Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Three Life Lessons

A friend posted a question to Facebook this week. She'll be turning 30 soon and was asking for any advice or life lessons or tips as she heads toward this milestone birthday.
 
I'll be 32 in August. While not that much older than her, I've learned lots over the past few years. Two of my three hospitalizations happened within the last two years. There's nothing like a crisis to teach you some life lessons!
 
Here's what I told my friend, and now you:
  1. Trust your gut. Follow your instincts. This holds true for personal and professional plans. During my second hospitalization I decided that I wanted to become a therapist. I was in the hospital arguing with the doctors and nurses, telling them how to do their jobs, and advocating on behalf of the other patients. I realized I could "do this." I could become a social worker and advocate for consumers on a professional level. If all goes according to plan, I'll be in graduate school for my MSW in September.
  2. Make time for your loved ones. People are more important than things. Hands down. Don't make it a habit of cancelling plans or putting off spending quality time with your family and friends. Yes, it takes an effort, and we are all busy. But you won't regret it.
  3. Make self-care a priority. Whatever restores you and feeds your soul: do more of that. I've always been interested in self-care, but over the last two years I've realized how important it actually is for mental and overall wellbeing. Self-care is so important to avoiding the burn out that can happen from work or home life. Make you a priority in your own life.
I don't make any claims to being a life expert, so take my advice with a grain of salt. I won't be offended. I promise! But I have become an expert on me. And living with bipolar disorder for the past eight years has taught me a lot beyond the three lessons I share here. Additionally, I've also learned a lot from my non-consumer life: school, work, relationships, family, and friends.

Beyond what I've shared here, I implore you to listen to your own truths. If you pay attention, your own life has taught you many lessons too. In the words of one of my favorites, Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string."

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What Does Mania Look and Feel Like?

When I started this blog in June 2014, I was in the throes of a manic episode. For me, mania looks like super productivity, oversharing on social media, excessive shopping sprees, pressured speech, and hypersexuality. It's also hard to keep my attention honed in on one thing; I flit from activity to activity and idea to idea.

This past summer I started Manic Monique's Meanderings, writing 52 posts in the month of June alone (to give you some perspective, the mania ended in August, since September I have written 1 to 3 posts per month). I wrote a few Op-Eds on mental health and contacted about a dozen publications. I was published in The Root. I started blogging regularly for the Huffington Post. I was interviewed by two internet radio shows. I planned and organized a family cookout for about 40 or so family members. I took 5 vacations up and down the East Coast. I saw 5 Broadway plays. I wrote a curriculum for a mental health presentation for high schools and colleges. I created a proposal for an all-boys charter school I'd like to found. I met with a public policy professor to discuss said charter school proposal. I charged about $23,000 to my credit cards. I posted excessively to Facebook and Instagram, documenting my activities and thoughts. And I started dating again, having taken a year break during my depression.

Yup. I was quite busy.

In previous posts, I mentioned how much I love the mania. And I really do. As I've said previously, the mania has saved me from depression twice. But as I'm sure you can imagine, the mania is exhausting. Very exhausting. And it's expensive; I can't control my spending when I'm manic. During my first mania I charged $10,000. But during this last mania I doubled that amount.

The mania lasted three months. It's never lasted that long before. So when September came I was glad to see the mania go.

Between September and January I was pretty stable. I had a depressive dip for a few weeks, but nothing major; no where close to what the depression looked like in 2013-14. This month, February, I've been getting busy again. I'm looking for a new job, so I attended two job fairs. I've had three interviews so far. I took the Praxis teacher certification test for middle school English Language Arts. And this weekend I'll be attending a two-day conference in NYC on feminism and K-12 education. Next month, I'll be attending a three-day conference in Kentucky on white privilege. I'll even be presenting on social justice English curricula I created! I'm a tad nervous as it'll be the first time I'm presenting at a national conference. Also next month I'll be attending a one-day conference here in NJ on Ferguson and activism.

