Why I Keep Away from Madness, Dyane Leshin-Harwod #MarchMadness

I love this post written by my dear friend Dyane Leshin-Harwood of Birth of a New Brain: Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder for STIGMAMA.com. She eloquently and powerfully explains how she takes care of herself, how she pays attention to what feeds and nurtures her, and how she protects herself. She is my role model in self-care, in setting limits, in being careful what I read, what I listen to, and what I expose myself to. Thank you, Dyane.

May hospitals become more nurturing, healing environments, places where we feel supported. My experience with psychiatric hospitalization was so different from Dyane Leshin-Harwood’s, and unfortunately the superb program I enjoyed a decade ago no longer exists. That experience traumatized my husband by leaving him in the dark. He and my son visited me daily, but my psychiatric team failed to communicate with him about my treatment even though I signed the HIPAA privacy waiver. My husband feared that I would be permanently institutionalized, and his fears about my prognosis were not allayed until I was released. That my husband had to live with that anxiety for two weeks, including over Valentine’s Day, is tragic.


Why I Keep Away from Madness by Dyane Leshin-Harwood

Dyane Harwood & her Muse Lucy
Dyane Harwood & her Muse Lucy

In the past I considered “madness” to be a fascinating topic. I never shied away from facing it through books, movies, or art until I was diagnosed with postpartum onset bipolar one disorder (PPBD) at age thirty-seven.

My PPBD manifested as hypomania immediately following the birth of my second daughter. As the weeks flew by, I became more and more manic. I even became hypergraphic, a little-known, bizarre condition in which one writes compulsively. I wrote hundreds of pages in less than a week, often while tandem breastfeeding my newborn and toddler.

Something was clearly wrong.

Six weeks postpartum, I voluntarily hospitalized myself in our local behavioral health unit for treatment. I used to live one block away from the distinctive redwood building. Every day while I drove to work at a non-profit, I glanced at the “B.H.U.”, never imagining that one day I’d be locked inside there.

I had been in locked-down mental health units before, but as a visitor. My father, a professional violinist, had manic depression like so many of his brilliant colleagues. I visited my Dad at UCLA’s renowned Neuropsychiatric Institute. As soon as I got my driver’s license at sixteen, I drove alone to visit him during one of his numerous hospitalizations. I brought his Stradivarius violin and his favorite Wrigley’s spearmint gum to cheer him up. How naïve I was back then – I didn’t realize that neither item was allowed in such a place, especially the million-dollar violin! When I left his unit, I felt like I had just gotten out of jail. I felt so guilty to see him that depressed. As I watched him shuffle away in an ugly hospital gown instead of the elegant black suit he wore for his Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts, I never thought I’d be a patient in such a hellhole.

When my turn arrived to be a mentally ill patient, I had to walk away from my six-week-old baby and my toddler into a sterile unit. That was my first hospitalization among the “mad”, and I wish with all my heart it had been my last.

During my six subsequent mental hospitalizations, I was stigmatized by some of my own family, friends, and by a variety of hospital staff. It was crystal-clear that I was regarded as “mad” and nothing else.

When I was housed among the “mad” I lived with many different kinds and degrees of madness. I have PTSD from my time spent in those locked-downwards. As a result, I’ve experienced enough madness to last the rest of my life.

I hold a Bachelors of Arts degree in English and American Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz. I’ve been an avid reader since a young child. Since my PPBD diagnosis, I’ve read many bipolar memoirs and bipolar-themed blogs that have become ubiquitous, but I’ve become much more cautious with what I read when it comes to bipolar disorder. Nowadays, I automatically avoid anything with the title “mad” or “madness” in it. I refuse to read all accounts of mental hospitalizations. I may seem like I’m burying my head in the sand – and yes, I might be missing out on a gem of a read, but I can no longer immerse myself in the world of the insane.

