“I’m ready to not be anonymous anymore.” I said, tensing up slightly at the sound of my voice.
Even as that statement came out of my mouth two months ago at my Listen To Your Mother DC audition, I didn’t yet fully believe what I was saying. I still saw the faces of my parents in my head, grimacing at the reverberations of my words. I sensed a dark hook pulling me back into my closet of shame. It took a trip to the opposite coast for a long weekend at a writers’ retreat a few weeks later to demonstrate to me why I no longer need to hide.
I think the shame stems from my upbringing. In fact, I know it does. My family culture taught me that we don’t air our dirty laundry. That we should never appear vulnerable for fear of appearing weak.
When I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in the spring of 2006, my Mom and I took long walks around the townhouse community where my husband and I lived at the time. She led me in praying the rosary. I followed along, because at the time I had no idea what else to do. At the time we grasped at whatever made us feel better. Or she did, at least. I was pretty numb from all the meds I took. And so I just repeated the prayers, over and over again, like the good little Catholic daughter I appeared to be. What she wanted me to be. Not her daughter who just found out she has a mental illness.
In going through treatment and therapy, I hid mainly, curled up in my closet of shame. I felt embarrassed and ashamed that I had suffered two manic breaks, both of which hit me out of nowhere and forced me to spend almost a week in a psych ward to be brought back to reality. My hospitalizations were traumatic and harrowing, from the injections of anti-psychotics that I received, to the night I spent in the isolation room because I thought my roommate was a monster. I had no one to talk to about the torment it caused me. Only my closest three girlfriends knew that I had been grappling with a psychiatric illness. They were there for me, but only so much as they could be. So much went unsaid, for fear of feelings being hurt. My world had been rocked to the core, and my personality had crumbled in humiliation. Because of the sudden shock of it all, I experienced severe anxiety attacks and subsequently had to resign from a job which I loved and excelled at.
In the course of four months I had gone from the peak of my career as a rock-star recruiter, pulling in six figures at the tender age of twenty-six, to the darkest, most desolate time in my life. I felt so alone, despite the fact that my parents and husband were doing everything in their power to figure out what would get me well. They listened when I cried practically every day for nine months straight. My husband wrapped his strong loving arms around my frail body each and every night in bed so that I could turn off the racing thoughts and fall asleep to the sound of his steady heartbeat. I am forever grateful to them for staying positive and focusing on the end goal of getting me to see that it didn’t have to be this way. That life was worth living. Because I couldn’t see further than a step ahead of me back then.
We took things one day at a time in 2006, only consulting with our closest friends and family in the times when we needed extra help or advice. After several months of seeing and hearing me struggle with suicidal thoughts, my parents were desperate to find a doctor who could prescribe the right meds to bring their bubbly, confident, smart daughter back. She had all but disappeared and by this point they were ready to do anything to prevent me from taking my own life.
The thoughts of killing myself were only fleeting thoughts, bouncing in and out of my brain. My head was overflowing with chemicals from the drugs I was on, that I sometimes wondered if the thoughts were a product of my meds. The morbid curiosity I was struggling with made it tough for me to connect regular, day-to-day thoughts like, “I wonder what I should make for dinner tonight?” or “How many minutes do I want to sweat on the treadmill today?” In my messed up reality I felt like I didn’t have anything to live for anymore. A very selfish part of me thought my pain would magically disappear if I just swallowed a bottle of pills. It was as if I were trudging through thick, gooey mud in my depressed mind every day when all I longed for was the ability to return to normal.
By some miracle of God (or maybe my Mom’s rosary prayers were finally answered), my Dad was able to get me an appointment with the Chief of Psychiatry at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, MD, near where I lived. That meeting, on a warm October evening the day before Halloween, was a night I’ll never forget.
Dr. Post explained why Lithium was a good choice for me and that I should be open to giving it a try. He listened to my fears and addressed all of my concerns. He even gave us his notes from that meeting. I cried hard as I confessed my extreme grief at not being able to have children because I’d be taking Lithium for the rest of my life. Dr. Post assured me that this simply wasn’t the case. I would just have to work closely with my doctors before, during, and after the pregnancy and I could even stay on my medication - in fact, he strongly recommended that I do - since the risk of birth defects while on Lithium is so low. The benefits of staying on medication during the pregnancy and after, foregoing breastfeeding, greatly outweighed the risks of not taking the meds.
Within three months on my new medication, I began to feel my old self emerging like cheery daffodils poking through the cold, wet spring soil. But instead of opening up and telling our friends and family how happy we were that I was starting to feel better, my Mom kept praying on those beads, and mouths were kept shut. The whispers shared between the family regarding my health continued, even as I began to surrender to my desire to share my feelings of what it was like living with a mental illness. The writer in me just wanted to be able to talk openly about how I was working hard to get well. I wanted to show the world that I had been through hell and back and I turned out okay. In fact, I was better than okay. I was ready to start writing my story. I started my blog, Bipolar Mom Life, but was gently encouraged by my family to keep my identity a secret, so as not to jeopardize future employment opportunities or my relationships with our neighbors or people in the community. And so for nearly two years I remained a prisoner of my parent’s mortification over the illness, complete with hands in cuffs and duct tape over my lips.
It’s been seven years since I was handed my admission into the club of mental health consumers. We’ve had two healthy kids and I’ve had two more hospitalizations, both times because I put my babies’ health before mine. They are my world, along with their Daddy. It only took me seven years and a few months from my first manic episode to figure out that I’m going to be okay. That I don’t have to hide anymore. That if I can help just one person by sharing my story then it’s worth it.
I’m ready to not be anonymous anymore.
I want to show my kids that it’s important to stand up for what they believe in. If not, then why are we here? I believe that having a mental illness should never stand in the way of anyone’s dreams. I believe we need to educate the world about the various types of mental illnesses so that more friends and family, co-workers and teachers can reach out to those who need help so that they can get the care they need. I believe in standing up, showing up, and writing my way through living with a mental illness. It does not define me as a person; it’s just one aspect of my life which has helped shape me into the person I’ve turned out to be. And I’m pretty damn proud of her.
Yesterday I took off the anonymous mask, and emerged from my closet of shame. My voice, my words, my story - they deserve to be told with my real name.
My time to stand up to stigma is now.