Want to Help People with Mental Illness? Learn About It.

I just posted this over on my Facebook Page:

Time for a social media break. A short one. A long one. I don't know. It's hard to see the constant talk of suicide. Hard to see people judging those who deal with suicidal ideation (and don't even know what that is) and in the same breath they're posting the Suicide Prevention Hotline and saying "you're not alone, just call me and I'll be there...." PRO TIP: if you really want to help people who are struggling, don't tell THEM to call YOU. People do that so often, don't they? To new parents, to people recovering from illness and surgeries. They say, 'just call and I'll be there,' instead of calling and saying 'here's how I can help.'

You want to help people with mental illness? Learn about it. Start by reading this article and the book by the same author as well. Andrew Solomon wrote, THE NOONDAY DEMON: AN ATLAS OF DEPRESSION. Start there. You want to understand Bipolar? Read Kay Redfield Jamison's book, AN UNQUIET MIND: A MEMOIR OF MOODS AND MADNESS. Hell, just read everything she has written.

Nobody picks to have mental illness. We don't willingly choose this. We don't like it any more than you do. It makes us uncomfortable too, but we're the ones living with it. Constantly. Every day. It never goes away. It's exhausting. So if you really want to help, prepare to help for the long haul because this doesn't go away. And most people don't get that and that's why many who suffer from mental illness don't reach out and don't let you know what's going on because we're pretty sure you'd be frightened by us or fatigued by us. These platitudes of 'I'm only a phone call away,' probably don't pertain to a true lifetime of mental illness and we get that so we are quiet.

From the article, “There was a point where I realized that, if I died of old age, I would win, because so many people with bipolar disorder kill themselves that simply not to kill myself would be a big goal. And I thought, ‘That’s really a low bar.’ And then I said, ‘No, it’s not a low bar, because it can be that hard.’ ” It’s hard for people who have never been suicidal to understand how seductive it can seem."

PS - I am fine. As fine as I can be after the rockiness of recently increasing meds and all of the news from the past couple of weeks. I'm never ever actually fine, like in a healthy brain kind of way. I'm fine, enough, for me. And Eric is back. And I have a wonderful support system in place. I just need a break from social media for a bit.

Med changes always suck and I upped my meds two days before getting sick in May so it’s just been a barrel of not-fun. I’m hopefully on the mend on all fronts but avoiding social media (which can be very triggering) is the smart move for now. I’ll be here with my patrons and the people I’m a patron of too. Much more calm on this platform, thankfully.


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The Waiting Place | When Creativity Doesn't Strike

My girls get on kicks with books and often ask to have the same book read to them over and over. Lately my littlest, Lyra, is into repeated readings of Dr. Seuss’ Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

As the book moves from optimism to realism about the adventures and hurdles everyone faces in life, Seuss starts to describe a place I don’t like to be in.

It describes how life’s bumps, lumps, and slumps can turn into what he calls The Waiting Place:

I am intimately familiar with The Waiting Place and I never like it, not one little bit.

Reasons I can be in The Waiting Place:

A. I’m waiting on things beyond my control.

B. I’m in a depression.

C. Both A and B.

Here’s a diagram that depicts my creative productivity with Bipolar Disorder. As I’m either stable, or entering hypomania or mania, my creativity is pumping. When I descend into and slowly make my way out of depression, I’m unable to write, or pursue anything that requires creativity from my brain. 

Many people, not just those with Bipolar, can find themselves in The Waiting Place. I have friends right now who are:

- Waiting for a house to sell

- Waiting for election results

- Waiting for medical tests

- Waiting to hear on a job prospect

Sometimes we’re all waiting on things beyond our control. Other times we are in control, except for option ‘B,’ that pesky thing called ‘depression.’ Depression can keep me in the Waiting Place for a long time. 

Right now I’m experiencing option ‘C,’ a mixture of things I can’t control and mild depression. The mental and emotional exertion of speaking about Rebel Heart in public for the first time at the Women Who Sail Australia Gathering and then coming back and pushing hard for a week to get my manuscript sent out to an agent who requested it sent me crashing down into The Waiting Place. I’m slowly climbing up again but I’m also waiting to hear back from the agent and waiting for edits from my developmental editor. Those two waits I cannot control so as my creativity returns I plan on focusing on Project X, the Action Adventure novel, until I have more information from either agent or editor, or both!

What about you? Are you in the Waiting Place right now? For reasons A, B, or C? If you’re there, I hope your wait is not too long. 