I first went mad when I wanted to hang myself with my thick bathrobe belt hours after I took one amitriptyline (Elavil) pill. Even in my darkest moments, I had never wanted to hang myself before I took that medication. It was obvious that the amitriptyline was causing the suicidal ideation in my brain, and – thank God – my husband was home.

“I need to get to the hospital,” I told him, unable to look into his eyes. Once again he took me to the behavioral health unit with our baby and toddler in tow. I entered the ward as a ghost of my former exuberant self.

Losing myself that way – losing my will to live and wanting to take my life using a method that had formerly been anathema to me – traumatized me. I don’t want to read about others’ experiences in insane asylums. Because I’ve spent weeks in mental hospitals and I have PTSD as a result, I don’t want another glimpse into those environments. I understand why others wish to learn about people’s experiences with madness, but I’ll refrain from examining those mental states as much as I can.

As I continue to keep away from creative works that focus upon madness, I feel empowered. I value the freedom I have to make this decision, as for far too long I felt powerless when it came to my own sanity.

I’ve been mad for long enough. Thanks to the help of medication, a good psychiatrist, therapist and self-care, I’m able to stay sane. Avoidingthe world of madness helps keep me that way.

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.

What I’m Working On Now

NAMI Ending the Silence Program, This is My Brave, Transformed by Postpartum Depression

Last Thursday, I interviewed at NAMI Orange County to participate in two of their programs:

NAMI Ending the Silence

NAMI Ending the Silence is an in-school presentation about mental health designed for high school students. Students can learn about mental illness directly from family members and individuals living with mental illness themselves.

NAMI Provider Education

The NAMI Provider Education Program presents a penetrating, subjective view of family and consumer experiences with serious mental illness to line staff at public agencies who work directly with people with severe and persistent brain disorders.

Saturday January 31st, the next NAMI Orange County Provider Education program begins. I’m taking the course as a provider, even though I have not practiced psychotherapy since I was thirty. Perhaps I will later be trained to be a provider educator myself, if it is not too socially stimulating. Honestly, after my interview, I became hypomanic. Not sure what I can do without triggering symptoms.

Another project I am working on is finishing a 750-word piece for This is My Brave. Thank you, founder Jennifer Marshall who blogs at Bipolar Mom Life. I have writer’s block and finding it difficult to complete.

This is My Brave

This Is My Brave, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, provides a community and platform for people living with mental illness to speak out to end the stigma associated with mental health disorders.

Transformed by Postpartum Depression

Along with many other books I want to read, I REALLY want to finish reading my good friend Walker Karraa, PhD‘s new book Transformed by Postpartum Depression: Women’s Stories of Trauma and Growth.

Transformed by PPD

STIGMAMA.COM

I am a proud contributor to Walker Karraa, PhD‘s groundbreaking website STIGMAMA.COM. February’s theme is storytelling and fiction. Contact STIGMAMA.COM to submit your piece.

STIGMAMATM provides a nonjudgmental, supportive, creative community for women to speak their truths OUT LOUD, for with the wisdom and support of others we can unpack the stigma of mental difference in motherhood.

Submit to STIGMAMA

STIGMAMA_submissions_stereotypes

Walker Karraa, PhD has done an incredible job growing STIGMAMA | Motherhood. Mental Illness. Out Loud. at STIGMAMA.COMSTIGMAMA is currently calling for submissions of essays, poetry, personal stories, fiction, professional perspectives, photo essays, and art about STEREOTYPES. Submit to info@stigmama.com.

Help STIGMAMA widen its reach. If you are a woman of color, mature mother, grandmother or great-grandmother, young woman, childless (whether or not by choice), or LGBT, please add your voice. The more voices, the greater diversity of voices, the better.

Thank you, Walker Karraa, PhD for creating STIGMAMA, a safe, mutually supportive place in which we can share our stories and overcome the stigma(s) attached to mental illness, or mental difference, and motherhood. STIGMAMA has made a positive difference in my life. Let it do so for you, too. Join us.