The Better Because Project

Stories

By Laura Fox

March 27, 2019

In late September 1992, my world changed forever in a matter of seconds. I was at work. I suddenly had an ominous feeling that something was "wrong". Then it happened. My heart started to beat so fast and hard I thought it was going to explode. I felt this overwhelming pressure in my head. I ended up on the floor. A few days later a doctor diagnosed me with anxiety and prescribed me Xanax. The Xanax allowed me to work and socialize. I decided on my own in July of the following year to stop taking the Xanax. My doctor had failed to inform me that stopping Xanax suddenly after long use was not safe. What followed was a complete physical meltdown. I started talk therapy immediately thereafter. I was then given the more specific diagnosis of PTSD. By December of that year, I could no longer do paid work and have not done paid work since. I am now in my 26th year of being disabled. Most of my difficulties over the years have been energy based. When I say energy I am talking about the life force known in eastern terms as chi or kundalini. Over the 26 years, I have sought to be free of the tortuous energy hurricane that has swirled around inside me every waking second of every day for almost all of the 26 years. There have been huge chunks of time that I was stuck at home, unable to go out. Even something as benign as showering would make my energy issues worse. Also the first 4 or so years I vomited every day, sometimes more than once. It has just been in this last year that I have experienced tangible physical, and thus mental and emotional relief. The mental health component has been a struggle right alongside the physical energy torture. The main source of both of these struggles is I believe early childhood sexual abuse. The PTSD that resulted led to many self-destructive behaviors. These have been addiction to food, addiction to alcohol, cutting, and constant suicidal thoughts which included an actual suicide attempt in February 1997. This attempt occurred after my life had deteriorated to sitting on my bed, rocking back and forth 12 hours a day. After 2 weeks of that kind of extreme suffering, I couldn't take it anymore and tried to kill myself. I should be dead. But the universe intervened in a creative way. I ended up in the psych ward for two weeks. In the first 3 1/2 years of my illness leading up to my suicide attempt, I tried many psychiatric medications none of which helped at all. After the suicide attempt, while I was in the psych ward, I was put on a very old type of psych med. It turned me into a zombie. I couldn't really think too well and I constantly felt like I wanted to sleep. The relief I experienced from the years of physical torture made taking the medicine worth dealing with the unwanted side effects. In July of 1998, my doctor and I decided to have me try going off the medication. When I did that I had a hypomanic attack. Though I didn't know it at the time because I had never had one before. When I next saw my doctor she concluded I was having a hypomanic attack and diagnosed me with Bipolar 2. She put me on another medication to control the mania. The mania went away quickly and I was back to feeling extremely depressed by the fact that the physical torture had returned, and the isolation that accompanied it. Isolation has been a huge challenge over these last 26 years. The 3 closest female friends I had all ended their friendships with me due to my illness. It caused me great pain and great frustration because they ended their friendships with me due to an illness beyond my control. As for the therapies that have helped me get to where I am now, which is much more stable and far less physically tortured, I started with talk therapy. At the same time, I used EMDR therapy to clear out PTSD from a 1993 rape. Since the memories related to the early childhood sexual abuse are not visual but body and energetic memories, EMDR was limited in how helpful it could be with that PTSD. I've had to use other therapeutic methods. These have included as of now, August 2019: 10 years of Integrated Awareness Bodywork, 6 years of Somatic therapy (still doing today), 3 years of Hypnotherapy, and 9 months of Reiki (still doing today). Each therapy has been a stepping stone to the next. They built upon each other. My mind has been mostly peaceful for a couple of years now. But it really wasn't until this last year that I've had tangible, extended relief from my energy issues which caused so much physical suffering, and thus mental, emotional and spiritual suffering. I can safely say the only reason I'm alive today is that I have always viewed these physical and mental maladies as part of my spiritual path. My spiritual life is what I value the most. So even when I thought I couldn't go on any longer, which I have thought constantly, I would defer to that part of my deepest spiritual self that just would not give up. And I believe that that spiritual self led me to the therapies that have given me the freedom I have today. If you had told me 26 years ago I would still be disabled, that I would still be challenged energetically I would have given up, tried to kill myself at the beginning of this illness. So in the end not knowing the future was a good thing. I can say that the length and severity of my suffering have led me to understand many things about myself and about people and life in general. I went from being consumed by PTSD, being an active alcoholic, chronically depressed, and often suicidal before my illness hit, to being mostly peaceful, sober, and living life as the spiritual person I had wanted to be even before the onset of my illness. In experiencing my own illness I gained insight into the suffering of so many of us. It seems to me we all try the best we can. Sometimes we come up short, sometimes very short. And sometimes we excel at the art of living a healing, meaningful life. There is still some serious work to be done to reach the goals I've had since day one. That includes working, even if it is only part-time. Doing all the social things I want to do, including dating. Pursuing creative endeavors. Being a healing force in the world, whether in a personal way or a more universal way. I'm not sure how being a healer in the world will manifest, but I am open to wherever my path takes me. Our bodies, our minds, can give us so much joy and they can also cause us unimaginable suffering. One of the most enjoyable things that I experience now is just the overwhelming gratitude to be calm and grounded in my body and in my mind. I see it as a gift that I can take a deep breath without experiencing anxiety. I can move in my body without being tortured. I can also experience emotions and thoughts free from drama, free from neurosis.

