The conclusion of my Mental Illness Awareness Series is centered around thoughts and lessons I have learned in the time since the previously shared manuscript was written, which was two years ago. I wanted to touch on some feelings regarding my mental illness, my continued struggle with needing medication, the added benefits I’ve enjoyed from a changed diet and exercise, and the importance of finding the right therapist.
First, let me begin with a question that was asked of me from my friend who edited my manuscript for me. She questioned the portion that I shared in Part 4 of this series, which read, “Thankfully, I’ve learned that each high and low I have faced has strengthened me and equipped me for a healthier future.” She asked me if I really felt that way. I appreciated her asking me, because it gave me an opportunity to truly reflect on my feelings with this ongoing battle. I started that sentence with “thankfully.” That’s not to say, “Thankfully, I have a mental illness.” But I stand behind the sentence when it’s read in the manner of my appreciation for the silver lining that has come from having a mental illness. My battle with mental illness has increased my empathy towards others, it has humbled me, it has taught me to press forward at all costs, it has solidified for me that I can do hard things, and it has strengthened my testimony of knowing my body will be restored to its perfect state, as noted in The Book of Mormon.
The soul shall be restored to the body, and the body to the soul; yea, and every limb and joint shall be restored to its body; yea, even a hair of the head shall not be lost; but all things shall be restored to their proper and perfect frame. – Alma 40:23
That all being said, mental illness sucks. The biggest struggle for me, second to the disease itself, is the need for medication. I still have to give myself a pep talk about how it’s not a weakness on my part to take medication for my mental illness. Even though I whole-heartily agree to the remarks I made in Part 1, comparing medications as they pertain to diabetes and mental illness, it somehow still feels different. Mental Illness does not have any concrete numbers to go off of to say affirmatively that I need medication versus I’m just being a wuss. I wish mental illness had a test that could confirm that something was wrong with my serotonin levels. At least then I wouldn’t feel like it was all in my head, which, ironically, it is all in my head either way.
The secondary struggle with needing medication is that I have to deal with all of the side effects. My medication affects my libido, my weight, and my range of emotion. The latter might not seem too bad of a side effect, except for when you want to feel happiness in its purest form and you hit an emotional ceiling. My bipolar medication’s purpose is to make the lows more manageable. Unfortunately, its method of operation is to decrease the spectrum of all parameters of emotion. As a person who can experience extreme lows, I have highs that can match it. To save myself from drastic feelings of depression, I have to sacrifice some of my highs as well. I find this is the hardest side effect to swallow. To feel a full range of positive emotions is the driving force every time that I try again to get off of medication.
I recently tried again to rid myself of my need for medication for this very reason. It was a terribly ugly time for me, and I’m only now coming through it. What I learned in those months of medication changes and eliminations is that I truly have bipolar II disorder, and such a disease has no path that is medication-free. The risk of suicide is much too high with bipolar II, and it’s not worth that risk. I’m experiencing a similar issue in regards to the need to take cholesterol medicine, as a post-stroke precaution. Even though they’re almost certain that my stroke was not cholesterol related, and my numbers are now within normal range, I will forever be on my cholesterol medication. Why? Because it’s not worth the risk. If taking a couple of pills increases my chances of staying alive and living stroke-free, then I am all for it. I’ve mostly come to peace with it.
I say mostly because, if I’m being honest, I still carry shame over my mental illness. It’s a two-part type of shame. The first is because there is nothing concrete that says I officially have any mental illness. It’s all based on my experiences and my reactions to medications. So, until that magic brain test comes along, I will always wonder if I’m just a wuss or a tyrannical heathen (for those agitated mom outbursts).
