Being Mentally Ill During “Shelter in Place”

Q: How many people struggling with clinical depression does it take to change a light bulb?

A: None. They’re in a dark night of the soul and oblivious to any other dark.

Forgive the ‘dark’ humor, but using humor, dark or light, is how some of us with a mental illness deal with trouble. Someone diagnosed with clinical depression will probably identify with that attempt at humor and nod. “Yep, that’s about right.”

People who know me even a little know I’m a goofball. People who know me well know I’m also mentally ill. Then there are the people who know me so well, they’ve sat with me in the emergency room as I wait to be admitted to The Ward. A locked ward.

I use humor to deal with my struggles, no matter what they are. It keeps me sane (so to speak). And even in the emergency room, I make cracks about why I’m there and what it will be like during my stay. A behavioral health unit is a lonely place to be even when the unit is at capacity. I never look forward to being there. I’m not there because I want to be, I’m there because I need to be.

Now here we all are, in varied states of lock down. I’m hearing myself as I talk to myself use humor to get through the coronavirus crisis.

Being cooped up is hard for us all. Having a mental illness, I can multiply that difficulty exponentially because depression, mania, generalized anxiety, paranoia, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and other mental illnesses thrive on stress. I think we can all agree that being sheltered in place is stressful.

Years ago, I decided I could share the fact that I’m mentally ill with a chosen few people I knew wouldn’t judge me, try to change me, tell me why I was acting out, or any of the other “crazy” things people do and say to someone who has a mental illness. I made that decision for several reasons. Some of the remarks made or advice given offended me (which put me in a defensive mode). I felt shame. I was frustrated. I got sad. And when some of those people left me—I mean left me—in the wake of their ignorance, I felt isolated and betrayed.

I knew I couldn’t change those people and it would have to be me who did. So, I decided if anything could change, it was how I talked about mental illness, especially my own. Now I tell people and leave their reactions up to them. If the opportunity is there, I educate people as much as they seem willing to bear it. I don’t go around revealing my illness to the person in line behind me at the store. There should be a good reason to tell and a good reason not to tell.

I think this is a good time to tell: I’m manic-depressive, an illness that since the late eighties is called bipolar disorder. I use the old name because it describes the nature of the illness. I get manic and I get depressed. Sometimes simultaneously, but that’s another topic for another time. I also suffer with generalized anxiety and a mild level of OCD. When I’m very, very ill, I become paranoid, psychotic, and delusional. I know; it’s not pretty.

So, there’s my personal admission about my illnesses and you can do whatever you want with it. Here’s what’s happening in my world and might be happening for someone else who’s mentally ill.

I don’t minimize the way anyone is affected by being cooped up; it can crush your spirit. Isolation makes you sad, angry, frustrated, scared, and empty. We were created to be in community with each other. “It is not good for man to be alone,” is what God said when he created us. We’re social creatures.

Several months ago, after I’d been mood-cycling for a while (manic/depressed over and over), I hit bottom and the deep depression took over. I was like that for a couple weeks. Then mania came back, and euphoria became mixed in every single day, all day long. When I begin to feel the mood swings, I get to a point where I don’t go out in public. Sometimes I can’t even tell why I do it, but I hole up like an outlaw.

The ‘craziness’ got ramped up when I had to stay home for the sake of my (and your) health and the need to protect us from a deadly disease. Even if I don’t like going out much when I’m ill, I try to take care of myself by getting into the sunshine and practicing my social skills. This shelter-in-place thing changes that.

I miss going to church. I miss meeting weekly with my mentor. I serve at the Salvation Army soup kitchen and the population has dwindled there. I miss seeing “my people.” I can’t pay my bills to the apartment manager, pick up the recycling from the office, or just sit and chat with her. She’s become a friend and I miss her too. And you know what? My psychiatrist asks me about these activities when I see him because he knows they help me stay somewhat normal.

