“No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness,” said Aristotle.
Imagine a bell curve that accurately represents the creativity of American adults. It would show a “normal distribution,” meaning it would be shaped like an upside down ‘U.’
The raised hump in the middle symbolizes those of an average level of creativity, where most of the population lie. It’s a comfortable spot, with plenty of company and lots of good conversation, but it doesn’t inspire greatness or lethargy. Entrepreneurs would quickly become bored here.
The lowest points on either end of the distribution represent the ‘outliers’ of our society; on the left, those who are below average in creativity and on the right, those above average.
In these polar positions, life is a little lonelier than in the well-saturated middle, but it’s also potentially more exciting. Entrepreneurs often occupy that lower right corner of the bell curve, standing out from the crowd not just with uncommon ability, but also with extraordinary weaknesses.
Everyday life presents stress, fear, and worry for everyone, but when you experience anxiety your brain experiences stress in a different way. Although it can be overwhelming, it can be managed and does not have to control your life. In previous articles, I have addressed other mental health issues. This article, written in collaboration with my adult daughter, Kelsey, addresses anxiety.
I will always remember my paternal grandmother as a worrier and there was not much you could say or do to convince her it was okay to let some things go. In her day, resources were limited and she would not have asked her family doctor about her worrying. Now, so much more is known about symptoms and how to treat anxiousness. There is a difference, however, between ordinary worrying and clinical anxiety.
A hilarious genius, Robin Williams would verbally shower us with his brilliance as we laughed until our bellies ached. We marveled at his boundless energy and his ability to be extemporaneously funny. Robin Williams’ mind improvised stand-up comedy routines which he delivered flawlessly. He was a comedic tour de force. The USC film school has established a Robin Williams Comedy Chair. “Robin was a comedy genius with a boundless talent,” Lucas said. “He was singular in every way, yet had great respect for the genre and for the dedication it took to succeed. His talent was only matched by his work ethic. That’s why he made it to the pinnacle of comedy success, and why his legacy will be to motivate and inspire young storytellers.” 
As a mother of three and now grandmother of one, I worry what has passed on genetically to my offspring. We don’t have a family history of bipolar disease and as far as I know, no particular gene is identified for the condition in any case. However, I did grow up knowing that my maternal grandmother was clinically depressed. Losing a child to Leukemia took its toll on her. I was quite young and obviously have no memories of Grandma from that time. I do know she additionally suffered the loss of her father during her teen years along with living through wars the Great Depression. I have often wondered whether I received hereditary mental health predispositions. How much of her bout(s) with depression were passed on to her children, grandchildren, great and now great, great grandchildren is unknown. I am unsettled by this lack of information. What does all this mean for my family? What does your family history of mental illness look like?
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.
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.
Challenge the Storm is an idea, a mission. Mental illness is no joke, and we strive every day to motivate, inspire, and provide the tools to not only overcome your own struggles, but to support others in their journeys as well. We believe that we all have the power to change one life – and in the process – we’ll change the world.