My Last Visit to the Psych Ward

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 5 weeks after my fourth and most recent hospitalization: May 21, 2010
  I shuffled into the day room, sticky soles of my grippy hospital socks licking the cold linoleum floor. Everyone mingled in this spacious room, the brightest spot in the house that we were living in for the time being. Sanity had begun to return to my foggy brain. Finally. There was such relief with being able to recognize a thought, rather than being led by a force hidden, so far beyond my control. For two days I had been aimlessly wandering the long, dank halls of the psych ward. Incoherent and lost. The perfect pharmaceutical cocktail was starting to even me out. And I was counting the hours until I’d be released to the care of my husband. I was desperate to see my son.

I noticed that the flowering plant on the counter of the open nurse's station had withstood my incessant plucking, as it still had about a dozen blooms, by some miracle.

“She loves me. She loves me not. She loves me.” I debated, pulling at the tender petals of a flower I had stolen late into the night on my evening of admittance. “I know it’s going to be a girl. But what will she name it?” I mused to myself out loud, lost in the psychosis which my pregnancy had spun me into.

Later that night, or maybe it was the following morning, one of the nurses tried to get me to eat. “You need to eat something, sweetheart. For the baby. Here, try this,” she urged, shaking the small box of Apple Jacks she had brought from the kitchen down the hall. We were in my sterile little patient room, a desk between us. She sat in a chair across from me, attempting to coax me into taking a few bites, as I sat in another chair, shaking, sweaty and weak from exhaustion. A small container of milk was ripped open on one side to form a drinking spout, but hadn’t been touched. I felt a little like Alice in Wonderland, staring at the items in front of me labeled "Eat Me" and "Drink Me."

I may have taken a few bites, a sip of milk, but my mind told me she was trying to poison me. I made sure not to eat or drink too much, for fear of never waking up.

Eventually I did decide to lie down and rest on the stiff single bed with the scratchy white sheets in the far corner of the room. No one slept in the other bed in the room. I had my own private room. Good thing, too. I needed to just sleep, to dream off the mania. It had taken two days of the nurses pumping me with antipsychotics until I finally relaxed enough to sleep.

I emerged a day later, after a long, hard sleep, to “meet” the other crazies in the day room. I might have met them a day or two earlier, but my memory was a slice a Swiss cheese when I was manic, so I didn’t remember. Two did stand out, though.

Tony was a big, burly Italian guy who chain-smoked and had the cough to show for it. He was warm and engaging, and I liked him immediately. He made me smile with his obscene jokes, a welcome escape from the situation we had all found ourselves in. Tony was constantly searching for a number in the phone book. When he wasn’t in the smoker’s lounge, he was on the phone pleading with the person on the other end to come pick him up.

Mary had left the day before. She was young like me, and claimed she was also very early pregnant, although I didn't believe her. Hell, I didn't even believe I was five weeks along. We had promised to keep in touch, but I knew there was no way I’d live up to my end of that deal. I didn’t like to take hospital memories home. Art therapy projects were an exception. Nothing like a glimpse into a mad mind for old time’s sake. So instead of giving her my number when she wrote down hers for me, I hugged her goodbye, telling her it would be too painful. She understood.

The exercise lady arrived in the afternoons, swooping in to lead the patients in yoga or dance sessions in the day room. She’d turn on 80’s pop music and we’d bop around, forgetting about the frustrations attached to having lost touch with reality. During those moments, everything seemed to disappear and for three minutes I was okay. Hips swayed, eyes closed softly so I could really feel the music. But as quickly as her sessions began, they were over, and we were back to waiting for our next activity to pass the time until we’d see the outside world once again.

Held for forty-eight hours of insanity, twenty-four for the meds to really start kicking in, and another forty-eight and I was good to go. A final meeting with the staff psychiatrist and I was given my ticket out of that joint. It had been my fourth stint in a psych ward, and it was a house of medicine I was hoping not to have to visit again for a very long time, maybe even never.

Ready to get back to my own home, to my family where I’d be nursed back to complete health so I could get back to being the kick-ass mama and wife they loved. This last visit to the psych ward solidified my commitment to staying well. For myself, for my husband and for our son and the unborn baby I was carrying. Not another day would pass without that little salt pill sliding down my throat before bed. My family deserves this promise. And they’ll get it, forever and ever.

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Letting Go of the Secret

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Living a life with an ever-present fear of revealing a certain secret part of yourself isn’t truly living. I know, because I’ve been there. Being caught up in an inauthentic version of myself wasn’t the way I wanted to live my life. And so I made some changes. The results were incredible.

