girl sitting in tub covering face

When You're Battling Both Mental and Chronic Illness

I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2008 and bipolar disorder in 2010. I have days where my Crohn’s symptoms seem to dictate my life and days where my bipolar disorder affects me to the point of being too anxious to leave the house or too depressed to even get out of bed to do a simple thing like shower. Unfortunately, since a mental illness is just as real as a chronic physical illness, my symptoms are often amplified when one is worse than the other. For example, I may be so anxious that I’m nauseous, have constant abdominal cramping and my entire GI tract just seems to be agitated.

This often becomes an endless loop and as much as I try to control both illnesses, sometimes I just break down and cry about how much money I spend per year on medications, doctor visits and therapy. About how I’ve gradually become more distant from my friends and feel more and more like a burden to them since I often get too anxious to go to parties or crowded bars, not to mention that drinking with a bowel disease is not ideal. About how ashamed I am that it took me almost six years to complete my college degree due to missing so much school when I’m hospitalized, whether for mental or physical treatment. I feel like I’m broken, have so many regrets and that I’m not worthy of anyone’s love or friendship and that I’ll never feel comfortable in my own skin.

The most frustrating part of my life has become my need to validate my bipolar symptoms but not my Crohn’s. Why do I feel like I need to explain that a panic attack is a very real thing and I’m not just being dramatic? But I think since people can see the physical symptoms of my Crohn’s, (weight loss, frequent bathroom trips, vomiting, etc.), I have no need to feel guilty or even embarrassed.

I will admit, I have days where I sit and wallow and wish that I could trade battling suicidal thoughts with having even worse Crohn’s symptoms. The reality is, you don’t get to choose. You play the cards you’re dealt.

I’m lucky enough to have people in my life that do understand how hard it can be and are a lot more compassionate when I bail on plans last minute when I can’t leave my house. I have a boyfriend that I constantly fear is going to leave me because of my mood swings, and how I often just sit next to him with nothing to say because I’m inexplicably anxious or depressed and have no way to articulate my feelings to him. Countless times I’ve woken him up in the middle of the night just to hold me since I’m so anxious I can’t sleep. Multiple times, he’s run to pick up my favorite type of ginger ale and foods that I can eat when I have a Crohn’s flare. Or to cheer me up, he’ll force me to at least go for a bike ride to be outside and distracted from my feelings. I can’t imagine how he must feel, knowing that sometimes, there’s nothing he can do to make me feel better. I can’t wrap my head around how hard it would be for me if I were in his shoes and felt powerless every time the person I love so much was in pain and I couldn’t help.

Luckily, mental health is being talked about more and more, so I know I’m not alone and my symptoms are very real. I’m gradually trying my best to not feel like I’m a complete mess and my loved ones would just be better off without me. The suicidal thoughts rear their ugly head from time to time and coming to the realization that I’ll be living on medications for both illnesses and may need to adjust my lifestyle from time to time is a bitter pill to swallow. I fear the next time I have a manic episode where I can’t even go to work and need to go to treatment. Or when my Crohn’s advances and the possibility of surgery becomes very real. I must remember to accept that I am sick, it’s a part of me, and I don’t need to prove anything to anyone or feel guilty about things that are out of my control. I take medications as directed, practice techniques I learned in treatment to help control bipolar symptoms and eat a diet that helps keep my Crohn’s symptoms at bay — and I’m doing the best I can.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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How My Parents Reacted to My Bipolar Diagnosis

I remember getting my Crohn’s disease diagnosis; my mom sobbing and telling me about her friend’s brother who died from it at an early age. And then her reaction to my bipolar diagnosis; her disbelief and her saying how I’ve always had an “intense” personality, a bad temper, and anxiety from being a perfectionist. Little did she know, that anxiety had made me hard on myself my entire life, and my temper was a force to be reckoned with that was virtually never an appropriate response to the situation. It wasn’t until I reached a breaking point (mania, wanting to commit suicide and acting completely irrationally) that she started to see that maybe this was a very real illness. After a bad manic episode, I admitted I needed help and started an intensive outpatient program at a hospital.

