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Life, Love, Adventure

My Quest to Erase the Stigma of Mental Illness

Please Show Empathy…

So last week I had an appointment with my doctor and left with a prescription for an increased dosage of my antidepressant and a new one typically prescribed for high blood pressure and sometimes ADHD in children. I had them filled even though I have neither high blood pressure nor ADHD. I had expressed my concern about having difficulty learning and organizing new information but somewhere along the way mentioned that I couldn’t concentrate. Apparently I had raised the red flag for ADHD and since I was having trouble expressing and processing information I was not successful in getting my point across. Out of frustration and a looming deadline to learn a new curriculum I started taking the medication as a last ditch effort to get past the roadblock in my brain.

Within the first 2 days of taking it I felt my brain backfiring as the tiny pill tried to find the target it was aiming for without messing up everything else around it. However, my entire being was quickly affected. For 3 days all I could do was sleep. Moving around exhausted even my fingertips. Stringing words together to express the muddled thoughts swimming around my brain into a coherent sentence was nearly impossible. On the third night I felt as though I had completely disconnected from the world around me. When I stood up I had to steady myself to keep from passing out and I no longer felt any emotions or cared about anything. Confusion and panic would set in when I couldn’t remember where I was or where I was going.

Long story short my husband insisted I stop the medication and within 24 hours I no longer felt as if I was dying. However I still continue to have lapses in memory along with difficulty comprehending and processing information. Why? I haven’t quite figured that out yet although I have my theories.

But as all of this was happening many of the students I have had the privilege of teaching through the years popped into my mind. What did they have in common? They had all been on a course of medication to treat mental health issues. Often they were on meds I was currently on or had taken. The point of this is not to discuss whether or not children should be medicated. It’s to consider the reality that so many kids are currently dealing with powerful drugs and if they have affected me in the ways I’ve described I can only imagine how they might possibly feel at any given time.

Think about this for a minute:

I have been dealing with Bipolar Disorder for 30 years but only 8 years ago received a diagnosis and began treatment. I am a well educated professional with the ability and means to research every treatment, track my progress, articulate how I’m feeling with my husband at my side to debate with my doctor when things are spinning out of control. This has helped tremendously in taking charge of an illness I have learned a great deal about. AND I’M STILL STRUGGLING!!!

When I miss a dose or change meds my mind and body react — often in negative ways. But I have a general understanding of what’s happening and why. Does a 9 year old have those means or capabilities? I’m not talking about the parent’s understanding. That’s different. I’ve had many students over the years who don’t even know they are taking medication because they’ve been told it’s their daily vitamin, while others are well aware of their diagnosis and medications. They realize how they feel and behave is changing but don’t necessarily understand why. They equate it to being a bad kid and have made up their mind — at the ripe old age of 9 — that they are incapable of doing what is required of them and will always be a failure.

As I could do nothing but sleep for 3 days my heart went out to my kids who couldn’t keep their eyes open during a test or sit still for more than 5 minutes because their parents forgot to give them their pills or their insurance had run out. I’ve greeted students in the morning and could immediately tell if they had taken their meds and have selfishly thought, “I’m in for a long day.” Too many times I’ve seen the empty look in their eyes or the wild glow I can relate to all too well.

I know what it’s like to want to rip my hair out or throw a desk across a room out of frustration or because the sensations coursing through my body are unstoppable and unbearable. And when I’m experiencing withdrawal because I’ve forgotten to take my meds that’s the only sensation I can focus on even though I know there are tasks that need to be completed. I understand how it feels to sit in a room full of peers feeling stupid because I can’t follow what’s going on. I’ve cringed during group “fun” activities because the depression inside me had taken over causing any attempt at being enthusiastic to become nothing short of torture.

But you know what?

I’ve had EIGHT years of therapy to help me understand and learn healthy coping strategies. Imagine being 9, just beginning this process while sitting in a bright, noisy classroom trying to absorb information for 6 hours a day. Learning to cope has just begun and that’s only if they are able to find, get to and afford a counselor.

When a student tells me they want to die or disappear or that they simply don’t care anymore — I get it! Not always, but often it’s because something is wreaking havoc in their brains. It is not their fault even though most of the time they believe it is.

I could go on and on about the education system and the lack of resources we as teachers (and parents) have to deal with these struggling students. But for now I just want anyone who deals with kids to get a glimpse of what it may feel like because so many kids do not have a voice. They swallow a pill and hope to make it through the day successfully.

I wish I could say to every kid I’ve come in contact with who has started down the path of dealing with mental illness and medication that I get it. I understand. I’ve been there and they are not alone. But unfortunately I fear the repercussions I could face due to the stigma that exists about these illnesses. That has to change.

If anything at all, think about what I’ve shared and if you have a child or student who may be struggling, have compassion and try not to let your frustrations show. They realize they might not score as high as you need them to on a test and they feel badly and perhaps worthless or stupid after they fall asleep or scream at you for the tenth time that week. As difficult as it may be, show them that you care and love them anyway. When someone says to me that they might not understand what I’m going through but they are here for me and love me regardless, that could very likely have been the only reason I didn’t give up that day.

