Picking up the Pieces
Picking Up the Pieces 

I would be hard pressed to tell you which was the most difficult part of picking up the pieces and going on.  It may have been the acceptance of having a chronic mental disorder and coping with it.  It may have been dealing with the stigma so rampant in being labeled "mentally ill" or it may have been recovering my self and sense of self-esteem.

When I was in hospital the first time, my best friend Mary gave birth to her third child.  A baby girl, and after two boys there was much rejoicing.  I missed her baby shower, and the birth, but had already crocheted a beautiful white layette, just  waiting for the pink or blue ribbons and bought several "tiny" gifts for the new baby.  Soon after my release from hospital, I completed the gift and wrapped it.  Mary lived just a few doors away and I went, gift in hand, eager to see both her and the baby.  She came to the door and held it open about a foot, accepted the gift, and to my surprise and dismay did not invite me in.  I could see the fear in her eyes and turned and walked away.  I never went back, nor did I hear from her again.  I had my first experience with stigma. (it was far from being the last)

Stigma approaches from many quarters…not just personal ones like I have described here.  Every day, every newspaper across the country has at least one article relating to the "mentally ill" and their instability or criminal behavior.  Television, billboards and magazines point fingers at the mentally ill for everything from driving health care costs up to murder.  One never sees a news story about a person who has made a positive achievement captioned "So and so is a Normal Person" but often one sees captions reading "So and so found Insane" or "So and so suffers from Mental Illness."  No one stops to think that this is the minority of the millions of people with Mental Disorders, or that there is indeed a certain percentage of so called "normals" doing the same deeds and committing the same crimes.

Great strides have been made by Mental Health advocacy groups and individuals to educate the public and their peers about the true nature of Mental Illness….of the fact that in many instances it can be treated and that, even though they carry the label, many people being treated for Mental Illness lead perfectly normal lives.  Unfortunately, the press is able to reach far more individuals and their prejudice is quoted and believed by many.  Each of us must do our part to seek understanding and acceptance for those with Mental Illness.

But first we must accept ourselves, and I believe it is not an acceptance that comes quickly or easily.  It is not like having a doctor tell you that you have developed an illness that will be cured in 2 weeks with medication and bed rest.   Some years ago, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross authored a book titled "On Death and Dying", that went on to become a world famous best seller, and then a classic.  Her book outlines her theory of the five stages a dying person goes through on being told he has a terminal illness.

I have looked at these stages in the terms of my Bipolar Disorder and the similarities are revealing.  The first stage is DENIAL.  "NO, they must be wrong.  Something else is the problem.  I will not take this medicine they prescribe.  I will see a different doctor, or a hundred different doctors till one tells me I don't have this terrible disorder.  Me?  Mentally Ill?  Not a chance!!"  In this stage we fool no one but ourselves!  Many people diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder remain at this stage for a long time, self-medicate, try every new product they hear of and continue to suffer.

I remember well my own reactions in the next stage ANGER!!  I was furious that I should be the one chosen of three siblings to have this disorder.  "WHY ME?" I cried in anguish.  Why not them?  I was angry with my mother, who had died six years earlier for having the genes she passed on to me.  I was angry with my doctors for having the nerve to label me with such a permanent diagnosis.  I was angry with myself and guilty for not having the strength to overcome it.  I was just plain angry…with everyone and everything.  God got His share of my anger as well, and it was at this stage that I lost much of my faith.

Pictures of my mother's suffering were fresh in my mind and I begged my doctor to reassess my condition.  Perhaps there was too much stress in my life?  Could that be it?  I could reduce the stress!  I pleaded with God to take this awful affliction from me and I would do anything He asked of me.  I was in the third stage…the stage of BARGAINING.

DEPRESSION followed closely on its heels as I realized that no amount of denial, anger, or bargaining would change the facts.  I had Bipolar Affective Disorder and not a darn thing would change that fact.  I thought seriously about running away to a place no one would know of my shameful "secret".  I thought about suicide.

But eventually I reached the final stage of ACCEPTANCE.  Partly through my own recovery, partly through my doctor's assurances that treatment was available and partly through the support of friends and family, I gradually accepted the disorder and made efforts to learn all I could learn about it and how to cope with it.

This is not to say I never had a problem again…far from it in fact.  For the next eight years though I remained relatively stable (still with minor up and down swings) but easily controlled with medication and without hospitalization.  I was able to work regularly, laugh and joke with customers, do my job with none of my previous difficulties with comprehension, concentration or poor judgement and enjoy it.  Every day brought new joys with my children.  I continued to keep regular appointments with my psychiatrist and take medication faithfully.  I thought I had it beat…I truly did!  I was one of the lucky ones!

In 1989 my luck changed.  The years that followed were marred by severe episodes, multiple hospitalizations and serious results.  I honestly don't remember how many times I was in hospital over the following eight years, although I have a record of the most serious ones.  From 1990 on it seemed I did not recover from one episode before finding myself in the midst of the next.  Medications were changed often, but my moods continued to be unstable, moving from mania, to hypomania, and severe depression to mixed episodes and rapid cycling.

Early in 1993 I was sent to a hospital 500 miles from home for ECT (shock) therapy.  Several months later I made a serious attempt at suicide, and was in hospital for over three months.  This was the one that put an end to my being employed.  I was declared permanently disabled and started on a pension.  In 1994 I lost a very close friend to suicide (see the article "My Friend Jeff" in this event).   Other hospitalizations were interspersed with the main ones, but it was clear that my most difficult time was the Fall of the year.  I did not recover this time, and other local hospitalizations followed until September 1995 when I was sent to a Provincial Psychiatric Hospital 300 miles from home.  The treatment I received at this hospital was the turning point to recovery once again.  It was to be a long and rocky road, to be sure, but progress was once again being made.

Read my next article "The Endless Battle" for more details. 

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