By Anonymous

March 27, 2019

I thought I knew. I thought I knew what I wanted in life, how to get there and how to deal with life in general. I thought I was wise and understood human nature, including my own self. My world was narrow and clear which made me unknowingly judgmental of those who seemed lost or different. But actually, I just hid everything traumatic and difficult from myself so efficiently that when things started to fall apart I had no clue why. Thus began my most severe and 10 year long episodes of Borderline Personality Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and depression. Strong suicidal urges and multiple suicide attempts seemed to come out of nowhere very suddenly. I was in my last year of a bachelor’s degree and I quickly lost the ability to study, work or concentrate on anything. Most strikingly, I lost the ability to hope and strive for my long-held goals. I felt like a 90-year-old woman whose future only contained death even though I was in my early 20s. I thought I found a solution when access to drugs came my way but they only made the darkness worse in the end. Everything I held onto and valued in myself was stripped away. Little did I know that it was actually the painful beginning of a new person. I became a new person who can integrate the bad and good in life and have compassion for those struggling on the margins of society. I developed the humility to understand that I don’t know everything and that’s ok. What I thought I knew and valued were actually blocking me from growing on every level including spiritually. My mental health journey felt like tearing down an unstable building to build a new sturdier one. But with one huge difference, I didn’t have much control over the tearing down process. It felt like my life was falling to pieces. I couldn’t control many aspects of myself including my emotional reactions. I was in the dark as to why I would have sudden episodes of paralysis, intense self-destructive urges and inability to maintain routines like studying and cleaning. Part of me fought tooth and nail against the changes. I felt like I was losing everything I held dear including my sanity and perfectionism. I felt I was failing at everything including being a person of worth. It got to the point where I didn’t and couldn’t care about anything anymore, but at the same time, I cared too much. I tried bullying and hurting myself to get back to regular functioning but of course, it made things worse. Eventually, I would attempt suicide 11 times just to get a break from my own punishing mind. It took me a very long time to learn to lower my expectations of myself and give myself a break. For years I couldn’t accept that I was ill. I didn’t want to accept my lower level of functioning and I didn’t know how to show myself any compassion. The 3rd and more serious suicide attempt led to a month-long hospitalization (my first of several), first in the ICU, then in the psychiatric ward. At this point, I thought I must be the most miserable person on the planet. But I quickly saw in the hospital that I wasn’t the most miserable person. Suddenly I was living with people with many different types of mental illnesses and I saw for the first time their torment and also strength and solidarity. I realized I wanted to help them/us to deal with the particular difficulties we face and create lives worth living. I decided I wanted to work in the mental health field and eventually enrolled in a second bachelors in psychology which I am still working on today. ‘Hey I found a direction, maybe things will get better’ I thought but for a long time, however, my life got worse. I developed self-destructive habits to deal with traumatic events and sometimes those habits got out of control. I had unresolved guilt and anger over my mother’s death when I was 18 and suffered beyond what I thought possible each time it was her birthday, Mother’s Day and the day she passed. This complex grief made me even more sensitive when my grandparents passed away and when a friend I considered my little sister died by suicide. In the middle of all this chaos, I happened to meet my future husband, a kindred soul also lost in darkness. I somewhat unwillingly started going to individual therapy, and eventually went to group therapy, rehab, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for many years. Through each crisis, I painfully learned more and more about my illnesses, about life and myself. I relearned almost everything I thought I knew. Pure self-will and ambition didn’t work for me anymore. Denying my reality slowly gave way to acceptance of my past and present. Therapy guided me into commemorating the death of loved ones instead of self-destructing from overwhelming pain. My complex grief eventually became normal grief as I processed what happened with my mother. I was taught to have a plan for crises that involved letting current loved ones know instead of spiraling alone. And I learned from my pastor that God was with me the whole time and loved me even though I wanted to die. Social skills training as part of DBT really helped me deal with difficult people and how to communicate effectively. I learned the importance of validation both for myself and for others. It made communication with others go so much smoother. Boundaries with others became a useful tool as well. Sometimes I was not in the right mindset to be able to understand what the therapist was saying at the time, but I would remember what they said later and realized I finally understood. I came to value those eureka moments when things just clicked and something I thought impossible would be possible like being able to withstand negative judgments from others. The film The Big Lebowski helped too (that’s just, like, your opinion man - The Dude). I also had to learn to navigate the underfunded mental health system and stand up for myself when service providers dropped me or mistreated me. In fact, the righteous anger they triggered may have been the beginning of self-respect. I certainly didn’t know that all my struggles would add value to my life. All the effort I put into recovery often seemed pointless. But even if progress sometimes went backward, each iota of effort eventually created a pattern of survival. I came to appreciate the good days when I woke up feeling ok and could do some things I had planned to do that day. I learned to live a bit more in the moment. If I have a bad day, which still happens, of course, I’ve learned how to ride out the storm: to reach out to friends and family, be easier on myself and avoid constantly putting myself down. I consider myself lucky. Many don’t survive similar struggles, some were friends from the hospital. After a decade of therapy and meds, I’m finally starting to feel like myself again. I’ve restarted my creative goals and find I’m painting better than when I was in school for it. I hope to restart playing the guitar and singing soon as well. The new challenge now is to learn to be a good steward of everything God has given me out of grace and extend that grace to others.

