Stopping the Stigma

Back in May, I wrote this post about my new diagnosis of bipolar type 2. I've realized lately that I have kind of avoided writing about what I am going through with bipolar right now because of the stigma surrounding it. I guess it has been easier for me to own up to being depressed than to being bipolar. There are so many jokes about being bipolar--"He can never make up his mind! He is so bipolar." "She was sad ten minutes ago but now she is happy. She must be bipolar." Or as Katy Perry says:
(Don't worry. I love KP. She's my spirit animal.)
Bipolar is easy to joke about. Honestly, I don't blame people who do joke about it. However, it is a mental illness that isn't really understood. It's kind of thought as "super happy or super sad." That's not what it is. Before I jump into what it really is, let me tell you quickly about my experiences with bipolar disorder:

When I was four years old, my dad was diagnosed with bipolar type 1. The definition of bipolar 1 is "defined by manic or mixed episodes that last at least seven days, or by manic symptoms that are so severe that the person needs immediate hospital care. Usually, depressive episodes occur as well, typically lasting at least 2 weeks." (source: NIMH) My dad's depressive and manic stages were much longer than a week or two. When all was said and done, he was depressed for about six months and manic for about six months. I was four, so I don't remember much about it. What I know about it is what my parents told me growing up. But because of my dad's disorder, I grew up with a small understanding of mental illness. My parents have always been open about my dad's struggles and willing to help people out who have similar challenges. "Bipolar" has never been a dirty word for me--until I got diagnosed myself.

I am diagnosed with bipolar type 2. Bipolar type 2 is "Defined by a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes, but no full-blown manic or mixed episodes." (NIMH) What this means is that my depressive episodes are more frequent than my manic episodes, and my manic episodes aren't as bad as type 1 manic episodes. It has been difficult for me to own up to being bipolar because it is so misunderstood. Like I said before, most people think of the symptoms of bipolar as being extremely happy or extremely sad. Here are the real symptoms: (NIMH)

Symptoms of mania or a manic episode include:Symptoms of depression or a depressive episode include:
Mood Changes
  • An overly long period of feeling "high," or an overly happy or outgoing mood
  • Extreme irritability.

Behavioral Changes
  • Talking very fast, jumping from one idea to another, having racing thoughts
  • Being unusually distracted
  • Increasing activities, such as taking on multiple new projects
  • Being overly restless
  • Sleeping little or not being tired
  • Having an unrealistic belief in your abilities
  • Behaving impulsively and engaging in pleasurable, high-risk behaviors.
Mood Changes
  • An overly long period of feeling sad or hopeless
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, including sex.

Behavioral Changes
  • Feeling overly tired or "slowed down"
  • Having problems concentrating, remembering, and making decisions
  • Being restless or irritable
  • Changing eating, sleeping, or other habits
  • Thinking of death or suicide, or attempting suicide.

And here's a brain scan of a patient with bipolar disorder:

My experiences with these symptoms are, of course, different than other people's. But for me, when I am manic, I am extremely irritable. No one can do anything right. They are talking too slowly, too loudly, too quietly. They are slow and not doing things "right." I also engage in high risk activity like spending sprees. I once bought a $300 watch "just because". It seemed like a good idea at the time and it felt good to buy it. But obviously, I didn't have that kind of money. After that manic episode ended, I looked back at my purchase and was shocked at myself for having done that. Another high risk behavior that I have been known to engage in (but don't anymore, thankfully) is with guys. I've often put myself in risky situations with guys that I'd never met outside the internet. When I participate in all of these behaviors, they make sense. They don't seem that bad. They are fun and exciting. But they are impulsive, risky, and usually unsafe. 

I've already written a lot about my depressive symptoms on this blog, but here is a quick summary: Hopelessness, no desire to do anything, no pleasure in anything, wanting to stop existing, sleeping more than normal. (I tend to deal with depressive episodes more than manic.) 

