I Spoke in Public!

Thank you Belmont High School for inviting me to speak on mental health

Thank you, Lianne Sauvage, for inviting me to share my mental health journey at Belmont High School’s Mental Health Assembly!

For my speech, I adapted content from My Bipolar Thoughts, my memoir work-in-progress. The speech was scheduled for 25 minutes!

Honored to speak in front an auditorium of Belmont HS students!
Honored to speak in front an auditorium of Belmont HS students!

I plan to refine these speaking notes and use them again for future speaking engagements:

My Mental Health Journey

Expectations

  • When my parents introduced me as a child, they always said, “Kitt is going to go to Harvard medical school and become a doctor when she grows up.”
  • High school, I aspired to become a brain surgeon. Total overachiever. Medical Explorer Scout. Emergency Medical Technician training. Active on campus. Drama geek. School newspaper. High GPA.
  • Applied to colleges with the highest acceptance rates into medical school.
    • Didn’t get into any of those schools.
    • Receiving rejection letter after rejection letter hit me hard.
    • I had always been told I could go to school anywhere I wanted and could do anything I wanted. Wrong.
    • Instead of attending an East Coast Ivy League school, I started my freshman year at UCLA as a biochemistry major.
  • Letter from UCLA saying I had to take remedial summer courses since my SAT scores totaled under 700.
    • Back in the 80’s the math portion totaled 800, the verbal portion 800. My math score alone was 720 (yes, I was once a math geek).
    • Apparently, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) incorrectly reported my scores to UCLA.
    • When I showed UCLA my SAT scores, not only did I not have to do remedial work, but I was eligible for College Honors, in which I became active as a freshman.

College Student

  • As a freshman at UCLA I fell into a deep depression,
    • believing that my parents, my sister, the whole world would be better off without me alive.
    • When I told my friends of my suicidal thoughts, they made me promise to get professional help.
    • I saw a UCLA psychologist whose cognitive therapy, which works on rewriting your thoughts, helped me with my suicidal thoughts.
    • Still, my underlying mental illness remained.
    • Very active on campus, I volunteered in UCLA Medical Center’s emergency room, participated in College Honors’ Social Committee (glorified party planner), and trained as a peer health counselor.
    • For all but my closest friends, I hid behind a mask of competency, social skills, and overachievement.
    • But I was miserable and wanted to get quit.
    • The August before my sophomore year I came down with mononucleosis and used that as an excuse to quit UCLA.
    • For the next year and a half, I visited family and friends, worked part-time, and attended community college part-time.
    • Then, I transferred to UC Berkeley as a legal studies major, an interdisciplinary program I loved.
  • During my junior year at Berkeley, symptoms of depression returned.
    • My mother was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I was devastated to learn of my mother’s diagnosis. At the time, studies indicated a five-year prognosis, that she would die in five years. She’s still alive thirty-five years later thanks to clinical trials at UC rival USC Keck School of Medicine.
    • That same academic year, my maternal grandfather died. My grandfather always held a special place in my heart. He was a kindred spirit as a gifted orator (I’ve always loved the stage) and storyteller (here I am telling you my story). When he died, it hit me particularly hard. My mother’s family asked me to give his eulogy, which was a huge honor. In speaking at his memorial mass, I was carrying on his legacy.
  • On my way home from the funeral, as I was driving over the San Francisco Bay Bridge, I fell into a trance state.
    • I felt a tingling all over my body, an energy pushing out, and a warm cleansing energy replacing it. The fact that I was driving over a bridge at the time disturbed me. At the time it seemed safer to continue off the bridge than stop on the bridge in the middle of traffic.
    • Now, I see that experience as a euphoric state of hypomania. At the time, given my history of depression, I knew if I went to a mental health professional and described the experience, they would diagnose me with a mental illness. But I found the experience meaningful, as somehow related to my grandfather’s death, and did not want the meaning dismissed.