By Susanna Page

March 27, 2019

My story starts in 2013, in Denver, Colorado. I was in college when I began to feel serious symptoms of bipolar disorder. My episodes began with me just staying up a couple days a week and not getting any sleep, but as time progressed, I began to stay up for days at a time and struggled with debilitating depression. At the time, getting no sleep seemed to be a regularity on a college campus, so no friend told me something was wrong when I told them I was staying up all night- on multiple days of the week. The thing was, was that I was having a hard time, but no one could see that. I was socializing, doing my homework, and was always “happy”. It was a different story when I got home from school. It took a lot of energy out of myself to paint a picture to everyone else that things were normal with me. At home, all the protective walls came down and the symptoms of bipolar came out. I went from highs and lows and it affected the way I lived. By March 2013, I was struggling. My grades had gone from A’s and B’s to F’s. I was almost put on academic probation. I was staying home more because of depression and made excuses to professors so I didn’t have to go to class. Now, looking back, I had obvious episodes of mania and depression. Inside, I remember the episodes making me feel like I was on a boat going through rough water. I couldn’t understand why I was doing particular things, like staying up for weeks at a time, eating a ridiculous amount of food, and reorganizing my room sometimes up to three times a day and cleaning obsessively. I also couldn’t get my mind around why I was so depressed. It wasn’t depression as though you got a bad grade on a test, but it was deep depression that was slowly killing me inside. The darkness inside of me didn’t want me to exist, and it was a battle every day to get up and conquer the day. In March 2013, I found myself in the emergency room (ER), and a week after my ER visit in Denver, I found myself during late March of 2013 in a psychiatrist’s office in Marin County, CA, back where I grew up. I was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I didn’t know what to do with my diagnosis. My diagnosis was extremely stigmatized- how was I going to tell my friends? How about my family? How was I going to survive? Fast forward to 2019, I look back at my journey with bipolar disorder as the best thing that has happened to me. I’ve learned a lot about myself and I have survived. The first thing I remember thinking when I was first diagnosed was that I wouldn’t get married or fall in love. In 2018, I married my best friend and overcame my worry that I couldn’t be loved because of my diagnosis. I’ve discovered that taking medication is not as bad as it seemed. Medications help me stay stable and enable me to live the life that I am living now. The life that I love. I find humor in the fact that I have to drink so much water because I take lithium. While others rate restaurants on their food, I personally rate restaurants on how fast they refill my water glass because I am thirsty all the time. People might think it is ridiculous for being thankful for my manic and depressive episodes, but I truly am. The mania taught me how not to live life- being impulsive and not thinking things through- but it also gave me some of my best memories as well. The depression has taught me that I want to live with standards that promote a positive outlook on life and promote positive well-being. My manic and depressive episodes have given me confidence that I can take on the world. I met my husband because I was manic enough to create an online dating profile, and I got a dog that aided in my recovery because I was manic as well. I’ve overcome so many obstacles by having the experience of being in a manic and depressive state of mind, but stability feels like home for me. Stability to me is not having manic or depressive episodes but being in the middle. Stability seemed impossible to me when I was experiencing mania and depression. I always thought I was going to experience the ups and downs of bipolar disorder. But being stable is possible. I need to rely on family, friends, doctor’s, caregivers and strangers. I say, strangers because even though it was hard, I put my life out there for people that I didn’t know well. I blogged and I spoke about my experience with bipolar disorder, and strangers resonated with my story and helped me come to terms with my diagnosis by giving me unconditional support, even though they didn’t know me very well. They gave me hope. It has taken me six years to come to the point where I accept my diagnosis and feel like I can coexist with it. I think of my diagnosis as a best friend. It challenges me, but it has created someone that I’ve grown to love (me) through these last six years. Be patient with your journey. Seek out examples of people that have overcome some of your worst fears whether that is through a book or even a YouTube video. Volunteer, exercise, eat healthily and write. One of the things my therapist always tells me is that you can check a negative thought, and then change it to a better more realistic thought. You can do the same when it comes to your life. I realized through my journey with bipolar disorder, that it is so easy to be unthankful for things that come into our lives. Once I switched my point of view when it came to my diagnosis, everything changed. When I accepted my diagnosis, doors opened for me. I became a writer because I started to share my story, I became healthier, I fell in love, I got married, and now I am about to graduate with a degree in Psychology. Everything became manageable, rather than feeling impossible. If you are struggling with a diagnosis right now, know that it does get better but it can take time. So have patience, find support, reach out, be open, accept challenges, and be kind to yourself. When I found out that other people lived successfully with bipolar disorder, it changed my world. I said, “If they can do it, I can do it.”

