I have a mental illness and it sucks

I’m fucking mad.

I’m mad that I have to take pills everyday. I’m mad that they don’t work fast enough. I’m mad that they have side effects. I’m mad that they stop working. I’m mad that I currently can’t run because of my meds. I’m really fucking pissed that I feel like a burden to my husband, despite his reassurances that I’m not. I’m mad that he’s afraid to leave me alone. I’m even angrier that I’m afraid to be alone. I’m mad that it seems that my husband and I have a weekly conversation about whether or not we should go to the hospital. I’m mad at how mad I am. I’m mad that I can’t handle stress. I’m mad that I can’t stay up late. I’m mad that I spend what seems like half my life in doctors’ offices. And I’m mad that I’ve had so many blood tests in the past month that the nurse can’t find my veins anymore. It’s like I’m a fucking heroine addict with collapsed veins.

But do you know what I’m most angry at? I’m fucking pissed off that I have a mental illness.

This cat gets me.

This cat gets me.

I may have won the genetic lottery in some aspects of life, but inheriting a mental illness that runs in the family wasn’t my luckiest moment. I don’t know which side of the family I inherited this damn disease from, but both sides make a compelling argument. We’ve got alcoholics to the right and severe depressives to the left, and sometimes the two happen to meet. It’s like my DNA was destined to be fucked.

I know I’m not supposed to say these things publicly because you know, fighting stigma means presenting people with mental illness as happy, healthy, and smiling. Mental health organizations and advocates want to ensure that we appear nonthreatening, so no one really talks about how shitty it is to have a mental illness. Well, guess what? I’m pulling back the motherfucking curtain (and using as many swear words as possible. Does someone want to start a fuck count?).

I have bipolar disorder II and it really fucking sucks. And despite what some mental health advocates say, our mental illnesses do limit our lives.

Almost every major decision that I make is influenced by having bipolar disorder. For example, at 29 years old I have to weigh the consequences of going to a party and staying up late because this means taking my meds late. Taking my meds late means that I’ll be incapacitated by grogginess the next day and waste it in bed. Every time I have a social engagement, I have to ask myself, is it worth it? Instead of agreeing or disagreeing based on my schedule, I weigh the consequences to my mental health. This may seem like a ridiculous, insignificant aspect of life to be worried about. But do it for 10 years and then come back to me and tell me how insignificant it feels. I guarantee eventually you’ll want to just say, “Fuck it! I’m partying tonight who cares!” And then you’ll feel like shit the next day, not because you’re hungover (because being bipolar means you shouldn’t really drink) but because you’re medication is slated to meant to sedate you. You’ll wish you were hungover because it will feel better than being groggy.

Sick person

Or how about this? My ability to manage stress is significantly lower than yours. I don’t know if this is standard across people with bipolar disorder, but it seems the more stressful the situation the more my disease rears its ugly head. This
sucks because I work in a fast-paced, high-stress job that I’ve just realized is not good for my disease. To make matters worse, I’m really good at what I do and I actually like it. A year ago I would have told you that this was my career and I would move up the corporate ladder. But now I’m floundering and debating quitting to work at a coffee shop. This weekend, I saw a job posting for a sales clerk in an odds and ends shop. The store was incredibly quiet and I thought – that would be the life! I know as soon as I can leave this corporate job, it’s the end. There’s no high powered, high paying job in my future. I feel deep in my soul that my life will be filled with part-time work that pays a minimum wage.

stressedSince I don’t manage stress, everything is so fucking overwhelming. I used to be a clean freak, now cleaning my house doesn’t even register on my radar because it’s too stressful. I’m so stress out that it’s a fucking miracle that I get out of bed. It’s a feat that I shower, dress, and put make up on. And guess what? It makes me so angry when I’m having a particularly hard day and someone says, “But look at how well you’re doing.” Well guess what? That’s because I slave away at showing you the put together, efficient, and intelligent professional that you think I am. I would love to show you the crying, angry, insecure mess that lives inside of me, but you don’t actually want to see that. Despite what you say.

When I’m home (never alone, obviously) it’s my husband who gets to see all of these nasty bits. My favourite thing to do right now is to rage cry. This is when I fly into a sudden fury and start throwing and slamming things around until I tire myself out and fall apart and start to cry. This rage is frightening. I’ve never felt anything like it before. On Friday, I flew off the handle in the  middle of the grocery store because I didn’t like the way our groceries had been bagged. The kid doing his job had used too many bags and not filled them with enough things, which made walking home with them impossible. I grabbed the bags and started flinging produce into the bag, screaming “this is how you bag fucking groceries. It’s not fucking rocket science.” (I would know, I worked in a grocery store for 2 years).

