What a Journey it’s been so far! Living with mental illness and all that it encompasses, and in fact what that means, is quite the job. From the tragedy of having traumatic experiences that began with my long walk with the hair raising ordeal of living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), then being diagnosed with Bipolar, and finally with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Panic Disorder while fighting the terrifying battle with suicidal ideation, this has made my path that I’ve been on. This path has been a winding one with a lot of learning curves with resilience accomplished and crucial coping skills attained. I’m still navigating my way and will continue to do so with faith, hope, and a brave soul that will fight for, not only myself, but also for others that have the battle of stigma to deal with. This is my current position and I take this action with a determined spirit. Bring it on.
My life seemed pleasant enough, until the wind was pushed out of my lungs and to catch my breath was daunting. I was married at the age of sixteen, and had all three of my children by the time I was nineteen. So yes, I started early. I was married to my ex-husband for over twenty years. He had an angry outer shell with predominantly a spirit that frequently yelled out “NO” to the kids, was impatient in most situations, and emotionally abused me and the children for years with his aggressive exterior. And let’s not forget the times that physical abuse played a role, as well. My outer shell was cracked when, at the age of twenty-one, my ex-husband (with his anger and impatience) had thrown a cup at one of my sons and landed a black eye to his face. My son was unable to open his eye due to the swelling. He was three at the time. And anonymously the Department of Social Services was called on us. An undeniable extreme fear of losing the children overcame my being the day that the Social Services worker knocked on my door that afternoon. I was in the process of switching over summer and winter clothes so the living room had folded piles everywhere, while the children slept quietly in their beds. He asked me to wake them one at a time so he could check them for bruising, as my heart beat against my chest wall. My ex-husband was at work at the time. The only bruise found, after checking the children from head to toe, was the horrible black and blue on my son’s eye. Yes, I tried to lie at first, “He fell over a toy and hit his face”. But the truth came out, and I thought for sure my family would be torn apart. I called a friend after the man left and I remember just screaming on the phone. I think my words were inaudible. All that was left for me after that experience was terrifying fear.
My ex-husband never had to see anyone from the Department of Social Services (because he was working). He never truly acknowledged his role in causing this tragedy. There were weekly visits from Social Services with scrutiny about my parenting abilities, the children’s status, and if they were safe. This was understandable. Yet I was the mediator with no-one to talk to, or fall back on for comfort. I was strong. I would not have the children taken away.
This experience was the precursor of my first psychotic experience that happened a couple of months later near Mother’s Day. This was also the experience that brought on years of hyper-vigilance and fearful living that caused my PTSD. Living with the threat of losing the kids while also living with an abuser, and trying to hide that fact, was crushing and terrifying. The hairs on the back of my neck were always, for decades, at attention to the fact that anything may cause anger from my ex-husband, or his LOUD yelling would emerge and the children may be taken away. What a horrible way to experience life.
Beyond the PTSD was the fact that I had had a total “break-down” and delusional experience where I thought that my youngest son was God, I believed water would cleanse me, I counted syllables on my fingers because I was afraid to end my sentences with the wrong number, which would cause evil, colors meant something in my mind with everything being connected to good and evil, I could even see the plan of God unfolding before my eyes. And to top it off, my mind told me that my ex-husband was a child molester and at all costs I needed to protect the children. Accusations flew and I lost control of my mind. Hospitalization with mind altering medications and coping skills were taught there. Though I was “forced” to sign VOLUNTARY admission papers into the hospital, I was told that if I didn’t sign them, I would be put into the state hospital involuntarily for at least six months. So voluntarily I signed. Ha!! I know now that this was the only way, but fighting to understand why my mind twisted so much and bringing it back to reality was a battle.
It was years later when I began college and my career with becoming a Registered Nurse that I got diagnosed with Bipolar. The connection between Bipolar and my experience with loss of reality and delusions was beyond me at the time. Even to understand my Bipolar took years to comprehend. As I sit here twenty years later, I am still learning. My Bipolar is exacerbated with stress, and that period of extreme stress in the past brought on my “break-down”. I live with frequent uncontrollable ups and downs. And learning my symptoms have been a way to monitor how I’m doing at the moment. Also learning coping skills and knowing my support system has helped me to live to my fullest potential.
With the fear of losing the children, and having Bipolar and psychiatric hospitalizations, just raising the children and protecting them was my goal. I lacked the capacity to live on my own with the children so I stood in my marriage. Also the fear of having a psychiatric disorder with the stigma that is involved also gave me fear that my ex-husband would end up with the children, which was the last thing that I would be able to tolerate.
It was after my youngest child was all set with financial aid and his dorm supplies were ready for college that I finally got mad and scared and left my ex-husband. In fact, it was after he had an angry outburst with calling me every swear word, did I get enough courage to leave. I remember after that encounter with my ex-husband I got the thought, for the first time ever, to kill myself. That thought of suicide scared me so much that I cried and got on my knees and begged God to help me to know what to do. It was then that I ran. I threw clothes into a suitcase and ran fast, and never went back.
I got re-married to a wonderful man about four years after I left my ex-husband. And to say that we don’t have our problems would be lying. We also have to learn how to live with our different personalities and our own set of problems and ideals. The way we deal with them is much different from the past though. And my husband’s rational mind (most of the time), and his ability and willingness to learn about my mental illness has been astounding.
Another challenge to overcome was my ability to work. Not only due to the Bipolar, but also the PTSD intermingled with my battle with Anxiety and Panic, I have found that working is too much of a struggle on a daily basis. To go somewhere that I’m expected to be at socially or even volunteering can be a struggle for me. And living each day purposefully with some structure is a goal.
Letting my nursing license go was one of the hardest decisions that I made. I worked very hard for that license and I was a compassionate and knowledgeable nurse. I was good at my job. I tried other jobs as well, but the challenge was too much emotionally and was mentally draining. I suffered from feelings of inferiority and loss. I remember telling my mother that all of those years of schooling was a waste of time. I recall my mother saying that all of the knowledge that I had attained is never wasted. I will have that and use that for the rest of my life. And of course, I have learned that she was right again.
My daily management of living with Bipolar, PTSD, and Anxiety is dynamic and changes with my needs. However, the main piece of stability is working with my psychiatrist, counselor, and taking my medications. And for me, that is many medications! I have faith in God, and when I lose hope I sometimes struggle to remain faithful, but God is good. I also have a support system of family and loved ones that I can rely on.
With the death of both of my parents (my life-long supporters), the restructuring and a new normal had to be achieved. I have learned to have compassion for myself and set boundaries, as needed. Releasing and spending less time with those who devalue me, has been a crucial step. And understanding and realizing those people who have my best interests, and desire the most purposeful life for me, as well as a reciprocal relationship with love and respect, has been with much soul searching and prayer.
And now I am in a new chapter in my life. I’m extending myself out there and telling others of my trials and challenges, with the hope for some understanding, and to lessen the burden that myself and others have with the stigma of mental illness. I have learned that with expressing myself, I can release any shame and vulnerability, and I can walk with courage. I have mental illness, just like anyone else struggling with a physical illness (like heart disease, diabetes, or cancer) and to stigmatize me due to my illness is a disservice to me and the MANY people out there struggling for hope, help, faith, and understanding.
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