At twenty-six years old, newly married and at the peak of my career as an agency recruiter, I was hit with mania. It came without warning, and felt exactly the same as slipping on black ice and landing flat on my back, the wind sucked out of my lungs and a searing pain pulsing through my bones. I was terrified of what was happening in my brain. I had lost control of everything and my career and reputation were on the line, not to mention my relationship with my husband who didn’t see this coming.

How would I ever recover from this mess?

I would, although recovery eluded me several times. Following my diagnosis, I spent a full year in what felt like an extended visit to a deserted island: the isle of depression. It seemed like no one could possibly understand what I was feeling. I fought waves of anxiety each morning, and would calm myself down from my afternoon anxiety by collapsing on the couch in front of the television, tears soaking the oversized pillow which my head rested on.

I saw many doctors, so many that I can’t remember most of their names. My parents pushed for second, third, fourth opinions. Not because they didn’t trust the doctor’s opinions, but because we hadn’t figured out what would bring me back to my baseline. My normal. Finally, after seeing one of the top doctors in our area, a national specialist in the study of bipolar disorder, I was ready to follow his advice, the same medication recommendation that the previous few psychiatrists had been urging me to try.

Within two months I felt better than I had felt in an entire year. Slivers of my old personality were coming back. When I laughed, it felt genuine and amazing, better than it had felt even before I became sick. When several weeks had passed and I realized I hadn’t cried, I was shocked. The drug was actually working for me.

There would be two more hospitalizations in the years that followed, only because I had taken myself off my medication during pregnancy to protect my kids. When my daughter was only 8 months old, I decided I was ready to tell my story in order to help other women who might think they couldn’t have a family because of their mental illness. I launched my blog and began writing, but kept my identity a secret because I feared the repercussions of the stigma associated with mental illness.

I kept writing and sharing my experience as a mom raising two small kids while at the same time managing my bipolar disorder and over the next year and a half, I realized that keeping my identity a secret was only adding to the stigma surrounding mental illness. It was a part of my life and I wanted to show society that I’m a real person with real emotions and I believe that people who live with mental illness should be treated like any other person living with any other life-long disease. We didn’t ask for these conditions we were dealt, and the last thing we need is for society to look the other way when we’re suffering and need support to find recovery.

I was no longer ashamed.

And so in April of 2013, I announced on my blog that I was “ready to not be anonymous anymore,” and I took a brave stand against stigma. The support that poured in from my family and friends, and people I didn’t even know but who had read my post, was overwhelming. The words of gratitude for sharing my story so courageously were like fuel to me, as I kept writing about my experiences and connecting with people who appreciated my transparency.

Six months ago I launched a project and couldn’t have imagined the response it has generated. This Is My Brave is a live theater production where people from the community will take turns at the microphone to share their story on stage via personal essays, original music and slam poetry. This Is My Brave is more than just a one-time performance. We have become a platform and a community for people living with mental illness to speak out in an effort to end the stigma associated with brain illnesses.

Our mission is to ignite and actively promote―through actions and social media― a positive, supportive national conversation about mental illness for those who live with, or love someone who lives with, a brain illness. Through the sharing of stories and experiences of those in recovery, we expect to provide a sense of community and hope; encouraging others to share their stories. We believe that each time one of us talks openly about living with mental illness, we create another crack which helps to break down the stigma. We’re currently in the process of converting to a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and have been actively planning the pursuit of our mission beyond the debut of This Is My Brave in Arlington on May 18th.

It’s time we bring mental health issues into the spotlight because they’ve been in the dark too long. Please visit www.thisismybrave.com to learn more about the show. Auditions are currently being scheduled (www.thisismybrave.com/auditions) and tickets to attend the show are on sale now at EventBrite.com.

Follow the show on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for all the latest news!

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Snow and writing

Snow-and-Writing This week has been full of snow and writing. I haven't posted anything to the blog this week because I've been busy writing for Postpartum Progress since I'm a member of the Warrior Mom Editorial Team. If you haven't already seen my posts via my social media promos, I'd love for you to check them out. {Postpartum Psychosis Doesn't Equal Failing as a Mom & Psychosis During Pregnancy and What It Taught Me are the titles of my two posts.} When I hear the song from Frozen it makes me think of that time in my life when I was having babies and not taking medication in order to protect them.

Seems so long ago, but it hasn't even been four years since my last episode. Back then I worked to hide what I had been going through. I've matured since then and I now know - from the tweets, comments and emails I receive from people who have read my words - that I made the right decision. Speaking out helps so many people. I'll never know how many, but my heart is content with my decision to become an advocate.

It's been a long week here with Monday being MLK Day and the little man off from school, then the snowstorm on Tuesday which led to school being cancelled for the rest of the week. I've been trying not to tear all my hair out from the "I'm-at-the-end-of-my-rope" feeling due to having to entertain a 3 and 5-yr old for four days straight. We're all getting on each other's nerves from being cooped up in the house all week. I say cooped up because for the most part I despise winter and only go out in negative wind chill weather when absolutely necessary.