Luckily we weren’t in front of the poor kid, but I had completely lost myself inside the anger. This wave of anger was the first time I felt like I could potentially hurt someone else. As I slammed produce into bags, my husband asked if we should go home. He was worried. As a joke he said, “I’m afraid you might kill someone.” I shouted back at him, “Well if I killed someone they would probably deserve it for being so fucking stupid!”

Hurting myself is a regular thought of mine, but hurting someone else has never crossed my mind. And it terrified me.

depressionNormally the rage that lives inside of me is more self-directed. I was so angry this past weekend that I was seriously considering vaulting myself over the ledge of my 6th floor balcony because I just couldn’t take it anymore. I’m not being hyperbolic. I was weighing whether or not the distance from my 6th floor balcony to the ground was far enough to actually kill me, or just paralyze me. I don’t want to be fucking paralyzed and fuck up my husband’s life further than I already have.  I’m actually panicked by the impulsiveness of my rage that I might actually act on it. But suicidal thoughts aren’t new to me. It’s rare that I go one day without thinking about a way to die. Waiting for the metro, and all I think is how easy it would be just to step out and be gone. A cabby takes a left hand turn too quickly and I think, man wouldn’t it be great if he hit me and I died. I pass bodies of water I can’t help but think about drowning. I’m prepping vegetables for dinner and I think, man this knife just wouldn’t be sharp enough to slit my wrists.

This is the reality of my life. I am incredibly unstable right now, which is why everything is so extreme. So, no this isn’t the normal everyday life of a bipolar person, but it’s one part of what it’s like to have bipolar disorder. The hardest part of the disease is that stability is never a guarantee. Sometimes you bring it on yourself, and others it comes out of the blue.

But right now, I’m exhausted by trying to appear normal and pretending that living with my mental illness is no big fucking deal. So the next time you think about “how good I’m performing” or “how good I look” or “that I have a spring in my fucking step” remember that it’s all a performance, an act for your benefit.

The reality is, I have a mental illness and it really fucking sucks.


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No pill can cure mental health stigma

Recently at a concert at the O2 arena in London, Lady Gaga confessed to her fans that she takes antidepressants for depression: “I take medication every day for mental illness and depression and [I] don’t feel bad about it.” She then went on to serenade her fans with a rendition of her hit song “Born this Way.”

Why would she feel bad for taking an antidepressant? Stigma.

antidepressants

Up to 9% of Canadians take some form of antidepressants.

But how can stigma exist in Canada when Canadians are among the highest antidepressant users in the world: “with as much as 9 per cent of the population on one depression-fighting drug or another, according to a new study from the OECD.”

If 9 per cent doesn’t strike you as a lot, do the math. The Canadian population was last estimated at roughly 35 million. That’s over 3 million Canadians taking some form of psychopharmaceutical. That’s a heck of a lot of people.

Stigma about medication and mental health exists because no one talks candidly about it. It’s great that public figures like Lady Gaga are talking more and more openly about mental health, but it’s not enough. Confessing you take medication for depression is only step-one in combating stigma. The rest is talking about the nuances of what taking medication is actually like. Demystifying the belief that it’s a magic pill (it isn’t) or that antidepressants are exclusively bad (they aren’t).

Over the course of the past 10 years, I think I have taken more pharmaceuticals than the average person will take in their lifetime. I play a weird memory game with myself and I try and run through all of the prescriptions that I have filled over the years. The names of SSRIs, SNRIs, and antipsychotics have become like a mantra: Zyprexa, Ativan, Effexor, Lithium, Wellbutrin, Risperdal, Seroquel, Clonazepam, Zoloft, and Celexa.

