Friday, April 11, 2014

Sometimes I Am Disabled


Most people who know me know that I am bipolar. When it comes up in conversation, I don't mind sharing. I'm happy to answer questions, and I am always willing to be an advocate. Not much of my private life is actually private. On my blog I admit to having bipolar, OCD, and EDNOS. I confess to self-harm. My two in-patient hospitalizations are forever recorded on the Internet.

Despite this claim of transparency, I have a very difficult time showing that I actively struggle with these issues. I would like to present myself as a successful portrait of mental illness. The major mood swings, the cutting, the starving and purging - all elements of my past. I am "stable." Just look at me! I go to class, I have straight As, I am involved in activities. I exert a lot of effort trying to appear well-adjusted. I've been working towards being on the cover of Time, plastered on the front a box of cereal, and featured on 60 Minutes with the claim that I "conquered" mental illness.

Unfortunately, my type-A personality has set an impossible goal. I have a disability, and sometimes that means I am disabled. I am not stable right now. I have been struggling with my mood swings again. I have been having severe physical reactions to stress. But, I am learning, this does not detract from my message of advocacy. Part of representing the many individuals with mental illness is acknowledging the suffering, the heartbreak, and the difficulties that are a part of daily life.

Stability is not a magic status that occurs once you have logged a certain number of hours. Healing is a process. That process includes ups and downs. There was at least a solid month when I felt very good, but now I do not feel very good. In fact, I feel pretty bad. My blog is a place where I can acknowledge the good and the bad. It is not my job to always be a beacon of hope.

I am a human with unfortunate brain chemistry. I can live a meaningful life, I can be an advocate, and I can be a writer, but I will have days that will be lost to my illness. These lost days do not detract from my message; they are part of my message. Despite my struggles, aches, and losses, my net effect is positive. My failures amplify my triumphs, just as the rain makes the rainbow that much more beautiful. Bipolar has taught me that nothing is all good or all bad, but everything is temporary. Glean what you can from this moment, because you do not know what the next moment will bring.

So let's share these moments: the manic, the hypomanic, the stable, the depressed, the devastating, and all of the shades in between. Let's share the milestones and mistakes. We can celebrate and mourn simultaneously. It is most important that we create a community of acceptance for all states of our illness, including our wellness.

In the comments, I invite you to share one aspect of your life that is going well and one that is challenging you. For example, I am celebrating six months of being self-harm free, but I am struggling with exercising.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Drugged


I have been off Lexapro for a week now. It's my first time with 0mg since my first hospitalization in 2012. Late last year, I started taking Latuda, which is for bipolar depression. It seemed like a good time to try weaning myself off of the Lexapro.

I take a lot of meds. I used to be concerned about how the pills were "changing me," but I realized that all of the pills do is help balance me to a point where I can function normally. It seems to go against logic, but I am able to be more myself when I artificially add the chemicals that my brain lacks.

Recently I have become aware of a part of the mental health community that concerns me. Just thinking about it is making me cry right now. There are people who say that I use my pills as a "crutch." That instead of learning techniques to control my patterns of thinking and behaving, I pop pills.

I have been struggling as I have been decreasing my Lexapro. I notice that I'm having a tougher time dealing with stress, I have been more emotional, and I am having more thoughts about self harm. I don't know if this is because of the dosage change, stressful circumstances, or a combination of both.

I'm meeting with my psychiatrist on Monday, and we'll be discussing whether or not I should stay off of the Lexpro. Part of me wants to show that I can manage without it - that I can use the coping skills I've learned in therapy. I feel like if I can get through the months of April and May, I'll be fine. But the other part of me doesn't want to tempt a disaster. I can't afford to have a bad episode during these next couple months.

I honestly don't know what to do. It is entirely possible that I would be feeling this way even with the Lexapro; things are very stressful right now. I'm still functioning. I'm going to class, doing my work, and participating in activities.