Working Adult

  • Having graduated from Berkeley as a legal studies major, my first profession was as a legal assistant in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Working twelve-hour days six days a week, I crashed after a year on the job. What looked like over-achievement was a symptom of unrecognized, undiagnosed hypomania that came with a steep cost – my mental health and stability.
  • After working two years as a legal assistant, I quit, took time off, and applied for graduate school in psychology. While in graduate school, I worked as an administrator at a battered women’s shelter and completed my field placement doing play therapy with severely emotionally disturbed children in day treatment.
  • I got my master’s in psychology and became a licensed therapist. I worked with pregnant and parenting teens and severely emotionally disturbed adolescents in residential and day treatment.
  • Though my career as a psychotherapist was short-lived, only five years from ages twenty-five to thirty, it influenced how I think about mental health. My understanding is colored by both my experience living with depression and bipolar disorder and treating others living with mental health issues.
  • At thirty, my grandmother died, a dear friend from high school died, and a client threatened to rape me during session. I had a complete major depressive breakdown and found myself unable to get up out of bed and return to work. For the first time, I sought medical help for depression, seeing my regular doctor and then a psychiatrist for medication. Up until then, I had managed my depression with psychotherapy alone.
  • Rapid changes in prescribed antidepressant medications triggered mania. I ended up spending a week awake, thinking simultaneously at rapid speed in binary with ones and zeroes streaming through my head like I was a computer, about chaos theory, and about mystic saints. At the time, I wished that there had been a way to record my thoughts, so later I could decipher them and see if any made sense.
  • Though I clearly had a manic episode, I was not diagnosed bipolar at the time. Those who knew me then find this fact shocking. Since the episode was likely precipitated by antidepressants, I was not prescribed a mood stabilizer. My psychiatrist prescribed a three-day regime of antipsychotics which stopped the racing thoughts in their track and allowed me to sleep, which I needed.
  • After the manic episode, I was unable to function on my own. I would fall asleep driving to my temporary job. When at work, I couldn’t even read. The words were all jumbled. I appeared competent. No one could see that I, a highly educated and articulate former professional woman, COULD NOT EVEN READ A SENTENCE.
  • To my parents’ home and care I returned. They were supportive and encouraged my recovery. While living with my them, I received psychiatric treatment and psychotherapy. My new psychiatrist carefully administered an antidepressant, slowly increasing my dose. I remained stable on a low dose of antidepressant for almost a decade.
  • Once I was up for it, I returned to work, starting as a temporary file clerk for a commercial real estate firm. What followed was a decade long career in commercial real estate. It was a welcome change, not emotionally draining as helping severely emotionally disturbed youth, and it used my analytic and problem-solving skills.
  • Still, I continued my pattern of overdoing it, working long hours and neglecting myself, leading to repeated burn out and cyclical depression. As a result, my résumé lists numerous short stints at various jobs — shooting high, crashing hard — time and again.
  • Soon after moving back home and starting work as a temporary file clerk, I met my future husband. Three years after we met, we married and later had a son. I found being home with an infant difficult. At the same time, I found being at work, away from him, heart-breaking.

Mother

  • Depression during pregnancy and after pregnancy poses risks to both the infant and the mother. With my doctor’s blessing, I took an antidepressant when I was pregnant and nursed my son.
  • After my son was born, I returned to the workplace part-time. My job consumed more and more of my time. I went from working two days a week to four days a week until 7PM. At that point, I decided to quit work and stay home with him.
  • Staying home with my son full-time lasted a year and a half. Then symptoms of hypomania returned. I thought that God was calling to one church for spiritual direction and another church for bible study. Though going to church wasn’t “bad” for me, I recognized the feeling of religious euphoria as hypomania.
  • To be a good mother to my son, I sought treatment for symptoms of bipolar. Finally, at the age of thirty-nine, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 2.
  • Fearing that I was now an unfit mother, I proceeded to put my son in daycare and reenter the workforce.
  • Once my diagnosis changed from depression to bipolar, my internalized stigma reared its head. As a clinician, I knew bipolar is considered a serious progressive mental illness. I believed that I could be a danger to my son and he’d be better off in the care of someone else.
  • I was wrong. I was the same person before and after the diagnosis. The only change was my treatment. Instead of only taking an antidepressant, now I was also taking a mood stabilizer.
  • Despite the challenges of bipolar disorder, and those challenges are real, I’m a good mother. I work hard to be a good mother.
  • Keeping with my history of hypomanic workaholism, I worked increasingly long hours until I once again fell apart. I broke down crying in the parking lot at the office and found myself unable to pull myself back together and return to work. To get myself stable, I had myself voluntarily hospitalized when my son was four and haven’t returned to work since.