I was prescribed blood pressure medication for ADHD which I did not have. I couldn’t (and still have trouble) comprehending a fourth grade curriculum that I’ve taught for several years. Imagine what that child who is staring blankly off into space may be feeling. Or if they don’t get it regardless of how simple it may be — love them and tell them you are there for them and make a solid commitment to never give up!

Shout to the World…

There’s just something extremely powerful about a former drug addict or a survivor of suicide attempts or mental illness standing on stage at a music festival sharing their testimony for hundreds of people.

That’s exactly what my family and I witnessed many times this past weekend at Creation Festival — a 4 day music and camping extravaganza that was amazing in so many ways. From 9am until 11pm each day there was music and testimony going on non stop at several different stages. We camped among thousands of people in grassy fields and when we weren’t listening to music we played frisbee, Cam Jam, Spike Ball, soccer and catch or spent time with band members after they performed. Home base was at the smaller stage where the hard core, heavy metal and rock bands played. Believe it or not there have been people in the past who have complained that heavy metal, circle pits and screamo lyrics have no place at a Christian festival. It’s unfortunate that people don’t take the time to listen to the lyrics and stop to watch and experience the passion these bands bring to the stage. A person cannot stand on stage screaming their lungs out for 45 minutes if they are not passionate about what they are doing and believe with every fiber of their being that their message is important.

Sure it’s loud — sometimes painfully. Sure they bang their heads, whip their long hair and thrash their tattooed bodies all over the stage (as well as most of us in the crowd) but they are telling stories, sharing pain and triumph and worshipping in such a raw and genuine way you can’t help but feel the power as it rocks your soul.

To me, these are the bands I connect with. While on stage screaming, singing and connecting with the crowd, they seem larger than life. But then a mere 10 minutes later they are giving you hugs, asking for your story, giving advice, taking pictures and praying with or for you.

I think it’s awesome and beautiful to hear traditional worship music and listen to a speaker share scripture and talk about how great God is. For me though, that has never moved me. I need to know someone gets me. When a band member speaks to the crowd and holds nothing back, turning away from the rock star status announcing that it’s not the music that matters but the message, it means something special. Then with tears in their eyes (yes, the big tattooed, long haired, former drug addict) but thunder in their voice they proceed to share their experience with drugs, suicide attempts, depression etc. This is the point I get chills and something moves me powerfully. They talk about how they overcame all the hardship, pain and despair only because of God’s help and they owe everything to Him. They dedicate their lives to sharing their story because they were changed so dramatically and are unashamed while doing so. That is inspirational. That’s what chokes me up. It touches lives and we were able to be a part of that power of testimony and faith.

So many times I have been on the brink of tears from the rawness. I have felt the presence and power of God through this and have wanted to run to the stage and scream about everything that’s ever hurt me,the hopelessness and anger that’s overwhelmed me in order to let others know that I get it. I’ve been there and it will get better. Because He’s saved my life over and over again it’s worth screaming about.

But I’m not a singer (as my kids always remind me!) but I do write. As I write I feel the emotion travel through my pen as it becomes my voice on the page. I want people to know that no matter how lost, depressed, hopeless or suicidal they feel they are not alone.

I want more than anything to continue to share my story because I know so many struggle with the exact things I’ve overcome. At times it can feel embarrassing or cause me to feel uncomfortable as I let skeletons out of the closet but if it helps just one person then it’s worth it.

That’s why we ALL have to get real. We can’t hide by putting on masks and pretending everything is perfect. I guarantee there is at least one person out there who feels alone and needs to hear what you have to say. Every single one of us should have the opportunity to stand on stage and passionately tell our story. It should be a requirement for this life. That’s what I envision every time I write.

Be brave. Take the first step whether it’s to share what you’ve overcome or what you are in desperate need of. We are all together in this journey that I like to think of as an adventure leading to bigger and better things. Let’s not judge. Let’s join together and get real. Let’s accept and love and be touched by each unique story there is to tell.

Who knows…the dude covered in tattoos or the girl with purple hair and countless piercings might just have exactly what you need to hear but YOU need to stop and listen. Chances are you will have more in common than you know and when we share and listen that’s when we find out that we are not alone. I have learned so many lessons from the people I would least expect. Sometimes it’s through a song or a book or a blog. Sometimes it’s through students or family or strangers at a concert. The common thread is that I would never have learned what I needed to know at the time if that person hadn’t taken a risk, opened up and got real. That’s when lives are changed and isn’t that something we all want to accomplish? It may be difficult at first but I promise you it is absolutely worth it!

Here are some bands who have made a very big difference in my life and my family’s lives and I want to thank them for being open and raw and inspiring me to do the same…

Rock/Metal:

Silent Planet
Seventh Day Slumber
Disciple
Lacey Sturm
Sleeping Giant
Phinehas
August Burns Red

Rap/Hip Hop:
Lecrae
Tedashi
Andy Mineo
NF
KB

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Letting Go…

I’ve been sitting here reflecting upon all of the ‘lasts’ that happened this week — last day of Middle School, last day of Elementary School, last day at our daycare provider and last day as a 4th grade teacher — and the phrase ‘letting go’ keeps popping into my mind.

