This is our first post from Hope Street Cards guest blogger - Kristen Malake. Welcome Kristen and we can't wait for more contributions from you!
I have a long history with mental illness. It began in middle school in the form of an eating disorder. One day a ‘friend’ taught me how to make myself throw up. I purged, tried to hide food, threw food away and exercised in the middle of the night. One night I was going to head out with a friend. We had spaghetti for dinner and even though I ran the shower my mother could hear me throwing up. I remember a loved one saying, “if you can’t control what goes in and out of your body then you can’t go out”. But really, at that point in my life, those felt like the only 2 things I could control. That’s what eating disorders are all about anyway, right? Well, my weight loss landed me in in my first impatient hospitalization. I was there for almost 3 weeks, which is almost unheard of these days.
Following this we went to family counseling, which I did not find to be helpful at the time. The therapist asked me where I would like to start and when I spoke my thoughts, she belittled me. The silence and tears began. I said to my mom: “you talk too much”, and to my dad: “you don’t talk enough”. Looking back, I would like to think the therapist was inexperienced because her response to me totally made me shut down. At this time, I was 16 and began my never-ending journey with medication. I am now 43 and am still taking medication. In the times that I have tried to go without, I have ended up in crisis, having suicidal situations. I have come to understand that my brain is wired in such a way that it needs certain chemicals that only medication can provide.
During this time, I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder. Those diagnoses never changed until only a few short years ago. The therapist I had been seeing for about 5 years was certain that I had Bipolar Disorder. Over time, it has become apparent to me that this is a true diagnosis for me, as well as the Social Anxiety Disorder.
I think society has been taught to believe that Bipolar means the same thing for everyone. The “ups” meaning feelings of exuberant joy; 2 am cleanings of the house, top to bottom; extravagant shopping sprees; losing thousands of dollars gambling, and; having multiple sexual partners in short periods of time. The “downs” meaning not being able to get out of bed; going for days without showering; missing multiple days of work; crying constantly; self-harm, and; avoidance of people. However, this is not the case for me and probably not for a lot of people. My symptoms are more subtle, to the point when I don’t always know when I am becoming manic or depressed. I usually have to check in with my husband and he is typically right. When I feel manic, I talk frequently and rapidly. Often people find me difficult to follow. I may shop more than usual, but I always keep in mind that we do live on a budget. I become more anxious and have difficulty sitting still or just relaxing. I have to be doing something to feel okay. I generally feel like the world is full of mostly good people and that I am one of those people. It is easier for me to tell when I am becoming depressed. My need or want for sleep increases and I eat more without really tasting the food. I become agitated and irritable with my loved ones. I feel hopeless and helpless and yes, sometimes still suicidal. I feel like I should have a better job at this point in my life, that I’m not a good mother and that I don’t deserve the patience my husband has provided. I cry out of the blue. Sometimes I just want to be done, to be gone. By that I mean that I don’t necessarily want to die, but to just disappear.
When my diagnosis changed from Major Depressive Disorder to Bipolar, I was prescribed mood stabilizers. I don’t know that I have noticed much difference. I have had a few psychiatrists, one for many years and have been on multiple medications. I have heard several times, “well, it looks like you have tried about everything” and “have you looked at Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) as an option”. This is not what a person who is already feeling hopeless needs to hear.
To fully understand me, you must also know that I am an alcoholic. I have been in recovery since April 16th of 2009. My drinking and smoking cigarettes began around the age of 18 and the use of many illegal drugs soon followed. It started with wine coolers and throwing up in bed and not being able to move to clean myself up. My parents eventually nailed my bedroom screen window on to prevent me from sneaking out to drink. In college I would wake up on door steps and in apartments where I didn’t know the people and didn’t remember how I got there. In my early adult years, I somehow managed to earn an Undergraduate and Graduate degree in Social Work. However, I continued drinking. Vodka and lots of it. In the beginning I had it every night after work. Never mixed, just shots. I kept one bottle outside and one inside, as well as airplane size bottles in my purse. I would put water in the bottle to make it look like I hadn’t drank as much. When I hit bottom I was drinking ¾ bottle a day. I began between 7:00 and 7:30 in the morning, drinking straight from the bottle that I kept in the freezer. I drank until noon and then stopped to “sober up” by 4:30 when I had to work. During the day I stayed home with our young children, ages 1 and 3. When my husband came home, I would go to work, assisting adults with mental illness interestingly enough. I hit rock bottom as many do and it was very, very low. In short, I was given the choice to sober up or lose my husband and children. I chose to sober up. Thanks be to God and supportive family and friends, I am still sober to this day.
