A Conversation About Mental Illness

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2

Recently, a couple of friends at church asked me how I am. They really wanted to know. It wasn’t just a “Hi, how are you?” greeting.

I told them about some recent struggles with my manic-depressive illness. They know that I’m mentally ill so talking about it wasn’t such a big deal. I told them that, with help from my psychiatrist, my moods lately are becoming less erratic and troublesome. I saw from their individual responses that people within the Church can be helpful in what they say because they’ve done some homework about mental illness. Besides, these ladies also know me personally.

Perhaps Christians are beginning to take mental illnesses as seriously as they do other chronic illnesses. Less often do they respond in a way that puts the blame for being sick on us. I’ve had some spiritual brothers and sisters say things they probably would never say to someone else who’s sick. I’ve been told I’d heal if I’d just “pray more” or “trust God.” I’ve been told I’m possessed by the devil.

I pray. I trust God with everything in me. But I still often struggle with more than one chronic illness.

Here’s how I explain the fact that it’s a chronic illness. My illness is no different from that of a diabetic. That is, except for the fact that my illness is behavioral you also understand that, in the event of a major episode, a diabetic’s behavior can be out of character too. What differentiates us is they have a chemical imbalance in their pancreas because it doesn’t produce enough insulin. I have a chemical imbalance in my brain because it doesn’t produce proper amounts of specific neurotransmitters. That’s a simplification, but one I hope most people can understand.

If we who have a mental illness don’t talk about them as illnesses, how can we expect others to? Approximately one in five adults in the United States experiences mental illness in a given year. They have clinical depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety, manic-depressive disorder (bipolar disorder), schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder (dissociative identity disorder), post traumatic stress disorder, or one of many others.

I’m writing a devotional that’s faith-based and meant to help people with mental illnesses. Even we who have been diagnosed need to better understand our illnesses. Understanding can help us to navigate the changes we’re experiencing and to live better lives according to those changes. I want the book to help someone newly diagnosed or someone who’s been diagnosed with the illness for years.

We need to talk with one another about the diagnosis and any prescribed medications. We need to stay in touch with and use honesty with the doctors who have us in their care. We need to talk about the times we experience outpatient or inpatient treatment. And maybe most of all, we need to learn how to keep a balanced lifestyle to avoid the stress which can bring on an episode more quickly.

What I hope will be especially helpful for us is the idea that a family member or friend can also learn by reading the book with its accompanying essays written by people who have a mental illness. While the book is being written with my Christian faith as a foundation, I don’t see why anyone couldn’t learn at least a little from reading it.

There. This may have been your first real education in better understanding mental illness and accepting it as a disease. Please try to better understand us. Pray for us. We’re ill and sometimes feel hopeless. But we are certainly not helpless. Your support can make a big difference in making even just one single day more livable for us. Whether it’s a hard one or a not-so-hard one.

Be a blessing to someone today

Hoping and Coping With a Disability

We who have disabilities have certain limitations. We understand that and, with the passing of time, we accept them. But we also have abilities in addition to those limitations.

If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know I’m manic-depressive. Or, to use the more common name for it, I have bi-polar disorder. People who are bi-polar are limited in different ways; limited in as many ways as there are people with the diagnosis, I imagine. And so it is with anyone who lives with chronic illness or a disability.

I believe that, although people with chronic illnesses and disabilities have limitations, most of us aren’t constantly “suffering.” What we’re doing is learning how to manage it; we’re living our lives and sometimes even thriving. Sure, we struggle sometimes.  But we also have hope. We manage to put one foot in front of the other (so to speak) and do the necessary things to have a relatively good life.

Stress exacerbates any chronic illness, so we must avoid situations we’ve discovered we can’t handle as easily as someone without a disability. The symptoms we often have because of stress could be mental or emotional. They could manifest as physical symptoms.

Please don’t expect us to make important decisions when we’re sick. If we’re experiencing a flare-up or an episode of the illness, we may in fact, need your patience as we make simple decisions to just get through the day.

