Before I start getting into my day-to-day experiences living with a mental illness, I wanted to go over my history, so that those who don't experience these illnesses personally can know exactly where I'm coming from. First of all, I will be concentrating mostly on Bipolar (formally known as Manic-Depressive) in my blog because it is the most serious of the disorders that I struggle with, and also the hardest to treat. The joy (sarcasm here folks) of being diagnosed with Bipolar is that other illnesses usually come with it in one big package (for me it was the ADHD, anxiety and social phobia). Although Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is not always associated with Bipolar, often the two go hand-in-hand.
I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder when I was 12 years old. It was one of the hardest times in my life. My father was diagnosed with OCD and treated with Paxil a few years before, so when I started showing symptoms my parents recognized it right away. The problem with OCD is it's not like a stomach ache. You can't just say "my tummy hurts" and go to the doctor. With OCD (in a child especially) you KNOW something is not right, yet you are so embarrassed and ashamed you will do absolutely ANYTHING to avoid talking about it. So while I was diagnosed with OCD at 12, I had been struggling for years. My obsessions were mostly clean-related: washing hands until they bled, having 6 showers a day, refusing to let people touch my hair, etc. I wasn't able to go to sleepovers because I was afraid of the "unknown" germs at my friends' houses. I avoided all pets because of pet hair (something I still struggle with now). It completely took over my life. And I was stubborn. I did EVERYTHING I could to avoid doing these compulsions. But I couldn't. When you are fighting with your own brain, how do you win? So my parents dragged my from child psychiatrist to child psychiatrist until finally, at aged 12, I found a doctor I was comfortable talking to. All the kids lovingly referred to him as "Santa Claus" because, well, that's exactly who he looked like. He was a fabulous psychiatrist-he never pushed; always listened. So I was put on Paxil (since it had worked so well for my Dad) and life changed (it seemed) overnight. Within a month, I was a completely different person. Now, don't get me wrong. OCD NEVER goes away. The "voices" are always there. But when OCD is under control, you are able to either ignore, or talk sense into the voices. I started to become more social, joined more sports and clubs, even my grades went up. It was if someone had taken a tonne of bricks off my small shoulders. My OCD was controlled throughout high school and (usually) up to this point. The only times when I have trouble are when I'm relapsing from Bipolar (which I'll get to in a minute) or under times of stress. I fight it every day, but I feel that most of the time, I win. And that works for me.
The Bipolar diagnosis didn't come until later. My Mom was diagnosed with Bipolar right around the time when I was diagnosed with OCD. She'd been manic for many years (definition of manic for those who don't know: “Mania-An abnormally elevated mood state characterized by such symptoms as inappropriate elation, increased irritability, severe insomnia, grandiose notions, increased speed and/or volume of speech, disconnected and racing thoughts, increased sexual desire, markedly increased energy and activity level, poor judgment, and inappropriate social behaviour.”-Medicinenet.com), and had finally crashed. She had post-partum with both myself and my brother and was put on anti-depressants after both. The most common way of finding out about a Bipolar patient is by putting them on an anti-depressant-it throws them into the complete opposite state-mania. However, often is can take a long time for that mania to become bad enough for the person to seek help, or for them to crash. For my Mom it took many, many years.
I started to have symptoms around the age of 15 or so. I was what most adults would describe a "hellion." The teenager from hell. By 16, I was drinking, smoking, doing drugs (though thankfully never got into the "heavier" ones), having sex, and constantly disobeying every rule. I moved out of my house a few times into my boyfriends (at the time) house, until his Mom would tell me I had to go home. I have no idea how I managed to keep my jobs, but I always did, so I always had money to cause trouble. My parents knew something was up. This was not the typical teenager rebelling-I was causing harm to myself and to others. I was lashing out for no apparent reason. My parents tried for a long time to get me in to see a psychiatrist (Santa Claus was no longer in practice). By the time I'd just turned 17 I had to admit something was wrong. I couldn't control my emotions; I was everywhere at once. I was tired but exhilarated at the same time. It was so scary, none of it made sense to me. We were on the waiting list to see a psychiatrist when I had my crash. I was 17 and half. My boyfriend and I had just broken up. I felt like he couldn't handle my problems (which is probably true, at 17) but instead of working through them with me and supporting me, he just wanted to run. I was devastated. And then I had to go to school the next day and pretend everything was OK, even though we shared a locker and all of the same friends. I went home one night and had a huge fight with my Dad (I couldn't even tell you what it was about now) and couldn't take it anymore. I went to the medicine cabinet and took almost everything in there-painkillers, tums, stomach aids, and sleeping pills. You name it. And then I went back to my room and crawled into bed. But something was nagging at me, and I decided I was going to go downstairs and call my best friend at the time. She knew something was wrong right away, so I hung up and went back to bed. I found out later she'd called the house over and over again until someone picked up and told them that something was wrong. My parents called 911, and the police and ambulance showed up. I don't even remember them coming into my room. I was so drugged; I could hardly tell them my name. But I was so scared. And seeing my parents and brother standing with the police while I was loaded into the ambulance, I realized I didn't want to die. Not now, not anytime soon. I just needed help. I needed someone or something to give me hope again, a reason to live. I'll spare you all the details at the hospital, but it was ugly. I ended up staying for a month at the psychiatric ward there. I learned A LOT, not only about my illness but about life. I also got a new psychiatrist that I trusted and felt comfortable with. I was diagnosed with Bipolar I, plus rapid cycling (meaning I go from a depressed state to a manic state quickly, often within days or hours). I was put on a cocktail of medications. One of the hardest things to accept with these illnesses is having to take a lot medications for the rest of your life. No one wants to deal with a life-long illness. But c'est la vie. I decided to pick myself up, and get on with it. So I went to college, got married, and here I am now. I struggle daily with my symptoms-the symptoms of the illnesses that the medications can't help-and the side effects of the medications, which are often almost as horrible as the disorder itself. I get angry often that I have to deal with this disorder, while other people don't. But I'm realizing (and this is one of the reasons I've started this blog) is that I need to stop being angry. Anger gets you nowhere. I need to take that anger and channel it into passion-to make a difference in this world. I need to DO something with my life, I need to make all this suffering and pushing forward WORTH it.
So for those of you who have had experiences like mine (or friends or family members who had) let's stop being angry. The American statistic (couldn’t find the Canadian one) is that 1 in 4 Americans will be mentally ill at some point in their lifetime. Can you believe that? That is a higher number than cancer, AIDS, or anything else combined! Think of yourself. Now think of three other people. One of you is going to need help because of a mental illness. Shouldn’t we have the help and resources available? Let's use the good things in our illnesses-the creativeness, the determination, whatever it brings you-and bring it out into the world and get rid of this ugly mental illness stigma. Care to join me?