So Dark & Deep: A Story of Mental Illness

It hits you all of a sudden. It’s the middle of the day, you’re surrounded by friends and the sun is out. But something isn’t right. There is this feeling, a very uncomfortable feeling in your mind, in the pit of your stomach. You want to leave and go somewhere that is quiet and dark. You are being consumed. Consumed by your own thoughts. So dark and so horrid, you are afraid. It’s wrecking you from the inside out.

But what can you do? Suffer? That’s what many of us do and did. But sometimes the suffering gets too much. You can’t handle the darkness that’s pulling you into an eternal abyss and you decide that only way to stop the darkness is to join it. You take your own life. Suicide. Simple as that.

I lost a very close friend of mine to suicide. It sent us, their friends and family, all into a cage. We felt trapped, we felt deep inside us this horrible, disgusting feeling and all you wanted to do is cry. That’s how suffering feels. This constant feeling of being trapped and not being able to do anything to stop it. That’s how people with mental illnesses feel constantly. It devours us. Fear eats our insides away until we are nothing but bones. Fear controls us. Fear puts us on autopilot and does whatever it wants.

That feeling you have in the pit of your stomach when you are about to do something that makes you nervous? That’s how anxiety feels. It’s how living with a mental illness feels. It runs our lives and we can’t stop it. Admitting to someone that you have a problem is probably the hardest thing to do. Admitting to my best friend that I have anxiety, depression and OCD took me months.

Every night I would run it around in my head, what and how will I tell my friend that I am crazy and I can’t control it? Will she be OK with it? Will she laugh? Is she going to stay being my friend? And that’s the problem I am trying to write about. Admitting you have a mental illness. It’s not easy to do and that’s why more than two million people are struggling. They can’t tell anyone.

Lucky for me, I have an amazing group of friends that understood, while some aren’t so lucky. A lot of friends and family reject their siblings or children or friends because they don’t know how to deal with a mental illness. Dealing with a mental illness, whether you have it or someone else does, is like a tripwire. You have to be so careful with your words or one bad move and it can devastate someone.

A quote that that always inspired me, even through those dark days when I decided I couldn’t do it anymore, couldn’t carry on living. “And here you are living, despite it all.” – Rupi Kaur

To all those suffering deep inside, pushing those feelings to the back of your brain, the bottom of your heart, please keep on living. Please remember that no matter how distant your future may seem, no matter how distant love may seem, it will always be there. Never lose hope; I know it’s easy to. We are rocks in a sea of chaos; we cannot let every storm knock us around. We simply mustn’t.

My Parents’ Support Shaped My Recovery
by Max E. Guttman, LCSW

My parents have been there during the darkest moments of my recovery and during the most triumphant.

From the very beginning, my parents have been present with me in my health and healing, and if my prayers are answered, they will be with me until the very end. My parents have been doing this for a long time—caregiving. My mother was the caregiver for her mother for almost 20 years during the tenure of my grandmother’s dementia and aging. Around the time when my great aunt passed, and my grandmother first began to forget things, I was admitted to the hospital as an adolescent.

My mother and father were there on the unit every day. As soon as visiting time came around, my parents would buzz the unit door and there, in hand, would be a snack or my dinner, or just something I could use to pass the time. Indeed, family support is integral to the recovery process. Our family’s proximity to our issues, our sensitive and raw exposed areas—there is no question that family is the perfect match for people needing comfort and attention during our most vulnerable times.

My parents were the first to identify my illness. Something didn’t seem right and before long, things were spinning out. When I was 17, I attempted suicide, and was again taken to the hospital for what the nursing staff called “a tune-up.” My treatment team asked my family to sit around the table and read to me their thoughts on my decision to end my life prematurely. That was the first time I witnessed the impact of my illness on the emotional state of my family.

While both inpatient experiences impacted my parents, throughout, during, and while I was on the unit—however difficult the emotions were to process—my parents persevered on their own merits and guided me along to discharge in the process. Not only were my parents emotionally supportive and very present at all times, they were an integral part of my treatment team. There wasn’t a family meeting without my parents’ voice of support. During these early moments in my illness, I still remember the encouragement and hope my parents passed on to me to keep moving and move forward regardless of the challenges poised ahead that I would have to confront on my own one day.

In college, when things again began to spin out, my parents were retired and there were no outpatient therapists that would take our insurance. I again had just attempted suicide, and upon returning to the dorm, I would need a therapist if I was going to continue living at school. My parents knew the importance of help when healing is what’s needed, and without delay I was connected to a therapist in the community.

