My Speech at Mental Health Forum

Good evening.  Before I begin my speech tonight I would like to first express my deep appreciation to each and every one of you for your attendance at this forum.  Your community much needed support, hope for a brighter future, and presence here sends a powerful message to the people coping with mental illness in this region.  You are letting the mental health all involved know that you are taking a vested interest in our well being.  And, for this I personally thank-you.

My official diagnosis is Bipolar Disorder with a Borderline Personality.  I have been coping with my illness since the age of 13.  It was at this confusing and tender age that I woke up one day only to feel everything in my known universe suddenly slip and fall sideways.  I have been looking at the world from this perspective ever since.  It took at least ten years from that moment in my early teens to when I was around 23 to realize and then understand, first, that I was ill and, second, what it was that I was desperately grappling with.  Many years of hard work and therapy has brought me to the stability I now enjoy in my life today.  And, even now that precious stability is often tested.

I would like to take advantage of the privilege I have been given tonight to share with you what the Bipolar Disorder/Borderline Personality experience is like for me.  In this way, perhaps I can open a small window for you to glimpse through and discover the difficulties that people with mental illness must struggle with everyday.  It is my hope that I may enrich you with a deeper understanding about the existence of someone living with mental health issues, such as mine.  I must preface this description first by stating that mental illness is a highly individual and unique experience for all people coping with these health issues, this is only my personal knowledge of my own disorder.

I could stand up here and recite the formal medical definitions of my diagnosis; I could even give you a list of symptoms and diagnostic requirements from the latest edition of the DSM.  But, I don’t believe that is why you are all here tonight.  I think, rather, that my task is to enlighten you about what it truly is like to be me, to provide a face, a story, to help you relate to the issues that are being discussed here this evening.  My illness is a constant traveling companion on this journey I must take through life.  Sometimes it is a silent presence always keeping pace with me.  Sometimes it leans heavily upon my back making progress forward almost impossible.  It can rear up in front of me and block my ability to interact with others, even at times wait lurking up ahead ready to rob me of everything that makes life precious and meaningful.  It is always there, I can never shake it even if I run at a headlong pace.  In my life I have experienced both poles of this mood disorder, heart wrenching lows and terrifying highs.  I know that everyone here has a fairly good grasp of what depression may be like so I won’t go into great detail on the depressive side of my disorder.  Mania, on the other hand, is often misunderstood.  People sometimes make comments to me like “It must be nice to be manic, you get lots done”.  This is a huge misconception on the public’s part about what a manic crisis is like for an ailing person.

A mania is suitably described as if you are being coaxed onto a rollercoaster that suddenly malfunctions and veers terrifyingly out of control.  You grab onto the safety bar until your knuckles are white and hang on for dear life.  This is not only how the ailing person feels, but also family and friends who are often unwittingly forced to share the ride.  The person often says and behaves in ways that would mortify him if he were in stable health.  He cannot stop the racing thoughts, the good, the bad, and the ugly, from bombarding his mind.  People shrink back from him because he is loud and scary, often frenzied in his behavior and chaotic in his ability to relate socially to those around him.  During mania marriages can be destroyed, financial nest eggs lost, relationships (both family and friends) can be alienated, lives ruined.  This is the face of bipolar disorder to me.

At this present time I am a happily married mom of a wonderful 14 year old boy.  But, it hasn’t always been like this for my family and me.  My hold on mental stability has always been tenuous at best.  Over the last 12 years I have been treated for a mental health crisis at least three or four times in a Crisis Stabilization Unit in both Selkirk and Winnipeg.  It is critical that I explain to you what these episodes are like for me and my family so that you will be able to fully comprehend how important these Crisis Units are for people like me.

A mental health crisis occurs when my emotional reserves have hit a proverbial “rock bottom”.  Sometimes my illness will cause havoc in my life even when to the outside world it seems there should be no logical reason for it.  My Bipolar Disorder for the most part is managed by a strict medication regimen and a vigilant monitoring of my day to day mental health.  But, even this cannot prevent the relapse of a crisis.  You see, this disorder is a lifelong affliction which I must constantly deal with, it never truly goes away, it is only managed, not cured, by my treatments.

I am still hounded by a great turmoil of unbidden and unwanted emotional torment.  At times, this powerful influence on my conscious thought can override all the therapy and work I have undergone over all these years, only to drown me in the depth of an emotional quagmire.  I am overwhelmed by paranoid and disturbing thoughts.  I am dogged by behavioral urges that can wreak havoc on my everyday life.  At times I experience so much emotional strife that it actually manifests itself in physical pain.  It hurts to be touched, it hurts to touch, and it feels like claws of some unseen monster are trying to shred their way through my soul.  I want to scream but I have no voice, I want to cry but I have nothing left inside myself for tears.  I feel even if I reached out for help there would be no possible way for anyone to find me in the darkness of my pain.  It is during times such as these that I have experienced severe suicidal tendencies and even a driving desire to self harm.  It eats me up inside when I see my son’s face and look into his eyes when what is reflected back is a fear, not of me, but of what he fears will become of me.  No child should have to live with that fear.

