Monday, December 31, 2012

Healthy Living and Treatment

As many of you know, I have been attempting to follow a Paleo diet (grain-free, only meat, veggies, fruit, and nuts) to help treat my bipolar disorder. Some of you have asked how it is going since you are looking at various gluten and grain-free diets for your treatment as well. First of all, I have to say that the diet works great. I am much more stable and feel a lot better when I can stick to my healthy lifestyle of diet and exercise. However, I do have the added issue of a binge eating disorder which I think is what throws me off from being able to maintain my diet.

I really realized this past week that I have no control over my food. My husband has been home all week from work so I have not gone anywhere without him. As long as he is with me I don't stop at fast food restaurants or get gluten-free desserts from the grocery store. Today was the first day I went out by myself and I stopped at the grocery store. I was hungry, and even though I told myself I didn't need anything sugary and I could eat as soon as I got home, I bought a gluten-free dessert! It's like I need a 24 hour babysitter just to stick to my diet. I ate a few bites and then threw the rest out, which is better than what I would have done before, but still, I can't believe I am so addicted to sugar that I eat it when I know I should not.

I try to remember that this is all a learning process though. Each time I have a setback it teaches me something about who I am and what I need to do to be well. We have been eating Paleo all week and this morning was the first morning I woke up not exhausted and miserable, which means the diet and exercise works if I can just stick with it. I realized at the store today that I can't leave the house hungry and maybe I should just not be grocery shopping for a while, at least not by myself.

The last thing that became abundantly clear to me this week is that an essential part of being able to stick with a healthy lifestyle is having a good support system around you. This is why my husband and I have decided to do a Whole30 (a really strict Paleo plan for 30 days) with our CrossFit gym starting Jan. 1. The coaches at our gym are great and give us a lot of advice, motivation, and support so we will not be alone during the process. We are also starting a Healthy Living Group with the Carolyn L. Farrell Foundation for Brain Health where we will support each other in whatever healthy living choices each of us needs through meetings, online support, and motivational materials. (If you live in the Cleveland, Ohio area and want to join us, let me know and I will get the information to you when we get the time worked out.)

Graphic from Whole9
So, whatever your healthy living choices are, at the start of this new year, get your support system in place. If you are looking at a Paleo diet, I recommend Whole9 as everything is easy to understand, they have researched how food affects our mind, they have the Whole30 program, a great online forum, and their book: It Starts With Food.


Rev. Katie

Saturday, December 22, 2012

I Am Not a Monster Even If the NRA Says I Might Be

According to the National Rifle Association's (NRA) executive vice president Wayne LaPierre concerning the issue of mass shootings:

"The truth is, that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters. People that are so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons, that no sane person can ever possibly comprehend them. They walk among us every single day and does anybody really believe that the next Adam Lanza isn’t planning his attack on a school, he’s already identified at this very moment? How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame from a national media machine that rewards them with wall-to-wall attention and a sense of identity that they crave, while provoking others to try to make their mark. A dozen more killers, a hundred more? How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation’s refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?" (highlighted emphasis mine.)

X-Men: Wolverine. Photo by Jeff Norris
I just have no idea what to say to this. I am pretty sure I, and thousands of other people with mental illness, just got pegged as evil monsters who should be put into a database so that our country can watch us. Really? I mean, this is so ludicrous to me that I can't even believe someone said this. I feel like I am watching X-Men and I just got put on the mutant registration.

We mental health advocates have talked until we are blue in the face about how studies show mentally ill people are not violent and that not all mass shooters have a mental illness. As NAMI states "One in four American adults experience a mental health problem in any given year, yet the U.S. Surgeon General determined over a decade ago that 'the overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small.'" Do people not read scientific studies? Do they not believe them? I could write another post like my previous one about not assuming all people with mental illness are violent, but for the people who really need to hear it, they will never listen. (Read NAMI's official response to the NRA here.)

We actually already have limits around mental stability and the ability to buy a gun with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System where they do not allow guns to be purchased "by any person who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution." This is an attempt to identify people who might be a danger to themselves or others if they had a gun. However, it is hard to define what "mental defective" means and many people who have ben in mental institutions might be perfectly safe with a gun. I mean is there a time limit on this list because if you were in a mental institution when you were a teen and now you are 50 years old and have had no recurrence of your illness, are you still "a mental defective," for life? That seems unreasonable to me and just increases fear and stigma. I am not arguing that any list like this is not a good idea, just that we have to be careful how we implement it and we don't add to it language such as LaPierre used to misrepresent what mental illness really is.

And that is what I want to focus on for this post, that statements like LaPierre's which use labeling and hateful language just increases violence in our world, in particular more violence against a group of people who are already more likely to be victims of violence than the general population.  

First of all, to me, the ultimate in violence is hatred and creating an us vs. them mentality. When we separate ourselves from all of humanity, saying we are different than another group of people, then we give ourselves permission to treat these "others" as less than human. Calling them monsters. Creating lists for them to make sure everyone can judge them. Casting them out and locking them up. Statements like LaPierre's encourage violence, oppression, stigma, and scapegoating.

Second, I feel like LaPierre's statement is a disgrace to the many people who own guns and don't act with such hatred and ignorance. I know many people who own guns for hunting or shooting at the range. My Dad used to go shooting once a week with his friends. I know parents who have the most fantastic kids ever, and they go shooting together. Guns are not something I would choose to have around because I think accidents can happen no matter how careful you are, but I do think there are many responsible and caring gun owners out there. None of these people would say such disgusting things about another group of people. LaPierre's statement is a bad representation of people who own guns and I hope that responsible gun carriers stand up against someone like LaPierre.

Third, statements like this, even if we don't end up with a database, once they are said, discourage many people with mental illness from seeking treatment because now we are branded as potentially being monsters, evil, and mass shooters. We know that most people do not understand mental illness enough, even many professionals, to be able to deem who might one day become violent enough to hurt another person. So no one, even people with mild depression or anxiety, is ever going to want to seek treatment when that might mean they are now seen the the eyes of our world as a monster. This means people are going to live in pain, fear, sadness, and never get help because they are scared that everyone will fear and hate them. Already people treat you differently once they find out you have a mental illness. LaPierre's statement, even though I assume he did not mean it to apply to every person with mental illness, was so broad and filled with vitriol and hate that it increased hysteria and has already made our world, with it's inadequate knowledge of mental illness, more unsafe for people like me.

As my eight year old son asked me "What would happen to you Mommy, if you were put on a list?" While we tried to explain to him that this probably won't happen and if I were on a list for gun control purposes, I don't even want a gun so it would probably not affect me, he knows that as soon as you are called out on a list as different and scary, you are at risk for violence.

I hope that more people speak up about the issue of using hateful language and increasing mass hysteria at times like these. I hope we talk about how wrong it is to promote the idea that violence in our country is always someone else's fault when really it is something that we all need to help take care of. We can't unjustly blame one group of people so that now we have a scapegoat whom we can persecute and harm.


Rev. Katie

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Treatment Isn't Easy

Treatment for mental illness has been in the news quite a bit lately due to the Newtown, CT shooting and then a blog post that came out from a mother with a child with mental illness. There have been many responses from people with other children who have similar issues and the difficulties in getting treatment. Some say they can not get enough help, and then there is an issue brought up by one mother that we need to accept that medicaiton is a good option for kids.

