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“But You Seem So Normal!” -A Compliment

When I disclose I’m bipolar, I’m fortunate enough to typically receive understanding and support. However, many, many times I’ve been greeted with some super inappropriate comments, the most common being “but you seem so normal!” or “but you’re so happy!”.

Here’s the thing: I am GREAT at masking my symptoms. I would go as far as to say I am a professional at faking it. I can pretend to be happy when I’m drowning inside my head. I can fake calmness when I’m so anxious I’m going to throw up and I can’t stop grinding my teeth (which ALWAYS hurt, by the way). I’m a fantastic actress and an even better liar. I can usually fake being okay when my depression is making it feel like I’m drowning in fog. The days I can’t fake it, I stay in bed all day. No one except my partner sees me at my worst, and that’s by design. So when you tell me I’m “too happy” to be bipolar, keep in mind that you don’t see the major depressive episodes, and that is on purpose.

I am not as great at faking stability when I’m hypomanic, mostly because being hypomanic is typically either super fun and I don’t want to hide it, or I’m so anxious and jittery I physically can’t stop shaking my hands, clicking my pen, or bouncing my leg. However, people usually don’t notice the hypomania unless they know what to look for. I’m seen as high energy, passionate, bubbly, or teased for drinking too much coffee that day.

Hearing that I’m “too normal” or “too happy” to be fighting this battle in my head is super minimizing and harmful. It implies that people don’t believe me because I present as stable most of the time. It implies that I’m faking my illness or making it up. The battles I fight in my head to do basic things like get out of bed, shower, (when I’m depressive) or not blow months worth of savings on a fish tank (when I’m hypomanic) are real, they’re intense, and they severely impact my everyday life. It takes a lot of discipline and work to stay stable, and sometimes nothing I do can prevent an episode. Don’t minimize how much work it takes me to function in society like everyone else. Don’t minimize how much work it takes to get out of bed, work full time, and smile at people who ask me “how are you?” when they don’t want to hear the real answer.

Side note, and kind of a funny story: I actually did spend months worth of savings on a fish tank set up when I was hypomanic once. Every dime we had saved was blown in a single shopping trip. Because I was hypomanic, I didn’t follow directions to wait 24 hours before putting the fish in the water (because patience is NOT a characteristic of someone who is hypomanic) and I literally killed every fish I bought within two days. It’s funny now, but at the time it was detrimental to our financial situation and we struggled for a while after that to get back to a place of financial security.

I know that not everyone who responds in these ways mean harm. Sometimes they even mean it as a compliment. Like, “good job, you can pretend you’re fine and no one even notices you’re sick!”. But that’s also a problem. The fact that I’m praised for and seen as “strong” because I can mask my symptoms shows how detrimental the stigmas surrounding mental illnesses are. I’m a strong person whether I am symptomatic or not. My strength is not determined by whether I can fake “being normal”. I should be able praised for my intellect, my passion for the planet and people’s rights, or the fact that I can knit without looking. I should not be praised for my ability to pretend I don’t have a mental illness. Now, I always want to hide my symptoms. I never want anyone to see me when I’m not at my best. Part of that is because of this response. Part of me believes that my strength lies in my ability to blend in and present as stable. That is part of why I decided to start writing about my experiences. I can’t claim to be a mental health advocate, determined to end stigma against those with mental illnesses if I hide in my room to avoid showing anyone I’m not well. My goal with transparency is to prove to myself and others that strength doesn’t lie in faking it, strength lies in trying to do what it takes to stay well.

If someone you love (or a stranger) discloses they have a mental illness, take time to respond appropriately. Ask them questions about their illness and their symptoms. Ask what you can do to help when they’re struggling. Do some research so you can better understand what they’re going through, but keep in mind everyone is different and illnesses manifest in different ways.

How the Navy Handles Suicide

My partner, Jake, has been suicidal for as long as he can remember. Usually, he is able to push the intrusive thoughts away and get on with his day with little repercussions. While serving in the Navy, those thoughts became constant and loud, impossible to ignore. He began making plans, and in a couple of instances, acting on those plans.

Disclaimer: all of this is written with his approval. He proof read the entire post before it was published, and is comfortable sharing everything I’ve written.

Jake struggled with his mental health at several different points during his career in the Navy. At his training command he saw a Navy therapist a few times to deal with the stress of schooling. Once in Washington, he was feeling good and ready to be on an actual submarine instead of in school. That quickly changed. We arrived in Washington in January of 2019. By September, it was very obvious that he was struggling mentally. He was a shell of a person, honestly. He would go to work, come home, stare at the ceiling for a while, then go to bed and repeat. He had no interest in doing anything. He rarely had days off, and when he did he just wanted to sit around the house because he didn’t have the energy for anything else. There was a lot of pressure at work to qualify (a certification process that all reactor operators must accomplish to be able to man the reactor independently) quickly, and he struggled to handle it. Stress management has never been his strong suit; he’s working on it.

