Dear Mom, You Did Good

Lying in bed the other night, I was thinking about when this all began. “This”: My lifelong battle with mental illness in its many varied forms; showing up as depression, anxiety, agoraphobia, panic attacks, and finally, bipolar disorder. This past Spring my mother and I had an enlightening and healing conversation in which we both agreed that it was around the age of seven that I changed. I became, somehow, an unhappy child.

I was laying in bed, thinking about this. This pivotal year in my life. Thinking about how there was no rhyme or reason for this sudden shift of brain chemistry and fate and then it occurred to me: why my mother had, during that Spring conversation, said to me, “I always thought it was my fault.”

The year I was seven was the year she and my father first separated. Is it possible that somehow my mother had convinced herself that if only she had been able to make her marriage work, I wouldn’t have developed a mental illness?

The thought brought tears to my eyes, and then a sudden and profound healing and gratitude. I realized what must have been the depths of my mother’s guilt and despair over my years of struggling, diagnoses, and hospitalizations. I realized that while I had spent years trying to understand why my parents hadn’t done more to help me, my parents had likely spent years trying to understand where they had gone wrong.

Mental illness is no one’s fault. There are contributing genetic, environmental, and neurobiological factors (among other things) that interact to cause mental illness. There is no one thing that can predict whether one person or another will develop a mental illness. Two people with the exact same genetic and environmental factors can experience the same life events and one will develop a mental illness, while the other won’t. Science can’t tell us exactly why.

I have never once in my life thought to myself, I have a mental illness because my parents separated when I was young. Sure there were years when I wished they had gotten me more or different help, but it never occurred to me to blame them for the illness itself. When I was teenager I remember people telling me that someday I would realize that my parents had done the best they could, that I would no longer blame them. At the time, I couldn’t imagine ever feeling like my parents had done the best they could. But over the last ten years, this idea became so ridiculous as to feel obsolete.

The idea that my mom could have somehow saved me from mental illness is too ludicrous to even consider. But it wasn’t until the other night that I realized my mother might not know this.

Mom,

Mental illness has tried to kill me over and over again. It has tried to convince me that I am crazy, worthless, stupid, fat, lazy, unloved, and fundamentally unlovable. It has twisted my thoughts, my beliefs about myself and made me believe that my friends and family would be better off without me. But the things I learned from you have kept me alive.

I learned from you that it is not only okay to take of yourself, but necessary. And since we are not always good at taking care of ourselves, it is sometimes okay to let others take of us. If I hadn’t learned this from you, I never would have survived this. I am strong, resilient, and brave because you raised me. I am still alive because you are my mother.

Thank you for doing the best you could in the face of this senseless and life changing illness. There is nothing to forgive. Thank you for being my mother. I love you.

Maybe there’s someone in your life who blames themselves for something between you. Maybe they have reason for blaming themselves, maybe they don’t. Think about the people in your life, take the time to thank them today. It will do you both some good.

Judged by Mental Illness

Three or four times in my life, my mental illness has resulted in other people questioning my trustworthiness with children.

I have always loved kids. I have spent most of my life working with kids in some fashion or another. When I was a teenager, I volunteered in the nursery at my church. When I went to college, I worked at a daycare and then became a nanny. I worked as a nanny for most of the next ten years. During that time I also worked at a training center for students with learning disabilities.

I am good with kids. Mostly, they think I’m fun and parents have always loved me. I have never and would never do anything to hurt a child. Having a mental illness does not pre-dispose me towards hurting anyone but myself.

In fact, studies show that a person with mental illness is no more likely to commit a violent crime than a person without mental illness.

Of course, there are mental illness’s where this is not the case. Some mental illnesses make people anti-social, violent, or even homicidal. But these cases are rare. For the most part, people with mental illness are only a danger to themselves and only very rarely put other people in danger as a result. In fact, studies show that a person with mental illness is no more likely to commit a violent crime than a person without mental illness.

So what gives? Why is it that even people who know me pretty well or very well think I’m a danger to their children?

Crimes committed by people with mental illness are over-publicized. The stories about a person with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder hurting someone get stuck in people’s heads. The media circus creates a myth that people with mental illness are dangerous.

