Sally’s been thinking…about a mental health toolbox

I’m thinking just how helpful it is to have a gifted and compassionate therapist, who has recently been contributing to my toolbox. I thought it would be helpful to share some of the ideas she shared and ideas I’ve gleamed from others.

At the very top of my toolbox is medication. We are still working on the perfect combination, but the process is worth it. Feeling much better allows me to focus on “following doctor’s orders.” I don’t always agree with his decisions, but I follow religiously. There are a couple of very pricey medications that don’t seem to be helpful. I am fortunate in not experiencing too much in the way of side effects, but who wants to take a handful of medications every day? Well, I’m not happy about it, but they act much the same as the lane regulator on my car. Sometimes I find it annoying. Yet it is extremely valuable in keeping me driving in my own lane. The same is true for my medications. They keep me in my lane.

In the little divider box of my toolbox I keep symptoms at the ready. It’s not as if I spend all my time wondering if I’m moving toward depression or mania, but knowing my early symptoms keeps me from falling too far or soaring too high. So, how do I know depression is on its way? The first one is wanting to go to bed or stay in bed even if I’m not tired. I am vigilant about that, making my bed even before dressing each morning. Another sign that depression is on its way is my lack of desire to do basic tasks. Nothing seems worth doing and nothing seems interesting. More than thirty minutes playing computer games is another sure sign. The final sign that alerts me is my lack of conversation. I feel I have nothing to say.

Now, what about the hypomania? Although I have little to say when headed toward depression, one of the key warning signs of abnormal energy rising is that I have a lot to say on a lot of subjects. Talking faster, moving faster, deciding faster are all warning signs. I am naturally a rapid thinker, able to conceptualize anything you throw at me. However when headed to an unnatural high, I have so many ideas racing in my mind that I must stop and write them down. Being the belle of the ball is not my most comfortable style so when I find myself flitting from person to person I remain alert.

So, what do I do when these signs and symptoms appear, I lift the divider box of my toolbox and find just the right tool. From coloring to counting; writing with my non-dominant hand, walking background and doing regular tasks with my right, not left hand. Tapping, crunching, popping those little bubbles in mailers are all good tools for me. I tell my friends what is going on and invite them to visit me, take me out somewhere, or give me a call. Withdrawal is not helpful and even if I have little to say, being surrounded by people who care pull me a ways out of my hole. Not everyone can do this, but a few close friends sure helps.

Now, what about the hypomania? The most helpful tool for me is playing the piano. Sometimes it is learning a new song, technique or notes. Sometimes it is banging out boogies, polkas and familiar tunes. To slow down, I play quietly, slowly and with purpose. I learned about “moment in time” long before mindfulness became a popular stress reducer. Living in the moment; not the past, not the future, develops a sense of gratitude and awareness that can keep me from rushing and not focusing on the next task at hand.

Some of these tools may be helpful to you. Others may not. My hope is that these do help or spark a new idea that is more useful. You matter. Take the time to figure out a toolbox for yourself.

Until next time,



Sally’s Been Thinking…about Mental Illness

I have been thinking about mental illness for a long time. I have enough research and experience with others to write a book. Unfortunately, the topic became quite personal after I completed radiation for DCIS, ductal carcinoma in situ, see last Novembers blog post, I’ve been thinking about Being a Person with a Serious Iillness.

As I drove home from my final radiation appointment, I found myself going beyond the hyper-vigilance that had plagued me for a month. My mind was racing so fast with so many ideas that I knew was not typical Sally thinking. After a visit with my doctor, I was put on a mood stabilizing medication that helped me to sleep and slowed me down. That was great and I moved happily into fall and winter.

Sadly, my best friend had been diagnosed with brain cancer and was fighting for her life. I saw her for the last time shortly after beginning the medication.  I fell into a deep depression that held fast through Beth’s battle and death. It did not dissipate until March, after a week in the sunniest city in the country, Yuma, AZ. I arrived back home in Winterset ready to engage in my life again. I was so relieved to be free of the depression that I failed to notice symptoms of an episode of hypomania. My family tried mightily to help me recognize it, but off I went to Anchorage, Alaska where the sun was shining even through the nighttime hours. I engaged in some unusual behavior for me and the friend I stayed with contacted my family with concern.

I barely returned home when I was off again to attend a conference in Dayton, Ohio. Again, no realization that my behavior was off the charts. It was only after sending a series of strange photos to my family that they began charting a course of intervention that would get me back to normal. Let me tell you that hypomania comes with its own set of denial (much like that of an alcoholic). I did everything I could to assure my family that I was fine and mentally healthy. I saw nothing strange about trading in my one-year old Honda Fit to lease a 2020 BMW Roadster, but they sure did.

I never got to the point of full-blown mania, but my actions were regularly inconsistent with my values. Caring very much for my son, friends and the rest of my family, I agreed to take Alan with me to see my doctor (the one who prescribed the mood stabilizing medication) and to see the therapist I’d found shortly after my last depression ended. Once we heard the diagnosis, we were all relieved. Not happy, but relieved. A psychiatrist confirmed my bipolar disorder shortly after those visits.

Now a new regimen of medication ensued, and I nearly surrendered to the darkest depression I have ever experienced. A shift in medication and seven weeks later, I was on my way out. And up. You may be able to tell that I am definitely recovered from the depression because this is my first blog post since November 2018. This time, however, I am working weekly with my therapist, seeing my psychiatrist who is 50 miles from home, and initiating a plan of many activities to keep me from racing and going back into hypomania.

Why am I writing this? Why am I sharing my experience with a disorder that has so much stigma attached? First, I am writing this to let you know there is life after diagnosis. Secondly, I want to be part of the fight to rid the stigma tied to mental illness.

For what it’s worth, I’m well today, December 5, 2019 and I have a toolbox filled with ideas to deal with both the depression and the hypo mania. That seems the best thing to do at this time.

I have access to treatment. I have family and friends who love me. And I always have hope; the hope that God consistently provides. Here is the bible verse that keeps me from spinning completely out of control in either direction: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed,” from 2nd Corinthians, chapter 4. I hope you find comfort and encouragement in these words as well.

Until next time,