I grew up in poverty, with a mother with untreated and undiagnosed bipolar illness, 5 siblings, my grandparents, and a tenant who lived in the attic. The tenant paid rent which helped our food bill. There were 11 of us, no shower, no heat upstairs, and we had to draw a straw to line up for the bathroom. At age 19, I took legal action and forced my mother to enter a mental hospital against her free will. She never forgave me for violating her rights. On her deathbed, I could sense her lack of trust with me. My action of institutionalizing my mother in her manic, violent, psychotic state created serious disruption in our relationship until her dying day. I can’t help but wonder if mental illness is contagious.
As a sibling
As any true geek would admit, seeing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil) gaze across the horizon on the planet Tatooine, in the American epic space opera film Star Wars IV: A New Hope, was one of the most profound moments in movies for me. Luke’s soul cry to Destiny echoed in my own soul in that movie theater that day. Yet like Luke, I was naive. I had no idea as to the nature of the struggle going all around me but also within myself.
Somewhat controversial by Star Wars fans, but in the movie, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. Qui-gon took a blood sample of young Anakin to determine whether or not he was “strong in the force”. Obi-Wan says, “Even Master Yoda doesn’t have a midi-chlorian count that high!” Researchers have found that the neurotransmitter dopamine plays an important role in Schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease a decrease in Dopamine in the brain has been implicated as the cause of Parkinson’s disease. An excess of Dopamine or oversensitivity of certain dopamine receptors is one of the causal factors in schizophrenia (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/schizophrenia/index.shtml).
In a study of women with a history of mental health conditions, they found an abnormality on the dormant X chromosome caused by unusually high levels of the XIST gene. Researchers are optimistic this may lead to a blood test, better interventions, therapy and treatment options. Source- University of California, San Diego Health Sciences. (http://www.bphope.com/new-biomarker-identified-in-women-with-mental-illness/)
Where cancer research was 75 years ago, we are today I believe. By the time my future grandchildren are grown their mental illnesses will probably be as treated like diabetes. Today, however, we are in a struggle for lives. One in five individuals wrestles with a mental illness. Every 16 minutes someone is killed by suicide. Just like Leia and other in the “Rebel Alliance” we are fighting for hope for a better future.
Charles (names have been changed to protect anonymity) wasn’t the first person to speak up when entering a room, but often times he was the last to leave ensuring everyone had a listening ear. When Charles and I presented together, I learned he had struggled with suicidal thoughts since his teens. It wasn’t until he was married with two children that his mental illness first brought him to his knees. For even a warrior like Charles, it took homelessness to get him to admit he needed help. Over the last few years, however, Charles had made a remarkable recovery. When I met Charles, he was a presenter, working part-time as a Peer Support Specialist, teaching regularly at the NAMI Peer-to-Peer class, and voluntarily leading a group on the psyche ward at a local hospital. Soon after, he got engaged.
While teaching the Peer-to-Peer class, Charles was battling symptoms related to a medication transition. He told us before class one night, he felt like climbing the walls. He had experienced more severe symptoms during previous days at home, too. “Charles, go to the Emergency Room or at least call in sick from work tomorrow,” I said vehemently, knowing that bold action was needed. Charles responded quietly but in his equally steely, resolved voice, “There are people depending on me.” Charles was killed by his mental illness the following week. This does not negate the fact that Charles was a valiant warrior, a soldier in the war against mental illness and stigma. Charles’ story is a tragic lesson in authenticity and self-care.
Recently, I changed psychiatrists and the first thing she said to me was “You are hypomanic.” I said, “What? Just because I talk fast? I always like to talk fast. I would agree if this was the fifth time you met me, but this is just my personality.” She said, “Hold out your hands.” I did. She put a piece of paper on my hands and I couldn’t hold it. Some of my friends had noticed my hand tremors, but I hadn’t. “She asked me, “Are you agitated?” Of course, I was at her! At that point, I realized I am not good at self-diagnosis. As we continued to work together, she continued to reduce my medication, but because I am “not acute” I will always be hypomanic. Hypomania is a mild form of mania, marked by elation and hyperactivity.
