woman supporting dying mother in hospital bed

Therapist and author Brandy Lidbeck recently wrote that grief is never really “gotten over,” that it becomes a person’s “new normal.” She also states the feelings associated with grief often re-emerge during important milestones and the anniversary of the person’s death. In my experience, both of these things are true. As I write this, I am coming up on the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death from a terminal illness. There’s something about not having her in my life for half a decade that makes this anniversary more significant and possibly triggering to me.

When I first heard the term “grief,” I thought it only applied to death. But I believe grief can mean the feelings one experiences whenever they go through any form of significant loss. With that definition in mind, I feel I’ve been grieving the absence of my mother since well before she passed. My mother had bipolar disorder, and as a young child I was often present when she was symptomatic. I saw her risk-taking behaviors when she was manic and her hopelessness when she was depressive. She struggled so much at times it seemed hard for her to be what I needed — attentive, responsive, consistent.

Unfortunately, due to the stigma surrounding mental illness and my age, it was hard for me to make sense of these behaviors. When my mother was feeling well, she was a great mother, but the things she did/said while symptomatic left me feeling anxious and abandoned. Looking back, I believe I was experiencing grief — I was in denial over how much control she had over her illness, and I was angry and sad this illness prevented her from being the mother I felt I needed. It took me years to finally somewhat accept my mother was doing the best she could.

And then in 2010, I learned she was ill, and for the next year I was powerless as I watched her refuse treatment and slowly deteriorate. It was like when I first started to become aware of her mental illness, like I was seeing her slowly slip away from me. My thoughts were, “I just got in a good place with her. I just started building a relationship with her, and now she’s being taken away from me again.” My feelings during her last year were a mixture of numbed denial so I could have the strength to continue to visit her in hospice, anger that she wasn’t adhering to treatment — which echoed the anger I felt in my youth when she stopped taking her mood stabilizers — and anger at myself for not spending time with her when I had a chance.

Lately, whenever I think about her, I feel a muted sadness. I’m sad she was unable to see me get married. I’m sad she was unable to meet her granddaughter. I’m sad we didn’t have more time and that she had to leave when there was still unfinished business between us. I currently cope with these feelings by making sure I honor her memory. I show my daughter pictures so she knows who her Nana is. I light a candle for her during All Souls Day services at my church. My career is actually inspired by her — I used art to cope when I was coming to terms with the impact of her mental illness on my family and myself, and I developed a passion for psychology in order to better understand her. This led to my decision to work on becoming a school counselor, a licensed professional counselor and an art therapist.

The death of someone in your life can be complex and hard. But honoring their memory and finding purpose in the situation, I’ve found, can help one cope and adjust, allowing these changes to become part of the “new normal.”

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IMG_20161113_235326 There comes a time with mental illnesses when you realize that checking into a hospital is probably the “right” thing to do. Yet, as you sit there in such a state of despair, you’re thinking about the burden you feel you are and how much more burdensome you might become.

The thoughts I have at this moment, after I have successfully put a whole in the wall from banging my head against it several times, is that I’m definitely not OK. I definitely should not be alone. Yet, also, I’m thinking about how long it will take me to get better if I don’t go.

So here I am, lying on the bathroom floor at 2 a.m., vomiting with the only ounces of energy I have left in my body. Of course, it’s pointless because I haven’t eaten anything all day, but my body doesn’t care. As I lie here, slumped over like a rag doll, fighting for air and strength, my brain is telling me ugly things.

I realize if I were to check myself into the hospital, I’d be out of work for a while. What will they think of me then? I realize tomorrow is my husband’s birthday. How selfish would I be to do such a thing to him?

Besides, the urge to end it all is there, but my body won’t let it happen. My body fights it, even when I don’t have the mental strength to fight it anymore. My body reaches that breaking point and takes control, leaving me breathless and sobbing because I’m too weak to do it after all.

I’m in a state of limbo. Can I kill myself? Can I not? Can I get through this without intervention? Will it eventually lead to my demise?

I’ve never been in the hospital for my bipolar disorder before, though I am certain I’ve had times I should have been. I don’t even know what they’d do for me. It seems so pointless, yet so necessary all at the same time. This is what it’s like when “I really don’t feel good” turns into “I’m definitely not OK.”

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There are so many things people don’t see about living with bipolar disorder.

No one sees the anguish of knowing you’re cycling and feeling helpless to stop it. No one sees the crushing weight of the depression. No one sees the drug-like euphoria of mania.

People don’t see you curled up in a ball on the edge of your bed as you hold your pill bottle in your hand, trying to convince yourself not to take them because you just can’t take life anymore.

People don’t see the shame spiral you fall into when you wake up from the mania haze and see the path of destruction you’ve left behind.

People don’t see how deeply sorry you are and how you’d give anything to not be like this.

No one sees the difficulty of having to explain you really are sick, even though you look totally healthy. Or the shame that can come along with looking totally fine, yet being broken into a million little pieces on the inside.

