Seeking An Answer: Part 1

1 Jul

I would like to begin this post with an enormous thank you to everyone who has read and shared this blog. The responses I have received through Facebook, email, in the comments, and in person have been overwhelmingly supportive and extremely gratifying. In the past few weeks I have heard personal stories and kind words from friends, family, friends of friends, and strangers I have never met. Your love and support are truly appreciated and have motivated me to continue writing and sharing my story. So, for that I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

In my next two posts I am going to explain my personal mental health history. There’s a lot to say, so I’m going to split it up. Part 1 is going to be about my experiences with bipolar disorder and Part 2 is going to be about my experiences with ADHD. As I move forward with this blog I am going to be writing posts about specific areas of mental health, but first I want to detail my mental health past for you. I want to give you the foundational facts before I expand upon them.

So, let’s start at the beginning: April 2005. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in April 2005 at the age of 13. I was hospitalized because I was displaying signs of severe mental illness: extreme depression, including suicidal tendencies, and manic, violent behavior. My parents, acting on the advice of doctors, hospitalized me because I was a danger to myself and others.

What exactly is bipolar disorder? When I was younger this is how I would explain it to my friends: “Bi” means “two” and “polar” means “opposite.” Someone with bipolar disorder experiences a combination of two opposing emotions: depression and mania. It’s sometimes referred to as manic-depressive disorder, though not very much anymore. Like most mental illnesses, bipolar is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Typically, when someone with bipolar is in a depressive state, he or she experiences: extreme sadness, exhaustion, feelings of hopelessness and loneliness, and suicidal thoughts or actions. When in a manic state, he or she experiences: extreme anger, violent behavior, racing thoughts, over-excitement, and uncontrollable actions. (There is another degree of mania called “hypomania,” a euphoric state in which a person is often happy and highly productive.) A spell of depression or mania can last anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks, even months sometimes.

Now, I say that the beginning was April 2005, but in hindsight we realized that I had been displaying signs of bipolar much, much earlier. Like that time in kindergarten when we had a substitute teacher and I screamed and cried for hours for no apparent reason until the bewildered teacher called the principle and my mother. Or the time when I was 8 or 9 when I was so mad that I ran away from home down a busy, dangerous street in Brooklyn, NY.

For years my parents and I could not figure out what was wrong with me. Why was I so sad and tired all the time? Why did I lose control so violently? Certainly a 12-year-old shouldn’t be capable of hurting herself and others to this extent. But I was capable of it. As I got older these episodes of depression and mania became more and more frequent. I landed in the ER a few times before I was actually committed. I spent about two weeks at MetroWest Medical Center in Natick, MA in the children’s psychiatric unit where I was observed, diagnosed, and treated.

That first hospitalization is mostly a blur to me now. I remember some things like the terrible food that was delivered on yellow plastic trays; the tiny schoolroom where we were supposed to do our homework that was sent over from our real schools; the small courtyard where we were taken for a designated hour of fresh air; chipper staff members who weren’t allowed to touch us; and the saddest-looking room I have ever slept in. However, the most important moment of those two weeks is something that I have no memory of whatsoever: my diagnosis. I don’t remember anyone telling me that I was bipolar. I’m sure that someone did at some point, but I can’t remember it. Or maybe no one told me because I was too young to understand. It seems like it’s a fact that just came into being somehow: I have bipolar disorder. We finally had a name for this insanity.

Two weeks later I returned to seventh grade with a new medication regimen, weekly therapy appointments, and an official title for the moods and episodes that had plagued me for my whole life. The next six years that followed were the hardest years of my life. I was hospitalized twice more in March 2008 and February 2011. I just barely graduated middle school and headed to a local private school for high school. There was no way I would have survived going to the regional public high school that has over 2000 students.

These years were a mess of doctors’ appointments, extended absences from school, and more medication than you can imagine. I was experiencing crippling depression that caused me to cry nonstop for hours and to sleep for up to 18 hours in a row. I also went through manic stages where I literally could not control how my body acted, often with extremely dangerous consequences.

The worst part was probably the struggle to find an effective combination of medication. Bipolar disorder is a hard disease to treat because you have to treat both the depression and the mania. Any time we found a med that helped my depression it inevitably clashed with the med that was supposed to level my mania. Also, for some awful reason, I happen to be extremely susceptible to medication side effects. Have you ever seen a commercial for a medication where the first half explains the benefits and the second half explains the side effects? I experienced almost every side effect imaginable: rapid weight gain, fuzzy thoughts, dizziness, inability to focus, exhaustion, increased appetite, trembling hands, stuttering speech. The list goes on and on. At one point I was taking medications that were intended to treat the side effects of other medications. I felt like my brain didn’t belong to me anymore.

