Monthly Archives: September 2014

Book Birthday

Today at lunch my friend corrected me saying, “No. It’s not when your book is out. It’s out now.”

Today is the official publication date.

I’ve come out of the secret place where we hide our shameful stories. And you know what? It’s not bad. In fact, it’s a relief. I can truly be myself. No hiding. No secrets. No shame.

Mental illness is real. When we stop pretending, then we can start living.

I didn’t know what breaking the silence about mental illness would be like. It turns out it’s a great way to make new friends. Because there are a lot of us with stories about the raw agony and the incredible blessing of life impacted by mental illness.

Happy birthday book blessings, little book…now you are born into this world. May the message you carry bring hope and blessings…more than I could have ever imagined.

Love and Mental Illness

Love is complicated enough without adding mental illness into the mix.

But for many of us, the experience of human love includes being in relationship with someone who happens to have mental illness.

Deeply loving a family member, friend or lover who has an organic brain disease is a grand adventure with incredible, breathtaking vistas and devastating, soul wrenching valleys.

Or as a dear friend said, “It’s a ride on a roller-coaster where you feel at times as if you are not in control of how fast it goes or when or if it will ever stop.”

Then suddenly the roller-coaster does stop and after your heart stops racing and you get a drink of water and pee, only then do you begin to feel somewhat normal again. Until the next roller-coaster ride.

The pause between suicide attempts. The inhale after a psychotic episode and the exhale after a hospitalization. The anxious waiting for the unknown next thing: disaster or delight?

I’ve lived this tension since I can remember given that my dad and oldest brother lived with bipolar disorder. I write about our family’s struggle with mental illness in my new book Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family, and Church.

I studied addictions as a graduate student of social work and I discovered startling similarities in the behaviors of a person with the disease of alcoholism and a person with the brain disease of bipolar. Similar to the behaviors of an alcoholic, my father’s moods shifted unpredictably, and he couldn’t fulfill his commitments to his family because other things became more important than his kids. For him it was not alcohol, but a political organization that consumed his life.

The real tragedy is not that my father had mental illness, but that he remained in denial of his mental illness and refused treatment.

While in grad school I attended a support group sponsored by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). It was for family members whose loved one had mental illness. After I shared a brief version of my story, I got immediate affirmation that my choice to distance myself from my father was the smart thing to do because it protected me from getting hurt.

I felt both relieved and unsettled by this feedback from the well meaning strangers. There was hard won wisdom in the group, for sure. Yet it felt awful to be estranged from my father and it hurt. Keeping my distance from him did not keep the pain away.

Our family was deeply broken by mental illness. This kind of love is so hard. Sometimes I feel like a failure as my father’s daughter. I don’t even know if what we had could even be called love because so much love was lost in the fear, isolation, and sense of betrayal.

Now as I look back I can see that the love we shared was in the struggle to love at all. In the desire to be known and to know the other, love was there, in the long silences and in the distances and spaces between us.

Sometimes to love is to be apart until it is safe to return.

And that is okay. It’s not pretty or easy or blissful. It’s an imperfect love left out in the rain too long. It’s a little rusted-out, but it’s still love.

The Muchness of Medications

My toddler son really had to go pee. He was possessive of his potty. So when he had to share the bathroom that he uses at home with his uncle, we was a little miffed.

I took my son’s small hand, sticky fingers and all, and walked him into his bathroom. All the while he complained that Uncle Scott was using his bathroom.

This embarrassed me to no end. I tried so hard to make my brother, who also has a severe chronic mental illness, feel welcomed in our home. My brother was staying with us for the weekend and my son’s behavior was not helping in the hospitality department.

I flipped on the bathroom light switch and my eyes zeroed in on the sink counter and the gigantic clear plastic zip-lock bag filled with pill bottles. Ugh. I hoped my son wouldn’t noticed. I quickly tossed the bag onto the unmade bed in the guest room.

So.many.pills. It made my stomach hurt just thinking about them.

Why did he have so many pills?

For sleeping.
For anxiety.
For depression.
For mania.
For mood stabilizing.

The truth is that medications play a critical part of my brother’s current treatment plan to help him manage his bipolar disorder. And his medications change depending on his symptoms and how the meds interact with each other.

His meds can make him feel super hungry all the time, sleepy, and cause him to have tremors.

Even with all the negative side-effects, the meds can also save his life.

Just in the past year he started on a new medication that significantly decreased his thoughts of suicide. As his family we see a huge improvement in his life because of these medications.

Some people say that mental illness is not real. That it literally is “all in your head.” So they tell their loved ones not to see a doctor or not to take medications.

Some say that mental illness can be managed by talk therapy and self-care like exercise and meditation or prayer alone.

This is not true for my brother and many others like him. Right now these pills are keeping him alive.

My brother recently posted this as his Facebook status update:

I was told that my bizarre thoughts and actions in the fall of 1990 at the age of 18 was the result of manic depression. I rejected this. I flushed the lithium down the toilet whenever I got the chance. I said what I had to say to get released from the mental ward.

It wasn’t for another five years that I accepted my diagnosis and began to take the medicine that changed my life. I still need yearly readjustments of my medicines but now I take them as if my life depended on them (which due to persistent suicidal ideas it really does.)

It’s hard to understand why someone who looks healthy would need so much medication. It’s easy to judge and to question the muchness of medications some people are on. Yet for people like my brother it is their reality and part of the shame and stigma is wrapped up in all the pills they have to take every day.

It’s important that people with mental illness are in the hands of qualified professional mental healthcare providers who help to closely monitor medications.

Even after years of supporting my brother through his bipolar, I’m still shocked every time I see his big bag of pills.

The pills remind me that mental illness is real. It is an organic brain disease. It’s not just all in his head.