I am glad we are having this conversation and I cannot say what treatments I think are the "right" ones. In reality, I think that treatment is different based on every person. And that is why I think it is important to speak to the fact that for most of us there is no easy solution to treatment.

I have had different mental health problems since I was 6 years old but did not start to receive treatment until I was 19. That means I have been at this treatment thing with psychyatrists and psychologists for 15 years. And clearly we know from my blog posts that I am not free from my illness. For many of us, treatment is just not that easy.

Photo by Jeff Norris
First there is the issue of medication. Many people think if all mentally ill people just received medication and kept up with taking it that we would all be free from our illness. You can see through many of my previous posts that medication has not worked for me and actually caused severe side effects. It is promoted by many doctors and the media that most side effects include things like weight gain, nausea, lack of libido, sleep disturbance, dry mouth, and other things that people say we can put up with in order to be free of our illness. First, unless you have experienced those side effects, you don't know that for many people they are pretty debilitating and life altering. Furthermore, most people don't tell you about those of us who have severe side effects like decreased cognitive functioning, organ failure, heart disease, and more. We can not present medicine in simplistic terms and assume it is safe and/or effective for everyone. There is always the argument from people who see better behavior in an individual on medicine and then get angry when the person goes off the medication. However, if the medicine were really working, we would keep taking it. Clearly it is not working well enough if we stop taking it. Either it is not controlling the irrational thinking enough so we think we don't need it, or the side effects are so bad that we stop taking it. Medication works for many people but we should not judge those for whom it does not work. And finding the right medication is hard. It may take 8-10 years at the minimum to find the right medications. We need to be understanding when the illness is not treated quickly and easily.

Second there is the issue of all the other lifestyle changes doctors suggest for treatment such as exercise, diet, sleep schedule, and meditation. Everyone I know, regardless of mental state, has a hard time keeping a balanced life at all times. For people with mental illness, it is especially hard to do so and we have less wiggle room for how much can get out of balance. In college, other people could barely sleep for a week and be just fine functioning. They would need a few days of extra sleep and could get right on back on track with life. For me, one night of bad sleep meant possibly weeks of worsening symptoms and I needed a lot of help to get back on track. Here again we need to be compassionate about treatment. If someone can not keep the perfect diet, keeps forgetting to take medication, has issues sleeping, etc... that does not mean they are not trying. The worst thing you can do for someone trying to make positive lifestyle choices is to argue that because they don't stick with it that they are failing and need to learn to make better choices, or that they just should not do it anymore because it is clearly not working. Our lives are worth fighting for.
Photo by Jeff Norris

Third, people also have co-occuring disorders so they may have many road blocks in their treatment plan. Such as for me diet is a huge help in my treatment but I also have a binge eating disorder which makes it very hard to stick with the right diet. If you have PTSD it can sneak up on you in times that you would not think have anything to do with a past traumatic event so watch out for that getting in the way. If you can find the link it is often something you can work through. What I really like about my therapist is that he looks at every "setback" as an opportunity to learn more about me and what we might need to work on in order to help me be healthy. That is different than the usual mentality that if you do not get better instantly you are not trying hard enough, make bad choices, and you won't ever get better.

Last, there is the inevitable "if this is an emergency dial 911" message on your doctors phone. Many doctors and other people think if you go to the psychiatric unit you will be cured, but that typically is just between a few days and a few weeks of treatment. It takes at least six weeks just to see if a medication has a chance of working for you. And there is little support for how to live life out of a treatment center. Honestly, most of us can't keep going back into the hospital and we need much more support in our every day life than most of our communities and insurance companies (if you are even lucky enough to have insurance) are willing to give us. You see a therapist and/or psychiatrist every day in a facility and then in regular life you might go to therapy once a week and see your psychiatrist once every six weeks. You have none of the outside stimulus, none of the people and situations that might contribute to your illness, and far less that can trigger you in a facility. Then you go back into the same life you had before and don't know how to manage. Going into treatment is beneficial to many people but the success rate could be even higher if we didn't just assume a few weeks in a hospital cured everyone and if we had better programming out of the hospital. Good care for a psych patient includes a plan after the hospital. A great start is if you have a loved one who is in a facility, to think about what changes you might need to make at home to help them keep up with treatment or how much assistance they might need with taking meds, eating, sleep, and exercising.

All this is to say, treatment is not simple and I don't know that we always have an understanding of how complicated it is. Some people ask me why I would write my blog if I am not "cured" or my illness is not under control. I write because my situation is much more common than we think it is. It can feel very lonely to look for resources on mental illness and often have it portrayed that there is a simple fix- if we would just take our meds and do what our doctors tell us. I wish it was not that hard. I wish there was a simple solution for everyone. Sometimes we have to just keep trying even if it does not work over, and over, and over again.


Rev. Katie

Participate: Ask The Rev.

This week I have had many conversations with people about mental illness and got a lot of different questions. In order to keep the conversation going, I would like to start an "Ask The Rev." column where I answer questions people send in to me. If you have a question you would like me to address on the blog, please email me at katie @ farrell foundation . com

I will try to answer every question I get as honestly as I can. If it is something I am not comfortable with answering, I will let you know. Or if it is something I do not know enough about I will reach out to others for research and maybe some guest posts. I will leave your name and information out of the blog post unless you ask me to mention you.

Please send me your questions!


Rev. Katie

Monday, December 17, 2012

In Response To: "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother"

Part I:

A blog post went viral yesterday called "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother" from a mother, Liza Long, who says she has a 13 year old child with mental illness although they are not sure what he has since he has been labeled to have quite a few different things. She describes her son "Michael" as violent, pulling a knife on her, and threatening to kill himself. She talks about how frustrating it is that people (although no psychiatrists or psychologists are mentioned as being consulted yet) have not been able to find the right medications to help him and there is no way to get intensive help without charging him with a crime and sending him to jail. At one point she says "I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. " She is trying to bring to the conversation the fact that parents with children who have mental illness, especially to this degree, really need better medical care for their kids.

I shared this woman's post on my facebook page because I found her perspective not only heart-wrenching but also interesting, and eye opening. I am grateful that she shared her story and hope it raises awareness about the need for better mental health care. At the same time I can see how a blog post such as hers can be blown out of proportion and raise hysteria about mental illness. (I also have further concerns which I mention in Part II of this post below.)

Those of us who have lived with violent people, will hear in Ms. Long's post the fear, anxiety, sadness, and fervent prayer that their loved on will get the help they need. It is traumatic to live in fear for your life. It is devastating to watch a loved one become violent and all you want to do is help them. Seriously you just want to ask "What is wrong with this world that we can not get people the help they need? No one should suffer this much."

I worry that people who do not know personally situations like these may not hear the undertones of her post and instead interpret the sensationalized "I am Adam Lanza's mother" statement as proof that mentally ill people become mass murderers. I fear that this post will encourage the public to focus more on the idea that any kid or person with mental illness, especially one who exhibits any violence, will be considered another Adam Lanza, a mass murderer, instead of focus on our need for better care for mental illness. I don't want her post to be seen as "Here, here is proof that mentally ill people are killers. This lady even admits her son is the next Adam Lanza."