People don’t see the internal struggle, the often daily internal struggle of living with this. Sometimes it feels like things will never be right. When you’re feeling great, you have to worry if it’s mania, or if it’s not mania, you’re worried about how long it’ll last. Then when you’re depressed, you have to try and hold on to the hope that there will be brighter days ahead, even though your head is messing with you and screaming that there will never be a light at the end of this tunnel.

No one sees the tears because you get tired of sharing them. No one sees the haunting sadness because you don’t want to scare people away.

People see the beautiful smile, and hear the, “I’m fine,” and leave it at that.

On the other hand, people don’t see the compassion, the sheer empathy, and the love people with bipolar disorder have for humanity.

We struggle, so we are more in tune with others’ pain and want to alleviate it.

People don’t see the absolute genius in our brains, usually because we’re too disorganized to bring it to fruition, or too scared of failure, or for any other number of reasons.

People don’t see enough stories of hope in bipolar disorder. They hear the horror stories, the untreated souls who are struggling and think that’s all that’s there.

There is hope. Medications aren’t fun, but they can bring you peace and relief from the dark roller coaster ride. Therapy can help you understand yourself better and give you practical skills to use when you’re struggling. Maybe what people need to see is how hard people with mental illness work to improve themselves.

It’s a long uphill battle sometimes, but it certainly doesn’t have to be a death sentence. And people can’t see that without help.

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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“Just try and be happy.”

“It’s all in your head. Just focus on the positives.”

“What do you have to be sad about?”

If you live with any mental illness, then you have likely heard these statements before. Although the person saying them is just trying to be positive, you know as well as I do they do not always bring positive emotions.

I feel guilty every day I struggle with bipolar disorder. There are some days when I am on top of the world. I feel like I can do any and everything. On those days, I like to get out. I enjoy being around people and socializing. I want the company of those I love.

Unfortunately, those days have always been limited for me. My “highs” come in spurts, while my “lows” tend to linger longer than I would like. I push through them long enough to be at work and talk to the people I have to talk to. However, once I punch out at 5 p.m., I shut off.

Most days I go home and lay in bed watching whatever show I’m binge watching at the time. Some days, I sit on my porch thinking of all the projects I’ve left unfinished, all the plans I’ve canceled because I couldn’t leave my bed, all of the things I’ve done or said that have hurt the people I’m closest to. Then, I think of all of the times I didn’t see my family and friends because avoiding them is easier than having to answer a millions questions.

“Why are your eyes so dark?”

“You look so thin. Have you been eating?”

“When is the last time you slept?”

“Have you been feeling well?”

Even though the questions stem from genuine concern, no answer I give will ever be the right one. Then comes the guilt. I can lie and tell them I have been fine, I have a headache or I just tossed and turned all night. When in actuality, I haven’t eaten or slept in days. I have been crying for hours over absolutely nothing. I feel like my world is falling apart around me.

But which is worse? Protecting them from the truth or making them worry about me to the point that they lose sleep and my mental health consumes their every thought? Either way is a losing battle.

I did not choose my mental disorder. It chose me. It crept in and overtook my every thought. It has left me feeling lonely and in the dark. It has beaten me down while whispering in my ear how unworthy I am. How there is no light at the end of this dark and unmerciful tunnel.

I have never felt alone though. Even at my loneliest, I know there is an army of support standing beside and behind me ready to catch me and hold my hand as I walk this path. No matter how comforting that may be, I still feel so guilty. I feel guilty that these people I love and who love me, have to see me at my lowest.

I feel guilty for the sleepless nights and constant fear I may one day completely lose myself. I feel guilty for the burden I feel I am. I feel guilty that the ones I love have never considered me that burden. I feel guilty I do not spend more time with my family. I feel guilty looking them in the eyes and lying to them. I feel guilty telling them I am falling apart, spiraling out of control. I feel guilty I have this wonderful life, so full of love, and I am still so sad sometimes, most of the time. I feel guilty I have to force a smile that should come so naturally.

When I am at my “high,” I feel great. This also makes me feel guilty because I have made so many worry about me when I was enduring my “low.” My mind is at a constant battle with itself. Some days are better than others, but that voice is always there. It may be quieter on good days, but I can always hear it, whispering in my ear, reminding me that it is never far away.

So even when I’m happy, even when I am as high as the clouds, that guilty voice is always close. Sometimes, when I look in the mirror, I can even see her, looking back at me with those dark eyes, waiting for me in the deepest and darkest corners of my mind.

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We had made it out of ICU. My father was approaching his third day post open heart surgery, and they had transferred him to a “regular” room. Not only was this relief in that he was on his way to recovery, but the couch in this room was somewhat larger for me, and the interruptions from the treatment team came less frequently through the night. I was happy.

