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Life, Love, Adventure

My Quest to Erase the Stigma of Mental Illness

Dear Teacher…I Want You to Know…

Spring has finally sprung…at least according to the calendar, which means here in NY schools are preparing to administer the ELA and Math standardized tests in grades 3-8. Having taught grades 3-6 over the past 18 years I have had my fair share of dealing with the controversy over these tests. As I sit here trying to decide whether to opt my 7th grader out of the tests again this year I have had many things to consider. What keeps coming back to me are the words I have heard from students throughout the years. I feel compelled to share what students have said to me in order to remember what these few weeks are like from a child’s perspective. No matter where we stand as parents, teachers and even politicians, we have to remember that what we do and say and demand of our young children cannot be forgotten or overlooked when they sit down to take these tests. I realize this does not represent every student nor every school, however based on my experience, this is what a letter from a student would look like as I’ve quoted concerns they have personally expressed to me and have remained in my memory year after year. 

Dear teacher,

I want you to know that yesterday I worked as hard as I could on the first part of the State Test.  I hope I remembered to do everything you’ve taught me so that I get a good grade. I don’t want anyone to think I’m stupid.

I went to bed early to get a good night’s sleep but my baby sister who shares my room cried a lot last night.  When I woke up I forgot to change her diaper because I was so tired. My dad screamed at me and told me I was irresponsible. I can still hear him yelling and the image of his angry face makes me want to cry.

The letter the school sent home said we should eat a healthy breakfast but my mom forgot to go shopping so I had to split a Pop-Tart with my brother. I will try to eat the school’s breakfast today but I usually don’t like it. I hope my stomach doesn’t growl like it did yesterday. I got really embarrassed when the other kids heard it and then I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I hope JJ doesn’t throw his test and pencils across the room if he gets mad today. That really broke my concentration.

I’m sorry that I had to use the bathroom during the test yesterday. I went before we started like you told me. I tried really hard to hold it but I couldn’t. I didn’t drink anything this morning to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

I’ll do my best to remember all the strategies you taught me but sometimes I get really nervous when I don’t understand something and I forget. I wish I could ask you questions.

I tried my best to concentrate and work hard the whole time but after an hour my eyes got really tired. My legs started to fall asleep and I really wanted to get up and move around. I’ll do my best to sit still and be silent but I’m worried I won’t be able to. We never have to sit still that long on a regular day. You once said it was torture for you to sit still that long without a break. I hope I can do it.

I feel bad for C. because she told me on the bus this morning that her dog died last night. She didn’t want to come to school but her parents said she had to take the test. She was crying in the bathroom and wanted to go home.

I’m jealous of all the kids whose parents gave them permission to opt out of the test. If it doesn’t matter if they take the test I don’t get why I should have to try so hard. I will beg my parents to get me out of the math test because I know I am going to fail anyway. I am really bad at math. I failed all of the practice tests even though I stayed after school for extra help. Why should I even bother?

I tried to tell two students to stop fighting this morning. I hope they calmed down so their teacher doesn’t get mad. I got in trouble for not minding my own business.

I feel bad for Mrs. G. I heard one of her students say they were going to fail on purpose because she gave him detention last week.

This morning on the bus T.told me that her mom forgot to give her medicine before she left and now she is worried she won’t be able to concentrate. She’s probably going to get in trouble again for being a distraction.

I hope K. can stay awake today. I noticed that she kept falling asleep yesterday even after you woke her up. She told me her family got kicked out of their apartment and had to sleep in a motel. I don’t think she cares about the test.

I hope the class doesn’t get mad at me again for taking so long to finish. I feel bad for making them wait for me until I’m done. Some of them said I’d better hurry up today so they could talk sooner.

Please try not to look over my shoulder or walk around the room too much. It makes me really nervous. I feel as though I’m being monitored like a prisoner.

I will listen carefully while you read all of the directions to us, but I will probably forget most of them. They are really long and my mind wanders quickly.

I think you should give M. extra tissues and make her sit in the back of the room today because she kept sneezing and it made me lose my train of thought. I don’t know how she could possibly concentrate.

Why do I have to keep doing the same thing over and over for three days in a row? Can’t they figure out if I’m smart the first day?

I wish we didn’t have to change our schedule. The day seems so much longer and I always get confused about what we are doing next or where I’m supposed to go.

Thank you for telling me to just do my best and to try not to worry, but I see how anxious everyone is. I dread being in school. Everything is so serious and stressful.

Ms. T yelled at her class yesterday. She said they should stop complaining about the test because when they are in HS they will have to take the Regents so they’d better get used to it. I don’t get that. We’re only 10.

I always get good grades in reading so why were there so many words I didn’t understand? You told me I was on grade level but these passages were so much harder.

I don’t understand why everything is so strict. Why do we need to be escorted and monitored in the bathrooms? Why aren’t we allowed to talk about the test after? Why can’t you grade my test and tell me how I did? Why is everything such a big secret?

I hope I do well. I promise I will try very hard because I want you to be proud of me and I want everyone to know you are a good teacher. You encourage me and help me. You are like a mom to me. Don’t get mad at me if I get a lower grade than usual.

I will help you put all of our posters back on the walls so it looks bright and happy in here again. I can’t wait for these tests to be over so we can go back to learning and doing cool projects where we work together.

 Please don’t forget all of the other things I am good at. I want to be able to laugh and smile, ask questions and discuss ideas with my group, and I want to be creative again. I want to wake up in the morning and look forward to everything we are going to learn and not have to worry about sitting still, falling asleep, being silent and feeling like I’m in the army. Remember…I’m only 10 and there is so much more for me to learn than how to take a test.

Love,

Your student who longs to enjoy school again.

My Grateful Heart

When you are suicidal is it possible to have a grateful heart?

