Saturday, January 1, 2011

To begin again. 2:13 a.m., January 1, 2011.

“An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.” ~Bill Vaughan

Dear Diary,

I just got home from a little celebration to welcome this new year. A million people have gathered in Times Square tonight to celebrate the Earth’s orbit around the sun. Around the world, almost everyone on the planet is merrymaking. It’s the biggest party there is.

A year ago tonight, my husband, son and I were at a public event. I remember that night well. It was the first New Year’s Eve after my suicide attempt, and even though my attempt had happened earlier in the year, I was still quite depressed.

At first, being surrounded by children with balloons and adults with hats and noisemakers just seemed kind of irritating. But at some point, as I was watching people dance, I felt something inside me shift. Maybe, I thought, this could be a new beginning. Maybe there was hope after all.

If there is one word to sum up the emotion of a New Year’s celebration, it’s optimism. For one night, the vast majority of human beings join together as if to say, “We can begin again, and we can do it better this time around.” If you think about it, there would be no other reason to celebrate a particular passage of time. The point is that things are new and fresh, and there is opportunity and hope. Like the birth of a baby, the beginning of a New Year symbolizes possibilities.

Part of that optimism is reflected in the concept of the New Year’s resolution. When my son was 7 or so, I explained New Year’s resolutions to him, let him think for a while, and then asked, “So what is your resolution going to be this year?” “To learn more about roly-poly bugs,” he announced. For a 7-year-old, learning about a bug just might be considered self-improvement.

Actually, he kept his resolution, which is more than can be said for most adults who vow to quit smoking or start exercising. But part of the importance of a resolution is simply recognizing an area of one’s life that needs to be changed. That’s a big chunk of the battle.

This year, I resolve to do one thing: to continue to recover. I’ve already come a long way from that big celebration a year ago, and my “support group” on Facebook is a huge reason for that. I’ve taken other actions as well – getting proactive about my career options, reaching out to be closer to old friends and to make new ones, and finding a new therapist. Despite dark clouds of economic doom, despite some legitimate fears of what the future will bring, I still feel more optimistic tonight than I did one year ago when I first felt that tiny wave of hope.

Tonight, I’m hopeful that I’ll continue on my upward trajectory of healing. I’m hopeful that my loved ones will have a safe and happy year. And I’m hopeful that the dear friends I’ve met in the SAS group, some who have become like family to me, will continue to make a decision each day to stay in this world.

It’s the first day of a new year. We can begin again, and we can do it better this time around.



Thursday, December 30, 2010

Hey! Yo! Attention! … Never mind. Thursday, December 30, 2010.

“And just fake it if you're out of direction, fake it if you don't belong here … You’re such a fuckin’ hypocrite.” – “Fake It,” Seether

So you know I’ve been in this debate with people who don’t believe there is such a thing as bipolar disorder – or mental illness in general, for that matter. And one guy is all like, “Why do you want to label yourself bipolar?” and “You’re just ignorant and doing what your doctor is telling you to do” and “Believing in mental illness just increases stigma” and blah blah blah.

And I’m all like, “But being diagnosed bipolar made me feel better ‘cuz it put things in context” and “I’d rather be considered sick than have people think I’m choosing to feel this way” and “Maybe meds don’t help everyone but they helped me” and yada yada yada.

And we’re totally talking past each other, like we’re in two different universes, you know? And before long everything escalates, and we’re like bitching at each other and name-calling and stuff. And we both walk away more sure of our own positions than ever before.

And it’s kind of funny that just a couple of weeks ago somebody threw a picture saying “BIPOLAR AND PROUD” on my Facebook wall, and the people that were tagged were debating a little bit there, too. Because someone’s like, “Is bipolar something to be proud of?” And some people are like, “For sure,” and others are like, “Oh, HELL no.”

“It’s an illness, not an accolade,” says Clarissa. “I’m bipolar and proud,” says Dee. “I’m also BPD, OCPD, PTSD and ADD and proud too!” And I really had to think about whether I should leave it on my wall. I decided to keep it there, because I’m not proud of being bipolar, but I’m proud of being in the process of RECOVERY.

I’ve already talked here about labels and assumptions and stigma. I totally get that. If people find out you’ve got bipolar disorder, there is a price to be paid.

