#AtoZChallenge: G is for #GirlsRock (an Interview with Mental Health Care Advocate Kitt O’Malley

Eli Pacheco, Coach Daddy, interviewed me for his #AtoZchallenge, G is for #GirlsRock post. Thank you, Eli! Eli rocks, too.

girls-rock-lede-11-3 Snowtrooper at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Roanoke, a gorgeous fall Sunday morning.

The winding roads that unfurl before us.

cd-interviewsWe rode them on this trip to Roanoke, descending from the top of Mill Mountain to the stately St. Andrew’s Catholic Church below. We couldn’t see our destination at first, but took faith in the ribbon of the road down the mountain.

For those of you new to this blog, #GirlsRock is a series of interviews with women who do incredible things, from musicians to writers to bloggers to those who take a dream and make it a reality. Read other #GirlsRock posts here.

Today’s guest knows all about those winding roads that bring us to our fate.

She’s Kitt O’Malley. Many of you know her for her blog, on how to Learn, Love & Live With Bipolar Disorder. It’s an incredible and inspiring journey. She’s…

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Am I Still a Mental Health Blogger?

Self, Wife, Mother, Caregiver, Writer, Blogger, Mental Health Advocate

What defines being a blogger, specifically a mental health blogger? Must I write regularly or frequently? Must I always write about mental health? What if that is not my focus ALL the time? What if I’m so busy that living with bipolar disorder is not in the forefront of my mind? What if I’m overwhelmed by my life circumstances? What if I’m simply taking a break?

I’m not the most disciplined writer. Never been one for discipline; though, I do brush and floss my teeth every night. My house is a mess – dusty and cluttered. I bathe or shower (I prefer to bathe) at least once a week. (You are probably disgusted by this admission. I try not to move too much, so I don’t sweat and get stinky. Yes, I know I should exercise daily. And, eat better. Just because I know better, doesn’t mean I do better.)

Followers of my blog say they miss me when I write once a month, and not more often. Not sure if it’s nice to be missed, or if it’s stressful, if I have an obligation to write.

No, I have no obligation to write.

That’s why I blog.

It’s mine. All mine.

Yes, I interact with others here and enjoy doing so. I respond to those who comment.
Recently, though, I’ve been busy with life. My illness, bipolar disorder, hasn’t been the focus of my blog. I’m fairly stable. My symptoms are more or less in remission. But, the concepts of remission and recovery can mislead. Serious mental illnesses, like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, are chronic, lifelong brain disorders. You can live with them. Medications can help you treat the symptoms. But, the brain disorder remains.

To stay stable, I must be careful. I must plan for how certain circumstances affect me.

Last month I presented and next week I again will present as an individual living with mental illness for NAMI Provider Education at the hospital where over a decade ago (12 years now) I was treated two weeks inpatient and for a few months in their partial hospitalization program until I got bored.f

I get overstimulated in social situations and must recover. I cannot sustain that level of social functioning without paying a high price – psychiatric instability, hypomania and subsequent depression, mood cycling. So, I must keep in mind that I will need downtime afterwards – time to recover.

So… I started writing this piece wondering about the effects of my recent lack of “mental health” blog posts. I’ve also slacked off reading and commenting on others’ blogs. Sorry, folks.

I’ve been too busy doing taxes (scanning tons of receipts), driving my son to and from school and numerous doctors’ appointments (unfortunately, he isn’t motivated to get his driver’s license anytime soon & knows we didn’t get ours until we were 18 & 19), and making sure my parents are happy.

When I haven’t been busy, I’ve been exhausted – too exhausted to write, to read, to do anything verbal. Instead, I took up doing jigsaw puzzles on my iPad – enjoy that they are visual, non-verbal, and engage my mind.

Featured Blogger: Kitt O’Malley – Art by Rob Goldstein


Thank you, Robert Goldstein, for featuring me on Art by Rob Goldstein as his November featured blogger. The original interview is posted at: robertmgoldstein.com/2016/11/06/featured-blogger-kitt-omalley/. Here I reprint it.


This month’s featured blogger is writer and Mental Health Advocate Kitt O’Malley. In this interview we talk about internalized stigma, learning to accept and taking up the challenge of advocating for change.