Up until this point my father had had little interaction with the medical staff being that he was constantly sleeping and on a breathing machine for most of his time in the ICU. Now feeling much better and able to take his medicine via pill form, my father was able to engage with the nurses and doctors in his usual jovial manner.

The first nurse on shift to take care of my dad came bouncing in with a grin ear to ear. She picked up his chart and looked over it once and twice making sure to not miss any important information. “How are we feeling, Mr. Molberg?” she said in a cadence with a hint of former cheerleader. My father smiled and made a joke about not being able to escape with all the monitors attached to different parts of his body.

“Let’s see here, you need this medication for blood pressure, and we need you to continue taking this one for pain, OK?… Also, it seems you take Wellbutrin from your primary care doctor.” She squinted her eyes and curled her mouth while she formed her next sentence. “Wow. You are on an incredibly high dosage. Are you trying to
quit smoking or something?”

I immediately glanced at my father and saw him try and find the words. “I have bipolar disorder” suffocated him and cracked at his teeth like a mouth full of rocks. I wanted to jump in and save him from harm but instead stood there with my mouth gaping open as she shrugged her shoulders and bounced out of the hospital room.

My dad didn’t seem to care too much, but I began to apologize for her profusely. Where was this coming from, and why wasn’t I able to defend or even explain my father’s illness? The shame burned deep within my chest, and I never thought this inconsiderate and poorly trained medical professional would be the one teaching me a lesson in self-acceptance and learning how to talk about one’s own mental illness.

One year after my father’s heart surgery he died by suicide. I lost a piece of myself, and I began to deteriorate. I was fortunate enough to know I needed to seek help with my grief and what had begun to be a daily struggle with depression and anxiety.

Standing in line at the pharmacy with my brand new anti-depressant prescription, I began to hear the innocently judging and misinformed voice of my father’s nurse. I knew I needed to own my mental illness and find the correct language to discuss it in safe spaces with others. I knew I wanted to educate others on the damages of shaming those of us that struggle with mental illnesses.

I am grateful for the distorted view of that nurse because maybe she created a space for me to begin to accept my own mental illness. She gave me a glimpse into the misunderstandings of individuals who do not have any experiences with mental health and stigma that injures the community and allowed for my own compassion to grow. While I lost my father and every single day is a struggle, while even sometimes my slow and gentle breath hurts to my core, this woman’s misunderstanding gave me a greater understanding and gentleness with 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

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Thinkstock photo by Fabio Balbi

Another human being with a mental illness lost their life in a senseless way. The reason I use the word “human” is because that’s what Michelle Shirley was, a human. Instead she was gunned down like a wild bear who infiltrated a residential community. Why are we here, yet again?

Michelle Shirley, an educated young woman of color, was spotted driving erratically down a southern California street when police began to chase the vehicle. After everything played out and her daughter had been killed, her mother, Debra Shirley, said something eye opening about how police should and could have dealt with the situation: “I really feel like police are not equipped to deal with mental illness in the field. Shoot the tires or disable the car.” Makes me wonder, why didn’t they shoot the tires?

Michelle Shirley is one of a number of victims who have been shot and killed by active duty trained police officers. I thought the objective was to deescalate situations, not kill the person dead on the spot. She didn’t have a gun, it appeared no one was present in the car with her. So what was going through the mind of the police officer who fired the shots? The same question is asked about Dontre Hamilton.

“Mental illness needs to be talked about more. Awareness needs to be spread and the illness needs to be destigmatized.” That’s what everyone says when a person with a mental illness is killed at the hands of police. But what are the chiefs, aldermen and community leaders putting into action so that the cycle of ignorance will not continue to perpetuate itself? We are tired of seeing senseless killings of those affected by mental illness. I said “we” because I am affected by mental illness first hand; I live with severe depression and bipolar type 2. I am more so depressed more than I am manic. I only reach hypomania, which is right up under full blown mania.

Why not seek to provide education and the integration of public safety with the mental illness community? Because (sarcastically speaking) in a minute I’ll be starting a movement called “Mentally ill lives matter.” Why not? Black lives matter, now Blue lives matter (police). Well mentally ill lives matter just as much as any other demographic. As an In Our Own Voice public speaker for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), when needed, I go around to schools, police academies as well as police stations, churches and other businesses to inform the public of who we are. I seek to get my story out, share knowledge and give first hand experience of how I’m affected by mental illness. Changing people’s perception of mental illness and those it affects is personal for me, rewarding, as well as a piece to the puzzle I can add to help end stigma.

This young, educated woman of color, who was trying to beat the odds, was gunned down. There could have been a different outcome instead of resolving the issue with bullets, as if she was a wild animal. Yes, she was out of control, in danger because of her actions, but she by no means deserved to die. Collectively, on a global scale as well as communal, we need to do better. I feel for this young lady, for many different reasons. But to conclude, the number one reason is that it could’ve easily been me.

#Sayhername #MichelleShirley #endthestigma

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