Part II

After I wrote Part I of this post, a friend let me know about the post You Are Not Adam Lanza's Mother and this other blog post: Want the Truth Behind "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother"? Read Her Blog by Sarah Kendizor and Sarah's update post too.

Ms. Kendizor's post about Liza Long sounds much like my initial reactions to the "I Am Adam Lanzer's Mother" post. I find many of Liza's other blog posts concerning and I was surprised to read that she teaches ethics at a college. I can't imagine talking about my child the way she talks about her kids. I thought Liza's act of saying her son is basically a mass murderer by claiming him to be like Lanza was unfounded and extremely detrimental to her son. (As I wrote about here.) My initial reaction to her post was that she was demonizing her son, had pegged him as a violent threat to society, and never considered how this would harm him for the rest of his life. She changed his name in this post, but calls him by his real name in many of her other blog posts. All I could think is that I wish she had read my post, Tips for Responsibly Posting About Kids because she had just seriously hurt her son with this post. If you want to read a much more respectful and powerful post from another mother with a child with mental illness who is sometimes violent, read Leisel's post Dear Mr., President We Have a Problem: My Son is Mentally Ill. I'm Scared.

Yet when I wrote Part I I tamed my critique of her and tried to look at her with a more compassionate eye as a mother who was terrified that her son could hurt himself and others. I understand the fear of a violent loved one. I tried to be a more compassionate minister and thought maybe I was just being too harsh on her blunt satirical writing style which other people seem to think has an honest edge to it. Reading Sarah's post though, I am reminded to follow my initial instincts.

I was very concerned that in all she says about the help she has gotten for her son, she never mentions a psychiatrist or psychologist except a referral to a pediatric psychologist from an emergency room visit with no indication that she actually took her son to the psychologist. Even though she has a 2010 blog post about her son going to the psych ward for saying he was going to kill himself. Then what appalls me in that suicide post is that she says suicide is lazy and selfish. She speaks with care and worry about her son's suicidal thoughts and yet she basically calls him lazy and selfish. How is that helpful at all to a child with mental illness?

People really need to know that one of the things which can make mental illness 100 times worse than it has to be is family who treat you poorly and judge you because of your illness. It increases the symptoms of your illness and adds to the negative thinking that leads to suicide. Mental illness is made worse by your environment. Ms. Long, in my opinion from what I read on her blog, is contributing to her son's illness. (I don't know her personally so I am fine with entertaining the possibility that I am wrong here. And note that I say "contributes" not "causes.")

I wish she could have written about the situation with her son in a more compassionate way and not linked it to a mass murder. 

My suggestion is to read Liza Long's blog posts for yourself and decide what you think about her statements. I do believe though that three definite things came out of the "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother" post:

1. Her son has been irreparably hurt by Liza's actions. He can probably add trauma to the list of things he will be dealing with now.
2. The stigma that mentally ill people are violent was perpetuated.
3. The issue of accessible, quality care for mental illness was brought to the forefront.

UPDATE: Here is another post to ponder: I Am Adam Lanza's Psychiatrist.


Rev. Katie

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Blaming Mental Illness for Tragedy Harms Children with Mental Illness

Sadly we have had another tragic shooting in America. This time in Connecticut twenty young children and six adults were killed. There are no words for how horrible this is. The sadness of this event is felt by everyone in our country and I can only imagine how their families and the community of Newton, Connecticut are feeling right now. My heart goes out to them and I pray that they feel the support and love of our nation with them.

Always the first question after an event like this is "Why did this happen?," and rightly so. We really want make sense of things, to feel like we have some control again so we can have a bit of stability back. It is always very hard for me though to read dozens of comments on Facebook saying: "if only we had a better mental health care system things like this would not happen." Or news articles which say the motive for the shooting is a "mystery" but then adds that the brother of the shooter says the shooter "has a history of mental illness."

As blogger Kate Donovan writes, when you blame mental illness for such an event, this is what you are saying:
"Here is a terrible thing. The only thing that could possibly cause someone to do such a terrible, tragic thing is to have This Disorder. Because only people with This Disorder could be so dangerous/awful/scary."

This assumption of mental illness is extremely detrimental to people with mental illness, but especially so to children with mental illness. I have had mental illness since I was a child and this belief that only people with mental illness do bad things is extremely terrifying.

There has been a lot of great advice of how to talk about this shooting with your children because even kids who live no where near Connecticut can be traumatized by just hearing about the shooting on the news. Now just imagine if you are a child with mental illness and you hear over and over again that only "crazy" or "mentally ill" people do things like this. Some parents, in order to explain why this happened, tell their children that the shooter "had a sickness in his brain." Then as a child you hear other kids in school saying that people who are "sick in the head" do things like this.

You learn at a young age that you are to be feared, not trusted, and you are a danger to society. You learn that it does not matter if you have a good heart, save every stray puppy in the neighborhood, and care deeply about other people. If your brain is not right you could end up just like this person who did something horrific. There really is no way to describe the fear you feel as a child hearing everyone around you put you into the same category as a killer. I can attest to the fact that it does traumatize you for life, leaving you with a feeling that you must be a bad person and just don't know it. It means every time an event like this happens you are thrown into a terrible state of panic where for days or weeks you can barely function and never sleep.

UPDATE: After I posted this originally, Liza Long's blog post, "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother" went viral. I have a response to that and how it might cause people to link mental illness to violence but I wanted to add to this post how I feel Long's post might affect children. 

I hear that Long was writing from a raw emotional place and so her post was very honest. I did feel that comparing her child, "Michael" to Adam Lanza would be extremely devastating to him if and when he reads the article. Also, I know that any child who hears about the post and who has mental illness, especially with any violent tendencies or thoughts (which may never turn into violent acts), may fear that they will be the next Adam Lanza. Hearing a mother liken her mentally ill child to a mass murderer could easily scare kids into wondering "Am I Adam Lanza?" 

(Read more about the "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother" debate here.)
So, I ask you to PLEASE think before you speak. Don't throw mental illness out as the reason for an event like this. Think of the message you are sending to the nearly 4 million kids in America who have mental illness. We don't need to add extra trauma to a nation of children and adults who are scared and hurting.

UPDATE: Here is another great article on this subject: The Pain of Being Linked By Asperger Dx to a Mass Shooter.


Rev. Katie

Friday, November 30, 2012

What Harm Could One Little Cup of Coffee Do?

I have been eating well for about a week and feeling much better. My moods are more even, and now that I am also exercising again I am much less depressed than I usually am. I was doing so well that yesterday I figured it could not hurt much if I went to the coffee shop and got one of those sweet mocha concoctions. Yes, that was stupid, irrational thinking on my part. Basically it was my eating disorder thinking for me. But at the time it seemed rational. I mean I had eaten Paleo all week, one drink would not hurt me, and I would not have another one for at least another week. (I do realize that sounds like an alcohol addiction and there is a lot of research about how sugar addiction and alcohol addiction are linked.)

An hour after finishing my milk-filled, caffeine-filled, sugar-filled drink, I was shaking, angry and easily irritated. My son would ask me a simple question and I felt like I wanted to scream at him. When I typed on the computer I was missing keys because my hands were so shaky sometimes. I ate some protein and vegetables to try and even things out, but I just got worse and ended up with a severe stomach ache and shaking that lasted well into the night. All from a darn Venti Mocha.