This program made me feel less alone. I was surrounded by others who had the same feelings and symptoms I was experiencing and it comforted me. I went five days a week and was put on various medications until we found a combination that worked. My parents thought I was being pumped with a cornucopia of pills that would do nothing but alter my mood in a negative way.

My dad struggled with ADD his entire life and didn’t seek help until he was an adult and it began affecting his work. He had also been going to counseling and was hesitant to tell my mom, maybe out of embarrassment or maybe for fear that my mom would react negatively. I knew my dad had a slightly better grasp on understanding me, but my mom still didn’t believe my diagnosis was real. No parent wants to see their child struggle, but when they are, that’s when they need their parents most.

Before I could get discharged, I had to have a family session at the hospital with my parents and my psychologist. The psychologist explained my progress, my medications and how they affected me, and essentially, she pointed out what it meant to be bipolar and what I would need to help manage it in the future. I could see tears in both my parents’ eyes (which in part made me cry) and my mom repeating over and over how sorry she was that she didn’t want to believe her daughter that had always been a straight A student, hard worker and someone that didn’t complain often about her symptoms, could have this debilitating mental illness. My parents also said they’d seen my neurotic behavior since I was young, but always just thought it was my personality and not something that impaired me from living and enjoying my life.

When it was my turn to talk, I felt hurt. Hurt that my parents felt an immense amount of guilt for not understanding my illness and not being there for me when I needed them most. I told them that they’d never dealt with a mental illness like this before and unless you’ve experienced it firsthand, you really can’t wrap your head around how it feels. They asked what they could do for me and that they would always be there for me, no matter what. I had a lump in my throat and felt so guilty that they thought they weren’t being good parents (which is entirely false). I love them dearly, and although I was mostly angry and frustrated at my mom, I forgave her for making me feel like I was being dramatic or a hypochondriac. She had seen how tough I was battling Crohn’s and didn’t believe that her daughter could be affected this immensely by a mental disorder.

Recently, a family member was diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and my mom apologized to me yet again, for “not being a good mother to me and not being compassionate when I needed it most”.  My parents now help me financially if I can’t afford my medications, are always there to talk and calm me down, and after reading several books about bipolar disorder, they see that I definitely fit the bill based on my symptoms. I’m very close to my dad who has also come around and will give me advice when I know I’m being irrational, and even though he travels a lot for work, I know he’ll always answer my calls if I need him. I now count my blessings that I have such a great support system and although it was a struggle in the beginning, I know I have parents that are in my corner now.

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The Moments I Know God Is Protecting Me From My Suicidal Thoughts

If you suddenly found yourself staring in the face of death, would you be fearless? If you were on a sinking ship would you scream for help if you knew someone would hear you? What if someone held out a life preserver just as you were about to go down. Would you yank your hand away and say, “No thanks, I’d rather save myself.”

What if you no longer had any hope or felt unloved. Would you turn away from someone who offered you the chance to be loved unconditionally? What if that person walked up to you, looked directly in your eyes and pleaded, “Please just stop for a minute and listen to me with an open heart. All I’m asking for is a chance to show you how much I care. I will always love you, even if you never change, but if you learn to trust me I will help you become exactly who you were meant to be. I am here for you so there is nothing more to ever fear.”

Would you shove them aside insisting that your life is perfect simply because you don’t want to risk believing them? Would you prefer to remain on your own so you can do whatever you wanted and hope for the best?

I have.

I’ve struggled most of my life with believing any such person or hope existed. Over and over people, books and churches tried to convince me I could find everything I could ever hope for by having a relationship with God, but I refused to hear it. I was adamant that He couldn’t possibly love me or want the best for me. 

After taking an inventory of my life, I came to the conclusion I could never be part of God’s plan. The movie of my existence that played continuously in my mind focused solely on: 

All the times I’ve contemplated suicide because I was convinced there was no way out.

All the years I spent partying and thinking only of myself and where my next buzz would come from.

All the times I hated my body so much that I chose to cut it.

All the years I spent reading books trying find something — anything — other than God to fill the gaping hole in my soul.

All the lies I told about what I was doing and why in order to cover up my dysfunctional behavior.

All the times I yelled at God and blamed him for my illness and shortcomings.