One in Five

Did you know that One in Five American adults experienced a mental health issue in 2014? Count your friends and family and divide by five. Statistically, that is how many people you know that have had a mental health challenge. Did you know? Probably not. Because the majority of people with mental health problems live productive, active, “normal” lives. They don’t talk about their mental health and very few, if any, people in their life know about it.

If that is all true (and it is), how can it be that people with mental illnesses aren’t trustworthy? People with mental illness cook your food, clean your house, take care of your babies, deliver your mail, cut your hair, teach your children, fly your planes, and serve you in all manner of things.

My name is Terryn Rutford and I am bipolar. I have been a danger to myself, but I have NEVER been a danger to others. And it is beyond hurtful to have had my family and friends question that.

If you know someone who struggles with their mental health, I urge you to get informed. Head on over to MentalHealth.gov or the National Alliance for Mental Illness for more information about mental illness and mental health.

 

ConquerWorry

On Wednesday, I mentioned a new project I’m working on and promised to tell you about it. And then I forgot. So here’s making up for lost time.

I was browsing through my twitter feed last week when I came across some suggested posts from ConquerWorry. I had never heard of them before, but I enjoyed the posts I read, so I went in search of more posts. And I found this:

I started this blog to help fight the stigma of mental illness by being honest about my own struggle. I love being able to honestly share what my life is like and hearing from others how they can relate. Mental Health advocacy is such an important cause in a world where suicide is the second leading cause of death for 10-24 year olds. Nothing is more heartbreaking than a world where children decide to kill themselves.

ConquerWorry.org was started by a husband and wife team, Jay and Chris Coulter. It has been a labor of love for both of them, and they recently reached out looking for support to keep the site going. I offered my services up to help wherever I could and found a kinship with Jay. I have taken on ConquerWorry’s pinterest account and have been helping with the website ConquerWorry.org and organizing the new ConquerWorry Leadership Team.

I am honored and proud to be a part of the ConquerWorry team and encourage everyone who reads this to check out the website, find ConquerWorry on social media and get involved in #ConqueringWorry. One in Four adults struggle with a mental illness. Think about that? If you know more than four people, one of them struggles with mental illness. If you could help them in any way or just understand them better, wouldn’t you want to? Visit ConquerWorry.Org to learn more today.

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Before I Learned to Live

It’s been a year and a half since my last trip to the hospital.

Life has been challenging this last year. There has been a mountain of change and my mental health has continued to ride the same familiar roller coaster that I have traveled for most of my thirty years.

A year and a half ago, life wasn’t that difficult. My husband had a good job, I was working on my business, we had our two dogs. But I was not doing well emotionally. I was anxious all the time. My depression was deep and vast. And that summer, I couldn’t handle it.

I was on a heavy cocktail of medications to try to curtail my severe anxiety and the worst of my moods, but they weren’t working. I was taking more and more of my anxiety medication and one day, I took too much. I overdosed and almost died. I nearly passed out in a dog training class and E rushed me to the nearest hospital. I don’t remember anything after leaving the class.

I woke up the next day in the hospital, hooked up to machines, and unable to speak. I passed out again and woke up hours later, I think or maybe it was the next day. None of it is clear to me. Once I was fully recovered, they sent me to the psych ward.

Weeks later E and I were talking about his experience. Before I woke up the first time, the doctors had told him that I was in critical condition and no one was sure if I would wake up.

I imagined how I would feel if doctors told me that E was in critical condition and might not survive. It made my heartbreak to think about how he must of felt. And it was the final piece for me. In that moment, I realized that I would never put him in that position again. For better or worse, no matter what, I was going to live.

Sitting here today, feeling as anxious, stressed, and sad as I have felt in a long time, I am struck by how easy it has become to endure.

Life is difficult. I am depressed and some days I wonder what the point is of living. But I keep going, because living is the only choice. We are nothing if we are not alive, even if living means staying in bed or sitting on the couch all day. I have learned to live.