Photo by Katie Norris

Despite the research out there, there are still many people who do not think food affects our mood. I keep trying to convince myself of that as well, but every time I eat something that is not good for me, not only does my mental illness get worse but frequently by body become physically ill as well. I should have learned my lesson by now and not listen to people who tell me I can have sugar just once a day or a few times a week, or that I can eat junk food in moderation.

I think some of us are more sensitive to the foods we eat than others and we do not have the luxury of eating unhealthy foods "in moderation." I have been craving chocolate and sugar ever since that mocha drink and all I can think about is if I can get some sugary treat somewhere. For me, I can't do "moderation" because clearly foods trigger chemicals in my brain that just get out of control and it is too hard to try and make up for it later. For instance, one way to combat depression is to increase serotonin. Eating sugar does increase serotonin but in an unbalanced way which makes you feel better for a bit but then causes an even bigger dip in your levels later causing you to become more and more depressed. (Check out this article about sugar and mental illness: Scientist Shows Link Between Diet and Onset of Mental Illness.  There are many other research studies out there showing the same thing.) Instead, eating a balanced diet of protein, healthy fat, and carbohydrates from vegetables balances out your serotonin for a longer time period causing a more even mood.

I really encourage people to research what kind of diet might work for them in helping to treat their mental illness. I am not a doctor so I can't tell you what to eat. I can only go by my own research and what my doctors suggest for me, and I recommend you do the same.

My husband said today that if I had started a new medication last Friday and I was doing this well, he would say the medication was working. All I did last Friday was change my diet, exercise, and sleep and it is working as well as medication (for me) without the terrible side effects I would get from prescriptions. I would say that the biggest risk is that lifestyle changes are hard to stick to and I do go back and forth on them but I also believe that if we keep trying we will be able to find what works for us and stick with it, we just need a lot of help along the way.


Rev. Katie

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Service Dog Saves the Day

Rosie, my Psychiatric Service Dog in Training, helped me immensely today and I don't even know if she meant to. Part of my treatment plan includes exercising and I had just gotten back to it on Monday and was supposed to go again this morning. All of my muscles were sore from Monday's workout and I had not slept well so when it came time to wake up, neither my husband or son could convince me to get up and get to CrossFit.

My husband sent Rosie in to see me. She curled up with me on the bed and I was content to sleep the morning away with her. But then she started being a bit wiggly and waking me up. Then she put her paws on me and slowly crawled her way up to my pillow and pushed me aside as she took over my pillow. She has never done this before. She usually just sleeps next to me or at the foot of the bed. I don't know if she just really wanted a pillow today or if in some way she knew I needed to wake up, but she succeeded in getting me up in time for the last workout of the morning. Had she jumped up on the bed, barked, and been hyper, I would have gotten upset and put her out of the bedroom. Instead she slowly woke me up, which is always the way I need to be woken up since I have a really hard time with the loud noise of an alarm and waking up quickly. A frantic wake up tends to make me very anxious and a wreck the whole day.

Rosie is still so early in her training and she does not even know her tasks yet, but somehow she manages to help me in the ways I need it most without even knowing she is supposed to do it. My illness definitely has been better and easier to treat having Rosie in our life now.

Without Rosie I would have missed a workout which would have led to a less stable mood and a slide into a bad day that could have carried on all week. Instead she helped me treat my illness so that I have a chance at a better life.
I love life with a service dog.


Rev. Katie

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Rosie: Service Dog Helping with Dementia

This is a blog post that is also on my other blog Moving in With Dementia, which is about caring for my Mom who as Lewy Body Dementia.

About four months ago we adopted a puppy who we are training to be my Psychiatirc Service Dog. While this training can take years, and our puppy Rosie is still just trying to learn how to contain her puppy energy, I find her to be an amazingly intuitive service dog. I have had many dogs over my lifetime but few have been so in tune with the emotional needs of the people around them as Rosie is, and she is just in the first few months of training.

Today we had a family party and we were able to have Mom over to our house. Rosie was in her crate for the beginning of the party and after everyone arrived, I let her out. We had about twenty people in the house and instead of saying "hello" to the people that were in the room she was in, Rosie instead went directly to see my Mom. A person she has only met twice.

Rosie was so attached to my Mom that my Aunt thought Rosie must have lived with my parents before we moved into our new house. She assumed Rosie knew Mom and missed her. Rosie was jumping up on my Mom, trying to get into the Broda chair with her. While this was not the best choice for Rosie because she was too hyper, her instincts were correct.

Rosie somehow knows to "ground" people when they are injured or hurting. This is a deep pressure therapy where the weight of the dog helps to calm the person who is anxious. Rosie's instinct is to lay herself on top of people to help make them feel safe and comforted. "Grounding" will be a Psychiatiric Service Dog task that Rosie will be able to do, gently, on command but right now she does it in her hyper puppy way becasuse she just wants to help other people.
Rosie "grounding" me.
I am continually amazed at the connection that animals have to us. I can't believe how Rosie knew, out of a houseful of twenty people who were in separate rooms, to go straight to the person who needed the most love and care. I felt so proud of Rosie today and her ability to help others. I also felt a great connection with Mom as she and I always cared for our dogs together throughout our lives. Rosie trying to take care of Mom was, for me, kind of another way that Mom and I are still connected despite the fog of dementia that keeps getting thicker and thicker. I am glad my puppy can see through the fog even better than most people can.


Rev. Katie

Friday, November 16, 2012

Holiday Rescue: Letting Go of Perfect

For our family, the holiday festivities start this Saturday with the 80 year old tradition of Market Day. The extended family goes to the West Side Market on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. My Uncle gives us our assignments of what to buy when we meet at the garbage can in front of the sausage stand. We eat our sausage, shop, and then meet at one of our houses for a party where we eat all the food we bought. The party is at our house this year and this is when all the holiday preparations begin.

We have been talking at church about a Holiday Rescue Project where we try and decrease the emphasis of the holidays being about consumerism and going into debt. There is another part that we need to rescue ourselves from for the holidays and that is all of the stress, depression, guilt, and loneliness that happens.

Today I would like to talk about how our artificial idea of perfect holidays causes us extreme amounts of stress, depression, and feeling of self loathing when we can't get everything right. Or we get ourselves into debt trying to create the perfect tree, perfect table setting, and send out the perfect holiday cards about our perfect family.

I have a secret for you: No one is perfect. So, let go of perfect.

If your friend has a seemingly beautiful house, ask to see their "messy" room. If someone has the perfect dinner, ask how stressful it was for them to make it. And really, that perfect family in the holiday card someone sent us is not reality.

When we compare ourselves to other people, we get stressed, depressed, and start to hate ourselves for not being as good as everyone else. Then, when none of us talk about what our lives are really like, we don't realize that no one is perfect, everyone struggles, and not all families get along. When we don't talk about reality we then feel shame, embarrassment, and obligation. Talk about a recipe for a mental breakdown, even for people who don't deal with a mental illness.