I have always believed in God, but that’s as far as it ever went. Pastors preached that He loved each one of us, but I was convinced all of that was a joke. After all, God would never feel that way about me because I was such a screw up who, no matter how hard I tried, kept failing Him.

When I seriously stopped to think about it, I didn’t really believe I would even get into heaven because I always assumed as long as I tried to be a “good” person, I’d  probably make it there. The problem was I hated myself so much I automatically assumed God did too. Where I’d spend eternity was always a big unknown. That’s wasn’t very encouraging.

Thanks to God’s grace in a pivotal moment several years ago, every single doubt about my final destination has been washed away.

How did I finally realize God loves me? Why do I believe He came here to earth to save me by dying for me? How do I know it’s personal? How do I know I have nothing to fear and that He’s got this?

I made the choice to ask Him for help and was willing to recognize the miracles when they happened.

The day I stood in my kitchen wanting desperately for it to be over, I had a voice in my head telling me to cut myself. But I believe He saved me with a perfectly timed phone call from a friend who said he felt the need to call me out of the blue. 

The day I laid in bed trying to bury my body under a mountain of blankets to suffocate the voices screaming in my head, tossing and turning from days of no sleep, I finally called out to God to make it stop and give me peace. That was the first time I physically felt His presence holding me and comforting me as I drifted off to sleep.

The day I sat home alone curled up in a ball, convinced there was no longer a reason to live and a friend from church knocked on my door, assured me that everything would be OK and stayed with me until I believed her.

The day I was passed out unconscious, drugged from doctors over medicating me, in a bed in a psych ward as a male patient experiencing psychosis tried to hurt me, God jolted me out of my sleep and helped me get away. 

The day I realized how lucky I am to have a husband who has stood by me every step of the way along with two incredible kids who never cease to amaze me, opened my eyes and took suicide off the table for me.

In every one of these moments it is absolutely clear to me that it was God’s hand protecting me.

However, the day that has affected my life most profoundly was when I completely gave up control, closed my eyes and pleaded, “God, I don’t know what I’m doing. I mess up constantly, even when I try not to. All I know for sure is that I am a sinner. A complete failure. I’m a wreck and I don’t want to be any longer. I need help because I can’t do it on my own. The fear and hopelessness and depression that is ruling my life is unbearable. Please help me to understand that because you died for me you really do love me. It’s so hard to comprehend. I want to believe it was personal and that you did it so I’d have nothing to fear, but God, I need your help. Please just help me to surrender.”

As I said those words with conviction, I felt my heart soften and fill with peace. Not a peace that comes from knowing I would suddenly be “cured” or that my life would now be pain-free. It was an all-encompassing peace that warmed my soul with the assurance that despite anything else I may face in this life, one day I will meet God face to face and He will greet me with open arms as I enter heaven where I will never again experience pain. My heart and soul knows that now, without a doubt, even though I continue to make mistakes. I can’t adequately explain it, but once I gave in and prayed sincerely, something profoundly shifted in me. 

Now, when I find myself being pulled toward self-destruction, I’m more likely to turn to God, and when I do, He always assures me He’s got my back. We all have that opportunity, even if we think we are worthless and unlovable. Take it from me, if I can learn that God really does love me, I believe anyone can. And the only way I can attest to that is because I let my guard down one day and took a leap of faith. There were lots of excuses I had for always being so stubborn despite the longing I felt deep in my heart, but once I started to speak to God the words flowed out of me. There was an undeniable connection that I felt which satisfied what had been missing for so long. 

The world is a messed up, scary place. But you know what? I’m honestly not afraid anymore. I know this life is only temporary and I no longer have to live with my fingers crossed hoping I will one day be in a place called heaven. The best decision I ever made was to put my hope and faith in Jesus and since then the assurance that something so unbelievably perfect is waiting for me gives me indescribable peace.

I used to think people who shared these kinds of beliefs were crazy, until I finally stopped fighting it and experienced the peace for myself.

I believe we all have a seat waiting for us in heaven. All of us, even total screw ups like me. Every single one of us has been invited to spend eternity in heaven but it is our choice whether or not to accept the invitation.

