Stigma Fighters : Jennifer Bross

In an instant I finally felt life being restored to my body. It felt like volts of electricity coursing through my veins. As the bright lights begin to come into focus, I hear faint voices becoming stronger. Did I make into the other dimension? I feel suffocated by the tube in my throat and taste the sulfur they dumped down my throat. I know I have failed. I would never have guessed that after twenty years of wreckage that stripped me of my freedom and my ability to mentally and financially take care of myself and my daughter, That I would be finally handed the diagnosis of bipolar 1 and schizoaffective disorder

I was 19 years old when I first attempted to take my life. It was that year that I had lost my brother in a plane crash and I as well as the professionals were not aware that this emotional tragedy awakened bipolar that lurked in my DNA. After another suicide attempt one year later, I was sent home with a diagnosis of depression along with a script of an anti-depressant and a shit load of Klonopin. Nobody would listen to me that I still was not feeling right mentally. I did not have support from my family, as they did not believe in mental health; partly because they were in denial. I then turned to alcohol and a dark fascination with death. I was losing sanity and became more unstable by the day.

Reckless and dangerous behavior became the norm for me. I only operated on two emotions at that time, extremely sad or extremely angry. I began drinking with a crowd that invited my behavior. Not one of them would bat an eye if I started raging because that was the only thing I knew to do to erase the intense anger and irritation. That type of behavior made me get tangled up in the legal system and being labeled an alcoholic and a nuisance. Other suicide attempts followed leaving me with the same diagnosis of depression/anxiety.

The summer of 2013 is when I finally lost complete touch of reality. I was hearing voices and completely paranoid that people were out to harm me. I began drinking quite heavily to try and stop the anxiety and numb the fear. It got to the point where I had to abruptly quit my job. One day I drove around for hours polishing off fifths of vodka because that’s where I finally thought was a safe place. It was far from it, I ended up causing two separate accidents because I was running away from dark and scary figments of my imagination. My stay at the hospital was three weeks and in that time I was finally diagnosed with bipolar 1 and schizoaffective disorder.

I was so relieved about my diagnosis and I was no longer in fear even though I was facing a possible sentence of 2 to 5 years in prison for multiple DUIs. I fought hard to achieve stability and spent numerous lonely nights gathering up as much information I could on my illness. I was going to prove people and the legal system that I was just not another drunken nuisance and that there are serious mental issues creating such behavior. I know we should all take responsibility for our actions and to serve our consequences for our behavior but it made me feel more comfortable having an explanation. At my sentencing hearing, I was able to converse with the Judge with regards to my illness and my treatment. He took it under consideration and I am now currently serving a 2 year sentence on house arrest instead of prison with no eligibility for a driver’s license until December of 2016.

I admit that there are some days where I don’t think I’ll make it through this. Most days it feels like my brain is trying to kill me and I am trapped in a cage with limited resources to make it better but I make it. I know that each day I become stronger at managing this illness. I’m not afraid to say I am bipolar because this illness has and will define me. It has made me the warrior I am today.

I am working on a project with regards to the Judicial system stigmatizing repeat offenders for alcohol/drug related crimes. Here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania we have rehabilitative programs for such repeated crimes but they refuse to evaluate any of these offenders for possible mental health issues while just treating the substance abuse issues. Although, they claim that their treatment plan is 90% successful, I am currently gathering the pertinent information to show that the program’s success rate at this time projects a smaller percentage. Statistics show that 1 of every 3 repeat offender have an underlying and undetected mental health issue. If my petition goes according to plan, such individuals would be ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluations in hopes of finding the correct treatment plan. Our Judicial system is one of the biggest offenders of stigma and even if it takes one small change more change will follow.

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sf-picA mother of 15 year old Daughter and a co-fur baby mom to two spunky West Highland Whites. I’m currently weathering my storm and am in hopes to make a few changes that can impact better treatment plans for the mentally ill caught up in the legal system. Also, hoping to work in the mental health field some day.

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Stigma Fighters : SharonAnn O’Reilly

Take My Hand
I have decided to write about some of my own experience regarding depression. I’ve had it from about the age of 11, but not diagnosed officially until well into my 20’s and had children of my own.

I can’t remember a time when depression wasn’t there. People who have never had it can’t really understand it. I guess they can try, and they can be understanding about it but until you actually experience it, I don’t think you can truly understand. It’s not about sitting around all day crying. Though some people do. In fact some people go from being extremely happy to being extremely sad within minutes. Sometimes when you wake up in the morning you’re disappointed to still be alive. Even though you know deep down that life is precious. Sometimes you get anxious about the minutia of every day life, sometimes you couldn’t care less. In my darkest moments I’ve both thought about and tried to end my pain. Luckily my children give me a reason to live. I’m lucky cause I’ve got someone to love me, but it took a lot of time and effort to allow them to love me. I built up walls to protect myself but they also kept the good people out. You feel you’re not worthy of love, and you also don’t love yourself so how can anyone else?
I’ve had people saying the usual stuff. Give yourself a shake, get yourself out of it, cop on, you’re so lucky and so on. When you’re in the throes of a low you’re incapable of seeing the bright side. You feel like a burden to the people around you and that they wouldn’t miss you if you go. That they would be better off if you weren’t around, and that your pain would be gone if you were. So when people say that suicide is a cowardly way out, they couldn’t be more wrong. In your head it’s the most self less thing to do. In your head it’s best for everyone. So many people say they had no idea I felt that way, but that’s the key. The mask you put on to hide your true feelings. And nobody knows it’s a mask until it’s too late. Can you imagine being in so much pain that you just want it to end?

