Living Stigma Free

I was listening to some oldies but goodies when a song transported me to a time in 8th grade when I was not yet grown-up but thought I was, a time when I wanted to go to the mall with my friends but as my newly teenaged self would say, “Ugh, my parents wouldn’t let me.”

It took me back to a time when I felt 100% supported and accepted by my peers, friends, adults, teachers, family; a time when I felt anything was possible if I put my mind to it.

The song made me feel a loss that I don’t think I’ve ever grieved; a hole in my heart. A hole created by the virus that is stigma. 

When I experienced my first episode

of depression at age 13, I spent some time in the hospital and then, as soon as I was able, was back to half-days at school. I felt no shame about it. When my friends and classmates asked me why I’d been gone, I simply said I had been depressed, with a capital D, had gone to the hospital to get well, and was slowly getting better every day. My peers understood this simple situation without judgment. The stigma that surrounded mental illness had not yet infected our middle-school minds.

With my first episode of mania the following year in high school, I also had my first episode of stigma and the heavy pain it unnecessarily adds to a serious and life-threatening illness. 

Cure Stigma

#JoinTheMovement to #CureStigma. Take the first step, take the #StigmaFree pledge, see the person not the condition, and learn more nami.org/stigmafree

Feeling like an observer to my body’s actions, I did cartwheels in class, a John Hughes dance montage with my imaginary friends in front of the real students in swing choir, and when taken to the vice principal’s office, during the few minutes I was left alone I erased appointments from his day planner, took framed photos and degrees off his wall, and finally collapsed with exhaustion under his desk. 

When I returned to school

I learned first-hand how mean girls work. Someone was having a party and this time I wasn’t invited. I started to gain weight from medication and comments would be made. It wasn’t my fault that my brain had hijacked my body but it didn’t matter. My actions to the naked eye had looked as if I was on drugs and in the Nancy Regan era of “just say no”, I was ostracized. 

I knew my parents loved me, but as a teenager, it was my peer’s approval and more importantly their understanding and compassion that I needed. I was in so much pain, invisible to the immediate eye. I remember keenly, as a young girl, how cold the world feels when you’re different. During a time when I needed my peers, teachers, and community support the most, I felt ashamed for possessing a mental illness and acutely alone.

“After A While…”

my cousin, close to my heart as a sister, gifted me a poem which I keep in a memory box. A box that if there is a fire in my home, in addition to my dog, what I grab to save. The poem:

After a while, you learn the difference between holding a hand and chaining a soul.

And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning and company doesn’t mean security.

And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts and presents aren’t promises.

And you begin to accept your defeats with your head up and your eyes open, with the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child. 

And you learn to build all of your needs on today because tomorrow is too uncertain for plans and futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.

After a while, you learn that event the sunshine burns if you get too much.

So plant your own garden and decorate your own soul… 

instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.

And you’ll learn that you really can endure, you really are strong, and that you really do have worth.

And you’ll learn and you’ll learn 

WITH EVERY GOOD-BYE, YOU’LL LEARN!! 

– author unknown –

It’s a poem that I’ve kept for over 20 years with “accept your defeats with your head up and your eyes open, with the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child,” ingrained in my memory and lived as a way of life.

I’ll be at your side forever more,

Hearing Gladys Knight sing  “In Good Times, In Bad Times,” remembering my 13-year old self and the stigma-free normal she knew, I felt a wall around my heart I didn’t realize was there. The first time I had unknowingly built such a wall, it was of ice which melted when I met my husband. This time, instead of ice, I’ve taken a page from the three little pigs and built my wall of bricks.

Problem is, in keeping others outside my wall to keep my heart safe from being hurt and broken, I’ve trapped myself behind it. I’ve kept my heart to myself, afraid to share who I am, what I want, and why I believe in certain things so passionately.

In this last year,

I’ve been taking a journey to be more courageous. That journey has brought me to today.

As I feel the bricks falling and tiny explosions in my chest as they are pushed out of their places, I am sad to realize the pain my heart has felt as of late has not been from the outside but from within. It has been me.

Today, like the Grinch who stole Christmas, my heart is refusing to stay any longer behind the wall and is yelling, “Enough with the brain already! Focus on me. I too need sunshine and love.” So…

I resolve

to continue my journey to become more courageous. I will continue to hold my head high with grace, strength, and wisdom. And my heart is now prominently traveling with me.