For me, it's not a question of whether or not I will take medication. It's a question of how much. Without the Lexapro, I'm still taking seven pills a day. I don't think I will ever be completely drug-free, but part of me would like to embrace this chance to reduce the number of chalky tablets I put into my body.

Ultimately, I need to make this decision myself. That said, I am still interested in other opinions. It's important to note that saying no to Lexapro right now doesn't mean that I can never go back on it. I think that all of us have different ways of dealing with our conditions and that we shouldn't feel shame in taking medication or choosing not to take it anymore. I'm just trying to figure out which way is right for me.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

High School

I did NOT take this photo. This is from Rock n Roll Revival last year, but it captures the spirit of the show better than any other image I could create myself. It was taken by Connor Smith.

Last night, I attended Rock n Roll Revival XXV at my old high school. RnR is the glistening jewel of Severna Park, outshining all other local events. Forty songs are performed over the course of two acts, and the singers, dancers, and band members are all students - except for the one faculty number. The talent is incredible. Each year I've been overwhelmed by seeing what my musically-minded classmates are capable of.

Yesterday something else overwhelmed me, too. As I walked across the parking lot to our car, my ears still slightly ringing, I felt sadness. There was a lump in my throat. What can I say of my high school experience? I never auditioned for RnR - the closest I got was signing up for an audition slot and crossing my name off the day of because I was too afraid. I never tried out for any sports. I have very few friends from that time in my life. There were no crowning achievements, no ribbons or trophies, no scrapbooks full of happy memories.

When I was alone with my dad, I told him about my feelings. "You were sick," he explained. "It would be more unfortunate if high school was the high point of your life."

He has a point. It's hard to make friends, join clubs, or audition for roles when you can't even convince yourself of your own worth. How do you make yourself appealing to a potential friend when you are disgusted by yourself? I didn't go to prom or graduation because I didn't feel any sort of attachment to my peers. I had enclosed myself in a box. I had withdrawn from everyone. Some nights I would get very upset that no one wanted to be my friend, but when anyone tried to get close to me, I pushed them away. Depression has a way of isolating you when you most need friendship.

I cannot let myself think how different high school would have been for me if I had had my bipolar disorder under control. To me, those years are lost. There are a few glimmering moments of happiness, most of them involving academics or discussions with my teachers. Despite my efforts to limit my closeness with others, I have a couple of very good friends. Overall, however, those years are marred by depression and mania.

Even though seeing RnR saddened me, I'm thankful I had to the opportunity to attend. I felt rare pride for my community, a place that I normally see as obsessed with athletic competitions and standardized test scores. My hometown is full of very, very talented young men and women. The best part is, I don't think RnR will be the high point of their lives. There is so much more in store for people with that kind of pure talent coupled with motivation.

So whether you shined at high school or just survived, I firmly believe there is more. I am finding happiness at college, where stability has finally allowed me to pursue the activities I enjoy. Soon I'll be playing softball again with a team from my dorm. I get to write all of the time. I'm making a difference through Active Minds, a club I'm involved in that helps fight the stigmatizing of mental illness. 

Things are getting better. High school is not the end.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The "B" Word

At Towson University, I have seen several posters advocating for "Spread the Word to End the Word." There is an entire website campaign dedicated to purging the word "retarded" from casual use. At first I was skeptical. Does one word really matter? The more I thought about it, the clearer the answer became to me.

Our choice of vocabulary matters. Now, I try to make a conscious effort not to say "retarded." I am aware that the word is not meant to be used to describe a situation I think is annoying or stupid. It  belittles and demeans those with actual intellectual disabilities, and it creates a hostile work or learning environment. It's not good for anyone.

I want to take the movement farther. We should take a similar approach with mental health words. For example, when you use the word bipolar to describe anything but the mental illness, you are stealing my voice. You are diluting my message as a young woman who struggles daily with the disorder. When you perceive the weather to be rapidly changing, you are not witnessing a bipolar experience. I will gladly share my experience with you, but please do not make this comparison. I wish my mood swings were as simple as the weather.


