodes I am not prepared for. In the past, I would give up after five minutes but I now spend hours seeking out food, thus making me more tolerant to things that would usually set off my anger and impatience.

2. I gained more courage.

I had convinced myself I was allergic to tomatoes and aubergines were not sent from heaven. I restricted my diet because I didn’t want to try anything new. Yes, I was a coward. I noticed I had closed myself off to many things because I wanted to “control” or “manage” my bipolar. Only recently have I noticed how I have distanced myself from family and friends. My reasoning was I wanted to protect them from who I become when I experience an episode. However, my diet change has shown me I was afraid to face my fears. Afraid being open would mean I could get hurt. Many things are not “vegan friendly” so I had to start eating vegetables I disliked like tomatoes, aubergines and baby cabbage.

3. I am more loving to my body.

My periods of depression often start when I start bashing myself. I am the first to comment on my weight, my clothing and my abilities. I find it hard to compliment myself as I see myself as unworthy. Being vegan means I have to plan my meals in advance and has forced me to acknowledge I am worth the effort. The transformation in my body has shown me I am beautiful no matter how I look externally.

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Thinkstock photo via jacoblund

What I Want My Future Partners to Know About Loving Me With Bipolar Disorder

I wish I could find a way to tell all my partners why it’s so difficult for me to open up about anything that has to do with my illness.

I’ve dated people for months without ever once mentioning I was bipolar. I repeatedly hid breakdowns, prolonged periods of depression and the numerous impulsive decisions that came with being manic. When speaking about my past, I glossed over periods that were particularly dark with depictions that I thought would be easier for my partners to digest. I found myself saying things like, “I was having a difficult time” or “I was really sick,” never once diving into the true depths of what had really happened — or even harder to confess, that I was still struggling.

So to all my future partners, I want you to know it has nothing to do with you as a person. These things take time for me to discuss, and I promise over time I’ll reveal each piece of the puzzle that is my mental health. I need you to patient and let me go at my own pace.

What I finally do open up about the periods that were especially dark, I need you to understand I wasn’t a bad person. In these times that were the lowest of my lows, I had “lost my mind,” and in the process myself. During these times I did really horrible things to myself and the people around me. Telling you these things is difficult for me, and I need you to let go of all judgment and see that what I did while I was depressed, or manic, does not define me.

I want you to know if we date, there will more likely than not be times in which I fall into a period of depression. When this happens, know that there will be days where I’m irritable and snap for no reason, or find myself losing the positive outlook I once had on life. There will be days in which I cancel plans because I’m too sad to get out of bed, or just don’t have the energy to put on anymore fake smiles for people.

In these times, I don’t need you to offer me solutions, but instead just sit there. Be with me, and remind me that I’ve gotten through this in the past and will again.

In these depressions, there will also be frightening spikes in my mood. I’ll talk a million miles per hour, saying nothing that makes sense. I’ll make decisions I will with most certainty come to regret, and — most dangerously — I might try to stop taking my medication. All that I ask of you in these times is to try your best to keep my head out of the clouds and remind me that my medication is critical.

But the most important thing I need you to know is that I am not my illness, the stereotypes that surround it or the problems that come with it; I am a person who is capable of great things despite this illness, and while it does shape me, it does not define me.

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 [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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