When I relayed my newfound busyness to a friend, he asked if I was manic again. Now normally, that question pisses me the fuck off. In the past, when I've exhibited "normal" displays of emotion, my friends and family have asked me if I was okay. It's annoying to have others constantly on watch for mood irregularities. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the concern, I really do. But at the same time, I feel like I can't express any emotions at all.

To this friend, I told him how my current behavior differs from my behavior this summer: I don't have pressured speech, I'm not spending money, I don't feel hypersexual. But I have been oversharing on social media.

This is what he text me:
From an outside perspective, I feel like over the summer you were focused on doing everything and now you're doing what you're focused on. That's probably unclear. You just seem more focused now. 
I actually appreciated his observation. I do feel incredibly focused now. I'm not being pulled in multiple directions the way I was this summer. I'm hyperfocused on a few actions instead. But I will take his observation under advisement and keep watch. As  much as I love the mania, I'm not ready for another episode so soon.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Mania... Ain't That a Bitch.

I always profess my love for my manias. I wholeheartedly believe that my mania has saved me twice. It's saved me from depression in 2007 and again in 2014. I was depressed for about two or three months in 2006. The depression ended because I became manic. At that time, I was not receiving treatment for the depression, neither psychotherapy nor psychiatric medications. I was depressed again in 2013-2014, but instead of lasting two or three months, it lasted eleven to twelve months. Thank God I wasn't suicidal. But my life was no cakewalk either. I felt incredibly empty. I had insomnia. The Seroquel had made me gain 52 pounds, so my normally 125-128 pound frame was now carrying 171 pounds. The weight made me feel sluggish and unattractive. I had no sex drive. During this depression, I was receiving treatment, both psychotherapy and meds. But the meds weren't working. And the only reason the depression ended was that I became manic. 

I was ecstatic to be manic again. I felt alive for the first time in a year. I felt more like myself. I had energy again. I started blogging. I vacationed. I saw multiple Broadway plays. I started dating and having sex again. Life was beautiful.

But I also started spending. And spending a lot. The mania lasted three months. Longer than my previous two manias. In 2007, I charged $10,000 when I was manic. During the summer of 2014, I charged $23,000 to my credit cards. I didn't realize it was this bad until I checked my online accounts and totaled my debt. I was crestfallen. In November I checked my credit report and unsurprisingly my score was poor. When just months before I had excellent credit.

The panic didn't really set in until I thought about what a poor credit score might mean for my plan to go back to graduate school. With poor credit, I probably wouldn't qualify for private student loans. I would still receive federal student loans, as these loans aren't tied to your creditworthiness. But federal loans alone are not enough to cover the total cost of attending school.

The good news is that I've been accepted to two graduate programs, I'm waiting to hear from the third school. Should have a decision within the next four weeks. And I just filed my FAFSA, so I should be getting my financial aid packages soon. So I'll know within the next few weeks what type of aid I'll receive.

Further good news is that I have made a dent in the credit card debt since the mania ended. I've managed to pay almost $10,000 towards the debt. Which is huge. I'm hoping it's enough to improve my credit score and to qualify for private student loans.

So yes, I still love the mania. I'm just not sure that the mania loves me.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Who Cares for the Caregiver?

Below is my latest Huffington Post blog post. I thought the message was a good one (not to toot my own horn!), so I decided to share here too.

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Mark Lukach's article My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward has been making the rounds on social media for the past few weeks. It is an honest and painful read. As the title implies, Lukach writes about his experiences with his wife's psychiatric problems. Her diagnosis: depression with psychotic features. Reading it, I was struck by the depths of his love and devotion to his wife. And I was also concerned for him and for all caregivers of the chronically ill.

Yes, psychiatric problems can be difficult for the mental health consumer, but the consumer does not experience their symptoms in a vacuum. Their loved ones, family (spouses, children, extended family) and friends, are also impacted. As a bipolar sufferer, I try to be cognizant of how my illness impacts my loved ones. I've also tried to think about what I would tell other consumers' loved ones as well as my own about self-care. 

So this article is for you, the caregiver.

