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,

Sally

I’ve Been Thinking… about joy and dirt

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When I purchased my little 1890-built home in Winterset IA, 2016, I was thrilled. Within months of moving in, I hung a small barn board sign on my porch: JOY.

That’s all it said, but it said it well. Typically, I am a person of joy. I am grateful to be alive; to have a home; a family that I love; a faith that provides comfort, as well as joy; work that is a calling; friends I adore and a sweet little dog whose name is Amazing Grace. My life brings me joy.

Once the sign was hung, I had my huge backyard fenced in so sweet Gracie could run and play outdoors without danger or the possibility of getting lost. Using permaculture strategies (I know just enough about permaculture to believe I’m part of an earth-saving movement), I first analyzed, planned and then staked out a plot of grass that would become my garden. I layered cardboard and newspaper, followed by leaves and grass clippings, nutrient-rich soil, compost, and straw for mulch. I used the same process for my front terrace. The snows came, and my new garden was under development.

As soon as the soil could be worked (standard language in gardening manuals), I pulled back the mulch, added another layer of soil and compost and started planting. I got to see a few flowers out front and the four strawberry plants came in beautifully. As for the rest, well, it would either grow or it would die. No matter what, I was feeding the soil and that brings me joy. The garden plot did not fare much better. I ate a few tomatoes, had enough potatoes for a meal, and the kale was almost plentiful. One cannot live on kale alone, but I was cultivating healthy soil. So, I pulled up some dying plants, left a few in the ground, and began my layering process once again, in both garden plot and my front yard terrace.

This year, I again added soil and compost (lots from a previously unused dog kennel now serving as a compost bin), planted my seeds, starters, and transplants and covered them up with straw mulch. Much better this year, despite the long weeks without rain. Enough potatoes to actually weigh (#31 pounds) and sweet meaty tomatoes to eat every single day. I’m freezing and giving away basil, parsley, oregano and mint and finding great joy in the bright spots of color from the perennial flowers my daughter-in-law gave me. Oh my, the terrace still looked pretty sparse, but the too widely spaced yellow, blue, lavender and deep red flowers made up for it. A sudden stretch of serious rain plumped up the strawberry plants and brought new life to the Daylilies and the Hostas growing close to the house.

Not the prettiest garden around, but there are great things happening under all that straw.

On the flip side – my beans, peas, carrots, radishes and cucumbers really struggled and produced only a “eating while cleaning up the garden” snack. The cucumbers were hilarious. They grew fat, instead of long. The plants flowered, a little green poke emerged, and then…fat orange cucumbers with humungous seeds. Are you kidding me? Oh well, back into the soil from whence they came. My soil will continue to grow healthier as I drop everything back into or on top of it and await next year’s planting season to repeat the process once again. This brings me joy, so I had a local crafter create a matching sign that says GARDENS and hung it below my JOY sign.

Joy Gardens hopes for the future:

Eliminate all grass in the front yard and replace with strawberry plants and blueberry bushes so I can eventually pick berries from my own yard. Why the front yard? Because berry plants and bushes are pretty, and they do not require mowing. Plus, many people walk past my house every day. Retirees walking dogs, children and teens on their way home from school, the occasional exercise walker. Why not provide them with a little rest stop and a sweet snack. Am I worried about others eating up all my fruit? Not a bit. I do hope they save a little for me, but just the thought of my yard offering a treat to passersby brings me more joy than making jam.

I looked long and far to find the author of the quote I adapted for myself after seeing it somewhere many years ago. Sorry there is no credit line. If you wrote it, tell me.

“She who plants a seed beneath the sod and waits for food believes in God.” YES!

One more thought: Of all the gifts my mother ever purchased for me, my favorite is the garden sign I received Christmas 1982. Although there were a number of years that my husband and I were too busy enjoying summer camping, biking and kayaking to plant and care for a garden, the sign is in my garden today:

The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,
One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on Earth. *

Until next time,

Sally

* God’s Garden, lines 13–16, Poems, by Dorothy Frances Gurney (London: Country Life, 1913).

PS – Who knew? If I have a chance to go to Starbucks, I usually use the drive through. The last time I was there, the drive through was so busy I decided to go inside. There – right on the counter – were large bags of used coffee grounds. FREE! Coffee grounds are a great addition to garden compost. From now on, I’m going inside.