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Learning to Say 'Psychotic' Without Shame

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All these years after my diagnosis of bipolar disorder in 2001, one word about my illness is still so hard for me to say: “psychotic.” But it’s getting easier. In manic and depressive episodes, I experience psychosis, and memories of things I’ve done and said haunt me when I am well. For a long time, I truly thought my psychotic symptoms were something I would have to hide from everyone in my life for the rest of my life.

Then, a few friends saw me through a psychotic episode. Psychosis and all, they met it with compassion and without judgment. One night, I sat on my couch with one of these friends and mentioned psychosis. To my surprise, it just slipped out. All the years of hiding came to my mind in that moment, as well as the realization that I didn’t need to be afraid of sharing the most “shameful” secret of my disorder anymore. I said to her, “I thought I would have to keep that a secret for the rest of my life.” She put her hand on my shoulder to say no, not anymore, and isn’t it wonderful?

Again and again, I’ve been able to say the word and be met with acceptance. Another friend said to me once, “You don’t need to be ashamed of anything, ever.” And I’m starting to believe her. My psychotic symptoms are the most confusing and frightening to me and my loved ones. They are also the most embarrassing once I am well enough to remember what I have done. Saying the word is one thing — I’ve gotten better at that. But not feeling the humiliation deep inside about the things I’ve done and said during a psychotic episode is another.

But again, I’m learning to let go of this shame as well. When people see you during a psychotic episode and show you they haven’t lost sight of who you are to them, you start to realize psychosis is a symptom, not an identity. It’s something you don’t have a lot of control over. Letting go of the shame gets easier — not that it goes away quickly or without effort. It takes time. But being told over and over that you are loved, that their love is not so easily lost — even because of something as overwhelming and powerful as psychosis — can begin to heal the pain of that silence.

You can say the word. You don’t need to be ashamed.

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There's No Shame in Needing Medication to Manage Your Mental Illness

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I have Bipolar 1, the most severe form of bipolar. I was diagnosed almost 10 years ago. It took me about three years to get on the right meds. Throughout those three years, I cycled through episodes of mania and depression. It resulted in three hospitalizations. Once I was on the right medication cocktail, I stabilized. At least, I became as stable as anyone with a severe mental illness can be. Despite the five medications I take for my mood disorder and anxiety, I still deal with symptoms.

I am a high-functioning person living with mental illness, but this doesn’t mean I’m totally asymptomatic. One of the things I struggle most with is impulse control. I have horrible impulse control. When I want it, I want it now. I have such knee-jerk reactions, and I make decisions without thinking them through. I get so stuck on an idea that I just can’t put it to rest until I do something about it.

A lot of people I’ve talked to with bipolar seem to experience the same thing, even if they are on a good medication regimen. I stick to my routine. I take my meds every day. I get enough sleep. But still, my mood disorder is there, underneath the meds, the routine and the sleep.

It took me a long time to realize even though my bipolar is well managed, it still affects me. I seemed to think for a while I was doing so well that I was “cured.” I know there is no cure for bipolar. It is a lifelong disorder, with episodes coming over the years. I am extremely fortunate to be as stable as I’ve been for the last six years. Many people with bipolar don’t get that lucky.

Most people with mental illness struggle for years, trying to get the right diagnosis or trying to get access to appropriate mental health care. They try medication after medication, and it doesn’t work or the side effects are so bad we can’t tolerate the medication.

One of the biggest problems with people diagnosed with bipolar disorder is they fall into the same trap I did. When they get on the right medication, they feel cured. They think it’s over; everything is better so I can stop taking my medication. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

I applaud people who have learned to deal with mental illness in natural, holistic ways. However, for me, and most other people with severe mental illness, we need medication. We need to keep taking our medication. I have accepted I will be on medication for the rest of my life for my mood disorder. Do I like it? No. Yet, I don’t like my heart medication, and I still take that. There is such a stigma around taking medication for a mental illness.