It is hard to explain what it is really like being bipolar. I don't understand all of it. But I do understand that there is brain chemistry, biology, genetic predispositions, etc. behind it. What I and thousands of others struggle with is real, and just like any other illness, it needs to be taken seriously. I take medication for it, I see a doctor about it, and I go to a therapist for it. I have to keep reminding myself that there is no shame in admitting to an illness, even a mental illness. Unless I and other people are open about mental illnesses, we are never going to be able to stop the stigma. 

The Optimist in Progress


Meet Aly

I first heard of Aly Ludlow through BYU's women's magazine, Up and Up. When I watched her interview, (see it here) I was really impressed with her openness about her challenges with eating disorders. Then, as fate would have it, two days later I was at the mall with my friend (who has been an avid follower of Aly's blog for awhile) when she said, "Look! It's Aly!" I awkwardly introduced myself and, like a little fan girl, asked for a picture with her. Since then, we've had some great conversations and we decided to do a collaboration. To find out more about Aly, visit her blog "Living Life to My Fullest."

I was 14 years old when I first began my journey with eating disorders.

Although I had struggled with body dysmorphia for as long as I could remember, I didn't do anything to drastically change my body until the beginning of tenth grade. I decided to follow the "advice" of my health teacher and start a "calorie deficit" diet to lose weight (which I now realize didn't need to be lost in the first place).
Around when I first started to "diet".

The diet quickly turned into more than a weight loss plan, it was a disorder...an obsession. I was constantly preoccupied with counting calories and controlling my food intake--I was convinced that I was being "healthy". Food was always in the forefront of my thoughts and I was always hungry; I would go to bed starving just so I could eat breakfast in the morning. However, during this time I wasn't willing to accept that what I was doing was wrong. I was happily miserable.

At my lowest--not healthiest, weight. 

Towards the beginning of eleventh grade, I was bullied. I became depressed and turned to the one thing that I had been denying myself in order to find comfort: food. This quickly turned into a different disorder known as binge eating disorder. I would go into my family's kitchen and gorge on food for hours on end until my stomach couldn't take it anymore. I hated myself and it was also during this time that I became suicidal. 

Dr. Michael Spigarelli was the first person to tell me that an eating disorder--of any kind, is a (curable) mental disease; my disorders were not me or my fault. Additionally, he made sure to emphasize that depression and anxiety are often linked to disordered behaviors as well and also can act as catalysts for disorders to begin. Thanks to him, my therapist, and antidepressants, I was able to overcome my disease along with the depression that resulted. 

In all honesty, this was an incredibly dark time in my life; I had no hope for myself or for my future. There were times when I couldn't and didn't want to find the sunshine in anything. I accepted and feared that my life would always be a constant battle against myself; it felt as if I was slowly burying myself in a grave that I wouldn't be able to climb out of.

Although I'm painting a pretty dark picture of my past, things weren't always completely terrible. My faith in God acted as an anchor when all else failed. To Him, I wasn't a lost cause. He saw my potential and the person that I would become once I overcame my disorder. He constantly gave me moments of joy and relief from the hurricane of emotions and stress that I was experiencing. He blessed me with wonderful friends, wonderful doctors, and wonderful opportunities for change.

He saved me.
His love was like the sunrise after an endless night.

As I began taking steps towards recovery, I was able to find sunshine in the small things too, like going a day or two without bingeing or purging; going a day without hating my body, or being able to eat one meal a day as a "normal" person would.

Medication definitely helped me as well. Recovery was a lot easier once the burden of depression was eased from my shoulders.

From all of this, I was slowly able to take longer and more confident strides towards recovery. And as I did, my pathway seemed to become illuminated with a light that I had forgotten existed. Although it wasn't easy to keep that light burning, by constantly picking myself up and brushing off the mistakes I made as I stumbled along that path, I was able to slowly find my way back into the warmth of the sun.