My husband has spent years educating himself about mental illness, but even as seasoned a spouse as he may be, he still finds himself lost and confused during these hard times.  My episodes of emotional crisis are devastating and tumultuous not only for me, but for the people who love me.  They are cruel, difficult, and it is always a time when we as a family must truly hold onto each as tightly as possible just to keep the crisis from tearing us apart.

It is during these most difficult of times that my condition demands I receive twenty-four hour in-treatment care at a facility such as a Crisis Stabilization Unit.  I am not stable enough to remain in my home environment because I pose a severe risk to my own safety.  My family is no longer able to care for me because they lack the professional expertise and the ability to remain on a constant watch over me on a round the clock basis.  It puts an extreme strain on my family emotionally and physically to have to look after me during these episodes of critical instability.  This is why when faced with these crises in the past I have turned to a stabilization unit, a place where I am ensured a place of safety and my family can find comfort in the knowledge that I am getting the care I so desperately need.

These Stabilization Units can be the difference between life and death for many people like me, only there are heavy costs to this avenue of treatment.  The costs are threefold, emotional, financial, and therapeutic.  These costs are not related to the capabilities of these facilities to adequately treat and care for their clients.  No, not at all, they come from the fact that these Crisis Units are only found in Selkirk and Winnipeg.  There are no treatments centers of this nature in the surrounding area.  Therefore, people in need of these facilities are faced with multiple issues that only further compound the complications of their treatment.  These issues (or costs as I prefer to call them) are as follows:

The first cost is the most straight forward.  It is the actual financial pressure that my family is confronted with when I am being treated for a severe illness outside of the area in which I reside.  One must remember that a fundamental part of getting better for a mentally ailing person, such as I, is the presence and support of that my family and friends.  When that family and those friends are many miles away it causes my household to incur great costs in order to make these support persons available.  Please understand that a majority of people suffering these health issues are often people who reside in lower income brackets, any extra expense for them is not as easily managed as for those not on a fixed budget.  So, what may not seem an extreme hardship for some financially may be what causes another to potentially have to make great sacrifices.

My husband and son must resort to traveling far distances to visit me.  Not only does the gas consumption add up, but there are also additional expenses from having to visit out of the area.  Meals and babysitting are two.  Also, I must use a public phone that is set up so that the user must pay long distance charges to call if it is not a local number.  These charges can add up if my stay extends for several weeks.  I have had great difficulties in the past when I have been faced with an emotional crisis that I cannot confide in my husband about because it is just too expensive to make another call.  The distance and the expense can seriously cause problems for my family to remain a constant source of support during my recuperation.

The second cost is a little more complicated.  It is the emotional cost that, I, as an ailing person and my family must pay when I am being treated out of this area.  Many mentally ailing persons, I am one, baulk at the thought of leaving their precious children knowing that they will not be in close proximity if these sons or daughters should need them.  I know that I may only see them when circumstances permit, which is typically once every few days.  And, even though the telephone is available it is also, again, expensive to use frequently.  The feelings I experience when I have picked up the receiver of the telephone at the treatment center and there was my emotionally distraught son on the other end is indescribable.

I have felt absolutely helpless and extremely disturbed by my child’s plight.  I wanted to throw down the receiver and run all the way home on foot.  Many times I would demand to be released that very moment, even at the detriment of my mental health. You cannot reach out and hold them, comfort them and wipe away their tears.  You can only close your eyes and pray that everything will be all right.  You see if the treatment center was in the area my husband or relative could bring my child on a regular basis, everyday if desired.  I could have physical contact with my child, allowing both my child and I the ability to interact in person.  Chances are the emotional turmoil my child could experience due to a separation would be alleviated because there would be constant contact, both physical and emotional.  This accessibility to one’s children, I can personally testify, can only serve to strengthen an ailing person’s resolve to get better and encourage them in their therapy.   This dilemma not only applies to a person’s interaction with their children, but to all the important relationships in their life, such as a marriage in distress or strained/tumultuous relations between family members and friends.

Then there are the therapeutic costs that are the direct result of the pressure exerted by the aforementioned costs.  The strains of the two former costs can tax a person’s will to get better and sidetrack their ability to completely focus on diligently applying themselves to their therapy program.  I have sometimes rejected treatment in a facility because it is too difficult to be far from my family and friends.  But there is another therapeutic cost, when I have been treated by a facility outside of the area of my residence often there has been no adequate follow up.  The Crisis Unit cannot create a safety net of care, therapy, and appointments if I do not reside in the immediate area of the facility.  The staff does not have the capacity to establish important contacts and appointments for a person discharged from their facility if that out-patient does not live in the area.  The staff cannot gauge the person’s recuperation if the out-patient is unable to attend any support groups or maintenance programs because of distance issues.  They have been unable to help me make Doctor’s appointment and connect me with therapists in my area.  Many times I have returned home to face an absence of care that would have helped me establish an easier transition back into normal life.

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