When it comes to transitions I don’t usually handle them very well. When good things come to an end, milestones are reached and it’s time to move on it’s never easy. Leaving my comfort zone can be downright terrifying. I do not like when things end…summer vacations, a good book, concerts…feel free to add to the list.

My biggest fear is that I’ll never be able to capture the magic of that particular time period again. Will the next path be disappointing or too difficult? Usually I envision myself flailing around wildly as I transition from one phase to the next and attempt to navigate the unknown. The uncertainty drives me crazy.

Letting go doesn’t mean I can’t look back remembering fondly the years that have already passed like the magical years when my children were little. It just means letting go of the talk in my head that tends to overshadow the memories. Last summer on the way home from a month long epic journey across the country with my family, I became consumed with worry about the future and whether or not I’d be able to handle the start of a new school year. It triggered an extended bout of depression and anxiety that essentially ruined the final leg of the trip.

However, when I catch myself tearing up or panicking because I’ve told myself it’s all over –whatever ‘it’ may be–I have to remind myself that there is a new chapter waiting to be written in which I have the choice to go at it alone in blinding fear or remember that God is with me no matter what. Otherwise I fall into the trap of what ifs.

My kids loved elementary school , but WHAT IF they can’t handle the high school?
This vacation was amazing, but WHAT IF we never do it again?
My kids are growing up and maturing into fine young men, but WHAT IF I can’t handle them being more independent?
This journey we are on is incredible, but WHAT HAPPENS when they move on to college?
I’m feeling joyful and healthy, but WHAT IF I get sick again?

I honestly have no idea what the answer to any of those questions are. Yes, that scares me but only when I dwell on it and obsess over trying to figure it all out before it even happens. I could easily analyze the past in an attempt to predict the future, in the meantime missing out on the present. But fearing the future because of uncertainty is defeating whether its for fear of something bad repeating itself or something good never happening again.

When I’m sick I find this especially difficult to overcome. Being caught in depression I find myself terrified. Will tomorrow lead me back to health? Will it lead to a dark room where I stay in bed for days on end? Will it end in a death wish?

Endless questions bombard me:

Will I ever feel well again?
Can I handle what’s ahead?
Will my brain fail me and I’ll be lost forever?
Will a trigger activate a downward spiral that I’ll never get out of?
I need to let go of the questions.

Have you ever met someone with unwavering faith who is dealing with hardship? You can’t help but notice something different about them. No matter what they’re facing they are unafraid. That does not mean their problem goes away it just means they can face it with confidence knowing God’s in control. They will tell you that they surrender every day and give whatever burden they carry to God and allow Him to take care of them.

The difference is hope. When you believe in your heart that no matter what you are facing God has your back, we welcome the next chapter knowing that with His help you can face anything.

So why not replace the ‘what ifs’ with “Thank You God. I put the next chapter of my life in your hands and I trust it will all work out for good, no matter how scary it seems.”
So…
Thank you God for all of the nurturing people who have been in my children’s lives as they’ve gone through elementary school and middle school. I know whatever happens next you are in control and I have nothing to fear.

Thank you God for this moment that I am able to think clearly and live outside the cloud of depression. I know no matter what happens you will protect me.

We’re always going to face the final pages of the chapters of life  on our journey. There’s nothing wrong with being nostalgic as long as we do it with gratitude and fearlessness. In order for me to do that successfully there’s no way I can do it alone. When I try, my mind immediately jumps to the  ‘what ifs’ which always weighs me down.

So sure, there were many ‘last times’ for my family this year. However I’m not going to fall into the trap of believing the best part is over. I’m going to have to let go of the need to be in control and wanting to predict the future in order to move on.

God will be hearing a lot from me in the days to come but I know that’s what He wants and I can count on that. I’m letting go of fear and am ready for the next chapter. Bring it on!

Philippians 4:6-7, Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.

Conquering My Stress

Lately I have been completely stressed out. Let’s face it…we’re all stressed out to some degree even when it’s from something positive such as weddings, births or graduations. I’ll admit that I am dealing with many emotional burdens such as reminders that my kids are growing up way too fast as my oldest son just completed his middle school years while my youngest will be graduating from elementary school next week. My job recently triggered panic attacks as I was blindsided by a surprising decision while also trying to cope with headaches and anxiety. That might not sound like much, however in the midst of not feeling well it totally paralyzed me.

Yesterday after dinner I took my kids to the river to swim and as I sat at the river’s edge something peculiar happened to me. There was not another soul around so my boys were thrilled that they would have their favorite rock to jump from all to themselves.That should have made me smile but as I was sitting there watching them laugh and leap into the water I found myself exhausted and mentally defeated. I became annoyed by the hard, uncomfortable rocks under the towel I was sitting on, a mosquito as it buzzed in my ear incessantly, an old water bottle littering the shoreline and the dull headache I had been fighting since I woke up. How long would I have to sit there and suck it up?