From what I know though, no faith tradition says the holidays are all about perfection, shame, self loathing, guilt, and embarrassment. The holidays are a time when we reflect on our spirituality, spend time with others, give to others in a way that is helpful to them, and create bonds of community that spread the message of love.

In order to maintain your mental sanity, let go of perfect. One time a friend of mine commented on how messy our apartment was, when we had moved from a house with basement to a small two bedroom apartment. In reality, we were going through a lot and were struggling. We wanted our lives to be about caring for other people and spending time with them so we invited people over in an imperfect house. I had to remind myself that this persons issue over a cluttered but clean house was just their issue. That person is not perfect, and neither am I. No one is helped by judgement and criticism, but we are all helped by time together, care, and love. That is why I love our Market Day tradition. It is more about the time we spend together in a tradition started by my Mom's dad where we eat and hang out rather than over decorate, spend tons of money, and rip open gifts we don't need.


Rev. Katie

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

This Was Not Part of the "Package"

Over the last few months, a few people have asked me some form of the following questions:
Did you have your bipolar diagnosis when you married your husband?
Did he know that was part of the "package" when marrying you?

My husband and I met when we were 15 and 16 years old. We knew I was sad a lot and that I had really bad anxiety but I did not see a therapist and psychiatrist until I was 19 years old and we were in college. At that time I was diagnosed with only depression and an anxiety disorder so that was all he knew when we got married at 21. At that point I was on an SSRI and doing a bit better but then we moved out of town and I got a lot worse. I went back and forth on medications being treated for depression, not knowing I had bipolar and the SSRI's were triggering mania.

High School Graduation, 1996

Many people assume my husband has always been understanding of mental illness and supportive of my treatment but really neither of us understood what was going on and in the early years he still thought mental illness was a choice. He is a left-brained computer programmer and logic makes the most sense to him so having a wife that does not have a hold on reality was hard for him. He did not really read much about mental illness and did not go to doctors appointments with me in the beginning. We fought a lot and were not sure if we would stay together or not. We had many dark times.

We struggled like this for five more years until after our son was born and I was finally diagnosed correctly with bipolar disorder. At that point, after so many years of us struggling, he did start to do more reading and went to a few doctors appointments with me. As we went back and forth with treatment, he got more and more involved in helping me. He has always wanted to understand what I was going through but it is really hard for people who have control over their mind to really get what is happening to their loved one.

Today we still we struggle with treating my illness. (Sometimes It's Hard to Stay Together) Some days one of us is not entirely sure we should still be together. My illness was clearly not part of the "package" Jeff married. And honestly, he is not the same "package" I married either. The whole marriage "package" idea actually really bothers me. No one stays the same forever so thinking that you married a "package" is unrealistic. Both of us understood from the beginning that marriage is not perfect and the one you love will change a lot over the course of your lifetime.

For me, seeing my father go through serious illness and the other challenges my parents had, I knew that people do not stay the same forever and that marriage is hard. Life will throw sickness and many other horrific things at you, but you promised on your wedding/commitment day to get through those things together, in sickness and in health. I think the biggest problem with mental illness is that either the person with the illness does not think they have an illness and/or their partner does not believe it is an illness either. If one or both of you can not accept that this is an illness, then you do not know the correct way to manage it. You blame each other and think that you have a "deal breaker" in your marriage.

Wedding, 2000
None of us really has any idea what we are getting into when we marry/commit to someone. I have no idea why Jeff and I have been able to stay together except that when each one of us thinks about life without the other, it makes us sad. That sounds very simplistic, but it is what keeps us going. And it is not like we have not had times that absolutly would qualify as a "deal breaker" (as Dr. Phil says.) Jeff did not sign on for a wife who is sick, and will be for her whole life, with behaviors that negatively affect him.

We both agree that if either one of us was to hurt the other emotionally or physically and we were not getting help or did not admit we had a problem, that it would be wrong to expect the other person to stay in the relationship. We do believe in each other though. We believe that if either one of us is going through something, that we will take responsibility and get the help we need. The problem with mental illness is that it is extremely hard to treat so you have setbacks and you will not always be well. People with mental illness have high rates of non-compliance, which is not stubbornness or laziness, it is a symptom of the disease so it is not an illness that you treat and never have to deal with again.

In order to handle all of this, I encourage couples to go to doctors appointments together. Make sure everyone in the family is physically and emotionally safe and if they are not you may need to be apart until things are more stable but if the person is in treatment that does not mean you need a divorce. You really have to work closely with your doctors to decide the best options are for your family.

Two books that have really helped us are The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman for general relationship help (given to us at a Couples Retreat at John Carroll University) and Loving Someone With Bipolar Disorder by Julie Fast.

Our best recommendations to couples are:  You HAVE to talk to each other. You have to see your doctor, together. You can't see marriage as a "package" that you bought and which stays the same. Don't have a big ego and either of you blame everything on the other person because both of you will make mistakes over and over again. Marriage/partnership is not easy and couples need help in order to make things work. ALWAYS ask for the help you need, and actually take the help given to you.


Rev. Katie

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

When They Say Mental Illness Is Not Real

One of the main issues which comes up in my discussions with other people with mental illness that causes them the most pain and spiritual despair is when family and friends refuse to accept that mental illness is real.

It just seems ridiculous to me to say that an illness well known by the medical field and which we can see on a brain scan is not real. These people who say mental illness is not real always, without fail, say that instead people use mental illness as an excuse not to take care of their life, themselves, and take responsibility for their life. I am always amazed that anyone would think someone would chose to have the difficulties people with mental illness have. No one wants this.

As I talked about this with my husband, he made me realize something, he said "Saying mental illness is not real is just a cop-out." So true. It is just denial. Family and friends who claim their loved one does not have mental illness can not admit to themselves that there is a problem, someone is sick, and they need help. It is their inability to deal with reality that makes them use this cop-out. And frankly, most of these people in denial have their own issues they need to work on and seeing someone else working on their life and trying to get better, is a reminder to them that they can not face the reality of their own life. This fear of theirs takes away their ability to be compassionate towards someone else.

If you have someone in your life that believes your illness is not real, I hate to say that you probably will never change their mind. Even if you show them test results, brain scans, and have them talk to doctors. I actually had one person in my life say that I was having my psychiatrist lie for me and say I had mental illness so that I could get away with being irresponsible in my life. So, these people will most likely never understand and it is extremely hurtful to you to have to try and defend yourself all the time. To sit and be made fun of, ridiculed, and shamed because you have an illness. No one would ever do that with someone who had cancer or Multiple Sclerosis and no one should do it to you.

Photo by K. Norris. (Hapkido, but you get the idea)
If people are hurting you in this way, you might think that you should ask them, kindly, not to talk about your illness anymore since you can't agree. However, this approach will probably just enrage them further and cause more attacks on you. Try giving them a little bit of information such as "I am working with my therapist on calming my anxiety." Just think of some short answer that does not offend them, gives them little information, but helps redirect or stop the conversation. Think of it as verbal Tai Chi where instead of countering your opponent's force, you deflecting it. You can also only put yourself in safe situations such as seeing them at large events when other people are around or meet them for coffee in public rather than have them over to your house. It's all about not falling into their trap and perpetuating the unhealthy system they are creating.

