Worried Female sitting at a desk

What It Means to Rebuild Your Life After a Psychotic Break

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I still remember driving to work for my first day at the first job after my psychotic break. I was so scared. The night before I had laid out all my clothes and taken my shower to be as ready as possible. I got up extra early to have time to “just be ready.” My mental illness caused the psychotic break two years earlier. Since then, I have been rebuilding myself, overcoming a gauntlet of “first” fears.

My psychologist explained to me that having a psychotic break is like having a psychological house with a cracked foundation. In addition, there’s a pit underneath your house. So, when the foundation breaks, your entire psychological house falls down into the pit and breaks into a thousand pieces.

Well, my house fell into that pit, and it fell far, shattering my whole world. As if you are experiencing a fit of vertigo, eyes dilated, attempting to pick up the pieces of this abstract puzzle. Among the pieces, you find a few which look ominously familiar: the corner pieces of your puzzle.

1. Grieving the loss of your own identity.

2. Acting as an experimental guinea pig for doctors, who seem to be playing Russian Roulette to find the right cocktail of medications for you.

3. Opinionated friends telling you, “Now that you are home, why don’t you clean out those closets you never had time for!”

4. Family unsure of how to act around you, not knowing how to best support you.

It’s my job to put myself back together again. After my break, working full-time again was my goal. I was so afraid my whole brain would turn to “French blue cheese” filled with striated blue mold, rendering it useless. I was afraid I had lost my intellect, my creativity, my ability to write and the power to communicate with others. But my puzzle is nowhere near being complete.

Part of putting myself back together again meant regaining confidence in myself to do the simplest things: overcoming that gauntlet of “first” fears.

My “first” psychologist visit

I remember my hands gripping the steering wheel tightly when I drove, alone, to my psychologist visit for the first time. I was scared to death, but I made it to my appointment. Over time it got easier, but it wasn’t just me who was affected. I remember the first time I drove my son to the YMCA for the two of us to swim. Having him in the car was terrifying — another life in my hands. While I was swimming laps I remember enviously thinking, “All my friends are working and I am here swimming…” Prior to my break, I had a Bachelor’s degree, and had worked in marketing for over 20 years. Now, seemingly unfit for employment, I continue swimming laps. Driven to get back to work, my caseworker and I developed a plan for me to go back to school and then look for a job. That’s right. Back to school…

My “first” day of school

When I went back to school, I was given additional time, and was able to take my tests in a different location from my classmates. Each time a new test was given, my brain would go on the fritz. I had to say to myself out loud, “OK, start with what you know.” Day by day, I was doing it, I was succeeding. By the last week of school, I had straight A’s and a job offer. There was no way to contain the excitement.

My “first” day at work

Driving to work that first time I was thinking, what am I going to say to these people? “Hi! I just had a psychotic break, what’s going on in your life?” But even as I became more comfortable, I still talked primarily about work. I had very little to say as people were chit-chatting around the water cooler. I am sure they thought I was a snob, not engaging in small talk. But nothing could have been farther from the truth. I was scared some strong wind of fate would decimate the fragile house of cards of normalcy I had built. Maintaining my established routine was critical for me. I wanted to share my life with my colleagues, but I feared their reaction. For most of the population, they would think of me as one of the inmates from “One Flew over the Cookoo’s Nest” or Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction.”

What I wish I could have said to them is this: “I have had a long and difficult journey, rebuilding myself so that I can work with you. Working with you has proven to me that my psychotic break took nothing from me. I still have my intellect, my creativity and my ability to write and collaborate with others. While a tiny portion may be, my entire brain is not crumbled blue cheese. If I take my medication, maintain my diet and exercise and my mental coping skills, I am essentially no different than a diabetic. A diabetic’s pancreas produces little or no insulin. Once they take their insulin, and maintain their diet and exercise they can live a relatively normal life. I am no different: except my medical condition is located in my brain.”

I wish I could have just hung around the “water cooler” gang, without having to say anything. But as my confidence grew, I knew I had to open up more. And I did, but still never became part of the gang. That is why I speak openly about my mental illness now. I am tired of not being myself around the people I work with. Silence does not aid understanding. That is why I have come “out of the closet” about my mental illness. That is why I am a presenter for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I am committed to ending the silence.