My pastor made a point on Sunday that struck a nerve triggering bitterness within me and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. That morning I believed what he said would be impossible for me to do and quite frankly that annoyed me. Little did I know that God was planting a seed in my heart.

My pastor spoke about waking up each morning with an attitude of gratitude in order to set the tone for the day moving our hearts and minds toward light and away from darkness. It could be as simple as thanking God for waking up and the ability to get out of bed. When our feet hit the floor thank Him for the ability to walk. As we get into the shower we should appreciate the hot water as it flows over our head.  However, as someone who often goes to bed praying for God to kill me, how do I ever embrace that? At that moment guilt completely washed over me because it sounded so easy, yet I couldn’t ever imagine doing that. If this is how we learn to be grateful and obedient to God it definitely wasn’t possible for me.

When I am in the midst of a depressive episode the mere act of opening my eyes in the morning is accompanied by disappointment and resentment. “God, why do you insist I keep waking up?” The weight of the fog of depression engulfs me, detaching me from the outside world penetrating every inch of my body and mind. I am paralyzed from any possibility of movement. The thought of getting out of bed carrying this weight of blackness is nothing short of torture. Trying to force myself to appreciate being alive, having the ability to walk and the presence of hot water for a shower seems absurd. It is extremely unlikely I will be able to remove myself from my bed. All I can do is cry as I wonder why God would have me face another day in this state of mind.

Of course I realize this is completely selfish. How dare I not be thankful for every breath I take and all that God has given me? But as I have described in previous posts, mental illness wreaks havoc with my thought processes and what should be obvious makes no sense. How can I process this and turn myself around so I can take a step in the right direction away from the destructiveness of ungratefulness?

There are people who would give anything for the ability to get out of bed on their own and here I am resentful because I can.  I WANT to be grateful. I long to say it from my heart and truly mean it. But I know it would be a boldfaced lie. And if you’ve never felt the grip of depression I realize this is difficult to comprehend.  Depression causes you to look at all of your blessings while telling you that you are undeserving. Deep down you know the truth but you are consumed with guilt for your feelings of despair and you become trapped in a maddening battle for your mind.

Recently a friend of mine committed suicide leaving behind a wife and two children the same age as my boys. Not once have I ever thought he was selfish. I’ve been in his shoes. I’ve been trapped in a suicidal state of mind and I know what it feels like to firmly believe there is no other option. But after he took his life my frame of mind ultimately changed. His pain may now be over, but his family’s pain had just begun. Whenever I think about suicide – even if it’s only passive – I redirect my focus to the faces of my family. The reality of what they would have to deal with if I ever ended it is unbearable. Despite any desperation I may feel, when I see their faces I am convinced that I am supposed to stay – no matter how difficult it may be for me.

The memory of my friend and his family who has to continue on without him sparked a desire to find a way to appreciate my existence. My pastor’s words along with the memory of my friend came together. I immediately realized it was possible to shift my focus to my loved ones and I wanted to express my gratitude to God. Maybe there are steps I can take to change my heart. I’ve been trapped in a mindset that if I couldn’t be grateful for something as simple as waking up then I didn’t deserve to be alive and was incapable of being thankful for anything.

But Sunday night I had a revelation.

I am so grateful that my children are going to wake up and still have a mom who loves them more than anything. I am grateful they will have a mom in the bleachers cheering them on and supporting them that afternoon. Their mom will be there to make breakfast for them and pack their lunches. My kids will not  have to ask why their mom left them and chose not to stay to see them grow up. They will not have to live with guilt and forever wonder why. Thank you God for protecting them and helping me step out of the darkness.

Thank you that my husband won’t wake up this morning as a single father  forced to pick up the pieces of his children’s lives while trying to make sense of it all. Instead, he will continue to have a partner to share his life with.  

Thankfully my parents won’t be forced to bury their child then spend the rest of their lives trying to figure out what went wrong.

There have been days this week that depression has threatened to take me down. I’ve felt my mind “go there.” I’ve winced upon waking the moment I realize I have to survive another day. However I’ve forced myself to get out of bed and go immediately into my sons’ rooms to wake them for the day. Looking at their peaceful faces I become truly grateful to God for protecting them from waking to a nightmare they would have to deal with for the rest of their lives.

I hold on to the hope I will wake up one day with excitement and gratitude for the gift of life in and of itself. Never before have I believed that possible. When my pastor spoke about it on Sunday, I sat there beating myself up because I was convinced I couldn’t do it. I didn’t WANT to do it. It seemed pointless. But God put it on my heart that it is possible when I take the focus off of myself.

No matter how badly I’ve felt, I’ve never wanted to cause my loved ones any pain. I truly only want what’s best for them — a life full of blessings, love and joy. I won’t be responsible for taking that from them. Opening my eyes may be painful. Facing a lifelong illness is daunting, but when I do it for my family I know they won’t have to open theirs to devastating news and pain. When I re-frame my mind my heart is sincerely grateful.

Laying in bed on the eve of my son’s thirteenth birthday telling him about the night he was born, I became overwhelmed with love and gratitude toward God and  I thanked Him profusely for carrying me through the worst parts of my illness to bring me to that very moment to celebrate my son becoming a teenager. I was able to tell him how proud I am to be his mother and how much joy he brings into my life. The realization that I could have robbed him of hearing that from his mom hit me like a ton of bricks. When the bad days come I know I will get through because I’ve discovered the treasure of gratitude buried in my heart while gazing at my son’s face, taking my eyes off myself in order to focus on the things I am truly grateful for.

The Holidays…I Will Survive!

The holidays are a time for us to give thanks and to celebrate the miracle of Christmas. It’s a time to enjoy family and friends while reflecting on all of our blessings and looking forward with hope. However, despite all the joy and wonderment of the season, for me this time of year can be extremely difficult. I find myself cringing as I admit that because I realize I may appear ungrateful and negative, but be assured the intent of this is not to complain, whine or go on a rant about the holidays. Undoubtedly this time of year can be stressful for all of us. But I want to be completely honest about how having an illness makes this time of year a struggle.