These people in your life are not bad people, they are just doing something that is extremely unkind. It really does not have anything to do with you but with whatever issues they have in their own life. Send them thoughts of loving kindness and move on with your life. One day they may come around, but in the mean time you need to take care of yourself.

Stay strong friends!

Rev. Katie

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Raising Awareness: Non-Pharmocological Treatment

October 7-13 is Mental Illness Awareness Week. What do you think is one thing people need to be more aware of concerning mental illness?

I have so many things I would want people to be aware of. Of course one of the main things I would like people to actually accept is that mental illness is real. But the other thing I think we do not speak about nearly enough are all the non-pharmacological treatments for mental illness. I am eternally frustrated when I see people (adults and children) heavily medicated, on medicines that risk their life due to serious side effects, and no one tells them the other things they could try to do for treatment. Many non-pharmacological things work in treatment to either decrease the amount of drugs you need to take or some people don't even need prescription medications anymore.

Why do we make people go through this? Why do we not inform people of all the options they have? Why don't we give them the best chance at a stable life?

There is too much stigma around non-prescription treatments- assuming that if you can treat an illness through anything other than a pill then the illness is not real. But that is just not true. Heart disease is real and it can be treated with diet and lifestyle changes. Some forms of diabetes can be treated with diet and people can decrease or stop needing insulin injections. Diet is used in the treatment of epilepsy when medications are not working. Celiac disease is treated with a gluten free diet as are all other food allergies. There is no reason to think that because mental illness can be treated with things like diet, exercise, sleep schedule, meditation, supplements, etc... that it is not a real illness.

From NAMI's Facebook Page
Mental illnesses are chemical imbalances or damage in the brain and things like diet and exercise can change the balance of those chemicals or help repair the brain. For instance serotonin is often one of the chemicals that is out of balance, too low in people with depression. Sugar increases serotonin, but then it also produces a crash and creates mood fluctuations and that can create the chemical imbalance of bipolar. Not eating sugar and other simple carbohydrates can help balance serotonin so it does not have extreme highs and lows. Exercise helps in the treatment of ADD, depression, bipolar and more because it effects neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and dopamine. Exercise also helps regulate the amygdala which is one of the parts of our brain affected in PTSD. Also, as Sharon Begley describes in her book Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, meditation helps change our brain due to neuroplasticity (the ability for our brains to change, rewire itself.) Meditation has been successful in treatment of mental illness as well because it changes the pathways in your brain, this is especially helpful in PTSD and brain injury.

Nothing showed me just how easy it is to change our brain with things like food than an experience with my son.

We noticed my son was having emotional breakdowns. Crying over small things that, while annoying, were not things you would just fall apart for hours over. He is normally a totally happy and smiling kid who listens and is really easy to take care of. We knew something was wrong and we had already been researching diet and it's affect on mental illness for me and my husband has a gluten intolerance. We noticed when we cut out gluten we all felt better, but my son still had these breakdowns so we we started paying more attention to exactly what he was eating. We noticed that when he ate corn, a few hours later, he was a wreck! So, we cut out corn (even corn syrup), and he rarely has these episodes except when we eat out or he is at a friends house. No matter how hard we try to avoid it, corn is snuck into everything especially in the form of corn syrup. Even pre-made hamburger patties have corn in them sometimes so you may think you are just eating meat but you are not. We even noticed during school testing week that on the days our son had a breakfast of protein and carbs he was able to sit and focus longer for the test. On the one day I just gave him fruit and gluten-free pancakes, he had a hard time concentrating and sitting during the test so much so that his teacher asked me if he was feeling ok. I know that if he goes to a party or spends the day at the amusement park and we did not pack food for him, he will be sad, cry easily, and even withdraw to his room for hours. All because of the food he ate.

I recommend that all of this be supervised by your doctor and if you do not have a doctor willing to look at things outside of the medicine cabinet, then find a new one. It can be hard. For at least ten years doctors have been telling me "the research shows these things work" but they don't have enough experience to use it in treatment, telling me to experiment on my own. Not helpful! I finally found doctors this year who have enough experience and education on these treatments that they do use them.

If we as patients insist that we want to know ALL of our treatment options, we can make a difference. So I want to raise awareness to my fellow friends with mental illness and let you know that you have many options in your treatment plan. You have the right to insist that you are informed about them and are treated with them. We can demand more testing so that more doctors recognize these treatments as successful. Our lives are worth this fight.


Rev. Katie

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Controlling Mania With Energy Medicine

I had a particularly bad manic episode Monday that kept me awake and driving around the city at 4am. I was arguing with my husband and feeling like I would never get better even with the new integrative approach we are taking with my treatment.

This was my first really bad manic episode since starting with my new therapist and in my mania I thought all this energy medicine was never going to work. I was such a wreck that I could not do the energy work on myself and I fell apart. I thought I would go into the office yesterday and prove that when I am this bad energy work will not help and all of this is pointless.

Instead what happened is that I left an hour later totally fine and with a plan of what to do when these times happen again.

I do not understand how energy medicine works. It is all confusing to me and honestly even doctors who use it say we just do not have enough double blind studies to have good scientific evidence. However, they see it work with people and so they use it.

So, we talked a bit about the things in my life that might have triggered this episode but in the end what worked was the meridian work my therapist taught my husband how to do for me.

My husband is a very logical computer scientist and so I was completely surprised that as he was working with my meridians he could tell if I was calming down or not. He could tell if I seemed stuck and unable to let go of anger and anxiety, and he could feel the energy from me and all he was doing was holding onto a few points on my feet.

Yes, we wrote with a Sharpie numbers on my feet for meridian points :-)

For me, the energy medicine seems to be working in a few ways. One is that I can actually feel the energy in my body being off balance and the energy work fixes that and makes me more relaxed and even. Second is that during the energy work I am able to figure out what is contributing to my illness. I have done talk therapy for forever and what I am learning is that all my talking, self analyzing, and trying to have an answer for everything has not helped me very well. The energy works seems to balance everything out, make my mind more clear, and honestly the answers just come to me. Then I am able to work through things and understand what is going on better, but at that point, it almost does not matter. It is as if just identifying the issue lets me release it.

As my husband sees it "You have two completely different systems in your body, the logical and the emotional. Trying to talk through something only helps if the problem is in the logical area. If it is emotional you really need to do the energy work and center yourself to access what is going on."

Third, the energy work is something concrete that I can do as part of a routine but it is also something that my husband can do with me when I can't help myself. It is very hard to find things that our loved ones can actually do to help us and finding something like this that is so concrete and works so well is really a blessing for us.

I am surprised that I walked out of the office with my mania under control in just an hour. (If you have mania you will know how amazing that is.) I am surprised that even my husband can actually feel a difference and feel the energy when he is helping me. I am surprised that I have discovered more of my triggers and understand my illness better in such a short time with this new approach to therapy. I am surprised that this works at all.

I have a long way to go but this type of progress is new for me and I look forward to seeing where this all goes.


