What Mental Health Means to Me
It's World Mental Health Day. I learned this when I logged onto my Peloton and a bright banner popped up announcing the day and that they'd created a series of mental health rides. Curious, I chose a 20-minute Mental Health Recovery ride. It was pretty much a normal recovery (low-intensity) ride, except the instructor talked pretty much the whole time about mental health. He'd been diagnosed with cancer a few years prior and had had some dark days. He talked about how music and exercise were his ways of dealing with the hard stuff, of pulling himself out of depression. It made me think of my own mental health journey and what I've learned.
After spending a week in a teen psych ward as a 13-year-old, I was determined not to go back to a place like that. Ever. That and all the pain my anorexia had caused my family gave me immense guilt at bringing them into my suffering. I was so grateful for everything they'd done for me, but still a little hurt at being sent away. I knew they were worried and trying to do their best. So was I, but it wasn't enough. For months, if not years, I tried so hard to prove to them I was stronger and more capable than I felt. I refused to seek any kind of treatment for my episodes and drinking habits in college. When manic, I was the life of the party, throwing them back, dancing wildly, always in the middle of everything. I threw a lot of parties in my on-campus apartment. People said I was fun. I couldn't tell them I couldn't land, was floating away.
"What's with all this energy?" one guy asked. I didn't know how to answer, I'm barely holding on.
Just over four years ago, I had one of my worst manic episodes to date and my life nearly fell apart. I self-medicated and had a hard time crawling out of the deep hole I'd buried myself in (you can read all about it in my book, Feed Me, which comes out in Spring 2022). Still, I felt like I had to go on and pretend everything was OK. It would be another six or seven months before I'd finally be diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder I and another several months after that before I'd be properly medicated. I totaled a car by falling asleep at the wheel when taking meds that made me extremely drowsy. You can read about my manic episodes here.
It took me time and a whole lot of therapy to come to terms with the things I'd thought and done while in a mental health crisis, to start to believe that I was worth loving, despite my mental illness. It was a hard time, but how could I tell anyone that? After a few break-downs (or breaking open, my former therapist would say), I was convinced I had to make my husband think I was OK or he wouldn't love me anymore.
I once went to work manic, determined to push through it and having used up my vacation/sick days, not wanting to ask for anything extra. If I pretended my mental illness wasn't making me unable to concentrate or complete a thought/sentence rationally, connect the dots between one thought and another, then I was fine. I made it through a few hours of shaking and mumbling to myself non-stop, going on meandering rants in staff meeting, before my boss asked me to go home. Everyone stared at me. I was ashamed. I was trying so hard to hold it together, but I'd been defeated by my illness. When I returned to work about a week later, my boss and I had a meeting. He asked what he should do if I was in crisis again. I gave him my husband's contact info and told him to call him and have him pick me up. He told me taking care of myself was the most important thing and they were lucky to have me as part of the team. I was embarrassed by revealing the secret of my mental illness, of not being stronger than it.
I dedicated two-plus years to intense psychoanalysis to understand the root causes of the manic and depressive episodes that had plagued me for years, learn strategies to mitigate them, and find value in myself and, the most difficult, to learn to forgive myself and not feel guilty at the time. My (now former) therapist taught me how not to be swept down the river, but let it simply wash over you (she was really excellent at the metaphors). It's basically working, but, of course, there are slips, moments of immense guilt or self-loathing, overreactions to tiny things.
I don't want to ignore that medical interventions were a big part of my recovery process (and continue to be). Like so many people, I have, at times, been depressed during the pandemic. Before we got the Peloton, I wasn't exercising as much as pre-pandemic, when I snowboarded, played hockey, and soccer regularly. The instructor said music and exercise helped him recover.
My husband and I getting out and walking our dogs on our dirt road with a great view kept me calm. Tele-therapy helped. So did my husband, pretty much the only person I saw in person for a year. We played a lot of games (I lost a lot of Scrabble), took long walks, rewatched Game of Thrones, True Detective, and Orange is the New Black. We cooked a lot. These things helped.
I haven't had a manic episode in almost four years. My mood stabilizer, anti-anxiety meds, and antidepressant keep my emotions relatively in check. This doesn't mean I don't feel anything (one of my biggest fears when I finally gave in to my old therapist's suggestion I consider medication). It just means that I'm more even-keeled, less susceptible to be swept away with sudden anger towards myself or my husband, or deep dark periods. They make me not want to hit and scratch at myself 'til I hurt when I fuck up the soup or forget to lock the chickens up at night. The four psychiatric pills I take every day help me be more rational and able to have a clear, complete thought, give me the ability to slow things down and analyze, apply all the work I've done in therapy. I'm like a balloon: when manic, I float off into the clouds, and have to pop before I can come back down. With medical (and, until recently, psychiatric - my therapist and I stopped two months ago) interventions, my string is held firmly.
The Peloton instructor talked about prioritizing ourselves, and learning to say when you're not OK. Sounds easy, right? Harder to live in practice, to not worry what others will think of you, that they won't see you as reliable or trustworthy if you say you have a mental illness or are struggling. That people won't like you or want to be around you. That your family won't understand or will even be hurt by what you tell them.
I've learned a lot about myself and my mental illness over the past decade. I'm still learning. We need to prioritize mental health and demand access to quality care. We need to destigmatize talking about it. By telling your story, you could literally save a life.
I know these interventions and coping mechanisms don't eradicate my bipolar disorder, may not prevent every episode, but they help me feel like myself, not a creature I can't control. It's like I'm on that ride at the fair that's a giant pirate ship and you swing wildly from one side to the other, up then down then up again, your stomach lurching. But, now, the swings feel less intense, more controllable. The guy pushes the button. Everything slows. I get off the ship.