Like for my therapist appointment yesterday. Couldn't ask for better timing.

I've been working on a ton of stuff for the show in May. Hard to believe it's only four months until we take the stage. Audition slots are starting to fill up and my Association Producer Anne Marie and I are thrilled to see everything coming together. If you know anyone you you think would be fabulous for the show - I'm talking creative, funny, inspirational, energetic - please have them sign up for a spot before they're gone.

I recently accepted a new writing assignment for an organization doing a tremendous amount of inspirational, educational, critical work surrounding mental health awareness. I'm honored to have been approached by them and cannot wait to share my first post with you. It's a once-a-month gig, which is definitely manageable and plus, it's an opportunity I couldn't turn down. {Sorry I broke my promise, Maria - but this is worth it!}

So yeah, a lot going on. But if I've learned anything over these last few months it's that the work eventually gets done. When the kids are calling for me to get down on the carpet and play "picnic" or board games with them, I listen. I close the laptop and grab hold of the quality time. Or when exhaustion sets in, we snuggle up on the couch and watch a movie together. Life is good. Better than good, actually. It's pretty damn amazing. (Including the occasional teachable parenting moment, which I wrote about for WhatToExpect.com recently.)

   "If you are always trying to be amazing, you will never know how amazing you can be."                                                             - Maya Angelou

My {In}voluntary Commitment and Why You Should Care

3503612082_da5ca41899Photo Credit: yyellowbird via Compfight cc

Our bedroom door creaked slowly open at 6:35am this morning and my little man crawled under the covers next to me while my husband finished getting dressed for work. As I felt the chill of little toes brush my warm legs, I thought back to this same day, five years ago, when my mania had reached the breaking point.

I had begun to cross the threshold, going from highly manic to the inevitable psychosis, when my husband took matters into his own hands and called 911 for help.

What a stark comparison to today, I thought, as I reached into my sock drawer to fish out my psych ward socks. I pulled them on this morning as a way of honoring my past, while at the same time recognizing how far I’ve come and how I don’t ever want to go back.

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If your father were having a heart attack, or symptoms consistent with those of a heart attack, you would rush him to the hospital where he would receive treatment. If your child had a 104 fever and was gravely ill but refused to take any medicine, you would call your pediatrician who would tell you to rush the child to the Emergency Room where he would receive medical assistance.

But if someone you loved were experiencing a mental health crisis and needed to see a psychiatrist or be involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility to receive treatment, you wouldn’t believe the obstacles you have to surpass in order to get them the care they need to get well.

I know, because my family and I plunged head first into these roadblocks in the U.S. mental healthcare system five years ago when I was hospitalized for postpartum psychosis after the birth of my first child in 2008. Writing about this experience was something I wanted to do in order to educate people about the policies surrounding access to mental health care in the state of Virginia. {The laws vary by state. A good resource with links to studies and comprehensive information is MentalIllnessPolicy.org.}

In researching my mental illness and the treatment I received during my hospitalization, I requested copies my medical records from the hospital. I’d like to take you back to the week of October 22nd, 2008, approximately four weeks after I had given birth to my son. Belly still swollen, breasts leaking milk, I lost touch with reality during the early hours of that cool fall morning, but remained silent about my growing sense that this would be my last day on earth.

I was terrified of being taken away from my baby even though there was a little voice in the far corner of my mind urging me to go. I just didn’t want to listen.

That morning my husband knew from my past two manic episodes that I needed to be taken to the hospital. He called his mom and sister to come over and help, as we had been through this before and he knew my erratic manic behavior would require more than one person assisting in the effort to get me ready to be transferred. His next call was to dial 911, where he explained to the dispatcher that I had a bipolar diagnosis, was off my meds because of having just had a baby, and was now rapidly deteriorating and we were in need of help to get me to the hospital. He then called my psychiatrist, leaving her a message to tell her what was going on. And lastly he called my parents in Florida to alert them as well.

I remember being on the phone with my Dad while sitting on a chair in the kitchen, talking to him on speaker phone while the two female police officers who had been dispatched to our house were standing right before me. He was pleading with me to go with them. I don’t recall much, other than being afraid. I don’t know exactly how much time passed, but eventually they were able to take me, in handcuffs, under a Temporary Detention Order (TDO), to our local hospital for an evaluation.

I was clearly manic to the point of psychotic. It was well documented in the detention order paperwork that I had reported hearing voices and seeing ghosts in the baby’s room. My husband had told the officers that I had only slept 3-4 hours a night for the four nights leading up to his call for help. His sleep estimates were correct - it had been the weekend of our son’s baptism and I was trying to prepare for out-of-town guests along with getting everything ready for the party we were hosting. On top of learning to care for our new baby and suppressing the mania that I had felt since the night he had been born, it all caught up to me.

