Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Talking About Mental Illness, Unashamedly

I was diagnosed with depression in July 2012, after I guess what could be described as “a little bit of a breakdown” (sorry Paul Simon, for borrowing from one of your songs).  

It wasn’t a sudden thing, but the culmination of years, decades really, of relentless hammering at my resilience, my self-confidence, my joy. 

I resorted to half-truths to explain to family and friends why I wasn’t at work at first: I was using up some of the comp time I’d acquired from all the overtime I’d worked in the previous months.  True, as far as having the comp time from working overtime; false as for why I was taking time off.  

I’d been off work for months before I told my closest friends that I was still off work, and why. I knew they would support me. But every time I talked to them and was about to “admit” what was going on with me, I’d feel … shame. 

Look at that word: admit.  That right there speaks to the stigma I not only applied to my diagnosis, but that I expected to receive from others. 

It took time for me to accept my diagnosis. And during that time, I found a tribe of mental health bloggers to follow, and authors who, through their books, shared their stories. I began to feel less alone. Their stories were my lifeline. I looked up to them. I saw the value in speaking out. 

By the time I returned to work four months later, I was becoming more comfortable with being honest about my ongoing battle with depression with anyone who asked me about my time off work. But I still hesitated to volunteer anything. 

Over the following months and years, I began, incrementally, to proactively share my story with co-workers, extended family, acquaintances — whenever it lent itself to the conversation. 

And something unexpected began to transpire: each time I volunteered my story, I felt stronger. 

I felt a little more confident because — instead of waiting for people to find out, or guess, and then wonder what they would assume or how they might react — I was putting it out there, unashamedly. I was setting the tone. I was controlling the story.  Because, finally, I didn’t feel shame. 

A few weeks ago, I met with a psychiatrist because I, and my new family doctor, had begun to suspect I may have been misdiagnosed all those years ago. His diagnosis confirmed my suspicions: I have bipolar II and social anxiety disorder. 

That night, I changed the description of my mental illness in my blog from depression to bipolar. The next day, I joined in helping to make Sarah Fader’s #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike hashtag trend on Twitter.  I’ve been telling my friends and family as I talk to them. This time, I am not ashamed. 

This is why we need to tweet, blog and share our mental illness stories, unashamedly: so that the people coming after us won’t ever feel ashamed for having a mental illness. 

Because there is NO SHAME in mental illness. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Fly No More

Last week I was diagnosed with Bipolar II, after years of being treated for depression.  It’s not uncommon for people to get this diagnosis years later. It makes sense, when you think about it. 

When it comes to diagnosing mental illness, doctors, whether GPs or psychiatrists, are largely reliant on what they see and hear from us.  It’s not like there’s a blood test, or an MRI, that can confirm depression or bipolar.

And who goes around complaining about feeling full of optimism and self-confidence?

Or having bursts of creativity and productivity that don’t even need sleep to fuel them?  Hell, those bursts laugh at sleep. 

Or feeling unusually social and uninhibited; senses alive, with an extreme connection to music, texture, light?  

Being on fire – the multi-tasking queen getting stuff done. Brilliant ideas and exquisite plans flying through my brain at the speed of light, so fast I can hardly capture them all. Thank god for sticky notes. (That is, until a few days or week later, when I look around at all the notes fluttering from my desk, monitor, notebooks, and, with a little more clarity, peel them off, crumple them up and wish I’d bought stock in 3M.)

No, we most often seek help when we have fallen so far down the rabbit hole we can hardly get back out on our own. When our brains are too dull and bogged down to process information. When we feel empty, numb and exhausted.  When we don’t care about anything.  When we are teetering on edge of the void of depression – that’s usually when we go to our doctors. That’s when they see us.  And when they ask how we’ve been feeling, it’s the depression that’s top of mind, so that's what we tell them about.

So it’s not hard to fathom that after years of being treated for depression, but not responding, a person can find out they’ve been misdiagnosed. Especially when it comes to Bipolar II, in which depression is often the more noticeable state and the highs (known as hypomania), while disruptive, are not as destructive as the mania that accompanies Bipolar I.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that this is the right diagnosis either (cylcothymia is another option).  However, given my history, both my psychiatrist and I feel quite confident we’ve got it right. But only time – and treatment – will tell.

As for treatment, he’s added Lamotrigine (mood stabilizer) to the Cymbalta (antidepressant) I am already taking.  And he’s prescribed routine – for sleep, eating habits, exercise, chores and hobbies – as essential.  Routines are stabilizing.