But it hasn’t always been this easy to confess that I have taken and am taking these medications. It took me over 10 years of silent suffering to admit that I have a mental illness and that I depend on medication to function. I’ve started openly talking to friends and family about how medication makes me feel, how it intrudes on my life, how it messes with my memory and recall, and despite knowing that it manages my mood that it’s a struggle to swallow that little pill every morning and night.

protect-your-nutsTo be honest, I’m embarrassed that I probably take more medication than my 80 year-old grandmother. When we have company over, I’m like a squirrel, stashing my pill bottles like nuts to keep them away from prying eyes. I spend five minutes every Sunday filling my pill dispenser that I refer to as my “pill hotel.” No one knows that I need to remember to take my medication with me if I go out. I worry about taking my pills on time. If I take a certain pill too late, I’ll never wake up the next day. If I forget a dose, I have the symptoms of a heroine addict going through withdrawal. I don’t tell people about how I worry about going through customs with all of my pill bottles in my carry-on, lest I become like this lady. My medication causes my memory to really suck. And at this very moment I’m struggling with forming sentences and articulating words.

But it’s not just these weird idiosyncratic life interruptions of taking medication. I often worry about the toll these pills are taking on the organs processing them. They all pass through the liver which is terrifying. Not only that, but most antidepressants and antipsychotics also wreak havoc on your metabolism and interfere with certain chemical receptors in your brain that cause weight gain. So, I’m about 30 pounds heavier than when I started taking psychopharmaceuticals and that’s something I’ve had to learn how to cope with. It sounds like an okay trade off — being heavier and alive versus depressed and suicidal — and I agree. But with depression comes an inherent lack of self-esteem, so it’s hard facing the mirror. And if all of that isn’t enough, one of the medications I take also negatively impacts cholesterol. So at 28, I’m worrying about cholesterol levels and have my blood taken regularly. There’s also the odd side effect of excessive sweating. Some people are lucky and it only happens at night but others are not (embarrassingly, I’m in the “are not” category). And let’s not even get into what happens if I choose to become pregnant… that issue is its own blog post.

So if it’s so shitty taking these medications, why do over 3 million of us decide to take them? Tell me what the alternative is. Therapy! Of course there’s therapy, but those in crisis (e.g. suicidal or psychotic) know that expressing how we’re feeling is basically impossible. So even if there are studies that show that antidepressants may do more harm than good and that they don’t work, if you’re in crisis and feel like ending your life, the ability to take a pill that might stop your brain from turning against itself is sometimes enough to keep you holding on.

If physical diseases were treated like mental illness - ImgurIf you are among the lucky population who does react well to medication, taking a pill may allow you to work through the problems you’re facing in therapy and hopefully you won’t have to be on medication for the rest of your life. But the reality is that for some of us suffering from chronic mental illness, therapy isn’t enough. With Bipolar Disorder, I don’t think a form of therapy exists that would allow me to manage my mood better than taking Seroquel and that’s a reality I’ve started to come to terms with. I console myself with the fact that Seroquel is a better alternative to Lithium (for me).

Living with a mental illness, whether it’s depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, is always a balancing act. You have to balance out what’s worse, the symptoms of your illness or the side effects of the medication, and it isn’t always easy to decide. Some people decide not taking medication is the way to go, but many people decide pills are a good way to deal with their illness. Whatever your decision, never let anyone tell you that you’re weak for having a mental illness or that taking a pill is the easy way out. We’d never say this to a diabetic taking insulin or a cancer patient going through chemo. Whatever you’re facing, you’re a mental health warrior on an incredibly difficult journey that is often filled with more downs than ups.

So I urge my fellow mental health advocates to continue talking candidly about what life is really like for those of us taking medication and living with our illness. At the end of the day, it’s all about ending stigma and unfortunately there’s no pill for that.

A version of this originally appeared on Healthy Minds Canada. It was also published by Huffpost Living Canada.

Retreat not defeat: Self-Stigma and Mental Health

I have been stable for the past four years, but now my bipolar disorder has resurfaced. It could have been triggered by stress, meds or the weather change — or equal parts of all of these things — but the reality is that I’m unwell.

Demi Lovato can rock it, why can't I?

Demi Lovato can rock it, why can’t I?

Saturday highlighted this, as I was in a full hypomanic episode. Upon reflection, it had been building all week but I didn’t realize it. I had been having extreme anxiety all week and had been very agitated. I wasn’t sleeping and I was extremely volatile. By Saturday, this agitation and anxiety had turned into excessive, delirious energy that despite working out for two hours, taking anti-anxiety meds, and trying to take a calming bath, it wouldn’t go away. My speech was rapid and bouncing from one thought to the next. I couldn’t sit still. I was moving like I was on speed. I had great ideas (I saw a girl with half of her head shaved and thought that would be an awesome look for me, too. And while it might be an awesome look for me, it’s not a decision to be made while hypomanic).