This piece originally appeared on Challenge the Storm.

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To My Best Friends Who Love Me, Bipolar Disorder and All

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Our friendship blossomed during chemistry class in high school. We sat in the back of the class talking about our teenage lives and paying no attention to the lesson. We had some pretty funny conversations back there, some funny enough that one of you kept a notebook full of what we had said. We were young. We were funny, and we built a bond that would withstand anything in that chemistry class.

High school was fun with you but was also a trying time for all of us. You both suffered from loss: a father, a grandparent. Even though I didn’t understand that loss at the time, I did understand you needed me to be there for you through it. All these years later, you’ve repaid me for being there for you during that difficult time by being there for me through my journey with mental illness.

I know you were shocked and a little scared when I was first hospitalized and then diagnosed, but you didn’t let it show. You made sure I was OK and told me you would be there and do anything I needed you to. When I started my medication and became stable again, we were able to hang out like we used to. What I loved about that was you didn’t act like anything had changed, and we went on with our friendship as usual.

Each time I was hospitalized, you were there for me. More importantly, you didn’t treat me differently when I was released. You didn’t baby me or walk on eggshells around me, but you did try to make me laugh more often. I’ll always appreciate that. We continued with our friendship as if I weren’t struggling, having movie marathons, eating crack pretzels and going star tipping. I’ll always love you for making me feel normal when it was difficult for me to feel that way.

I’ve had my ups and downs because of my bipolar disorder, but I’ve always found stability in my friendship with each of you, especially when my moods would fluctuate. You each have your ways of bringing me back to earth and reintroducing me to reality, and I’ll always be thankful for that. You’ve each done your part at pulling me out of depression and easing me out of mania, and the fact that you care enough to do that warms my heart to this day.

I may have my ups and downs, but as best friends, we have not. Even when I’m at my worst, you are patient, understanding and grant me grace when I may not deserve it. Often times, I’ve thought you’re both too kind and too good to be friends with me, a troubled young woman with bipolar disorder. Over the years, I have come to realize I am deserving of your love and friendship, and you are deserving of mine. We are lucky to have each, especially when one of us is struggling because the others of us are always there.

I don’t know anything about my future with bipolar disorder, but I do know this: No matter what happens or how I feel about myself, you will love me anyway, unconditionally. You will always be there for me. I want you to know that I’ll do the same in return, always, no matter what.

When other people in my life have left me because of my bipolar disorder, you have stood by me. I know you will continue to stand by me until we are old enough to be “The Golden Girls.” We will go through much more together: loss, heartbreak and separation, but our bond is strong enough to withstand all of that and more. What we have gone through thus far has made us and our friendship stronger. We can only get stronger still.

You two are my oldest and dearest friends, and are the best part of having bipolar disorder. Because I have this illness, I have your support, which I don’t know what I would do without.

Thank you for being my best friends. Thank you for your unconditional love. Thank you for your unending support. You and your friendship have gotten me through my darkest times. I know with you two, there is only light in my future with bipolar disorder.

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I Am Stronger With Bipolar Disorder Than I Ever Was Without It

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Bipolar disorder is simply a series of symptoms I am fortunate enough to have to manage on a daily basis. I say fortunate, in earnest, because it has given me an opportunity to live in a world with brighter colors and crisper sounds. It has forced me to grow as a person and get in touch with who I truly am.

Getting up on a daily basis is sometimes truly exhausting. I recently came to the understanding I am more scared of failure than succumbing to my illness and not giving myself a chance to succeed. It is a mindset that has allowed me to thrive and even excel in my life. This doesn’t mean I haven’t failed in the past or won’t fail again in the future. It simply means, given the choice of staying in bed and giving in or getting up and moving, I get up and move.