Sounds reasonable. Except I’ve spent my life eschewing, as much as possible, routines.  Schedules and plans make me itchy.  I’ve lived a lifetime of eating when I feel hungry, sleeping when I need it, creating when I feel moved to do so. I hate making plans, I avoid committing, because who knows how I’ll feel, what I’ll feel like doing, at any given time.  

"Fly by the seat of her pants Cheryl" has some adjusting to do. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

And Then Things Change

It’s only been a few weeks since I “came out” on social media as a person living with depression.  I had long thought of writing a blog about my journey but, throughout much of the past few years, I simply didn’t have the brain power after the end of a day or week at work to do so. 

I still didn’t, really, last month when I finally came out. But it was Bell Let’s Talk Day, and I decided to stop waiting for when I felt rested, or clear-headed, or articulate enough and just do it.  Reading the influx of posts from others dealing with mental health issues gave me the push I needed to finally just do it and not wait for the right time.

I’m glad I did. I’ve had so many people approach me since then – from my personal and professional worlds – to comment on my post.  It has opened up doors of communication; renewed old friendships; introduced new ones. 
And just as I was becoming a bit used to being a face of depression, things changed. 

I had an appointment on Friday with a psychiatrist for an assessment.  Previous diagnosis and treatment had been at the hands of multiple GPs and psychologists; this was my first time meeting with a psychiatrist. After one and a half hours of questions, seemingly random to me, he delivered his diagnosis: bipolar II. 

I can’t say I’m surprised. I’d begun to suspect as much over the past year or two, as my depression treatment lifted me up enough to be more and more functional, to read and learn more about mental illness, to better assess my being, to better track my moods and symptoms …   The more I tracked, the more a pattern began to emerge.  Once the depression became a bit more manageable, I began to see the other monsters lurking in the shadows.

The result of my assessment wasn’t what I wanted. But it isn’t surprising to me, and it does explain a lot, about my past and present.  And while I look ahead with some trepidation, I also look ahead. I see a route to follow, a diagnosis that makes sense, a treatment plan to follow.  I know it won’t be easy, but now that I’ve started talking about it, I also have a tribe to share this journey with. 

And that helps.   

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

The mask of depression

I think that, at different points in our lives, we all wear masks — whether it’s, for example, pretending to be brave when facing fear, or putting on a smile when we are sad, or faking indifference when upset. 

I don’t know how often the average person dons a mask, but I now realize that, going through most of my life with (until recently undiagnosed) depression, I’ve worn masks for as long as I can remember … long before I even knew I had depression.

On the bus on the way home after a day at high-school, gazing blindly out the window, wondering “what is the point?”, “why am I alive?”, “why bother?” only to have, seconds later, a school-mate I didn’t even know all that well ask me, “why don’t you talk more, smile more? You’re a completely different person when you do.”  So I’d beam a mega-watt smile, flash my dimples, join the conversation, laugh at jokes, make jokes, earn some laughs, and be life of the bus party … all the while wondering if I was even remotely pulling it off. Then I’d get off the bus and sigh with relief that the acting was over. I wasn’t made to be an actor.

Years later, in university, different people, different venue, same feeling.  And in the workplace … and at family gatherings… At some of these occasions, I’d look around, see people I loved having fun with, and wonder why I couldn’t feel, well, anything, and then try to mimic them — and hope to hell I was passing for normal.  

Of course, there were a lot of real moments too during these times — what I now think of as true moments. I’m fortunate that I can remember (and have probably forgotten) an abundance of times when my laughs were straight from my belly without thought, the jokes as impromptu and genuine as the sun, the love I expressed coming straight from my heart.  But, when depression clouded reality, I wore a mask — a mask designed to hold over until real feeling returned.

Why the mask?

For most of my life, I donned a mask because I didn’t know (or admit?) that I had depression. So, uncertain, I mimicked people around me.  In recent years, dealing with depression, I’ve put on the mask because how do you tell people on any given day – your co-workers, your friends, your family – what you are really feeling when you can’t even quite understand or express it yourself?  It’s just easier to answer “fine” and paste on a smile.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with wearing the depression mask. Sometimes it just isn’t the time or place to reveal your true face.  Sometimes the mask is a very helpful aid to get through the day. The important thing is to recognize when and why we are putting on our masks.  And to show off our real faces, let them shine, whenever we can.  

That’s what I’m working on.