Mental Illness, the Battle



Mental illness is a battle of epic proportions. It is an unregulated cage-match waging war inside one’s body and literally no part is left untouched. Its' force slams against the mind and upends calm almost effortlessly. It does NOT play by the rules and seeks to do as much damage as possible.


This malicious force has cascaded down my family-tree like a plague. I lived it as a child and watched these demons consume key relationships that would shape my future and later set me on the same path.


How to sum up decades of what I have battled against is difficult, but here is my best effort.


Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity

Disorder.


When you can’t sit still, don’t know how to shut your mouth, and can’t keep your hands to yourself, like every other kindergartener, you get labeled with ADHD. If you will allow me to brag for a moment… I earned that diagnosis! I had recently been suspended from kindergarten (yep, I was that kid) and something had to be done. That something came in the form of Ritalin, my first of many psychotropic medications. I was doped up and turned into a zombie. In the meantime, the real undiagnosed culprit was PTSD from the trauma I was steeped in, but not addressed. That trauma would turn on genetic switches that brought other foes I would contend with years later.


Alcohol use disorder.


I was an alcoholic by the age of fifteen. I had my first taste of alcohol during my freshman year in high school and fell in love with it instantaneously. It allowed me to numb every pain and not take notice of how unhappy I was. Alcohol was easy to obtain back in those days and readily available in my home. I could drink most boys under-the-table and sleep it off with no ill-effects. Unless you count my failing grades, near expulsion from high-school, memory loss, and black-outs. This all changed when I met Jesus that same year. He radically changed the trajectory of my life and I was able to get out of the grip of this sinister force before it wrecked the rest of my future.


Depression.


I have known the sheer darkness and emptiness this black dog can bring. It leaves you with no hope and a staunch belief that things will never be better. No matter how hard you concentrate you can’t form thoughts, much-less coherent sentences. Motivation to do anything evaporates and it takes a sheer act of the will to perform the simplest of activities. The lenses you see through are tinted in hues of grey as a depressed state can impact your visual cortex. I lie in bed wishing and pleading for sleep that doesn’t come until exhaustion finally takes over. I cannot think outside of myself and the company I’m left with is no fun. NO ONE wants to live like this. You want desperately to snap out of it and return to a brighter view.


Suicidal 'thoughts' are a very odd thing and difficult to explain as they are part a thought and part a feeling. I am fortunate that I have had very few of them, but the ones I've had gave me a glimpse into the painful world of those that get flooded with them more regularly. The 'thought' comes from seemingly nowhere and push into your mind with no rationality to it. Outside at those moments, these 'thoughts' never crosses my mind and the idea seems absolutely ludicrous. Suicidal ideations feel like some external powerful and persuasive voice that is trying to direct you to do something you otherwise would never consider. My defense was to dismiss them as not being a viable option on how to escape. For those that experience these deceptive thoughts that seek to kill, steal, and destroy, know that you are not alone and compassionate hearts are ready to help you.


Panic attacks.


With the birth of a child came hyperthyroidism disguised as post-partum psychosis. With it, came panic attacks that dropped me into the deepest and most terrifying pit I’ve ever known. Anxiety is a hardwired response to danger, even if there is none. It cascades from the head, through the chest, and down to the gut and is next to impossible to stop once the system is turned on. It mysteriously comes 'on-line' whether you want it to or not and typically at the most inopportune moments. The whole being goes on high alert and everything within you says “run!” I get stuck in my head as thoughts race and I fight to calm my body down. It feels like waves crashing into you that just keep rolling in. Once it is past, you can catch your breath and rational thought prevails once again.


Bipolar disorder.


My hardest foe by far was bipolar disorder, an unwanted thorn passed down through the generations. The rollercoaster ride of glorious highs and deafening lows is both humiliating and maddening. My lows were a mix of reclusiveness and being utterly unproductive. I would simply disappear from view and my family/friends were left wondering where I went. I leaned into laziness, unmotivated and only doing what I had to do to get to the other side.


Then came a brief reprieve where I was stable and showed up in life consistent and level-headed. Others could rely on me and I felt "normal." I thought, foolishly, that perhaps this time, the "real" would stay, but it never did.


Mania follows with an energy that is intoxicating as dopamine floods the brain. It is a natural high that you never want to end. During a manic episode, everything is magical, colors are brighter, and all-is-well in the world. I could make profound connections in my thoughts and creativity was effortless. I felt an intimacy with God and others on a whole new plane. Those were the beautiful moments.


This "friend" would lead me down many wrong paths. A horrid lack of self-restraint and unwillingness to think through consequences came with each episode. My choices were impulsive, stupid, and honestly, inexcusable. I remember my first manic high in college. I climbed a wooden infrastructure that was to become a massive seven-story library at my university. Without ropes I scaled each floor to get to the top. No thought to my safety, no regard for the 'keep out' signs, and no consideration of the real possibility of severe consequences should I be caught. That was one of many reckless decisions when mania was at the helm.


Once the short-lived thrill-ride was over I was left nauseous, regretful, and desperate for help to make it stop. It felt like a literal switch clicked in my body/brain and rationality showed back up. Once sober-minded, I could survey the damage. Vowing never to get to that place again, but knowing I could not keep it at bay without help.


The worst part of bipolar disorder is it left me at a loss for who the "real" me was (as it did for those around me). Was I the uber-social, fun, and upbeat charismatic immature character that had a little too much zest for life? Or was I the recluse that hid and did as little as possible to get by? Truth is I was neither and the real me would finally stay center-stage when I was able to recover and heal.


That recovery story is for the next post.


~Heather


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FAITH

Who made heaven and earth,

The sea and all that is in them; Who keeps faith forever.

Psalm 146:6