Thank you for accepting my invitation Kitt, it’s an honor to have you as November’s featured blogger on Art by Rob Goldstein

Tell the reader a little about where you are from and how that shaped your worldview.

As a child, I moved back and forth overseas (living five years in Saudi Arabia) and between the East and West Coasts. As an adult, I moved back and forth from Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area, with one year in Eugene, Oregon and a couple of years in the Mojave Desert.

Moving often throughout my life has both positively and negatively affected me. I’m flexible, for I’ve lived in different cultures and subcultures. I’ve lived most of my life feeling like an outsider. Though, now, as a mature adult raising an adolescent, I see that everyone – no matter what culture, race, age, socioeconomic status, belief system, or diagnosis – has more in common than not. We all have the same basic needs – food, shelter, health (physical and mental), and love (a basic need of mammals to thrive).

What kind of psychotherapy did you practice?

I was educated in psychodynamic and family systems theory, with a sociopolitical slant. New College of California was a left-wing school – appropriate for someone planning on practicing in the Bay Area (well, at least San Francisco, Berkeley, or Oakland). To prepare for licensure, everyone must understand the basics about the major theories and modalities, so after graduation, I crash-studied other “types” of psychotherapy.

While in graduate school, I worked as an administrator at a battered women’s shelter. All staff members took shifts backing up our crisis line volunteers, and doing intake. My field placement involved doing play therapy with severely emotionally disturbed elementary and middle school-aged (latency aged) children. Working with children excited me. Object relations theory, or attachment theory, informed my work.

After graduation, I specialized in working with severely emotionally disturbed adolescents. I took additional training in sand tray therapy, similar in many ways to play therapy, as it is nonverbal. Sand tray therapy has its roots in Jungian theory. I worked for a residential facility which used a moral development model built upon the directors’ studies under Lawrence Kohlberg at Harvard.

To help my clients, I did whatever worked. Employed at non-profit agencies with multi-disciplinary treatment and education teams, I had the advantage of other professionals’ knowledge and training. I’m a huge believer in a multidisciplinary approach. The private practice model isolates and confuses individuals and families. As a mother, I can tell you first hand that I find coordinating my own son’s care (and my care) frustrating, to say the least.

As a child or adolescent’s psychotherapist, I worked with the parents and the child. On top of individual, family, and group psychotherapy, I did case management and coordinated care. Working with pregnant and parenting teens as a case manager and counselor, I coordinated care and, frankly, nagged young women to finish high school and get the job skills and/or university education that would enable them to rise above poverty.

The last position I had in the field was as a psychotherapist at a day treatment program for severely emotionally disturbed adolescents. The program heavily used behavioral modification techniques. My observation was that heavy use of such techniques taught the young men how to work the system. They were trained for a lifetime of external control. Insight is necessary for change.

I left the profession after an attempted rape by one of my adolescent male day treatment clients. Unfortunately, my position there started immediately after I lost a friend from high school to AIDs. The combination of both traumas threw me into a deep depression at the age of thirty. I have not practiced psychotherapy since then.

Does your knowledge in the field help or hinder the management of your illness?

At first, it hindered it. When I was first diagnosed bipolar type II at thirty-nine, I thought that I had a serious progressive mental illness. I had not realized the extent to which I had internalized stigma against bipolar disorder, as opposed to depression. The clients that I had worked with were so ill that they required residential or day treatment. All of the sudden, I thought of myself as not fit to be a mother. I put my son in daycare and returned to work, only to eventually fall apart and require hospitalization and partial hospitalization.

When you think of encounters with stigma, which stands out as the worst?

My own internalized stigma stands out. I thought my son better off without me. We stopped trying to have a second child. That’s some heavy stigma. My first psychiatrist, who was a woman, reassured me that I could have another child, just on different medication. We decided, though, that one was enough.

What prompted you to start a blog?

My father-in-law suffered sepsis while traveling. My husband and his siblings immediately joined his parents at the hospital. The incident, having someone I love on the precipice of death, triggered hypomania. I channeled my hypomanic energy and anxiety into writing. I simply had to. Many people prayed for my father-in-law’s healing. He is still with us today. For that I am grateful.

What specific kinds of skills do you think mental health advocates need to bring to their blog?

