The Person Behind the Smile

Fran's Story

I've had to contend with mental illness as long as I can remember. As you'd expect, I come from a very dysfunctional family. We've struggled with many forms of mental illness, including alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual abuse, and domestic violence.

"The stigma society places on someone plagued with mental illness is atrocious."

For years I ignored the warning signs of my developing depression and bipolar affective disorder, all the while turning my denial into an art form. It was like putting on another person's suit and masquerading through the day, while shutting down everything going on inside. Pretending to be just "peachy" helped me to become emotionally numb to the insensitive world all around me. But I was actually hurting so much inside that I would literally heave from nauseating migraines and debilitating bouts of depression.

Why Deny?

So why did I always deny what I felt? Because the stigma society places on someone plagued with mental illness is atrocious. For example, a few family members and friends have ridiculed me because they haven't understood what I'm going through, or won't face the fact that they may be showing characteristics of mental illness. I've even felt that some health professionals haven't taken me seriously, viewing my mental illness as a red flag. Then there have been employers who've reprimanded me because I wasn't "fitting in with the crowd."

I've contemplated suicide so many times, going so far as putting a pistol in my mouth, the magazine next to me on the floor. Fortunately, my wonderful niece was able to talk me through that horrible nightmare. Sadly, my 19-year marriage did not survive the stress. Too much lack of communication took its toll.

Acceptance

Finally, a year ago, I could no longer run from what I'd been feeling. I was so physically and mentally burned out that I would fall asleep while driving, have constant immobilizing headaches, and feel as if I were living with an excruciating knot in the pit of my stomach. My new husband, Bob, took me to the doctor after seeing I couldn't take it anymore. Immediately the doctor took me off work. I knew I needed more help so I found a psychiatrist and psychologist to see on a regular basis. It was then I was diagnosed with severe depression, and then bipolar disorder.

It's been exhausting while I wait for the right combination of medications to stabilize me. So far, the right combination hasn't been found, but I have begun to feel some relief.

Taking Control

I've also been learning to control my stress levels. One way I do this is by telling myself it's OK for other people to not pursue help for what ails them. Also, if I'm overcome by a mood I can't shake, I'll take a nap or go for a run until I'm exhausted.

But it's still hard for me to be tolerant of others' hurtful attitudes. Something inside feels like I'm going to completely lose control of both my erratic emotions and unstable health. Rightfully so, because I feel betrayed if that attitude comes from someone I've trusted.

Support

Fortunately, I've been blessed with some very supportive people in my life. Bob is my Rock of Gibraltar and my hero because he stands by me through thick and thin. He goes to counseling with me, does the weekly grocery shopping, pays the monthly bills, and cooks healthy dinners. Ironically, he's even there for my step-dad and sister when they need help. Not too long ago, when a prescription made me sleepy or foggy most of the day, my dear husband called and/or came home long enough to check on how I was.

"I wonder if I could be as understanding if I were in his shoes."

He's also become more in tune to my needs, faithfully attending doctor appointments, assertively challenging my paranoia, and silently flowing with my change in sleeping habits. And the poor guy is tired a lot because it's virtually impossible for him to get a decent night's rest since I began taking medications. He's often abruptly awakened when I walk, talk, laugh, whisper, giggle, scream, or run into walls while asleep. I honestly wonder if I could be as understanding if I were in his shoes.

Then there are my favorite family members who are definitely God-sent. My step-dad is incredibly awesome and has been relentlessly there when the going gets tough. His favorite expression is, "Not to worry because everything will come out in the wash," which is so true. Then there are my three siblings who I dearly love. Two of them also deal with mental illness, which makes it easier for each of us when lending a comfortable shoulder.