Shedding Light on Darkness
I believe I am a part of a huge, silent population of unique individuals. I am not just another neurotic post-menopausal woman. Just a part of what I am…is a woman who has a mental illness. Sadly, I am far from alone. There are no less than 18 million depressed individuals in the United States. This number does not include any other type of chronic brain problem, such as bipolar disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, ADHD, autism, Alzheimer’s, eating or addictive disorders. Nor does this number reflect the men, women and children who are afflicted, yet undiagnosed and receiving no treatment. I believe many individuals with severe mood disorders have chosen not to seek treatment for their illnesses due to denial, social stigma, fear, shame, or a loathing to take prescription drugs. Horrible financial problems plague many of us. Some are unable to work and our medications can be hugely expensive even with the assistance of insurance and government aid.
More is now known about the manner in which the brain functions. Science has discovered there can be multiple causes for brain disorders. Some of these causative factors may be genetic predispositions, addictive behaviors, poor family dynamics and emotional or physical traumas. The biochemistry of the brain is also a very major player here. For various and complex reasons, brain chemicals such as dopamine, norepinepherine, and seratonin, just to name three, are prevented from carrying out their vital tasks.
While each person’s experience with mental illness is unique, we may have certain aspects of mental illness in common. Not one of us asked to have a dysfunctional brain. Nor is this a fatal personality deficit as too many of our family members, acquaintances and a huge number of the general public believe. The vast majority of us appear to be caught up in fear and shame. Admitting we have a mental illness to another individual is incredibly difficult. Not knowing if they will reject us is always paramount in our minds. Sadly, due to misplaced shame, many tongues are silenced.
I was diagnosed with chronic depression as a young adult. Some years later, after a prolonged hospitalization due to my first psychotic episode, I was also diagnosed as having bipolar disorder. When the hospital psychiatrist glibly informed me I was bi-polar, I felt I had been kicked in the stomach. This simply could not be true! After my third hospitalization I was no longer able to deny my illness. During the 14 years that ensued, I had five lengthy hospitalizations, all but one featuring psychotic episodes with incredibly intense hallucinations.
Mental illness can come at a horrific personal cost, untold physical and emotional pain, loss of innocence, personal potential and dreams. My negative feelings regarding my illness were crippling. I isolated myself from the very ones who could, and wanted to help me. It was as if I was enveloped by the deepest dark of winter, unable to hope there would eventually be light to give me strength and growth. Without proper treatment and eventual improvement, I could have alienated my spouse who might have left me. I could have lost custody of my daughter. When I was asked to leave my job, I feared financial ruin. I experienced irrational urges and displayed poor judgment. I became anorexic and was irrational with my spending. I allowed my brain’s dysfunction to totally define me as a person.
There are many myths regarding the mentally ill. Some believe the mentally ill have a severe character flaw; are weak or lazy and need to learn self-control; that we can “shake” ourselves out of the blues if we want to; that mental illness has no physical basis; or that you can help us by telling us to “cheer up,” “pull yourself together,” or to “snap out of it.”
The good news is a person with a chronic brain disorder can with help manage the symptoms of the disorder and enjoy life. I believe I am an unusually fortunate woman. I came to realize I had something meaningful to look forward to. I came to believe that having goals for my future was vital. Proper nutrition, sunlight and exercise were also key for me. I have a husband, daughter, family, and friends who continued to love and support me through all of the disasters of those chaotic years. I have a therapist who has been there for me, telling me there was hope even when I was not able to hear him. He treats me with dignity, compassion and respect at all times. I have a psychiatrist with whom I have established meaningful dialogue and who allows me to participate in decisions regarding my treatment. He is also masterful in his ability to blend the medications my brain requires and to minimize the side affects which cause many to be non-compliant with taking their meds..
Even a basic understanding of psychiatric diagnoses, brain function and of the medications used in treating brain disorders gave me comfort and the knowledge needed to better understand my illness. I have kept current on new research, medications and treatments. There are support groups out there, some of them good, some of them not. Look for one which focuses on recovery, not on commiseration. Reaching out to others is one of the best ways to begin the healing process.
There are new and exciting procedures bursting on the scene, such as the use of trans cranial magnets and a pacemaker-like device, called vagus nerve therapy, which delivers small measured doses of electricity to the brain via the vagus nerve. This therapy has been an essential part in improving my own mental health.
There are many factors that gave me the bravery and strength to leave the painful morass of an out of control life and to place my feet on life’s road with some semblance of confidence. I am happy to report I have returned to my chosen career on a part-time basis. And I have become vocal and proactive regarding mental health issues.
When I visualize my recovery I think of myself as being like the mythical phoenix. I have been “resurrected” from the ashes of a desperate, painful life. I also believe my mental disease is the driving force in giving me a healthier, clearer definition of myself as a person that I can now respect. I believe I am able look forward and focus on the future. I can be involved in life rather than hiding from it. I believe that my illness is not me. Strength, courage and peace are my watchwords. There are dreams out there and some of them are for me.
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