Acceptance

  • For me, acceptance has been an ongoing process. I’ve overcome denial and internalized stigma about what it means to live with bipolar disorder. I’ve 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 involves accepting myself as broken, as imperfect, as fallible, as human.
  • That acceptance has allowed me to forgive myself for not living up to early life expectations. I never became a doctor or a lawyer.
  • But I did get my bachelors, a master’s in psychology, and much later even attended graduate school studying religion twice after my psychiatric hospitalization.
  • Given my history of mental illness, I’ve questioned my sense of calling, of having a higher purpose. My mental health journey has led to purposeful mental health advocacy.
  • I am not weak. I am vulnerable. There is strength is being vulnerable. I accept that I’m not perfect and flawless. I am loved, lovable, and loving the way I am. My life has meaning.
  • My life experience gives me purpose in helping others. I am grateful that I can speak and write to share my journey with others, hoping that it inspires others to accept themselves and others living with mental health issues and to get help if they need it.
  • Thank you.

Writing My Book and Speaking Out Loud

Writing My Book. Speaking Out Loud. Stock images of laptop with notepad and pens and auditorium with podium.

I’m Writing

This morning I had a productive and encouraging book coaching session with Aaron J. Smith of AaronJSmithWriter.com. With his help, I’m rewriting my previously self-published work, Blogging for Bipolar Mental Health.

The current working title of the revised memoir is Bipolar Thoughts (or My Bipolar Thoughts – which do you prefer?).

Today we worked on my introductory piece, “My Mental Health Journey,” which chronicles my story of living with depression and bipolar disorder from age eighteen to now. This 5300-word narrative combines and expands on my previously written long-form pieces.

Following the narrative, I’ve organized my writing into sections containing short form pieces which convey my thoughts. The section themes are: Bipolar Thoughts, Write with Purpose, Advocate, and Caretake.

Organizing my short form content into these sections overwhelmed me. But, I chipped away at it over time and got it done.

When I first published my book, I cut and pasted content from my blog. Though I knew it was duplicative and needed rewriting, I found the prospect of a major overhaul daunting, overwhelming, paralyzing.

Aaron has been a HUGE help in breaking down the tasks at hand.

My next step (my homework before our next session) is to write a compelling conclusion to “My Mental Health Journey” about why my story matters to me and how it matters to share it with you, my readers.

After that, we will edit the short pieces.

Public Speaking Gig

Writing the conclusion to my “My Mental Health Journey” will have to wait until next week, for this Friday I was invited to speak at a downtown Los Angeles high school mental health assembly.

My first public speaking gig as an individual independent of any major health non-profit!

The speech is scheduled to be 25-minutes long. That’s a LONG speech! I’ve spoken for NAMI Orange County (NAMIOC.org) and for the International Bipolar Foundation (IBPF.org), but never by myself in front of an auditorium and never for 25-minutes straight.

Assuming the principal’s approval pending a background check, I’ll be hard at work this week on the speech. My plan is to repurpose “My Mental Health Journey” into speaking points.

Knowing that doing so will be stressful and overstimulating, likely triggering hypomanic symptoms, I made a reservation at a nearby hotel the night before the speech.

At first, I thought of asking a friend if I could stay with her the night before the event, then I realized that doing so would overstimulate and exhaust me even more.

Socializing gets me going in a bad way. I ramp up. I get overexcited, anxious, irritable. I speak faster, filling the air with more and more words. My thoughts race. I can’t concentrate. My mind stops, free falls, unable to find what it’s looking for. It’s exhausting.

The night and early morning before I speak, I need no distractions or stressors. Not only must I avoid social stressors, I must avoid the stress of driving in Los Angeles gridlock. I need peace and quiet.

Wish me luck! I welcome your prayers and positive energy as I prepare for the speech.

What I’ve Done Recently

Hypomania, Self-Care, Success!

Frustrated, Defeated and Hypomanic

The weekend before last, I was frustrated, overwhelmed, feeling defeated, and mildly hypomanic.

I felt like a failure as a mother, for I hadn’t been able to get my son to take his high school equivalency exams. Told that I make it too easy for him to stay in his bedroom compounded my feeling of guilt.

How could I balance compassion for my son’s severe migraine pain and social anxiety with consequences that forced him to take more responsibility?

Repeated what I’ve told him before (without a hard date): He had to move forward – with school, with helping around the house, with addressing his anxiety, or with work – or he would have to move out.

Now that he’s a legal adult, we’re no longer legally obligated to house and feed him. We don’t intend to kick him out. But, he must move forward and take responsibility as an adult member of the household.