Like any good road trip, the bumps along the way are what make the best memories. Brain and I are looking forward to the ride. Welcome Heart!

*** *** ***

You are not alone. You matter. Visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org to online chat or call 1-800-273-TALK 8255. We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. #SuicidePrevention 

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Fire and Fury

Watching the funeral services and specifically the beautiful eulogy of Senator John McCain by his daughter Meghan, I couldn’t help, in addition to crying, but think, “now that is what true fire and fury look like.”

A woman strong, grieving, crying gracefully without apology, expressing her feelings, not fighting them but directing them like a laser to focus on her message, a tribute of love for her father.

My message today, since this is my personal pulpit for the blogosphere, I’m putting myself out here to say,

Talk Louder

I was recently at a Town Hall talking with two women whose children struggled with mental illness. One said, “you know, my mother’s mother and sister struggled with mental illness but it wasn’t talked about back then, the family just hid them away.” The other woman said, “I wish I’d had someone to talk to about these things when my son starting going through it. I felt so alone trying to find help.” Then she whispered, “I too struggle.”

What if our great-grandparents and grandparents had been able to talk about their experiences with mental illnesses like we are able to do today? What will it be like for our children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and future generations if we remain silent and if we keep whispering? 

I rarely hear stories of Papa bears, except in maybe Disney movies. I do hear stories, and warnings, about Mama bears and what they will do to you if you threaten to harm their young cubs. Women protecting their families and future generations  = Fire, and Fury.

Imagine All the People

Senators Joe Biden and John McCain, who at first look would seem to be180 degree opposites and unlikely to see eye to eye about anything, were, in fact, good friends. So good in fact that before he passed away McCain asked Biden to speak at his memorial. Biden humorously told stories of John’s humanity and drive to “To Serve a Higher Purpose”.

There is nothing like a good dose of grief, anger, and righteous indignation to focus one’s purpose in life and in the moment.

Our Purpose

This post isn’t about John McCain or least it wasn’t my intention, good man that he was. The thing I want you reading this to take away is this: We are all in this together.

We are together in this life, in this world, and in our communities. A healthy neighbor, as the Bible says, and I’m paraphrasing here, is a healthy you.

So I ask of you to remember what matters and don’t whisper. Talk louder.

I ask of you to be respectful and listen. Be childlike but not childish; curious about new experiences, seeking to understand and be understood.

I ask of you to have compassion and empathy to care for others, as you deserve to care for yourself. Be kind and forgiving.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I know I am not the only one.

 

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#JoinTheMovement to #CureStigma

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Six months

Six months have passed since I last posted in this blog. Truth be told I’ve felt some guilt for not doing so because I made commitment to self to be courageous by showing myself to the world here.

We’ve been “temporarily closed for spiritual maintenance”

On positive note, I have rejected that guilt because…

1) it is my blog

2) during my blogging hiatus I have been

– courageously sharing my stories with others in person

– consistently pushing myself out of my comfort zone

– developing new skills, and

– living in real life 🤓

I write today because so far my 2019 has not been 100% terrific (short story = accidents, illnesses, deaths). Writing here helps me find the sunny side and gives me hope that I am helping others do the same. 🙂

More soon but no promises on when 😉 …

Just because it’s not on social media, doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

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Drunk on Sunshine

Like Christmas, I think appreciate summers in Iowa more because they come but once a year.

Let them eat cake!

I recently celebrated my birthday. It was so joyful I don’t ever want to forget it: a cloud-free sunshine day, a bike ride by the river with my mom, a diet Coke cake with Cool Whip shared with my dad, and seeing a funny movie at the theater with my husband, a trip to the bookstore and a slice of pizza at the mall. Add the love and cuddles from my dog, I’ve never felt so content.

Spring showers bring Summer flowers

The official first day of summer has arrived on the calendar and I’ve finally been able to come out of hibernation to enjoy all the activities that the warmer weather allows. Where I live we do not have four seasons. We actually have three: 1) the it’s freezing cold-I can’t feel my fingers-why do I live here in the winter season 2) the middle season when the forecast calls for a mixture of snow, rain, wind, mild and blistering hot days in the next 10 days so dress accordingly and 3) the it is summer so cram in as many events and activities as possible because there are only three months before everyone returns to their caves.