There was no one else to complain to so I started to tell God` how fed up I was with everything and as the dark thoughts gained momentum it was not long before I was on a roll, each thought feeding off the other:

I’m lazy and fat because I haven’t run in two weeks and have been eating like crap.
I’m a terrible wife because my illness sometimes overwhelms us.
I’m resentful because my pleas are going unheard and I am no longer valued.
I’m frustrated and stupid because I can’t think straight.
I’m ungrateful because I see the two most amazing boys on earth smiling at me but right now I just want to go to bed and never wake up.
I’m mean because I was irritable and short tempered with my kids earlier.
I’m useless because I haven’t been able to finish several things on my project list.
I’m a failure because I’m not making a difference like I used to.

All it took was one self destructive thought to get the ball rolling then spiraling out of control. As each thought intruded my mind my whole being sunk deeper and deeper into a pit of hopelessness.

But then suddenly another thought popped into my head out of nowhere.

“STOP!”

The word interrupted the trainwreck that was in progress and shifted my attention to a simple bird call. Then there were 2, then 3, then 4 joining in causing a beautiful song to echo throughout the river valley.

I caught a glimpse of the sun sparkling on the water just around the bend which drew my attention to my two beautiful boys living joyfully in the moment swimming in the river at the start of summer. The voice that insisted I STOP continued:

“How are you a bad parent? Your kids just expressed their gratitude for bringing them for a swim.”

Ok. Maybe that’s true.

“It’s ok to be frustrated with not feeling well and having difficulty thinking…it’s ok to feel.
Look at how hard you have been trying to juggle everything that is going on.
Your kids are thriving and joyful.
You matter.”

Wait…What?…Where did all that come from?

Then I realized my thoughts were shifting — I was no longer engulfed by the fog of my mind. Something had penetrated the darkness and was beginning to shine through. I purposely started to pay attention to my surroundings.

“Look. Appreciate. Breathe.”

My thoughts of hopelessness were being challenged by examples that refuted the negativity and they started to flow effortlessly just as the damaging ones had done before. The tension in my body dissipated. The rocks beneath me no longer annoyed me; they were affording me the opportunity to be still and soak it all in. I closed my eyes and whispered “Thank you.” Negativity kept knocking but I refused to let it back in. It knows me all too well and has had decades of practice getting the best of me. But this time I asked for help in the combat.

I heard — no I FELT– God speaking to me through everything that surrounded me. Inspiration had been all around me the entire time…always had been and always will be. I just had to STOP, open my eyes and then LISTEN. The rush of the falls further down the river soothed me. The birds singing and the fish jumping touched my soul. The seemingly endless number of tadpoles scurrying along the shoreline made me smile. Swarms of insects dancing, baby geese swimming while mature ones took flight and the sun setting in the distance overwhelmed me with peace. The full moon making its appearance faintly against the blue sky filled me with wonder. It was impossible to take it all in and not come to the realization that God is BIG and He is AMAZING.

As the kids emerged from the water and started to dry off they began to argue and complain causing the “magic” to start to fade. But then I heard God’s words reminding me to look beyond the whining and remember what I had just experienced. In the midst of an insult my youngest yelled and pointed, “Whoa! Look at all the minnows!” Immediately the argument was forgotten as they too became lost in fascination.

Gratitude filled my heart leaving no room for the frustration I had been overwhelmed with when we first arrived. It was a valuable lesson that I desperately needed. Without a doubt it was God speaking to me, interrupting my thoughts and nudging me to pause and take notice. Irrefutable evidence of God’s power and love surrounded me.

Now, looking out my window I continue to be reminded of His gifts…the blooming mountain laurel, towering trees, the snores from my dog sleeping beside me, the robin’s nest perched on top of the outdoor light…the signs are everywhere. Difficulties in this life are guaranteed to bombard us. But when we take a moment to look around we are assured that God longs to soothe us. He is always speaking to us, loving us and reminding us of His power and desire to take care of us. However as I learned last night, we have to LET Him. The river will continue its journey with or without me so it’s up to me to appreciate it. I could have remained on the shore allowing myself to get beat down, but as soon as I spoke to God He responded. When I decided to listen He provided exactly what I needed.

The Perfect Counselor…

I would venture to say that most of us have either been to some sort of counseling, questioned whether at some point we needed it or at the very least understand the value in seeing a therapist in order to deal with what life throws at us. I know first hand how critical the right counselor can be for someone suffering from an illness — especially a mood disorder. Finding the right one for me was a very frustrating process but eventually I found someone I felt I could trust, who was not judgmental and ended up being a valuable part of my team.

The psychologist I consulted, often several times a week, helped me work through any unresolved issues (and let’s face it…we all have them) but most importantly she helped me identify and pinpoint triggers of my mood swings and then taught me positive coping mechanisms. I learned ways to redirect my negative thoughts and identify when I was headed in the wrong direction. She used the science of psychology (which I love and hold a degree in) to help me understand what was happening to my brain and then together we would work on strategies to deal with anxiety, depression, frustration, social situations and living with a lifelong disorder. She monitored my symptoms while providing support and compassion. Quite often just by opening up and getting my frustrations out to a trained professional in a safe environment kept me moving in the right direction. Undoubtedly it was critical for me to learn these things but I have to say that even though therapy taught me crucial skills for staying productive and well, it never made me feel completely content or brought a sense of fulfillment that I really needed. Being whole was something I still longed for no matter how well I was doing.

