Like Father, Like Daughter

Not long ago, I posted an open survey on Facebook (Here's the link if you're interested in responding) with the question of what YOU, my readers, want to know more about. One of the responses I received was this:

"I'd like to hear more about how to handle being diagnosed with a mental illness when you know very little about it, or maybe have a family who might not be very tolerant or accepting. I'd also like to hear more about having the faith/confidence to tell people you have a mental illness without being scared/ashamed because you might be treated differently."

To answer this question, I first need to tell you about my dad:

I'm a lot like my dad. Always have been. We share similar tastes and sense of humor. 

My similarities to my father have increased over the years. One such similarity is my diagnosis of bipolar disorder. It's a crappy thing to have in common, but it comes with its benefits. My dad is my built-in support system, someone who understands what I'm going through. I can tell you how grateful I am to have him. 

My dad has been fighting his bipolar disorder for 18 years. He's almost an expert when it comes to being a fighter. Because of this, I asked him to answer this question. 

"Just a little background on myself and my experience with mental illnesses.  My name is Rob and about 18 years ago, after going through very stressful period of time, I suffered about six months with serve depression and then about eight months of extreme mania.  I was about 30 years old at the time.  My wife and I call it our year from “hell” but we did end up with a beautiful girl, our third, at the end of it. Since that time, my wife and I have tried to use our experience to help others, through NAMI, Davis Behavioral Health and just by talking with people, one-on-one and it groups.  

I have learned many things over the last 18 years, and maybe I can share a few of them:

Like being a new parent, neither those who suffer from a mental illness, or their families or friends, know much about mental illnesses.  We work with doctors and therapists, but they really don’t educate us much about the illness we are suffering.  They are focused on getting our meds to work or teaching us the tools to deploy to help keep our lives from spinning out of control.  I would highly recommend making the effort to educate yourself and your loved ones about your mental illness. I think the NAMI (National Association on Mental Illness) is the best place to start.  Go to NAMI.org and you will find a lot of helpful information.  You can also find links to your state and local affiliates (namiut.org in Utah).  These affiliate offer free Educational Classes and for both those who have the mental illness and their loved ones.  These classes run for eight to 12 weeks (usually one night per week) and can be extremely beneficial.  The also usually offer free weekly Support Groups.  Give a Support Group or Educational Class a try for 2-3 weeks and see if it helps you!  I had a co-worker whose wife was really struggling with depression, so much she couldn’t take care of their kids.  He came to Family-to-Family and will openly admit that it saved their marriage and their family.  The education he gained and contacts he made helped him get his wife in with the right professionals,and together, they were able to turn things around.

Besides NAMI, read related books (An Unquiet Mind helped me with my bi-polar diagnosis) and articles, but most importantly, do all you can to keep an open line of communication between you and your support network.  Sometimes it is hard to remember that we are all on the same side.  After my wife, parents and in-laws did some things that I felt were very hurtful in the middle of my manic episode, I came to the conclusion that we were all just trying to do the best we could in a very difficult situation.  When people become new parents, theyunderstand that you just do the best you can and figure things out along the way…much like fighting through the effects of mental illnesses.

Shortly after my diagnosis with bi-polar illness, I realized two things that helped me effectively cope with this damaging illness for the past 18 years:

I did not do anything to bring this brain disorder upon myself.  I didn’t do drugs, I didn’t anything…I just got it.  As I look at it, I am sure that my illness is an effect of my gene pool, like most people with mental illnesses, which again, I didn’t control. I determined to NOT hide my illness, but not use it as an excuse, either.  I took the personal approach, that if mental illnesses ormy illness came up in conversation, I would talk openly about it, just like I would any other health issue.  I am sure that my profession as a Sales Rep. helped me to have the confidence I needed to just put the topic on the table.  I figure if others hold it against me, that is their problem, not mine.  I have talked to many people about my bi-polar illness and I know it has made a difference many peoples’ lives.  I think the key is to not be ashamed of an illness I didn’t deserve.  I have an illness that I will always take medication for, but I fight hard to keep it under control. 

I have never been sorry for talking about my illness and have actually taken the opportunity to talk to all the adults in my church congregation (5th Sunday lesson), a couple hundred youth at a church fireside and many other public forums.  I truly believe that when we are open about it, the stigma associated with mental illnesses decreases and people understand that it can affect people from all walks of life and that these illnesses are treatable. 

I certainly don’t blame people for being more sensitive about their situation, but for me, I just have the attitude that having a mental illness is not my fault and that by talking openly about it, I can help other people.

If I can just leave you with a closing thought.  I am not a mental health professional, but I have been involved with hundreds of people and families dealing with mental illnesses in addition to my personal experiences.  Please remember that dealing with a mental illness is normally a lifelong FIGHT!  But for those who are willing to FIGHT, really and truly FIGHT, and get their support network to FIGHT alongside them, it is a FIGHT that can be won."