Rev. Katie

Monday, September 17, 2012

Vitamins for Mental Illness: Making a Responsible Decision

You can find all sorts of places that recommend different vitamin supplements to help with treating mental illness. Since I have had such a hard time taking regular medications, I have a new doctor who is adding in some supplements for me. I know the research really is not out there to prove the positive effects of supplements mental illnesses. The most recent studies have been done on the effect of Omega-3's on depression, indicating that it may be beneficial, but is is still not a widely used treatment. Overall, extensive research studies have just not been done on the many supplements people are recommending and doctors are really suggesting these things based on small preliminary research studies and evidence from what they have seen with their own patients. That is not to say supplements do not work, it just means we have a lot of research to do to prove, to our Western scientific satisfaction, that they do.

If you are working with a Psychiatrist that you have researched and trust who prescribes supplements, I think it is safe to try them. However, I think far more people take them on their own than really work with a MD and I think that is risky for a few reasons.

First, there is a misunderstanding that supplements and they are completely safe and both adults and children can use them because they are "all natural." That is simply not true. Supplements change the chemistry of your brain, that is why you would be using them to treat mental illness, so clearly they have an effect on you and it is possible the effect could be negative. You can take too much of a supplement and supplements can have dangerous interactions with each other and prescription medications. Also, even our doctors do not know how much is a "safe" dose of a supplement because there are really no regulations around them. 
Photo by Katie Norris

There is also a myth that supplements have no side effects. But really, anything you put into your body can have a side effect. We try supplements in order to make us better, which means they have an effect on our body, which means they can have negative side effects as well as positive. One supplement my doctor gave me to help me sleep did make me tired but also gave me extreme stomach pain about four hours after I took it, which lasted for about twelve hours. So, even though it helped me fall asleep, I woke up four hours later in pain, could not sleep, and then had to try and get through half of my work day with a chronic, sometimes immobilizing stomach ache. One thing you also have to be sure of with side effects of supplements is that many of the supplements are combinations of a few different things in  one pill. When you research side effects look up each individual ingredient to find more accurate information.

Lastly, one of the arguments against using supplements is that often some of the supplements your doctor will prescribe for you are supplements that they sell from a company they make money from. True, this could be a red flag, but at the same time, doctors also get rewards from the prescription medications they give you. I have had a few doctors that change my medication to the "latest" new drug, which often is not covered by insurance and not available in generic form often causing us to spend $600 for one drug per month. (But of course the first month is free due to the samples the doctor gives me brought to them by the drug representatives.) You really have to research your doctor to see if they are suggesting supplements because they really believe they work, or because they can make a lot of money off of them.

My point in this post is not to make you fear supplements. Obviously I think they can work as I am willing to try them. It is just to warn you from getting caught up in the hype that supplements are so natural that there are no risks in taking them and you can even prescribe things for yourself since you can go to any drug store and pick them up. If you want to try supplements, my advice is to only do so under the supervision of a Psychiatrist who takes a truly holistic and responsible approach to mental health. How do you find a Psychiatrist like that? It's hard. It takes a lot of research to find the one doctor of hundreds who truly understands and is willing to use both regular and non-pharmacological treatments.


Rev. Katie

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Intuitive Service Dog

My Psychiatric Service Dog in Training, Rosie, is still full of puppy energy and just learning the basics of being a manageable dog. We have not even started her therapy task training and we can't really take her out in public much because she still barks at every dog she sees, but she seems to intuitively have a knack for being a psychiatric service dog.

Rosie has been very helpful to me lately, especially when my husband was in India for eight days and I was struggling a lot. She just seems to sense when I am manic or depressed and helps me out. When I am manic she usually sits right on my lap in order to help calm me down. She instinctively knows how to ground me. The weight of her body calms me down and she distracts me from my manic thoughts and behaviors.

When I am sad she licks me. Dog's lick for many different reasons but it seems telling to me that Rosie licks me when I am sad and dogs learn to lick from their mothers. It was a way to survive, a way for the mother to get the puppy breathing after it was born. When Rosie licks me she is showing me affection and helping me survive. It is like she helps me breath again.

Then the other day I was sitting on the floor doing the meridian work (meridians are channels that bio-energy flow through in your body and certain meridian points are acupressure points) my therapist had just taught me that day and Rosie came up and put her head in my lap. It was as if she knew that sitting with me would help me calm my system and balance the energy in my body.

Rosie helping me with my meridian work.
Rosie is very easy to train with all of her basic commands such as sit, place, etc... so I know her task training will be go well. Right now I am just hoping we can train her to be calm in public so I can have her with me all the time, which would be a huge help.

I have had dogs all my life and they have all helped me in many ways, but Rosie is the first one who seems to know exactly the right thing to do to help in the different stages of my illness.

Whenever I am having a hard time now, I go see Rosie or she comes to me, and that has made my mental illness a lot easier to handle.


Rev. Katie

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Breaking the Silence: Joint Sermon by Husband and Wife

Many people have been asking me for the sermon my husband Jeff and I gave about mental illness. The title "Breaking the Silence" is inspired by NAMI's educational program created to destigmatize mental illness. My part is from the persepective of patient and his from the perspective of the partner of someone with bipolar disorder. We hope it is helpful to you.


Rev. Katie and Jeff

Breaking the Silence Part I: Rev. Katie Norris

One out of every three Americans suffer from a mental illness each year. That is 32.4% of our population. The odds are very high that you know and love someone with a mental illness. You work with them and your children are friends with them. It is very likely though you don’t know the majority of them have a mental illness. This is because the stigma against mental illness is high. I can’t tell you the amount of times I have heard people say they would never hire someone who is bipolar, or that depression is fake, or call people with schizophrenia a freak. This happens in every kind of setting I have been in. Parties, workplaces, schools, even in our churches.

One time at a seminar at General Assembly, which focused on using social media in churches, a fellow minister said he did not want to start a Facebook page for his church that allowed people to comment on the page because, and I quote, “there are a lot of people in our area with bipolar and I don't want them posting things that will cause problems.” I was shocked and devastated at the ignorance of this person who is called to uphold the first principle of Unitarian Universalism that says everyone has inherent worth and dignity. I almost turned to him and said “I have bipolar disorder and it sounds like maybe you don’t know enough about it, would you like to talk about it?” But, I was too tired. Some days you pick your battles and that day I just didn’t have it in me, again, to try and defend my inherent worth and dignity as well as the inherent worth and dignity of others with mental illness.
So yes, I have bipolar disorder and a panic disorder and it is an illness I live with like any other chronic illness. I knew I was sick at the age of six, but was not treated until I was nineteen and not correctly diagnosed until I was twenty five. This means that I have the same kind of up and down moods that Eli the bipolar bear from our story has. It also means I have frequent panic attacks. When I was younger I was scared to ever leave my house. Now I live with my panic attacks on a daily basis and just kind of muscle through them because if I didn’t I wouldn't go anywhere or do anything. This has been a long road my family and I have been on, which we still continue to navigate because mental illness is extremely hard to treat.
Many people ask me what it is like to have mental illness, and there is really no good way to describe it. It is hard to come to terms with the fact that you have an illness in your brain which effects your behavior and abilities. For me, often music can explain things better than just plain words can. So I have a song for you from the musical Next to Normal which is about a woman with bipolar disorder and her family. In the song, called "You Don’t Know," she is trying to describe to her husband what it is like to have mental illness and the fact that he really does not know what it is like having not experienced it himself. The words and music speak to the pain and confusion of what mental illness is really like.

