Friday, October 10, 2014

My Personal Triumph Over Bipolar Disorder and Depression - National Bipolar Awareness Day


On September 9rd 2003, my doctor diagnosed me with Bipolar Disorder I . (Bipolar II is mostly depression with some manic episodes. Bipolar I is full blown mania with little depression.

My doctor described my diagnosis to me in this way: I'm a 78 RPM person trying to function in a 33 1/3 world. For you baby boomers, you'll know what I mean. If you're younger than a baby boomer and don't understand the analogy, ask your parents to explain it to you.

When I'm manic, I'm like the energizer bunny. Always going. Creating something. Wanting something.

Right after I got diagnosed, I jumped into crafts and started making these little wooden window seats.
I didn't create one or two, or a few. I created dozens. And dozens. And boxes full. I obsessed over getting every single wooden window seat in the Tampa area so I could make something out of it. Then I wanted a puppy. (Thank goodness my husband saw fit to tell me no at that time) Then I jumped into soap making. I made pounds and pounds of soap. (All of this is in less than a week.)

One of the first things I did after diagnosis was to purchase some books on Bipolar and read up on the illness. I wanted to know as much as possible and what I could do to help myself. I learned to eliminate as much stress as possible from my life as it's a definite trigger to a mania or depressive episode.

I learned to help identify my own symptoms that occur prior to a mania or depressive episode and take action ahead of time to help ease my way out of them or through them with less intensity.
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How do I cope with all of this? I have an agreement with my husband, my therapist, my psychiatrist and my family doctor to identify symptoms and report them. Whoever I can reach, gets notified that I'm experiencing symptoms and I need help. I immediately cut out everything in my life that isn't a priority. I stay as calm as possible. I go for a walk. I read a book or watch a movie. I take lots of breaks and make sure I take the extra medication my doctor prescribes.

But, to me, having Bipolar feels like I'm an alien among the rest of the human population. I react differently to various situations. I don't feel like I have the same emotions. What makes some people cry or laugh doesn't for me. I know a lot of it is because of the medications I'm on. I no longer view the world through the same window as other people do. I feel different. Isolated. I have the disease no one wants to talk about. Mental Illness.

I also have Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, and Panic Disorder. Couple all of that with OCD and PTSD and we having a “winning” unification of interesting modalities. With all of that combined, it makes for a very stressful person. I'm constantly anxious, nervous, overeating, clenching my jaw (not great for my TMJ), losing focus, breathing shallow, having my heart race, and staying tense. I'm not able to concentrate on anything except the thoughts or words that are repeating in my head feeding my panic.

I cycled from manic to depressive to stable on an irregular basis. There is no predicting when I will have the next cycle. My medications are really good at keeping me as stable as possible. But that hasn't always been that way. My symptoms come and go and I usually experience some degree of a symptom. I’m always aware of my illness, but there are many times when I’m stable and go about my life knowing that I am a capable, productive part of society. I go to the grocery store, get my haircut, take my dog to the vet. Normal, everyday activities. I think that all of those places have been extended into my comfort zone. However, being aware of my illness, I know there are places or activities that I just won’t do because I don’t want to trigger an episode. Like crowded places, or unknown places that might cause me stress. I can handle the mall for short periods of time. I usually park outside the store I want to shop at and go directly to it, instead of drifting through the mall. However, when I'm stable, I do like walking through the mall. So, it all depends. I usually use a coping technique.

I find comfort with my family, my support group and especially my church family.

I’ve made attempts at suicide. Some were just for fun, and I wasn’t really serious. (okay, serious in how serious can a person really be when they attempt suicide, right?) 

However, I started to get serious, and then after my second attempt at wanting to kill myself, I knew I had to find hope. You see, I had the pills and the alcohol. I could just combine them and no one would know until they found me. But, I don't know what stopped me unless it was my religion telling me I don't believe those who commit suicide go to heaven. But, instead, I wrote in my journal. All night, until I got over the urge to take those pills. It was the writing that was my hope.

Things happen for a reason, and I truly believe that. This is where writing therapy started for me. I spent the entire night writing all my thoughts about wanting to kill myself and how I would do it, what would happen afterward and why I didn’t do it.

My husband is a really good judge of my moods and my anxiety level now. He can tell almost immediately if I’m cycling into a manic episode. The signs are quite clear to him. I start talking really fast, I call him incessantly for the smallest things, and I start taking on more projects than I could possibly handle. Even before he was my husband, he would sit with me on the telephone for hours talking with me, while I wrote and he talked. Letting me get all my emotions out.

I used to be a technical writer and was also working as a tech-writing consultant before I became ill. The stress was too much for me, and in order to maintain a certain level of “saneness,” I had to give up my job. It wasn’t all that bad, because I had always dreamed about being an author, and this was a perfect opportunity for me to start working on that goal.