If you are struggling with being alive, think about someone who loves you – a family member, a spouse, a girl/boyfriend, a pet, a neighbor, a friend. Imagine how you would feel if something happened to them, if they died. And then know that this is how they would feel if you died. Even if you don’t think anyone cares or if you think that these people would be better off without you, imagine how devastated they would be and hang on to that. Hang onto it as long as you can and get help. Comment here, or send me a message.

Call the suicide hotline 1 (800) 273-8255 or Contact the National Alliance for Mental Illness 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or info@nami.org. They can help you find resources in your community.

You are not alone.

I am stigma free

It’s Mental Illness Awareness Week. Let’s talk about mental health care in this country.

A couple of years ago, my psychological medication needs were being met by a psych nurse at a clinic in Albuquerque. To obtain her master’s degree, she had done an incredibly brave, heart-wrenching, and eye-opening research project.

She interviewed women who had either attempted to, actually injured, or even killed their children. I don’t know the specific details of the questions she asked or what exactly her goal was when she began. But I do know that what she found was that a very large percentage of these women had sought help in the days and weeks leading up to their crime. Some women had specifically sought psychological help through clinics, psychiatrists, therapists, counselors of all kind. Others had gone to emergency rooms or their family doctor. They were women who knew that they needed help, who knew that everything was not okay. And on the whole, they were women who were told by their doctors and people who were supposed to be trained to help them, that they just needed a vacation, sleep, coffee, a hobby, patience, etc. They were sent home and told that they didn’t have a real problem, that they were bad mothers, that they needed to suck it up and go home to their children.

I am not excusing these women for losing control and hurting their children. I am, however, condemning our health system for not serving the mental health needs of the people who sought its help. We cannot blame a health system for failing to treat people who never seek its help. But when a person walks into a medical or mental health professional’s office, an ER, hospital, or urgent care clinic of their own free will, it is because they need something. It may be masked at first by some other request, but no one goes to a doctor because there is nothing wrong with them. We must train all of our healthcare professionals to look for the signs, to treat the whole person, to care about the human being and the community as a whole.

Last week I had a shocking experience with a supposed mental health professional. Having recently moved to a new city, I am looking for a new counselor. I did some research, picked a doctor, and made a call. The clinical psychologist that I called asked me a few questions about my goals for counseling and I told her that I am looking for someone to work with long term, that I find that I do better when I have somebody to talk to. She responded by saying that she doesn’t usually see people for that long – usually not more than 10 sessions. And then she said this, I don’t want people using therapy as a crutch.

Once I explained to her that I’m bipolar, she agreed that she would see me for the long term. But this women, who had never met me and had only spoken to me for maybe two minutes, had decided that anyone who goes to counseling for more than 10 session is using it as a crutch. Nevermind people with undiagnosed mental illnesses, or those with major issues to work through. This is a women who is supposedly trained to care for mentally fragile people, who is supposed to know the signs and symptoms, make diagnoses, and then treat them.

Now, I have been in and out of counseling for a long time. I know that I need long term counseling. I know, that for me, talk therapy helps me work out my relationship challenges, make good decisions, and see where I am being unreasonable in the world. One counselor telling me that therapy is a crutch is not going to deter me from finding a counselor who will help me.

But what about the next person? The one who calls after months or years of agonizing over it, who finally follows the advice of friends or family or their general practitioner and calls this woman. The one who already thinks that counseling can’t help them or that it’s a waste of time. This particular counselor with her attitude about counseling as a crutch might turn this person off and shut down their search for help.

This is what’s wrong with our system. And I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir at this point. Most people I know, know that our system is flawed. And in the face of last week’s tragedy, we really must do whatever we have to to change the system. We must improve our mental health care (and our gun laws).

To show your support of reforming our mental health care, donate to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) today: Donate to NAMI or go here and take the NAMI pledge to be stigma free and then post the following button to Facebook. I did.

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Making Friends When You’re Mentally Ill

I think if you ask anyone, they will tell you that making friends as an adult can be extremely challenging. Unless you have coworkers or you attend church on a regular basis, there can easily be a dearth of candidates. Even when you do regularly interact with potential friends, it can still be difficult to make connections, find things in common, and spend the necessary time with them in order to develop a relationship.