One day in November of 2019, I received a phone call while I was at work. It was his chief asking me if I knew where Jake was because he didn’t show up to the boat that day. By this point, I knew he was struggling, and I knew he had been thinking about suicide, but I didn’t realize how serious it was yet. I think we were both under the impression that the thoughts were intrusive and he dwelled on them, but he wasn’t making plans or acting on them. His chief let me know that they were going to my house to get him and take him to work. I requested they call me once they arrived to let me know he was okay. They called me when they arrived at my house to tell me that the car was there, but he wasn’t answering the door and they were calling the police to do a wellness check. At this point I rushed out of work and started the 30 minute drive home. A few moments later, I received a call from the Kitsap County Sheriff who had arrived at my house. They advised me to come home right away.

Upon arriving at my house, his chief greeted me and told me that the Sheriff did not want to break my door down. I unlocked the door, but the Sheriff said that they would not enter my house and I had to be the one to go inside. I stood in the doorway for what felt like a long time, but was probably only a few seconds, preparing myself to find my partner dead in my home. He was alive, but in a crisis situation. We talked and I convinced him to get dressed and go outside. I went outside to inform everyone that he would be out momentarily, and the Sheriff responded by yelling at me for having firearms and medications in my house. He told me I was irresponsible and this situation never should have happened. He said I wasted his time (reminder that I wasn’t even the one who called him…). When Jacob came out, his chief lectured him for missing work, for making his division’s job harder, and for making them spend two hours at his house when they all should have been working. Then they left and made him drive himself to work. They also opened a malingering case against him, which is a very serious charge for faking a mental illness to avoid work responsibilities. Everyone told him he was faking it. 

After that, it seems like he told me everyday about how he had a plan to end his life. He had preferred ways he wanted to do it. That was scary because his preferred methods were so easy for him to access and I didn’t have the power to prevent him from carrying his plans out.

Another day, I was at my favorite yarn store with a dear friend when I received a call from him. He said “I’m going to do it. Please say goodbye. Please let me go.” I’m sure I turned white as a ghost. I dropped everything I was holding. I asked him where he was and he wouldn’t tell me, so I told him to not move and I hung up on him to call his chief. I explained to his chief that he was somewhere close to the boat or parking garage and he was attempting suicide. His chief sent one of his friends to find him and my friend drove me to base. I received a call from his friend while we were on our way. He told me that he was with Jake and they were safe. Then I received a call from his chief. His chief informed me that I overreacted, Jake was sent back to work, and the chief said he did not understand what the issue was because underway Jake performed so well. “It must be something about being at your home that is the problem”. My friend stayed on base with me for several hours until Jake’s shift was over so I could drive him home. Also, my bunny died that day, just to make a terrible day worse.

Jake went underway in January of 2020. When we said goodbye as I was dropping him off, I was thinking to myself “this might be the last time you ever hug him”. Neither of us expected him to survive that underway. He wrote me so many goodbye letters in his journal.

A little while before the underway, his therapist had his credentials taken away. He lost his security clearance because he was deemed unstable by medical. He wasn’t supposed to go on that underway. His therapist had hoped that with the boat gone, Jake could focus on getting himself in a better place mentally, and he would be healthy and ready to work when they returned. Instead, the boat said that he had to come. They reinstated his security clearance and told him he was going on the underway the night before they left. Jacob had one night to get ready to be gone for months. While he was packing, I was frantically writing letters that he could open on bad days, basically begging him to come home. To hold on a little longer.

I spent every day of that underway waiting for a chaplain to show up at my door to tell me Jake was gone. 

When he came home from that underway, he was supposed to get a week off. They took that away. They took away his weekends, he was working 12 hour days and they were preparing to leave again immediately for an even longer period of time. One morning, Jake slept through his alarm. I woke up to a call from his friend telling me that Jake was going to be late if he didn’t hurry. I woke Jake up but he was not himself. I don’t even know how to describe that morning. He refused to move, he wouldn’t answer me, when he did speak it didn’t make sense. The only thing he said that made sense was a plan to kill himself on his way to the boat. A Navy person showed up at the door to collect him. I turned them away and called 911. I still had bad memories from the last time the police were involved in a mental health crisis situation, so I specifically asked the dispatcher to send paramedics. They didn’t listen to me. Police rang my doorbell a few minutes later and I almost didn’t let them in.