Being a creative person, I wrote quickly during my manic stages of Bipolar. The ideas flowed and I only had to write them down as fast as they’d appear in my mind. But, mania doesn’t last forever, and at times it cycles into depression. It’s difficult to write when I’m depressed. I can’t connect with my characters or the story. I don’t feel the desire to put words to paper. My doctor used my writing as a “barometer” to determine where I am in my cycles. If I’m not writing, then we make adjustments to my medication to get me back to it. Sometimes, the depression cycles last for a while. I’d go through months of no writing, which is very frustrating and difficult for me. I want to write, but the desire to write and the creative forces behind my writing aren’t there.  But, one thing I never gave up on was writing in my journal. Even though I couldn’t create characters on pages, I could write out my woes into my journal. It kept me from going completely insane about not writing at all. The writing healed the raging monster inside of me even though the medication could not.

As part of my medical treatments, my doctor would like to see as few manic episodes as possible. However, I miss those episodes because I felt like I could really harness my writing spirit and capture the ideas that would burst in my mind. I’ve learned to make sure to capture those ideas and write them down before they’re lost forever. I keep binders full of ideas that I’ve thought about while manic. That way, when the mania goes away, I still have the ideas to help me during my “normal (stable)” times. I do have episodes of normality. I can write effectively and with passion. My characters speak to me and I tell their stories when I’m stable. I’ve learned to harness my other writing talents to coincide with the Bipolar Disorder cycles. If I’m not “in the mood” to write, I worked on other parts of my writing career like promotion and public relations. They weren't as fun or as exciting, but they kept the writing embers alive.

I've kept journals for many years and it's never occurred to me to ever doubt my diagnosis. It explains so much in my life. My past is littered with uncontrollable manic episodes and deep depressive cycles. Reading back through my journals only corroborates those times and makes me see them more clearly. The idea about using journaling as a part of writing therapy became a germ of an idea for a bigger project. I knew I was on to something special.

I do try to keep a healthy lifestyle. I think if you’re eating healthier, taking care of yourself, getting exercise, it’s all going to help. I take vitamins and supplements every day, as well as my medications. I think that they’ve helped me maintain a level of stability that I wouldn’t have otherwise. They’ve given my body the extra boost it needs to deal with my illness. Stress, bad eating habits, too much sugar or caffeine, and irregular schedules can all wreak havoc on my illness. By watching what I eat, avoiding caffeine and getting enough sleep, I know I’m taking steps to lessen my chances for an anxiety episode that can then turn into a manic episode. Recently, I found "The Bipolar Diet" and it has done wonders for me. 

There are times when the medications lose their effectiveness. It's usually the anti-depressants. So, the doctor slowly stops me from taking it, lets my body readjust to not having the medication in my system, then slowly reintroduces the medication back into my system making it think it’s new. That’s rough on me. It takes around six weeks to do this. A very long six weeks. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. Then the doctor has to find a new anti-depressant that I haven't tried yet and see if that works.

At the end of 2007, I went into a very deep depression. More than likely caused by the ineffectiveness of my medication. I usually hear voices, but they're mostly in the background and they don't bother me, but this time they were talking to me. Making me scared and panicky to drive. Why? Because they wanted me to run into a tree. Or head on into traffic. My choice. So nice of them to give me a choice, don't you think?

The voices continued. I told no one. I kept up a happy front while I stayed sad on the inside and struggled with my voices. This was before I had a therapist, psychiatrist, and an agreement with doctors. The voices grew more insistent and louder. They were all I could think about. One time when I was at my primary care doctor's office, I blurted out what was happening to me. We discussed it, the doctor asked me if I had any thoughts of suicide, I said no, and he made some adjustments to my medications.

But, the voices continued.

This time, the voices told me to pick out a tree. So I searched for one. And found one. A nice palm tree on a corner. With a sturdy steel pole behind it, in case the car went through the tree.

Perfect tree, the voices told me. I felt proud.

I don’t know why, I was really scared, but I again told my doctor the voices wanted me to find a tree. He suggested hospitalization. I pleaded with him not to put me in the hospital. He asked if I'd see a therapist. I agreed.

I found a great therapist. She and I clicked immediately. She evaluated me and had me sign a “no suicide” contract. It was easy to sign. I didn't have any thoughts of suicide. The voices hadn't told me to run my car into the tree yet.

When I got home, I finally told my husband what had been happening and his solution was to take my car keys away. Reasonable solution, except it turned me into a prisoner and made me dive deeper into depression.

The voices and I devised a plan to get the keys back so I could have the car back. We told my husband the voices were gone. That I could drive again. No problem. We told the therapist, no more problems, I can drive again. I felt much better.

I got to drive to the doctor's office and had to pass that tree. As I drove past it, it took all my effort to keep from turning into it. The voices pushed me to drive into the tree. I couldn't do it. I got to the doctor's office. I couldn't lie to him. I told him I found the perfect tree. He immediately got on the telephone with the hospital to admit me. Here in Florida it's called a “Baker Act”. It's when the patient is admitted involuntarily.

I stayed in the hospital for six days. Six long days. I was on suicide watch. I didn't understand why. My weapon of choice was a car. How in the heck was I supposed to get a car up to the 4th floor of the hospital?