The entire time we focused solely on ME. However I wholeheartedly believe that full recovery cannot take place unless another component becomes the focus — God. If you told me this years ago, before I started seeking any sort of help, I would have laughed at you and written you off as another religious fanatic who thinks they have all the answers. Honestly I had always been the person who believed that having a true, fulfilling faith and relationship with God was not something ever meant for me and was reserved for only certain people and I was definitely not one of them.

As my illness progressed and our involvement in church grew (which I only went along with because it was important to my husband), tiny seeds of faith and the possibility of a relationship with God started to become planted in my mind. Admittedly I often tried to dig them up and destroy them altogether, but as I quickly learned there is nothing we can do to uproot them. Often I tried to starve them to keep them from maturing, but there was no getting rid of them.

I’d meet with my pastors and groups at church more often, mainly because it was simply another outlet for me where people listened and still loved me even when I was falling apart. Yes, I would get frustrated and pissed when people would share stories of hope or give me something to read from the Bible that I didn’t understand, but as I’ve written before, it was the people in my life that He began working through to reach me. He put just the right people in my life at just the right time. I found myself drawn to them because I longed to understand their source of hope.

There was a huge difference between my psychologist’s outlook and my pastors who helped me grow my faith. My psychologist relied on statistics, medication, the latest research, coping skills and had a wealth of knowledge which is of course crucial when dealing with a mental health issue. But there came a time when I felt I had learned all the necessary skills and I wanted to try to tackle life without my therapist. It was a little scary but I had been building my relationship with God and I sensed He had my back.

I’m not saying I don’t need or use the valuable skills I learned in counseling or that any of that time was wasted or unnecessary. Quite the contrary. I wholeheartedly believe God lead me to my psychologist so I could benefit from all she had to offer and apply it to my life. It was a process He wanted me to go through ultimately preparing me for true healing.

I absolutely believe that the most valuable coping skill I have is admitting to God when I need help and that I can’t do it on my own. That’s very different from what conventional psychology teaches. In therapy I was taught to put myself first simply because I deserved it. But faith tells us just the opposite. We CANNOT do it on our own. We were not CREATED to do it on our own. God created us to need, want and depend on HIM, not ourselves. We often turn to “Stuff” to fill the hole we so often feel that whispers to us that something is missing or insists there has to be something more. I’m sure you know what I mean. The only thing that has ever satisfied that craving has been a relationship with God.

Don’t get me wrong, because I am stubborn and want to be seen as strong and a conqueror I often try to see how well I can survive on my own and guess what? It never works out very well. I always come crawling back to God and find myself saying “Oh yeah. You’re right. I can only do it with you in the lead.” I have to admit I am broken and need saving because only HE can do it. He is the only thing that will fill that hole we all have in our hearts. But unless we give Him access that space will always be empty no matter how many hours of therapy we complete.

Please realize this is coming from someone who’s probably read every best-selling self help book ever written. Every time I finished one I truly believed I had found THE answer that was finally going to lead me to enlightenment. But guess what? It only lasted for a few weeks until the next book came out and I’d find myself once again in the bookstore in search of the latest strategy for finding the key to life. Even when Oprah sang a book’s praises it still did not satisfy the feeling that there was something I was missing no matter how many notes I took or hours of therapy I completed.

My counselor helped me through a very difficult and scary time in my life and for that I will always be grateful, but she did not express the unwavering hope so many of my new friends talked about. They carried with them a sense of assurance that there was something much bigger than themselves that I knew I wanted. It triggered something deep within me that didn’t quite make sense at first and often sparked jealousy towards those who had it. But once I dropped the “tough guy” persona and allowed myself to let go of my need for control I realized I was on to something. I can’t explain it, but I KNEW it. The only way I was ever going to live a full life was by relying on God for help. He was the only one who could truly make it work. When I tried to put everything I had learned into practice on my own it seemed superficial. Doesn’t it make sense that the One who created us is the One we should look to for help in every situation?

Think about it…with God you don’t have to leave a message then wait for a return call. There are no office hours. He’s the only counselor who is available 24/7 who will listen and guide you at the exact moment you need Him. Religion did not help me. A RELATIONSHIP did. When I remind myself of that I am able to handle any curveball life throws at me.

This Is Not OK…

For the past week I’ve been following the Ice Breaker Run which is a group of people running across the country relay style in order to bring awareness to mental illness and addiction. It’s truly inspiring. One of the runners shared a story today about a young girl with a heroin addiction who finally decided to seek help by admitting herself to a treatment center. Long story short they denied her insurance, she went home and shortly thereafter died from an overdose.

This story angers me because it is way too common and it triggered memories of experiences I have had with hospitals, doctors and insurance companies while coping with my illness. A few experiences I have already shared but this warrants more discussion because it truly is unacceptable and contributes to people dying. When someone is sick and decides to take a huge step by asking for help they should not under any circumstance be turned away or judged.