To pay for treatment, my dad worked as a part-time security guard into his 70’s. For my parents, working to support my mental health treatment wasn’t a question—it was a priority. This speed, savvy, and importance placed on unconditional support regardless of my circumstances was the rallying cry of my parents throughout my recovery, even when I fought them on it. Later on, when my psychosis was activated, and I became extremely paranoid and delusional, my parents were wrapped up into my distorted thoughts and suspicions. As my condition worsened, I even threatened to call a lawyer and sue them when they wouldn’t follow one of my irrational demands at the time.

But my parents always knew better than whatever the illness spoke or had me believe. And when I was three hours away from home in a state hospital, not around the block anymore, my parents were weekly visitors. Every weekend, in their golden years, my parents would drive three hours each way just to make sure my treatment and health were being attended to on the unit. Even when I wouldn’t participate in family meetings or wouldn’t agree to move back home upon discharge (I was preoccupied with moving into an adult home), ultimately, when I walked out of the unit and my time in the hospital was over, I went home with my parents, who were waiting for me outside of the unit with a bag of Burger King and my favorite iced coffee.

As one therapist said to me: “Your parents really stepped up, Max.” Well, they stepped up again and again. When I came home from the hospital in upstate New York, my family administered medication, cooked meals, helped me do laundry and everything else I wasn’t able to complete on my own just yet. From transportation to the clinic where I would get weekly injections, to therapy appointments when I was too sedated to drive, my parents were no strangers to starting over, moving forward, and being okay with both setbacks and difficult times in my recovery.

And when the most difficult times were over, and I wanted to pursue life again and go back to school, my parents were supportive of me chasing my dreams and facing my demons head on. My parents are the reason I was able to find meaning in life again and they are the reason I support my clients. We all need people to cheer us on, no matter what the circumstances are. Support from one or two people goes a long way when there is no one in our corner

Growing Up with a Parent Experiencing Bipolar Disorder
by Michelle Dickinson-Moravek

When you love someone with bipolar disorder, life can be very unpredictable. In my case, it was my mother who struggled with this illness. She was in and out of the hospital half a dozen times throughout my childhood. She was often so depressed that she couldn’t get out of bed and would cry uncontrollably for hours.

Other times she’d have what I now know were manic periods, which were kind of like taking a trip to Disney World: She would crank up the music and start singing and dancing—then, suddenly, she’d be running around the house naked. I referred to these ups and downs as “the roller coaster.” She could also be emotionally and physically abusive, slapping me and my brother and sister, telling us that we were garbage and imposing all kinds of arbitrary rules.

There were times when I’d have to stay home from school because my father had to work, and she was too fragile to be home by herself. And when I was in school, instead of paying attention to my teachers, I’d spend all day worrying about how my mom was doing—plus, I was weighed down with keeping the secret that I had a “crazy” mother.

It wasn’t until I was in high school that I understood my mother had a mental illness. Still, it was tough for me to be sympathetic. Instead, I felt angry. So as soon as I was old enough, I began getting jobs in restaurants to have an excuse to spend time away from home. I also figured that if I was going to be working so hard all the time, I might as well get paid for it and receive some appreciation. Taking care of my mother—and constantly strategizing with my father about getting her a new doctor or on a new medication—seemed like a thankless job in comparison.

When I was 18, I moved out of the house and went to go live with a boyfriend. Then at 23, I got married early to another guy who turned out to be a male version of my mother. He didn’t have bipolar disorder, but he was routinely depressed and abusive, and I found myself constantly trying to fix him—just like I’d try to fix my mother.

It wasn’t until my mid-20s, when I divorced and started going to therapy, that I began to heal and learned that it was OK to put some distance between me and my mother, even though I loved her.

And then, one day at work, I got a call from my father that my mother had died suddenly of a heart attack. It was only when she was gone, following a lot of self-exploration, that I was able to start having real compassion for what life with a mental illness must have been like for her.

My Journey to Reclaim Myself

I put myself through college and graduate school, while working in the pharmaceutical industry. Over that time, I realized that I could—and should—tell my story. In 2013, I submitted a proposal to an internal program that encourages employees to speak on various topics of their choice in a TED Talk-style format. I wanted to mine my experience growing up with a bipolar mother. I let myself get raw and vulnerable up on stage, and afterward, colleagues came up to me and said, “Wow—you really exposed yourself.” But I knew that, by being me, I was creating a safe space for others to talk about their own issues around mental health.

The feedback I got was so positive that I thought: If I can do this, I can write a book. I spent four years working on my memoir, “Breaking Into My Life: Growing Up With a Bipolar Parent and My Battle to Reclaim Myself”, which was published in February 2018.