One officer talked to Jake in the bedroom while the other sat in the living room with me as I busied myself doing anything I could find. I made coffee for everyone, even though no one wanted coffee, I cleaned the table and the counters and swept the floor. The officer finally asked me to sit down so he could ask me some questions about Jake. We were lucky: those officers were amazing. They built rapport with him and treated him with respect. They convinced him to willingly go to the emergency room. I drove him in, but because of COVID I couldn’t go in with him. I sat in the parking lot for twelve hours until they told me they were keeping him overnight. I called one more time before bed to check in, and they told me that he wasn’t there anymore. Long story short, I thought the hospital had let my suicidal husband just check himself out, but they were actually transferring him to a military hospital (despite neither of us wanting that, and without telling me… that’s another story). He spent a week there.

When he went back to work after being discharged from the hospital, he was informed that he was being masted the next day. For those who aren’t military, a Captain’s mast is when a sailor is in trouble and he has to go before the captain and other superior officers and basically stand trial. He was stripped of his rank for missing work the day that he was in the ER. Jacob requested that the Captain let him be discharged from the military, and thankfully the captain agreed and signed off on the discharge paperwork. He was transferred and we began the process of getting out. He was discharged under “general, under honorable conditions”, thankfully, but they still didn’t exactly support us on our way out. We are currently fighting because they never paid us for his leave days that he had earned, and they took away our medical coverage on day one, when we were supposed to have it for 90 days after being released.

Getting discharged was the best option for us, and I’m glad it went as well as it did, because for so many it was so much worse. I was inspired to write our story because it needs to be publicized that the military is terrible to people who have a mental illness. The rate of suicides in the Navy, specifically in the Nuclear program are astronomical and nothing is being done to help these people. We are grateful that his captain cared about him enough to let him out without making it dishonorable. He could have refused to let him out at all.

Jake is doing much better now. He still has those thoughts, but the plans are gone and he is able to engage in outlets that help with stress. He’s able to take care of himself and that makes a lot of difference. Being home with all the animals helps, too! If you have questions or need to reach out, we are both pretty open about our experiences.

Bipolar and the Common Cold

My mental state takes a huge toll on my physical state. Bipolar causes things like racing heart beat, upset stomach, shaking hands, grinding teeth, and can cause flu like symptoms during a depressive episode. The reverse is also true: my physical state plays a large role in how I feel mentally.

This week, I caught a cold (thanks, Jake. He started it). My miserable physical state caused my mental state to deteriorate. I battled with a bout of depression that I am just coming out of today. While my nose was running and I was coughing, I was also feeling insecure and hopeless. Being physically sick effects the mental state so much because so much of my routine that I rely on to stay balanced mentally gets disrupted. I had to fight both the physical illness and the mental illness simultaneously. My physical illness is still present, but my mental state began to elevate today, thanks to a lot of self-care and a talk with my therapist. I found self-care activities that didn’t require leaving my home or expending too much energy, like knitting, listening to podcasts, listening to Benedict Cumberbatch read Sherlock Holmes (ahhh!), and enjoying time with my dogs. I read some educational articles revolving around my job to keep my mind busy and engaged.

I have a planner/journal that I keep, and on the very first page is a huge list of self-care activities that I refer to when I’m struggling. During depressive episodes, I will make a to-do list for the day with one task for work or the house, and one self-care task. This gives me something to accomplish which makes me feel good, without putting too much pressure on myself.

What are your self-care activities? How do you take care of yourself on not-great days?

Warning Signs: Ways to Tell I’m Symptomatic

This is the hardest post I have written so far. When I am struggling with my mental illness, I hide. When I’m too low to smile and fake being okay, I stay in my house in isolation so no one sees me like that. I typically don’t notice when I am hypomanic until someone points it out, but I don’t like having it pointed out to me and I often become defensive and deny it. I want everyone to think I’m fine all the time, but the reality is, I’m not. My goal with writing this blog is to be open with my mental illnesses, and that means being open about my struggles. Hopefully, these posts are educating and encourage others to be open with their stories as well so we can end the stigma against mental illness. But, for that to happen, I need to be completely open, and that means sharing my struggles. So, here are the ways I (and you) can tell if I’m toeing the line between being okay and having an episode.

We will start with depression because it’s the easier one to identify the warning behaviors.

