Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you use writing and blogging as a way of coping with mental illness?
I began writing in my early teenage years. I never felt like I could voice the emotions I was feeling, so writing was the outlet that I know many to understand as the transformative process of letting go and overcoming. I just recently felt brave enough to begin blogging and sharing some of my creative work. I’m still working on building the confidence to share my mental health journey and my recent discovery of my undiagnosed bipolar II and schizoaffective battle. This response entry will actually be my first, “coming out” of admission to many experiences in my life that have left me confused and disappointed. I hope this work provides some with the closure they need or perhaps helps others seek help.
You mention being discharged from the military because of self-medicating to ease your symptoms of bipolar II schizoaffective. Do you think mental health stigma played a role in both self-medicating/ using substances and the lack of support you experienced in the military?
Mental health stigma was an absolute deterrent for me to seek the care that I needed; there was a level of perceived inadequacy and shame about failing at managing your mental health as a commissioned officer in the United States Army.
I didn’t seek help until my husband called the military police on me after another rage-filled, physically violent fit that left our home destroyed. It was just the first time he was brave enough to do something about it. At that point, my seeking help was just paperwork and a prescription for generalized anxiety. My rage still existed as it was very deep, unrecognized, and unattended to; it surfaced in my early 20’s, but I kept it at bay with egregious and arduous exercise. And, I was quick to blame anyone that “made me” angry. This period of my life was heavy in partying so all of my behaviors were quickly brushed under the rug as just another cringe-worthy memory of a drunken stupor.
I never felt like there was a problem with my recreational drug use either, other than the fact that I was breaking both civilian and military law (UCMJ). I felt like my existence in the military was death; when I was able to take leave and party with my friends, I felt very much alive and in power again. It is difficult for me to share the extremity of my drug use at this time in my life. But I can tell you that I disappeared for a year in addiction; this part of my life still brings me great shame. I am not at a place where I am able to share it in a way that might help others. I believe myself to still be in recovery. I am 2 years sober, but I still battle with this daily.
To make a long story short, my time in the military ended due to my substance use. I was afforded three chances at this point in my career; and on the last chance, I found myself standing in front of a 2-star general, having just failed a UA, and then finding out I was pregnant 4 weeks later. He offered me another chance, but in my soul I knew that I would never be happy in the military. And I knew that I needed help that the military could not provide. I left the military under honorable conditions, with what little dignity I could muster. I dove deeply into my pregnancy, determined to use this gift from God as my second, but actually 100th chance at redemption.
My symptoms of bipolar existed during this time and they worsened around the time I turned 26. I lost family members due to my behavior. They will never speak to me again. One of my best friends asked me to never contact her again. And, I broke the heart of a man I was dating for 4 years under the guise of the perfect girlfriend that I pretended to be. Everything was coming to light, yet I was still in the dark about the severity of my condition.
I was so accustomed to disappointment and to blaming everyone else, I was so used to my cycle of behavior from periods of impressive accomplishments to periods of destruction. I hid my depression by disappearing for weeks on end or disappearing into someone else’s life, without a word to anyone. As long as I could recharge and return as the life of the party, the beauty, the bold, the desired… all of the things I so desperately clung to for dear life, as long as it would allow me to be. When I used drugs, it was an even more desperate attempt to maintain my façade of the fiercely confident lioness that I wanted everyone to believe that I was. As long as I “felt” alive, then I must be living. This lifestyle and thought pattern took me years to unlearn.
What are some of the most useful skills and strategies you’ve found for managing hypomania and rapid cycling?
I know some of my symptoms very well, at this point. Some behaviors that I used to believe were normal, were harmful to the well-being of my loved ones. For example, I know that when I begin incessantly picking or chewing (my nails and the insides of my cheeks) that I am experiencing “generalized anxiety.” If unattended to, this anxiety can quickly spiral into a hypomanic state in which my thoughts race and my actions match it tenfold. If I am rapidly speaking and demanding complete and utter attention from my loved ones, if my words are formed to seek their approval and support through all of my grandiose ideas and claims to pursue yet another unrealistic long-term goal that I hope to achieve hastily, we know what this is. I thank God for them, my mom and dad and the one sister who stayed through it all. I thank God daily for bringing me through all these trials just to land back in the arms of my husband with such safety and honesty that he can recognize my telltale signs of hypomania, too. That he saved me from the depths of suicidal ideations.