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Men in Trench Coats | Coming Out with Bipolar Disorder

This is the first time I’ve talked in public about receiving a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder last year. While I have been open about suffering from depression, I struggled after receiving this diagnosis in January 2017. I struggled to not only to get stable after the manic attack that resulted in the diagnosis of Bipolar 1 but also to accept this as a new reality for me. I am finally ready to talk about it with my friends and my online community.

I didn’t know I had Bipolar Disorder when I had children. This is a piece I’ve written about how hard it was to embrace the diagnosis and that I’m terrified I’ll pass the illness on to my kids.

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Men in Trench Coats | Coming Out with Bipolar Disorder

by Charlotte Kaufman

I try to convince myself that I’m a normal mom handling the daily morning rush but my shame has its own persona and it chants, you are guilty, guilty, guilty. I wipe down the counter after making school lunches and call to the girls to head to the car. On the outside, I project calm, but on the inside I know. I’m not normal. It’s early but my anxiety is already rising. Deep breathing techniques are useless as my thoughts begin to race. Which one of them will get it? Will it be both of them? I take an Ativan because I’m the kind of mom who takes pills to calm herself down. 

In the car I buckle them into car seats that fit their age, height, and weight requirements. Their snacks and lunches have adequate protein, fat, veggies/fruits, and carbs. At least in these ways I’ve met the good mother role. Sometimes I can’t get out of bed to make them lunch. Or take them to school. When that happens, my husband takes care of everything. Sometimes I can’t get out of bed for days at a time. The girls open my bedroom door and peer in. I see their large eyes and round cheeks but feel no emotions in response. It sounds like someone else doing the talking when I tell them, “I’m sick. Ask your dad for help.” The door closes. The part of me that’s sick is my brain.

Other times I am wired. I don’t sleep. I make intricate quilts and organize the kids’ books by genre, color, and size. I create webs of connections between the character profiles and storylines of my novels.  My husband asks if I’ve eaten anything but I’m not hungry or tired. I talk in run-on sentences. When I get too manic, paranoia sets in and I avoid interacting with friends. 

One night my daughter comes upstairs. “What is it?” I ask her.

“Someone was poking me on my back.” The hairs on my forearms rise. 

“You mean your sister?”

“No, she’s asleep.” 

I swallow hard, pick her up, and carry her to bed. I walk her through the downstairs, peeking in closets and behind the shower curtain. I show her that all the doors are locked. “See, no one is down here.”

She nods and looks up at me as I tuck the covers around her. I smile reassuringly kiss the top of her head. Again I project calm but inside my stomach roils. Will she be Bipolar too?

After being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder I’ve become terrified I will pass this highly inheritable illness on to my daughters. I obsess about it and over-analyze their actions. One girl seems to not need as much sleep as the other. Is that a sign?  The other can be very emotional. I wonder if intense emotions are a harbinger of things to come.

Sometimes I write them an apology letter in my head. The letter morphs into a suicide note, which is what it was all along. I imagine my final apology for when this illness wins. Sometimes the suicidal ideations play in a loop in my brain. Last winter, I couldn’t drive to the big town and grocery shop alone because I knew which part of the road I would be tempted to run off at.

What’s even worse is knowing that they might one day have these thoughts too. Guilt is a relentless hammer. It pounds away, you gave this to them, you did this, you, you, you. On good days, I can distract myself with other thoughts or play devil’s advocate. Would you really not have had children if you’d known? You wanted children so much. You wanted to experience the whole process in your body. 

I counter, if I had known how bad this is, how horrible to live through, I don’t think I would have. I would have adopted. My husband suggested adopting. I should have listened to him. 

The other part of me sneers. You still would have done it. The ‘you’ in your twenties would never have believed how bad it could be.

I nod, listening, and partly agreeing. I think about the aspects of this disorder that might factor on the positive side of a t-chart weighing the pros and con. There is a high connection to Bipolar and being extremely creative but is artistic talent worth passing onto my daughters when they could also experience the long list of cons from this brain disorder? Major depression, hypomania, mania, psychosis, and a higher risk of addictions, just to name a few. I try not to think about the increased risk of suicide, the demon that has haunted me for over a decade. 

It takes me ten months to fully accept the diagnosis. At first I scour the internet for ‘diseases that masquerade as Bipolar,’ and grow frustrated when I find none that apply to me. For months I describe my manic episodes as ‘going up’ because my mouth refuses to sound out even the beginning of the word mania. I stutter over it, “Ma…ma…UP, I’m going up.” 

When I become stable on my new medication I tell my husband, “That manic attack was just a fluke, I was overly stressed.” He brings me into a hug and says,

“We went to the E.R. because you thought you were having a heart attack. You couldn’t sleep for three days.” 