The goal was not just to tell the story of my childhood, but to help people understand what it’s like to love someone with a mental illness. There’s been too much silence around this issue, too much hush-hush, too much stigma. I want to cause conversations to happen, so people realize that having a mental illness is just like having heart disease or any other health condition—it’s not anything to be ashamed of. The more we talk about it, the more people will get the help they need for loved ones or themselves. And, tools like the app 18percent that facilitate immediate peer to peer support can make all the difference for those struggling.

The difference in openness around mental illness today, compared to when I was growing up, is incredible. A short time ago a peer reached out and said, “I’m 61, I’m bipolar and I never understood the impact that my disease might be having on others. I bought five copies of your book—one for everyone in my family. Thank you.”

Reactions like that are why I want to tell the world about my experience—the fact that my little story could change someone’s perspective on mental illness, well, that’s huge.

Ways To Manage And Cope With Stress
Signs Of Severe Stress

Not all stress is bad. In fact, it can be helpful for gaining motivation, building resilience and encouraging growth. However, stress can negatively affect a person and their health if not properly managed, especially for someone with mental illness.

The are many physical and emotional signs that stress is negatively affecting someone. In fact, according to the American Institute of Stress, there are 50 common signs and symptoms of too much stress.

One of the most common physical signs of high levels of stress is sleep deprivation. In one survey, over 40% of Americans reported that stress had prevented them from sleeping. Other physical signs include frequent headaches and aches and pains. Examples of emotional signs include anger, mood swings, difficultly concentrating and irritability.

Sources Of Stress
Stress affects each person differently. A person’s genes and previous experiences influence how sensitive they are too stressful life events. However, certain circumstances or life events are generally known to cause stress and can help pinpoint where an individual’s symptoms might be coming from.

The Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory scores a person’s “stress inventory” using 43 stressful life events. Each event is assigned a numerical score. The higher the total score for all events, the more vulnerable a person is to a stress-induced health breakdown, which may include the triggering of mental illness.

The top three stressful life events identified by the inventory are the death of a spouse, divorce and marital separation. Illness is also a top stressful life event.

When stressful life events happen, we may not be able to change the situation or eliminate our stressors, but we can learn to manage our stress levels in a healthy way.

Methods for Managing Stress
There is no one size fits all strategy to managing stress – each person should identify which coping methods work best for them. It can help to develop coping strategies that address specific sources of stress. Also, the ability to easily incorporate coping strategies into your routine and lifestyle increases the likelihood of maintaining the practice. Keep in mind that small steps can have a big impact.

Problem-focused Coping
Problem-focused coping is when a person directly confronts a stressor or tries to find a solution to the stressor. For example, if having too many commitments is causing you stress, you may consider eliminating one of them to better manage the others. It can be tough to implement problem-focused coping if the sources are difficult to address, such as a stressful job situation or family relationship. In these cases, rather than grapple with the source of stress, an emotion-focused approach might be more effective.

Emotion-focused Coping
Emotion-focused coping is when a person focuses on regulating their reaction to a stressor. This approach allows a person to accept their stressors and find ways to shift how they experience them. For example, if a family member causes you distress, you can journal your feelings or reframe your thoughts about the situation to better regulate your feelings.

Wellness-focused Coping
There are eight interdependent dimensions of wellness: physical, intellectual, financial, environmental, spiritual, social, occupational and emotional. Each type of wellness has a different method for coping with stress.

Physical: Any form of exercise can relieve stress. Research has found that 30% of adults felt less stressed after exercising.

Intellectual: Activities that engage your mind such as reading, journaling about emotions, and jigsaw puzzles are all helpful coping tools.

Financial: According to the American Psychological Association, money and finances are a top stressor for Americans. Money management resources can provide strategies and solutions for money-related stress.

Environmental: Spending time in nature and green spaces is shown to help relieve stress.

Spiritual: Connecting with yourself and the world around you through meditation, prayer, or other forms of spirituality can have many benefits for stress relief.

Social: According to a 2015 survey, “43% of those who say they have no emotional support report that their overall stress has increased in the past year, compared to 26% of those who say they have emotional support.” Staying in close touch with family and friends, seeking out opportunities to make new friends and participating in community activities are all important methods for dealing with stress.

Occupational: Next to money, work is the second leading stressor with 60% of people finding work-related stress to be significant. One important form of occupational stress relief is to do work that you are truly passionate about, if possible. It’s also helpful to take time to recharge and establish healthy boundaries and work/life balance.

Emotional: To address your emotional wellness, you can detach yourself from stressors, practice relaxation techniques, try reframing your thoughts, or go to therapy, among many other possibilities.

Stress is a persistent force in our lives. Many people have come to accept it as normal, even when it gets out of hand, and let it build. But changing our relationship with stress is critically important for improving our health and well-being.

The goal is not to avoid stress but to manage it effectively. Stress is something we can and should address for the sake of our mental health.