By Carol Edwards

March 27, 2019

My Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is now in remission. This is a disorder that comprises of two essential characteristics – obsessions and compulsions. Basically, since eight years old, my brain has been producing and misfiring paradoxical information into my conscious mind. This is the same for anyone who is predisposed to developing the disorder. For over 30 years my obsessions included intrusive thoughts, impulses, images, and sensations that made me feel I was on constant alert, with anxiety often reaching 100 on a distress thermometer. The compulsions I did merged with the obsessions to complete the disorder. These were repetitive and time-consuming, but at the time they were the only behaviours I knew that would counter the obsessions and reduce anxiety, albeit momentarily. My fear of disease and visible compulsions: For example, during a time when I had severe symptoms of contamination OCD, I persistently feared coming into contact with a life-threatening disease. Intrusive thoughts were triggered when I touched door handles when I ate in restaurants or brushed past people I perceived to be infected. The disease I feared was AIDS. My responses (visible compulsions) were to avoid touching door handles, eating in restaurants and being in close proximity to people I erroneously thought could have the disease; I also repeated hand washing and mouth-cleansing rituals. This is no offence to people who live with AIDS; it was my OCD that had sprung into action, automatically putting me in “fight or flight” situations. My days had suddenly turned into 24 hours of fear when AIDS hit the headlines in the 1980s. Every waking moment OCD had me ready to avoid infected blood finding its way into my body, and every night I awoke with nightmares believing somehow I hadn’t been careful enough. I also had purely obsessional thoughts with hidden compulsions: My purely obsessional thoughts (or pure-o thoughts) differed from the better-known variation of germ obsessions and handwashing, which is similar to my AIDS obsession. These differed in that the thoughts, images and urges that unwillingly entered my mind were not only disturbing but were also horrifically graphic and extremely distressing. These were most upsetting because the themes contradicted my true desires. Even still, I kept the intrusions to myself, worrying that if I disclosed my thoughts to someone, I would be seen to be indecent, immoral or dangerous, particularly because pure-obsessions fall into three main categories, which are sexual, religious and harm. A sexual theme I hated was wondering what it would be like to live as the opposite gender. Some of my other obsessions included fears of hurting myself or someone else, usually with a sharp object. Also, driving a car into oncoming traffic; or walking into a busy road. These were terrifying thoughts and at the time and I wondered what the heck was wrong with me. At aged 10 I developed a religious obsession. I had fears that I wasn’t truly saved. I sensed this underlying threat which felt like an evil person was inside my head, menacing me. I recall having intrusive thoughts about not being true to my faith and believing that God would send me to hell. I also had frightening images of my family and friends suffering in hell if I failed to read my bible each night; or if I didn’t pray for each of them in perfect order. I felt I had no escape from these intrusive thoughts, and more so when they followed me throughout my childhood and into adulthood Magical thinking: I remember my religious obsession hitting me hard when sudden intrusive thoughts popped into my head saying I would die instantly if I saw the clock hit either 12 noon or 12 midnight. I truly believed at that time that God would strike me down because I hadn’t followed through perfectly with my night-time bible reading and prayer list. In those days, I hadn’t a clue about magical thinking or understanding that things don’t happen just because you thought about it. Compulsions that corresponded with this pure-obsession were mostly hidden and included avoidance of clocks, praying for forgiveness and saying a string of words under my breath to neutralise the intrusions. I also mentally swapped disturbing images for pleasant ones; I surreptitiously avoided or escaped certain situations in which OCD thoughts were triggered, and I ruminated on what-ifs for hours on end. Keeping up with compulsions was far from easy. This is because my parents were non-religious. I’d recently started going to Sunday school out of curiosity, but kept this a secret. When the Sunday school teacher handed out bibles and told us to read it each day, I knew I would have to sneak mine into the house and hide it somewhere safe. Secret readings and prayer rituals: I would read a section each night when everyone was asleep. What I did was creep onto the landing where the light was left on, do what I had to do, then quietly tip-toe back into the room I shared with my siblings, and then climb back into bed where I would silently say my prayer. Little did I know that such a performance would become an exhausting and frightening ritual. One night I was caught out. My punishment was that my bible was taken away (for good) and also I was thrown and locked inside the cupboard under the stairs for the night; within the darkness of that cramped cupboard, I remember being petrified of going to hell, especially because I was told I was the devil’s child, a paradox that hit me harder than the OCD’s paradox itself. My compulsions were emotional responses: For more than three decades, I reacted emotionally when faced with an obsession, hence irrationally giving into compulsions to relieve anxiety. But these groundless efforts to thwart disaster, unfortunately, reinforced the problem, keeping me stuck in a never-ending loop of (1) obsessions (2) anxiety (3) compulsions (4) anxiety relief. How did I recover? I went to my local bookstore and by chance picked up a book on obsessive compulsive disorder. After reading the first page I realised I had these symptoms. I eagerly bought the book, took it home and read it in a week. This was a self-help book. It talked about cognitive therapy to correct thinking errors seen in OCD, and how to change faulty beliefs. It discussed exposure response prevention and demonstrated the process of listing a fear hierarchy. I put what I read into practice and by systematically resisting compulsions, I started to become less and less sensitised to the things that once terrified me. I used the book over a few months to guide me towards remission. Life after remission: For me, intrusive thoughts didn’t or haven’t just gone away, but they’re much reduced and I’m not a prisoner to the OCD cycle anymore. My quality of life in remission is much better. I enjoy eating in restaurants and visiting interesting places that once triggered my obsessions. I’m able to concentrate on daily activities without intrusive thoughts interfering on that; for example, I happily pick up fruit and veg from the grocery store without checking for “infected” blood before purchasing them. I feel free from giving into time-consuming compulsions when I visit the bathroom; also, my sleep is free from horrific intrusive images and nightmares. Whilst recovery doesn’t mean cure, for me, it is a freedom I hadn’t known for the best part of my childhood and young adulthood. I’m maintaining this quality of life by continuing to do what I call the 3 A’s. These are to 1. Acknowledge the intrusive thoughts when they come in 2. Accept they are there, and 3. Allow them to come and go without putting meaning to them. Also, before remission, I wanted to be a counsellor and did some training at my local college. But I put this on hold because my OCD was too severe for me to continue. So I was glad to go back to studying soon after I recovered. This time I chose cognitive behavioural therapy and specialised in OCD. It felt like the right thing to do. I enjoyed working with all ages as a freelance therapist for six years. Following a hand injury last year, I was no longer able to drive and continue with my work. But I didn’t let this deter me. I’d already created a free-to-use website for parents of children who have OCD, and so I decided to expand on the idea of having a writing and online coaching career. In the past year, I’ve edited previously written material for an OCD study course for teens and adults, and I’m also actively writing information for therapists working with people who have OCD; for this, I have an online topic store. I’m open to writing opportunities, and currently, I’m working with a publisher on a book about pure obsessional disorder. Advice: I would say to anyone who is in the process of recovery that reaching your goals will be hard work but the long-term benefit is worth sticking it out since consistent effort is crucial for the gradual reduction of fears. You have two choices - one is to stay in the “comfort zone” albeit that OCD is paradoxically an unstable and debilitating condition; the other choice is to slowly and gradually break free from the “safety” behaviours that only serve to keep you stuck in a never-ending obsessive-compulsive loop.