What I’m talking about is typical holiday stress magnified times ten. As I look back on my life through the lens of mental illness I realize there are many triggers I have to be aware of in order to stay healthy and they just so happen to show up all at once right about now. I recognize patterns and see how frequently and easily I experienced illness this time of year. It typically starts around the beginning of November and can last just a few days or up to several months.

For me the first domino is the time change. Spending increasingly more time indoors and being less active disrupts my sleep cycle which in turn can trigger a mild state of mania. At first it feels great and I’m tricked into thinking everything will be wonderful and I will easily be able to handle everything and anything placed before me. However, that rarely happens. It doesn’t take long for me to finally crash and burn which then sets off an emotional rollercoaster that can literally become months and months of on and off torture.

My mind will race with ideas — presents, cards, parties, crafts, cookies, vacation, gatherings…you name it, I want to do it. I make lists and set unrealistic goals . I take it all on at once but eventually my mind begins to slow and soon falling into the pit seems imminent. The hopelessness and realization that I may not be successful in getting all or any of it done sets in and the pressure of looming deadlines triggers bouts of anxiety, panic attacks, agitation and ultimately despair.

There have been times I couldn’t handle Christmas shopping because I was unable to think ahead or I simply could not figure out how to do it. I have a Master’s Degree, yet I would stand in a store and not be able to make sense of my list so I would leave defeated and empty handed. Often my doctor would make adjustments to my meds to help counteract everything going on in my mind, but more often than not it would interfere with memory and my ability to solve problems and stay organized, which definitely is not very helpful in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

This decline in being able to function well brings on the inevitable guilt that starts to take over when I am not full of joy or able to keep up. I get overwhelmed, sometimes to the point of complete paralysis, and I truly question whether I will ever survive. Then the social aspect of the holidays kicks into high gear. There are all kinds of amazingly wonderful things to do, but when my brain isn’t functioning correctly, my body is adjusting to medication and my mind is working against me it can become unbearable. One year I spent Christmas day on the floor watching my kids open presents trying to participate in their joy. The only thing I could think about was the trip I was going to be making to admit myself to a hospital the following day because my depression had me paralyzed and I truly believed I was going to be swallowed by it with no way out.

People have accused me of being ungrateful or difficult and I can understand it may seem that way from the outside. Trust me, I want more than anything to sing with joy and love and appreciate all that is going on around me. I have to be honest though, sometimes it’s nearly impossible. The crowds, the noise, the pressure to constantly smile and be involved in never ending conversations that I can’t follow or contribute to because I get lost provoke panic. My tongue gets tied or what I do say ends up making no sense at all causing me to want to isolate and be silent forever.

Years ago I went to my pastor around this time of year and admitted I didn’t think I could go on and live another day this way. I bottomed out and asked for help. He suggested I concentrate only on what Christmas really signifies and to focus on it over and over. It seemed kind of silly and trite, but believe it or not that’s the only thing that got me through. It took a total change of focus. And I’m not saying it was easy or that it immediately fixed me and as a result it has been wonderful ever since. It hasn’t and that can be frustrating. The illness in not curable. The symptoms can manifest at any given moment especially when all triggers are present at once. But there is something different about the times I’ve forced myself to try — even just a tiny bit — to think about God and what He did for us and remind myself that it’s really the only thing that matters. Those times have been bearable. In the midst of a panic attack during a large gathering, if I close my eyes and say “Please help me God,” I make it through. When my kids are screaming with joy on Christmas morning and all I want to do is crawl in a hole, if I take a deep breath and tell God I’m lost and want more than anything to make the day special for my kids, I am able to get through the day with a smile on my face. When I try to comprehend the magnitude of God’s gift of Himself to us on Christmas, it somehow calms me and there is a glimmer of hope.

I’ve learned a lot over the years. I am aware of what my triggers are so I can try to avoid them. I know what coping mechanisms don’t work well so I no longer use them. I know my pride gets in the way of me asking for help, so I try to swallow it and ask anyway. I have to accept that sometimes I get depressed and remind myself that it is not my fault. I have to give myself permission to allow myself time to get well. I have to take advantage of the times I am well to cherish every single moment so that if I do get sick I have something to hold onto.

When I sit in church I try to focus on the music and listen to the lyrics. I try to imagine what it was like for Mary and Joseph over 2000 years ago as they were searching for a place to stay, aware of the responsibility that lay before them. I think of their obedience to God and how fully they had to trust Him, despite probably being terrified and wondering how they were ever going to manage the monumental task of giving birth in a stable to the Son of God. Then I look at whatever situation I’m faced with. I know God has brought me out of darkness before. I know whenever I ask for help He is there. I know when I choose to trust and surrender myself to Him hope becomes real. Sometimes the idea of making it through the darkness seems monumental. But here’s the thing — He always gets me THROUGH the darkness. He has never left me there. God is so powerful and there is nothing that is too big for Him. He takes situations that seem hopeless or impossible and turns them into miracles.

That’s what I intend to focus on this Christmas. As the season’s demands and triggers seem ready to swallow me whole and I find myself starting to slip, I will focus on the miracle of Christmas to remind me of the miracle that is my life. There is nothing I can’t handle as long as I acknowledge that God is with me, waiting to lead me, love me, comfort me and get me through just as He has always done. That is the hope we all need to grab hold of because it is available to each and every one of us. I encourage you to focus on that this year and allow God to help you. I guarantee it will make a difference.

