May is Mental Health Awareness Month, or at least it is here. It’s probably a lot of other things. That time for May flowers, dotted with four “Caturdays” and whatever else people throw into the Twitterverse and sticks. But mental health concerns me far more than random cat photos or even the fact that May 10 is Clean Up Your Room Day. Periodically, I’ve shared some of my mental health challenges and I plan on two or three related posts this month.
Back in October, I acknowledged spending eighteen days in the psych ward of my local hospital. It was my second stay in four years, something I swore I’d never repeat. Unfortunately, I was suicidal after falling into a deep depression. I have been diagnosed as being bipolar II, meaning I have periods of depression and episodes of mania, but my mania is low-grade. That end of the diagnosis is never a worry. I like that part. I’m super productive then. I multi-task up to five things at once…and get them done! I think all my ideas are out-of-the-ballpark homeruns. And even if most of them aren’t, it’s amazing what a boost of confidence can do. Ah, mania. Not my problem area.
Alas, depression. I’d managed well after going off meds for thirteen months before hitting rock bottom again. Yes, I’d been foolish. I don’t like meds. For anything. I never take antibiotics; I won’t even swallow a vitamin tablet. I’ve apparently inherited a stubborn, I-will-handle-this-on-my-own tendency from my father. And he’s a doctor. Some say doctors make the worst patients but I’m a case for doctors’ kids being even worse.
For now I accept medication even though I recently read my file and my psychiatrist still contends I’m resistant. (The fact that I happen to forget once or twice (or more) each week is not intentional, I swear. I’m told forgetfulness can be part of depression.) We’ve been tinkering with my medications for the past seven months. Feels like we’re seasoning soup. Little of this, little of that. Stir. Too much, too little. A pinch less, a tad more. Stir again.
I figured if I complied with the meds, everything else would go back to the way it was. That’s what I’d done last time. Discharged from hospital on Friday, back at work on Monday. It wasn’t a choice. I hadn’t accrued enough sick leave from that employer. But a strong Protestant work ethic played a factor, too. (Sorry, other worthy religions. Somehow Protestants, particularly Calvinists, laid claim to hard work. Seems silly these days,…although I’m a huge fan of Calvin & Hobbes. That’s all I know about Calvinism.) I worked until everything fell apart all over again. Perhaps with an exponent tagged on the end.
Right now, I’d say my life is fairly manageable. That’s great until I think about how it’s a “lite” version of life. My plate has little on it. Maybe a couple of celery stalks and a dab of cottage cheese. Manageable and bland. I have not returned to my job as a school principal and that comes with a mix of emotions that I try to repress. I learned long ago as a teacher that I may be proud of what I do, but I’m not indispensable. Someone can take over. I’ve been doing my best ostrich-in-the-sand routine, not asking who is in for me. Somehow it’s better not knowing. What if the person drags down momentum? What if he/she exceeds anything I ever did? Yep, ostriches are my new favorite animal.
This past month, my status officially changed from “away on sick leave” to being on long-term disability (LTD). I cried when I got the news. In part, it was a relief. I’d been led to believe that, since my case involved mental health, there was a higher level of scrutiny than with typical physical disability cases. That not only incensed me but got me spinning with anxiety. My file was extensive and my doctors’ letters were unequivocal. It was suggested that there might be something akin to an interview just to make sure I wasn’t a fraud. (As if I’d fake the hospitalizations and everything else I go through.) But then, as I navigated the process, I was also advised that my case was a “slam dunk”. Gee, thanks. That felt like too much the other way. For now, LTD—incidentally, a 1970s, Jeffrey Osborne-fronted band with an awesome song I play when jogging—is my status and will be reviewed every few months (which makes me anxious just thinking about). Again, life is manageable in its current state. I realize that, as my leave extends, the chance of returning to work becomes less. Not sure how I feel about that in the long run; for now, I feel safe.
Of course, there are corollaries that come with being on leave. I have a hard time seeing school-aged children in public. Guilt and shame rise up. I’m reminded of where I used to be and what shaped a big part of my identity. I was a beloved teacher and then a principal that kids and parents adored. (Teachers were always harder to read.) One of the challenges in where I live is that there is an elementary school by the park across from me. It’s a beautiful new white building, accented with bright colors, impossible to miss whenever I look out my tenth floor window. I see kids going to school, backpacks strapped on, walking hand in hand with their parent; I hear the bells during the day and the squeals that rise during every recess and lunch. If I’m home, there is no escaping the school timetable. I’m supposed to be in that setting. I’m supposed to be working. I’m having to let go of that notion.
My week continues to feel full even if, mercifully, it just has a lot fewer people in it. I stick to a strict writing schedule seven days a week, hitting my first café as their first customer when the doors open at six in the morning. I exercise to the point of extremes six days a week. I read avidly. I’m having another go at learning French. And, four days a week, I attend support groups, psychiatric sessions and other meetings related to mental illness. I tell myself being active and being invested in my own wellness will make a difference.
I am fortunate that I don’t fit some stereotype of being curled up in bed, hidden by covers and a pillow. There are people in my support groups like that. (It’s a weird feeling going to a support group and not feeling worthy, not feeling depressed enough!) I am thankful that writing gives me purpose. I make myself write even if it may not produce anything worthwhile on a particular day or week. The fact that I have a compulsive need to exercise has created its own problems, but I believe it’s also saved me from sinking too low. I am one example of a person who deals with depression. (I like to say “deals with” instead of the more negative, victim-tinged “struggles with” or the neutral “experiences”. It feels like I have a more active role in facing the challenges before me.) I am fortunate that I can live off LTD when others scrimp on welfare. I have no family or friends here to help me so I’ve managed to reach out to formal supports. I teeter frequently but, for now, I am coping. I write this as one window into depression. There are, no doubt, many more.