Mental Health Heroes Do One Thing: They Listen

Last night, John Oliver did a nice job explaining our nation’s problem with talking about mental illness and caring for the mentally ill.

But for those of us living with mental illness right now, how can we talk to our friends, family, and colleagues with our (horribly misguided) national tendency to conflate gun violence with mental illness? How can we talk when the national stigma is that we’re “crazy people?”

I’ve been living with bipolar disorder for fifteen years. Three weeks ago, I was hospitalized for an acute manic episode. I came home from a yoga retreat having not slept and not taken my medication. I entered a state of psychosis, believing there was a Nazi conspiracy against me and that I was in fact a boy named Michael. My friend contacted my mother and my loving and supportive parents called 911. The ambulance brought me to the hospital.

In my first week in the hospital, I punched nurses. I threw furniture. I screamed. As sick as I was, I was also extremely fortunate to get treatment. After three rounds of electroconvulsive therapy, my brain returned. I returned. Because of the ECT and the Lithium, I returned. And here I am, getting better.

My Heroes

Most people don’t know how to talk about mental illness because they don’t understand it. Well-meaning individuals tell depressed friends things like: “You should really try to work things out for yourself. Are you sure you need medication?”

When I was in college, I suffered from a debilitating depression. I started antidepressants and a good friend at the time told me she thought I should work things out on my own. I had no support system. I wasn’t showering or eating.

I still managed to attend some classes. I was taking a film history course with a brilliant professor I didn’t really understand. She gave me a B-minus on a paper I wrote on a Hitchcock film. Rewrites were possible, so I went to her office and met with her. I will never forget that meeting. I asked her how I could do better on the essay. She looked at me, and she said, “Michele—you are not allowed to rewrite this paper right now. Please stop working on it. My assignment to you is this: go to the movies.” She said what she said with so much care. In between the lines, she was telling me: I can see how depressed you are. You are too sick to work. You need to help yourself.

I’ve never forgotten that conversation. Because of that professor, I went back to the health center and got the support I needed.

These people—the ones who listened—have offered moments of grace throughout my life.

Two years ago, after a break up, I became depressed. I was still going through the motions of my life until one day, right before a meeting with my boss, something snapped inside me. I started crying at my desk. I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle my next meeting, so I typed an agenda, printed it out, and then walked to my boss’s office. In his doorway, I told him I was not feeling well and needed to go home. I started to hand him the agenda I’d printed. He looked at me and tilted his head to the side. “Wait—are you OK? Please come sit down.”

He closed the door behind him. He knew something was wrong. He asked me to tell him. I started to cry and told him, “I need to meet with HR. Something is wrong with me. I need a break.” He listened. And then he told me this: “Many years ago, I had a doctor write me a prescription that said, stop working for the month.” And he said, “Mental health is no different from physical health.” He told me to not worry about HR. To take the time I needed to get better.

He’s my hero. His kindness saved me.

How to Find Your Heroes

Not everyone knows how to listen when it comes to mental illness. I don’t tell everyone in my life I have bipolar disorder. Not everyone in my life needs to know. Not everyone is ready to listen. You can be proactive about finding your heroes, however. Here are a few tips:

  1. For starters, share with colleagues that you have a “chronic illness.” You don’t have to tell anyone you suffer from “depression” or “bipolar disorder” or whatever other specific ailment. You can share that you have a chronic illness and leave it at that.
  2. Tell friends in a way that doesn’t solicit unnecessary feedback. “I have bipolar disorder and I’m being treated with Lithium and psychotherapy,” you might tell friends. If someone offers you advice, you might say something like, “I appreciate your wanting to share advice but I’m getting very good treatment and would appreciate it if you can just listen.”
  3. People who are really there for you—your heroes—will show up. Just notice them when they do. This may be the friend who visits you in the hospital. This may be the colleague who just wants to support you. This may be the sister or brother who helps in whatever way you need.

Your heroes are out there. They’re the ones who listen. And you can be someone else’s hero too.

Show up. You may save someone’s life.

