Understanding and Accepting Mental Illness

Understanding and Accepting Mental Illness

I was talking to my husband this morning, we were having a conversation about something and then suddenly I changed the subject. I thought he was following along with me, I thought he understood, but apparently I just started talking about something completely different with no notice. My brain was thinking too fast; there was no way for anyone to keep up with what I was saying. I was going from one subject to another, just a single word would trigger a different thought process and then I would be off on that new subject. I spent about 10 minutes just trying to explain how I got to the new topic I was on, and then I had to explain exactly what it was that I was talking about.

I’m not so sure if my husband will ever really understand how my brain works. How is anyone supposed to understand something that they are not themselves? No matter how much someone studies the bipolar disorder, I don’t think they will every really understand what it’s like to live with this illness. That is why support groups are so important; they bring people together who live with the same diagnoses. Support groups provide comfort and understanding that cannot come from people who do not have the bipolar diagnosis. This doesn’t mean that people without bipolar cannot support us. I have several people who support me. My family especially is very accepting of my diagnosis and they do the best they can to understand what I’m going through. It means so much to me that my family cares considerably, I’m extremely lucky.

In my opinion, others can only understand so much of how we think, but they can accept us for who we are. I know this isn’t easy; sometimes I have a hard time understanding and accepting it all myself. It’s hard to explain to others what I’m feeling, what/how I’m thinking, and what would be helpful. When I’m manic, it can be difficult to slow down enough so I can make sure that I’m making sense, and when I’m depressed, it can be difficult to care enough to explain things to others.

I have found two different country-wide groups. The first is NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which supports both individuals with mental illness as well as their family and friends. NAMI has a free 12 week program called Family-to-Family that is meant to educate family, friends, and significant others of individuals who live with mental illness. My mother and sister completed this program when I was in high school. I remember that after one of the sessions, my sister came home, hugged me, and told me she was sorry that I had to live with this. She and I struggle in our relationship at times, but the fact that she cared enough to complete the Family-to-Family program, meant a lot and helped us grow closer. I felt more comfortable around my mother and sister after they completed this program.

The other national support group I know of is DBSA, Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. DBSA also supports both those with mental illness and their family and friends. The local support chapters are run by volunteers. Their website helps people find local support groups for friends and family members, for parents, and for loved ones as well as support groups for individuals with mental illnesses. They also have online support groups for each of these different categories of people. DBSA also has educational materials and training options so individuals can start-up and run their own peer support group. I used to go to a DBSA support group, and I found it to be extremely helpful. I also met a lot of friends there that I’m still friends with, which is a big deal for me.

Maybe it’s weird that I don’t think others without mental illness can truly understand how I think and what I go through, but it doesn’t mean I don’t think they can care about me or try to understand me. For example, I’ve never broken my leg before, so I don’t really know what it’s like to have that happen to you. I don’t know what it feels like, how much pain it is, how inconvenient it can be, and how you have to change your life so you can heal. I still care about those that I know that broke their leg; I show that I care and that I’m compassionate, but I don’t know what it’s really like. That’s exactly how I feel about mental health. If someone has never experienced it themselves, then they don’t know what it’s like to personally live with mental illness. I’m not sure if that makes any sense to others, but it does to me. Even though no one in my family is also diagnosed with bipolar disorder, they all still try to understand and show me how much they care. I do have an aunt that also struggles with depression, and that brings us closer together. It’s a connection that I don’t have with other family members. My family loves and supports me, and that’s all that matters to me.

Explaining Mental Illness to Others

Explaining Mental Illness to Others

I get a lot of comments from people who don’t know that I’m diagnosed with bipolar and PTSD, and also from those that know and simply don’t understand. One family friend simply doesn’t understand. If we are out together in a group and my husband walks away for a moment, I tend to get anxious. I start to look around; making sure that nothing frightening is going to happen while my husband stepped away momentarily. His friend starts to tell me, “Don’t be anxious. Don’t worry, nothing bad will happen. Just relax.” I try to explain to him a little about anxiety and mental health, but he doesn’t get it. I feel invalidated and ridiculous by his comments; I end up feeling as if my emotional reactions are foolish and irrational. I’m not sure if I should bother explaining it to him again. He hasn’t understood it the first 5 times, why would he get it the next time? Even though I often feel uncomfortable in these situations, I accept this guy as a part of my life. I have hope that it will get better over time.

Not everyone is like that individual. I was at a family gathering yesterday for someone’s birthday. It was very obvious that I wasn’t feeling well. I explained that it was due to a new medication. Everyone that I talked to was understanding; some people asked a few extremely personal questions, but not one person was rude or dismissive. There is another person in this family that also struggles with bipolar disorder; they are accepting of her, but they don’t seem to understand much about the illness. Various people asked me questions such as, “Why aren’t you feeling well? How long have you been on this medication? What is this med supposed to treat? Why would you be willing to take something so risky or difficult? Don’t you think you can just get better with time?” Some of these questions were legitimate, some were a bit odd. I answered everything I could, and then I decided to provide some educational information.

