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.

I've also been with dear cousins whose words of kindness are ever-ready. And my friend, who I've known for nearly 37 years, is a sister to me in a sense. I love the way we can agree to disagree when need be. Finally, and very important, I have WebMD's Bipolar Affective Disorder board to sign on to. I find so much strength from the people who post there. All of us seem to share the same understanding, kindness, and compassion.

Changes and Inspirations

At times it feels like my body's engulfed in a transparent bubble, and my thoughts become disconnected. My biggest concern is this will happen while driving. Until I can be absolutely sure it's not going to happen, I won't drive -- ouch!

Long term, I worry about the permanent effects from all the medications I have to take.

My God, through the Lord Jesus Christ, gives me strength and hope to get through each day. I sincerely feel I'm on this Earth for a purpose, and I'm being cared for until I have fulfilled that purpose.

"If you're suffering with mental illness, please seek help right away."

Hopefully, I can become the woman I want to be. I've been so blessed with my wonderful marriage to Bob. Fortunately, I've learned from the failures of my first marriage how to be respectful, honest, loyal, and loving.

Advice

If you're suffering with mental illness, please seek help right away. The world is full of very cruel people, and we don't have any control over that. Darn, I find it difficult to accept that myself. But, I do know that there are people who really care and can help if you reach out to them.

There are resources one can tap into for help. First, there's a great organization called the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). They do so many things, including lobby for the rights of those with mental illness, provide support, send information on the current issues, and so much more. I also recommend a book I related to so much: An Unquiet Mind, by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, a phenomenal woman also suffering from debilitating mental illness.

Last, but not least, I am so very partial to WebMD. It's a remarkable resource to search for conditions, medications, and communicate with others on a message board. This is where I can post my experiences, strengths, hopes, and disappointments. WebMD has been a wonderful gift because it hasn't cost me anything to find answers, and find compassion from others dealing with mental illness, especially bipolar disorder. I'm very grateful to all of those who make the board a success.

By sharing my story, I hope to find common ground with other people distraught from mental illness. Hopefully, through the recollections of our lives, we can gain support and understanding from each other.

May God be with you all.

The member story above may have been edited for clarity.

From WebMD: Depression is far more common than most people realize, with two out of every 10 people being clinically depressed. As many as 23% of all adult women have had one major depressive episode in their lifetime.

The tragedy is that although so many people are struggling silently with crushing misery, so few get help. There are 100,000 people in the U.S. who haven't been correctly diagnosed and who aren't receiving treatment that could mean the difference between life and death.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, to help someone with depression you can:

  • Encourage the person to make an appointment with a doctor, or make the appointment yourself. You may want to go along for support.
  • Encourage the person to stick with the treatment plan, including taking prescribed medicine. Improvement may take several weeks. If no improvement occurs, encourage the person to seek a different treatment rather than giving up.
  • Give emotional support by listening carefully and offering hope.
  • Invite the person to join you in activities that you know he or she used to enjoy, keeping in mind that expecting too much too soon can lead to feelings of failure.
  • Do not accuse the person of faking illness or expect them to "snap out of it."
  • Take comments about suicide seriously, and seek professional advice.

"From WebMD" is taken from previously published WebMD content and has been medically reviewed by WebMD physicians.

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Last Editorial Review: 11/8/2005