Trestle Trail in Madrid Iowa

Tis the season to smell the roses that are blooming! Enjoy the small gifts God has given us like purple wild flowers in the ditch along the highway, smiles from strangers, and the taste of a full-strength Coca-Cola after trying unsuccessfully to quit drinking them. It’s time to get drunk, not on beer or wine, on sunshine! ☀️

Posted in Mental Health, Random Crap, Seasons

Spring Happens

How can we fully appreciate the light of sunshine without experiencing the darkness of night?

The past few months have been good. I’ve given a couple speeches at law enforcement academies describing my darkest days with mental illness, showing them what I look like most days, and reminding them to “see the individual not the illness“.

“Yes, it is all in my head. That’s where my brain is.”

Another positive is I trained to become a facilitator for National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) peer support groups. I have received so much from participating in them it feels good to be able to give back.

It hasn’t been all chocolate and cheeseburgers.

Thanksgiving/Christmas was a bit stressful. It irritated me that there are 365 days in a year but because one is designated a holiday, relatives who I haven’t heard from for 364 days want to gather on that one day and that one day only. I am still coming to terms that all they offer may be really all that they are able to give.

Sad Puppy

January:

I committed to self-care.

“It is inevitable when one has a great need of something one finds it. What you need you attract like a lover.” -Gertrude Stein

I began to worry about time, money, my weight, my health, the future. I tried to get outside of myself by volunteering. Fearful of falling down a rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland, I immediately retracted all but my minimum commitments. Doing so was difficult. I hate breaking plans (which is also why I hate making them). I want the ability to do whatever I want, but I have to budget my energy. If I push myself too much my mood will travel to the extremes which means being more susceptible to an episode of low depression or high mania. I strive for the sweet spot between mediocrity and better than average.

February:

It was longest shortest month ever. I wanted to complain about the freezing-cold dreary weather, but every time I started to do so I couldn’t help think I choose to live here. I really need to rethink that life choice!

My February could be summarized as “minimal energy spent”. I was grateful for the fact I could ease into the day. Not having to be at work early in the morning meant I didn’t have to fight with myself to get out of bed and get going. Very blessed. My medical costs these past 12 months have been the lowest I’ve had in years! Money IS less important than good health.

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March:

The past two weeks I’ve seen glimpses of spring. There have been a couple of days where it’s been nice enough to go for a bike ride and even more nice days to go for a walk. When I see eagles nesting and young woodchucks by the riverbanks my spirits can’t help but be lifted.

I believe in process. I believe in four seasons. I believe that winter’s tough, but spring’s coming. I believe that there’s a growing season. And I think that you realize that in life, you grow. You get better. – Steve Southerland

That brings us to today.

Today I write for no other particular reason than to put out into the blogosphere that I’m still here. Still showing up. Still sharing my story and letting myself be seen.

I Hate Selfies, Can You Tell

Hi!

I’m not out to prove anything to anybody including myself. However…

it’s easy to say to self ‘I should be doing this, I could be doing this, I should do more, I could do more’. Especially, if I compare myself to others! I was in conversation with old friends who told tales about their on-going Monday-Friday Project A , how they’ve just started Project B, difficulties co-chairing Project C, helping a friend begin Company XYZ in addition to taking their kids to soccer, ballet and band practice while getting ready to go on another vacation to the North Pole. They then turned to me and asked “So, what have you been up to?” Mmmm. “Watching paint dry?” Over-simplification of course. My real answer, “Nothing special. Just staying healthy and happy.” And that’s good enough for me. It’s my new normal.

Posted in Courage, Mental Health, Random Crap, Seasons | Tagged

1,000 miles

I don't get mad anymore. I just accept it for what it is and move on.

Saying Goodbye to the Past

Back in January, I quit my full-time job to seek less stressful work good for my mental health. The hardest part was saying goodbye to work friends and the routine I’d established. I would no longer have someone readily available to have lunch with daily. No more work potlucks. No after work socials. No birthday cards and well wishes. I had to let go of the known and embrace the unknown.

My work ethic wouldn’t let me leave without having a plan. I left my old employer on Friday then started a part-time temporary job on Monday. Was it perfect? To be honest, I Googled “How to Quite a Job after the First Day”.

However, I stuck it out and a three-month temp job turned into six. They kept asking me to stay and again for fear of the unknown I kept saying yes. When the job did end, I doubt that they’d ever seen anyone happier on their last day of work.