I shake my head refusing to accept the truth. Then I go down into a depression and soon I am up again. I track my moods. I watch the squiggly line snake its way across my chart. Up and down. This has been my lived reality for so long that I hadn’t realized it wasn’t normal, not the way mentally stable people are normal anyway. 

My whole life I’ve thought that Bipolar people are crazy. It is my own internalized belief system about this particular illness, one closely related to Schizophrenia and Borderline Personality Disorder. Now I’m one of the crazy ones and I may pass this on to my kids, just like my mother did to me. My mom doesn’t accept a diagnosis of Bipolar. As a child though, I watched her become immobile for weeks in deep depressions. Back then I didn’t have a term for depression, I just knew that I was the oldest kid in a house of five children and when she got like that I made food for everyone, and did the laundry, and unwillingly fulfilled my father’s physical and emotional needs.

Then she’d go up into mania. I didn’t have a term for that either. She wouldn’t sleep for days. One time I opened our pantry and found it had been reorganized. Everything was in new containers, the food labeled and displayed in Martha Stewart perfection. She had done it in one night while the rest of us slept. Sometimes she would lash out in irritability and rage, her face a cruel mask. As she got older and remained untreated, her symptoms worsened. One time the ‘voice of God’ told her that my husband was going to kidnap our children. I’m happily married but in her delusion this didn’t matter. She told my sister what God had said and begged her to call the police. Instead my sister called to let me know that our mom was crazy.

Guilty. You are guilty. 

I keep trying to talk myself out of the guilt. You didn’t know. Your mother gave it to you

Nothing helps.

My psychiatrist tries to help me accept the new reality of my diagnosis. “You’re not your mom. The disease manifests itself differently in everyone and you are medication compliant. Find a new narrative with Bipolar. Find people you admire who have it and look to them.” I try but instead I think about the time my mother went out to the road in front of her house and sat down in the middle of a lane, waiting to get hit. I wonder about my friends who knew they were Bipolar before they had kids. How could they have risked passing this on? I’m afraid of offending them so I don’t ask but I want to know.

I can’t bring myself to tell my daughters about the diagnosis. Not yet. Not directly. I apologize frequently. “I’m sick again, I’m sorry.” When they ask about the pink pills I explain, “They’re for my brain. The doctors figured out they help me feel better.” I know I will eventually have to share my diagnosis and the words “depression” and “mania” and “Bipolar” with them. Once I explain they will inevitably ask, “Could I get that too?” And the answer is a resounding “Yes.” It’s a deep, scary, ‘children with one Bipolar parent have a 10-25% chance of getting Bipolar’ yes. 

Our daughter points between her eyes. “The man in my head told me I could ride a giraffe.”

My eyes widen and my husband sees I’m upset. He interjects. “We were talking about ego and id and how we have an inner voice.”

“Yeah, he’s always talking to me.”

“She, sweetheart. You’re a girl, so it’s a she.” 

“Sounds like a guy to me.”

I don’t correct her again. It’s her own inner monologue. I do want to ask her if she hears more than one man.

What I mean is this: when I was a child almost every night I thought I could hear the footsteps of two men, dressed in suits and trench coats trying to find me. I could hear them walking, always headed in my direction. Step step, step step, exactly in rhythm with my heart beat. Now when I think about those footsteps their echoes sound like:

Guil-ty, Guil-ty, Guil-ty.

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Normally I love to hear your comments! This time please think ahead before you do. If your comments are going to sound anything like these, I’m not interested and have already heard these hurtful-in-the-guise-of-helpful comments before:

1. I’m a little bipolar sometimes too! (Nope. Unless you too have a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, do not equate your mood swings to my medical diagnosis.)

2. You don’t ‘seem’….crazy, bipolar, unstable or the reverse, ‘you seem so stable, not crazy, not bipolar. This is also connected to, “my [person I know] has Bipolar Disorder and you don’t sound anything like them.” Bipolar Disorder manifests differently in everyone. Thank you.

3. Have you tried: essentials oils? Vitamin D? Sunshine and positivity? Exercise? Meditating? Going for a walk in the Himalayas? Etc, etc. – Please don’t go there with “helpful” suggestions like these.

4. Also please avoid commentary on what else this ‘could be’ like my thyroid, etc. I have excellent doctors (so grateful for that) and we ran the gamut of tests before this diagnosis came down.

5. Please don’t tout your choice to live medication free with your Bipolar Disorder. If that works for you, GREAT. I’m choosing medication compliance.