Please Don’t Call Me Selfish…

Yesterday as I was flipping through the channels I happened upon a show hosted by a well known Christian author and speaker who was discussing the topic of suicide with a guest. Having read several of this person’s books and watched many of her conferences on tv I decided to tune in. However, it didn’t take long for me to become extremely annoyed with their conversation to the point I envisioned myself reaching through the tv and smacking her upside the head.

I will first say this — They obviously had the best intentions and I’m sure what they were saying probably resonated with and helped some people. BUT — there were several things they said that I have a major problem with. And it bothered me even more because they were discussing suicide in relation to being a Christian while placing judgment upon those who suffer from mental illness which, in my eyes, contradicts the very essence of my faith.

They were calling the act of suicide selfish and a result of the person’s desire to take the easy way out. As my blood began to boil they continued with comments such as “Sometimes we just have to decide to do something besides sitting around being miserable,” followed by a chuckle and a shrug. It came across as very condescending and right then and there she lost all credibility with me. If I had tuned in to find hope and help with suicidal thoughts –  whether I had any faith to begin with or not – that would have left me feeling defeated, misunderstood and like a failure. Since it was a Christian show on a Christian tv station I would probably resent her beliefs as well. It was not a very welcoming invitation for people to stay tuned to find hope.

As you know, I am a Christian with a strong faith that has helped me through the darkest times in my life. In hindsight I can say without a doubt that God has saved my life MANY times. However, conversations such as these can give Christians a bad rap because it comes across as very judgmental which tends to scare people away. Most, if not all, of my friends get that there is much more to overcoming a mental illness than the strength of someone’s faith. Most people realize that there is a medical component that we cannot will our way out of in order to be healed. It’s not that easy, but the conversation I was witnessing certainly made it seem like it should be and if it wasn’t then I had to be doing something wrong.

If you have never been to the point of wanting to commit suicide it is impossible to completely understand how someone could ever want to end their life, especially when, as in my case, they have so much to live for and be thankful for. Of course I can understand how from an outside perspective suicide seems extremely selfish because loved ones are left with the devastating aftermath. My pain may end but theirs would have just begun. When I am light years away from this state of mind I am able to comprehend the  consequences of taking my own life and I pray I never get back there because I can see clearly how it makes no sense.

The thing that people don’t get though is that when a person gets to that point there is a disconnect between the act and the consequences. I’ve been desperate, coming close to ending it all many times and every single time I’ve truly believed that my family and friends would be better off without me. Beyond that conviction there is no other rational thought. It’s the only thing that makes sense. Clarity of mind no longer exists. A tangible darkness takes over and literally squeezes the life out of my mind until there is no more room for hope. It’s confusing. It’s terrifying.  It makes no sense. The only truth I can accept is that the pain will never end and there is no other way out, even though in a rational state of mind I would adamantly disagree with that. Whenever I’ve contemplated suicide my entire perception of reality was skewed.

So when I hear a person preach that we are selfish, not fighting hard enough, taking the easy way out or not thinking of our loved ones it infuriates me. Especially when I hear a fellow Christian with seemingly good intentions proclaiming this to be true. Here’s the thing…when I’ve been held captive by this state of mind hearing this from a person who is supposed to be spreading hope has only made me feel worse and my immediate reaction would be to shut them out because my thoughts and actions have already been judged.

When I was new to my faith as an adult and had just been diagnosed with bipolar I reached out to people in my church, read countless books and attended Bible studies — all of which absolutely helped me. But during this time I also read books and several articles by popular Christians that basically claimed depression was a result of unhealed wounds, lack of faith and inability to surrender — all of which can be contributors, but there is often so much more to it such as a true biological component. Meds, according to these authors, were considered to be a sign of giving up and being weak so if we would only grow in faith then we would no longer need them. While that may be true for some, a blanket statement should not be made about every person dealing with mental illness. I felt like a failure and started to believe that I was being judged by everyone around me and eventually hated going to church and stopped going to Bible study. My friends were not judging me at all but my mind could not conceive that. I began making generalizations that everyone held that belief about depression (which they didn’t) and because of that I felt more alone and flawed than ever.

Here’s why I’m so annoyed. We have to be aware of how our words come across to people who are in crisis as a result of a brain that has malfunctioned causing rational thought to disappear. This is especially important if we want to convince others there really is hope and that a relationship with God is critical in dealing with any obstacle life throws at us. Telling people they are selfish and looking for the easy way out not only causes resentment but will most certainly turn people away from faith. I have a strong faith yet when I see shows or read books like this it ultimately makes me feel like a failure. I am convinced I will never get it right so what’s the point in even trying? Saying I am selfish implies that I am not concerned about others. When I’ve been suicidal this is not the case at all. The last thing I want to do is die and miss out on my family’s life or cause them to hurt in any way, but my mind has convinced me that there is no other way out and they would truly be better off without me.

I know many people who have been ‘turned off’ by Christianity because they have felt judged. There are people who won’t read what I have to say if they know it has to do with faith because of past experiences in which they were judged and looked down upon. How does that spread hope? How is a suicidal person going to find hope or ever come to faith or as in my case grow in faith if this is the message we hear? Or if we’ve been so turned off we don’t even want to listen.

I have had many pastors, mentors and Christian friends and family who have been completely supportive and open minded when it comes to trying to help and understand a complicated illness that most of the time makes no sense. They are loving, supportive, open minded and actively praying for miracles to happen. Without them I could not have gotten through…and that is what true Christianity is all about…We can’t try to scare people into believing something or guilt them into it in order to get better. But that’s what this show was doing and I want people to know that is not how we are going to be successful in helping those who struggle with mental illness.

Instead of telling me to pray harder or that when my faith gets strong enough I will no longer need medication, tell me you want to understand and that you are willing to try. Refrain from judging me and insisting that there is a quick fix. Remind me that faith will help me get through but realize a lack of faith is not the cause. Convincing me that I’m selfish isn’t going to change the chemical imbalance in my brain.