By Axelle Robin

March 27, 2019

My name is Axelle and I live in Bordeaux, France. After several depressions and manic episodes, I was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I’m writing my story in hospital; this is my second hospitalization. You’re probably wondering “How is she better if she’s still in hospital?” Well, for the first time in my life I have hope. The diagnosis gave me hope, because this means we can find the right medication and the right kind of therapy with a psychologist. I always felt different and deep inside I always knew there was something going on. I’d say my life is quite peaceful today, even though I am not stable yet and still think about self-harm and suicide from time to time; I am surrounded by nice people, people I love and who love me back. It wasn’t always like that. Earlier in my life I went through bullying at age 13-14. I think someone noticed my weakness and, out of pure cruelty, decided to stab me there. This girl first turned my best friend against me and used her to deliver the messages. So the two of them would come every day to tell me I was worthless, ugly (they used to call me Axelle the ugly), will never find anybody who’ll love me, and other mean things all the time. The pain was so intense, because I still loved my friend and always hoped she will someday be my friend again but she never was, even when the girl who started all this went to a different high school. I was all broken, and felt so alone. Everybody saw what was happening, my other friends, my teachers, yet nobody said anything. This was when my first wave of self harm happened. Later at 16 I was unable to make new friends, I had some left from before but still felt like I was alone because nobody saw how hurt I was. This was the second wave and probably a depression that wasn’t diagnosed because I wasn’t seeing a psychiatrist. I think my bipolar disorder emerged when I started university. I always had very good grades but after high school it was just like I wasn’t able to do anything anymore. Later at age 23 I had a major depression, was suicidal and went to hospital for the first time. There the psychiatrists could adjust the medication faster. It was also like a cocoon to protect me from myself and from the outside. My stay in the hospital lasted 3 months, I wasn't going to university anymore and was unable to study anyway so I failed the whole semester, hence I couldn't graduate, and I failed the entrance examination people need to enter the school system here and become a teacher, because the medication made me too dizzy but was totally worth it : I felt better. At first people, or even I, couldn't really tell I was better. I just felt numb but that was a step outside the suicidal and demeaning thoughts. Then little by little, my psychiatrist and I agreed on reducing the medication, and I could eventually get back to normal life. Afterwards was my first major manic episode but it didn't last too long and then I went back to my normal state. I am not stable yet, but I know this time the doctors won't let me out until I am and this is why I still have hope. My past experience with all the up and down of bipolar disorder and the anxiety I feel due to bullying impacted my current life in three ways. First, I’m trying to become an elementary school teacher. I want to teach love and empathy to the children to guide them so they don’t become like bullies who broke me, or won’t be afraid to speak if they are victims of bullying. I can’t help all the children in the world but I can help those in my classroom and that is a good start. Second, this condition (bipolar disorder) increases my sense of creativity. I have a lot of ideas flowing in my head and I use them for my drawings (not always masterpieces but at least I made a piece of artwork about something I needed to express), to write some texts (again, not always poetry but that's very therapeutic for me to express and describe feelings) and also for photos. Third point : I am now modeling. I started modeling for fun a year ago but I have been taking it a little more seriously lately and I have received only positive feedback. So that is the irony about the situation, after being bullied and teased mainly because of my physical appearance, I am now doing something that's about beauty. We all have beauty and sensitivity so don’t be afraid to use it. I may seem weak because of the fact that I was a victim, or because I have mental health issues, but in fact I feel stronger than people who don’t. I am still standing even though I’m going through this and it takes a lot of strength I never thought I had.