It was when I said this that my husband asked if I was hypomanic. Calmly, he described my behavior and I trust his judgement enough to know that if this is what he is seeing, it’s true.

I’m equal parts frustrated, disappointed and defeated. It has been so long since my mood swings have been so volatile and explosive. It has been a long time since I felt manic. It has been a long time since I have felt so completely out of control.

Under the suggestion of my doctor and psychiatrist, I have taken a leave of absence from work. To be honest, this has been the hardest thing I have had to do in my life. I feel like I have admitted defeat to my illness. I feel like my leave of absence is showing the world that my illness makes me weak and that I can’t hack it in the real world.

Rationally, I know this is totally unsubstantiated. I have a supportive partner, family, and friends. I have previously disclosed my illness to my boss in preparation of writing this blog and she had demonstrated my illness didn’t taint her view of me. But there’s nothing I love more than feeling guilty, so I still beat myself up.

stigma

What about self-imposed stigma?

I try to situate my mental illness like someone who has cancer. If a colleague took a leave to get chemotherapy, would I judge them? Of course not. I would probably send them an email wishing them well or send flowers to their hospital room. But we don’t think of mental illness in this way because it’s symptoms are not visible. My moods are visible — I’m agitated, I’m teary, I don’t sleep — but the “proof” that the actual illness exists isn’t visible. It’s my word and a doctor’s signature on some paperwork.

We often speak of stigma in terms of external judgement — how others perceive those with mental illness. But a form of stigma we don’t often talk about is the self-imposed stigma. Will I get fired for taking a leave of absence? Will I be given less interesting projects because they’re less stressful? Will they think I’m less capable because of my illness? Do my colleagues think I’m lazy and just don’t want to work? Are people whispering about the crazy girl who had a breakdown? I am so consumed by thoughts about what other people might be thinking about me, I neglect what’s most important — what I think and need.

Last week, these self-imposed judgments were spinning in my head increasing my agitation and anxiety. In an attempt to help, my husband and I set out on a walk of undetermined length. As we walked, I explained all of these thoughts to him.

If I look back, I am lost

“If I look back, I am lost,” Danaerys Targaryen. A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.

“I’m regretting taking this leave of absence. Maybe I could take back the paperwork that had been submitted. I could go to work and have my medication readjusted — I could handle that. I didn’t really need this leave of absence at all. But on the other hand I’m so tired and angry — what if I blow up at work? I already snapped at one co-worker when I normally wouldn’t. I could lose my job. Also, I was sobbing at my desk on Tuesday. That’s not right. No, I do need this leave. It’s good for me. But on the other hand…”

After listening patiently to my rambling and often contradictory thoughts for the better part of an hour, he finally said something:

“I know deep down you know that this is the right decision. In the 10 years we have been together, this is the first time I have seen you choose yourself over other people. I’m proud of you.”

This stopped the self-stigma in its tracks. He reminded me that this leave is only a minor setback. I haven’t surrendered to my illness, I’ve just retreated. No general would continue when the battle is surely lost. A general would regroup, tend to the wounded, gather reinforcements, and re-strategize. And that’s all I’m doing. I may have lost this battle, but there’s still a war to win.

A version of this post originally appeared on Healthy Minds Canada and The Huffington Post’s Stronger Together.

My battle with depression and anxiety

If a shoe is going to drop, please let it be a Louboutin.

If a shoe is going to drop, please let it be a Louboutin.

Living with a chronic mental illness often feels like waiting for the other shoe to drop. Well, the proverbial shoe has dropped (it’s stylish at least). I’ve been struggling for a while, but I’m finally coming around to admitting it. Despite seeing therapists on and off for nearly 10 years, I still find it hard to communicate how I feel. But even more difficult is being honest with myself about how I am feeling. So I guess this is sort of a litmus test. Will confessing how I feel get me out of denial or will I continue to keep my head in the sand and ignore it?