Another myth…having money etc stops you being depressed. It doesn’t.

Depression doesn’t care if you live in a mansion or on the streets. I know people who look on the outside like they have everything a person could want yet they’re still depressed. I also know people who have nothing and are ecstatic.

When I’m down I withdraw from everything and everyone. The walls come back up and I go very quiet. I know the signs now and can deal with it a bit better. I would describe it as being in my own soundproof bubble, watching everyone around me yet not being a part of it. I have people who care enough to break through and take my hand and help me get back on the up again
I really wish for more openness and understanding from society regarding mental health. If a person has a gaping wound or a broken bone they get recognition and sympathy. What about the broken people? What about the invisible scars? What about the wounds you can’t see? Everyone should be educated in the signs and symptoms of depression, especially parents. It can happen at any age. Please don’t be too quick to judge if a person can’t cope. Try to be understanding and hold out a helping hand to them. Let them know they’re not alone. It’s human nature to want to feel loved and needed.

Sometimes you have to shut your eyes in order to see.

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I am a teacher with my own business, three wonderful grown up children, and work in the community sector. I have had depression since around the age of 11, but wasn’t officially diagnosed until my 20s. Even then I was mis diagnosed. I try to help others with depression, by lending an ear, a shoulder, a helping hand.

SharonAnn can be found on Twitter

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Stigma Fighters: EMM, not Emma.

Mental illness

People assume you aren’t sick
unless they see the sickness on your skin
like scars forming a map of all the ways you’re hurting.

My heart is a prison of Have you tried?
Have you tried exercising? Have you tried eating better?
Have you tried not being sad, not being sick?
Have you tried being more like me?
Have you tried shutting up?

Yes, I have tried. Yes, I am still trying,
and yes, I am still sick.

Sometimes monsters are invisible, and
sometimes demons attack you from the inside.
Just because you cannot see the claws and the teeth
does not mean they aren’t ripping through me.
Pain does not need to be seen to be felt.

Telling me there is no problem
won’t solve the problem.

This is not how miracles are born.
This is not how sickness works.”

― Emm Roy, The First Step

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Emm Roy is a 23 year old Canadian illustrator most known for her blog Positive Doodles in which she draws cartoon animals saying positive and inspirational messages.

Stigma Fighters: Julie A. Fast

Dare to Share! My Bipolar Disorder Mood Swing Success Story
By Julie A. Fast

I’ve only been introduced to myself over the past few years. Up until then, it was a daily struggle to keep my constant, chronic, overwhelming and downright vicious bipolar disorder under control. From my diagnosis of ultradian rapid cycling bipolar 2 with psychotic features at age 31 in 1995, through my medication tribulation and triumphs, through 13 bilateral ECT treatments (it’s not shock therapy!) and writing six books about bipolar disorder and depression, my bipolar disorder simply wouldn’t let me know who I was outside of the illness.

I knew I was in there. I saw glimpses of myself in the hours I was able to just sit and do something without my brain telling me what to think, do and say, but they were hard fought accomplishments instead of moments of ease. I had 312 mood swings in 2012 and despite my daily goal of being stable when I went to bed every night, the mood swings were relentless. I was consistently depressed while sleeping and often woke up crying in the middle of the night. I feared for my safety. Then it all changed.

Today, 20 years after my diagnosis and over 30 years since my first hypomanic episode in Europe at age 17, I know who I am. Bipolar disorder is under control.I have to repeat that sentence. My bipolar disorder is under control and has been for two years. I still have mood swings and am more vigilant with my management plan than I have ever been, but it’s child’s play compared to the trauma I experienced for over 20 years. My motto to TREAT BIPOLAR DISORDER FIRST has not changed. But wow, it’s so much easier now that I know what this illness looks like, what works and what doesn’t work and who I can and can’t let into my life. I’m getting to know myself. I had no idea what I was like outside of the illness. It has certainly been fascinating to see how I react to life now that I get to choose my emotions instead of having them dictated to me by an ill brain.

I was suicidal a few weeks ago and amazingly was able to separate myself from the episode and observe what had triggered the suicidal symptoms and how the bipolar disorder was reacting to the situation. I said to myself, ‘What does Julie want to do about this situation?’ and I made a decision from that person and not the scared, suicidal, crying, hopeless person I could see in the chair. I was so sick in that moment I tried to hide my face from the world with a blanket. The episode lasted a few hours and then (after using my management skills), IT WAS GONE. The mood swings that once lasted years now appear and then leave because I know what to do when I get sick. This is the only way to live and I want it for all people with bipolar disorder. If it can happen to me, it can happen to you. Stigma keeps us from sharing our stories.

I remember when I was first diagnosed- the year after my then partner Ivan was diagnosed with bipolar one. (My book Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder is about how we managed Ivan’s and ultimately my bipolar disorder together.) I thought, if all of the people in the WORLD who have bipolar disorder simply stood up at once, we would no longer be ashamed because the world would shake from so many people standing up at the same time! Maybe it will still happen one day. ;) Stigma Fighters shares this dream. We are so much stronger when we share our stories with humor, pain and honesty and then explain that even though it’s a struggle and it takes a lot of work and support, we do eventually get to meet our real selves and experience the world from a place of joy and stability.
We can do it together!
Julie

Bonus! I’d like to share the #1 strategy that eventually tipped me into the stability world- a place I never thought I would even get to visit! This example relates to bipolar disorder, but it works with any mental health disorder.
1. MICRO MANAGE YOUR MOOD SWINGS: Learn the smallest signs of a mood swing, write them down, memorize them, share the information with others and make a promise to yourself that you will micro manage the heck out of bipolar disorder for the rest of your life. This illness is tricky, sneaky, cruel and devastating, but it’s not complicated. Mania, depression, anxiety, ADD symptoms and psychosis all have a pattern and once you learn YOUR pattern from the moment your symptoms start, you can stop the mood swings before they go too far. My bipolar disorder got better year by year because I paid attention to the minutiae of my mood swings and learned the signs that I was getting sick. I then taught every person in my life how to help me notice the signs and speak up when it was obvious I was in the grips of a mood swing and couldn’t see I was sick. This took me out of crisis control and put me in the manager’s seat.