People who know me well know I’m a Christian and have strong faith in the God I believe in. People who know the facts know that we who have a mental illness and are also Christians aren’t necessarily ‘delivered’ from the symptoms completely. We do the best we can, then accept that it’s a chronic illness that happens to be a mental one. It’s in our brain, for crying out loud, and the most educated, smart, and compassionate experts admit the brain is the last frontier of the human body. Ironically, our brains haven’t completely figured out our brains. Go figure.

I’m trying to not be completely idle. But I can only rearrange the food in the pantry so many times and then it’s ridiculous. And right now, I need my pet more than ever. Scout the Rabbit isn’t technically an emotional support animal. He does, however, provide emotional support. (He’s putting in overtime right now, but don’t tell him. He’s not getting extra lettuce in his paycheck.) When I’m having super-crazy anxiety, holding him brings my heart rate down. Sometimes it makes me cry, but it’s a good kind of crying. He gives me someone to talk to. Out loud.

Right now, I think of my friends who are mentally ill and it breaks my heart knowing some of them are struggling like me. I believe we’re doing what we can, but some of us are having a hard time doing it in isolation. I’m by nature an introvert, but enough is enough. Having said that, I respect the shelter in place orders because I don’t like being sick. I may be mentally ill, but I’m not stupid. And, while I’m not afraid to die, I hope to have a few more years of life.

Anyone who has a chronic illness knows that stress exacerbates it and symptoms may flare up. I’m thinking of you guys too. Take your meds, get your rest, follow your doctor’s orders. I mean it.

If you don’t have a chronic illness, being restricted in your social life means you too must take care of yourself, especially your mental health. Just because you’re not mentally ill doesn’t mean you have to be stupid. (hahahahaha-more humor.)

I’ve said my piece now, so excuse me. I’m going out to the living room to work on my stand-up routine.

Be a blessing to someone today.

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 are 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.

 

One More Word on Mental Illness

Earlier this month, I posted some thoughts and information for Mental Health Awareness Month. Today is the last day of the month and I hoped to speak to the issue of mental health/illness one more time.

its time w ribbonMaking my own efforts to educate people about mental health/illness issues is one of my passions. I’ve known so many people who struggle with some sort of illness. I’ve shared the pain of many of those people; I don’t speak from observation only.

My post Not A Unicorn told a little of my own story because I wanted to ‘come out’, so to speak. I felt a need to be honest about another aspect of who I am. Today I want to simply give more information so those who read my blog can be better educated about issues regarding mental health/illness.

Whichever illness is named, from anxiety to schizophrenia, those who have a mental illness need others to understand as best they can. We can learn the difference between one illness and another. (Schizophrenia isn’t multiple personalities for instance.) People need to know that having a mental illness isn’t sin. The brain is a mysterious organ and even experts don’t know everything there is to know about how it functions. We can, however, try to get insight so we don’t put people in boxes.

Boxes end up being like cages.Do you honestly think...

In a recent Facebook post, I included a link from Ed Stetzer’s blog. Stetzer is one of my favorite bloggers because he doesn’t tend to be a Fraidy Cat. He speaks truth and speaks it well, without throwing stones. His post addressed how the Church needs to better handle mental illness issues inside and out.

Last week, I had the privilege of listening to my pastor preach on depression in the sermon series Insomnia: What Keeps You Up at Night? Pastor Bray interviewed a local Christian counselor, a member of our congregation. I can say there have been few times in the almost 18 years I’ve attended my church when I felt as grateful as I did that day for God speaking through his people.

I hoped that from their interview, which was grace-filled and educational, everyone present would take away at least one fact that would help them to better understand depression and other mental illnesses.

My church isn’t so unique. I’m sure there are others that extend grace to people who struggle with mental illnesses.  We need the Church to come alongside us.

If you want to educate yourself on mental illness, the Internet is a fount of information. Simply do a search on mental illness or a specific topic you have questions about. Listed below are some links to help you get started.

BringChange2Mind

Mental Health America

National Alliance for Mental Illness