Y is for the true You inside
A few days ago, while participating in the April 2018 A to Z challenge, I wrote a post about The fun side of living on the edge of reality. It was about the silliness of letting my imagination run away. I imagine it’s a trait common among those of us who like to write. My theme for the challenge was to tell the stories that marked my simple life; the memories of those moments are in my mind like snapshots. After I wrote the post, I felt the need write the stories of those who struggle with harsh realities, yet find a reason to get up every morning and do their best to make it a great day. For the next few days, in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month in May, I am telling their stories. Once again, at the end of the post, I will put links to resources for additional information.
Imagine for a moment that you are a high school senior or a freshman in college. You ’ve been a straight A student, involved in sports programs and volunteering. You’ve done everything right. Just last month you were told that it’s a great thing to have your whole life ahead of you. The world is your oyster, the sky is the limit, and yet here you are, sitting in with your parents in a psychiatric ward waiting to talk to your hospital team about discharge planning. You have been handed a diagnosis something like Paranoid Schizophrenia or Bipolar Disorder. You’re a smart kid, intellectually you understand the information, but it doesn’t make sense. You can’t return to school; you need extended treatment in an outpatient day program. You may need to pack your things and move out of your dorm, mid-semester to a therapeutic residential program in your community. You don’t remember how you got here. You’ve heard the stories, you’ve been given a diagnosis, but you can’t believe this is happening to you.
Mental health services and the Government
For the most part, I loved my job. I found it meaningful. I believe it addressed a need in our community especially for the families and individuals we served. Even though we were just another branch of government, I felt we were doing great work moving forward to try new ideas in the interest of improving the system for our clients. As it happens sometimes, I was promoted to long days of sitting behind a desk with a mountain of paperwork while trying to interact with the bureaucracy. I missed being out in the field, but I was fortunate enough to work with a team of intelligent, well trained and compassionate professionals who were driven to provide the best services for their clients on the road to recovery. Together, in weekly sessions, we did a lot of brainstorming and problem solving to address the individual needs of the clients.
During this particular time, our emphasis was to work towards helping clients break the revolving-door cycle. In particular, we had begun paying close attention to the unique issues of the transitional age and young adult population. These individuals ranged in age from 16 to 24 years old. In some cases, we were able to expand age limitations to 30 years old. We sponsored supportive education and employment initiatives, peer mentoring and independent living in the least restrictive settings. We wanted to offer user-friendly alternatives to interrupted lives. That is how I had come to know about Mike.
Mike –carrying the stigma of an ex-patient
Mike had come to us after his second or third psychiatric hospitalization at a local hospital. He was in his late 20’s, almost out of age range for our new menu of services. He was bright, hardworking but was having a hard time adjusting to his life as an ex-patient of a mental hospital mainly because of anxiety about the stigma it carries. Who was he now? He had been living with his uncle and family for many years. Upon discharge had returned to work at the family business but symptoms of his anxiety, OCD, and depressed mood caused persistent and unrealistic worry. At times increase in symptoms became full panic attacks and physical immobility. His case manager thought he would flourish with a young adult support system and advocated strongly for a spot.
I met Mike for the first time at the office when he came looking for his case manager who was out on appointments. He asked to speak to me because he felt that being with anyone who understood his struggles would help to lessen his anxiety during this episode. He had just had a falling out with his cousin who was supervising his work on a project. His cousin felt he was too slow and taking too long to get the job done. He was feeling overwhelmed and worried what his family would think. He worried that the incident would be a setback in his recovery plan. We reviewed his Recovery Plan and the Safety Plan that he had worked on with his therapist and case manager for these very same situations.
“You know what I wish?”
He told me he felt he was on shaky ground with his family since his hospitalization. He said he knew they saw him differently. “They think I’m lazy; they don’t realize what a struggle it is for me to get up and face the day each morning.” He didn’t feel he could address it because he believed they would mock him. Whether it was true or not, I can’t say, but that was his perception. We talked about how unrealistic expectations and perceptions could present a barrier to recovery.
He was sad and angry. On the one hand, he explained people see a good looking young man who appeared smart, secure, physically fit and “put together” as if there was nothing wrong. But the reality he said is that he can’t manage his fears and anxiety without support and medications. He sat quietly for a moment; shoulders slumped as he stared at his hands resting on the desk. He took a deep breath and with a surge of energy, leaned in on the desk to look me straight in the face. “You know what I wish sometimes? I wish that I would have lost a leg or an arm or have some form of disfigurement in my face or body. I wish that I looked disabled. Then people would be more empathetic and realize that I am living with something catastrophic.”
It wasn’t self-pity, he was stating the obvious. I had heard it before verbalized in different ways. Anxiety disorder and depression are sometimes referred to as a silent epidemic. However, in our society, it is often misunderstood, and its effects minimized, precisely because patients do not appear as if there is something wrong with them. They don’t fit the stereotype of “mental patient.”
Mike did eventually move out of the family home and into his own apartment with minimal supports. He enrolled at the local community college and began to think about becoming a peer mentor. The road to recovery with mental health issues varies for each person, as life does for all of us in general. Sometimes for every step forward, there are two steps backward, but the key is to keep going.
If you would like more information about mental health services in your area, please check out these links below.
SAMSHA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration) at https://www.samhsa.gov/
NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness (a grassroots organization run by families and consumers) https://www.nami.org/About-NAMI