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For World Mental Health Day, On Finding Acceptance and Serenity

Posted Oct 10 2011 12:00am
When I first started blogging, I didn't have a clue what I was doing. I knew I had a story to tell, but then, doesn't everyone? I was frustrated and mad at the system, confused about diagnosis, and labels. I was trying to build my life back, one step at a time, one word at a time.

I knew the following: I was diagnosed as "Manic Depressive" (later Bipolar) when I was 23. I never believed it. I refused to believe it, despite the fact I saw psychiatrists and took psychiatric medication. I had a total of nine psychology courses in my life, three as an undergraduate, six as a graduate student. I knew about these things, what to look for, symptoms, how to apply therapy. I had various therapists and tried such therapies as CBT, Jungian, Freudian, Eriksonian, Gesalt, Group therapy, Women's only Group therapy, Art, Music, Dance and Writing therapy. I've done Primal Screams. I've been hypnotised. I've spent hours on the couch, analyzing everything from my first memory, my dreams, even my orgasms. I've taken close to 50 different psych meds, and endured ECT all to try to "get well". And in the end, after almost 27 years of this, I've realized one thing. I cannot change until I want to.

It's like the old joke, "How many Psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?"
The answer is telling- "None. The lightbulb has to want to change."

I stopped drinking when I was tired of being sick and tired all the time. Tired of my head hurting, my mouth feeling like it was enveloped in cotton. Tired of sneaking drinks, drinking to oblivion on weekends. I realized I had to stop when I was taking eye openers, and shaking so hard I could not hold my morning cup of coffee. Once I made up my mind to stop, the rest was relatively easy; at least on paper. I stopped drinking and worked the steps. That WAS hard. The first year was incredibly hard. I craved it. But I was afraid where my last drink took me, and on this September 26 I collected my 15 year coin. What got me through? Substituting Diet Peach Snapple, for every time I wanted to drink, and hanging out at the local 24 Club.

My 24 Club has long been shut a few years ago due to the economy, and I've never been able to find a home group since. But I stayed sober. I wanted it. Freedom from depression and bipolar has been more tenuous, more allusive.

One of the things I've noticed, is there doesn't seem to be the stigma with Alcoholism as there is with Mental Health issues. Maybe some of it is due to shows like A & E's wonderful "Intervention." People who abuse alcohol and illegal drugs are tangible to people. When you get clean and sober, your life changes. To this day, I can recall how wonderful my first glass of orange juice tasted without vodka in it. It was the greatest thing I ever drank.

But knowing there is something wrong with your brain-that's a hard thing to deal with and accept. You can change a bad behavior, but when your behavior is caused by something you cannot control- your brain- that is enough to make anyone scared worse than a Halloween story. Having a brain not working scares people. To know that things we cannot understand, Serotonin levels, DNA, can cause such things, can destroy you. A parent may not accept that their child isn't perfect. A spouse can't understand a mood swing, and know it's something they can't control, that they weren't responsible for. The person experiencing these mood swings is also scared and frustrated by their feelings. Knowing it's something wrong with your brain, can make you feel helpless. If you have a problem with your eyes, you see a doctor and get a pair of glasses. If you have problems with your teeth, you see a dentist. If you have problems with your brain, who do you see? Is this failing your fault, or is it something that is not in your control?

In my case, I felt it was my fault, something I felt I could just keep trying to work on and eventually I would win. I didn't tell anyone I had this, never put it down on any job applications, never discussed it with my friends. When I was diagnosed, my doctor told my parents I would never lead a successful life, and he urged them to place me in a state institution, because "there was no cure." I wouldn't be able to hold down anything but the most menial job. I would never marry, never have children. With one broad stroke of the pen, he destroyed my dreams of finishing a PhD, and doomed me for many years of self imposed celibacy, or me dating men who would abuse me because I didn't think I deserved a guy who would actually love me. I felt less than human.

Then I met someone who instead of being ashamed of the Bipolar word, was thrilled he had it. He would introduce himself to everyone with his name, and say "I'm bipolar" after that. It shocked me. How can you be proud of something that will eat you up and spit you out as a shell of what you once were? How can you be happy you were given a living death sentence?

He didn't see it like that. He saw it as something to be proud of. To him, being diagnosed was like his Eureka! moment, he came out openly, and was proud. He told me, I was in the closet, I needed to first, admit I was bipolar, and then-tell people I was. If I had no problem going into an AA meeting and saying "Hi, my name is Susan, and I'm an alcoholic", shouldn't I do the same with "Hi, I'm Susan, and I'm Bipolar?"

I couldn't do it. To me, it was a badge of shame, a Scarlet B I wore on my chest. After this person and I were no longer friends, I did realize something, as I started to write to heal from that relationship. My brain was not my fault. After all it's a bunch of gray matter and if the wiring was different, it wasn't anything I did. I had to work around it. I started to be proactive in this recovery, just like I had done all those years ago when I stopped drinking. I started questioning every script, researching every med on the internet. Did I need this med? Did I need such a huge dose? Another thing I noticed as I began to read other people's blogs, is how different people were than me. I read so many blogs by people in their twenties and thirties who weren't struggling. They accepted the diagnosis, what they were struggling with were meds and therapy. They were at a place in their life, where I wasn't at yet. It made me happy, gave me hope. People getting married, raising children, all who had the same label as me. People who were living bits and pieces of the life I wanted to have. I gathered strength from them, and decided I would write about my life, so people would understand what it's like to be in my head, but also to spare anyone the heart ache, the anguish, and physical problems I've had in my journey to wellness.

Wellness. We all take different roads to get there, but hopefully we all get there in the end. I think I've gotten there. Maybe I would have gotten there quicker, had we had social media back in the 80s and 90s. In the long run, it doesn't really matter.  I've gotten to Serenity, something I never thought I would get to in my lifetime. I still haven't gotten to Acceptance. Some days I can accept this diagnosis, other days, I question it, still struggling. I take every day one day at a time. I may have bad days, and stumble, but all in all, I'm getting better. To me, that is the most important thing.   One day at a time, I am getting better.
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