I love to talk fast. It feels natural! Everyone probably thought, “That’s just Danei.” In other words, to use a character from Winnie the Pooh, I am a recovering Tigger. I remember a locker mate in high school asking me why I was always happy. I remember thinking “Isn’t everyone?” At a CIT police officer training recently, I was trying to explain what hypomania was and they were not getting it. So, I had to reveal my inner Superpower, “Tigger”. Granted, it’s not as “exciting” as a lightsaber to go with the Star Wars analogy but that’s my point. Charles’ tragic story taught me the valuable lesson to focus on authenticity and self-care. “Learning to use the force” for me means taking my medications, diet, exercise, but also not talking at 60 miles an hour or I will verbally shock people all the time. A Tigger can be “a bit much”.
The “Rebel Alliance” Needs All of Us
One thing I love in every Star Wars movie is that all kinds of under-estimated races come together to work to defeat the unstoppable Empire. What Destiny has asked of me is not what I expected. I need to authentically share about my mental illness. Why? The silence is killing us. We are in a war. Every 16 minutes someone is killed by suicide. 22 veterans a day are killed by suicide. The suicide rate has increased 24% from 1999 to 2014. One in five individuals in this country wrestles with a mental illness. I will be silent no more. The Rebel Alliance needs you.
Image of Luke Skywalker sourced from here.
I return at last;
Been a long time coming.
I knew I would.
I knew I would.
It was a matter of when,
not a matter of if.
And here I am.
Here I am.
You thought you could keep me
out of this place.
Well, you were wrong.
You were wrong.
You doubted my resolve:
Said I couldn’t do it.
Well fuck you,
you ignorant fool.
Because here I am
Here I am.
“Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been clear
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right…”
Here comes the sun
I don’t know about the rest of you but song lyrics (like this one from the Beatles) often intersect with my thoughts. When I was thinking about what it feels like to find the “right” one, sunshine definitely comes to mind. I have turned to various practitioners to help me with physical and mental health issues over the years.
As a teen, my mother thought a family counselor, available through the University where she was a student, could help our broken family. My memory is we had one session and it wasn’t successful. As a college student, I availed myself of several sessions of free counseling. Ok… but not life changing. My doctor recommended a couple of sessions with a psychologist during a stressful pregnancy and anticipation of two children very close in age. This was really helpful and I will always be thankful for this time. I did end up going back to see her after the early death of my mother due to cancer. Through the therapist, I ended up seeing a Psychiatrist and began taking medicines, for ADD, Depression, and Anxiety and would need to continue seeing him for medical Management.
I heard once that 1 in 5 people are affected by some type of mental illness but many do not ever seek treatment. The Huffington Post notes that. “Psychologists attribute this low rate of treatment to the stigma and many myths attached to seeing a therapist. Among them, the concern that only ‘crazy’ people need therapy or that accepting help is a sign of weakness or that the treatment options will be time-consuming and expensive. These are not true, says psychologist Mary Alvord, Ph.D.”
Success isn’t easy
Not everyone has success with their practitioners. Is it due to a poor connection, incompetence on the part of the provider, dishonesty and unwillingness on the part of the patient? It could be all or none of these things. But how does one go about choosing these people to help them?
Before you hire someone, think about the following questions (from therapyreferral.org):
- What do I want to accomplish in therapy? Do I know what my goals are?
- What kind of approaches am I most drawn to? Am I interested in dealing with a current concern? Do I want to work on underlying emotions or patterns? Am I in need of immediate assistance?
- How important is it that the therapist has similar values, race, spiritual beliefs, sexual or gender orientation, or life experience to mine?
- What’s my financial situation? Do I need to use insurance to offset the cost of therapy?
- When am I available and what locations work best for me?
- Am I unsure of what I want or even if I want therapy? (It’s okay to not know what you want or have mixed feelings about approaching therapy!)
When I was experiencing symptoms of increasing depression and panic as I entered into the empty nest syndrome, I sought out a new therapist. A friend was working with a wonderful woman, who she recommended to me; it was an immediate match. I had prior experience with people who I didn’t mesh with. Over the last nine years, I continue to grow in all the ways that we have been setting goals about. I would certainly recommend her, however, it’s not a one size fits all situation.
So how do I find my match?
The following information will be helpful to those who are seeking help from professionals. According to the Good Therapy website, “The help of the right therapist can promote self-actualization, empower self-growth, improve relationships, and reduce emotional suffering.