One thing I have learned is everything passes. Good feelings come and go just as quickly as bad feelings. I have had days when I can’t imagine making it through the morning, only to have an incredible day! The days I wake up feeling hopeless and overwhelmed (and they are many), my first step is to shower and eat breakfast. Sometimes, I work during breakfast. Other times, I read the news and sip on my coffee. Other days, I simply sip on my coffee and ask the universe for an intuitive thought or action. Rarely have I gone back to my house to go back to bed. I might drive around for a little bit for scheduled appointments or appointments I wish I had. I do whatever it takes to give myself the opportunity for my mind and body to engage in the day.

2015 was a rough year for me. My company grew by 30 percent, my wife was able to stay home with our kids, I paid off all our student loan debt and re-landscaped our yard, which was very overdue! Based on the above, it sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Then my pharmacy sent me half the dosage of a drug I take, and I didn’t catch it until it was way too late. I took the wrong dosage for three months before realizing what happened.

I, then, spent two months, July and August, waking up with suicidal thoughts daily. I often went to work in hysterics without any way of knowing how I was going to make it through that day. I would share with close friends if I didn’t have kids and a wife, then I would have probably attempted suicide.

I am the sole breadwinner and provider for my family. On top of my medications not working, I was terrified to let my family down. They have never placed any undue burden on me. I am solely responsible for that! I was just terrified to not be able to deliver the expectations I had established in my mind.

During this time, in addition to having the greatest professional year in quite some time, I created a digital mindfulness manager and wellness platform from scratch. I knew there had to be a better way and failure was never an option. Even during my darkest days, I would be writing emails to clients, delegating work to employees and designing my own software, all while not knowing if I would make it through the day. I spent my evenings staring at the ceiling or watching mind-numbing television, wondering how everyone else seemed to have it so much better than I did and when it was going to be my turn to feel better.

After catching this catastrophic medication mishap late summer, it took me another three months to stabilize. During this time, I was a total mess internally. However, I did what I needed to get done externally. I took naps and had lots of doctors appointments. Self-care and advocacy were paramount to my success. I was terrified early on in my illness that I would be letting people down if I had to reschedule. The reality was if I hadn’t advocated for myself, there wouldn’t be an opportunity for future meetings, as I wouldn’t be there.

I shared with clients who I had close relationships with what I was going through, and surprisingly, they were supportive and understanding. Bottom line, I never gave up and today, I am grateful for having another episode and coming out the other side. I recently celebrated receiving my diagnosis 22 years ago! My birthday, this year, marked seven years since my last hospitalization.

I am stronger today than I have ever been. I’m looking forward and am realistic about the fact that another episode may be lurking around the corner. It doesn’t frighten me, as I know, I have the right support structure in place and stories like the one above to remind me, “This too shall pass.” It always does!

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. 
 
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255
 
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What I Realized After My Diagnosis Changed

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I was diagnosed with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) by a neurologist at age 7, and have been taking medication for it up until this year; I took ADHD meds for a total of 10 years. I was a bright young girl, who especially enjoyed reading, but had difficulty focusing and staying on task.

I’ve had obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) for as long as I can remember. Of course, I didn’t always know it, but as I have become more self-aware as I’ve gotten older and have learned more about the disorder, I can recall being this way when I was as young as 5 or 6 years old. My OCD has fluctuated in severity over the years. 

Halfway through my freshman year of high school, I went through my first major bout of depression. Later that year, while going through my second period of depression, I started an additional ADHD medication that was supposed to also improve my mood. It helped up until the following summer, when my depression returned. I increased my dosage of meds and that worked for a while. 

Fast forward to this year, my senior year of high school. Earlier this year, my OCD and anxiety reached an all time high. They became debilitating. It was difficult to even get through the school day or leave the house. I was having several panic attacks a week, had countless racing thoughts going through my mind and was constantly filled with a feeling of dread and paranoia. My fear of contamination got out of control; I would use hand sanitizer approximately 200 times a day, and would change my clothes immediately after coming home from school. The anxiety made it difficult to enjoy anything or focus on an activity for long, and I was miserable because of it. 

When I was finally able to get an appointment with a psychiatrist, I received a surprising new diagnosis: bipolar disorder mixed type. I was a little taken aback at first, but after my psychiatrist explained it thoroughly, it did make a lot of sense. It summed up pretty well my combination of depression, anxiety, focusing issues and paranoia.

