Standing Tall or Feeling Small - Coming to terms with mental illness

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Enter Stage Left - Mental Illness

Exit Stage Right - The Life I’d Known

Shall we start the show?

Zoom in on suburbia.  There’s a backyard with a hill, a garden, one small tree, and a concrete patio with a 32 year old man sitting on a futon under an awning.  He’s got a computer on his lap, a cigarette, burning, perched precariously on the arm of the futon.  He’s out of his element, looking confused, like he’s trying to tell a story that he doesn’t have a script for.  His name is Ryan.

Ryan is a person that most people didn’t have anything too bad to say about.  “He’s a nice guy.” “He’s so smart.”  “I wish I had his brain.” “He’s always so helpful.”  These things were regularly said about him.

Why is he sitting on this patio? The last few months have seen him lose a fiancé, a home, a car, a number of friends, a career, a driver’s license, and most of all, a perceived reality and identity.  

Why did this happen? Let’s call it a perfect storm of anxiety, stress, triggers, PTSD, medications, medical complications, and untreated mental illness.

Hello, I’m Ryan.  I have a future.  That may not sound like much, but it’s the biggest statement of my life right now.  Over the past few months, I experienced the worst mental/psychological/manic/depressed break of my life. The doctors aren’t ready to “put it in a box” as they’ll say, but I’m being treated for Bipolar Disorder with Psychotic Episodes.  If you sing it to the tune of Mary Had a Little Lamb, it’s a little more fun then just saying it out loud.  

 I have had to face the shame and embarrassment following a breakdown, and that has come with severe anxiety and depression.  I’ve always known that the life I was living was a facade, but it was a pretty good one.  I was fairly well admired.  I had a good job, a nice home in a coveted part of town, reliable transportation, a social network, and enough money that I wasn’t concerned about paying my bills on time, eating well,  and even had enough left over to save a little bit.

Do you want to hear the funny part?  Well, I’m still working on the funny part (tragedy+time=comedy and I might need a little more time :-) ).  How about a thing that makes me go hmmmm…  I don’t want my old life back.  Where I sit at this moment, I feel better off.  How could I possibly feel better off?  I’m in debt like whoa. I’m not sure of my future.  I have no security.  What I have now is more understanding, bordering on acceptance.

Not many people have had as much bad luck as I have, but not many people have had as much good luck, either.
— Tig Notaro

As the days go by, the “not in a box yet” diagnosis of bipolar is starting to make a lot of sense.  It’s as though a wave of new color, brighter and softer has just washed over the filmstrip of my life.  It’s making it easier to remember the past; to see where the effects of the disorder were the strongest.  Each of those places that were clouded with shame and anxiety are becoming a part of the tapestry, and stepping back, it has an eerie beauty about it.

I write about these things because I want to take my identity back.  I want to know that “my illness does not define me” (it’s getting to be cliché, I know).  

Feeling Small

While waiting for a walk signal at a street corner, I saw a former coworker, waiting at the light on the opposite corner.  She was sitting in her car, completely oblivious to the torrent of thoughts and feelings that began to course through me.  I wanted to crawl into the concrete.  I was suddenly awash with terror.  There was nothing to be afraid of, yet in my mind, it brought back all of the shame, fear, and embarrassment that have plagued me incessantly.  

Watch Dr. Breńe Brown's TED Talk at ted.com She's such a great speaker, she tells an honest story, and her points resonate.

I’m told by my therapist that I need to let go of the why (Why did I break? Why did I lose reality? Why did I act like that and do the things that I did?) , and simply accept that I had a major breakdown.  I’m told by my psychiatrist that he sees worse all the time.  I’m told that I can’t be responsible for my brain betraying me and turning me into a person that I am not.

Accept it.  It’s done. Be glad you didn’t do far worse than you did. Move on.  Get better.  Continue treatment. I’m still in the throes of trying to recover.  I have good moments and bad moments.  The smallest things can still trigger a panic attack that renders me incapable of feeling like I can continue to live on. 

There is a pseudo journal of my episode etched on the walls of social media.  Looking back through my Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and Tumblr feeds, I can see the person that I am afraid of.  He is the person that was in the midst of severe mania and psychosis.  He is the person that was not in touch with reality.  He is the person that took pictures in places he doesn’t remember being, having conversations he doesn’t remember having.  Looking back through those posts now, my stomach turns.  Those posts weren’t me, or the me that I want to be. 

Since returning to a place that’s closer to reality, I have been too afraid to interact on social media.  Afraid to post things that are funny or interesting.  I’ve felt that I don’t deserve to be happy because I caused so many problems, and I don’t want to post anything that would show I had any shreds of happiness left in me. 

I have been fairly active in social media since the social media “revolution” began.  According to Klout, I was in the top 10% of social media users for whatever that’s worth (crap - more Smurf berries!).  My social media identity was one of sharing funny thoughts and pictures.  Enjoying interacting with strangers.  Learning and having fun.  That identity was shredded.  My followers dropped, my interacting community shriveled, and I slunk away in fear and shame.

  rlmo   on   Klout  I'm reminded of  Smurf berries  whenever I think of  Klout .   The Smurfs game  sucked you into buying virtual nothing and  Klout  sucks you into trying to be a virtual something.

rlmo on Klout
I'm reminded of Smurf berries whenever I think of Klout.  The Smurfs game sucked you into buying virtual nothing and Klout sucks you into trying to be a virtual something.

Standing Tall

I will continue to see people that I know from my past.  I will continue to be seen on the Internet.  I will see comments that will be triggers.  I will be reminded of what happened, as much as I would love to forget it. I have to stay standing if I want to have a future.

I could delete the posts from the time when I went crazy.  I could do everything possible to sweep the whole nasty affair under a rug.  No. I don't want to live in shame and embarrassment.  I want to walk the street, visit a shop, and eat at a restaurant without worrying that I'm going to see someone from my past and think that I need to shrink away.  I want to post a picture of something funny on the Internet and not think that someone is going to attack me for it. 

I’m taking back my identity.  I’m standing as tall as I am able.  When I’m triggered into feeling shame, I’m hoping to be strong enough to identify the trigger and accept it.  This isn’t easy, but neither is anything else in life.