I talked about NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and how it can help those diagnosed with mental illness and their families and loved ones. I talked about the NAMI Family to Family classes that are provided all over the country. I explained that my mother and sister took these classes shortly after I was diagnosed and how helpful it was for them. I described how it helped my mom and sister understand how my brain worked, what they should and should not do depending on the episode, and even how to take care of themselves. The couple people I talked to about this seemed quite responsive and even intrigued. It was really nice to have people seriously interested in what I had to say instead of ignoring me, even when I’m just answering their questions.

In my experience, family has always been supportive and caring; both my family and my husband’s family really seem to care about me and my wellbeing. No one always expresses themselves properly, but I do know that what they do always comes from love. Of course there will be times when they say the wrong thing, but that happens to everybody. In those situations, I need to remember that they didn’t mean anything by it, and that it is okay for me to stand up for myself by saying that my feelings are hurt.


Wellness Recovery Action Plans

Wellness Recovery Action Plans

I decided to complete the WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan) paperwork. I did one years ago when I lived with my mother, and it was very helpful. It could probably help out my husband as well. WRAP helps people figure out and integrate wellness tools and healthy strategies into their lives. It helps both those with mental health illnesses and their caregivers. It asks open-ended questions and statements such as how are you when you feel well, what do you do to stay well, what are your triggers, what do you do when your triggers emerge, what are your early warning signs, and what are signs that you’re about to break down. These questions are just the beginning of the documents. It will take a while to complete. I will probably ask my husband and mother to help me complete my WRAP.

I think it can be a vital part to the maintenance and recovery of those with mental illnesses to have this type of information documented. The thing I like the most about the WRAP is that it helps us create a crisis plan; informing our loved ones and caregivers exactly what we do and don’t want, such as meds we do and don’t want to take, what hospitals we do and don’t want to go to, and who we are willing to let take control in a crisis situation. Completing the WRAP documents gives those of us with mental health illnesses a voice; we get to make decisions when we are well about how we want to be treated when we are sick.

The WRAP that I chose is from NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) in Austin, TX. It can be found using the link below. By Googling ‘Wellness Recovery Action Plan’, you can find many different options, and if you choose to do one, simply choose the one that’s right for you. It’s not easy to complete; it takes time in order to be thorough. It has helped me and my mother before, I’m sure it will be helpful again.

Click to access Developing-a-WRAP-Plan.pdf


I Finally Accept Who I Am Instead Of Hiding It

I Finally Accept Who I Am Instead Of Hiding It

I’ve been living with bipolar disorder since I was 14 years old, in 1999. It has never been easy, but I’ve made it through with the help of my family and friends. I turned to drugs at age 12, which probably triggered the beginning of my episodes. I started seeing a psychiatrist and began taking medication in 1999. The best thing I had going for me was that I was always honest; I told on myself any time I did something I shouldn’t have. I have always felt the need to be honest. I was truthful about how I was taking care of myself. I always took my medications as prescribed, I went to every doctor’s appointment, and was honest with my psychiatrist/psychologist about the drugs I was using. I was even willing to admit myself to a psychiatric unit when necessary. I did these things, but was never happy about it.

I was never really ashamed of my diagnoses, but I wasn’t willing to tell people. I know it was mostly obvious, especially since I was a cutter for many years, but it wasn’t something I wanted to shout from the rooftops. I remember feeling worried what my friends and family would think. I told my immediate and extended family, and I received unconditional support from everyone. I even had a few family members take the NAMI Family to Family classes so they could better understand what I was going through.

After I got sober in 2004, I began a life across the country. I got a great job and I even received a fantastic promotion after 1 year. I kept my mental health diagnoses mostly to myself. I was concerned of what my co-workers and my friends from the 12-step program I attended would say. I had a couple experiences where I felt looked down upon when people found out about my mental health, however, I think most of it was in my mind.

In 2009, I had an episode that was so extreme, I had to leave my job, move back in with my mother, and go on disability. At this point, I couldn’t hide anything, and I decided it would be too much work to try. As it turns out, most people didn’t even think twice about it. I even found several people that lived with the same things, these people became my friends. I became comfortable with my diagnoses; now, I don’t care who knows about my mental health. If someone thinks differently of me because of my mental health, then that’s their problem and their ignorance. It has taken a long time, but I have finally become comfortable with my diagnoses. Even though I struggle daily due to my mental health, I also feel that it has made me stronger.

It may have taken me many years to become comfortable with this part of who I am, but now that I have, I can spend my time and energy working on myself instead of trying to hide myself. Becoming secure with my diagnoses has allowed me to truly live my life. To manage my mental health I continue to take medication as prescribed, follow-through with all treatments, be honest with my friends and family, try to stay productive, find things I’m passionate about (I enjoy cooking, cleaning, and hiking), try to keep on a schedule, and try to get a good night’s sleep. None of these things are easy, but if I regularly work towards these goals, life becomes easier.

I am blessed with family and friends that support me no matter what. My husband, mother, and other family encourage me to do things that are healthy for me. If it wasn’t for them, I probably would never leave my house or see any friends. It is because of their love and support that I can accept myself for who I am. My bipolar disorder and other mental health diagnoses are only a part of who I am, they do not define me or dictate my life.