  1. I let my house get messy. The first thing to go is always the dishes. I don’t mind doing dishes at all, but for some reason I always let them pile up when I’m slipping into depression, and then there are so many of them it becomes too overwhelming to do them at all.
  2. I don’t eat much. Food doesn’t taste good and I don’t have the energy to prepare anything or go to the store, so I just don’t eat much. I’m also super picky (more so than usual), and will usually fixate on one food and that’s all I will be willing to eat.
  3. I talk less. I try to avoid having conversations about myself when I’m feeling down, and I try to avoid topics that will require me to do a significant amount of the talking. Instead, I prefer conversations where the other person does most of the talking and I can listen quietly.
  4. I stop engaging in hobbies. Depression steals a lot of joy and motivation. When I start slipping, I don’t want to do any of my hobbies, specifically knitting and reading. Instead, I waste my evenings either playing on my phone or staring at the ceiling. While my partner was deployed, I was really struggling with depressive episodes, so my therapist, my best friend and myself made an accountability plan where I would engage in 20 minutes of any hobby I wanted every night. That really helped get my creative mojo back which helped pull me out of that episode.
  5. I sleep. A lot. Typically I have a pretty good routine going, but when I’m depressive I go to bed earlier and wake up later than usual. I also have very restless nights.

Hypomania is a little harder to identify because I act like myself, just amplified.

  1. I struggle to have a full conversation. I will often switch topics quickly or at inappropriate times, or make comments that aren’t obviously related to the conversation at hand.
  2. I make eye contact less during conversations. When I’m hypomanic, having conversations is hard. I struggle to stay focused on one thing long enough to talk about it, and part of that struggle to focus is a struggle to keep eye contact. I often look around the room or fix my eyes on something else while talking.
  3. I am easily irritated or snappy. This is one of the tells that I can notice about myself. I don’t typically notice the difficulty focusing or difficulty having conversations, but I usually notice when I’m irritated and being short with people or the dogs. I am not angry with anyone, but my head is spinning so fast, and it feels like everyone else is moving in slow motion. I get frustrated that no one can keep up with me.
  4. I go on a cleaning spree. When I was cycling between hypomania and depression every few days, this worked out great. I would let the house fall apart for a few days, then go hypomanic and deep clean everything.
  5. I sleep less. Again, my routine is pretty spot on and when I’m balanced I go to sleep easily and wake up easily at the same time every day. Hypomania makes me stay up later and wake up earlier than usual.
  6. I’m jittery. Imagine me on 21 cups of coffee. I bounce my legs or click my pen, which is typically obnoxious. My bad.
  7. I make bad financial decisions. If I’m impulsively spending more than usual, that’s a sign that I’m not stable.

So what if you notice one of these symptoms? That’s a great question because I don’t know the answer yet. I don’t have a preferred way to be approached, other than quietly. I will probably tell you I’m just tired if you notice I’m acting depressive, and I will probably get defensive if you suggest I’m hypomanic. Definitely tell me, but just know I might not be super appreciative at the time. I’ll thank you when I’m stable again.

Fluff, Slobber, and Love: How Animals Make Everything Better

Shiloh, Aurora, and Vader waiting for mom to get done taking her pictures so they can get pupaccinos.

My family consists mostly of pets. My partner and I have 6 animals. We have three dogs: Shiloh, a pit mix who loves sleeping on the people bed, snuggling everything, and hiking; Vader, a lab/great dane mix who loves anything involving water, fetch (specifically fetch in the water), and snacks; and Aurora, a Saint Bernard who loves being around her people and belly rubs. We also have two kittens: Ashes who loves her space but demands two hands of pets when she feels like it, and Embers who meows constantly and loves to sleep on my partner’s computer while he games. Last but not least, we have a bunny named Azel who loves all things food related.

Aurora is our newest family member, but she has already made a huge impact in our lives (which is to be expected since she is like 110lbs). Aurora has a natural ability to know and understand the emotions of the people she is around. She frequently follows me around and insists her head goes on my lap on days when I am particularly anxious. She has laid on the floor with me for hours while I stared at the ceiling or played on my phone to chill out after a bad or emotional day. Saint Bernards require a lot of grooming and attention, and sitting outside in the evenings to brush her long fur is a wonderfully mindless and calming task that helps ground me.

All the dogs are helpful on bad days. My favorite thing to do on days where I’m having a depressive episode (which I affectionately call Eeyore days) is to get all three dogs on the bed or couch with me so I’m surrounded by fluff and slobber and love. On Eeyore days, it can be so hard to get out of bed, but often getting up, taking a shower, and getting some light exercise can be crucial to feeling better. The dogs encourage me to get up and stay active. Taking the dogs for a walk around the neighborhood can improve my mood exponentially.