I believe all He wants you to do is close your eyes and with the willingness of an open heart tell Him you know you need Him. Think about how amazing it will be when you can say that you know, without a doubt, that your eternity in heaven is sealed where you will be welcomed by your Creator with open arms. Give it a try.  I promise you — because God has promised all of us — that it will be more amazing than anything our wildest dreams could ever hope for. Your personal invitation awaits. Are you ready to open up and accept it?

Follow this journey here.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Unsplash photo via Kiwihug

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Why I Am Grateful for My Manic Episodes

Two years ago I arrived at the ER in an ambulance. I don’t recall the ambulance ride, but I recall my hospital stay. I knew I was me, and I would recognize my husband… most of the time.  But I also thought the hospital was fake, everyone was pretending to be somebody else, I was being held hostage and I had to run away. If it were a hospital, why were there more security guards than doctors? I couldn’t see any doctors; all I could see were the security badges on their sleeves.  And why did they have to hold me on the table and forcefully take off my clothes, my bra? The entire time I was trying to figure things out. So I would ask the date. They would vaguely respond “Thursday.”  Why wouldn’t they tell me the date? That’s what the paramedics had asked me and I was proud I knew exactly what day it was. I still knew. It was a reference point, a connection with reality, part of me knew my kids were at their last day of school. So why were they keeping that reference from me now? Trying to confuse me — white lies that my mind would blow out of proportion. I created an alternate reality from all books, podcasts and movies I had seen recently and memories that had been important and intense in my life. I had to escape. I tried to run away three times. Finally, three shots of medication later, I resigned to observing and found myself comforted by the security guard standing by my door who seemed far more curious than threatening.

I was transferred to the behavioral health unit of another hospital. Three days later I was allowed back home, but it took a month of intensive treatment, over a year of therapy and a lot of courage to overcome the fear and anxiety to trust my mind again and to regain confidence.  And it took two years for me to be grateful for the most intense, disturbing, ugly and beautiful experience of my life.

Doctors told me (and I read) that it’s best to say “I have bipolar disorder” as opposed to “I am bipolar.”  “Bipolar doesn’t need to define you,” I’ve often heard. Oh, but it does. I am bipolar and it probably always has and always will define who I am. I am grateful for those two months in a manic state where I had a completely different perception of the world. Most people will go through life never even knowing, never even wondering about what makes us human; what connects us to one another; what connects all life on earth; what link we have with the universe.  I don’t know either. But the way I define my mental illness is that, for a short window of time, I lacked the capacity to filter all stimulus I received from the world. Boundaries for what separate and define us where lost, everything became blurred: people, places, time. But my persistent mind didn’t shut down, it kept trying to make sense of it all. I created so many interpretations of what I was experiencing — in one experience, we were being controlled by electronics. In another, I was able to see my previous lives. In another, I was a test subject in this world that was doomed to extinction and I was here to help figure out how we could do it differently. In yet another, I was living across two universes, shifting at random between the two. These two universes were connected in a way that if children painted butterflies, real butterflies where born elsewhere. I didn’t just create these interpretations, I lived through them.

Today, I have selectively picked the parts of my experience that I find useful — the parts that seem to transcend the “craziness.” I don’t care so much about the “how,” although I still have to stop my mind from pretentiously trying to solve the puzzle of life. Now I care about the essence of what I have experienced. I can find that essence by eliminating what caused fear or confusion, and instead, keeping those other parts of my experience that caused bliss. I don’t want to know if kids actually create real butterflies in another world by painting them in this one, but I know with all my soul that kids painting butterflies and adults connecting meaningfully with them as they do have an importance that is beyond our comprehension.

I can’t go back to being my old self. I don’t want to understand the world without the bipolar filter that, with help of medication and therapy, I constructed a place of living in relative peace with my alternate perception of reality. Today, if I were to choose to erase my mania experience or “lose my sanity,” I would choose lose my sanity. And that is something I wish this society can one day accept, if not understand.

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Why I'm Living Unmedicated With Bipolar Disorder

So much of the conversation around bipolar disorder is often focused on the importance of medication — and with good reason. It seems like the ongoing struggle for people living with bipolar disorder is finding (and staying on) the right meds. I’ve read countless stories from many people, arguing mostly for the use of medication. What I haven’t seen before is an experiential account of being indefinitely unmedicated as someone with bipolar disorder.

