May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I haven’t been shy about bringing up my struggles in former posts, but I wanted to reach out to someone who has been truly outspoken about their own battle. While I received so much positive feedback and support after I talked a little about my depression, I know using the term “mental illness” somehow produces a very different reaction. There is a stigma. It is okay to be depressed, but being mentally ill should be hidden. Almost 1 in 5 teen and adult Americans suffer from mental illness. That’s a lot of people trying to keep something undercover that has a huge impact in their everyday life. Mental illness. Mental illness. If we say the words enough, does that make it normal, mainstream, okay to talk about? I’d sure like to see that happen.
So, I reached out to Amy and asked if she would share her story here. She doesn’t hide this part of her life under a rock. She’s open, and urges others to be open. This is what she had to say:
I don’t have a moment that I can pinpoint as an obvious “start” to my daily battle with mental illness. My mom will say, that looking back with the knowledge she has now, things started to unravel for me around 13. It started with intermittent moments of what I would now describe as rage but what most would describe as “just being a teenager”. I had always been a neat freak, to the point that my closet was (and still is) sorted by color, from light to dark, but would have stretches where my room was a complete wreck and then after a few days would return to its “everything in its place” state. I started drinking at parties to pull me out of the lows that were starting to take over and smoking to calm the highs. What seemed like “teen angst” to people at the time was really the beginning of vicious cycles of highs and lows that would seek to destroy me and everyone around me.
I don’t remember much about anything. I have moments that stand out to me but I have never been the person that could talk to a high school friend (I am not even sure if I really had friends in high school) and say, “Hey do you remember when…”. I am amazed at people who can still remember specific gifts they got for Christmas or a birthday, the names of their school teachers, their high school locker combination 25 years after graduation or the name of their college roommate(s). I share that because I don’t remember all the details of my journey to the present day. I remember one morning taking 2 bottles of Tylenol, heading to my high school and hoping I would die in the hallway. I don’t remember how I got to the inpatient psychiatric center. I do remember walking into the common area and the first person I see is a boy who belonged to the same swim club we did (I think his name was Mike but again, details aren’t my strength). I have no recollection of my stay there beyond that first day. I know that I left with no medication; just with orders to follow up with a therapist (who I remember liking and to this day know where her office was but no memory of her name). What I remember is this: that suicide attempt unleashed a monster in me, one that could never be stuffed back into the box that it erupted from.
Horrid behavior, bad decisions, moments of frantic highs followed by the sinking in the pits of hell, spending money like I had it, drinking (never drugs which shocks me to this day), being the life of the party, experiencing highs I wished would never end but simultaneously wishing I would die. I spent years grasping at any semblance of sanity I could find, not knowing that sanity and I would never really cross paths. I was what I now know to be a classic manic depressive, bi-polar mess! I sadly would go undiagnosed until I was 28 and how I managed to come out with a single person who still loved me is so far beyond me. As with most serious illnesses, diagnosis is only the tip of the iceberg. Living with the illness is when the adventure really begins.
I remember hearing the words “You have bi-polar”. It brought with it a weird sort of joy that I finally knew what was wrong with me, fear that the rest of the world would find out and a finality of what seemed to be a death sentence. You see living with (and eventually owning) a mental illness hits you square between the eyes. It is an ever-changing and evolving condition. It is a lifetime of medications but ones that never work the same year after year. It is an uncertainty of what each day/night/week/month/year will bring. It is having a condition that people can’t see, touch or understand (and the fact that what it “feels” like is so impossible to adequately express doesn’t help). It is dealing with the awkwardness that others experience when they find out. It is the reality that you suffer from an illness that people only whisper about. It is hearing people say, “Just let yourself be happy” when you just want to die or “Just take some deep breaths” when your mind is racing so fast that you want to scream. It is hearing people use the illness that you suffer from to describe things like the weather and gas prices. It is being tiptoed around when people think you are having a bad day. It is never having peace or calm. It is a constant war that wages in your mind, the highs and lows battling for position. It is the fear that grips you when you decide to have children and have no idea if you will pass it on to them. It is the guilt that never leaves when you are having a “day/week/month” and you think, say and do things to your children you can never undo. It is calling your husband and begging him to come home because if he doesn’t you might hurt yourself or the kids. It is a constant worry that your husband will one day get fed up with the battle and call it quits. It is saying “I’m fine.” when you really want to say, “Please, please, please rescue me.”. But here is the thing about living with mental illness, and this is important: it is waking up every morning to again fight the demons that left you exhausted the night before (better known as bravery).
I own a mental illness that leaves me DONE most days! I feel emotions at a depth that not many get to experience. My happy is happier, my joy is more joyful, my thrills are more thrilling and the colors of my world shine with a brightness that would make you jealous. But where there is high there is also low, so I feel sadness like I am in a bottomless pit. I go to bed many nights wishing I wouldn’t wake up because I can’t imagine how I am going to get through the high/low cycle of the next day. There isn’t a “meh” day in my world. There is 100 MPH and 5 MPH; as a mom of boys, the wife of an executive, the president of a PTO, the co-founder of a non-profit and a client experience consultant running at 100 MPH is usually welcome (exhausting but welcome). It’s the days when I can barely manage to brush my teeth but life needs the 100 MPH version of me that drives me to my knees, heaving sobs and afraid that this might just be the breakdown that I can’t get through. And it is when I am on my knees, begging for peace, that I am impacted by my illness the most. These are the moments that make me look at other people and remember that everyone has some battle they are trying to win. Something happens when I come out of a moment like this that makes me feel like a warrior who just won the battle of all battles. In those moments, when I am taking the victory lap in my mind, I have the courage to share my story, to live beyond the shame and to embrace this beautiful mess of a life I have been given. I find inspired words that allow me to break the stigma of my struggle. I truly believe that because I have survived more than one attempt on my life, I am required (yes, required) to share my story with whoever will listen, when I am in a place mentally that I can safely do so. I have been blessed to hear from people how my sharing my story made them get treatment or mend a relationship or tell their own story. So, when I feel like I just can’t do one more day, I remember that I have fellow warriors and we are all fighting this battle together; it makes putting one foot in front of the other somehow easier.
I literally have no idea when I wake up each day what it will bring. I know that I have a husband and kids that I have tried to drive away but never give up on me. I have parents and a sister who have been with me through hell and back and, while we have gone through strains in our relationships, they have never failed to put on the suit of armor and step into battle with me. I have a very close and trusted circle of friends (affectionately known as the Circle of Six) who I could call at any hour of any day; they would walk through fire for me and most have known me for less than 3 years. Most importantly, I have the heart, mind and soul of a warrior who battles an illness every day; an illness that has tried to kill me more than once and has yet to do so. When I can stand back and see how many battles I have won, I truly see no alternative but to go from living with my mental illness to owning it.
Carry on fellow warriors.
Amy shared some sources and links with me that may be helpful to you or someone you know. I urge anyone that is struggling, or think a loved one might be, to check those out below. There are signs and symptoms to be aware of, and getting help can save a life. We can save even more by keeping the conversation open, and not making those that live with mental illness every day feel like they need to hide it. Maybe do me a favor? The next time you say the words “mentally ill”, don’t look around first, don’t lower your voice to a whisper, and don’t flinch. Just say it. There’s a start.