Here are some tips to ensure that you effectively care for yourself while providing for your loved one:
  • Don't neglect your own needs: get adequate sleep, eat regularly, and keep up with your own health needs (such as doctor's appointments, taking any prescribed medicine, exercise, etc).
  • Invest in self-care. In other articles I've written about the importance of self-care for the consumer, but caregivers also need to make self-care a priority. Self-care is whatever you do that puts you first and soothes you: listen to music, make a spa appointment, go for a walk, read a book, eat your favorite meal, take a vacation. In short, do something you love.
  • Find your own therapist. I don't mean couple's therapy or family therapy. But a therapist all your own. Everyone can benefit from having an ear to vent to and problem solve with.
  • Spend time away from your loved one. Yes, you are entitled to take a break.
  • Learn your loved one's signals. They might not always know when they're headed for an episode, but if you've lived through a previous episode or hospitalization, you probably know what to look out for.
  • Be patient, understanding, and kind with your loved one. Everyone needs extra nurturing when not at their best. 
  • Be patient, understanding, and kind with yourself. You won't have all the answers. You won't always know what to say or do. You might get frustrated or overwhelmed. Don't beat yourself up.
  • Know your limits and enlist help when you need it. Help from family, friends, mental health doctors and providers. You don't have to think of yourself as a fixer.
  • Specifically for romantic partners: 
    • Depending on your loved one's diagnosis, he or she might have mood swings or easily get angry or irritable. Try not to take it personally. With your partner, create coping strategies to handle emotional outbursts.
    • Again, depending on the diagnosis or even as a side effect from certain medicines, your loved one's libido can be impacted. Both extremes are possible: too much of a sex drive (hypersexual) or too low of a sex drive. Be patient. If a low sex drive is a problem, find non-sexual ways to be intimate. 
    • Be sure to keep the lines of communication open and honest. Listen to your loved one's concerns about his or her care, but also make your concerns known too.
If your loved one hasn't told you lately: you are important, you are valued, you are making a difference. Being a caregiver is a tough role. So don't neglect your own needs and your own life in the process of providing love and care to others. I love the airplane analogy about responsibility and help: in emergencies, you are exhorted to put your oxygen mask on first before assisting those around you. Be sure to take care of you.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Blogging Year-in-Review


This has  been quite the year!

When I was hospitalized in 2013 for mania I left the hospital wanting to write a memoir. The mania had me super excited to accomplish that feat. However, my mood had other plans. I became depressed shortly after the mania ended. And I spent the rest of 2013 and half of 2014 in a funk. The depression zapped my motivation and energy. And the memoir I was so excited about did not materialize.

Hospitalized yet again in 2014 for mania, I was re-determined to write a memoir. But this time I decided that starting a blog would be more manageable than a full-length book. Within days of being discharged I started Manic Monique's Meanderings. I was so manic in those early days that I managed to pump out 52 blog posts in the month of June!

However, the reach of my writing did not end with Manic Monique's Meanderings. Here's what else I've been up to:
  • I was published on The Root. Being published on a black publication was really important to me.
  • I was invited to blog for Huffington Post (sometimes I republish MMM posts, sometimes I write new material). My reading audience has grown exponentially. A UK mental health organization even referenced one of my Huff Post articles. I'm global, y'all!
  • I was interviewed by BP Magazine. The interview will be published spring 2015. I have a subscription to BP so I was really excited for this opportunity! 
  • I was interviewed by and featured on the Real Brown Girls blog.
  • For Mental Health Awareness Week, I guest blogged for Strut in Her Shoes.
  • I was interviewed by MyndTalk, an internet radio show.
  • I was interviewed by Black Women Empowerment, another internet radio show.
  • And social media has been such a godsend.
I have no idea what 2015 will have in store for me, but I'm looking forward to continuing to share my story.

Thank you for reading my blog. Make sure you come back :)

Monday, December 15, 2014

To Accept or Reject Mental Health Labels, That is the Question

What's in a mental health label? Schizophrenia. Bipolar. Anxiety. Depression. OCD. And so on.