It seems trivial. One word! But our choice of word shapes our attitudes. Let's challenge ourselves to find a more respectful, intelligent substitute. The English language has a plethora of words for us to choose from. Let's not take the easy way out and compromise our ability to empathize with our friends with mental illness.

I know this is a controversial blog post, so I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments. I'd like it if we could have a healthy conversation.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

STOP

Today I'm going to bring to light a secret I've been harboring. My therapist says, "You're only as sick as your secrets." I briefly mentioned this secret in the post I wrote about losing my religion, but I am ready to share a few more details.

When I was in tenth grade, I was sexually harassed by one of my classmates. It climaxed in an altercation that occurred after my first experience drinking alcohol unsupervised, and then persisted as a series of lesser incidents that involved inappropriate touching and what I have determined to be stalking.

Today I would like to focus on the lesser incidents. It started with an "innocent" hand on my knee, and progressed. I was told that this was happening because I was single and this was the best that I could get, that this is what I deserved. It happened on public transportation in front on many people, but I never had the courage to get up a move. I never made a scene. I sat in the same seat every day,   dreading what became the routine.

I was fourteen years old. I was very smart. My parents had talked to me about what to do if an older man tried to touch me inappropriately.

But I wasn't prepared when the person touching me was a classmate, my peer. I knew it was wrong, but I did not possess the proper context to handle my situation. I was timid. I didn't have the courage to make a scene.

So how do you confront someone who is in your class and you see every day? The same way you would confront a stranger who would treat you with such blatant disrespect. The following image that I have created applies to anyone who touches you when you don't want him or her to: friend, family member, classmate, or stranger.


Feel free to share this image on Pinterest, Tumblr, Facebook, etc. We need to teach people that they do not have to live in fear. It took years for me to "get over" what happened, and I still don't feel entirely comfortable sharing that part of my story. I think we're all ready for things to change.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Bipolar Interview


Hello everyone!

Today I'm over at Like a Bird with Kendra. She interviewed me about my experience with bipolar disorder as a part of a monthly series on mental illness. She is interviewing one woman a month with a different mental illness, and I'm so honored to have been a part of her inspiring project. To read the post, click on the picture above!

On a different note, I have been floored by the reaction my last blog post received. Wow. I've gotten comments, texts, emails, and Facebook messages. Some are more pleasant than others, but they have all reaffirmed my belief that it is important for us to honestly share our stories. I feared losing friends, but I have only made more. It's been my most popular blog post ever. Thank you to everyone who read, shared, or engaged with me. Interacting with readers is the most rewarding part of my blog. I always love to hear from you! You can leave a comment, email me, or send me a tweet.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Losing My Religion: Why I Am No Longer a Mormon


This is the story of how I lost my faith. It's not a beautiful story, nor will it be a popular one. I have struggled with writing it down for over a year. There are so many people I don't want to disappoint, so many people who touched my life, so many people who loved me and supported me on my journey. I have not attended church for four years, and I no longer consider myself to have faith. I feel that by not acknowledging my lack of faith, I am lying by omission. I have grieved for my loss, and now I am ready to share.

On April 26th 2009, I was baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, or the Mormons. My conversion had been fast and magical. In a short period of time, being LDS became a critical part of my identity. I had immersed myself in Church life. I made wonderful new friends and found a community that loved and supported me. I embraced my newfound identity as a daughter of God. I did my best to live a virtuous life. I was astounded by the acceptance I found within the Mormon church. I was told that the Church had great plans for me; one member even told me I was an angel. I was overwhelmed with love, and I had a strong testimony of the Church's truth. If you are interested in reading my conversion story, it was published by New Era, the LDS magazine for youth, here.