At one point when my illness was at its peak, my husband and I made the difficult decision for me to be admitted to a hospital a few hours away because they had a unit specializing in eating disorders (ED). We prepared ourselves for the likelihood I’d be gone for 30 days but since I was once again in crisis due to my bipolar and was struggling with an ED I had dealt with for most of my life, we made the commitment to find a way to treat both my illnesses once and for all…or so we thought.

Treatment was intense and I was able to see a doctor twice a day. A few days into my stay however, my insurance company decided it was not an appropriate setting for me because I was not thin enough to justify treatment. According to them I did not have a life threatening condition so they would no longer cover my stay. How in the world do you tell someone with an ED that they are not skinny enough for treatment, especially when the doctor who saw me EVERYDAY insisted I needed to be there? I freaked out at the possibility of facing thousands of dollars for treatment so on New Year’s Day I left against medical advice going home feeling more hopeless than ever.

A few weeks later I found myself at a nearby hospital once again because I had literally given up. I remember sitting in the ER for over 6 hours waiting to see a doctor. Eventually it was determined I needed to be admitted but it took another 2 hours for them to convince my insurance company that it was necessary. They were not going to consent due to the fact that I had recently signed myself out of a hospital so they questioned my intentions and whether I actually needed help. I remember yelling and cursing because the reason I was even there was because of them in the first place. I told the doctor I was going to walk out and kill myself right on the sidewalk; now they had no choice but to admit me. For 2 more hours I was left confined to a tiny room ready to explode waiting for a bed to open up. Not once did I see another doctor or did anyone check on me.

The entire time I was there the doctors were pressured by my insurance to release me as soon as possible. They did not want to pay for more than 7 days. I sat across from my doctor one morning in tears ( because all I did was cry at this point) as he actually told me my insurance felt I was there long enough and wanted to know why I was taking so long to get better.

Before being discharged hospital policy stated that I must have an appointment with a psychiatrist in order to leave. I sat with the social worker while she spoke to the receptionist at my doctor’s office who obnoxiously said I should probably find a different doctor because mine could no longer help me. She hung up the phone, looked me right in the eyes and suggested I should really start thinking about my behavior before I burned any more bridges! I demanded to use the phone, called my doctor directly and after explaining what had just happened he scheduled an appointment for the next day and apologized for the inappropriate comments from his receptionist.

I recall another time sitting in the ER waiting for insurance approval a week after I insisted on being discharged from a different hospital where I had chairs thrown at me and psychotic patients sneaking into my room at night with God knows what intentions. They had the nerve to tell the ER doctor that I needed to go back to where I came from because I never should have left there in the first place.

Thankfully I have not needed a hospital in several years but to be honest the hoops I’d have to jump through certainly reduce the chances I would even seek help there. How is that ok?

I realize this is a problem with other medical conditions as well– like being rushed out of the hospital 1-2 days after giving birth– but it is much more difficult for people with addiction or mental health issues to get the care they deserve because the severity of the illness can’t always be seen physically or be confirmed by a blood test or high tech machine. In a sense they have to take our word for it. A nurse once told me it would be easier to get help and I’d be taken more seriously if I had slit my wrists or overdosed.

It’s difficult enough (and sometimes humiliating) to walk into an ER and have to explain to the receptionist you are there because you are afraid of killing yourself. Saying that out loud to a stranger or hearing your husband voice that concern is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But during a crisis it is necessary, just like it’s necessary when we break a bone or have a heart attack.

How can one focus on getting well while having to deal with the fear of being “thrown out” or taking too long to improve just enough to make room for the next guy who has been waiting for over 12 hours in the ER for your spot because it’s the only psych unit in the area that is not a nightmare?

My intent is not to scare anyone who needs assistance. Despite these obstacles I have received life saving care that I am very grateful for. But I had to speak up for myself and I will continue to do so.

I hope this provokes anger towards the system and motivation for us to make things better. I hope it also provokes empathy, compassion and a willingness to support those who have decided to seek the help they deserve but may not have the means to get it.

Thank God for people like the ones who are devoting time to run across the country to raise awareness and are fighting for our rights and better care. This is a crisis in our country (and worldwide) and we cannot be ok with that, especially since most of us know someone suffering from one of these illnesses. The system is complicated but we have to start somewhere otherwise people will continue to die because of a system that only cares about numbers and money. How can something be so impersonal when it’s a matter of life and death?

If someone you know needs help GO WITH THEM! Talk to the doctors, be persistent and demand care. My husband has made phone calls on my behalf several times when I’ve given up or was unable to express myself. It absolutely made a difference. However, not everyone is as fortunate as I am to have someone who refuses to give up so it’s even more important that those of us who are capable speak out and demand what’s right. Progress is being made and I am so grateful for the people who are taking a stand and are willing to make a difference. Raising awareness is so critical in facilitating change.

Let’s make a commitment to share our stories and help those around us who need us and can’t fight for themselves. Support the organizations that work relentlessly for change and strive to be the person who is going to positively impact someone’s life. The opportunities are endless; look around and pay attention. You can absolutely make a difference.