All of my work is based off of this simple concept. Here’s an example. My hypomania tends to be euphoric and it’s very, very seductive when it starts. Before I taught myself to recognize the beginning signs of a mood swing, I never realized I was sick until AFTER the money was spent, the stranger was slept with, the relationship was left or the herpes had been contracted. Now, I can often tell the moment the mania starts because my vision clears and colors become heightened. It’s subtle, but it’s very obvious now that I know what to look for. I also feel a tingling sensation all over my body as though my cells are shimmering. If my mania progresses, I have the thought, ‘I’m not manic. This is the real me!’ as my brain tries to talk me out of taking care of myself. This is ALWAYS a sign that I’m manic as is my urge to tell people to shut up and stop ruining my fun who point out that I’m talking a little fast and I seem a little over excited about my new set of Sharpies and the huge mind map I just made for the renovation of my web pages. Ha!

If you have bipolar disorder or any other mental health disorder where you need to manage your moods, you can make a very simple list of the first symptoms you experience when a mood change begins. To continue with the euphoric mania example, you can write down the physical changes you experience when euphoric mania is starting. Notice your eyes, how you hold your shoulders, the shine of your hair and the gloss of your skin- it’s not a coincidence that people in a euphoric manic episode can basically get anyone interested in them just by walking into the room. As my friend Dr. Jay Carter taught me, euphoric mania switches off the frontal lobes that constantly tell us we are not good enough, handsome enough, smart enough or rich enough and as a consequence, we walk into situations in our full physical glory and conquer the world. These start as subtle signs- the skin that looked gray and old when you were depressed suddenly seems pink, healthy and covered in glitter when you look into the mirror.

Clothes hang differently on your body and there is a spring in your step- literally. It’s so, so easy to miss these physical signs of mania as they feel so good and have such a positive effect at the beginning that you can’t imagine how they could be dangerous. Learning to stop the mania during these beginning symptoms changed my life. It doesn’t always work. I still get caught by this illness and often realize I’m manic after I have a brand new set of metallic Sharpies, but it’s much more rare than it used to be. Sharing my symptoms also gave control to the people who care about me as they can quickly figure out why I’m acting so oddly and tell me that I need to manage the bipolar immediately. They also know I will ALWAYS say, I’m not manic! and will then go into my room and face the painful reality that it’s back again.

Teaching myself to manage this illness took time- getting used to what bipolar disorder does to me and coming to terms with the reality that it’s not going away any time soon helped me get my life back.
I wish the same for you! Julie

julieFast-430.d_8x10_Matte-small-for-FB-2014

Julie A. Fast is a six time bestselling mental health author, speaker and coach who lives with bipolar disorder.  Her books include Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder: Understanding and Helping Your Partner, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder: A Four Step Plan for You and Your Loved Ones to Manage the Illness and Create Lasting Stability,  Get it Done When You’re Depressed: 50 Strategies for Keeping Your Life on Track and the Kindle eBook Bipolar Happens! She speaks regularly for major mental health organizations, appears on radio and television especially during mental health crises around the world, received the Eli Lilly Reintegration Award for her work in bipolar disorder management, blogs and writes an award winning column for BP Magazine for which she won the Mental Health America excellence in journalism award, is on the expert registry of People Magazine, offers expert mental health advice on the Oprah and Dr. Oz website ShareCare.com and was the original consultant for the Claire Danes character on Homeland. Julie is also a board member for ASHA International (www.MyAHSA.org) and works as a coach for family members and partners of people with mental health disorders. She stresses the importance of medications when needed, with a primary focus on the comprehensive management of the illness and believes stability is a realistic goal for all.  For more information, please visit www.JulieFast.com, www.BipolarHappens.com, her blog www.BipolarHappens.com/bhblog, at Julie A. Fast on Facebook and @JulieBipolar on Twitter.

Stigma Fighters : Shea Wong

Why I do what I do.

It’s a Saturday morning, and I’m sitting on a train from London headed to nearly the top of Scotland. I’m giving a talk to pre-med and psychology students at the University of St Andrews regarding mental health stigma and sex/relationships for their weekend of lectures. I look over my notes for the event – I’ll talk for a bit, take some questions, and two hours later, my part of the symposium will be over, and I’ll take the small village train back to Edinburgh and catch the sleeper train back into London to meet the dawn. Things like this, getting up and talking about mental health, and anti-stigma initiatives, have become second nature to me. The faces change – students this week, journalists a month ago, politicians in a few days – but the subject matter stays the same. We all have minds, and therefore, we all have mental health. But one in four of us, at some point in our lives, will have a mental health issue. So, let’s build a society that helps each other, rather than lives in ignorance and fear of what a mental health issue is.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder over 10 years ago, and at the time, I saw it as a death sentence. It took nearly four years of hard therapy to even wrap my head around the concept of living with this disease, rather than dying from it, and while I’ve managed a stable relationship and great kid in the meantime, I’m always wary of this invisible illness that dances on my synapses. I recognize that right now, I’m considered lucky – my bipolar has been officially declared “in remission”. I know this can change at any moment, and I have to be prepared for what could happen to me and my family if my mental health takes a turn for the worse.