By Elizabeth Onyeabor

March 27, 2019

I curled into a fetal position on my kitchen’s stained-concrete floor and swatted away a helping hand like a petulant six-year-old. My wailing lasted minutes but gushed decades of grief. A whirlpool sucked me into its void, where all hope drowned. How I picked myself up or stumbled into the bedroom, I don’t remember. But I distinctly recall how I fantasized on and off about sleeping forever. That night, I was ready to act on my menacing thoughts. Convinced my husband and children would be better off without me, I researched the most effective way to kill myself. I was fifty. My family intervened before I did anything. That was seven years ago. Until then, I didn’t realize I grappled with a chronic illness- Depression. I traced my undiagnosed depression to patterns created during my teens. I kept myself mired in busyness to combat the pounding emptiness of my alone times. And I pursued achievement after achievement as a proxy for purpose and meaning. Fortunately, instead of the relief, I sought through death, bottoming out birthed new beginnings. During my journey, I realized that self-development is not a one-time, check-the-box thing. Healing, learning, and expanding self-love require constant nurture. My transformation took three years of soul searching. But I would go through the whole ordeal again. In an instant. I am better because I found what I earlier considered unobtainable- beautiful joy and passion. Life still casts challenges my way, but wanting to sleep forever doesn’t cross my mind anymore. My concerns don’t consume me. Even on my worst days, hope pours through me. I cultivate ongoing happiness through six habits: acknowledging emotion, forgiveness, personal empowerment, inspiration, self-care, and living my passion. Self-pity and self-reproach almost drowned me because I couldn’t navigate them. I wanted others to see me as a good person and believed expressing anger made me a bad person. I turned anger inward. I also steamed like a pressure cooker about others, but I disconnected from the emotion. I practiced noticing my body’s cues. I own my anger now and appreciate how irritants expose my weakest boundaries. I dive into intense emotions with curiosity instead of keeping them at bay. They’re opportunities to search through aspects of myself I still need to explore and heal. Forgiveness also played a huge part. I carried shame for what I did, what I hadn’t done, and what others did. Somewhere along the line, I set an unattainable standard for myself. Most of all, I considered myself a failed mother. For example, as a child, I swore I wouldn’t work outside the home like my mom. However, I not only pursued a career but also put in long hours. Because of my mother’s busy work schedule, I carried a sense of abandonment growing up. As an adult, I shouldered guilt for abandoning my children in the same way. I forgave my mother, and it helped me forgive myself, too. These days, I trust in the perfectly imperfect. I keep finding issues needing my forgiveness. Life reminds me perfection is unachievable. Personal empowerment came when I learned about codependency. In the past, much of my happiness hinged on my husband and kids. When all went well, I felt good. When things fell apart, so did I. I discovered how to stop blaming myself for not creating my idealized family. And I practiced how to stop pressuring them into a mold. Currently, I focus on what I can control- how I feel about a situation or person to reclaim my personal power. I nourished my soul with inspiration instead of feeding it shame, fear, and self-loathing. At first, toxic self-talk meddled with inner peace. I used guided meditations until I practiced enough to focus on my breathing or a fan’s constant hum. As my thoughts quieted, I explored my spirituality and fostered that relationship. Now, I routinely listen for inspiration’s gentle voice. It sails me further when times are smooth and buoys me up when times are rough. It wasn’t only my soul I fed differently. After my weight peaked, and a skirt popped its button, I binged on my favorite junk foods one last time. Then, I cut out processed sugar and adopted healthier eating habits. It took a while before I summoned enough willpower for physical exercise, but despite my erratic workout schedule, I lost weight. Sometime later, I relaxed my ban on sugar, but my sweet tooth and chocoholic cravings had already melted away. Now, I draw on that same strength for other intentions. I envied people who talked about their passions. Their lives seemed full while mine echoed of emptiness. I figured some people never have passionate pursuits, and I was one of them. But I was wrong. By smothering my negative emotions, like anguish, I also suffocated my positive emotions, like joy. As I practiced diving into feelings, writing became a catharsis. Unexpected poetry flowed from both misery and elation. I increased self-awareness by constructively recognizing, expressing, and exploring my emotions. The deeper I plunged, the more I wrote and discovered, and the more my depression dissolved. After fifty-plus poems written over two years, I realized I had always wanted to be a writer. But somehow that idea evaporated early in my childhood. I wondered why. Still, I practiced my newfound writing passion until I was ready to write a novel. Instead of fiction, inspiration compelled me to share a no-holds-barred memoir of my descent into and journey out of depression. Another chapter of my life emerged after I typed the book’s first draft. I trembled and wept as I uncovered what I hid from myself for forty-eight years: the remains of a traumatized six-year-old me. Alongside her, I also saw what else I accidentally buried. That’s where I found my passion, writing.