If I had tuned into a show where they were attempting to understand what a suicidal person may be going through with empathy that would have at the very least kept me listening. I would not have been resentful of her judgment and for making it seem as though I needed to be a better believer in order to get well. Seeking God and coming to faith will help us through the darkest times…that I can guarantee. But people who are struggling might miss out on that entirely because of mixed messages that are broadcast all over the place. Our job is to love one another, not judge each other and that’s how we can make a difference.  

Today I Ran For My Life…

Yesterday I remained curled up in a chair for 8 unbearable hours unable to do anything even close to productive. I sat, pen in hand, notebook open and all I accomplished in those hours was two sentences. One of them makes no sense to me now because I couldn’t keep a train of thought going and the second was an attempt at prayer but I only got as far as “God please…” It hurt to think because the darkness that enveloped me suffocated my brain preventing coherent thought from forming. Random thoughts would intrude my mind in bursts reminding me of all I SHOULD be doing especially in preparation for Thanksgiving which was only two days away. The thought of cleaning anything, especially when I couldn’t even summon the energy to shower, made me wince. The only thing I longed for was a deep sleep from which I’d never return.

Today I woke up and ran 7 miles in below freezing temps and now here I sit as words are flowing effortlessly onto the paper. Who was that shell of a person yesterday? I remember WANTING to run yesterday because I knew it would make me feel better…I simply COULDN’T. I caught glimpses of my running magazines mocking me from the coffee table as I fought back tears that threatened to flow as I was reminded of my weakness.

When my son came home and said he had track practice in the morning I initially cringed. But then I realized that I needed something to force me out of the house so I heard myself telling him I would be the one to take him in the hope I would force myself to run while I waited.

After a fitful night’s sleep I woke up to the howling wind and immediately regretted my offer. However, my duties as a mom couldn’t be ignored so I dressed in my winter gear and tried to think positive thoughts. Thank God I somehow managed because today it saved me from the pit.

The first mile was freezing and difficult but I was grateful that I was at least moving…a huge improvement from yesterday. The wind stung my face and froze my neck but oddly I loved it. The cold fresh air felt so REAL and INTENSE. My quads burned as I ran up each hill and I found myself focusing on each footstep as I tried to avoid slipping on the ice. I realized in that moment I was light years away from the chair I was paralyzed in just 24 hours ago. The physical exertion took me out of my mind and kept me in the moment.

All I wanted to do was continue putting one foot in front of the other, breathe in the fresh air and get lost in my music and the moment. I was actually free from the grip of my mind that always had to fight so hard just to stay alive.

I realized that this opportunity was a gift so I needed to embrace it because if I was honest with myself, history shows these moments can be few and far between. That’s one of the things I absolutely hate about this illness — the ups and downs can be maddening and most of the time come out of nowhere. BUT, despite how awful I feel during a “down” and am convinced I will never make it out alive — a day like today DOES eventually come. When it arrives I have to remind myself to enjoy every moment, welcome the discomfort that comes with pushing my body beyond its limits, take extra time to breathe in the air and appreciate the singer screaming about hope in my ear. I can’t spend time worrying about what I will face when I wake up tomorrow –something I am not very good at but am trying to work on.

I finished my run exhilarated and proud of myself for taking the leap from my chair to a freedom run. The cobwebs and demons that haunted me just hours before had been left behind at the starting line. The darkness that’s relentlessly chasing me was unable to catch me and for that I am truly grateful. Yesterday I wished every breath I took would be my last. Today I am intentionally breathing deeply and with each one holding on to the knowledge that at least for right now, in this very moment everything is ok.

Matthew 6:34 — Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.

The Day I Finally Woke Up

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about wake up calls. No, not the kind you’d request during a hotel stay, but instead the moment when something happens to you that changes your life forever. Mine occurred several years ago with a smack upside the head. Yes…you read that right but it’s not what you think. Allow me to explain…

I’ve written about my experience with an eating disorder and its ups and downs in relation to my mood swings. Several years ago when I stopped using alcohol as a coping mechanism and first received my bipolar diagnosis, my eating disorder decided to show up as a replacement coping skill. I’ve always had ED tendencies and thoughts but I have experienced many years on and off throughout my life when — including now — I did not act upon those urges.

However, one evening when my husband had to work late, I found myself alone on the couch, after putting my two toddlers to bed, facing the beginning of what was about to become a doomed rollercoaster ride. I knew from my racing thoughts what was in store for me and as my mind and body became restless the thought of escaping unscathed seemed absurd.

So what did I resort to in order to combat the inevitable?    Food.   I ate whatever I could get my hands on. I don’t specifically remember much except that it was a binge of monumental proportions that I wished would last forever. But of course eventually it had to end and when I stopped eating the comfort I had momentarily experienced vanished.

It didn’t take long for guilt and disgust to consume me. I panicked as I thought about my weakness and all of the calories that I had stuffed into my body. It had been many years since I had purposefully thrown up — mostly because I was determined to be healthy during my pregnancies and while nursing. But here I was alone with nothing to stop me.

I’ll spare you the details but suffice it to say it was a very desperate and self destructive moment. When I was finished I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I was instantly horrified to the point I began gasping for air. Most of the blood vessels in my eyes had burst. My eyes were painfully swollen and black and blue marks faintly littered my skin.

Immediately I panicked. What the hell did I just do? What was I thinking? What if one of the kids had seen me? How will I ever explain this to my husband? Did I truly hate myself that much? Am I that out of control? What if my heart had exploded? What if I had died choking on my own vomit? I was frozen in shock staring at my reflection trembling with self hatred and regret.