Does a mental health label define you?

I've had numerous conversations with my therapist about the bipolar label. I've been diagnosed for seven years now. I went six years in between my first and second hospitalizations for mania. And in those six years I did not really claim the label. My therapist showed me the bipolar entry in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). There is an entry for single-episode mania. Mania is what determines a bipolar diagnosis; otherwise, one would just have unipolar depression. I thought I had that, the single-episode diagnosis, not the full-fledged diagnosis. I thought my one episode of depression and one episode of mania were one-time flukes. I didn't think I really had bipolar disorder. However, my psychiatrist disagreed. He told me "once a Heisman trophy winner, always a Heisman trophy winner." I hated this analogy.

The two medicines I was on for those six years in between hospitalizations kept me stable. Having a bipolar diagnosis didn't impact much for me except sleep. I had to be in bed by 11pm in order to avoid next-day grogginess. But that was the only inconvenience. I had a few side effects within the first few months of being hospitalized, but after I changed to a new medicine I was fine.

Until 2013.

Elevated liver enzymes were detected in my routine blood work. Elevated liver enzymes might mean liver damage. I was told to stop taking this medicine immediately. My psychiatrist didn't replace this medicine, leaving me only on one medicine to maintain my bipolar disorder. Within two months I was manic and hospitalized. This hospitalization removed all doubt that I was really bipolar. I was hospitalized for ten days as the doctors tried to find me a new medicine cocktail to control my mania. I had to also go on short-term disability for two months.

Needless to say my therapist and I renewed our conversations about my label. I could no longer act like I didn't have a mental health diagnosis. I didn't have any friends with mental health diagnoses, so I wanted to talk to other diagnosed folks. In search of a space to discuss my disorder, I sought out and attended a DBSA (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance) meeting.

My therapist was concerned. He didn't want me to identify with a mental illness. He didn't want it to define me. But I disagreed with him. Just as I am black and a woman and an American, I too, also have bipolar disorder. It does have an impact on my life: my choices, my thoughts, my actions. To deny the label would be like denying a part of me. Now, I don't subscribe to the belief that to have a mental illness means I have to be consumed by instability. I am a highly-functioning professional.

For me, having a bipolar diagnosis does not signal dysfunction or disability.  I've learned to use the diagnosis to my advantage. I think it makes me special: I am creative, intelligent, and empathetic. When I look at my bipolar lineage (all the famous writers, artists, actors, and doctors), I feel proud.

And when I read the DSM entry for bipolar disorder, I see that I have had nearly every symptom of mania and depression. The diagnosis and label made my actions and thoughts make sense. I've actually found comfort in the label. But I do realize not everyone wants to be labelled.

What say you? If you are diagnosed, how do you interpret your label?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Unlikely Sign of Depression

I was depressed last year from June/July 2013 until May 2014. The insomnia was perhaps the worst part. I couldn't fall asleep. When I did fall asleep, I couldn't stay asleep as I woke frequently throughout the night. And on top of that, I woke up early. Like 3am or 4am early. The other big problem was the empty feeling. I didn't feel sad. In fact, I didn't feel anything. I was really worried that I'd feel empty forever. I thought my newfound numbness was my new default emotion.

But beyond the insomnia and the empty feeling, I also noticed a change in my handwriting. I recently found this article, "Are You Depressed?", on a handwriting website. Just as you can tell a person's mood from their behavior (are they smiling? are they moping around? are they irritable?), handwriting also signals a person's mood.

When grading my students' essays last year, I could barely read the feedback I'd written on their papers. At the time, I noticed the change, but I did not attribute it to my depression. I tried to compensate. I started writing slower so I could concentrate more on writing out each word. I don't recall if this actually worked or not. But no student ever came to me to tell me that they couldn't make out my writing.

My depression ended in June 2014. Since then my handwriting has gone back to normal. I thought the above article was an interesting read. I would not have made the connection between my mood and my handwriting. It's interesting how our moods control so much of our thoughts and behaviors.