Recently, Olympian gold medalist Simone Biles had her medical records hacked and it was shown she is taking ADHD medication. She has come out and been vocal about the issue, and she has brought attention to the fact there is no shame in taking medication for mental illness. It is the same as any other illness.

So why is it different when we need to take psychotropic medication? Why is that shameful? The short answer is: It’s not. It’s not shameful. It’s not for everyone, but for people who need medication for a mental illness and choose pharmaceuticals as a treatment option, there is no shame. The shame comes from the stigma. The shame comes from ignorance, from people who don’t understand.

I stand loud and proud that I take medication for my mood disorder, and I have never gone off it. It allowed me to complete a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. Without it, I truly believe I would have died due to suicidal thoughts, which I was close to before getting on the right medication. Mental illness is more prevalent than you think, and someone you know most likely lives with a mental illness. If you have a friend who is struggling, then reach out to them. A simple text to let them know you are thinking of them can make the difference between a bad day and a good day.

Let’s take the stigma out of mental illness and medication. I’ve seen so many positive articles and people bringing awareness to mental health, to the point that it is even being addressed in the presidential election. Let’s continue the conversation around mental illness. Let’s get people the help they deserve. Whether it’s a veteran struggling with PTSD or an Olympian gold medalist with ADHD, we all deserve to live the best life possible, and sometimes that requires medication.

If it makes our quality of life better, then that should be the most important thing. If it means we can hold a job, have quality relationships and function in society, then that’s what it takes. There’s no shame in that. It’s not a crutch. It’s a disease. We are not less than you because we take medication.

Too many people are afraid to talk about their mental illness or medication because of the stigma around it and how people respond. I’ve experienced it. People treat you differently once they find out you are one of those “crazies.” Doctors judge you when they see it in your medical file.

We are people. We are humans. We happen to have a disease. That does not make us less. In fact, it makes us stronger. It means we are able to triumph over adversity. It means we are resilient. It means we haven’t given up. So don’t give up on us.

Author’s note: I wanted to acknowledge that bipolar II or any of the bipolar spectrum disorders can be just as destructive, debilitating and devastating as bipolar I. I was speaking more in a clinical sense, where on the spectrum of bipolar disorders in the DSM, bipolar 1 is at the top as the most severe on the spectrum, then bipolar 2, cyclothymic, NOS.

Follow this journey on Living Without Limits.

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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. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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Where My Mental Illness Ends and the Real Person Begins

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Sometimes it’s hard to explain just what having mental illness means.

Sometimes it’s hard to know just where the illness ends and the real person begins. I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. These terms do not define me, but they do help explain me.

I am not my illness, but I am responsible for keeping tabs on it, for self-monitoring and for being aware of its place in my life. I think of it as a dog. A feral, mastiff-type animal with a strong body and an even stronger will. If I don’t keep it in line each day, it can easily overpower me. I medicate it. And I learn how to dominate it, to keep it submissive.

But it doesn’t like it.

It longs to take advantage.

Sometimes I get weary of controlling it and it leaps at the opportunity to run rampant. I lose focus. I crave excitement. I act foolishly. The dog grabs me by the scruff of my neck and shakes me until my teeth rattle.

On some level, I enjoy it. I get a thrill from being between the monster’s jaws, not knowing where it will take me or where I will wind up.

All too soon, however, the highs end. Reality hits. And I’ve done it again. I’ve hurt those around me, those I care about, those I love dearly. They are dealing with the fallout, wondering if they can ever trust me again, wondering if I even care at all.

I do care.

I want to be trusted.

Medication will be adjusted, therapies tried. The dog will be fitted for a new collar, though it will whine and scratch and struggle to get loose.

I will never be free of the dog. It is a part of me, and I a part of it, just as my heart and lungs are a part of me. Hopefully, those who love me can see that and can extend grace for the times that are overwhelming. If not, perhaps they are not the people who need to be in my life at all.

Image via Thinkstock.