The Temporary Detention Order allowed my husband to have me sent to the hospital for an assessment. My husband was my Petitioner - the person asking that I be involuntarily committed. We were led to an empty hospital room where I was handcuffed to the metal bars of the hospital bed. My husband stayed by my side the entire time. The nurses assessed me and it was determined that there was substantial likelihood that, as a result of my mental illness, in the near future I would suffer serious harm due to a lack of capacity to protect myself from harm. I refused all meds in the Emergency room and I met the criteria for involuntary admission to a psychiatric ward of the hospital, not to exceed a 30-day stay.

I was taken by police car, still handcuffed, to our local hospital’s geriatric psychiatric ward, the nearest facility with a bed available. By the time the bed had become available, it was late at night and I remember being terrified upon entering the facility because of the Halloween decorations festively decorating the glass doors which were pulled open for me. My throat closed and I struggled to breathe, leaning all my weight back, attempting to keep them from guiding me in. They eventually coaxed me in and a young attendant began working with me to get me through the intake process. I remember her arms, covered with tattoos. Her name was Jenny.

They tried to give me drugs to force me to sleep, but my mania was so rampant and I continued to refuse oral medication, so I was given an injection to tranquilize me and my body succumbed to the rest it so desperately needed. I woke groggy, and still very ill.

The Temporary Detention Order meant I could be held involuntarily for one to five days, until a commitment hearing could be held. I was admitted the night of October 22nd, and my commitment hearing was scheduled for 9am on the 24th.

After only thirty-six hours of psychiatric care, I was still extremely sick and my mania was apparent to everyone close to me. But the chemical imbalance that was still working itself back to balanced with the help of the meds and forced rest, wasn’t severe enough to present me as a threat to myself or others during the trial, and despite my family’s strong arguments that I was not well enough to go home and care for myself, let alone a newborn, the judge still deemed me well enough to not be held against my will.

I was free to go home. Case dismissed.

My father spoke with the judge immediately following the trial’s conclusion. He was shocked and couldn’t believe the judge was going to send me home in the condition I was in. My father then asked if they (my family) were able to convince me to stay in the hospital, voluntarily, would I be able to stay?

The judge informed him that yes, I would of course be able to stay on a voluntary basis, but on the same token, I’d be able to sign myself out at any time.

This news was plenty good enough for my family and they immediately began encouraging me to stay and rest, so that I’d be able to return to my newborn baby in a much clearer state of mind. They knew that with just a few more days of treatment and solid sleep, I’d be in a significantly better place to where I could continue to see my outside psychiatrist and work on making a full recovery.

Fortunately, I was well enough to rationalize their concern for me and that was all it took to convince me to sign myself in. I stayed for three more days. My husband and dad came to visit me every day to check on my progress. They used my somewhat still disoriented state to their advantage as they were able to remind me each day that “we all needed to be in agreement that it was the right time for me to go home,” and I was too fragile mentally to process what had happened in the hearing so I followed their lead. I had signed myself in to stay and could leave when I was ready, but I didn’t really comprehend it all at the time.

I called home daily to check on my baby and asked them to bring pictures to the hospital. He changed so much in that week that I missed. His wispy brown hair on top fell out, so he had a bald head with only hair on the sides and around to the back. I cried at a picture they brought me of him smiling on his back laying on a blue and green striped baby blanket. Desperate to get back to my son, I eagerly took my meds each day and night, and did my best to be a model patient.

I signed myself out of the hospital on the 27th, after a 5-day stay, and walked into the kitchen of my house where my mom was stirring a pot of homemade chicken noodle soup cooking on the stove. I made my son a bottle of formula and sat on the couch to learn the art of bottle feeding him after having spent a month perfecting breastfeeding. I will never forget that moment. While feeding him and gazing into his eyes I silently vowed that I would do everything in my power to stay healthy for him. I never wanted to be taken away from him again.

Some people might say that involuntary commitment laws take away a person’s constitutional right to freedom. I completely disagree.

My family sought help for me because they knew I was so severely ill. The system initially determined I was a threat to myself, but the judge at the commitment hearing determined that was no longer the case. Situations like this happen all the time due to the current state of our mental health system and unfortunately, these holes in the system are what contribute to tragedies like Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook or the Navy Yard shootings. It’s the subjective “threat to themselves or others” which is determined by someone who has never met the mentally ill person, which is what needs to change.