I suppose it’s why I ‘m a media volunteer here in the UK, speaking to journalists on how to talk about mental health in the press, and why the words they use are so important. It’s why I give lectures to pre-med students, insisting that they treat mental health issues with the same parity they’d treat any physical ailment. It’s why I write about mental health issues, from national trends in politics and policy, as well as my own personal experience. I speak now for those who cannot currently speak for themselves. I speak for my son, who will grow up in a world with much more openness regarding mental health issues, but where so much more work with anti-stigma needs to be done. I speak for myself in case the future of my illness isn’t so kind, and I find myself unable to speak out later.

Yet I worry. In all the strides we’ve made as mental health campaigners, the tidal wave of ignorance sometimes seems overwhelming. I speak with lived experience experts who tell me that they’ve been cut off from their families as a result of an illness they didn’t ask for. I watch with rage as medical care is slashed, virtually guaranteeing the most vulnerable like the transient populations within large cities, the elderly, and former military on benefits will feel the cuts deeper than anyone else. I remember the looks I would get at the outpatient mental health ward where I met my psychiatrist once a week through my pregnancy, and again through my early months of motherhood. I always found it odd that the most piteous looks came not from the staff, but from other patients. Their eyes seemed to say “Why bring a child into your world of madness? Why bother?” So often the biggest stigma came from within, and later, from others in the mental health community, and that self-stigma was only strengthened by a society and government that seemed all too willing to brush all of us under the carpet, away from ‘normal’ society’s eyes.

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It’s now evening, and I’m settling in at the small train station waiting for my evening ride to Edinburgh. The talk went well – they asked a lot of questions, laughed when I hoped they would, and listened when I needed them to. I check the hashtag of the conference on twitter, and a tweet from one of the students in attendance catches my eye. “Your talk…came at an important time for me so I want to thank you for your inspiring and informative words. :)” While the platform is freezing, I’m suddenly warmed, and beaming. This is why I speak out – for that magical moment when my words happen to hit the ears of someone who needs to hear it.
And the best part is, all of us have the capacity for that moment. I’m not a neuroscientist, or a doctor. I’m an academic, but the degree I’m working on is my MBA, not psychology. I only have my life experience to base my writing and lectures on. Yet when I speak out about my experiences, the response is almost uniformly the same: Someone who wanted to speak out, responds. Someone learns that having a mental health issue does not mean they are a bad person. Someone finds the courage to start a discussion about mental health. This is why I do that I do.

Starting a conversation about mental health is scary. Depending on where you live in the world, and your community or family’s beliefs about mental illness, you could put yourself in a difficult situation regarding your home life, your job, your status in your society. But for me, living in silence was scarier, so I chose to speak out, and I don’t regret it. I speak out to reclaim power from this illness, to reclaim my voice over it, and to reclaim what mental health means in society.

Thanks for listening.

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shea-wongShea Wong is a writer, mental health campaigner, and graduate student. When she isn’t talking to people about mental health or writing strange little stories inspired by her adopted London, she likes to collect and restore vintage fountain pens, teach her kid how to cook, and is currently sending off paperwork for dual citizenship so she can rock her homeland’s US passport as well as a UK one. She hopes you are having a kick ass day.

Shea can be found on Twitter and her website

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Stigma Fighters: Nicole Markardt

What I’ve Lost Since Losing It
by Nicole Markardt

I lost it.
What ever it is…
That thing that keeps us wrapped and raveled. Before it is lost, we are neat and able to be kept; kept neat and kept contained, so they ( the contained and neat) can be kept comfortable. I was comfortable once.
But then…
Then I unraveled. It got messy. I was unable to fit into any situation without feeling as if I was passing for normal. It was palpable with every social interaction.
A panic disorder is crippling. We long to be wrapped tight again. It felt safe to fit so nicely into the scenery. But now, as it all unravels, it’s lonely.

Now there is space.
There is space to feel it all, and it all hurts so much. This spaciousness leaves room. There is room to feel unsafe, to coil into a ball of fear, but what’s even scarier than anything is that now there will always be room to fall apart.
I’ve crossed over, and once we cross over to a place where something is lost, once we unravel, we can never get the wrapping as tight as it once was. It’s like trying to re-wrap a box with used wrapping paper. It will always look wrinkled and its shiny, flawless appearance is never quite the same.
It took me a long time to understand that the gift inside is still luminous. Sometimes we must lose ourselves to fully experience our own brilliance- we breakdown to break open.

I lost it in my 20’s- somewhere between landing my dream job, and meeting Mr. Right.
It’s funny how just when things came together, I found myself falling apart. It is then, that the reality of my heart and how it’s wired became evident to me. I started to manifest all of the things I wanted for myself. I wanted to feel safe. I wanted to nurture and teach. I wanted to offer guidance to children, and being around them fed the scared little girl inside of me. After a relationship with Mr. Wrong which ended in trauma and violence, I wanted to find Mr. make-it all right. I no longer craved the drama of saving the troubled boys. I wanted someone to just love me- someone I knew could never put his hands around my throat until I passed out.