Suddenly a thought interrupted the panic from out of nowhere. “God just smacked you upside the head.” It startled me at first but then I knew with every fiber of my being it was true. Now don’t get me wrong. I do not believe God actually hurt me or caused those injuries to happen. God does not do that. That is not who He is. However, that thought relieved me because right then I knew He was there trying to protect me. There was no way around the fact that what I had done was terrible. The evidence was in the mirror.

God speaks to us in a still, small voice. (1 Kings 19:11-13) But what I always ignore is the fact that it is up to me to listen for it. The majority of the time I’m stubborn, prideful and quite frankly don’t want to stop and listen. I prefer to take matters into my own hands. But where did that philosophy get me? On my hands and knees on the bathroom floor while my kids slept because I didn’t take a moment to simply ask God for help. To be completely honest I didn’t want His help and He knew it. He could have prevented my eyes from exploding but He knew I’d only continue right back down the destructive path I had left behind many years ago. He knew there were so many wonderful opportunities in store for me that I could not yet see, but it was up to me to choose the right path and I clearly demonstrated I was unable to choose wisely.

The situation could have been so much worse. Medical complications from bulimia include torn esophagus, arrhythmia, weakened heart muscle and heart failure to name just a few. God saw where I was headed if He didn’t intervene. He knew I needed a serious wake up call. He knew I needed hard core evidence that I was making a terrible choice and I am so grateful for that. My ‘smack upside the head’ was God watching over me, knowing what would happen; not stopping it, but allowing it in order to wake me up before something totally devastating happened.

Never once did I think God was punishing me. When everything became real in that moment when I was forced to face myself, something profound happened that changed me. I saw everything — all the consequences that would one day be my reality if I didn’t decide to change right then and there.

I looked as though I had lost a boxing match. I soon had to face my husband and I had to figure out a way to explain to my kids why I looked this way. Those tasks seemed impossible. I was completely broken. I started to cry, finally asking God for help while promising to never binge and purge again.

This time it was not an empty promise. I chose to heed the warning that my wake up call delivered and I have not had the urge to ever do that again. There have been times since then when I have wanted to purge, but the memory of my reflection in the mirror reminds me of my promise and I know without a doubt that God has taken that choice off the table for me.

I’m not sure why this has been on my mind or why I felt it was necessary to write about. Maybe to get me to stop and consider current areas of my life in which I need a wake up call? Where have I pushed God’s love and guidance aside and decided to go my own way? What have been the consequences? Do I really want to keep shoving God aside? Have there been other wake up calls in my life that I haven’t recognized or refused to listen to? Do I need to revisit them?

Whatever the reason (and I know for sure there is one) I am certain God already knows it. He wants to draw me closer to Him so I can experience His love and protection. Just like the parent who has to watch their child fall in order to learn how to walk but stays close by to prevent catastrophe — God is right beside us knowing what’s best for us and when it’s necessary to step in. Sometimes we don’t realize it until we grow up, look back and see how obvious it is. I’d bet if we all reflect on the defining moments of our lives with an open mind we’d clearly see God at work trying to get our attention.

In what area of your life do you need a wake up call? Where do you need God to intervene? What prevents you from asking for help? Then the million dollar question is — When He calls you to wake up will you listen?

Smacked Upside My Head

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about wake up calls. No, not the kind you’d request during a hotel stay, but instead the moment when something happens to you that changes your life forever. Mine occurred several years ago with a smack upside the head. Yes…you read that right but it’s not what you think. Allow me to explain…

I’ve written about my experience with an eating disorder and its ups and downs in relation to my mood swings. Several years ago when I stopped using alcohol as a coping mechanism and first received my bipolar diagnosis, my eating disorder decided to show up as a replacement coping skill. I’ve always had ED tendencies and thoughts but I have experienced many years on and off throughout my life when — including now — I did not act upon those urges.

However, one evening when my husband had to work late, I found myself alone on the couch, after putting my two toddlers to bed, facing the beginning of what was about to become a doomed rollercoaster ride. I knew from my racing thoughts what was in store for me and as my mind and body became restless the thought of escaping unscathed seemed absurd.

So what did I resort to in order to combat the inevitable?    Food.   I ate whatever I could get my hands on. I don’t specifically remember much except that it was a binge of monumental proportions that I wished would last forever. But of course eventually it had to end and when I stopped eating the comfort I had momentarily experienced vanished.

It didn’t take long for guilt and disgust to consume me. I panicked as I thought about my weakness and all of the calories that I had stuffed into my body. It had been many years since I had purposefully thrown up — mostly because I was determined to be healthy during my pregnancies and while nursing. But here I was alone with nothing to stop me.

I’ll spare you the details but suffice it to say it was a very desperate and self destructive moment. When I was finished I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I was instantly horrified to the point I began gasping for air. Most of the blood vessels in my eyes had burst. My eyes were painfully swollen and black and blue marks faintly littered my skin.

Immediately I panicked. What the hell did I just do? What was I thinking? What if one of the kids had seen me? How will I ever explain this to my husband? Did I truly hate myself that much? Am I that out of control? What if my heart had exploded? What if I had died choking on my own vomit? I was frozen in shock staring at my reflection trembling with self hatred and regret.

Suddenly a thought interrupted the panic from out of nowhere. “God just smacked you upside the head.” It startled me at first but then I knew with every fiber of my being it was true. Now don’t get me wrong. I do not believe God actually hurt me or caused those injuries to happen. God does not do that. That is not who He is. However, that thought relieved me because right then I knew He was there trying to protect me. There was no way around the fact that what I had done was terrible. The evidence was in the mirror.

God speaks to us in a still, small voice. (1 Kings 19:11-13) But what I always ignore is the fact that it is up to me to listen for it. The majority of the time I’m stubborn, prideful and quite frankly don’t want to stop and listen. I prefer to take matters into my own hands. But where did that philosophy get me? On my hands and knees on the bathroom floor while my kids slept because I didn’t take a moment to simply ask God for help. To be completely honest I didn’t want His help and He knew it. He could have prevented my eyes from exploding but He knew I’d only continue right back down the destructive path I had left behind many years ago. He knew there were so many wonderful opportunities in store for me that I could not yet see, but it was up to me to choose the right path and I clearly demonstrated I was unable to choose wisely.