On top of the innate difficulties, the process is made more difficult when we have things that we don’t want or are afraid to share with other people. Unusual lifestyle choices, insurmountable debt, illness, poverty, and other socially taboo things can be real barriers to making a good friend.

Here are some of the questions I find myself asking when faced with making a new friend:

  • When should I share my mental illness, if at all?
  • How much detail should I go into?
  • Do I keep a friend updated on the ongoing situation?
  • Should I pretend to be happy and worry-free in their company no matter what the reality?
  • How much honesty is too much?

These kinds of questions are cyclical and very difficult to answer. When I met my husband, I had the same questions with many concerns. What will he think when he finds out? Will he summarily break up with me? Will he be afraid? Will he be bogged down by all the worry and sadness? And if he decides to stay with me, will he someday get sick of dealing with me?

These are the kinds of concerns that never really go away, with friends and loved ones. When they know your secret, whether it’s mental illness, some other kind of illness, or something else altogether, you then have to repeatedly ask yourself how much to share. When will you be asking too much of your friend or loved ones?

I am lucky to have this outlet. For my friends, it allows them insight into what my inner life is like and provides a deeper level of detail than I might normally share in person or over the phone. It also gives my friends the option of knowing more, of asking questions, entering into a conversation with me about my mental illness, and also of not reading if they decide it’s too much for them. But this outlet doesn’t make it any easier to make NEW friends.

I always have to ask myself, at what point do I tell the truth about myself? At what point do I admit that the reason I work from home is because I suffer from severe anxiety that frequently involves a certain level of agoraphobia or that I am on disability because I can’t handle the stresses of a full-time job? Who wants to hear these things about someone they haven’t known very long? Who wants to hear these things about anyone?

But these are the truths we must tell about ourselves. I must endeavor to find people who will not be intimidated by my honesty, who will be open to hearing the reality of my mental illness. This is the only way I know of to take mental illness out of the taboo closet and into the light.

How honest are you with the people in your life? And I’d love to know, how do you make new friends?

Faith or Indoctrination?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my faith beliefs and I’ve been wondering if some of these beliefs are really serving me. I’ve been in Unity for twenty years now and despite the fact that it doesn’t really have “doctrine” in the traditional sense of the word, I’m wondering if after all this time I haven’t been indoctrinated.

One of the principle teachings in Unity is, “We create our life experiences through our way of thinking.” Or, more simply, What we think about, we bring about. Perhaps not surprisingly, I generally  agree with this statement. If our thoughts are inherently negative, then we are going to have a more negative experience of life, then if our thoughts are inherently positive. But growing up with this principle, I came to learn that this made each of us responsible for every negative thing in our life. And so, I grew up believing that my mental illness was my fault or more importantly, that I was essentially responsible for my continuing experience of mental illness.

I absolutely believe that the brain is incredibly powerful, that it can do amazing things – calm us down, lower blood pressure, increase blood flow, and a whole host of other things that are otherwise unexplainable. I believe that people can and have affected the course of illness in their bodies. I do, ultimately, believe that can affect the course of mental illness in my body. However.

I have wondered for years whether it is truly appropriate for me to feel guilty about or responsible for my mental illness. In fact, the distress that this guilt and responsibility has caused me over the last ten years has no doubt deepened my depression. So I have to ask myself if continuing to believe that I have brought about my own illness from the time I was a very young child really serves my best interests. And I am led to conclude that it in fact, does not.

And so, then, what am I left with? Rather than clarifying my beliefs, this only serves to make them even more blurry. How can I believe that we can use our brains to affect the health of our body, but not believe that I am responsible for my mental illness? I don’t think I can answer that question. I do believe that my mental illness is inherently biological, though I know not everyone’s is. I also believe that how I deal with my mental illness is my responsibility and absolutely has an effect on the course of my mental illness. But I don’t believe that I can simply choose to banish mental illness from my life. And the idea that I could, if my faith or conviction was strong enough, is only serving to make me feel worse.

So, for now, at least I’ve cleared that up.