I met him. Straight out of college, I got the job I’d wanted. I had all of the things I prayed for. It is when wonderful things started showing up in my life, that I found myself in a locked bathroom panting and breathless unable to talk or breathe. These episodes would occur at random and when I least expected it… until they occurred every day. I began to hide from life after driving over the Manhattan Bridge one beautiful afternoon. I lost my peripheral vision, my ability to regulate my breath, and any control that I had over my own thoughts. My mind was my enemy that had invaded my being, and along with my pounding heart, my mind pounded thoughts of doom into my consciousness. Those driving trips became more infrequent, and I began to rely on my really nice boyfriend to drive me everywhere. If he wasn’t available, I made up all kinds of excuses as to why I could show up for life. I was a young 20 something and while all of my friends were out living, I was at home hiding from life because fear and panic were too much to bear.

It was too risky to chance a breakdown and be seen as unsteady, unstable, or as someone who was losing it. I was hiding from others, but mostly I was hiding from myself. I never dealt with the night that the guy I wanted to save, the guy I swore I could change, wrapped his hands around my throat and squeezed so hard I lost consciousness. I never dealt with him believing he took my life and drove the car we were riding off of a bridge. I never dealt with the shattered bones in my back and the month that I spent in the hospital learning to stand up again.

I did what strong people do. I practiced walking every day, I smiled, and told everyone that I was ok. When the doctors suggested that I take time off from commuting into the city to attend school, I defied them. I finished my semester because that is what strong people do.

Everyone cheered me on and told me that I was a warrior. They called me an inspiration so I proudly wore that title and kept on going. I don’t even really remember crying. When the doctors told me that the surgery may not be successful and I may be paralyzed, I asked to see a priest and I gave the nursing staff a thumb up as they wheeled me into surgery. I was what people describe as strong. It made sense not to pick scabs off of old wounds or feel unfelt feelings. When we do that, we awaken sleeping giants.
So I didn’t.

I got everything I ever wanted after that night, and when I imagined that I could finally breathe a sigh of relief, a sense of completion… I lost it.
It took me a decade to redefine what strength really means. A decade of my life was spent seeking safety in other people, places, and in life; a decade of teetering over the edge as I sought healing everywhere.

On the other side of the edge was the wisdom that I am safe without any outside factors.

Strength does not lie in staying wrapped and raveled. Strength is shedding tears, admitting fear, and sitting with pain. It took me a very long time to admit and let go of trying to appear perfect. The freedom that I have found in imperfection has opened up new worlds for me.

I’ve connected with other imperfect people who no longer try to pass for normal either. I share my stories and my heart with the world.

I lost many things since losing it.
I lost the definition of the word normal.
I lost my closed mind.
I lost my desire to fit in.
I lost self-hatred.
I lost fear.

Every now and again, that tricky beast taps me on the shoulder and tries to get reacquainted. I tell him to fuck off because he’s a liar who tried to convince me that I was going to die- that I was going to die having never lived. We broke up a long time ago.

Losing it cleared the way for my experience with strong authentic relationships where I never have to hide. Mostly, losing it helped me find a more honest definition of myself. My rich, tender, wild, and powerful emotions are now integrated and have helped transform my trials into revelations.

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A public school teacher, writer, reiki practitioner and certified yoga instructor- I guide both children and adults through yoga practice. After breaking my back, doctors couldn’t be certain I would ever walk again. Igniting my desire to heal both the emotional and physical body, I went on to receive my 200 hr. Hot Yoga/ Ashtanga Vinyasa teaching certificate, along with a specialized 100 hr. Yoga Rocks!Kids certification. As I share my journey toward peace through healing practices like yoga and meditation, I am immensely grateful for the second chance I have been given. My articles have appeared in MindBodyGreen, Elephant Journal, Rebelle Society, and Positively Positive. I am the author of Peace, Love & Practice- a column for DoYouYoga.com

Stigma Fighters: Bif Naked

ENDING STIGMA ESSAY

by Bif Naked

I moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, to these unceded lands of The Coast Salish Territories, and made my home here in 1991. Vancouver held so much promise, and was rumored to be a great solution for people living in the colder climates of Canada, who may be looking for jobs, looking for education opportunities, or looking for a fresh start. People come to Vancouver in droves, and it holds them by their hearts and never lets go.

The guys in my first band, GorillaGorilla, and I, lived over on Rupert Street at the top of a long hill, down which we could skateboard, without aid of pushing feet, all the way to the bottom, to Broadway Street, where we might catch a bus to go downtown—either to work, or to rehearsal space, or to see a gig—many of which were played by friends in other bands. We could have never done that in Winnipeg (from where we’d just moved) and we were in awe of the differences we were discovering on the West Coast. It was a rich music, skateboard, and art culture, and we were thriving despite our poverty. Life was serendipity. We had simple and earnest intentions, we never gave up on our dreams, and collaboratively worked toward what we hoped would be “success”.

This work ethic, and these dreams, are natural for most people. In fact, the majority of people are working toward a goal and endeavor to transcend poverty and struggle. Most people are trying to have a better life.

That’s how things were for my friend Lorainne.

I met Lorainne on the streets of Vancouver, in 1991. Burrard Street, to be exact. Burrard and Robson.

She was a panhandler, asking passersby for change. She looked like she was about sixty years old, with hair not totally grey but it was just so hard to tell as she was somewhat unkempt. And awkward.

Lorainne never appeared to be drunk, but her swollen face and big, red nose told me much about her personal life. She never had a warm coat, but was in snow boots, and was at the same corner, downtown, every day. She went there at eight a.m. and left at 10 a.m. each morning. It was her routine.