The situation could have been so much worse. Medical complications from bulimia include torn esophagus, arrhythmia, weakened heart muscle and heart failure to name just a few. God saw where I was headed if He didn’t intervene. He knew I needed a serious wake up call. He knew I needed hard core evidence that I was making a terrible choice and I am so grateful for that. My ‘smack upside the head’ was God watching over me, knowing what would happen; not stopping it, but allowing it in order to wake me up before something totally devastating happened.

Never once did I think God was punishing me. When everything became real in that moment when I was forced to face myself, something profound happened that changed me. I saw everything — all the consequences that would one day be my reality if I didn’t decide to change right then and there.

I looked as though I had lost a boxing match. I soon had to face my husband and I had to figure out a way to explain to my kids why I looked this way. Those tasks seemed impossible. I was completely broken. I started to cry, finally asking God for help while promising to never binge and purge again.

This time it was not an empty promise. I chose to heed the warning that my wake up call delivered and I have not had the urge to ever do that again. There have been times since then when I have wanted to purge, but the memory of my reflection in the mirror reminds me of my promise and I know without a doubt that God has taken that choice off the table for me.

I’m not sure why this has been on my mind or why I felt it was necessary to write about. Maybe to get me to stop and consider current areas of my life in which I need a wake up call? Where have I pushed God’s love and guidance aside and decided to go my own way? What have been the consequences? Do I really want to keep shoving God aside? Have there been other wake up calls in my life that I haven’t recognized or refused to listen to? Do I need to revisit them?

Whatever the reason (and I know for sure there is one) I am certain God already knows it. He wants to draw me closer to Him so I can experience His love and protection. Just like the parent who has to watch their child fall in order to learn how to walk but stays close by to prevent catastrophe — God is right beside us knowing what’s best for us and when it’s necessary to step in. Sometimes we don’t realize it until we grow up, look back and see how obvious it is. I’d bet if we all reflect on the defining moments of our lives with an open mind we’d clearly see God at work trying to get our attention.

In what area of your life do you need a wake up call? Where do you need God to intervene? What prevents you from asking for help? Then the million dollar question is — When He calls you to wake up will you listen?

Hold On For Dear Life…

As I write this I can feel anger and frustration flowing through my pen and onto the page. Several things happened over the past few days that struck a nerve within me sparking an outrage that I am just now beginning to shake.

Many are already aware of the controversy over a Halloween costume that was being sold depicting someone with razor blade slash marks on their wrists as a result from a suicide attempt. The gash marks were horrifyingly graphic and realistic. Just seeing the picture on Facebook brought tears to my eyes and sucker punched me in the gut knocking the wind out of me. This triggered what became an endless wave of emotions pulling up memories and thoughts that have quite honestly been overwhelming.

My eyes were immediately drawn to the tattoo on my left wrist of a runner that I got to remind me of the strength it took for me to finish my first marathon. But then I was thrust back in time to all the moments I was unable to fight the urge which left me full of shame. Then my thoughts quickly shifted to all the people I’ve met during hospital stays who had on the previous evening tried to take their own lives and were now confined to a psych ward after their wrists had been sewn back together. They struggled with a deep depression due to the fact they were unsuccessful in their attempt which later turned into horror as the reality of what they had done began to sink in.

I felt my chest threatening to explode as I remembered a friend who last year gave into his battle and committed suicide leaving behind a wife and two children. The guilt for not having recognized how far into the pit he had fallen crushed my spirit.

Visions of former students — some as young as 9 years old — bombarded my mind. Students whose scars I discovered accidentally as well as those who had willingly shared with me because they were already convinced life was hopeless.

I became nauseous as I vividly remembered a fourth grader who instead of writing the answer to a math problem on her white board wrote “I wish I was dead” and held it up for the class to see.

I thought of another student who spent the morning on my lap sobbing because she had found out as she left for school that her uncle had committed suicide by shooting himself.

I thought of a woman I did not know personally but who had recently taken her own life. She was a mother and teacher surrounded by friends yet felt there was no way out of her pain.

I had visions of students being taken away in an ambulance to the ER only to be given a sedative and sent home to parents who were overwhelmed and exasperated because there was no help readily available and nowhere else for them to go.

The images, thoughts, and emotions attached to every one of those situations swirled out of control in my head threatening to drown me. Anger welled up within me turning to a desperation to DO something. I wanted to run to every school, teacher, nurse and parent and plead with them to help me spark a movement.

The problem we face is most of us are so overwhelmed with life and this world that every second seems to get more and more messed up. Hopelessness settled in as I became aware of the enormity of the task at hand when it comes to helping people with mental illness and the reality that most of us lack the time and energy that is necessary as well as the knowledge and appropriate skills to help. So many people live on the brink of death everyday, battling the demons that try to convince them they’d be better off dead yet we are often at a loss of how to help.

Fortunately my lack of hope was short lived as I remembered why I started sharing my struggles with the world, so instead of diving back into the pit on whose edge I found myself once again, I resolved to use my intense emotions to give a voice to help those who haven’t yet found theirs or who are ashamed or scared to ask for help. I’ve seen so many faces affected by suicide and have shared their tears as they try to hold on, summoning any ounce of strength they have left.