Self-care. The ability to see blogging for what it is and for what it is not. Not to expect writing to be a cure, even if it can be therapeutic. To realize that you may not get positive feedback for what you write. Realize that it may trigger symptoms. Be discerning as to whom you follow and to whom you listen. My best online mental health blogging friends have recommended that I see my mental health professional team when I appear to be symptomatic.

Medication has helped me to maintain stability. I am pro-science and pro-medication. My interest in the field of medicine preceded my interest in mental health. For those stable on medication, stay on your medication. Be skeptical of claims to “cure” mental illness. Vet sources. I like to rely on sources such as the National Institute of Mental Health.

As a mental health advocate, what kind of policy changes do you want to see?

Multi-disciplinary treatment teams. Housing. Changes to privacy laws so family and friends can participate in treatment. Better health and medication coverage.

Is there anything you regret about the decision to go public with bi-polar illness?

For myself, no. For family members, perhaps. But, I’ve always been open. Just my personality.

What is the one thing people can do right now to combat stigma against people with mental illnesses.

Treat others kindly.

What is the question you would ask yourself as an interviewer and how would you answer it?

I have no clue. As I’m exhausted and overwhelmed, perhaps it would be: How do you deal with exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed? For which, I do not have an adequate answer. Figuring it out as I go…

Thank you Kitt!

Where Am I Going Now?

Wife Mother Writer Artist Advocate Activist Speaker Performer Passionate Empath

Originally written October 2015, a month before my mother had her stroke, before my life changed. Still settling into my new normal.


How do I describe myself? How do I best describe my blog? What has my blog become? What direction do I want to take it?

What direction is my life taking? Is my writing taking? Is my (dare-say) art or photography taking?

Back in the 90s when I registered my first corporate URL, I knew that some day, some year, some decade, I would register the URL kittomalley.com. I knew that I wanted to post my writing online.

I never envisioned kittomalley.com as a community. Didn’t realize that I’d be conversing with others. Never imagined what it has become.

In My Own Voice

The weekend after I attended BlogHer16, my local NAMI Orange County office hosted an In Our Own Voice (IOOV) training.

In Our Own Voice (IOOV)

Hi, I’m Kitt O’Malley

  • Mother of a teen son, wife, mental health advocate
  • You can find me any given day on social media
  • I enjoy reading, writing, art, photography, flowers & nature
  • Relate to audience

The National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, is the nation’s largest grassroots organization dedicated to improving the lives of persons living with serious mental illness and their families. Founded in 1979, NAMI has become the nation’s voice on mental illness. With organizations and affiliates in every state, NAMI effectively provides advocacy, research, support, and education about serious mental illness. Members of NAMI include those living with mental illness, families and friends of people living with mental illnesses, mental health providers, students, educators, law enforcement, public officials, politicians, members of faith communities and concerned citizens.

Services NAMI provides include mental health education and support programs. NAMI Orange County offers numerous programs and support groups.

When NAMI volunteers do official IOOV presentations, we show a 15-minute video divided into five different segments: Dark Days, Acceptance, Treatment, Coping Skills, and Strategies & Successes, Hopes & Dreams. After each segment, we pause the video, tell our own brief personal story, and then leave time for discussion and questions. Here I share my story. Haven’t yet done this in person, just been trained, but I look forward to it.

Dark Days

When I was an 18-year-old freshman UCLA student, I fell into a deep suicidal depression. It truly was a living hell. I believed that my family, the world in fact, would be better off without me. But, though that time was dark, and I’d never wish the pain of deep depression on anyone, those were not my darkest days.

At my friends’ insistence I sought help. I lived with chronic depression with the help of therapy and later medication until I was a 39-year-old mother of a very active toddler. At that time, I experienced a feeling of elation believing that God was calling me to attend bible study at one church and spiritual direction at another.

As a former psychotherapist and as someone who had to be carefully dosed with antidepressants, I recognized the feeling of elation as hypomania. The change of my diagnosis from depression to bipolar disorder type II changed my perception of myself.

I believed I could be a good mother with depression, but as soon as I realized I had bipolar disorder, I put my son in daycare and returned to work. I thought my son would be better cared for by someone else.