On my way to work, every day, I said “hi” to her and gave her the extra few dollars I carried with me to the bus stop where I jumped on and went to my day job in a printing shop. Sometimes two dollars, sometimes five, but I always made sure I had change jingling in my pocket as I went out the door.

I made just enough money from my cheque to pay rent, pay electric bill, and set aside a few dollars for food and supplies and bus fare. It worked out to about seven dollars a day and when I saw Lorainne I could not pass her by without giving her something. Anything.

Eventually, I started to strike up conversations with her, and she began to let her guard down.

Her speech was unusual and she had an emotionless way about communicating. Lorainne never smiled or frowned, she just spoke in a demonstrative and loud voice, calling me by name if she happened to see me walking toward her.

“BETH! OH HELLO BETH!” she would yell from half-a-block away. I always waved until I approached Lorainne and eventually, we would hug hello.

I began to ask Lorainne questions about herself.

Where did she live? (“SUBSIDIZED HOUSING” she yelled.)

Does she work? (“THIS IS MY JOB. I COME EVERY DAY.”)

Is she married? (“I HAVE A BOYFRIEND HE MAKES ME SPAGHETTI.”)

Everything was always matter-of-fact, and her answers were not always consistent, so I never really knew if the things she told me were true. I just wanted to know how she got there. I wanted to piece together how my friend came to be…I wondered how she became this panhandler lady.

What I eventually pieced together, over the next decade or so, brought me to a place of understanding and acceptance about Lorainne.

Lorainne was living in Ottawa, for most of her life. As an adult, She was working a desk job for the government, and putting her daughter through school. Unmarried but happy, Lorainne loved life, loved her job, and most of all, loved her daughter.

Then everything shifted for her, and life as she knew it blew apart. Lorainne’s daughter was killed, suddenly, and that was the trauma that may have triggered Lorainne’s disorder.

Like many people, grief and response to loss is the most distressing event in life. But for Lorainne, the result of this catastrophic event was real damage to the psyche. The death of her daughter was so traumatic psychologically for Lorainne, that she developed PTSD, depression, and chronic psychosis trying to cope. Eventually, substance abuse—in Lorainne’s case, alcohol—overtook her life, and her active psychosis increased in frequency. She no longer worked, went home, or spoke with friends and family. She became homeless. She often experienced being in a catatonic state. It was as if her brain was changed, and her old life was never again to be.

It is possible that her excessive alcohol intake, plus the psychological damage, may have contributed to the development of her chronic, substance-induced psychotic disorder. This poor quality of life for Lorainne included impaired social cognition, poor functional ability, disorganized thinking and speech, and a frequent state of confusion.

I do not know, and was never able to determine, whether or not Lorainne had any pre-existing psychopathology that may have been a factor. I do not know if she had a history of illness, or poor adjustment before onset. Plus, excessive alcohol abuse can sometimes present itself as illnesses like schizophrenia, and I do not know Lorainne’s medical history.

What I do know is that Lorainne has a tragic story of loss that led her to be where she is now, and who she is now.

I know this is true for every person I see on the street. Each individual has a story. Each individual has a story worth telling, but more importantly, worth listening to.

I am glad Lorainne and I became friends. She never accepted my help, my offers to walk her home, my offers of clothing, groceries, toiletries, even refused anything over a twenty dollar bill. In fact, it would stress her out and she became agitated.
No, Lorainne didn’t ask anything of me, except my daily hugs and my friendly exchange. In return, I received the same from her.

We are very blessed by the friendships in our lives and sometimes, these seemingly small things, actually make all the difference for people.

People like Lorainne.

And people like me.

This essay was originally featured on Stigma Fighters Canada

Bif - Promo 2 color

 

Bif Naked is a celebrated and notorious performer in music, TV, film, and dance, and a tireless advocate and Humanitarian. Orphaned in India, emancipated by punk rock, and empowered by surviving breast cancer, kidney failure, heart surgery, divorce, and surviving as a Woman in The Entertainment Industry for twenty-five years, Bif has transcended any and all obstacles placed in her path to become one of the world’s most unique, recognizable and beloved icons. It is because Bif is such a tremendous performer and musician, that she is able to seamlessly and successfully explore and record other mediums, like writing, painting, choreography, and of course- other genres of music. Inspired by life and experiences, Bif’s writing is at the forefront and has become a tool for her advocacy. “We must continue to raise awareness and keep going.” When not touring, Canada’s Sweetheart works as an activist, is recording a new record, and is editing her juicy memoirs. You can learn more about Bif and her work here She has been featured on The Globe and Mail as well as The Huffington Post. Find her on Facebook , Twitter and follow her on Instagram

Stigma Fighters : Three More Bites

Three Bites Bigger

Perhaps you noticed that I didn’t include my name on this article. That’s because who I am has no bearing on the value I hope to offer with it. This article is for you. If you found your way to Stigma Fighters because you want help and support with depression, anxiety, eating disorder, etc, or you’d just like to understand someone’s experience with mental illness better, this story is for you.

I’ve never been one to handle failure well. In fact, growing up, I thought I was the prettiest, smartest, most artistic, athletic, clever and capable human being to ever grace this green rock because that’s what I was told. In addition, I was told that respectable young ladies don’t act a certain way, say certain things or question certain “truths”. It wasn’t ok that I couldn’t pay attention in class so I was put on A.D.D. meds to correct what was wrong. Too young to know better, so I took all this as gospel and years later find myself the torn, anxious, yet poised and deliberate adult you see now. I know my shit. I’m great with people. I look nice for the most part and am easy to get along with. I crave adventure, but appreciate the balance of a quiet life, and am always happy to help if I can. It doesn’t make sense that I would hate myself and that I want to die; not because I want to kill myself, but simply because it would be less effort than living yet another day of lying and self-loathing.