People who are aware of family or friends who have mental health issues (and we all know someone given the statistic of 1 in 4 Americans living with a mental illness) need to be more proactive when they sense a change in someone’s behavior. By paying attention to the fragile mental states of people within our own environments, we will be able to push for help before it’s too late. The mental health laws need to be reviewed and modified to permit family and friends to have the ability to have people in trouble involuntarily committed for longer periods of time, so they are better able to make bigger strides towards recovery during the time in which they are under the hospital's psychiatric care. Until this done, we will continue to see more tragedies.

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On this fifth anniversary of my TDO and subsequent voluntary psychiatric commitment, I’m able to smile at my son’s insistence on dressing up as a ghost for Halloween. Five years ago I was not taking my medication and therefore went through hell, reportedly saw ghosts, and thought the world was coming to an end. But today I’m cutting eye holes out of a white sheet to dress my little man up on the last day of this month. A costume which serves as a gentle reminder of my past, while allowing me to appreciate the invisible challenges which inevitably lie ahead.

What I Want You To Know About Postpartum Psychosis

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Five years ago today my little man was born.

As for any first-time mom, the excitement and energy of the rush to the hospital to meet him is a bit of a blur, especially given the five years that have flooded my memory since then. Sure, we had the same fears and concerns as any new parents: is he sleeping and eating enough? Are we using the right baby products? When will his umbilical cord heal? Are we doing enough tummy time? But for us, the beginning of our story is quite different than that of most new families starting out.

Because right after he turned four weeks old, I had to be hospitalized for postpartum psychosis.

I knew I was experiencing hypomania from the time that he was placed in my arms around four a.m. the morning after he was born. He tried nursing for the first time and the physical exhaustion and emotional release of having just given birth started to set in. We sent him to the nursery so that I could try to catch up on sleep, but with the nurses checking my vitals every hour due to the C-section, sleep was nearly impossible.

Some people may wonder why I hid my symptoms from the people who could help me. The doctors and nurses who saw me when they came to check on the baby while we were still in the hospital never noticed that I was struggling. My therapist, who saw me when I was three weeks post-partum didn’t detect anything unusual. My husband and my parents could sense something was different about me, but we were all so caught up in the new baby that we pushed my mental health issues to the side and put the needs of the baby first.

I love my son with everything in me, but I know from all that I’ve been through over the past eight years living with bipolar disorder that I need to put my mental health first in order to be the best mother I can for him and his sister.

But in the first few weeks of his life, I didn’t know this. I was just a new mom. Trying my hardest to not screw up. And at the time I thought that meant staying off medication to protect my baby.

I was absolutely determined to breastfeed him. I put so much pressure on myself to make it work that the first week I was barely producing any milk because I was so stressed out and the internal fear that my body wasn’t going to be able to actually make food for my baby was doing just that: stunting my ability to lactate.

We did finally figure the whole breastfeeding thing out, me and Owen. And I nursed him for the first four weeks until I was no longer able to hide the fact that I was losing touch with reality.

I felt as though I was invincible and hardly needed to eat or sleep. The less I slept, the more energy I seemed to have. I never napped when the baby napped because I’d always find something to do around the house that was of course more important than catching up on sleep.

Everything around me had a certain sparkle to it. It was as if I were living in a dream world where everything was amplified and so vivid that I had to stay awake to soak it all in. There was no pain, only the soothing sounds of my baby cooing or crying softly before I picked him up.

It was all very surreal. But when hypomania turns into mania, and mania escalates to psychosis, things can go very wrong.

I am so thankful that my husband realized what was happening and knew exactly what to do in order to fix me.

As hard as it was for him to call 911 and have the police and EMT’s take me to the hospital, he knew that I needed to be separated from my baby for a week in order to get well.

And as much as I mourn the week that I lost with my son, I’m grateful for what I learned and how sharing my story has the potential to help other moms and families out there.

Not enough is shared about postpartum psychosis. Even though it is not nearly as common as postpartum depression, doctors still should discuss the potential chances of the occurrence, specifically in patients like me who had a previous bipolar disorder diagnosis.  Society doesn’t understand it and therefore, families aren’t on the lookout for symptoms in new moms. And I’d like to change that.

Women who experience postpartum psychosis are just normal moms who unfortunately have a chemical imbalance in their brains. Some of these women have thoughts of harming their children, and some of them act on those violent thoughts. I was one of the lucky ones who didn't have those intrusive thoughts, but even if I did - that doesn't make me a monster, as my friend Robin wrote on her blog recently.

I’m just a mom, with a 5-year old little man, who wants to prove to the world that our struggles don’t define us. They only provide us with opportunities to make a difference in the world. I’m beginning to work on explaining this to him every chance I get.

I’m loving watching my son grow into a smart, funny, caring, determined and stubborn little guy who has stolen my heart with his hugs and his smile. I’m still in complete awe of the fact that he grew inside of my belly, remembering the pressure of his little feet apparent from the outside. Bringing him into our lives was a miracle and we couldn’t imagine life any other way.