By Jules Plumadore

March 27, 2019

I was my grandmother’s second grandchild, born 11 years after her first. When I was born, she held me and said, “Oh, this one’s different.” Little did she know how right she would turn out to be. When I was young, I was different in a lot of ways that the people around me saw as positive: I was smart and funny, easy to get along with, and although I sometimes struggled in school, when I was interested in something (like birds or dinosaurs) I learned everything there was to know about it quickly. As I got older, I began to be different in ways that weren’t seen so positively. By the time I was in middle school, other kids were starting first to tease, and then to bully me. They would ask me whether I was a boy or a girl, and spread rumors that I was gay. The bullying would have been bad enough if the rumors were false. From my perspective, they were worse because they were true. Although at the time I didn’t have the words I use today to describe my experiences, I knew I was different. I was queer and transgender. My grandmother’s love for me was always unconditional; but I felt pressure from other adults in my life to change who I was in order to meet their expectations for me. The messages I received from other members of my family, from adult community members, and from church leaders told me that people like me were broken and unfixable. I felt lost, confused, and hopeless for much of my life. I felt terrified that someone would discover the truth about me, so I kept everything about myself a secret. The stigmatizing messages worked themselves deep into my mind and resurfaced as voices. I spent some time homeless on the streets of Seattle in my late teens, and that’s when I started to hear them: voices of demons screaming at me that God hated me. They tormented me for years, and I both hated and believed them. My journey through the mental health system brought me into contact with still more people whose default assumption about me was that I would be better, more comfortable, and easier for them to deal with if I changed who I was. This time medication was the mechanism for change: I was prescribed a heavy dose of anti-psychotics that took away not only the voices, but also my hand gestures, the languages I’d studied, my ability to sing, and any motivation I had to live my own life. For almost 10 years, that became my new normal. It was easier to become the person other people wanted me to be when the medication helped me to forget who I really was. Once I chose to taper off the medication at my GP’s recommendation, things began to change for the better. Pieces of myself I’d almost forgotten began to re-emerge. I started to write again. I started working again - first part-time, then full-time. And within a few years, I realized that I couldn’t live the rest of my life pretending to be someone I wasn’t. I accepted myself for who I was, who I had always been, and who I would be for the rest of my life: the person I am today. I can trace the moment my life began to get better to the day I was reading a book and a particular phrase popped out at me. The message that transformed my life was deceptively simple: You are the expert on yourself. When I encountered it, I knew instinctively that it was true, and I also recognized that no one in my life had ever said it to me. I had always felt that everyone around me seemed to know what was best for me, and yet when I tried their suggestions, somehow I ended up feeling even worse than before. Once I adopted the perspective that no one knows what I’ve been through like I do, and no one knows what I need like I do, I made more progress in a few short years than I had in the rest of my life combined. For example, I found out that many of the foods I’d been eating my whole life were making me sick, and when I stopped eating them I felt so much better - once I learned that, all of the times I’d felt so ill after holiday meals suddenly made sense. I also realized that while I enjoy being around people, I also need plenty of time by myself to recharge. I learned that I have my own pace and method of doing things that may differ from other people’s, but it works for me - and for my wellness, that’s all that matters. I spent so many years feeling that my life was impossibly difficult just because of who I was. Today, I feel my life is actively better because of who I am, and because of what I’ve been through. I am the healthiest and happiest I have ever been, because I have cultivated the ability to identify my own needs and advocate for them. While I still may feel nervous or down from time to time, the fear, sadness, and anxiety I lived with for most of my life are gone. In their place are resilience, self-confidence, and the knowledge that I can handle anything life brings me. Most of all, I feel my life is better because everything I’ve been through has given me greater compassion for the struggles of others and determination to leave the world better than I found it. While my grandmother is no longer around to show her support for me, I know she’d approve. As difficult as my life has been at times, everything I have been through has made me who I am and brought me to where I am today. And I’m truly happy to be here.