But there’s a whole lot of way cool people that have struggled with bipolar. And as a journalist, I admit it’s kinda neat to share one thing with some of the finest writers in the world. I’m in good company, you know? Me and Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf, hangin’ out, takin’ our lithium …

But that’s where it starts getting really weird, ‘cuz I’m a bipolar journalist who’s in the closet. Never mind that in my profession, being diagnosed bipolar is practically a badge of honor! ABC News reports that in this economy, when an employee is discovered to have bipolar disorder, his career can be destroyed, even if it’s not impacting his work.

“Doesn’t having the label of bipolar lower your self-esteem?” Someone asks me, and I say no. In fact it’s just the opposite. I have an illness that drives some people to the street, but here I am – intelligent and attractive and educated and responsible, with a good job and a nice house and a lovely family. I’m a frickin’ poster child! I want to SHOUT from the rooftops: I’M BIPOLAR AND I FUNCTION QUITE WELL, THANK YOU!

It’s true. I really, really want to tell people. I want to tell everybody I know. Know why? Because the only people they KNOW are bipolar are those who have hit bottom and stayed there. The rest – the ones who are recovering, who are working, who are functioning, who are leading normal lives – we’re all keeping our mouths shut.

Guess what? We’re all around you, but we keep it a secret. There’s even a name for us: the high-functioning professional bipolar patient (PHFBP for short).

So on the one hand, I’m like, “It’s an illness, and nothing to be stigmatized for.” And on the other hand, I’m like, “I can’t tell anyone.” So does that make me a hypocrite?

Blah blah blah. Yada yada yada.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The fight club. Monday, December 27, 2010.

“Why can’t we all just get along?” –Rodney King

I admit it – I didn’t even know there were significant numbers of people who disagree with the concept of mental illness until I encountered the sentiments here on Facebook. I knew about Scientology, but I wasn’t aware of a more global movement against psychiatry. Someone who’s become a friend of mine here has written a book on the topic: “Mental Illness – Fact or Fiction?” (While she knows I don’t agree with all of her views, as a fellow author and buddy of hers, I’d like to encourage you to order a copy of her book! My own check is on its way.)

Anyway, I was fascinated by the premise, and did a great deal of reading online about it – material from the Anti-Psychiatry Coalition, Stop Shrinks, writings by Thomas Szasz, and more. While some of what I read did resonate, other arguments simply didn’t ring true to me. So I started posing questions on discussion threads. Quickly what started out as questioning turned to debate and then dissolved into battle.

While a handful of individuals can’t represent an entire movement, I must admit that being called a “sheeple,” among other names, did not give me a positive impression of this point of view. In my frustration I followed up with my own rant. (I’ve also blogged numerous times on the efficacy of antidepressants; stigma; and involuntary treatment.)

But I still had questions, so I posted a note listing 3 of them. A few weeks later I noted a thread on my feed that read, in part, “Repeat after me & then repeat 10 times plus a day: I am not mentally ill, I am not mentally ill, I never was, I never will, I am not sick, I do not have a disease.”

I find this view disturbing – because several people I care deeply about have refused treatment and wound up putting themselves and others in danger. So I responded with my concerns. Again, tempers flared on both sides. This time, I got this response (I have re-typed):

“You weren’t strong enough to deal with your issues so you turned to a pill – geez. You (people) rarely use your brain. … I think people don’t get better because they choose not to. I think if people want to get better, they will, period. … How many Americans have to pay for your ass to take medications because you need your next quick fix? How much money are you costing the American government by influencing people to get worse? How many kids to do you tell to go on medications and (they) end up shooting their classmates? … You are ignorant.”

I wound up ending the conversation because I was becoming uncivil. But then I got a delightful private message from another individual who subscribes to this view. In part, she wrote:

“Alizah, I'm sorry to hear that you were called names and insulted … I would far rather that people who are trying to create recovery for themselves have the ability to share what was helpful for them. In this manner, we can learn from each other as opposed to being pitted against one another. . I would like to see more respect for finding our own answers in accordance with who we are, the options we had at our disposal, the choices we had to make. Whichever path an individual ends up on, it's not easy.”

She signed it with the wish, “Namaste,” which means “The god in me honors the god in you.”

Those of us who agree with the “medical model,” and those who do not, have a lot in common. On both sides, most of us simply want people to be well and happy. On both sides, there are charlatans looking to cash in on peoples’ distress. And on both sides, peoples’ own life experiences will dictate their view. We’ll never agree, and we don’t have to. But wouldn’t it be awesome if we could lay down our weapons and honor the god (good) in each other?