I’ve been battling semi-regular panic attacks for the past six months. My first panic attack in years happened in March. As with most panic attacks, they happen at the most inopportune moments. This particular one happened during the middle of a concert. I was at a bar that was packed with drunk hipsters, tossing their bodies carelessly to the music. I began to feel claustrophobic among the ever-increasing press. The bass of the music reverberated in my chest, amplifying my pounding heart. The bar was too hot. The walls were closing in on me. I couldn’t catch my breath. My heart felt like it was going to explode out of my chest. I had to get out of there. My husband and I snaked our way through the crowded bar, each time someone bumped into me, a jolt of adrenaline coursed through me like an electric current. By the time we made it to the door, I was in the throes of a full-blown panic attack.

i-can-t-keep-calm-because-i-have-anxiety-28These situations are incredibly frustrating. As I was leaning against the building, among the smokers and couples making out, I couldn’t help but cry. I was having such a great evening before this. My husband and I enjoyed an incredible dinner before the concert. We were hanging out with friends, listening to an amazing band. And then I had to leave before they finished their set. Compounding my anxiety was the fact that the friends I was with had no idea what was happening. As we left, I mumbled excuses about having to catch the last metro.

Panic attacks are like getting the stomach flu right before an event. Except instead of knowing before that you were cancelling to puke in the safety of your home, you’re suddenly vomiting in public (lovely imagery, I know) and rushing out of the door.

After this first attack, I started seeing a therapist (who was a former psychiatrist) for the first time in about four years. She’s an incredibly lovely lady. She suggested that I exercise more and cut out caffeine and sugar. I started working out every day, reduced my caffeine (I haven’t had a coffee that wasn’t decaf in three months) and tried to avoid sugar as much as humanly possible. Except, none of this helped and the panic just got worse.

As my anxiety levels increased to nearly intolerable levels, sleep became a joke (despite already taking medication that is supposed to help me sleep). I can’t tell you the last time I have slept through the night. Finally in May, after not sleeping for about four days, I was given anti-anxiety medication. I often pair my nighttime pill with my anti-anxiety meds, but I still wake up in semi-terror, feeling like I have forgotten something important. Other nights I just toss and turn unable to sleep at all.

But lately, it’s more than panic plaguing me. An encompassing sadness has attached itself to me like a shadow — following me wherever I go, no matter what I do. I’ve had this feeling before, it’s certainly not new to me. It’s just been a while. I know it’s depression waiting in the wings. I know that if I don’t fight it hard enough, it will envelope me completely. So everyday I force myself out of bed and go to work. I force myself to keep plans and socialize because I know that if I don’t, I’d spend my weekends in bed, reading or watching TV until Monday. I know that depression is never fought by being a hermit. Sometimes it works and I end up enjoying myself out with friends but other times, I just wish I was in bed.

cd4304cad520eceb4f3f9df23225ad46Nothing comes easily right now — including writing this. Stringing words together has always come easily to me and it’s frustrating to feel like there’s a dam blocking my flow of words (perhaps that’s why I resorted to a scatalogical simile earlier).

But the worst part of all of this is watching the concern on my husband’s face. I know as I stare silently into space as we watch TV, his mind is running through worst case scenarios. Is she thinking about killing herself? Is this going to result in another hospital stay? Will I catch her self-harming? How concerned do I need to be?

You may be thinking that these scenarios may seem a bit extreme, but the fact is that we’ve gone through all of them, and only four short years ago. My parents have been extremely supportive through the ups and downs of my illness, but they don’t have a choice — I’m their kid. My husband always had the option to leave and he didn’t — even when I have repeatedly encouraged him to.

Even if his worst case scenarios have happened in the past, the reality of this recent sadness (I am still reticent to name it depression, for now) is that I’m not in that headspace. I refuse to resort to self-harm at 28 years old. I’m not thinking of suicide as a viable option because I see the value of my life. And for the first time in my illness, I’m actually taking positive steps to help stave off depression.

The first step was recognizing the persisting sadness — it’s been longer than a week, this is more than a bad mood. The second step was making an appointment with my therapist. And the third, and probably the most important step, was sharing how I was feeling with my husband and parents (my main support system). This third step has always given me the most trouble.

It’s not that these steps will guarantee that I will ward off a full blown depressive episode. I’m terrified that it could still happen. I’m intimidated by the thought of changing my medications and dealing with new side effects. I’m scared that I might have to take a leave from my job. I’m horrified by the potential of another hospital stay.

But at the end of the day, even if all of this happens, at least I know I tried. And that’s something.

A version of this piece originally appeared on Healthy Minds Canada. It was also published on The Huffington Post’s Stronger Together.