What I want those who love a person with mental illness to know, above all…..this is NOT about you. It isn’t your fault and it isn’t your job to “make things ok”. If you had the power to do that, I’m sure you would. But you can’t. This is not your doing and this is not your battle.
That doesn’t mean that you are helpless to watch your loved one suffer. I love hearing “what can I do for you” and “how can I help”. These phrases allow me to say what I think you could try that might help me feel more loved. It’s about support and helping me to feel that even though I’m ill, I’m still me. At the heart of me, I am still the person you fell in love with or have come to enjoy the company of. I don’t mean to be hurtful with my words. I don’t want you to feel responsible to make me happy. Only I have that power.
Intermittently as my illness has allowed, I have been an advocate for persons with mental illness in both a personal and a professional capacity. It remains clear that society still does not have a clear understanding of mental illness. If they did, mental illness would be equivalent to a physical illness in terms of stigma or lack thereof. People fling around words like crazy, say I think she missed her meds, or take a chill pill. At Halloween there are haunted houses where the goal is to escape the “psych ward”. I used to be ashamed of my condition. I used to try to hide it, but it was hard to hold a job without an eventual breakdown. I feel ashamed no longer. This is a part of who I am, only a piece of my whole puzzle. I didn’t create this problem. I was born into it through a combination of family history and brain chemistry. Those who know me and love me will continue to.
My biggest supporter is no longer. She committed suicide four years ago. We were friends for 34 years. She took the easy way out. Often times I wish that I could do the same. I will never place blame on her, but I will never get over her loss, how it occurred and the reason why.
My sister has been a constant my entire life. She has dropped everything to come to me when I have needed her. She is and forever will be my best friend. My parents were always quick to get me professional help when I needed it and have supported me consistently. A friend literally let me lay in her room until I could keep myself safe. A coworker held me when I felt like I was falling apart. My husband has stuck with me through it all. We met as social workers assisting adults with mental illness. He has continued the same work for over 20 years. Perhaps out of not knowing any other way, it is difficult for him to provide me support that differs from the kind that he provides his clients. I can’t imagine how difficult my illness has been for him to cope with. There are times when I wonder how he can even stand me because often, I can’t even stand myself. I know that my emotional instability is difficult to live with. He could have left a million times, for a million different reasons, but he didn’t. He’s still here.
When I am unwell, I may reach out and I may not. It depends upon the severity of the symptoms. Often at work, I pretend to be even better than I usually am. I say that I’m fantastic, wonderful, peachy. Fake it until you make it as they say. But that can be what turns out to be helpful. I pretend to be someone that I’m not. Because people like happy people. Let’s face it. They enjoy being with those who laugh and smile.
One of the most unhelpful things I hear is “smile”. Really? Why? So that you can feel better. So that you can go about your merry way without having to worry about me. The other thing I don’t like to hear is “everything happens for a reason”. I don’t believe that to be true. Sometimes things just happen. People die. Children are abducted. Families lose their home. What reason justifies these things? And would having or understanding the reason make the situation any better? I don’t think so. People say what they feel like will placate the situation, so that they can walk away feeling like they have done something. That’s not to say that there are not people who genuinely care because there are. There are very kind people who have heard me and held me through some of my darkest hours.
I don’t need or want expensive gifts to make me feel better. The things I love the best are notes that I find on my car after work that simply say, “I’m thinking of you”. Or a bag of my favourite chocolate hanging on my doorknob when I get home. It says that I am important enough for you to take the time out of your day to think of me. Cards in the mail are always appreciated. They are a surprise and who doesn’t like a card right?!?
Please do not try to fix my situation. Do not give me options of what to do when I just want you to hear me. Just listen to me. Sit with me. Don’t tell me what you think will or will not work. When I am in the middle of my pain, I’m not thinking about solutions. I’m thinking about breathing, calming my shaking body….that’s all I can think about. I’m certainly not in the mindset to problem solve.
So really, what it really comes down to is the support of those that we love and trust. It’s knowing that there are a select few who will never leave, not even in my darkest hour. When my mascara runs black down my face, dripping snot on their shoulder, barely able to breathe through the wretching sobs. If I am lucky enough to have even one of those people, I am lucky enough.