October is mental health awareness month, so I thought I’d make you aware of my mental health. To those of you who already know me, shhh. And stop giggling.
Here’s the real picture of my adult life. I have been depressed off and on for as long as I can remember. I was in unpleasant marital circumstances for a number of years, and there came a last straw. I moved myself and my then three-year-old and 14-month-old children across the state to start over. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it. At all. That took guts, I think now, but I had to get away and decided that moving to a college town was just the ticket. I had only gotten a couple of semesters under my belt before I got married when I was 17.
A couple things about the guts. I had to get away – from my ex yes, but mostly from my whole life. I needed to go where NO ONE knew my name. Where there were no preconceived notions about me (as there would have been had I returned to my hometown). Where I could figure out who I was meant to be. Where I could go back to school and finish! I found a (full-time) job, a good daycare for the kids, enrolled in a couple classes and … crashed and burned.
I just couldn’t understand why I tanked. Everything was going well! All those things I wanted in that paragraph up there? I had them! And I was depressed.
I just didn’t know it. That would have been in the mid-80s, and all I remember about “mental health” discussions revolved around stereotypes and name calling. It never occurred to me that there could be something wrong so I naturally assumed there was something wrong with ME. In totality. I should be happy, and here I sat, in a dirty stinking garbage dump, feeling worse by the day.
I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t focus. I’m not much a crier, but I was crying a LOT. For no reason that I could discern. I was neglecting my children, if I’m being honest.
And then I met my now-husband. Gloom blossomed into the excitement and happy tumult of a new relationship, and I was giddy with it all. My weird unexplained bad mood (for that’s how I looked at it) was done, and I was riding high! I felt better than I ever had. We got married in 1988. I finished my degree in 1996.
Fast forward 10 years. I had my ups and downs during that period, I’m sure of it, but I don’t remember specific times or incidences. We moved to a new city, which came with a new doctor, who diagnosed me with depression on my first visit (she was right), and prescribed an anti-depressant.
I DO remember that day. I was horrified. Embarrassed. Ashamed. This was clearly some kind of mental defect, and that was not ok. Perfectionists can’t have mental defects. Professionals, wives, mothers … can’t have mental defects. “I am depressed,” I kept telling myself over and over until I finally researched and believed it enough to take those meds.
They changed my life. I don’t ever remember the calm stability I felt after just a few weeks of taking them. I only remembered the wild swings and shifts in moods. With the mood swings largely under control, I started to notice my patterns – like around the time change each year, I would go low until well after the holidays. Sometimes things triggered me, and those could take me low. The more I understood depression and the more I understood myself, I was able to take a proactive approach to managing meds by finding an excellent psychiatrist. I’m forever grateful to my primary care doc, who told me what was what.
Over the next decade or so, I was able to maintain for the most part. Winters were still hard, but not as hard as they used to be. But when middle age started creeping up, the depression ramped up again and the fatigue was debilitating. My psych prescribed me a stimulant to help survive my exhausted days … and it sent me FLYING. I mean like crocheting -a-whole-afghan-in-one-night FLYING. I barely slept, barely ate (who has time??) and started eleventy hundred craft projects.
Thankfully my husband and my psych were in close contact during the entire episode (which lasted about 2 weeks), and with a lot of work and changing and replacing meds a bunch of times, I stabilized again. With a new label – I was diagnosed bipolar.
Talk about stigma.
I struggled with and fought against that label for a very long time. Sometimes I still do, because there are people who just don’t understand that I’m pretty much stable all the time now, that I was only manic once, and most importantly that I’m the same person they knew 10 seconds before I told them that. The second I say that word, some of them cover me with a suffocating blanket of their own notions about mental illness generally, and bipolar specifically. And they move away, quickly.
I wish there wasn’t still a stigma about mental health issues, anywhere. I especially wish it wasn’t so in our churches, our ministries, our small groups, our Bible studies. I will be honest and say that this is the first time I’ve publicly stated that I am diagnosed bipolar, because I got hurt over and over and finally just stopped telling ANYONE.
Notice that I said, “I am diagnosed bipolar.” I did not (and never will) say that I AM bipolar. If you have diabetes, do you say, “I am diabetes”? No. Cancer – I’ve never heard a single person say, “I am cancer.” And I refuse to say that I AM bipolar because then I am letting that word, that diagnosis, decide who I am. What I AM is a wife, mother, daughter, friend, and most importantly a child of the King. I “have” bipolar. That sounds weird to me so I’ve adjusted it to say, “I’m diagnosed with bipolar.” Feels way better to me … and maybe something to think about.
Well now here I am, telling the world – it’s time. There are too many of us living ashamed, not seeking the help needed from professionals or even loved ones. Walking around behind an “Oh I’m fine!” accompanied by a bright smile. We fake it til we can’t, then we retreat til we can summon the energy to fake it again.
I’m here to tell you this: It’s no way to live. I speak from the pain of my own experiences, so that perhaps someone will read this and decide to speak up. To go to the doctor. To tell the truth. To not fake it anymore.
I have been broken open on this subject. God did not heal me of my bipolar diagnosis, but He sure did bring all the right people into my life to restore my relationship with Him. This is important:
I COULD NOT FIND MY WAY TO GOD OR HIS LOVE OR HIS PROMISES UNTIL MY BRAIN CHEMISTRY WAS FIXED.
So please, let go of any voices telling you (inside or outside your head) that if you only did this thing or that one, or stopped doing these other things, or had more of that over there, you would magically get better. No. The right meds change brain chemistry, partly in a way that promotes right and true relationships with others. With God, especially. I literally cannot feel close to God if I am too depressed. So then I feel guilty. Maybe even ashamed. Insult to injury.
But God does not want us to live ashamed, He wants us to live free of all guilt. After all, didn’t Jesus go to the cross to take all of our guilt and shame onto Himself, now and forevermore, and didn’t He set us free?
Maybe it’s time. Talk to that person, see that doctor, take that med. Find out what it’s like to live free!