If it seems we’re being irritable, you’re right. Some disabilities are noted for having an irritability aspect. For me, this is one of the first symptoms I display when I begin a manic phase–even before I begin the ‘hyper’ activity. I think I can speak for many when I say this is another aspect of having a disability we wouldn’t suffer if we didn’t have to. Most of us have a great attitude toward life. We don’t complain all the time and we’re generally nice people. But if we’re in pain or not able to think our way out of a paper bag, we can get grumpy. Hey, everyone gets grumpy occasionally; people with disabilities are no different.

Some of the ultimate limitations are being bed-ridden; inability to communicate our needs effectively; a temporary inability to handle being in public or with groups; not being able to work; and the necessity for some sort of support equipment (i.e., wheelchairs, oxygen, inhalers). However, many disabilities are what we refer to as “invisible.” Please don’t assume someone isn’t struggling just because they don’t need equipment.

As far as our hope is concerned

For the most part, we rely on being educated about our specific disability. Knowledge is power and when we understand what’s going on in our bodies, we’re better equipped to respond to the symptoms. Then we go from being helpless to being able to manage, to a certain degree, what’s happening. We might not be able to rid ourselves of the physical (or mental) state, but we can usually control what we do. We can control our attitude toward our illness and the world around us.

Many of us practice some sort of faith. We rely on worship and prayer and are grateful when our friends and loved ones pray for us.

People with disabilities usually need to grieve their health. That process may be subtle and we may not even realize grieving is what we’re doing. Frankly, our irritability might be happening because we’re moving toward acceptance of our limitations. I mean, who wants to come out and say, “I simply can’t do some of the things I want to do”? But acceptance is one key to handling our problems.

I’ve learned that having a good day might mean leaving the house and moving my focus off myself.  I can get the proverbial shot in the arm by simply having a brief conversation with a neighbor or calling someone on the phone to chat. I write letters and notes to friends and family members. Engaging in hobbies or learning a new skill helps too.

People with disabilities have much to offer. We might not be able to work even part time jobs. But we can volunteer, we can engage in our communities as advocates for something we’re passionate about, and we can offer a compassionate ear to someone who’s struggling with an illness because we’ve been there ourselves.

Over the years, I’ve discovered what Helen Keller said is also true for me.

“I thank God for my handicaps for through them I have found myself, my work and my God.”

Seeing my illnesses as something I can learn about and learn from helps me to keep a positive outlook even during a flare-up. I know God is with me. Even during a psychic ‘crash,’ I know that when I pray, God hears me. I don’t look like I’ve got it together–and I don’t. But I trust that God is in control.

Today, I’m believing less in “self-help” and relying on “God-help.” Ironically, in my most vulnerable states, I realized God can make me strong. In our world many of us think we must declare our independence. We believe our dreams are a result of hard work and self-sufficiency. While there’s nothing wrong with hard work, I prefer to declare dependence. On God.

Having a disability doesn’t make me less human. It doesn’t mean my limitations define me. Having a disability doesn’t mean I can’t make contributions to society. I’m a person living my life with purpose because God has promised me that I can.

Author’s note: I don’t claim to know everything about every chronic illness. I know some illnesses make an individual totally unable to make decisions for themselves and caregivers are needed to help them navigate life. This post about the abilities and limitations of people with disabilities is not all-inclusive or meant to be medical advice. The comments herein are taken from observations of my friends’ conditions, conversations with those individuals, and my own experience with several chronic illnesses. For those interested in such things, many support groups exist addressing the needs of a variety of illnesses.

Friday Takes a Turn to Mental Health

Today’s post is a little bit modified from a post I created a couple years ago. Since it’s Mental Health Awareness Month, I feel compelled to post something even if it’s almost the end of the month. We can always make efforts to educate ourselves about health issues.