1 John 4:11
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

It’s All In My Head…

I know what you’re thinking…that phrase and mental illness should never be uttered together. I wholeheartedly agree. Trust me, I’ve been told several times that my illness is “All in my head” and it took every ounce of self control I had to keep from ripping someone’s head off.

What I’m talking about here is something different that occurred to me on the way home from my doctor’s office the other day. There ARE things in life that are simply and truly “All in our heads” even when we have a mental illness. Let me explain…

A few weeks ago I had an unpleasant visit with my doctor in which I had a difficult time communicating my thoughts and concerns and ultimately I ended up leaving in tears. I was there because I wasn’t doing well — my emotions had been like an extreme roller coaster ride, I couldn’t sleep, concentrate or communicate effectively no matter how hard I tried. When I tried to express this I felt like she did not hear me or care about how upset I was. As we went through all medications I had tried in the past I could tell she was getting frustrated because just about every drug she mentioned I said I’d never take again due to very powerful side effects I suffered in the past. I assumed she thought I was being uncooperative and resistant to her suggestions…which I guess I was because I really didn’t want to start messing with meds again. But after breaking down in tears I finally agreed to increasing the dosage of one medication and accepting two new prescriptions as well because quite frankly by that point I really didn’t care. In fact, that’s exactly what I told her. Convinced I was a failure I drove home in tears because I felt like we were back to square one; a place I never thought I’d be in again.

Fast forward three weeks to this past Tuesday when the doctor’s office called to confirm my appointment for Friday. From the moment I hung up the phone my head started spinning a million miles an hour about what would happen in 3 days…Thoughts like: “She’s going to be rude…She’s going to grill me relentlessly about my meds…She’s going to tell me I’m uncooperative…She’s going to insist I see a counselor…She’s going to tell me to suck it up…” and on and on it went.

As the day of my appointment drew near the scenarios I played out in my head became quite elaborate. I actually convinced myself that she was going to inform me that she would no longer work with me. I also envisioned myself yelling at her that I was going to stop medication altogether before storming out of her office. In fact, just writing about it is making me cringe because I know I would never actually do something like that but it didn’t stop me from imagining it.

As I drove to my appointment, I obsessively tried to figure out exactly how the appointment would play out. Having rehearsed every conceivable scenario I arrived at my appointment with my heart racing and head aching. I reluctantly checked in then sat nervously dreading the moment she would summon me into her office.

But guess what? She greeted me with a smile, asked how I was doing and what was going on with the new meds. There was even a hint of compassion in her voice…something I had convinced myself she did not have. When I told her I had stopped one of the new meds because the side effects had been horrible, instead of confirming the fantasy I had played out of her telling me to stop being uncooperative, she simply made a note and tried to figure out how to proceed.

Long story short…NOTHING I had envisioned for the past three weeks happened. No judgement, no yelling and no accusations or lack of concern on her part. My whole body finally relaxed and my mind was completely relieved for the first time in several days.

You would think that throughout this whole fiasco I would have taken my own advice and reminded myself of the words I so often say to others, “God’s got this.” Nope, I was completely stubborn and shut out the voice of my Creator and instead allowed MY voice to take over. It seems so silly in hindsight that I would ever think I knew better than God.

Sure, an illness can affect thoughts and emotions. Part of what I cope with is ruminating thoughts so once an idea is planted it can be very difficult to let it go. But illness or not I’m sure there are times we’ve all needlessly freaked out or driven ourselves to the point of panic because we’ve tried to predict the future causing our thoughts to spin out of control.

I’ll be honest though. That’s precisely what I did this week. I focused only on the negative outcomes and allowed myself to spend a lot of time being upset over things that really were all in my head. I showed up already defeated by situations existing only in my mind.

So what did I learn this week? There are often times I’m my own worst enemy. Sometimes it is appropriate for me to tell myself to stop dwelling because none of it is actually real. All of the fantasies I tend to play out in my mind are a result of trying to predict and control the future. Usually what I’m obsessing over is based on false assumptions or allowing fear and negativity to take over. I need to remember to live in the present and place my future in God’s hands. I could have spared myself from a lot of worrying and anxiety. Starting now I am going to take my own advice and listen to what God has to say about all of this…

I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.
Psalm 34:4

When fear shows up and I find myself trying to figure it all out I am going to go directly to HIM and ask HIM to take over in order to spare me from myself and the needless worrying I create that really is all in my head.

My Faded Scars…

If you’re like me you’ve probably acquired a few scars that when you see them take you right back to the exact moment you were wounded. Maybe you are reminded of a traumatic event from your childhood. Perhaps you wear ones that have become bragging rights as a result of a risk you took on an epic adventure. A scar from childbirth reminds us of the miracle of life. Some are clearly visible. Others have faded from our skin but remain etched vividly in our minds seemingly forever.

Recently I caught a glimpse of my scars; not the ones on my knee from when I got stitches as a kid, but the ones on my arm which now are barely visible, resembling faded scratch marks. The sight brought me right back to the moments in my life when I impulsively gave in to intense emotional pain by engaging in self harm.