I have found my own combination of medications that have helped balance me completely through the 8-hour day. I am not experiencing the intense levels of psychosis at night thanks to the medication. I am not experiencing drastic mood changes, but I am still working through identifying my triggers so that I can react with less aggression. And, the medication has kept me afloat even through my most recent, brief week of depression. Rapid cycling is exhausting because I must be constantly aware of myself.
Structure and scheduling are paramount for me with rapid cycling. This allows me to measure the “why” behind my hypomania or depression. For example, I didn’t get a good night of rest, so my circadian rhythm is off, and that is probably why I’m incessantly picking and biting while planning the next 10 years of our lives with a goal of accomplishing all of it in 6 months, or why I am purchasing without foresight, or rapidly talking to anyone that will give me their ear. And all of that occurs because I didn’t sleep well. That is just one example.
It is exhausting, but I live and breathe through structure. Meal prep based on the recommended daily allowance of nutrients, vigorous exercise, time reading, time with my son and my family all provide me with the feeling of wellness that my condition requires. If I can balance these with sleep and hydration, then I am operating on all cylinders at a moderate and sustainable pace.
What inspired you to seek the support you needed? What did this support look like and what was most helpful?
My last hypomanic episode occurred before and during Christmas which caused many unnecessary confusing and hurtful moments for my loved ones. I was not able to manage my racing thoughts which I believe was spurred on the impending holiday demands. My desire to be the “impressive” wife and mother spiraled into a 48-hour house painting crisis in which I felt sleep was an inconvenience, and I neglected my son–leaving him in his playpen with the TV on for hours on end. When he wanted to nap, I was irritated at the interruption. When my husband spoke to me about my painting, I lashed out at him for not helping. This went on for about a week and then I fell quickly into a depression that almost took my life. This was the point in which he called a psychiatrist, got my intake packet and appointment organized, and demanded that I get help.
The most helpful medicine through the journey of finding the “right dose” was my increase in participation with scripture and prayer. I am a non-denominational Christian who found Jesus, again, when I became pregnant, just after my last failed urinary analysis. God was the first and foremost support that I sought through this journey. Combined with counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, and medication management, I believe that I am capable of “handling” my mental health now.
How have your mental health experiences shaped who you are today? Can you talk about obtaining your Master’s Degree and working as an academic/ advisor and counsellor?
It is hard for me to say that my mental health experiences have shaped who I am today, because I believe that they are still shaping me. I can say that my life experiences, both good and ugly, have conditioned me to believe that we are all capable of change. And, we are all worthy of the forgiveness only God can provide. I believe that losing two of my sisters to my behavior, my closest friend, and harming the lives of most people that loved me have shaped me. These losses really chiseled me, forged me; I needed to lose them to understand myself more, to forgive myself, forgive them, forgive all of it. Perhaps, one day, I can say that my mental health experiences have shaped me, but this ongoing process has yet to come to that point.
I was able to obtain my M.S. degree during my pregnancy which was during the pandemic lockdowns. Between this mental stimulation and my pregnancy hormones, I believe this stage of my life was the happiest, despite the loss of my sisters from this experience. Becoming an academic advisor landed in my lap as the means to support my mental health journey.
As I write this response, I am sitting in my quaint, low-lit office with lavender essential oils nearby, drinking my coffee. This environment is exactly what I need to thrive and survive, calm and controlled. Working with the diverse population we have in rural Nevada, I feel that my life experiences allow me to provide students with the comfort and support they need. I provide a non-judgmental approach to tailor their academic plans to exactly what will help them thrive, grow and accomplish their goals.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention about your mental health journey, the lessons you’ve learned along the way, or any particularly helpful resources?
Take notes. When you feel “leveled out,” study this disorder. Becoming a student of bipolar has empowered me to feel more in control, rather than a victim of circumstance. Take notes on this but also take notes on your behavior. Rather than “getting through” the day, study it. What triggered you, and how did you react? Write it down. What upset you? What frustrated you? The more we learn from ourselves, the more we can improve for the next time. And, if we fail, we must learn from that failure. So, never stop taking notes and studying. It will empower you and help you show up as the person you and your loved ones need.