Thousands of people expressed outrage about this costume. We as a society have to come together and demand better treatment and more respect. Our outrage has to move us to action — Be willing to educate yourself, pay close attention to everyone around you, step up and reach out even if it scares you or makes you uncomfortable, support, listen and commit to loving each other. Let others know it is unacceptable to deem people ‘crazy’ when they can’t control the chemicals wreaking havoc in their brains. Demand more resources for our schools to effectively help the growing number of kids dealing with mental illness by providing training and an environment to allow teachers to spend time fostering relationships instead of being forced to focus on paperwork and data. Appreciate teachers who are pushed to their limits and whose own mental health is at risk as they become more overwhelmed. How can we be effective in helping our kids when there is limited training and resources dedicated to this very complicated issue?

I admit this all overwhelms me and what I’ve written isn’t pretty. But those faces have been imprinted on my mind for a reason and I can’t stop fighting the battle that they are struggling to overcome. My purpose in sharing my outrage is to convince you that more has to be done and that we all have a responsibility to take action because it affects EVERYONE whether we realize it or not.

This verse from a Seventh Day Slumber song has always resonated with me because it expresses how I’ve felt so many times but also begs for the desire, strength and motivation to spread hope and keep going.

“I want to be dead but still alive
I want to breathe hope instead of choking
I want to feel the fire deep inside
burn through me
and carry me away…”

Don’t ignore the fire within you. Use it to make a difference and join me as I continue to share and discover ways we can make things better and share the hope that is available to everyone of us.

1 John 3:17-18 ESV
But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

Fighting The Winter Blues…

This is a throwback to an article I wrote in December 2010 for our local running club’s newsletter. I decided to share it with you now because I think it is interesting that I had been diagnosed with bipolar by this time but I couldn’t yet fully come to terms with it or admit it to anyone. My doctor had suggested that I may also be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder due to the fact that certain symptoms worsened during the winter.

This is the time of year our moods tend to shift whether we have a full blown mood disorder or not. Seasonal Affective Disorder is very real and when fall is in full swing with winter on the horizon, daylight decreases and time spent outside becomes limited. Many people — approximately 10% of Americans — will experience this disorder. This is the article I wrote based on what I was experiencing at that time. I think it also illustrates how writing down and tracking our symptoms is extremely beneficial in understanding behavior and mood ultimately leading to a proper diagnosis along with finding strategies for coping with these shifts in mood. See if you can relate:

It’s 4:45 am. Thirty seconds ago I was peacefully dreaming and now my head is screaming “NO!” at the blaring alarm clock. I don’t feel like running. I reset the alarm and go back to sleep. The next morning I wake up at 3:00 am and obsess over the treadmill awaiting me downstairs. I once again reset the alarm. That night I slip into bed and just say screw it altogether and set the alarm for 5:30 — not going to even try to get up early this time. I already don’t feel like running. I’ve succumbed to my lack of motivation and laziness which is what I beat myself up with.

I ask myself…is it pure laziness or is there more to it than that? According to my doctor and a recent newspaper article I read , I may be among the 10% of Americans who suffer from the “winter blues” or Seasonal Affective Disorder– SAD. The symptoms include:

A change in appetite, especially a craving for sweet or starchy food
Weight gain
A drop in energy level
Fatigue
A tendency to oversleep
Difficulty concentrating
Irritability and anxiety
Avoidance of social situations and a loss of interest in the activities you used to enjoy.

I think they were observing me when they wrote these guidelines.

Throughout all of the research I’ve done, everyone seems to agree that exercise, especially in the morning, is crucial in overcoming SAD. Now I don’t know about you, but having been a runner since I was five, I don’t actually feel like I’ve exercised unless I run. Lifting, ellipticals, walking — none of them provide the feeling of accomplishment running always delivers. Running is in my blood. The catch is, I know it will provide the relief I seek, but part of the problem is the overwhelming desire to stay sedentary especially during the darkness of winter.

I try to recall the days of summer when SAD doesn’t seem to exist. The long hours of sunlight that fuel the sensation that I could run forever. Taking trips to destinations simply to run on the trails a place has to offer seems so long ago. Running feels so much different in the winter than in the spring and summer. And I remember having this problem all the way back to my competitive days in high school. It was torture for me to compete in indoor track, but by the beginning of April I began to feel the weight lift from my being; running and life would turn back to normal.

I often think of my running friends who boast about running 10-18 miles when it’s single digits outside. I’m sure they didn’t wake up exclaiming, “YES! It’s 8 degrees out and I get to go run for two hours!” But I know the feeling of accomplishment that lasts with me throughout the day after I’ve actually done it.

As I sit here wrapping up my thoughts I can feel the soreness in my legs settling in from my four miler on the treadmill. It may not have been from a ten miler but it’s from miles and effort nonetheless. I can’t help but smile knowing that today I conquered the lack of motivation I woke up with this morning and hopefully that will inspire me to repeat the action tomorrow. I’ve convinced myself that every run counts and I’m one step closer to overcoming this hurdle. I remind myself to savor every run I manage to take and the feeling it gives me when I’m done.

So if you can relate to any of these symptoms, know that you are not alone. It was a relief to read about it in the paper and come to the realization that I’m not just being lazy. It’s also comforting to know that being a runner I’m already one step ahead of the game.

I once heard someone say, “ I always regret it when I don’t run, but I never regret having run.” It’s days like these I try to remember that. With every step I take I’m claiming victory over each daily battle and thanks to running I know I have it in me to beat this thing.

 

Looking back at this I am reminded how important it is for me to exercise in order to maintain stability. I struggle with this constantly especially in the winter, as many people do, when outdoor conditions downright suck. Whether it’s bipolar disorder, depression or SAD it is clear that maintaining a healthy workout regimen is extremely helpful in prevention and management of symptoms.

If you think you may suffer from SAD be proactive. Get plenty of rest and exercise. If any of the above symptoms interfere with your ability to function and complete ordinary daily tasks see a doctor. You can also find more information here:

http://www.mayoclinic.org
http://www.nmha.org

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