August 10, 2014
I was asked to write my story about my experiences with mental health to have published on the web, and I agreed. So now, as I sit here thinking about what to write, I have to ask myself this: how can such a negative story be turned around so that others can benefit from it? It’s really brought me down these last few days getting into my “stuff”. If mental health had been treated equally to physical health, things would have gone differently for me I am sure.
Everyone has mental health. People die, get divorced, have auto accidents, go broke… Events can take a toll on the healthiest of individuals. Everyone has their own “stuff”. That’s what mental health is. But people like me, very normal people like me, get diagnosed with a mental illness every day. How can I consider myself normal, you ask? Why not? I love people, a lot. I was good at tennis and golf, and I proved to be talented in guitar and piano. I was athletic! I was musical! Although I don’t do these things anymore, I do have one activity that has stayed with me my entire adult life, and that is creative writing. I have kept a journal since college. I love playing with words and the mechanics of writing. It is an art. And I do love listening to music so I suppose I am still musical, too.
I’m one of the “lucky” ones who has been diagnosed with a mental illness. I actually have two diagnoses: bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Ain’t life grand? My initial diagnosis was actually major depression years ago but that was wrong. I can see, now, that I have been bipolar since my early 20’s. Since then, and until that change in diagnosis in my early 40’s, I was difficult to medicate. I do still need frequent medication changes but it is better.
As of this writing, I am 54 years old. I lost my youth and my career to mental health problems. I don’t want anyone else to lose out on what the world has to offer, so I want to take part in the fight against the stigma many of us face. We have the right to dream and the right to choose our own path. We also should have an equal opportunity to make our dreams come true.
Going on Disability
I have been on disability since I was 41. I am one of those persons who did not need to apply over and over again so I didn’t need a lawyer. As a matter of fact, after having been approved, I still couldn’t imagine myself not working so I kept on trying. And when I called the Social Security Administration to report my earnings, they told me I was not supposed to work for a year. As a result, my case was reviewed again. And this second time around I was found to be disabled. Again. Why disability? My psychiatrist suggested it after watching me struggle during the 5 years he knew me. The longest I’d been at any job was 4 years, and that was just the one job. The longest I’d been anywhere else was 2 ½ years. So if I had been properly diagnosed years ago, would I still have a career? Would I have needed to go on disability? I have an excellent treatment team so it wasn’t about them at all; it was because of my inability to trust. They only knew what I shared with them, and with my guard up.
My Work Life
Much of my work life was spent in the field of Information Technology (IT). My experience includes quality assurance, technical support, network applications administration, and data migrations. I love technology! I love the stuff. I wanted to continue to work and thought I could. But stress, anxiety, and change brought on the symptoms and I would lose jobs because of it. Although I’d suffer, I could still do the work and would enjoy it. But my interpersonal skills were rusty and I’d get into trouble with managers and co-workers. Being withdrawn for extended periods of time made it difficult to keep up the skills of interacting with others.
Wasn’t it obvious to anyone that I had problems with my mental health? Shouldn’t someone have recommended treatment for me? If it had to do with a back problem, I’m sure someone would have suggested I visit my doctor. If it had been a heart attack, by golly gee, go to the doctor. Managers and executives need to know about mental health issues because it can happen to them or their subordinates. It can happen to their spouse or their children. So when things do go wrong, people can intervene before it gets really bad. A person’s youth or career doesn’t have to be on the line. Time doesn’t have to be wasted. It ought to be about the work and not about being discriminated against because one has a mental health condition.
It’s okay to miss a day or two of work if there is a physical reason. But since this had to do with having psychological problems, no one wanted to touch that. What if it had been themselves? Are people afraid it could be them? No one wants to hear they have something “mental” going on. Surprisingly, I’ve run into people I know at my psychiatrist’s office and it was quite awkward for them (but not for me).
The Americans with Disabilities Act
As I look back at those days, I see now that I could have asked for reasonable accommodations according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Perhaps it would have eased the stress and anxiety if the expectations to do more in less time had lessened. All Americans have rights under this law. If only I had known… But now you do. If you are an American living and working with a psychiatric disability or know someone who is, check it out at ADA.gov.
Life had not been kind to me, being on disability. I lived a life of isolation and despair. Experiencing suicidal ideation didn’t make me a danger to others as the media might suggest. It only meant I could be a danger to myself. Never did I leave my apartment unless it was to the doctor, my therapist, the pharmacy, or the grocery store. Over time, it became increasingly difficult to take care of my own personal needs. Everything was hard. I had the grocery shopping, the house cleaning, the preparation of food, and personal care. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but more often than not it didn’t get done.
Life takes a Turn for the Best
When I was 49, I learned from a therapist at a local psychiatric hospital about an independent retirement community where they have apartments. She said I could live there and get the assistance I was in dire need of. And when I was 50, I moved there. I’m living there now! It’s 4 years later and I am 54. It’s wonderful. No more grocery shopping, cooking, or cleaning. Ever since I moved, life has become much more manageable. It literally saved my life. I have weekly housekeeping services and get 3 meals a day. And if I want a meal delivered to my apartment, it only costs $2. There are also weekly activities and entertainment. Life is good!
I do still get manic where I have marathons of wakefulness lasting for up to 39 hours without a yawn. My schedule has been an issue for years. Sometimes, but not as often, it can be a mixed state of depression and mania. Mostly it feels great. And yes, I still get depressed and desperate but not quite as often. I forget that when I am manic. And when I am depressed, I forget ever feeling good. I feel I do spend a lot of time daydreaming. Always have. It’s my favorite pastime. Life has definitely become much easier.
Before I moved to this community, I hadn’t a single friend since age 19. Trust had always been a huge issue for me. I could not stand to be touched. You’re not going to hug me, are you? No way! But now, I can walk outside my front door and run into all kinds of warm and friendly people. I run into folks all the time whom I love, people I call “friend”. It’s the first place I have lived where I get hugged and can feel safe. And some of my friends tell me they love me. My interpersonal skills are quite strong now. Most of the time, but not always, I find that if I feel bad I just need to engage in conversation with another human. I’m extroverted! I never knew.
I don’t hide the fact that I have a disability. No more am I going to hide who I am. No, I am not my illness. It doesn’t define me. But it is still part of me and my life, just like being a breast cancer survivor is part of who I am. Yes, I’m a cancer survivor and also a survivor in many other ways. Sharing my story of mental illness with others is my contribution to the fight against the stigma. But now, I am lucky to be around people who accept me with love and kindness.
Although I want to take part in this fight, I can’t talk about the intricate details of my “stuff” all the time. It really brings me down. Dr. McCoy said to Spock in a Star Trek movie one time, “You really have been where no one has gone before.” That’s me. I can’t talk about it. Sorry.
Do I have dreams?
I do! I want to become a writer. I have more faith in myself now than ever before. I don’t want to depend on disability any longer. There is self-doubt, I must admit. But as Harry J. Gray once wrote, “Don’t worry about failure. Worry about the chances you miss when you don’t even try.” So I must try. If I don’t, I’ll never know my own potential as a writer.