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Mania Through My Eyes

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Art is such a powerful tool for communication. I am a photographer and an artist. I have always told myself my journey with photography is to give myself courage to face the things I am afraid of. Sometimes, I have abstract visions, my ears catch strange whispers and I have phrases that catch my fancy floating about in my mind. All of these associate with different emotions I cannot seem to put a finger on. Yet, I can see them and feel them perfectly clear.

One day, I decided I was at a phase in my photography where I was ready to try to decode these thoughts and represent them in an image. If I could photograph my thoughts and people could see how beautiful and exciting it was, then maybe they would understand me better. I tend not to speak about a lot of things usually because I don’t know how to explain myself. Photography came at a phase in my life when I taught myself to communicate using visuals rather than words.

I wanted to represent my life and my journey with bipolar disorder the way I see it. It has its ugly sides, but I have to give it credit for making me see things differently. As an artist, I have the power to harness these visions.

Usually around the time when mania pokes its head in my life, I’m unsure about myself. Sure, it makes things beautiful, but the tiredness that sets in afterward is something I do not particularly like. I’m hesitant to give in to the allure. Yet, there it is, waiting for me to go on a magical journey. That is exactly what I wanted to show with this small photographic series, featuring glitter covered orchid buds. People often ask me if I see things differently. Yes, I do! This is a small glimpse into how beautiful ordinary things look when I’m manic.

Mania: Dancing Flames

“I was walking down a street one evening, buzzing with energy. You could literally see sparks fly. I heard strange whispers in my ear. It was my own voice. I sounded different. It sounded like me, but a different version of me. I was the boring girl who woke up every day to go to work, but she wasn’t like that. She woke up every day eager to start an exciting new adventure. That day, she took pity on my boring self. I could see her step out of me and mirror me. It was me, but it was also not me. She stretched her hand out and offered it to me. Should I take it? She was getting impatient, waiting for me to make up my mind. She called after me in her beautiful voice. The hold she had on me was mystifying, how did she do that? As I stood there lost in my own thoughts, she ran around me in circles, singing chirpily wanting me to surrender myself to her. One deep breath for courage, then I put my hand in hers. I squeezed my eyes shut and she soared into the night with me.”

an abstract photograph

an abstract photograph

an abstract photograph
Mania: Kaleidoscopic Vision

“I saw things I never saw before. I saw things I never thought I could see before. I saw everything. It was a new way of looking at things. Why didn’t I ever see the world like this before?”

an abstract photograph

an abstract photograph

Images via Anyā Photography.

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What Doctors Don't Tell You About Bipolar Disorder

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What does the DSM-V say about bipolar disorder?

It says many things, like you must have at least three behaviors from a list of symptoms of mania lasting a week or longer. It says you must have five behaviors from a list of symptoms for depression lasting two weeks or longer. These behaviors include a markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day nearly every day for depression, and an inflated sense of self-esteem or grandiosity (ranging from uncritical self-confidence to a delusional sense of expertise) for mania.

So once you’ve displayed these behaviors, you can be diagnosed and treated. The doctors often tell you side-effects of medications and how often to take the meds, but in my experience, they rarely explain what your diagnosis means, perhaps instead offering you a handout on bipolar disorder, or advising you to check a reputable website.

They don’t tell you what to really expect with your disorder.

They rarely tell you mania doesn’t always look like a euphoric high, that it can look like your worst nightmare, with major irritability and lashing out to loved ones without you knowing why.

They don’t tell you that you can have mixed episodes, which involve a mixture of depression and mania.

They don’t tell you the “minimal” effects, like weight gain or drowsiness, affect many people — and can be real and life-altering. For example, drowsiness I’ve experienced as a side-effect of Seroquel doesn’t just make me tired, it turns me into a non-functioning zombie for days at a time.

They don’t tell you there’s no silver bullet when it comes to meds, that what you try first will rarely work. That you’ll be playing medication roulette until you find the right combo. Yes, that’s right “combo.” It’s not often you’re only put on one medication to control your symptoms.

Nowhere was it mentioned to me that you might miss your highs and struggle to stay medication-compliant because your creativity is gone and you hate it.