I was the same person before I got that diagnosis, but my internalized stigma, my own negative thoughts about what having bipolar meant, that I now had a serious progressive mental illness, my belief that my son was no longer safe when in my own care – that was my darkest days.

Eventually my illness made it too difficult to work and parent. I ended up hospitalized. Since then I’ve been home with my son, who actually needed me at home with him. As it turns out, I’ve been a great mom to my son.

Acceptance

Acceptance has been an ongoing process for me. Not just overcoming denial or stigma – but owning my diagnosis and allowing others in to help me. I had been a high achiever, a perfectionist. Accepting that I have a mental illness has involved accepting myself as broken.

To that extent, acceptance has allowed me to forgive myself for not living up to early life expectations. I quit UCLA after my freshman year. Took a semester off. Attended community college part-time before transferring to UC Berkeley. I never became a doctor or a lawyer. But I did get my bachelors, a masters in psychology, and much later even attended seminary (but didn’t finish).

My journey to acceptance has been essentially a spiritual one. I am not weak. I am vulnerable. I am not perfect and flawless. I am loved, lovable, and loving. My life has meaning. My life experience gives me purpose in helping others. And, I am grateful that I am here today speaking to you.

Treatment

My treatment has changed over time. When 18-years-old I sought help at UCLA’s student health services. The cognitive therapy I got helped me to identify my suicidal thoughts, stop them, and rewrite them to more rational thoughts. That skill stays with me to this day. Later in my mid-20s, I studied and sought therapy that explored the effects alcoholism and family dynamics had on me.

Then at 30, as a psychotherapist of severely emotionally disturbed teens, following the deaths of my grandmother and a friend from high school, I fell into a depression so deep, psychotherapy alone was not enough. As I couldn’t even get myself out of bed, with my parent’s help, I went to see first my internist and then a psychiatrist for medication. My reaction to rapid changes in antidepressant medications led to a week of sleeplessness and psychotic thought process.

Once a stable antidepressant regime was found, I remained stable on antidepressant medication and psychotherapy until I was 39. With no changes in medication, like the rapid changes in antidepressant medications that led to manic symptoms when I was 30, I recognized symptoms of elation which I knew from experience and education was hypomania. I called the advice nurse on my insurance card who advised I see a psychiatrist or go to the ER ASAP. I could not get into see a psychiatrist until the following week, so my internist prescribed an anti-seizure medication for me to take until then.

Since that time, I’ve taken a variety of medications as my needs and my body chemistry have changed. I rely on medication, supportive psychotherapy, and group therapy to maintain my mental health.

Coping Skills

Honestly, it’s taken decades for me to develop excellent coping skills. I’ve always been good at asking for help and getting support from friends and family. My social skills have helped me to surround myself with loving and supportive friends and family. I’m honest and open about my symptoms and what support I need at the time. That may mean that I have my husband get take out or make dinner when I’m wiped out and not up to the task.

I make sure I get a good night’s sleep every night. I’m aware of stressors that may make my mood to go up or down. I read and write. Every night before I go to bed, I read to calm my mind and often pray or meditate. During the day I write, blog and use social media to connect with others in the mental health community.

Humor is a fabulous coping skill both for me personally and for my husband and me in our marriage. Finally, I’ve attended NAMI Peer-to-Peer program which introduced me to the concept of mental health recovery.

Successes, Hopes & Dreams

My success has been when I fall, when my journey is interrupted, I reassess and adapt. When I quit UCLA, I took a semester off and then went to community college before transferring to Berkeley. I had hoped to become a doctor, a neurosurgeon, actually. That hope, that dream, that goal changed. I learned that I must take life as it comes, adjusting my goals as needed.

When I fell into a deep depression and later a week of mania, I couldn’t return to work right away. I decided not to return to my profession as a Marriage, Family and Child Counselor, took time off, then worked in a temporary job which led to a decade long career in commercial real estate.

Now, my success is to be a good mother, loving wife, and mental health advocate. I’ve always hoped to be a public speaker. I’m living my dream by telling my story to you. I had hoped to be an In Our Own Voice speaker, and now I am. My hopes and dreams for the future are continued public education about mental illness, overcoming stigma and discrimination, and better research and treatment for brain disorders.