I was never a danger to myself in these moments as the purpose was never to kill myself. My goal was to relieve the struggle that had become too difficult to handle emotionally. It was nothing specific. I was a pretty normal teenager. However it was during these years my mood disorder decided to show up and that along with typical teenage hormones and rebellion were sometimes too much to handle. I’ll never forget the day when a friend of mine confided in me about cutting herself. I had never heard of anyone doing this. Immediately I judged her as crazy and became very upset with her. However, a few days later I experienced an intense mixed state in which the sensation of my skin crawling, the feeling of being trapped followed by a moment of self hatred for having these feelings, became overwhelming. Suddenly I remembered what my friend had done. I knew it was wrong and if I tried it I would be stepping into something very dark. It made absolutely no sense but it seemed like the perfect answer…

I won’t go into details…it’s not necessary and I don’t want to trigger anyone who currently struggles with cutting, but I want to look at the bigger picture. It was during my teens and early adulthood when I occasionally resorted to this behavior as a coping mechanism for feelings and emotions that took over my body that I didn’t yet understand. That was a long time ago and it was not very common. However, today there are kids as young as nine that I have personally encountered who if not yet acting upon these urges, are at the very least contemplating it.

As a teacher my relationships with young kids and teenagers dealing with self harm have time after time revealed a common theme — hopelessness, extremely low self esteem and the perception that they are not being heard. They believe with all their heart that no one cares for or understands them. Some kids hide it well (I did). Some kids lie about it (I did). Some are to the point where they don’t care who sees their marks. These kids have no sense of worth or purpose. They’ve lost hope at such an early age and on the surface actually believe there is nothing wrong with physically harming themselves. Try to imagine what it would feel like to be that young and confused, convinced you are utterly alone and the only way you know how to cope is to turn your emotional pain into physical, because at least in that moment you have something else to focus on. The urge is more powerful than any possible consequence because you simply stopped caring about what happens to you.

My whole point in sharing this is to let people know there really is hope even when we FEEL hopeless. The hope never goes away; we just can’t see past what we are experiencing. It took me a lifetime to figure that out. I believe it is now my responsibility to spread that message so we can help others who deal with this either personally or with a loved one. I went from a self harming teenager with an undiagnosed mood disorder to a person who has been able to accomplish things I never would have thought possible. This is my opportunity to use what I’ve experienced for good.

My personal struggles have given me strength and the necessary tools for when I find myself sitting across a table from students who have found themselves in seemingly hopeless situations and have bought into the lie that the only solution is to hurt themselves. I’ve been able to look them directly in the eyes, genuinely express my concern and show compassion because I’VE BEEN THERE. I can relate. I can be there for them in their time of need. For that I am grateful.

Today I have a tattoo of a runner on my wrist overshadowing those scars signifying the first marathon I ran with my husband that we finished hand in hand. I love when kids ask me what my tattoo means. That question opens the door for me to share how it took strength, courage and determination for me to achieve a lofty goal. We discuss the pain – physical and mental – and obstacles I encountered while training but also how I was able to work through it in order to fulfill a dream. We talk about hardships and how so often we desire to throw in the towel, but despite all of that it is possible to summon the strength and energy to carry on. It is a perfect metaphor for life and is applicable to so many situations.

Something else really powerful occurred to me when I caught that glimpse of my faded scars. I realized there is another person who bears scars that will forever be a reminder of how much we are truly and unconditionally loved. Jesus. Think about it (and I promise I won’t get preachy). Picture his hands. Think about how those wounds got there and why he endured torture and ultimately death. He did it all to prove that he loves us so deeply. He understands my pain. He gets it and wants me to know I am worth dying for. Just as I get those kids I’ve talked to, Jesus gets me because he’s been there too.

I still can’t quite wrap my head around the enormity of what he went through for me. I examine myself and it makes no sense. But my perspective changed the other day. When I saw my scars initially it triggered a sense of regret and shame, but then I closed my eyes and vividly saw Jesus with his arms open, scars visible to show me the unconditional love he has for me. Many of us don’t get that. Sometimes we hate ourselves so much we can’t see beyond the pain. Forgiveness seems impossible. His scars, however, prove us wrong.

So right now, this is now OUR chance. Even if we don’t yet get it, we can at least try to live our lives to be a reflection of Jesus. Every single one of us can do that by showing grace, love and compassion toward those who are hurting. We can love unconditionally without judging the choices someone is making. If you know — or even suspect — someone who self harms in any way, do not overlook it. You are called to let them know you care. Tell them you are there for them and that they are WORTHY of being loved. And don’t stop. A one time conversation won’t fix anything because the pain is deep and their beliefs are real to them even if WE don’t understand them.

We need to remember that God loves us all. He bears the scars to prove it. We must reflect his love by making a commitment to wake up each day and offer those around us forgiveness, grace and unconditional love. Whatever scars you have and whatever the cause of them, look at them and then close your eyes. Picture him standing in front of you with his arms open wide showing you his scars so you will understand that he gets it. He knows your pain and struggles and loves you anyway. Then open your eyes and vow to turn those scars into motivation to live how God intended and go find someone who needs your love.

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