by Tom Roberts
May is Mental Health Awareness month. In honor of that fact, KRL will have several mental health related articles this month–check back every week for the latest articles. Learn more on the Mental Health America and NAMI websites. Tom Roberts is a mental health speaker and writer living in Huntington Beach, CA.
“The key to keeping your balance is to know when you’ve lost it.” I don’t know who said that, but knowing I had lost my balance in life was the turning point in learning to live with bipolar disorder and multiple sclerosis. Unknown to me as an undergraduate nearly a half-century ago, I had both incurable neurological diseases. Most disorders have obvious symptoms, but mine were hidden working like a computer virus destroying a marriage, a career, and ultimately leaving me living alone, in poverty, and planning suicide.
I wish someone taught me as a college student why I was so depressed much of the time and hyper-active at other times. No one talked about mental illness at my college nor were there counseling and psychological services available. I wish someone tested me for a learning disability as I struggled to maintain a minimum GPA to remain in college. Fortunately, I graduated and was accepted on probation for graduate school. It was a struggle again, but I earned a master’s degree and off on my 16-year odyssey as a broadcast journalist and college professor besieged by the rough sea of yet-to-be diagnosed bipolar disorder and multiple sclerosis. I was not exceptional in either profession, but I did manage to get most of my way through a Ph.D. program along the way.
The destructive symptoms of bipolar disorder included suicidal depression, self-medication with alcohol abuse, and hypersexuality. There are unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels in the illness. It is a complex condition caused by several factors including genetic because it tends to run in families. It ran in my family with my father, a brother, sister, and me getting the diagnosis. Anyone without bipolar disorder will never understand it. Don’t even try. My brain doesn’t function the same as yours.
I was not diagnosed with bipolar until I was 42. My impulsive behavior, a symptom of bipolar, had ended my marriage and college teaching career by then. It took me nearly twenty years to learn how to live stably.
I learned just before my 65th birthday that I have multiple sclerosis, too. MS is a disease of the central nervous system that overwhelms the body’s immune system and the protective covering surrounding the nerves. My brain was under attack by a physical illness for decades. There are telltale lesions on my brain and spinal cord than can be slowed with medication, if I’m lucky, but not stopped. I have Secondary-Progressive MS (SPMS). In SPMS the symptoms worsen steadily over time, so I wake up each morning wondering what will hurt today or what part of my body will stop working. MS left me with balance problems so I walk with a cane because I fall easily.
The MS diagnosis came after my neuro-ophthalmologist ordered an MRI of my brain to see if a tumor was causing me to lose my vision. Vision problems affect 80% of people with MS. The disease usually strikes younger people between 20 and 40. My neurologist said it appeared to her I’ve had MS since my 20s. That explained why I had the cognitive limitations, a facial spasm, and worst of all, trigeminal neuralgia. TN was once known as the “suicide pain” because many people with it killed themselves before effective treatments were developed. The TN triggered a medication-resistant depression that lasted two years before the pain was relieved with brain surgery.
The coexistence of MS and bipolar is not uncommon. There is a bright side of having MS as a mental health advocate. As I speak and write about the stigma attached to mental illness, which keeps nearly half of the people with a mental health issues from getting help, I call MS a “casserole illness.” Those are the illnesses you may have that prompt friends to bring over a casserole for you to eat while you recover. They don’t show that kind of thoughtfulness if you have a mental illness. Why not? It is because many people still tend to view mental illness as a character weakness. They consider it something an individual is somehow personally responsible for having and for not being able to control their behavior. I can no more control my bipolar disorder, although I can modify its symptoms with medication and lifestyle changes, than I can the progression of MS, but I can slow it with medication and diet.
The college lecture I missed that nearly killed me could have taught me, as executive sales coach Keith Rosen said, three things anyone can control. His three principles are helpful even in the face of incurable disease:
– Your actions, which include your behavior, activity, skillset, and even your communication.
– Your REactions or your responses to the events and situations that occur throughout your day. And finally,
– Your attitude, which is your mindset and your beliefs.
Two incurable diseases I’ve had since my college years. The bipolar gene was triggered by the sudden death of my mother when I was 14, and the stress of that event triggered the advance of multiple sclerosis symptoms. One class about chronic physical and mental illnesses may have helped me identify what was going on inside my brain. I could have asked for professional psychiatric help, but there wasn’t any on my college campus. My journey with the duel illnesses destroyed intimate relationships and ultimately my ability to work. I learned along the way, however, that, “Life is a balance between what we can control and what we cannot. The goal is to learn how to live between effort and surrender,” bone cancer survivor, actress and model Dannielle Orner said.
Check out KRL’s Mental Health section for more mental health related articles.
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