Silver lining = I was learning what I didn’t want and what I needed to do.

TickTockClock

Time is What You Make It

Fortunate to have the support of my family, for the first time since childhood I had the summer off. I began going to a writing workshop offered at the National Association on Mental Illness affiliate (www.NAMI.org). I met some new acquaintance sat NAMI who invited me to gatherings and, having more free time than I knew what to do with, I would show up. There I’d make another acquaintance or two who would invite me to another gathering where I’d show up. Rinse and repeat.

Still, that good ‘ol American work ethic keep nudging at me, “You must find a job now. You must know what you want to do now. You must do something, do anything!” One of my new friends told me “No! Think of this as Me-time. Don’t force yourself to do anything. Let it come to you.”

I’d like to tell my past self “Thank you for heeding that advice. It has been a glorious time of healing and enlightenment. When you get to this here and now, you’ll be so grateful you did!”

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's this day to day living that wears you out.

If I hadn’t shown up, I would have never [_____]

It’s said that showing up is half (if not 90%) of the battle. One invitation to a coffee shop gathering led to meeting someone who really helped me bloom. She is a life coach, a wonderful life coach, but most importantly just a wonderful person.

When we met she asked all the right questions, making me realize how my confidence was lacking (to say the least) and invited me to one of her workshops. I took some time to consider because it was a little pricier than I was comfortable. Again, I was scared of the unknown. Would I be wasting my time and money? I knew if I kept trying the old ways, I’d get the same results. If I wanted new results, I needed to learn new things. I took the leap!

Her workshop was invaluable and the kickstart I needed to get outside my comfort zone. With NAMI, the Courage Collective, familial support, and time I’ve allowed myself to improve my mental health, this year has been so different than any other I can recall. I feel free and light and myself. All because I let go and embraced the unknown.

It’s still a journey, a process. I know it is not linear. There will be steps backward. I also know that I am not alone. I know I can be gentle with myself. And I know if I can’t take a leap, I can just show up and take a baby step in the right direction. That’s how everything always begins.

Posted in Courage, Mental Health, Random Crap | Tagged ,

To thine own self, be kind.

Permission Defined

I give myself permission to NOT do things. Yes, there are consequences and the ‘What if?’s’ that must be lived with. What if I cancel? What if I miss something important?

For ‘What If’s’ the ‘So what?’s’ come in handy. So what if you cancel? I may not get invited again. So what? I’d feel left out and dejected a bit. So what? I’d have to find something else to do. So what? I’d find something else more fun to do that I wanted to do.

I gave myself permission to not publish this blog for awhile. I gave myself permission to finish cleaning for fall, to squeeze the last drops of summer out of the calendar that could be wrung out, and to take time for myself resting on the couch with my puppy on rainy days napping, watching movies, and reading.

I believe people have good intentions.

One of my friends who has never sick a day in her life has beliefs like if you think good thoughts you can cure yourself of arthritis. I love her to death, respect her beliefs, and hope to God above she never has any serious illness. She said to me when I had to cancel our plans

“Why don’t you come out anyway? You’ll feel better if you do. Sometimes you just need to get moving to get more energy.”

Duh. ‘I have pushed myself for 72 hours with other activities. My energy is non-existent. If I get in the car I may fall asleep driving. If I managed to get there in 3 hours you would need to drive me home. Tomorrow, I’d likely be sick and need to stay in bed all day.’

My real response “Really need to stay home and take care of myself. Thanks for understanding.”

No, is a complete sentence. 

I worked with a lady who is the kind of person I aspire to be. She and I were seated together at the office Christmas luncheon. A co-worker came up to Lady and asked, “I’m working on Project X. Would you help me with it?” Without a moment’s hesitation, she simply answered “No.” Our co-worker walked away knowing Lady wouldn’t be swayed.

That was a few years ago and I still think about that moment often.

Don't Explain

Why explain? 

My supervisor would “ask” me to come in 2 hours early about once a month to set up for a board of directors meeting. I always said yes. After many months of doing this, he “asked” me again if I could help set up for the meeting and this time I said, “I’m sorry but I am not able to do so. You’ll need to find someone else.”

I was not prepared for his rage of “I expect you to do what I ask of you! Do you understand how strange it would look to ask another assistant in a different department to help me with this?! Why can’t you do this?