My psychiatrist changed my medications. Took me off some. Put me on a new one. Slowly over the six days, the voices went away. The urge to drive into a tree went away. And, best of all? I got happy. I'd been sad for so long, I couldn't remember. But, the difference was breathtaking. Unbelievable.

When I left that hospital six days later I was grinning from ear to ear, and not just because I was leaving, but because I was genuinely happy. I got home and I was happy. I heard a song on my iPod while I was walking the next morning and I knew it was meant for my new lease on life and me, “Walking on Sunshine”.

And, I've been happy and walking on sunshine ever since. My husband took me to Hawaii a few weeks later and then a week after that my daughter gave birth to my first granddaughter.

Getting hospitalized was one of the best things that could have happened to me. I have a new outlook on life. New medications. Less anxiety. Less panic. And, more happiness.

I was hospitalized again in November of 2009; around the same time I was receiving a lot of pain injections for my low back. That whole year I got to spend almost all my time with my granddaughter, the sunshine of my life. Then her mother decided to move to Arizona and I lost my sunshine for many years. She still has not returned to Florida but there is always hope. Most of the time, I spend each year scheduling a flight out to Arizona to visit my children and grandchildren.

I had many surgeries and back procedures for the next two years. I attribute a lot of my hospitalizations to the surgeries. There was a lot of stress and I believe the two were related.

Within two months, I was hospitalized again for a week for depression. Deep Dark Depression.

After that, my psychiatrist decided to send me to a residential treatment facility to work on the deep dark depression that had taken over my life. It was a facility in central Florida, far from home. My husband could only visit on weekends and only after he made suitable arrangements for our pets.

It was a lonely time and I made a few friends, but I knew I was there to work on myself. And I did that with a vigor I hadn't shone in months. I was determined to get better, and with that good attitude I left the residential treatment facility in a month.

Once again I resurrected my journal writing and realized again that it was the writing that helped me through the treatments. Why did it take so long to get back to writing? A very good question. The depression changed me. It changed how I dealt with my symptoms. When I started writing again, it was like the sun started shining and the flowers bloomed. But, it didn’t last long.

Shortly thereafter, I went into a downhill spiral so fast and deep it even scared me. I attempted suicide by taking pain medication. After I realized what I had done, I called my husband, and he had me call 911. While I waited for the emergency vehicles to arrive, I knew I had not made a good choice. My husband arrived after the police, and he was able to better explain what had happened and that I had Bipolar Disorder. The police wanted to Baker Act me immediately, but my husband and psychiatrist talked them out of it, explaining that my psychiatrist could better treat me at his hospital. So, off I went to the ER for six hours of observation. Then a quick trip home to pack a bag, as my psychiatrist was admitting me into his hospital.

I spent four days there, getting medication changes that helped along with behavioral changes. Mind over Matter. Writing all of my thoughts into my journal. Filling the pages.

And I learned that I do matter. And I learned to figure it out with my mind that I matter.

Best of all, I created a living document called a Wellness Recovery Action Plan. It's become my GO TO for anything that triggers me. It gives tips on how to respond to those triggers, and what action to take. It's taken on a life of its own. I keep it in a binder with my medication list, my physical history list, which includes allergies, immunizations, diseases / disorders, and all surgeries and procedures. Best of all it has the dates of every psych hospitalization. At the back, I include my will, my living will, and a durable power of attorney for health.

If anyone has questions on how to create your own, don't hesitate to ask. I'd be happy to help and point you in the right directions.

So, whether you are running on full, half a tank, or empty, your WRAP can be there for you and help you find the answers and especially guide you.

The depression didn’t stop there.

I attempted suicide again. This time I meant it. I took pills and wrote in my journal about the effects on my body while the pills worked their magic. No one was home with me at the time. I prayed to God why I had no purpose in life and what was my purpose suppose to be. God answered me. He said that I was to help others. Help them with journaling and teach them to learn to heal with writing like I taught myself and how I’m going to learn from others. I was floored. I wanted to live. God told me to call my husband. It was a hard call to make. But, my husband was strong. He had me call 911 and said he’d be home shortly. He was home by the time the ambulance and police arrived. He contacted my psychiatrist and my doctor took over my care. He didn’t let them Baker Act me, he had me transferred to another hospittal.

My psychiatrist finally found a diagnosis for my continuing depression. I was medication resistant to anti-depression drugs. I had only one option left.

ECT treatments. Scared and fearful. I prayed about this treatment. I talked it over with my husband. We decided to go for it. I was prepared for 11 treatments in total, I had nine treatments. I can tell you that I am a new person. I no longer take anti-depressant medication. I have not been depressed for nearly three years.

But, through it all, one thing stayed true.  My writing. Words Heal.

I learned new writing techniques to help me through even the hardest issues. I learned to add imagery. It worked so well that I now use it all the time.

It worked so well, that now I want to share it with you. This is it. I'm using it in my writing here and I use it in my journaling workshops and in my journaling process at WRITECOVERY.

Have a blessed day and thank you for taking this journey with me. I'm in recovery and stable, going on three years. It's been wonderful. 

Best of all, I'm still here to share with you. And, I'll continue to be here. 

V.

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