Tag Archives: bipolar

The Hurricane Within 

For people with mental health challenges, living in the path of a major hurricane can create an equally devastating hurricane within. Anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder already elevate ones vulnerability in times of stress. Then add an oncoming category five or four hurricane to the mix and imagine tripling the feelings of terror and dread. 

We think about evacuating or putting up shutters. We plan to buy more water, more batteries and hunker down. Maybe we also buy more medication. But what about people who do not have access to medication or who can not afford these things? And how do you prepare your mind for a hurricane and the whirling storm within?

While living in Florida for nine years, I learned about “hurricane parties” that bring people together so that people are not waiting it out alone. This helps. Being alone with the anxiety and fear can elevated already intense emotions. Now is the time to reach out to one another.   This is especially important for people living with a mental health challenge. 

I’ve been on the phone with my two brothers and sister, all who either evacuated Florida or are hunkering down. We talked about the emotional stress and anxiety that this hurricane triggers. It’s all the uncertainty of the path, the pending destruction and damage, the second guessing of choices (should I stay or go?), the feeling of helplessness, and the ultimate fear of the unknown. For my brother who lives with bipolar disorder, this hurricane is not just out there…it’s inside, too. And I find it making its way into me, even though I live in the “crossroads of America.”

Let’s make a promise: as much as possible, we will not let our sisters and brothers experience this or any other hurricane alone. Something happens to the inner hurricane when it is accompanied by a loved one, a caring friend, a neighbor or a Good Samaritan. The speed of the stress thinking slows and the heart rate calms and the spinning mind begins to settle some. 

Take a moment now to reach out any way that you can to one another. For we all have a hurricane within, some are category five, some four, some lesser level threes, some two or level one and some are tropical storms, not as intense. Just some wind and rain. But we all know the feeling of being overwhelmed by a strange and unwelcome stirring within that we wish we could stop. We need help.

What we can stop is the fear of being unloved. We can show our love and care by expressing them now. Do not wait. The hurricane is coming. We can prepare our minds and hearts. We can love one another. This is what we do as a human family. This is who we are when looking into the eye of the hurricane. Instead of closing our eyes, we open them and we gaze upon each other with love. 

The Resurrected Mind

I don’t know what else to call it. We’ve been calling it “mental illness” for so long now. And we almost called it death, more than once. My brother Scott’s chronic and severe mental illness has nearly killed him multiple times now. I’ve documented my family’s struggle with mental illness in my book Blessed are the Crazy.

Earlier this month I was sure he was dead. Late at night he told me he wanted to die. He said that we were the ones keeping him alive. It was our fault for loving him so much. So he promised us he would live another day. 

But when we called, sent text messages and left voice mail the next morning he did not respond. I was sure he was dead. I knew it was my fault. I didn’t call 911 the night before when he was so suicidal. He said he had no hope of a better future. He said he just kept getting worse year after year. He just wanted the mental pain, real and unrelenting, to end.

As I said goodnight to my brother I promised to call him in the morning. And he promised he would be there to pick up the phone. But this time he wasn’t. 

I began thinking about my brother’s funeral arrangements. As the family minister I worried that it would be up to me to bury my brother, me wearing the long black robe, saying the prayers and covering the grave with handfuls of dirt wet with tears. 

Frantic to know if Scott was dead, I called my sister-in-law and asked her to go to his apartment. She would be the one to find him. Alive. And showered…his reason for not responding to our calls and text messages all morning long. He was in the shower.

My brother did not die that day. Exhaling fear and inhaling hope, I asked him what he planned to do. He said he was going to check into the psychiatric treatment inpatient program in Jacksonville. It’s a facility he’s been in before and the food was decent and they let him have smoke breaks. 

Scott drove himself to this place, wanting to die and wanting to live at the same time. Who could blame him? I asked him to text me when he got to the treatment center. About nine o’clock at night I got a text that he had to pullover on the side of the road half way there to sleep, his body too exhausted to continue. Would he even make it there alive? 

There were so many times when my brother almost died that we’ve grieved in anticipation of his life tragically ending. Despite all the treatment of new drugs, therapy, electroconvulsive shock therapy, and prayer, his bipolar disorder truly disabled him. He could not find anything that worked. We all began to think he would live with chronic mental pain until his last breath.

When Scott had finally communicated so clearly to me why death was the only way for him to find relief, during his stay in Jacksonville, he experienced a breakthrough in his treatment–a new cocktail of medications. It is a new medication combination that in the past month has provided incredible relief to him from his mental pain and suffering. For the first time in over a decade, Scott reports experiencing feelings of wellness. 

Today I hardly recognize my brother. Yet, if I stretch back far enough in my memory I start to see the resemblances. The witty sense of humor, the teasing big brother, the love of adventure. That’s who Scott is and he’s coming back to us. We thought we had lost him forever. 

In every sense of the word, my brother’s mind has been resurrected. His mind was once locked in a dark lonely tomb, behind a cold stone blocking any hope of light. 

Depression is a tomb. Mental illness is a betrayal and crucifixion. 

I am one of the women standing at the empty tomb. His mind has been raised from the dead. The stone is rolled away. He lives. My brother lives. 

Grief and Mental Illness

It was revealing. The simple grief and loss inventory was only lines on a page with a few typed words. A group of us met at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis to talk about what it means to live well and to live on, even after we are gone. We dug right into the heart of the matter that morning: what you miss the most in life tells us what you’ve loved the most in this life. 

Looking at our losses and how they impact us today can reveal deeper meaning that we may have missed in life’s flurry.  As I reviewed my own loss inventory, I noted that though I was decades younger than my peers in my small group, my losses overflowed onto the margins of the page. There was not enough room to write them all down. Losses early in life added up. 

Loss includes not only death of loved ones, but also loss of place, relationship, identity, community, and faith. I began to wonder how much of the loss I experienced directly related to the untreated mental illness in my father’s life.

Like many families disrupted by divorce, loss of a unified family impacts each member. While we were young children my parents separated and eventually divorced, so that particular loss of a intact family is known to me. But what I observed from the data in my grief and loss inventory is something that we talk less openly about: the loss and grief related to severe mental illness. 

Grief gets complicated quickly when mental illness is in the mix. My father hadn’t yet died, but in many ways he was gone. Looking back, I now realize how much grief I carried over losing my father to untreated mental illness while he was still alive. As a girl, my heart ached for my father to provide consistent care, support and affirmation. His untreated severe bipolar disorder disabled him, so that during my growing up years he was often self-focused, irrational, and unstable. As the daughter of a parent with untreated mental illness, I came to think about insanity as the inability to sustain human relationships. In this very real way, my dad was insane. And I grieved the loss of his mind.

What has helped me in my grief caused by mental illness’s death-grip on my father’s life is this: the emptiness I carried inside found a healing balm, soothed by the love and friendship that is at the heart of Christian community.  Being part of a faith community has opened up my heart, bringing healing and wholeness. I believe, at our best, faith communities provide this redeeming love and comfort to millions of others. It’s what faith calls us to do: care for others, comfort the afflicted, heal the sick, and feed the hungry.

Naming the experience of loss and grief as shaped by experiences of mental illness is healing. By calling out the places of woundedness, we liberate their power to define us. Hope can be found in the margins, the places on the edge where we can name what longs to be free.