Provider Education, Take Two

The National Alliance on Mental Illness Orange County (NAMI OC) chapter asked me to retrain for the new two-day Provider Education curriculum.

I had served on the Provider Education team that first structured the five-week course content into a two-day format, and we had done it in two days numerous times.

Turns out the “new” curriculum varied very little from what we were teaching. By lunch on that Saturday, I lost my temper. I was insulted.

Explaining that I had a lot going on in my life (mother’s stroke, dad’s death, son’s anxiety), I left with the “new” two-day curriculum binder in hand.

Self-Care

After losing my temper at NAMI OC, I knew I needed a break to pull myself together and bring myself down from irritable hypomania before the International Bipolar Foundation (IBPF) Women’s Mental Health panel discussion on the following Tuesday.

How did I recover? I left. Booked myself into a hotel in La Jolla Sunday through Wednesday and relaxed. Not everyone can do this. I realize that. But, it’s cheaper than psychiatric hospitalization.

Women in Mental Health

On the International Bipolar Foundation’s Women’s Mental Health Panel, I represented the mature woman living with bipolar. Mental health activist and actor, Claire Griffiths, represented the perspective of a teenager. Aubrey Good, the Social Media and Program Coordinator of IBPF, represented the young adult perspective.

I had a wonderful time meeting IBPF staff and volunteers and loved being a part of their panel discussion. I hope to do more public speaking events in the future.

Success!

When I returned home Wednesday, my son had showered, dressed, fed himself, and was ready to take his first high school equivalency test. He passed. I never doubted his ability to pass the test.

BIG DEAL: He overcame his anxiety and didn’t get a migraine. Two days later, he took the next test despite migraine symptoms. He took migraine and nausea medications and faced his fear. Again, he passed.

Two down. Two to go. Moving Forward.

Connecting with Online Friends in Real Life

This weekend, Sarah Fader came into town. She managed to connect with several mental health advocates and writers over the weekend.

Sunday, we met with:

I never would have tried to visit so many people in such a short time!

Mini-Family Reunion

Sunday night had the pleasure of meeting my uncle, two of my cousins, their spouses and kids in Anaheim. Family. Love. Great food. Fireworks in the sky. Thank you!

I CAN Do It

Lesson Learned: If I take care of myself, I can achieve more AND so can my son.

So Easily Broken

So Easily Broken text on broken glass image

Yesterday this “story” of mine was published on Stigmama.com at FICTION SERIES: So Easily Broken, Kitt O’Malley | Stigmama. Clearly, it is fictionalized autobiography. I simply wrote what surrounded me in third person.

FICTION SERIES: So Easily Broken, Kitt O’Malley | Stigmama

All around her books, binders, and training manuals piled. She had an article to finish and submit, blog posts to write, book reviews to complete once she finished reading the books, and multiple social media presences to maintain. “Shit,” she thought, “how the hell am I going to get out from under all this?” Why, oh, why had she made so many friends who wrote books and blogs she now felt obligated to read? Actually, she really wanted to read those books and blog posts. Really she did. But there were only so many hours in the day, so many days in the week, so many week in the month, and she could not procrastinate indefinitely – actually, she could and she did.

Why now had she decided to volunteer in her community? Volunteer work that required her to study densely written manuals before her actual training even began. Volunteer work in which she would bare her soul, expose her vulnerabilities – her struggles living with mental illness, with bipolar disorder – in public, in person, in front of classrooms of high school students, in front of mental health professionals. Yes, she would share her triumphs, too, but she didn’t feel particularly triumphant in the midst of the chaos that surrounded her. Her anxiety grew. She neglected herself, her family, her dogs, her home, even her roses.

Like she didn’t have enough to do already. Everywhere she looked on every horizontal surface – every counter, table, desk, chest of drawers – she saw clutter. In the corners of the master bedroom, under the stairs, on the living room and dining room floors – clutter. Stuff and more stuff. The clutter needed sorting, needed decisions made. Keep or toss? Where would she put it anyway? The clutter overwhelmed her – buried her.

Then there were those unfinished walls – a patchwork of dreary earth tones the previous owner preferred, fresh new paint, and raw drywall texture covering up wounds from temper tantrums thrown. Turns out not only toddlers throw temper tantrums. Her child had no way of knowing that if he kicked the wall it would break. Lesson learned. Walls are only sheetrock, son. They are not strong. They are not invincible. They are not all that solid. She felt just as fragile. Maybe she looked rock solid, but she was so easily broken.