Both of my parents have eating disorders, suffer from anxiety and have battled depression. My father grew up in near destitution, so his deep seated fear of starving leads him to gorge. To him, failure isn’t an option, especially since he was able to lift himself out of the streets to a position of wealth and influence. My mother, who also grew up in unfortunate circumstances, has been anorexic for her entire life, perhaps, but certainly as long as I can remember. I doubt a day has passed when she didn’t felt like a failure for some reason or another; like someone completely undeserving of love, success or food. She’s the one who taught me that being fat was unacceptable, and that the best case scenario for me involved getting married and having a successful man take care of me. I’m certain that their alcoholic parents and their parents and so on have a lot to do with how my folks turned out and the attitudes they impressed upon me, but knowing that only helps me understand. Blame and finger pointing has gotten me precisely nowhere.

Looking back, I realize my folks were trying to save me by pushing me to be the best. The beatings I got for misbehaving or not trying hard enough in school were their way of exorcising the fear and anxiety that I might someday live as they did – poor, hungry, struggling, etc. These expectations, combined with a natural knack for figuring things out meant that I did well at just about anything I tried, and if I didn’t do well with something on the first try, I was quick to avoid it. Failure and disappointing anyone wasn’t an option so I did everything I could to stay within the bounds of my abilities and strengths. I grew comfortable in my easy successes and learned to leverage my good looks to bolster my other talents.

Imagine what a shock failure and rejection were to my system when they started to hit me as a young adult. I quickly learned that lying and hiding failures or bad decisions were great ways to avoid disappointing anyone. For example, one of my first boyfriends dumped me because I wasn’t ready to have sex with him. I responded by attempting suicide but told my parents that their fighting stressed me out too much. Later on, another boyfriend left me beaten and bloody after he saw me “flirting” with another man. I responded to this by hiding it because I couldn’t admit to making such horrible decisions that would have put me in that situation to begin with. A few lies were all it took. “Oh, mom, it’s nothing. I was playing pool and this drunk idiot a the table next to me swung her cue too fast and it hit me in the nose. It’s nothing. Just a bruise.”

But in hiding traumas like these, and there were many, I took on their full weight. It was heavy and uncomfortable. It made me cry and lash out for no reason, to deceive my friends and break their trust. It also led me to seek drugs, sex and eventually food as a way to escape what I was carrying around. Whether I was getting black out drunk, giving abusive boyfriends another chance, drugging myself into a stupor, sleeping with married men and women, riding manic highs that kept me awake for days or accepting expensive gifts in exchange for being someone’s company, I was busy avoiding what I was carrying around. The funny thing about carrying that kind of regret and sadness around is that it creates a vacuum, rather than taking up space. Excess of this kind begets emptiness and the hole it created in me will always be about three bites bigger than any amount of food I can possibly shove down my throat. No amount of booze, casual sex or risk-taking has ever filled it. Considering how smart I was led to believe I am, you’d think I’d have figured something out to alleviate this sadness by now, but that’s not the case.

Fortunately, I am in no way doomed to this life forever. In the past few years, I’ve grown more weary of my habits and thoughts than I find comfort in them. I’ve peeked out from the myopic vantage I’ve called home for so long and I saw chances to leverage my fears and join what I’d call the “flawed human race.” While I am afraid of admitting what I’ve done, who I’ve been and how I feel about myself, there are a few things waiting for me on the other side of that fear. First, there is the comfort of being flawed. Being right and on point all the time is utterly exhausting. Just thinking about letting myself off the hook for a moment sounds like heaven. Second, there is peace. I’ve tormented myself and held myself solely responsible for so many horrible things that the very idea of putting it down and walking away brings tears to my eyes. Lastly, there is a life patiently waiting for me to join it. In this life I am free of the daily burden to keep up my appearances. I am capable of being flawed and inaccurate and, gods forbid, wrong. In that life waiting for me, I am free to pursue what makes my quiet little heart shiver with joy without being haunted by the criticism and harassment I’ve subjected myself to for so long. In that version of my life, the emptiness is replaced by nothing else but me.

I may have eaten half a pound of peanut M&Ms for breakfast today and hated myself for it, but I also spoke to a therapist about my eating disorder for the very first time. I’m not even close to being where I want to be, but I’m farther way from where I was 24 hours ago than I’ve ever been. Perhaps one day my shame and regret will be far enough behind me that I’ll be strong enough to attach my name to this essay. Until then, I hope my story inspires you to peek out from behind whatever wall separate you from the life you want.

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Stigma Fighters : Melissa Flicks

For a long time I felt guilty. I felt guilty for having ADHD and needing medication to feel somewhat close to “normal”.
I went through elementary school and high-school being labeled “lazy” and being accused of “not applying myself”. I even had a teacher sign my yearbook- where he said I was “a nice girl, but flaky.”

I had a hard time paying attention. I had a really fucking hard time sitting still in class, paying attention and getting any of my work done. It felt impossible. And despite how much I truly wanted to be the straight “A” student, I just couldn’t calm my brain down long enough to actually get the work done. I hated school. Not because I didn’t want to learn, but because I just couldn’t do it.
I finished one year of community college before dropping out. I became depressed because I felt like a total loser. I had applied to several universities and colleges and wasn’t accepted due to my low grades. I picked classes that I was truly interested in, but I still couldn’t focus enough to get the grades I knew I deserved.