The other day I asked him what he thought it would feel like to turn five. “I’ll be all grown up! A big kid!” was his response. So much like me, he’s eager to make his way in the world, try new things and move mountains. I’m trying my best to just let him be little, to enjoy the carefree afternoons at the playground or the library. To linger over snacktime at home with him while his sister is still napping. And to savor every small moment we have together like our morning hugs and bedtime stories.

Five years have gone by so quickly but I’m not sad about them passing. The collection of countless precious memories which I’ve tattooed onto the inside of my mind are what I carry with me in my heart from the past.

I’m eager to see what the years ahead hold. Both for him, and for his mom who will always be looking on with pride.

 

The Hospital Badge

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When I meet other people who live with mental illness, it’s inevitable that at some point the topic of hospitalizations comes up. It’s as if the number of times you’ve been committed is like a badge of honor.

It’s not, but it is at the same time.

When you’ve been in the hospital, you learn how to fight to get well. You learn to have compassion for other people’s struggles. You learn to realize that your brain just doesn’t work like a plain old regular person’s brain works.

And so you learn coping mechanisms for how to manage your illness.

In group sessions you’re taught how to listen and be present in the moment. You're shown how to use art to express your feelings and work through your emotions in art therapy. During the exercise class you might appreciate the calmness that comes from the breathing exercises and stretching of yoga.

But it doesn’t mean that you’ll be fine when you’re released. For me, having been hospitalized for mental illness was... a very traumatic event, each of the four times it happened.

When I came home from the hospital each time, I’d hide my feelings of guilt and shame, not really opening up about what I had been through to anyone but my therapist. It would take weeks to return to stable, and I was constantly desperate to talk with someone else who understood what I had gone through.

Luckily, I have met some friends through support groups and other avenues, who have also been through hospitalizations for mental illnesses, and it’s always interesting to compare notes. But when it comes down to it, those types of stays are all the same. Meds, therapy, paperwork, release. Then you’re on your own.

Through blogging I’ve had the privilege of hearing from some of my readers who've reached out to me via email saying they’re so glad I’m writing because stories like mine are important to share. They’ll sometimes tell me how hard of a time they’re having, and how they wish they could just go to the hospital for a week or two, maybe it would help.

What I want those readers to know is that going to the hospital may help take the edge off momentarily. But when you get out, and you’re back at home, it’s sometimes easy to fall right back to where you were before you were admitted.

Life goes on. The world keeps turning. And we have to keep on learning to lead the dance with our conditions, lest they turn us in the wrong direction.

For me, this means protecting my sleep. Last night my allergies were in an uproar, given the change in the weather this past weekend. My fitbit displayed a horrendous sleep pattern. I went to bed at 9:15pm (the earliest I’ve been in bed for the past three weeks by an hour) but yet it was quite possibly the worst night of sleep I’ve had in that many weeks.

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But I won’t give up. I'm working on staying on top of my triggers to ensure I stay mentally healthy. For myself, for my family, and for my community.

And on that note, it’s time for me to hit the sack.

Five Minute Friday {14}: Lonely

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I was lonely back then, back seven and a half years ago when I had just been told I was facing mental illness. Two stints in a psych ward and it was apparent to the doctors but I was still in denial. I was so lonely.

I longed for someone to talk to who knew what I was feeling. Someone other than a psychiatrist or a therapist or a group leader in an outpatient program. They only studied these symptoms in a textbook. How could they really know what I was going through? They didn't, in my mind.

Writing would become my call for help. My attempt to erase the loneliness by telling my story to see if there were others out there feeling my same feelings.

There were. There are. And it's a relief to no longer feel lonely in this life with mental illness.

Today, nearly two years to the day from when I started this blog, I feel so far from lonely. Instead, I feel the compassionate hugs this community of readers, fellow bloggers, friends and family have wrapped around me.

Five Minute Friday

Dear New Mama ~ don't ignore PPP symptoms. Please.

Dear New Mama, My son was four weeks old and I was manic out of my mind in October of 2008. I was somehow able to hide it so well from everyone close to me, my parents, my best friend, my therapist, even my husband. No one knew but me. But who was I kidding? I couldn’t go on like this, and I knew it. The week after he was born I had broken down crying to my mom, handing her my cell phone pleading with her to call my OB to ask her what I could take to help me sleep. I had been off all medication (except pain meds from the C-section) since October of 2007. A full year with no medication at all: a recipe for disaster for anyone diagnosed as having bipolar disorder two years prior. But I was doing it for the baby. My husband and I both wanted a medication-free pregnancy, and then I wanted to breastfeed and did not want to expose the baby to medications that would come through in the breastmilk.