So let me share with you my reasons for being unmedicated and why I don’t really recommend it.

I’ve lived with bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders for around 18 years now, although the bipolar was initially diagnosed as major depression. I was medicated for a year or so around the age of 18 and spent much of that time feeling as though I’d been robbed of my emotions. I also stopped feeling that desperate and pressing need to end my life.

After this, I was unmedicated until the age of 26, when I had, what I now understand to be, a mixed episode; but at the time was diagnosed as anxiety. I was prescribed an antidepressant, which kickstarted an even higher level of anxious mania and I found myself unable to sit still or function or grasp even one of the five thousand thoughts in my head. I paced around in circles in my backyard at 4 a.m., feeling as though I needed to climb out of my own skin. Needless to say, I did not stay on that medication. Instead, I remained unmedicated after this experience.

Three years later, I was rapid cycling and ended up having to take several weeks off from work. I’d be up, energized and overconfident in my abilities, but always two steps away from agitation and rage; then I would crash into suicidal depressions. I ended up working with a psychologist for the next few months who had me chart my moods and eventually gave me a new diagnosis of bipolar disorder type II, with some rapid cycling.

We talked about medication, but after extensive research, I decided it would have to be a last resort for me. This was partially due to the fear of side effects and weight gain, but more so, to the longterm affects of mood stabilizers and the fact that there are already multiple health issues in my family, including diabetes and heart issues. I also knew that managing the physical side effects would be extremely difficult, particularly while at work. Beyond that, I ended up with some liver issues, tied to a problematic gallbladder that I ended up having to have removed. I was very reluctant to put a drug into my body after this.

Instead, I embarked on a journey to do everything I possibly could to manage my moods. Working in my favor was the fact that I have a counseling degree and have learned many tools for self-management from several different therapies. Working against me was the fact that my moods are all-encompassing and my behavior during both highs and lows tends to be impulsive, unpredictable and generally problematic.

What I learned is that there are many things that can be done to help manage the symptoms of bipolar disorder: a strict sleep schedule; therapeutic tools like cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), mindfulness, meditation and prodome detection; a healthy diet; no caffeine; no alcohol; no drugs; exercise; journaling and maintaining as much of a stress-free environment as possible. All of these things have improved my life significantly.

They have not, however, stopped the highs and lows from occurring. And realistically, they aren’t going to. All of these tools are helpful, but they do not remove symptoms; they only slightly diminish some of them, while expanding awareness and developing new coping skills. This is what I think people need to know about living with bipolar disorder unmedicated. In my experience, the kind of stability that comes from the right medication just can’t be achieved without it. I’ve been doing this for years and it hasn’t gotten easier, I’ve just gotten better at managing it.

I still threw one thousand dollars into a charity auction for a celebrity’s pair of pants that are never going to fit me (two weeks before I left for an overseas trip that the money was actually for). I still get highly agitated at the drop of a hat during hypomania’s; and do things like initiate a car chase with a guy to scream obscenities at him for simply not letting me into his lane. I still stay in bed, un-showered, for days at a time during depressions, crying nonstop for hours. And I still feel like my chest is being crushed with the weight of pain during those days.

Living with this disorder isn’t an easy journey by any means, but it’s still one worth taking. What that journey looks like is different for every single one of us, and I’m starting to understand that that’s OK. Everyone’s unique experience with bipolar is valid. However you choose to manage it, have an understanding of what your choices will entail. And create a strong support network who will extend kindness, but also awareness, when your own fails. You’ve got this.

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3 Things You Can Do When Mental Illness Makes You Sensitive to Touch

I finally became aware that I was entering into a depressive episode a few weeks ago. Thing’s change so slowly that it’s extremely difficult for me to pick up on unless I know exactly what I’m looking for. It started with my energy levels getting lower and lower; small tasks began to appear like herculean events. I stopped doing the little things; like washing the pots right after dinner and leaving them to the next day, or not putting my clothes away after they had been washed and letting the clean washing pile up in the corner of my bedroom. And the physical aspects of depression hit me hard before the mental side kicks in.

