Sarah Ryan jumped onto my radar recently with the announcement of her film project, Find More Out There, a documentary exploring the realities of bipolar disorder. She is currently seeking participants willing to share their stories so she may highlight the gifts, as well as the struggles, which come with this diagnosis. 'There is suffering affiliated with this diagnosis, but there can also be immense creativity, action, and direction found in many of us.'
Paying it Forward
I am Sarah Ryan. I have bipolar disorder, type II.
At the time of my most significant manic episode, I was not sleeping more than 3 hours per night for a week at a time. I was actually doing construction at every possible free moment, building my kids a triple bunk bed (even though there are two of them). That bed could hold the weight of three elephants. It had a secret ladder system, a hideout, and gymnastics rings dangling from it. I had spent three weeks building a chicken-coop, complete with a foundation. I was, in general, shaking with anxiety. I was a fountain of ideas and I could’ve painted artistic canvases day and night. I required music at all times, and food was absolutely revolting. I was energized like a nuclear power plant, ready for action, conversation, and a party. I knew something was very wrong, but I was petrified at the options.
I was lovingly reassured that I was “just getting things done” and “stressed out” after a recent move. I was given extra hugs, and listened to at length, but everyone just wanted me to be “fine”. My family and friends simply didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what bipolar disorder looked like, or they were too afraid of offending me by declaring that something might be wrong. Stigma had prevented enough open discussion on this subject for meaningful information to circulate.
Generally we teach people about physical health in their schooling days and we ignore the existence of mental health all together. This is perhaps with the only exception being a “Suicide is Bad” message. My days in nursing school had taught me slightly more about mental health conditions, and thankfully, that knowledge helped me realize that I was traveling at a different rate than everyone around me and I was in desperate need of help. My education saved my life, because I was the one who sent myself off to a psychiatrist. I was feeling the effects of a manic episode, acute anxiety, and a crushing sense of failure. The worst element to contend with was the overwhelming veil of shame just for seeking help. I recall standing at the buzzer box of my psychiatrist’s office in a hooded jacket, ashamed of my feet on the steps.
Years before this crazed period of activity I had been prescribed SSRI’s for a few fairly serious bouts of depression. Each time they were prescribed (three times) I remained on them for about a year, and each time I was told that I shouldn’t expect to need them again. My general practitioner gave them to me, which is something I wouldn’t suggest to anyone.
The worst of these depressive episodes, the one that still scares me to this day, was just after my daughter was born. I called my husband at work one day, told him I was useless, that he and the kids would all be better off without me, and other equally dramatic announcements. I didn’t have a plan to leave them, but I knew I was not on safe ground. Since I had been treated before for depression, a light bulb went off, and I realized I was in trouble again.
This time was unique however because there is a lot of public conversation about post-partum depression. It is perhaps the only socially “acceptable” form of mental illness. It is a fine example of how the removal of stigma can save lives. I felt like it was ok for me to admit I wasn’t doing well on this occasion, because the associated shame was missing. I began treatment. Joy quickly returned to my veins, and I was restored. I was returned to being a fun, enthusiastic, grateful, and dedicated person thanks to one little miraculous pill per day.
It is irrelevant if depression is caused by pregnancy, or other biological means. Depression is depression. It is suffering. So why is one cause more socially acceptable than another? It brings us back to stigma again.
I can now proudly say, that as a result of treatment and personal efforts, I am doing exceptionally well. I have balance in my mind, and in my home. My medication side effects don’t outweigh their benefit. I’m enjoying my life immensely and engaged in things that mean something to me. I am continually putting effort into wellness so that I can be the best mother and wife possible. That means everything to me. So, after what I would call a lengthy “remission” I ask myself how do you pay it forward?
My answer: Tell my story and fight stigma. It will save lives. It’s really that simple.