Kitten and bunny snuggles on Eeyore days are also effective medicines 🙂

For these reasons, my therapist and I decided that Aurora would do really well being my Emotional Support Animal. Emotional Support Animals, or ESAs, do not have the right to enter buildings that animals are not allowed in, however she is allowed to fly with me on a plane and live with me in any establishment, whether pets are permitted or not (of course we would never live somewhere pets aren’t allowed!).

Aurora is intuitive to everyone, not just me. She recently met a neighborhood kid who has autism. He was instantly enthralled with her, and she gently laid on the ground with him while he gave her belly rubs and put his head on her for snuggles. She has such a gently, relaxed personality, which is a stark contrast from my other two high-energy pups. For this reason, we are training her to be a therapy dog. Therapy dogs have the ability to go to places like rehab centers, hospitals, nursing homes, behavior health clinics, etc. to visit patients there and help brighten their day. Aurora is still in training, but we are expecting her to be ready to be certified this fall. COVID permitting, we will be visiting people this winter!

Playing the Med Game

Hi. My name is Kaitlyn. Almost 2 years ago, I was diagnosed with Bipolar 2 disorder. This diagnoses came after many months of episodes and hardships. I put my partner through a lot before I was diagnosed and on proper medication. The diagnoses didn’t magically stop the symptoms, though. After the diagnosis came the painstaking medicine game. My psychiatrist and I worked tirelessly to find the right medicine cocktail that would both keep me stable and let me feel like myself. Now, two years later, I think we finally have the right combination of meds.

What is bipolar disorder?

You’ll have to do your own research, but I’ll give you a basic rundown. There are several different categories of bipolar, but I’m going to focus on Bipolar 1 and Bipolar 2. Bipolar 1 is when a person has periods of extreme depression and periods of mania. The durations differ for everyone, but typically each episode can last from a few days to a few months. Mania is basically a super-high state where consequences mean nothing. People who are experiencing mania tend to feel great and nothing can bring them down. Sometimes they can have delusions such as believing they can fly or that they are a god. People experiencing mania tend to have delusions of grandeur which can lead to them impulsively quitting their job to open a business or spontaneously taking a trip across the country. Consequences mean almost nothing during a manic episode, so people in that state might engage in risky behaviors that they would not typically engage in. Mania causes intense energy and a lack of sleep.

People with bipolar 2 also have episodes of extreme depression, but instead of mania, they have hypomanic episodes. Hypomanic episodes are basically less-extreme versions of manic episodes. Someone in a hypomanic state might spend all their savings, and engage in risky behaviors. Personally, when I was hypomanic, I would spend ALL our money, despite having worked for months to save it up. I would do spontaneous things like drive to Ohio by myself in the middle of the night, or buy a truck. I often felt like the world was moving in slow motion. I had so much energy and no one could keep up with me. I got drunk a lot and would be frustrated when the people I was drinking with were done and wanted to go to bed. I struggled to hold conversations as so many thoughts were racing in my head. By the time the person responded to what I had said, I was ready to move on to a different topic. This made it difficult for my friends and family members to hold meaningful conversations with me. I also become super irritable because I feel like everyone is moving so slowly and that is frustrating.

I’m mostly stable now, but it was a long road to get here, and the work is not done. Finding the right medicines is hard. It’s exhausting. The antipsychotics or antidepressants can mess with so many aspects of your body and mind. Weight gain and loss of sex drive are super common side effects with many medications. Some medicines make the menstrual cycle worse. Some can make people moody or sad or angry. My most common side effects were brain fog, where I felt like the whole world was grey and in slow motion, and an upset stomach. I recently had to switch to a new medication because one pill made me throw up every day, 10 minutes after I took it. Because I kept throwing up, the medicines weren’t being absorbed into my system all the way and I ended up having a hypomanic episode as a result.

Medicines take weeks to reach therapeutic levels. It’s frustrating to start a medicine, wait several weeks for it to “kick in”, wait a few more weeks to see if it is working, wait for an appointment, only to decide it’s not the right medicine and start over with something else. Finding the right medicine combination took me TWO YEARS. Two long years of trying dozens of medications and different doses until we found a combination that prevents me from going manic, curbs the depression, calms the anxiety, and still lets me feel like myself. 

My work is not done, even though the meds are working. I still have to go to therapy, be intentional about my self care, and check in with my body daily.

I wanted to share this because I advocate passionately to end the stigma on mental health. I figure the best way to help end the stigma is to share my story unapologetically. I plan to use this blog space to blog about my entire life: knitting, hiking, the animals, and my mental health. Awareness and understanding are crucial to ending the stigmas that surround mental illnesses. By educating those around us, we can each help end the stigma and move toward a future where people who are mentally ill are not portrayed as crazy, deranged, or dangerous.

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