Stigma Fighters: Tanya P.

I Had to Be Blind-sighted for my Eyes to Open

I was blind-sighted by things I couldn’t see. The one I noticed first was physical and obvious and in my face. It was so much in my face that it forced my eyes open so that I could finally see the second thing. The first was a car accident. The second was mental illness.

It was a cool but sunny April day in 2004. Kids in the back seat of my minivan, I was headed home late that afternoon. The speed limit was a mere 25 miles per hour, the roads straight and flat. To me, the intersection looked clear as I proceeded through it. It wasn’t clear.

Without warning, I was struck. One second there was control and chattering. The next there was spinning and rolling, crunching and shattering. There was everything. And then there was nothing. And then I registered emergency vehicles on the scene. Tending and transporting were next. Hours, days, months, years of struggle and recovery followed.

Trying to live with a traumatic brain injury was a frustrating challenge made more so by the fact that I could talk and walk and care for myself and thus was ineligible for brain injury programs. Yet my functioning was very much impaired. Problem solving was difficult for a time. Headaches were intense and constant. I was always on edge—overstimulated and irritated. Sometimes I was depressed. Yet despite this, sometimes things were over-the-top great. And I was forever frustrated because I was worsening as I rolled around in the muck of my mind.

Desperate, I began to see a therapist. In truth, I wanted to see one long before I had the courage to begin. In the town in which I lived at the time, though, it was rather taboo to discuss mental health. To go so far as to see a therapist was practically unheard of. I’m not quite sure how the handful of therapists in that town made their living. They must have had enough people doing what I did: slinking surreptitiously through alleys, looking over their shoulders for people who might see them, fabricating lies to use if caught. The stigma against any type of psychological problem loomed large (peek back at the beginning of this story and note the date). It kept me from seeking help when I desperately needed it.

The only reason I braved the first phone call for an appointment was that my inner struggles were so great that I wasn’t sure I could go on. And that scared me. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t “be.” I was up and down erratically. My senses were on overload. Everything was too intense: bright and strong and loud. It felt as though my senses were sucking in the entire world and it was so big and so much to handle that the world was trying to get back out and it hurt and there was so much pressure everywhere from everything and from everyone and just please make it stop! Unbidden, thoughts came to my mind of glass, shattering glass, raining down and cutting me and bringing an end to the horror. (That, it turns out, was part of post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD].) Or a gun. A glorious, pain-relieving gun that would stop the pain and buzzing and pressure and spinning in my head.

But deep down, I didn’t really want that. I had two more-glorious protective factors: my two wonderful children. I had always loved life. What had happened? I had an urgent need to see a therapist; therefore, I snaked and sneaked my way along back roads and alleyways to meet with one.

Despite working with a great therapist, I continued to become messier and my mind muckier. I wanted, needed, it all to stop! Down, down, down I spiraled until one night, unable to sleep (that was pretty common), I searched online to see if there was a place nearby that would help.

I did find a place, a behavioral health center/hospital about an hour and a half from my town. I came to know it well, as I was in and out of there five times over the next two years. It took so many times because mental illness can be hard to specifically diagnose, it can be hard to treat, and because I didn’t have a mental illness.

Or so I thought. That was my other blind-sighted attack. I knew I couldn’t function, and I knew the reason. It was a result of the traumatic brain injury. Wrong! Blind-sighted again. It was PTSD, which made a bit of sense, and it was bipolar 1 disorder, which made absolutely no sense at all.

Well, perhaps it made a little bit of sense. As I worked with various professionals when I was in the behavioral health care center, as I found the right medication, as I worked with my therapist, as I applied my own professional counseling background and knowledge, and as I stopped denying my reality, I came to acknowledge that a diagnosis of bipolar 1 disorder made a lot of sense after all.

Starting in young adulthood, I experienced extreme highs and lows, impulsivity, extreme spending (we’re not talking new clothes; we’re talking a house, a car, and other such things), grandiose ideas, and the other fun little things that accompany bipolar 1 disorder. Friendships were impacted. My marriage was impacted. My husband and I actually divorced, largely to behavior attributable to bipolar disorder, but we did reunite as we worked through this.

Unfortunately, not everything had a happy ending. Not all relationships are mended, and not all problems are solved. I lost a job when my employer, with whom I had had a long and successful working relationship, learned that I was in, not a “normal” hospital but in a behavioral health one. I was later told by someone at that work place that I would never work there again because no one trusted me. And some friends left. Perhaps it’s no surprise that for me, secondary to bipolar disorder came anxiety both generalized and social in nature.

Living with mental illness can be challenging. Facing stigma can sometimes be even more so. Like so many others, though, I haven’t let this stop me. Now that I know that I have bipolar disorder and anxieties, I can address and manage them. I’m happy that I was blind-sighted twice, because my eyes are now fully open, and I am truly well. I feel better than I ever have. Sure, I have struggles, but I know how to keep them from overtaking me.

No longer do I slink through alleys and sneak in shame to see a therapist. I want to be well, and I don’t mind going after that wellness. Everyone deserves this, so I, in gratitude of my own experiences, have dedicated my life to using writing to increase understanding of mental illness and empathy for those who live with it. When someone is blind-sighted by mental illness, I’d like the world to open its eyes and see the whole person.

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Tanya J. Peterson holds a Bachelor of Science in secondary education, Master of Science in counseling, and is a Nationally Certified Counselor. She has been a teacher and a counselor in various settings, including a traditional high school and an alternative school for homeless and runaway adolescents, and she has volunteered her services in both schools and communities. Peterson is an active volunteer with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and she is a regular columnist for the Anxiety-Schmanxiety blog on HealthyPlace.com.

She draws on her education, experience, and personal background with bipolar 1 disorder and anxiety to write stories about the psychological aspect of the human condition, specifically mental illness and the impact it has on human beings. Her goal is to change the way the world thinks about mental illness and the people who live with it.

Peterson believes that fiction is a powerful vehicle for teaching fact. Further, she knows that people empathize with characters in novels, and commonly they transfer their empathy to real-life human beings. To that end, she has published Leave of AbsenceMy Life in a Nutshell, and the YA novel Losing Elizabeth.  Additionally, she has published Challenge!, a short story about a person who finds the confidence to overcome criticism and achieve a goal, and a book review of Linley and Joseph’s Positive Therapy: A Meta-Theory for Positive Psychological Practice that appeared in Counseling Today, the national publication of the American Counseling Association.

Peterson has also been interviewed on numerous radio shows, given presentations on mental illness and book readings nationwide, spoken on mental illness at the 2013 national conference of the Mothers of Incarcerated Sons Society, Inc., and has been quoted in various articles about mental health and mental illness.

http:www.tanyajpeterson.com

Twitter: @TanyaJPeterson1