I replied “If I could do this I would. I am just not able to this time.” His eyes glared, skin flushed, mouth tensed, nostrils flared, and his hands pressed flat on his desk. I didn’t want him to think me insubordinate so I had to fess up and explain. If I didn’t I feared he might tank me on my performance review.

It was humiliating to have to say, “I have had trouble getting up in the morning. February is always one of the hardest months for me.” He looked at me like I had antennas growing out of the top of my head.

Then I started to leak tears. “Forgive me. Please ignore these.” as I waved around my face. “Sometimes I just leak. It doesn’t mean anything” I pressed on.

You know I have bipolar disorder. Sometimes that means that I lack energy. Most days I can fight it. Most days I win. In February though, there are other circumstances that make it a lot harder and I lose. The cold dreary weather and lack of sun, like I think they do for everyone, make it hard to get going. When I wake I move like I’m moving through molasses. My bones feel so heavy they seem to be filled with cement and covered with lead. I think about death; how much I rely on my loved ones and if I’d manage to survive without them. My “appointments” for which I have scheduled time off for this month are to see my doctor and therapist to help me stay on top of it. These are just a couple of the things that I deal with in the morning. There are more things I deal with during the day and night IF you’d like to hear them. 

When I say I canNOT help you please know that I mean I cannot help you. It does not mean that I will not help you or that I don’t want to help you. If I was able to help you I would. I’ve NEVER said no to you. In the year and a half we’ve worked together, have I ever refused to help you with anything?” Silence. I looked and his stunned face, open eyes, and mouth. His eyes were still confused but I could see the wheels beginning to turn faster.

Please ask someone else this time.” I left and closed the door behind me.

It sucks to educate people. 

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When I had cancer I didn’t have to teach people about it. The ignorance and misconceptions people have about mental illness get frustrating. It IS easier give other more acceptable reasons. (I’ve had many “stomach bugs” in my lifetime.)

I’d be rich if I had a dollar for every time someone told me to “try the all-natural herbs I use.” My reply, “You know what else is all natural? Mud.” End of conversation. I often feel like I should carry around National Association on Mental Illness brochures.

When I was unable to help my supervisor because I was struggling with depression, I apologized to him for the inconvenience. I was sorry for having bipolar. I was ashamed.

Cancer made me so weak in the morning I could barely get out of bed to go to the bathroom or pick up the phone. Bipolar disorder made me so weak in the morning I could barely get out of bed to go to the bathroom or pick up the phone. I never apologized for cancer. The difference? Stigma.

supergirl-2478970_960_720If I only pushed myself hard enough and focused on positive thoughts I would easily jump out of bed, move more, get more energy. Leukemia doesn’t work like that. Neither does depression.

So as much as it sucks to educate people that is one of the reasons why I write this blog. Talking about brain-based disorders helps eradicate stigma around mental illnesses.

Another reason I write this blog

is to help others who are going through what I have and let them know they aren’t alone.

If I could go back in time 3 years and talk to my past self, what would I say?

  • First, I’d advise researching Canadian or Italian citizenship.
  • Then I’d strongly emphasize
    • Life is too short to be miserable. Do things that make you happy. Enjoy being silly. Laugh loud.
    • Just because you made plans and God put your plans in a shredder, lit the shredded pieces on fire, then threw water on the ashes doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make more plans.
    • It’s okay to dream. It’s okay to try to make your dreams come true. Sometimes you don’t know what you truly want until you know what you don’t want. Try, try, and try again. Fail, fail, and fail again. It is in the failing that we fall and fly.
    • It’s also okay to just be. Just be. 💕

The Meaning of Life?

Last week I re-watched the movie “Passengers” starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. In it, Jennifer’s character watches a video of her best friend saying ‘I hope you learn that you don’t have to do anything extraordinary to have an extraordinary life.’

Jennifer Lawrence in movie Passengers

“I’m stuck in a spaceship that has a swimming pool, a bar, robot waiters, a Chinese restaurant, a French restaurant and handsome Chris Pratt. Oh, woe is me. What is the meaning of life?”

Life is made up of the small moments. Do your best to have a lot of good moments. Put them all together and you have a good life.

So I give myself permission. Permission to just be.

I am happy. I am enough. I’ve nothing to prove. 😁

A Must-Read Essay

For well-meaning friends, share “The Spoon Theory” written by Christine Miserandino (butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory). It’s the best description I’ve come across of what it is like to live with an invisible illness.Invisible Illness

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