I was prescribed new medication, and taken off my other meds. Even after one day of taking it, I already felt like a fog had been lifted. It’s now been two months on my new meds, and I’ve seen even more improvement. I’m able to enjoy the activities I used to love again. I feel much more comfortable socially and have broken out of my shell a lot more. It used to be difficult to think about my future, because I couldn’t even function in the present. Now, I am looking ahead with hope, and am quite excited for my future and to start college.

Getting a new diagnosis made me reevaluate my view of mental illness. I feel like bipolar disorder has more stigma than some other mental illnesses, which is why I was a little surprised when I received that diagnosis. I used to think bipolar disorder was just extreme highs and lows, and this can sometimes be the case, but there are different types of bipolar disorder and it can manifest in many forms.

Receiving a new diagnosis also made me realize how much importance I was attaching to my original diagnoses. I almost felt I lost a part of my identity, because for the longest time I was thought to have had ADHD, OCD, depression and anxiety. For 10 years I took medication for ADHD. However, I’ve come to realize my diagnosis doesn’t define me. The label is only used so I can be properly treated. My new diagnosis seems to be the most fitting, because I’m doing better than ever on my new meds. But I am still me regardless of whatever mental illness I have; it now happens to be bipolar disorder and it is only just a small part of me.

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3 Things I Want to Hear as a Person With Bipolar Disorder

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Recently I shared an article on Facebook about what not to say to a person with bipolar disorder. A friend commented and asked, “Well, what can you say?”

Different people want to hear different things, and you should ask your loved ones what is OK to say. By asking them, it shows you care about them. That’s a great first step.

If someone were to ask me, I’d say…

1. “I don’t understand why you feel this way, but I respect that your feelings are real.”

I don’t expect anyone to understand what’s going on in my head. Sometimes I don’t understand. But please know what I’m feeling is real.

2. “I’m worried about your behavior.”

It is definitely OK for you to tell me I’m exhibiting concerning signs of an oncoming episode. Sometimes others notice it before I do, and bringing it to my attention can help me manage it.

3. “How can I learn more about bipolar disorder?”

I would be so happy to have someone ask me this. It’s important and sometimes vital that the people around me know about my disorder. Let me show you the good, the bad, and the ugly. It shows you care a lot to want to know more.

Or you know, just talk to me like you would any other friend. That’d be cool, too.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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When People Ask ‘Why Do You Stay?’ About My Husband Who Has Bipolar Disorder

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“I don’t mean to hurt you.”

I immediately began to feel immune to the sting of those words as soon as they fell from his lips. I knew these were the words my husband would eventually say to me after he came down from a manic state.

“I can’t control this.”

I’ve heard this so many times before. I’ve held out hope that he’d stick to his medication so many times in the past. I, admittedly, was tired. Although, I knew much of this was beyond his control because of my profession in working with students who have suffered significant trauma, I often lashed out at him for his reckless and impulsive behavior.

No matter how many times the counselor explained without medication and therapy, this would be my life, I still enabled it. I allowed him to have the option of not following through with his mental health treatment plan. It often wasn’t “worth the fight.” I had become a part of the problem.

Our families do not understand why I have stayed in a relationship with someone who has bipolar disorder, severe anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, they often wonder if it’s some kind of “con,” “act” or “excuse” to engage in irresponsible behavior. More often than not, I can not explain it myself. I’ve come to realize love is not enough, but there are four major reasons I have not left my husband.

1. I love him.

It may sound cliche, but it’s the truth. During moments of normalcy, our life is great. We love each other deeply and it hurts to think of our marriage ending because of the residual effects of his bipolar disorder.

2. There’s our children.

He’s a great dad when he’s following his treatment plan. He loves my children with such intensity and commitment.

3. He’s ill.

If he had cancer, would I think of leaving? Absolutely not. Is this any different?

4. He’s my best friend.

We have been friends for nearly 20 years. We’ve watched each other grow up.

I don’t know whether or not we’ll make it. I certainly hope we do. My hope is he will recommit himself to treatment so he can be a more fully engaged spouse, friend and father.
I do hope that day comes soon.
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