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How to Stop Resenting Your Medication

Surf the internet and you’ll find plenty of reasons to feel completely overwhelmed and depressed about bipolar disorder. One article tells you you’ll never have a successful relationship; another tells you a tale of beating the disease with a no sugar diet (I don’t question that the author had this experience, yet I don’t believe bipolar disorder can be fully treated with dietary modifications any more than cancer can).

As human beings, we’re used to feeling like we have control over our own moods. Which is why medication to control mood can feel like an indulgence, a choice, an unnecessary option for people who don’t have willpower. If you’re in a bad mood, after all, you should be able to snap yourself out of it. But depression, as you probably know, isn’t a bad mood. It’s a debilitating state of being. And mania isn’t a good mood. It’s a seemingly enhanced state of being that leads to debilitation if not treated.

Medication is not a cop out

More than reinforcing stereotypes or prescribing homeopathic remedies for a disease, the story that needs to be told is that bipolar disorder is treatable with the right medications and shift in lifestyle. Can some people do it without medication? I suppose. But do yourself a favor and don’t feel bad about having to take a combination of Prozac or Lithium or Seroquel or Abilify or whatever else you have been prescribed.

Medication is not unnatural

So many people talk about these medications not being ‘natural.’ You’ll actually hear people say things like, “Cave men didn’t need Prozac.” Or, “I’m just going to manage my own moods with an organic diet and exercise.” But cave men didn’t wear glasses or take antibiotics. Should we walk around with bad vision too? And in terms of managing our own moods—the bipolar ‘mood,’ as I stated above, is not like every other person’s mood. It’s a manifestation of a disease. There are very few other diseases people feel comfortable managing themselves. We don’t treat our own broken bones or self-prescribe cancer treatments.

Medication is not a substitute for a healthy lifestyle

While I know that I wouldn’t be alive today were it not for psychotropic medications, I also know that I wouldn’t be a highly functioning human being if it weren’t for decisions I have made to alter my lifestyle. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Drinking very little alcohol
  • Sleeping 8-9 hours a night
  • Working a job that doesn’t keep me up all night
  • Eating a well-balanced diet
  • Practicing yoga

The most important item, for me, on this list, is sleep. And that’s a tough one because we do live in a culture that treats sleep deprivation like a badge of honor. To be busy—so busy you have no time for anything, let alone resting, is a point of pride. “God, I’m just going going going all the time, nonstop,” people will stay. The punchline of this mentality being that, as Tim Kreider pointed out in his great op-ed The Busy Trapwe’ve chosen to live this way.

Which means that you can choose to take care of yourself. You can choose to find the right medications for you. (Assuming you have access to a doctor—I do know that some people don’t have the resources to get care though I hope that’s changing.) You can choose to live a healthy life. You can choose to give yourself time for rest and rejuvenation.

This doesn’t mean there won’t be struggle. And I’m certainly NOT trying to say in this post that if you have depression, anti-depressants are some kind of magic pill. They are not. They often don’t work. My point is that not taking these medications because of societal pressure to be “stronger’ than them is absurd. For so many of us, they’ve made a life once torn apart by this illness something we’re now able to manage.

What’s your emotional relationship to medication? If you don’t take medication but have bipolar disorder, how are you managing?

Finish Each Day and Be Done With It

emersonI have this Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, magnetized, above my desk at work. Today, I didn’t see it because it is the first day of a New Year and–like most people–I had the day off.

There were many things I could have done with my day: worked on my writing, taken a walk, caught up on emails, read a book, paid bills.

I did none of those things. Instead, I did absolutely nothing. In my sweatpants, I let the day slip away from me. I didn’t make any plans. I let the television numb me. I didn’t go outside.

I feel bad about this. Earlier this evening I wallowed in self-pity. (Why hadn’t I gone to the gym? Why had no friends called me? Why can’t I seem to do all of my dishes?).

But then I remembered the Emerson quote, and I stopped bullying myself.

Tomorrow will be the official start of my New Year. January 2, 2014: I will get dressed, go to work, and move on from today “with too high a spirit to be encumbered by [my] old nonsense.”