Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Year in Review

This year I...

confessed that I had bipolar disorder.

started yoga.

found my voice as a mental health advocate during Mental Health Month in May.

had my first psychotic episode.

was "upgraded" from Bipolar II to Bipolar I. (I'm allowed to joke about it, ok?)

finished high school.

skipped prom and graduation.

organized and photographed the "What Does Mental Illness Look Like?" photo shoot with a group of beautiful friends.

moved in at Towson.

started college as an unhappy Chemistry major and finished my first semester as an excited English major.

experienced real heartbreak.

had a manic episode that resulted in hospitalization.

learned some powerful life lessons (and a few academic ones too).

was a mental health panelist at a NAMI event. 

Pardon the shadows. I was taking pictures very late at night in my bedroom.

So what's going to happen next year? I have quite a few ideas!

I am participating in a 365 day photo project. You can stay updated by following or bookmarking my new tumblr. I'll be documenting my days as well as experimenting/doing whatever I feel like doing. That will all be happening here: http://theawkwardindiegirl365.tumblr.com/

I will be launching a BRAND NEW website that is currently untitled. It will be a place to share the faces and stories of individuals affected by mental illness, including survivors, family members, friends, significant others, etc. I will not be launching the website for a while, but I have already started compiling content. It's going to be rad.

I will be focusing a lot of my efforts on collaboration. There are so many talented and unique individuals that are a part of my community, online and real world. I want to connect with these powerful people and make a difference.

At some point I also have to fit in the 18 credits' worth of classes I'm taking, Active Minds, and finishing my book.

Oh wait - I didn't tell you? I'm also writing a book.

2014 is going to be jam-packed full of awesome.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Tribe of the Warriors

Two published writers, a runner, Miss Baltimore, and me. What do we have in common?

We're all mental health advocates, and on December 5th, we were panelists at The Mental Health Discussion hosted by Towson's NAMI. All of us deal with mental illness in our daily lives, and we were selected to share our stories with a room full of curious strangers.

I was the only non-trained speaker. I was also the only student. I didn't prepare any notes; every time I tried, I ended up only wrestling with my pen in frustration. As I sat in front of the packed room, I listened to my fellow panelists tell stories that were familiar to me. Stories of confusion, stories searching for a diagnosis, stories of both love and rejection, stories of wrestling with a new identity. Four of the five of us have bipolar disorder, but that was not the root of the similarities. All mental illnesses share a common core: a fight to survive, a fight to thrive despite unfortunate brain chemistry.

It became obvious to me that my story was not the most severe. My parents still love and support me, my episodes of psychosis were of no serious consequence, my hospitalizations were short.  But that did not make my story any less important. My struggles are valid. We are all beautiful warriors, even though the stones that make up our necklaces come from different lands and create different patterns against our skin.

When it was my turn to speak, I was ready. I gained comfort and strength from seeing the audience's reaction. Their nods of understanding and their warm smiles prodded me onwards. The universal elements of my story resonated with the group, just as those of theirs resonated with me. We are our own tribe.

The members of my tribe may have ugly scars, but we decorate each other in vibrant paint. We paint the colors of love and acceptance across our bodies. We ruffle each others' hair in adoration as we tell our stories around a campfire. The light catches the decorative stones of necklaces and sprinkles us with light like stardust.

What I took away from the panel experience is how passionate and creative these individuals are, not just in spite of, but because of the adversity they have faced. I know that despite the trials I have had to overcome, I am in good company. I am proud of my tribe.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Life Lessons

This last week, I have learned more life lessons than I have learned during the rest of my semester at college. These lessons cemented my future as a mental health advocate, but they did not come without pain. Throughout the entire experience, I drew strength from knowing that I eventually would be able to share this story with the hope of helping others going through similar ordeals.

Ryan and I met online, and we had an instant connection (no more cheesy puns, I promise). We had a lot in common, but I was hesitant to meet in person. I avoided a "real life" meeting for over a month, but over Thanksgiving break, we met at a coffee shop in my hometown in Maryland. We talked for hours. That same day, he met my dad and brother and we watched Clue together. We didn't want to say goodbye, so we ended up going out for pizza and talking at the restaurant until it was closing.

We texted over the rest of break. We even arranged to go on more dates when I got back from Pittsburgh. We quickly decided that we wanted an exclusive relationship, and our feelings progressed rapidly. He was so funny and being around him made me feel happy.

I should probably mention that before meeting, I had confided in him about my bipolar disorder, and he confided in me that he had struggled with anxiety and depression in the past. 

Last Sunday, we went to a Ravens game with his parents. The game was exciting to say the least, and his parents were very kind. But that evening, I noticed a change in Ryan's mood. Things were rough. I won't go into details, but suffice it to say that I was concerned.

The next evening after work, he told me he was having some troubling thoughts about ending his life and was experiencing some impulsive behavior. We made a plan that he would eat, try to get some rest, and we would discuss possibly going to the hospital in the morning.

The morning came, and I was more concerned. Our telephone conversations were brief and upsetting, and I went to the Residence Life Coordinator of our building and explained that I was scared for Ryan's life. With guidance, I made the decision to call 911 even though Ryan had explicitly told me not to do so.

LIFE LESSON ONE: It is better to be hated by someone and for that person to be safe than for the alternative.

LIFE LESSON TWO: Police officers are trained professionals when it comes to these situations. I am a nineteen year old college student. 

I met Ryan at the emergency room, and I helped him fill out paperwork. Waiting for hours to meet with a psychiatrist, I tried my best to comfort him. He had a previous negative experience at the hospital, and I knew he was afraid this would be a repeat. After meeting with the psychiatrist, I saw him struggle to make a decision. I did my best to encourage him to opt for inpatient treatment. Once the decision was made, I helped him get ready to go to the psych ward. I was so proud of him.

LIFE LESSON THREE: Admitting that you cannot care for someone is not defeat. It is allowing professionals to do their jobs.

While I waited for visiting hours to start, I called his mom and his work. It became clear that his family would not be a part of his treatment plan and that I would need to step in. I was his emergency contact. Remember, at this point we had been dating less than two weeks.

LIFE LESSON FOUR: We cannot get upset with adults who do not understand mental illness. Although it is frustrating, most people are doing the best that they can do. 

Over the next couple days, I visited Ryan during visiting hours, got in touch with his teachers, got in touch with his work again, brought him books and clothing, and tried my best to be strong for him. I could see and hear him improving. He was smiling and funny again. It was hilarious to see him joking with the nurses and other patients. I was reminded of the Ryan I met at the coffee shop. Sometimes we would get frustrated with each other, but overall we remained supportive.

LIFE LESSON FIVE: It is important to learn how to differentiate between the person you care about and the mental illness. The mental illness can warp their words and actions beyond recognition, and it is critical that you try not to take it personally.

Yesterday, Ryan was released. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. I had cried so many tears. I didn't study for my finals. One day all I ate was Gatorade and some cookies. I couldn't sleep well. I forgot one of the most important lessons of all.

LIFE LESSON SIX: Take care of yourself first.

I still care about Ryan, and I want him to continue his path towards wellness. However, we are no longer together. I'm going to take the time now to care for myself, to heal. Even though this was a very difficult experience, I'm thankful for it. I have learned even more lessons than I have enumerated in this post. This chapter of my life may be over, but that does not dilute its significance.