Instead I worked in restaurants- something fast paced that I could work until the late hours of the night. Finally, something I was good at. I buzzed around that place like crazy, running from table to table. Constantly moving and changing. It was a good fit. And at night, I would go home and down some alcohol to calm my brain down. Work-Drink-Repeat. I was self-medicating, trying to fix whatever the hell was wrong with me. I was restless, always thinking, always moving. I was nervous and sweaty and at times incredibly moody. I hated the idea of going up to tables as a waitress, I felt like I wanted to vomit before approaching each table. But, it was the only job where I never had to sit and if I was good enough, I wouldn’t have to talk to the customers too much.

I lived like that for years, until I was offered an office job. I wanted to move out of my parent’s basement, so a job with steady hours and a steady paycheck seemed like a good idea. It wasn’t until I was there for a few months that I realized just how difficult it was for me to actually focus and sit. It was just like high-school all over again. My health insurance kicked in so I decided to talk to a doctor about what was going on. That’s when I got it: A diagnosis of ADHD/Anxiety/Depression. I hadn’t been familiar with ADHD at the time. Anxiety and Depression ran in my family, so I knew that was a factor. But ADHD? Wasn’t that something that kids had? Of course, after realizing the symptoms and thinking back to my entire life up to that point, it all made perfect sense.

My doctor put me on medication and within a couple of weeks, I was finally feeling … normal.
I stuck with my medication- although I have to admit, I often forgot to take them. But for the most part, they helped a great deal. I even felt good enough to re-enroll in to college and began taking courses in hopes of becoming mental health counselor. And for the first time since I could remember, I started getting straight A’s.

In 2008, I decided to move. Soon after I found out I was pregnant. I had my first child in 2009 and in 2011 had my second. I had opted not to take any medication while pregnant and breast feeding. It wasn’t until later in 2011 that I decided to talk to a doctor about my ADHD. Since I was in a new state, I needed to explain my symptoms to a new doctor. Unfortunately, I was greeted with suspicion- despite my giving him the information on my diagnosis and on my previous doctor- he did not consider giving me a prescription. I repeatedly made appointments for evaluations and still received no medication. For almost two months, I went in on a bi-weekly basis, paying co-payments each time and left without any indication of whether or not I would be receiving a prescription. Finally, he wrote one for me. A one month supply that would need an approval before getting filled. Four weeks later, I got notice of approval and filled my prescription. Each month I was required to call in to have my doctor write out another one month prescription. Even though I eventually got the medication, I was left with a feeling of guilt. This one person had made me feel like I was just some person coming in to score some narcotics. I felt ashamed for even telling him I needed them.

I forgot to take my medication once in a while. And I would forget to call in to have it filled on time. Eventually when I got notice that my approval would soon expire, I forgot to schedule an appointment with my doctor in time. The truth of it is, I hated being dependent on medication. I don’t like to take prescriptions unless I absolutely need them. But, I feel better having them when my ADHD becomes unmanageable.

However, I had no desire to go back and see that doctor again. I had no desire to seek out another doctor, to risk the possibility of feeling guilty for who I am. No one should feel guilty for needing medication. No one should ever feel ashamed of having a mental illness.

As a child and teenager, I went through school feeling depressed that people- my teachers- felt I was lazy and didn’t give a shit about school. As an adult, I was made to feel like a prescription drug seeker. With or without the diagnosis- these people are the ones we go to for help. Our teachers should recognize when a student needs help. A doctor should never make a patient feel ashamed when asking for a medication.

*   *   *

melissa-profileMelissa was born and raised in southern New Jersey. After moving to Iowa, she became a full time student through University of Iowa- studying psychology and creative writing. She is also a stay at home parent.

Melissa can be found on Twitter

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Stigma Fighters : Alena Harrington

My mother. My beautiful, sweet mother took her last breath on July 31, 2013. My mother, who had loved me more than anything in this world, absolutely unconditionally. She managed to love me when I wasn’t always loveable-thru my surly and difficult teenage years. Thru my highs and lows. She was there for me throughout it all. Loving me.

My name is Alena. I have bipolar disorder, anxiety, PTSD and am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.

After my mother passed I lost my will to live even though I have two beautiful daughters and two amazing grandchildren. I just wanted the pain to stop, I wanted the profound loss to stop.

So I had a plan-I was going to do it. I was going to die and join my beloved mother. I felt such a sense of peace, of relief. Tho as the day approached I felt less and less motivated to take that final awful step. I heard my mom’s voice telling me to FIGHT! I heard my mother telling me that I am no quitter.

Although I was suffering from deep and profound depression, in a moment of courage I reached out to my psychiatrist who I’ve had a long-term and good relationship with. The doctor said that a med change was definitely in order. I held on and slowly over time I came out of the darkness. I wanted to live more and die less.

My therapist, Linda who I’ve been with for years was a lifesaver, literally. She was there thru every dark thought and manic moment. With her support and guidance I have blossomed. I have come so far and accomplished so much. With Linda’s help I am not only living, I am thriving.

Things aren’t perfect and I struggle daily. With dogged determination, I now volunteer a few days a week at the hospital working with the elderly. It makes me feel worthy and I get back way more than I give.

I hear my mom’s voice, with great pride she says, “You, my daughter ARE a survivor…

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1112141111aMy name is Alena and I am from the frozen tundra of Maine where I reside with my two fur babies. I have two beautiful daughters who sadly weren’t always shielded from my mental illness. My profound apologies to them. My grandchildren give me life and fill my heart with love.

I AM a mental health warrior :)