Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Why We Should Talk More About How Mental Illness Feels

Last year, I watched producer Dana Perry accept an Oscar and describe how she lost her son, Evan, to suicide. She pleaded to an audience of millions to talk about suicide. I'm glad she was brave enough to share her story to raise awareness.  I often feel our society doesn't really talk about suicide, depression or mental illness or have the tools to do it.  To talk about mental illness, it might help to know more about what it looks like, or what it feels like, especially for the mentally ill person or their family. 

When Robin Williams died, there was an onslaught of people getting on Facebook talking about "If you need help, please get it." These statements always strike me as caring, yet perplexing. When someone is clinically depressed to the point of contemplating suicide, getting help is sometimes the last thing they know how to do.

This is why.  Walking into a depressed person's house, you might see them unwashed, trash and filthy dishes piled up, mail unopened and phone messages unanswered, etc.  Their daily tasks are too much for them, which now renders their home in total disarray.  If someone is this bad off, can you imagine how hard it would be for them to ask for help?  They are no longer functioning like you and me, so we can't expect them to ask for help, we have to get them help. 
Depression can feel like walking around with 5 wet blankets hanging on you.
I saw these clinically depressed behaviors in my father my entire life.  My father is bi-polar, often referred to as manic depressive. He has 'highs' from the mania that make him incredibly productive, which led to a successful career as a Fortune 500 strategic business consultant and published author.  He also has 'lows' that trigger depression that render him depleted, exhausted and unable to function.  There is a spectrum tool used when describing bi-polar behavior, and a psychiatrist will often ask, "Are you more depressed then you are manic?"  Which side of the spectrum do you gravitate towards?"  For my father, it was the manic side with the depressive side coming after an especially manic spree.

 This is what the mania looked like for my dad.
  • Hypomania - an exuberant feeling that was addictive and made him enjoy and seek manic moods.
  • Inability to sleep for days at a time.
  • Paranoia - thoughts about people making fun of him, thinking they were better than him, or people trying to take advantage of him.
  • Unreasonable ANGER and irritation- this could be triggered by very small things, taken out on an innocent bystander and hard to witness or be the target.
  • An unbelievable amount of creative energy in generating new ideas, projects or solutions to things.
  • Grandiose behavior where he made poor choices believing that consequences did not apply to him.
When he was depressed, it often looked like this:
  • He slept and was in his bed for 2-3 days at a time, sometimes more.
  • His taste buds were off, he had no appetite and would often not eat for days at a time.
  • He had chronic aches and pains.
  • He did not leave his bed to do anything except use the restroom.  His hair would be unwashed, his teeth never brushed, his face unshaven.
  • He was kind, contemplative, slower when he started pulling out of it.  Reflective even.  But at the initial onset of the depression, unable to think, talk and just wanted isolation.

For years, we never talked about my father's erratic behavior, his temper, his mood swings.  We were too frightened as children and too ashamed.  Mental illness had a stigma, and, for my father, was a weakness.  It was his personal secret and our familial secret.  We also didn't have the tools to even know how to approach the subject.   It wasn't until about the late 70's or early 80's that my father got some help. The only reason he did was because the depression was so bad it rendered him unproductive.  
He could live with the mania, but he could not tolerate the depression.
The solution for this disease back then was a mood stabilizer and the one that worked best for him was Lithium.  It still works best for him.  As a geriatric person now, my father faces some of his most difficult moments as the disease progresses at a rapid pace, making the disease hard to live with for him and for the person taking care of him.
I've listened to popular culture use and mis-use the word 'manic' and 'bi-polar.'  They become inter-changeable words for saying someone is an asshole or crazy.  
This is how we talk about mental illness - by labeling one another with terms that we know nothing about.  We don't wonder what it would be like to live with his illness.

For me, one of the hardest things about his disease was watching him continue to deny it.  Some bi-polars do this, and it can be a symptom of their disease.  They question whether they have a problem, because they get into a hypomanic mode where their euphoria level is so high, that they no longer believe anything is wrong with them and stop taking their medication.
To watch him not be compliant with his medication and his treatment is frustrating and exhausting.  What does the term compliant mean? It means taking your medication and keeping your psychiatrist appointments.  

As hard as his continuous denial was to watch, it became even harder to see the wreckage caused by his disease.  His lost relationships with his kids, his divorce from my mother and his wife of 40 years, and his friendships.

If we talked more about how mental illness feels and what it looks like, rather than about what people should do if they get in crisis, I believe the conversations we have could generate more help for others and more compassion.  I feel terrible sadness for my father, who due to chemical imbalances in his body, has lived a challenging life.  And if my words help illustrate a picture of the difficulties a person and a family faces with these challenges, then my dad's encouragement for me to be a writer has been fulfilled.  


Amy Huff said...

It's awesome you have been brave enough to share your experience and hopefully others will be able to relate; to understand this behavior isn't about them, a judgement on them, or something they have to feel shame about. Sending you lots of love.

Kelly said...

Molly, I agree that talking about mental illness and what it looks and feels like is so important. People experience symptoms of depression and mania differently. My father committed suicide when I was 17 after battling depression his whole life - but we (my mom, sister, and I) didn't know anything about his mental illness until after he died. It was devastating. Other family members have/had depression, anxiety, alcoholism, delusions, and paranoia, and I have bi-polar II disorder. Someday, I'll write about all that on my blog.

Thank you for your willingness to be open about such a difficult subject.


Rebecca Skupin Marcontell said...

Well done Molly! One of my best friends suffers from bi polar disorder and I lived with her for a couple of years and really got to understand it first hand. She went on and off the meds several times saying that the stability they brought made her feel "not normal", but she recently told me after many many years of taking meds, she'll never be off again. She's finally reached a new normal.