I’ve learned that the best way to find sunshine through eating disorders, depression, or any other trial, is to be easy on yourself and to accept your own pace--recovery doesn’t happen in a day. Find joy in the small victories and learn from your losses. Remember to tell yourself that: “Even if I fall on my face, I’m still moving forward”.

Also, I've learned that there is no shame in using medication to overcome a mental disease or illness--like physical diseases and illnesses, they should be treated and can be cured. 

I know for a fact that I would not be where I am today without the help of antidepressants, medical care, or counseling.

Although I've been "officially" recovered for almost a year now, I still try to find the sunshine within the trials that I experienced. In order to do this, I refuse to see myself as a victim of the mental disorders and diseases I’ve experienced. They were terrible and difficult, but they made me into who I am today. To me, feeling sorry for myself would be like taking a step backwards into the darkness that I had worked so hard to emerge from.

Going through my eating disorder (and the depression that existed alongside it) was like being thrown into a cold, dark cave. At times I had to crawl on my knees and cling to unseen walls in order to move forward, but eventually I saw the light that existed outside of it. I continued to move forward and eventually, the closer I got to the light, the easier things became. Instead of crawling, I was able to stand. Instead of walking and clinging, I was able to run without any supports.

And let me tell you,

Now that I’m out of the cave, I can see sunshine everywhere.

To learn more about me and my story, head on over to blog.livinglifetomyfullest.com


they call me a piece of work

There have been so many times in my life when I've truly believed that I am a hopeless case. My doubts whisper things in my ear like, "You'll never be good enough." or "You're just too big of a mess." These whispers and doubts are relentless at times, and little by little, I believe them more and more. I turn into a shell of who I really am once I start to believe these things. I become a shadow, a dark cloud insistent on ruining everyone's sunshine.

As time goes on, and as I fight the darkness longer and longer, I've come to believe more than ever that we all are a piece of work. Not in the negative way that people use it but in that we are a work in a progress--a clay pot being molded and formed, a house being torn apart and remodeled--whatever helps you picture it best. We are not perfect now, nor will we ever be in this lifetime.

The theme of life is progress. Progress is what we should be focusing on. Progress should be our theme-song, anthem, and pledge. Progress is what makes us truly successful.

Something I struggle with is recognizing progress. I am the kind of girl who looks for big things--getting the top score on a test, losing ten pounds, getting a promotion--things like that. I don't always notice the little things, like earning five points better on an assignment, eating healthier for a day, or doing a great job on a small project at work. There are little things that constitute progress, not just big things. I've started to try and find success in myself for smaller things and to recognize that I'm not going to be the perfect person.

On a particularly dark day not too long ago, I was in bed, hating myself. I had missed class again because I couldn't find the strength to get up. I was anxious, depressed, and feeling absolutely miserable. A pressure constricted itself around my heart as I started hearing the doubts again: "You're going to fail school." "You might as well just give up on life now--you're not going anywhere." "You shouldn't be this nervous about going to class. You are a wimp and absolutely ridiculous." With each thought, I sank deeper and deeper into the darkness. But that day, I managed to get out of bed and shower. Yup, folks, that's all I did that day. I fought and fought and finally got to the point where I could get out of the hole I had sunk in to and shower.

Many of you may read this example and think that I am completely ridiculous, and you may be right. But here's the deal: I found some progress within myself that day. I took a small step towards the light, but it felt like a marathon. I can easily keep looking back on that moment and many like it and hate myself for it. But in that moment, I did the absolute best I could and made some progress. And I am proud of myself for that.

That moment and that day is not who I am. I am not my darkness, I am my steps towards the light. I am a piece of work, and I take great pride in that. Sometimes I am a mess, but I work hard to get put together. I'm learning to recognize tiny steps as the great leaps that they truly are. I'm not a finished product, and neither are you. So can we take a step back and appreciate the good we are doing? Can we look for one small success at a time, especially when we feel that there is absolutely nothing good to see? Because guess what? We are all a work in progress. 


The Optimist in Progress