My life was consumed by my bipolar, leaving little room for anything else. Halfway through tenth grade, when I was committed for the second time, I dropped out of high school. Finally, in 2011, after I was released from my third hospitalization, things began to calm down.

Kids with mental illness usually experience the worst stage of their disease during puberty. Once the brain’s development begins to slow down, the symptoms tend to improve, which is exactly what happened to me. Medications became more effective, my mood was much more stable, and I was able to live a somewhat normal life. I went back to high school, got involved in after school activities, made some friends, and was soon accepted to college. In September I will begin my junior year.

I hope every single day that I have made it through the worst part of my battle with bipolar. I’m always scared that something might change and I’ll go downhill again. It’s only been two years since the last time I was in the hospital. But for the most part I think I’m going to be okay.

The ups and downs of bipolar are never going to go away completely. As I am writing these words, I’m in the middle of a small spell of depression that’s been going on for a few weeks, but it’s nothing I can’t deal with. After all, I’ve handled much worse.

Welcome to Mood Sponge!

4 Jun

Welcome to Mood Sponge: a new blog about the ins, outs, ups, and downs of mental illness in the world today.

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Kelly, I am 21 years old, and I, like millions of people around the world, am living with mental illness, specifically Bipolar Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). This is just my welcome post, so I won’t go into great detail about my own mental health history, but trust me, you’ll be reading a lot about it in the many posts to come.

I have started Mood Sponge in an attempt to create a forum where we can talk truthfully and openly about mental illness. I think it is so important to talk about it publicly. In today’s society, there is such a stigma surrounding mental illness that people are afraid to talk about it, and often try not to even think about it. This “if we ignore it maybe it will go away” attitude is not working and will never work.

Mental illness is a disease like any other, with the exception that it doesn’t manifest itself physically. (Hence the “mental.”) If this is so, why is it more socially acceptable to talk about cancer and diabetes than it is to talk about depression and anxiety? Why is it okay to tell your boss you have to miss work because you have the flu, but you can’t tell him you’ll be out because you’re experiencing a bout of depression? It is essential to talk about mental illness frankly and in broad daylight, so we can begin to remove the stigma and start on a path towards acceptance and understanding.

Another reason I decided to start a blog about mental illness is that I don’t think there are enough young people writing about it. Since I was diagnosed, I have done a lot of reading about mental health and I haven’t come across many articles, books, or blogs written by people my age. You can find millions of scholarly articles riddled with medical jargon written by doctors. You can also find a number of blogs written by mothers of children with mental illness. But there is almost nothing written by someone like me: a young person who has dealt with mental health issues through childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood who is willing to write openly about it.

I also want to use this blog to share my story. I think I’m something of a mental illness success story. After a long, intense struggle that started during childhood and persisted through high school, I am now a college student with a few steady jobs and on a path to graduate within the next few years. This is thanks to the combination of doctors, medication, family support, and extremely hard work I’ve put in over the last 10 years. I am by no means cured of my disease—it is a daily struggle—but for the most part I have been happy and stable for about two years. I’m all about using my experiences to help people, so I hope that my story will benefit and inspire others fighting similar battles.

And Mood Sponge is not going to be solely written by me. I am an expert on my own story, but I am by no means an expert on all things related to mental illness, so I’m going to be posting articles and essays written by all sorts of people: family members who can talk about living with someone with a mental illness, friends who have their own stories to share, and many others. I will also be linking to other sites and articles I want to share with my readers. I’ll be looking for all types of authors and correspondents, so feel free to email me if you want to write for Mood Sponge.

To close out this welcome post I’ll leave you with an explanation of the title of this blog. I am approaching almost a decade of having been in therapy and in 10 years my favorite term I have ever heard is “Mood Sponge.” A past therapist of mine used the term to describe someone who absorbs the surrounding mood or feeling of a particular environment or situation. I am a total mood sponge. Almost without fail I absorb nearby moods. If a person near me is stressed out about something, I get equally stressed out. If my friends are happy, I get just as happy. When a character in a movie cries, I cry. I think most people on some level are mood sponges, but I am an extreme case. Being a mood sponge is a gift and a curse, but mostly I just think it’s a quirky, unique phrase and I thought it would be a great blog title.

Please, please, please share Mood Sponge with everyone you know! I’m going to try to educate, entertain, and excite you with interesting stories, essays, and articles. Help me get the word out there about mental illness and I will do my best to never let my readers down. Thank you!!

Twitter: @MoodSponge