“Therapy is about the fine art of asking directive questions. So what should you expect from your first appointment with a counselor, social worker or psychologist?”
- What brings you here?
- Have you ever seen a counselor before?
- What is the problem from your viewpoint?
- How does this problem typically make you fee
- What makes the problem better?
- If you could wave a magic wand, what positive changes would you make happen in your life?
- Overall, how would you describe your mood?
- What do you expect from the counseling process?
- What would it take to make you feel more content, happier and more satisfied?
- Do you consider yourself to have a low, average or high interpersonal IQ?
There are many models and types of therapy to choose from. We believe there are a handful of common denominators present in all forms of healthy, ethical therapy. These elements are described here:
- Nonpathologizing: Viewing a person as greater than his or her problems is the hallmark of non-pathologizing therapy. It does not mean problems do not exist; rather, it means one does not view the problems as the whole person. Working nonpathologically requires a shift in both the understanding and the approach to pathology.
- Empowering: Therapists who empower the people they work with in therapy maintain the belief that people have the capacity for change and are equipped with the inner resources to change, even if they never do. Therapy is based on the belief that people can heal if they want to and if they are able to contribute to their own growth what is sufficient and necessary.
- Collaborative: The spirit of collaborative therapy is summarized in the words of Albert Schweitzer who wrote, “Each patient carries his own doctor inside him… We are at our best when we give the doctor who resides within each patient a chance to go to work.”
- Focus: Therapists generally love working with people and tend to be empathic and big-hearted. There is no doubt that providing psychotherapy is gratifying and rewarding for most therapists. Although therapists witness the damage caused by the worst life has to offer-such as emotional abuse, trauma, or violence-they can be rewarded by being present with people during some of their greatest aha-moments, unburdenings, and transformations.
- Self: Self is a state of being that a therapist can embody when working with people in therapy. Richard Schwartz defines Self as a state of calm, curiosity, compassion, creativity, confidence, courage, connectedness, and clarity. Self is considered a requisite of good therapy because it is this state that allows a therapist to work collaboratively without pushing, without pathologizing, and without retraumatizing.
- Relationship: Beyond technique and theory is the realm of the relationship: the ongoing human-to-human connection that provides the foundation for change.
- Depth: Therapy often times needs to “go deep.” There seems to be a split in the mental health field between types of therapy that emphasize cognitive solutions and those that emphasize emotional or body-oriented healing. Addressing the source of pain is not always easy.
Good Therapy Is Imperfect
The phrase “good therapy” encourages a misconception: the idea that there is such a thing as pure good therapy, a process exempt of any problems or issues. In the same way that a good marriage or relationship is not one without problems, but rather one that works through problems, good therapy will not always be free of difficulties.
Sometimes We Can’t Help: As therapists, we are limited. We greet the people we work with great hope. We have spent countless hours studying our trade, doing our own inner work, mastering our technique, and learning to “be” with the people who seek our services.
Other sources used:
What my depression looks like: It is the Jabberwocky.
It rears its ugly head when you least expect. It fights to tear your soul apart and spit it into the flame. Your passion is dulled like an unsharpened knife, but it cuts you piece by piece. You hold your head high but your shoulders slouch. You only have energy to stay on the couch. Tears bottled up inside, but you don’t have the strength to cry your heart out or even stay awake. Hurt so bad, it aches; life so fragile, it breaks. All your past mistakes conglomerate into one big hate: of yourself. Please don’t let this be my fate. I only want to be great again. A dragon lies at the foot of my bed, laying wait until I feel good again, only to find that day won’t come: is this the end?
Can you hold an object in your mind for three minutes? Does it even make sense to you why someone would want to? Only a few hours into my inpatient hospitalization for depression and anxiety, among other ailments, I reluctantly found myself in a group session and the facilitator was telling me to focus on this piece of chocolate. I can tell you, in that moment, I wondered who the crazy one was…Of course because professionals in mental health know what they are doing, there were several reasons why this was part of my treatment plan. I came to realize that the ability to focus on an object was an exercise in mindfulness. I have learned many things about mindfulness over the last decade in therapy and it has become an integral component of the management of my mental health.