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Advice to Young Poets
Never pretend
to be a unicorn
by sticking a plunger on your head

from The Republic of Poetry by Martin Espada

 

When I started writing this blog and was given the opportunity to create an About page, the idea was more than I wanted to consider. I played it lazy and kept it short. Later, I made the changes you see now. While the changes may not agree with you, they reflect the real me.

I’m like anyone else, I suppose; I can talk about myself all day long. If we’re honest, we admit that we–or something about our life–are our own favorite subject.

My About pages are general in nature. That’s okay, based on what they’re designed to do. Now I give you Mr. Espada’s poem as an adjunct to getting to know me. Also, as advice to follow. Truly.

I’m sincere when I say that through my blog I hope to share my journey in finding joy and contentment with Jesus Christ. I also hope to sometimes encourage, comfort the weary, offer consolation, teach, break through spiritual obstacles or propel someone toward God’s purpose for them.

However, I haven’t been totally honest yet. I’ve been wearing a plunger on my head, so to speak. Unknown to some of you, I’ve been trying to be something I’m not. It’s time to reveal a secret. I have manic-depressive illness which is not totally controlled even though I take my medications as directed and try to do all the things my doctor prescribes.

I know this revelation immediately sets me up for criticism. It’s okay. I don’t like being criticized for something I can’t help; but I think I can take it. Criticism or a “follower” of this blog deciding to stop following will be fine. You certainly can’t call me anything worse than I’ve called myself.*

Life with manic-depressive illness, also called bi-polar disorder, can be devastating to the one diagnosed with it. Depending on the severity of our individual diagnoses–and there are many–it can also make life hard for the families of those people with it. We don’t always act like we ‘should.’

We don’t respond the same way as people who have what I call ‘respectable’ illnesses like asthma or heart disease or diabetes. People with those illnesses have physical manifestations if things get out of sync. With a mental illness, the manifestations can be physical, but mostly they’re behavioral.

Maybe you’ve witnessed those manifestations. We just don’t act right.

Taking Mental Health Awareness Month seriously means you educate yourself about the difference between multiple personality disorder and schizophrenia; whether someone is worrying or actually has anxiety disorder. You might take it so far as to learn how to respond to those with mental illness. After all, one if five people struggle with some form.

Your knowledge of what to do could make a big difference to someone in your circle of acquaintances.

I’m not writing today to go into my story from the day I was diagnosed (and before). It’s not a pity-party. I decided to write for a couple of reasons.

First, if you decide you want to continue reading my blog, it should be based on honesty. You don’t have to be honest, but I need to take the plunger off my head. Then you’ll see me as I really am.

Honesty about who I am in this regard will also help us both see how blessed I’ve been so far in my journey. God has been holding my hand through many difficult times; while I was inpatient as well as an outpatient. That’s something people who walk past me in the hallways at church aren’t even aware of. **

Second, the Church is becoming more aware of its role in meeting the needs of those in their communities who are mentally ill. It’s encouraging to see this. Some of the awareness has come because of family tragedies hitting like tsunamis in the news, or in our own lives. But the Church has a long way to go in this regard.

If I write about my own experience, people may find it easier to just relax and accept us. We aren’t unapproachable. In fact, we might be some of the nicest people you can meet. I plan to share some of my journey here occasionally. I’m working on a book with the hope that people will help understand the struggles, believe that God is our refuge through it all, and to, oh what the what–maybe even tell some funny stories.

There it is. I don’t pretend to know God’s ways, but I do know he invaded my life through manic-depressive illness like He’d never invaded it before. His voice has never been heard so sweetly to me as when he whispers, “I love you” as I crawl the walls or wail like a lost child.

Heavenly Father, thank you that when we realize our identity in you we no longer need to pretend to be something we’re not. Grant us the ability to love one another no matter what physical, spiritual, emotional, or mental affliction is with us now. Heal us and sustain us as you see fit. Extend grace to us in our weaknesses for your glory and in the name of Jesus. Amen.

 

*Although I have yet to call myself a unicorn.

**Until now.