By Kitt O'Malley

March 27, 2019

Since I was an eighteen-year-old college student, I have lived with mental illness. My eighteenth year was a living hell. That’s how I’d describe the severe suicidal depression that overwhelmed me. What I Learned When I Was Eighteen 1) I want to live, even when the pain of depression was so severe that I thought that the only way to end it was to die. 2) I can and will ask for help when I need it. 3) I’m not alone. My friends, my dorm resident assistant, and a cognitive psychologist at UCLA supported me when I sought help. 4) Therapy works for me. The cognitive therapy I received helped me to rewrite negative depressive thoughts. I believed my parents, my sister, the whole world would be better off without me alive. That thought was irrational. I learned how to stop negative thoughts, question if they were rational, and replace them with rational positive thoughts. The world would NOT have been a better place without me. My family and friends would have been devastated by my loss. At thirty, I experienced a deep depression, in which I was unable to get out of bed, take care of my cat, or go to work. I was so depressed that I didn’t notice that fleas had infested my cat and my apartment. That year my grandmother died, a close friend from high school died from AIDS, and one of my clients threatened to rape me during a session. The day after the attempted rape, I couldn’t get myself out of bed or face going back to my job. My body felt like a huge weight was on me, a weight I couldn’t overcome, a weight that immobilized me and glued me to my bed. I called my parents sobbing that I couldn’t do it anymore. At first, I turned to my internist for antidepressant medication. Then I sought a second opinion from a psychiatrist who told me that I was in the adolescent stage of development – which I found insulting. I was a thirty-year-old psychotherapist who worked in nonprofits for low pay; yet, I managed to put myself through graduate school and years of internship while supporting myself in the San Francisco Bay Area, an expensive place to live even back in the 1990s. The psychiatrist mismanaged my medication. The first change made me sleep all day every day, too incapacitated by the overwhelming fatigue to care for myself. The second medication change triggered mania in me. I was unable to sleep for a week due to three simultaneous racing streams of thought about mystic saints, chaos theory, and binary code (ones and zeroes). From the outside to those who couldn’t see my thought process, I was clearly manic. For a week, I didn’t sleep at night. During the day, I catnapped in the backyard on the grass. I took on a huge project, rehabbing the cottage I rented. Though unemployed, I told my friends that I wanted to buy the cottage. Jumping from one idea to another, I spoke rapidly and excitedly. My speech was expansive and grandiose, discussing how God, Christian mystic saints, physics and mathematics were connected. (Actually, I still think they are.). What I Learned at Thirty 1) I’m not alone. My friend called my father and my priest, telling them I needed help. My father flew up from Los Angeles. My priest rushed over with someone who lived with bipolar disorder. They suggested I contact my psychiatrist to describe my symptoms. I called my psychiatrist and described my manic symptoms and psychotic thought process. He prescribed three antipsychotic medications, which stopped my thoughts and allowed me to sleep. 2) Doctors make mistakes. My internist and my first psychiatrist disagreed on medications. The psychiatrist warned me to never disclose that I had been prescribed antipsychotics. Whether his warning was to prevent a malpractice suit or due to stigma, as I was a licensed psychotherapist, I don’t know. Clearly, I needed a new psychiatrist. 3) A support network is key: friends, my priest, and my parents rescued me. I had been taught in graduate school and in therapy that my depression was the result of parental abuse. Clearly, my parents loved me. As a psychotherapist for children, I had worked with families who clearly loved their children. Many of those parents struggled with mental illness, substance abuse, physical and emotional abuse. I could see that they still loved their kids. Against the advice of my psychiatrist, who considered me an adolescent, I moved back in with my parents until I was stable enough to move back out on my own. 4) If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again. Just because I had a horrible reaction to the first round of antidepressants, didn’t mean that antidepressants wouldn’t help me. My second psychiatrist listened carefully to my reactions to antidepressants. Rather than tell me that I was an adolescent developmentally, he assessed if I had bipolar disorder or a severe reaction to an antidepressant. He carefully increased my dose of a new antidepressant. When my thoughts raced, I’d call him. He’d decrease my dose and more slowly bring me up to a therapeutic level. Since Thirty-Nine At thirty-nine, I was diagnosed with bipolar type II. Since receiving that diagnosis, I’ve been hospitalized and participated in months of partial hospitalization. After trial and error, I’m “stable” on medication. After my hospitalization, my psychologist asked me to discuss if I felt like I have a calling. She didn’t dismiss my passions because I had a mental illness. Since I was twenty-one, I felt that I was supposed to do something, but didn’t know what that something was. I turned to the church to try to make sense of that feeling. I believed that I was called to ordination. Twice after my hospitalization, I attended seminary, graduate school for the study of divinity or theology. In seminary, I wrote a mental health ministry workbook. I decided, after all these years, that my purpose now is as a mental health advocate and writer. Since then, I’ve embraced my early training as a psychotherapist. I maintain my Marriage and Family Therapist license, enabling me to volunteer as the licensed mental health provider for the National Alliance on Mental Health’s (NAMI) Provider Education. The Provider Education course teaches mental health providers about the lived experience of those living with mental health issues and their family members. Often panel members have experience in both roles, as do I. Since 2015, my parents have struggled with the vagaries of age: stroke, dementia, and death. The insight I gained through my mental health journey has helped me to help them. My son, a migraineur, has struggled with comorbid anxiety and depression. As someone who lives with a mood disorder, I have compassion for him, as I encourage him in his development as a young man. Every day, I am active online promoting mental health. I write about living with bipolar disorder both on my website kittomalley.com and in my upcoming memoir, Balancing Act: Writing Through a Bipolar Life, to be published September 19th. In Balancing Act, I describe my mental health journey and include my writings on my bipolar thoughts, purposeful writing, mental health advocacy, and caretaking. Everything in my life has led me here. I’m satisfied with my life. I’ve crafted a meaningful life out of the experiences I’ve had. If it weren’t for my struggles, I wouldn’t be who I am. I love who I am. At eighteen, I hated myself. Having a meaningful life and loving myself is a win. HUGE WIN!