The first month, I had slept maybe 2-4 hours a night and it was catching up with me fast. I'd take two Tylenol PM and would get a few hours of sleep, but woke up, as I usually did since the baby was born, in a sweaty panic – I just knew he needed to be fed even though he was usually sound asleep at the time. I was trying desperately to make breastfeeding work, but we were struggling. He had lost weight since we left the hospital and the pediatrician forced us to supplement with formula but I was determined. I was so afraid of failing. My best friend was my cheerleader, urging me to keep going, visiting when she could to offer helpful tips and encouragement. My husband was also supportive and we knew it was risky being off medication in order to breastfeed, but we had decided to try it. My parents had arrived two days after the baby was born and were planning on staying a week before heading back down to Florida. When they realized how little sleep I was getting, they were worried and my mom pushed out her return trip by five days. After nearly two weeks of help from my parents, my husband’s parents, friends cooking dinners for us, and my husband being off from work, I had to learn to do it on my own. It is so foggy, those first four weeks, but we took pictures so I could remember. I did it on my own for two weeks, three days. Then the shit hit the fan.

The statistic was 1 out of 1,000. I never thought I'd be that one person who was dealt the postpartum psychosis card. I mean, what are the chances, right? But I guess I really should have seen it coming, having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder only two years earlier.

So, you may be wondering, how did I know that I was experiencing postpartum psychosis? Well, at the moment I didn't. I just knew that how I was feeling couldn't be right.

I was dead-set on breastfeeding, and therefore, was the sole source of milk for the baby so I had to be up every two to three hours. The process of changing his diaper, changing his outfit if he had leaked, swaddling him back up, feeding him on the boob, burping him, and settling him back down took me about forty-five minutes each time. Therefore, I had an hour or so to try to sleep before he would wake again, but instead of sleeping, despite what should have been my intense exhaustion, I would rush around the house doing laundry or dishes or I'd pump to try to get my body to produce more milk so that I could store it. It was as if my body had surpassed the exhaustion phase, and I was now invincible. I was starting to believe that I didn't even need sleep. I also felt super smart - like my brain was functioning at a superior level. Having never been a stellar student in any stage of my schooling, it was weird, to say the least.

During the fourth week, before I was eventually hospitalized, I started experiencing hallucinations. Mostly things are fuzzy, but one I can actually remember is from the morning that my husband finally realized he needed to commit me. I had woken up several times during the night but just stayed in bed listening to the sounds of trucks driving along the highway not too far from our house, hoping to fall back asleep. When the dawn broke and light started filtering in through the mini blinds, the alien spaceship that was hanging from the center of our bedroom (aka: the ceiling fan) began to spin, illuminate, and hover towards me. I shook with fear. But kept my mouth shut. I didn’t want my husband sending me to the hospital. I had to keep feeding my baby. We had just started to “get it” and he was doing well. I was actually enjoying the bonding time it created between me and the baby.

THANK GOD my husband got help. He had to call 911 because he wasn't able to get me to agree to go in the car to the hospital, let alone take medication. I was so lucky, because he knew the signs to look for from my two previous manic episodes, and he wasn't afraid (or too proud) to admit that I needed medical attention. Specifically, anti-psychotics. Stat. And although I never had thoughts of wanting to harm my baby, who knows if those could have been the next thoughts to enter my mind had we waited any longer to get help.

What I want you to know, mama, is that if you ever experience symptoms similar to mine after the birth of your baby, please don't feel ashamed about it. Don't ignore the signs. Have your husband or partner read about them too, so they can be as prepared as you are. Knowing what you know now about postpartum psychosis is half the battle. The other half is being open to accepting the help you need to get better for you so that you can be there for your baby. I did, and I'm so thankful because it was the best decision my husband and I did for our family, and continue to do, each and every day.

The medication I take keeps me "in the middle", as we in my family like to refer to it. I ended up taking it, under the close supervision of both my psychiatrist, OB-GYN, and high-risk OB-GYN, during my second pregnancy and we were blessed with a precious baby girl who has completed our family. I continue to take my medication, see my psychiatrist and therapist regularly, and lean on the support of my husband, parents, and close friends in order to keep my mental health in check.

I wish you all the happiness in the world as you meet your new little bundle of joy. I know that you'll turn out to be one incredible mama. Just like I did.

Much love,

Jennifer aka BipolarMomLife

The 4th Annual Mother’s Day Rally for Moms’ Mental Health is presented by Postpartum Progress, a national nonprofit 501c3 that raises awareness & advocates for more and better services for women who have postpartum depression and all other mental illnesses related to pregnancy and childbirth. Please consider making a donation today, on Mother’s Day, to help us continue to spread the word and support the mental health of new mothers.