This sounds gloomy, I know, but there are also positives to a bipolar diagnosis they don’t often tell you about.

They don’t tell you you’re joining the ranks of awesome people, like Carrie Fisher, Vincent van Gogh, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Russell Brand and Demi Lovato — oh, and myself.

They don’t tell you just how awesome it can be to finally have a name for what you’re going through.

They don’t tell you how wonderful a night of sleep can be once you’re on the right dose of medications.

They don’t tell you how wonderful life can be once you’re free of the demons in your head.

They don’t tell you being bipolar is not a death sentence, that you can live and thrive with it, no matter how you feel at the time of diagnosis.

They don’t tell you there is hope of recovery and remission of your symptoms. Well, maybe they do tell you that, but you might have missed it, reeling from everything else they told you. And it never hurts to be reminded of that.

So those are some things your doctor might not mention.

It never hurts to do your homework and research your diagnosis, because knowledge is power. The more informed you are as a patient, the better you can advocate for yourself. And that’s really the best thing a person with any illness can do.

Image via Thinkstock.

Editor’s note: Any medical information included is based on a personal experience. For questions or concerns regarding health, please consult a doctor or medical professional.

Follow this journey on Ramblings of a Bipolar Mess

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When a Therapist Saw Me as I Am

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I was recently hospitalized for suicidal ideation for the fourth time in two years. I was really struggling with myself, with my identity, my values and my beliefs. I didn’t like myself. I honestly thought the world would be better off without me, and especially that my family would be better off without me. I live with bipolar disorder type I, and I go through some extreme mood swings because of it. I had also made the poor decision to quit my medications because I was sick of the way I looked. I was doing phenomenally mood wise, but I hated the way I felt about myself physically.

I was rather bitter about this hospital stay because my individual counselor had sent the sheriffs out to find me. (I sent her a suicide note by text, and she responded appropriately — by doing a welfare check.) I didn’t want to be found though, I really wanted to be dead; at least I thought that was the case. So I spent my first couple days sulking about how miserably unfair my life was. The therapist in the hospital was amazingly kind those first few days. I thought he was great until we had a therapy session with my husband.

He told me in no uncertain terms I had a problem with always having to be right, that I was annoying and that he thought I’d be almost impossible to live with.

He also told me though, I had something innately likable about me, something that made all those other qualities seem to diminish, and that made me a wonderful person. He also said that even though I’m an incredibly difficult person, there was something charming about me, that radiated from me, even when I annoyed the hell out of people.

Of course, at first, all I heard was that I’m a terrible person who doesn’t deserve to have anything good happen to her — but eventually it dawned on me that he had basically seen my soul, laid it bare, put words to it and still found me a good person.

It changed my life.

Once I finished processing the hurtful things he said, I realized he had said some wonderful things about me as well. And that was incredibly freeing.

The shocking thing was that I believed him. I honestly believed what he told me, because he was one of the most genuine people I’d ever met. I knew he wouldn’t say something if he didn’t believe it to be true. Because of that, it sank in.

I changed because of that comment. I began to believe I have value, that I have worth and that I’m a good person. I know deep inside that although I can be an incredibly difficult person to handle at times, I’m still innately likable. And that’s enough for me. It doesn’t matter if everyone doesn’t like me, I still believe and hold on to the thought that I’m charming. Of all things, charming! I’m someone who deserves to be treated with respect, because I am worthy.

I don’t know if this therapist will ever know how much of a profound effect he had on me, and how much he’s changed my life, but I want to thank him. I want to thank him from the bottom of my heart for seeing me, the real me, the me hiding behind my layers of sarcasm and mean words. He had the audacity to tell me straight like it is, and I admire that kind of bravery. He has given me the backbone to be myself, in all things, at all times and in all places. I don’t have to people please anymore. I know that I’m enough, just as I am. And his words helped make that a reality for me. And I am so grateful. So grateful.

Thank you, dear therapist, for giving me the courage to be authentic myself.

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. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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