But what is glaringly obvious to me when an episode is beginning, is that my tolerance for human contact has all but disappeared. I call it “tolerance” because I’m not a naturally tactile person, but with a partner or close family I do like the occasional hug or cuddle. OK, I admit it, I like hugs. However, in the last few weeks and especially in the last few days, I’ve become not only distant with my mood due to low energy, but the idea of being touched by another human makes me literally cringe. My peripersonal space (or DPPS) has doubled, and anyone even walking near me sets off alarms in my head that my body reacts to. When a co-worker touches my shoulder to get my attention, my whole body tightens in what I can only describe as a kind of disgust. I get a wave of this uncomfortable, weird feeling crashing over me that’s so hard to describe — picture the most gross thing you can imagine and then picture someone dumping a bucket filled with that over your head. It makes me recoil so much that my body physically reacts — my muscles tighten as if ready for sudden devastating impact.

For me, this isn’t pleasant, but then to imagine what this is like for my partner would be horrible. It must seem like all of the sudden I don’t want to be anywhere near them, like they disgust me and the mere idea of them touching me makes me want to run away as fast as I can. While this is partially true on the physical side, I can tell you that mentally, I don’t love them any less than I did before, and I certainly don’t lust any less. I still look at them and fully appreciate the aesthetic beauty that I’m in the presence of. I still feel love and want to be around them, but perhaps just not be in physical contact all the time. For a lot of people, this should be pretty straightforward. But if you’re with somebody who qualifies their love with touch, this can be the biggest barrier to surviving the episode together. My sudden hatred of human contact, while having nothing to do with others personally, can seem like I have suddenly been turned off by them, no longer finding them attractive and no longer loving them. How do you tell someone who is experiencing a person they love recoiling at their touch that everything is OK? It’s just the bipolar.

I’ve thought about this long and hard because it’s a current problem for me and will only get worse as this episode takes hold. I’ve read as much as I can online, but there doesn’t seem to be much content out there with advice on this matter, so that is why I’m writing 3 things you can do if you find yourself in this situation. So far, they are working for me.

1. Create a code word.

Come up with a word that means “leave me alone please.” Something that you don’t say in everyday life, but you can use as an indicator that you need some space. Sometimes I just need an hour or two by myself, wrapped in a blanket watching “Gotham;” it helps me remember to breathe. By making a specific code word with your partner, they can then associate the word with your episode and not have to wonder if you’re just getting sick of them being around. Don’t abuse it though, it’s an “in case of emergency” word for when you really need that alone time.

2. Be the one to initiate contact.

If you feel like me, sometimes you get to a point where you just don’t want to be touched and you can’t control your physical recoil or feeling of deep discomfort when people invade your space. What I have found is when the contact is on my terms, then it’s not so bad. Communicate with your partner and tell them you need to take the lead when it comes to touching, even the simple things like resting your hand on their leg or shoulder. Try the small stuff first, but do it on your terms in your time. The fact that you are trying can help to ease your partners fears that you just don’t like them anymore.

3. Spend quality time together.

So you’re hating contact right now and you’ve communicated that to your partner — if they respect you and you love them, then it doesn’t mean you can’t still spend quality time together. Play a board game or a video game, read to each other, go on a bike ride if you have the energy, but do something together that focuses your attention on each other. Without touch in the equation, they may be feeling rejected and low. Combined with the fact you already feel low and fatigued, maybe just spending some time doing something very simple, fun and low energy will keep you connected. Perhaps you can make it part of your daily routine because, for me, routine becomes crucial to functioning when I’m heading into an episode.

People display love in different ways. Some people like to hear “I love you” all the time, others prefer thoughtful gifts. Some people feel the most secure and loved by physical contact. When you take that away there can be a void. The bigger the void grows, the further apart you can become. So I would suggest speaking to your partner and telling them exactly how you feel, and refer them to this article if it helps. Communication is always key, especially when mental health is involved. It’s very hard for those around us to understand what it’s like to be in an episode, and it’s even harder for those who love us to watch us supposedly “reject” them, push them away and withdraw further and further into a dark world; but that doesn’t mean we don’t love them any less and we can’t get through this together. 

Follow this journey here.

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Thinkstock photo via 04linz 

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