A promise

There have been many ups and downs in my life since being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder six years ago. Thankfully, the past few years have included significantly more highs than lows, mainly because I've been stable and have made a commitment to myself and my family:

I promise to always take my medication, see my doctor and therapist, and get good sleep.

This promise stemmed from the fact that, at 5 weeks pregnant with my daughter, I spent almost a week in a psych ward to bring me down from the most extreme psychosis of my life. It came about because I was so incredibly happy - over the moon, really - that we were pregnant after trying month after month for almost a year that I didn't make sure I was getting enough sleep. I remember the nights leading up to the hospitalization where I would just lie in bed wide awake, my mind racing with baby names while my husband was sleeping soundly beside me. You see, when I knew I was ready for another baby, I wanted it like, that second. To have to live my life in two week increments for so long, and to have waited almost a year to see those two pink lines, both of those realities had driven me mad. Quite literally.

I count my lucky stars that I was able to get help. I took the medication I needed with my doctor's close supervision, in order to make it through the pregnancy. And my wonderful husband took over many a night feeding during the first month or two so that I could get the sleep I needed at night and the naps needed to catch up during the day.

In the waiting room before my trial to be released from the hospital {yes, there was a trial due to the fact I was involuntarily committed}, my husband and my dad sat with me. I was in handcuffs. Don't ask - we have no idea why they would cuff an almost 6-week pregnant woman who wouldn't hurt a fly - but we think it was because they had to treat all the patients the same. My hair was a disaster, I had on mismatched sweats and the sticky-bottom hospital socks and I was just dying to get out of there. I can't remember why I didn't have shoes on.

This is where the promise occurred. My dad took a picture on his phone of me sitting on the small sofa in that tiny room. With cuffs on.

So I would always make good on my promise to keep taking my medication.

That was two years ago. And I have no intention of ever breaking that promise.

My family means too much to me to ever put them through that again.

Thank you to my dad, for thinking to take that picture. Now, Dad, it may be on your old iphone which has a shattered screen, but maybe you could find a way to email it to me so that I can crop it and Instagram-it so that I could add it to this post?

{Don't hold your breath since he's not that great with computers and he's presently on a golf trip in South Carolina. But I'll try to add it. For posterity.}

Mama’s Losin’ It

Two years ago today

It's been two years to the day today that I was last hospitalized for a manic episode.

And what a storm it was. I had just found out I was pregnant and thus was so excited I couldn't sleep for a week. You see, it had taken us ten months to conceive the little lady and being the impatient, total Type-A person I am, that was just way too long.

When I don't get enough sleep, it leads to mania. My thoughts race out of control, I start talking in circles, and I lose touch with reality. My husband knew the signs all too well. He knew what needed to be done.

Within thirty minutes, his mom was here to help with our 18-mo old son, and the EMT's and two police officers were standing in our bedroom trying to talk me into going with them to the hospital. When I wouldn't consent, my husband signed some papers, and they cuffed me and put me in the squad car. Luckily this time it was pitch black outside and they didn't have their flashing lights on. So hopefully the neighbors didn't see and think I was being arrested.

 

Crazy how far I've come in those two years. I've learned so much over these past six years living with bipolar disorder. I've learned how important my family is to me, I've learned which friends care enough to actually talk with me about what I've been going through, and most of all I've learned that I can overcome this "mental illness" to make my dreams a reality.

Six years ago I was so crippled by depression and anxiety that at times I didn't want to go on. I was being so selfish, but I saw how my condition was affecting my family and I hated that I kept bringing everyone around me down because of my mood. I felt like I had lost my identity because the career I had worked so hard to build over the past four years came to a screeching halt after my second hospitalization. I couldn't handle the pressure at work any longer - the pressure that had pushed me to work harder and smarter over the years was now causing panic attacks and driving me deeper and deeper into depression.

Ultimately, I had to resign from my job and with that I felt like I was a nobody. I was worthless. I was sad. I didn't feel like there was anything worth living for.

Looking back, it basically took me all of 2006 to pick myself up again. I went through so many weeks of crying hard every.single.night. It's hard for me to think about what my parents and husband went through during that year. I don't know if I would have been strong enough to stay positive and supportive to someone who was so incredibly sad.

But they did. And Thank God they did. I am eternally grateful to them.

I never would have imagined that I would be where I am today without the love and encouragement of my dad, mom, and husband. Along with my in-laws, brother, two sisters-in-law, and a handful of close friends, I trudged through 2006 and made it into 2007. I made it to see another day.

And now I know that there is so much to live for.

I am so thankful to have found a medication that works for me. I know that I am lucky. I take my medication religiously and stay on top of my moods to make sure I continue to stay stable. I have too much going for me to end up in the hospital again. I don't want to miss a second of this life.

Because it really is too short when you think about it.