The second part of my shame comes from my belief of what others think of me, particularly as it pertains to my use of western medicine. Before I share this portion of my shame, it is important to note that the people I mention are not shaming me at all, I am taking their words/lifestyle and shaming myself. I know this, logically. That being said, all of the people who say they changed their diet and were cured (or made functional), or they took essential oils, or they prayed more, or they started writing in an emotional journal, or they ran every single day and they were all better, their lifestyles make me feel ashamed. I’ve witnessed the benefits of all of those things firsthand, but it’s never been enough to make me functional. I have felt better working on my diet recently, I know I feel better when I exercise, I have found moments when essential oils have brought me some added peace, I have seen the rich blessings that come from fervent prayer, I have even gained some enlightenment (very little, honestly) when tracking my emotions in a journal, but it has not been enough for me. So, good ol’ me translates that into my head as though I’m just not trying hard enough. Because if I did, I could be cured (or functional) without western medicine. Therefore, I am weak, and I am a failure. See how that works? Can you see why I keep trying to get off medication? To just be good enough all on my own? That is the struggle, and it is real. While I should be happy for all of those people who are able to be successful without medication, and I am, the predominant feeling I endure is shame.
Shame or not, the reality is that my future consists of anti-depressant medication. I need to look at my medication for mental illness the same way I look at my cholesterol medication and baby aspirin for their role in preventing another stroke. Ironically, the two scariest times of my life were when I wanted to end it all, and when I thought I lost it all with my stroke. I never want to risk those instances again, and I think as I type this, I’m truly ready to stop shaming myself over this matter. I shouldn’t feel shame for not wanting to re-visit those events. So, as I sit here typing with tears in my eyes, I publicly express my goal to stop shaming myself unnecessarily over my use of western medicine.
Wow. Putting the topic of shame into print somehow helped me work through it better.
Speaking of working through things, I realized there were two things that were left out in the manuscript that I truly have had added success with in my battle with mental illness. They are not a cure-all, as with all of my suggestions, but they have added benefits. It will be no surprise that I’m speaking of exercise and a healthy diet. I hate the word “diet,” so I don’t even want to call it a healthy diet. How about mindful eating? For me, this has meant watching for emotional eating and habits of over-eating. I have changed very little about my diet over the past month. I’m still eating my beloved cheeseburgers. I’m really just cutting back on excessive intake, and I feel better for it. As for exercise, I’m still not working out regularly, but on days that I do, I notice a big difference in my outlook for the day. Again, not the only answer, but definitely another nudge of strength to get me through the rougher days.
As a last topic, I wanted to speak to the matter of finding the right therapist. The stellar therapist I mentioned in Part 2 was located in Southern California, and I have since moved to Central Oregon. Sadly, I recently had a horrible experience when trying to find a psychologist in the Pacific Northwest to help me brush up on my coping mechanisms. I won’t bother with details, but I spent the last 15 minutes of my session trying to focus on appearing interested in what this therapist had to say. I walked out of her office and felt defeated. I knew instantly that I would not ever go back to her. Then I thought, had this been my first experience with a psychologist, I would never have learned of its benefits. Benefits that can only be realized when being diligent in finding the right therapist.
I still recall when I spoke with my previous stellar psychologist over the phone for the first time, nine years ago. I told her that I had seen therapists previously, and that I hadn’t had much luck. Her apt response was that I would not have any success until I was truly ready to get help. I took that slight reprimand as a resolution to be honest with her, and myself, in an effort to make tangible emotional progress. It worked then. Unfortunately, now I still have that same honest desire for emotional growth, but I have to continue my search for the right fit where I live now. It’s exhausting having to go on a bunch of psychologist “first dates,” but I know I am in need of some refresher courses. I felt impressed to share this struggle, in the off-chance that someone out there has already given up on the hope of finding the right fit with a psychologist based on some bad first sessions. I liken it to finding a significant other, we don’t always find the perfect match on our first try.
I appreciate all of those who have taken the time to encourage me, as I shared my manuscript on this topic. My prayer is that these final thoughts might give added strength to anyone struggling. I find it fitting that this past Sunday was Easter, a holiday set aside to celebrate our resurrected Savior, and our knowledge that we can all live again in His presence with our body in it’s perfected state. While I no longer wish to shorten my time on this earth, I look forward with joy to eventually being free from my battle with mental illness. In the meantime, I will continue to be as open and honest as I can about my struggle, so as to help even one person from feeling as isolated and worthless as I once felt. Remember the words of Jeffrey R. Holland, American educator and religious leader, “We are infinitely more than our limitations and afflictions.”