But with my new life came moments of loneliness. My congregation served as a sort of surrogate family, and I felt distanced from my biological family. I was frustrated with their refusal to join the Church on a daily basis. I prayed each night for their conversions. At my new ministry in Berlin, I confessed my desire for an eternal family. I was advised to fast more frequently. As a struggling anorexic, I embraced this counsel. I do not hold this against those church members, but I wish they had seen the signs of my deteriorating mental health.

At my new congregation, several events occurred that led me to question the validity of the Church. Before, I assumed that the Church and all of its members were perfect. I understand that this was my own error. One issue was my rejection at my new ward. Part of this was the language barrier (services were conducted in German), but I never felt really welcome. No one offered to let me sit with them. I constantly felt awkward and out of place. I questioned why God wanted me to go somewhere for three hours each Sunday and countless hours during the week where I felt unwelcome. One time we were sewing dresses for an event and the Young Women and the leaders laughed that my dress required extra fabric because of my breast size. I cried on the bus ride home and decided not to attend any more activities. I am aware that this was a harmless joke and that it was only serious because I had an eating disorder. The deeper issue is that they didn't know me well enough to recognize that this comment would be so painful. The second event is far more serious than extra fabric. I was being constantly harassed by a boy at school to the point where I didn't feel comfortable going to school anymore. I explained what was happening to my bishop, and his first question was whether or not I was praying enough, and his second question was whether I was dressing appropriately. I trusted this man to be able to articulate the word of God. I am no longer angry at him. I understand that he is human, and he made a mistake. His questions prompted me to search for answers in my left arm. I felt abandoned by God.

My distance from God only increased as my mental health worsened. I didn't understand why God would deprive me of sanity. I prayed nightly, but I only found solace in cutting. I could, to some extent, convince myself that God was testing me, but as I continued to be harassed and bullied at school, I questioned His motives. Why was He torturing me? Did He want me to kill myself? I was conflicted. I knew that suicide was a sin, but I felt like God was driving me towards death. Emptiness overpowered my will to live.

I could rationalize physical disabilities, but I could not understand why God would curse me with foul brain chemistry. Why would He affect my ability to see the world with hope? Why would He steal my capacity to experience joy? At church I was taught that He was a loving, compassionate God who cared about my sorrows and wanted to help me overcome obstacles. Church was supposed to be a source of strength. In anger and confusion, I rejected God.

When my family moved to the States, I made the decision not to go to church. Missionaries came to the door, and I tearfully asked them to respect my decision. I promised that if I changed my mind, I would return. I continued to distance myself from organized religion, and I began to identify as an atheist. I have decided that in my life, there is no God. I do not wish to damage anyone's faith. I understand that faith, for some, is a sustaining force. I know it brings many people happiness and that religious people do a lot of good for this world. I respect their decision to worship, and I hope they respect my decision to abstain.

I write this post with eyes full of tears and a sore throat. Remembering my joyful times at church, the warmth in my heart - it pains me. I physically ache for that time. I know that by publishing this post I may lose friends, my Brothers and Sisters. I am changed by my time as Mormon. I became a more  loving person. I was introduced to a "peculiar people" who loved me and taught me valuable life lessons. They instilled in me values that will serve me the rest of my life. But now I must shed this label. I am no longer a Latter Day Saint. I am no longer a Christian. I cannot be. I do not believe in the most fundamental component of this religion: God. I feel the need to apologize to the members who treated me like a daughter and a sister. They opened their homes and their hearts to me, and I feel like I am hurting them with this post. I am so sorry.

I cannot guarantee that I will live a godless life forever. I never thought I would leave the Church, but I did. Right now I cannot see myself returning, but I do not know what the future holds. I will maintain an open mind. My current priorities do not include religion. I am focused on my health, my education, my family, and my friends. I am finding meaning in other areas of my life.

I hope that I have expressed myself clearly. If I must whittle my message down to a sentence, it is this: My experiences with mental illness and the failure of my religion to provide guidance or comfort has led me to live a secular life. There is no disrespect intended. This was a decision I needed to make for my own mental health. I request that you respect my choice.