Music: "You Don’t Know" from Next to Normal

The biggest struggle in raising awareness about mental illness, is, as the song suggests, most people just don’t know what it is like to have it. People seem to understand physical illnesses, like cancer, diabetes, or a broken arm, because you can easily see or test for these illnesses. Mental illness is not something you can look at like a broken arm, or easily test for. It is an illness that is unseen and comes out in behavior changes more than anything else. Due to this fact, people believe many myths about mental illness and I would like to address a few of those myths today because breaking down those myths means we can truly start to help people.

The first myth is that many people assume mental illness is not real. This is not true, it is a chemical imbalance. While in the past there were no tests for mental illness, they are now finding in brain scans that you can see the difference between a mentally ill brain and the brain of a normal person.

The second myth is that people with mental illness are just lazy, stupid, or mean and should be able to control themselves. It is hard for people to understand why someone can’t control their own behavior at times. Because of this often friends and family of people with mental illness label their loved one as lazy, irresponsible, or mean because of the way they act. However, mental illness means chemicals in your brain make your brain do things you don’t want it to do. We are not trying to be mean, we are not lazy, or stupid. We want to be well just as much as you want us to be well. This is probably one of the hardest things for people to understand and have compassion around and Jeff will speak about this a little later as this is one of the biggest struggles for family members.
The third myth is that if we just take medication, we get better. Science has not really perfected treating mental illness and for many of us the medications do not work well enough or are so toxic that the side effects mean you have to stop taking them. Or the medication takes all of your personality and life away leaving you empty and cold. Medication is not an easy fix so one way to help someone with mental illness is to understand their struggles with medication and not judge and yell at them for not taking it. Also, there are many lifestyle changes which are just as important as medication which can help treat mental illness, such as exercise, sleep, spiritual practice, and diet. We can help people maintain those changes by being understanding of the restrictions this puts on their lives instead of making fun of them for it or insisting they don’t need to do it.
The fourth myth is that people with mental illness can not be productive members of society. People assume we can’t have families, hold down a job, and our opinions don’t matter. In October of last year, an article came out in the New York Times which showed how work is often an effective way of managing your illness as was told in the story of a woman who has scizoeffective disorder but also holds a high profile executive job. Her job gave her meaning and purpose in life, all she needed was the ability, when her illness got bad, to have some time off or even bring her therapy dog into work with her. Research now shows that people with mental illness are often good at very demanding jobs because we understand crisis and urgency better than most people. If our society could be more understanding about these illnesses and give people more flexibility in their jobs, we could lessen the amount of times people end up hospitalized. Unfortunately, as for many illnesses, it is hard to get this kind of understanding in the workplace. This is something we need to work for in all areas of health and wellness. 
The fifth myth is that children can not get mental illness. Mental illness can happen to anyone at any age and we can not just assume that repeated behavioral issues with a child are just because of a spoiled, ungrateful child. We don’t want to over or misdiagnose kids, but we do need to pay attention when kids are exhibiting serious problems. I can tell you from experience it is devastating as a child to have mental illness and let it go untreated as it makes life agonizing, confusing, and you often feel like a bad person. Adults and children alike make fun of you and judge you for being different. That is one of the reasons I think our faith is so essential to our children who may have mental illness. We teach that they are loved just as they are and we will work with them to create environments which help them thrive. That is why we try to have religious education that is accessible to all learning and mental abilities. This faith will save those children from living in a culture that says they are bad and wrong for having an illness. We are the loving and salvific voice to those kids, and even adults, as that is what I heard in a Unitarian Universalist Church when I was twenty-five. This faith told me I was loved and they believed in me as a whole person, which meant I was able to do many valuable things with my life.
This leads me to the sixth myth I want to address, that we as a society and community can not help people with mental illness. People often say that people with mental illness can’t change and what we do does not affect them so we should just leave them be and let them suffer the consequences of their illness alone. In reality, the best way for someone to manage their illness is to have a large supportive community around them. People who help them keep up with their treatment plan. People who call and check on them to see how they are doing. An understanding work environment, and people who also help check in on family members as well.
This can be a fatal illness for some of us but the more we raise awareness and create a supportive community, the less likely that is to happen. And when it does happen, we need to be the ones to support the families and friends during such a difficult time. If we don’t understand the illness, we can’t adequately help them process what happened.
Most importantly we as a church community can help by making sure that people have a faith which is realistic about what mental illness is, which brings me to the last myth. Sadly many faiths promote the myth that mental illness is actually evil spirits that take over a person, or a person only gets mental illness if they have been bad and need some form of punishment. As Unitarian Universalists, those teachings go against everything we stand for, so instead we can be the faith that says we understand. We can be the faith that welcomes people with mental illness into our communities and gives them volunteer opportunities which speak to their heart and soul. We can be the communities that help people find nourishing spiritual practices, which are proven to help in the management of mental illness. We can be the community that does not stigmatize and judge. We can be the faith that creates a larger support system not just for the person with mental illness but for their family as well. We have a chance, in our churches to help end the pain that comes from the stigma of mental illness, if we just seek to understand it better.
This is what I, as a person with mental illness wanted to let you all know, the truth about these diseases. Another truth about it is that mental illness, as with all illnesses, affects the family in a very deep way. It is often most hard for family members to understand what is going on and discover ways to help. My husband Jeff is here today to share some of that experience with you.

Katie & Jeff
Breaking the Silence Part II: Jeff Norris

I’ve known Katie since she was 16 years old. She was always a little emotional. When we first started dating, we would spend hours talking about whatever was going on in her life. We discussed the play-by-play analysis of the soap opera that is high school. I never really thought that this was different than what anyone else went through.

Fast forward 5 years, and we had just graduated from college, gotten married, moved, started a new job, and I started graduate school. It was almost like we were trying to squeeze as many stressful events as possible into a single summer. We were living in upstate New York, about 8 hours away from family, and Katie was struggling with her own identity, while I was busy working.

Katie was seeing a doctor for depression, and we were constantly fighting about how to share work around the house. It was not unusual for us to be up fighting until 2 AM about who should be doing the laundry or sorting the mail. I was mad because I had to do what I thought was more than my fair share of the chores. I hated that I always had to be the one to pickup the slack.

Looking back, I really didn’t get it. I found myself falling into the trap of calling Katie lazy, because I didn’t have enough awareness of what was really going on. I couldn’t see that her limits were not my limits, and that fighting about those limits only made our relationship worse. I should have been supportive and helped Katie to work from where she was, but instead I fed into the disease and actually made things worse by fighting with her and making her feel guilty about what she couldn’t handle doing. Our relationship could have fallen apart back then because I didn’t know how to handle the disease.

Fast forward another 5 years, just after our son was born, we figured out that Katie’s illness was not depression, but bipolar disorder, which is the combination of depression and mania. For the last decade, we had been ignoring half of Katie’s symptoms. I had no idea that being overly productive and not needing very much sleep was actually a problem, and a sign of an impending crash. Once I had a better understanding of what was really going on, there were things that I could do to help make things better.

I think of helping someone with mental illness as being analogous to driving a car.

First you need to point the car in the right direction. For us, that means taking the proper medications, getting enough sleep, eating right, spiritual practice, and exercising. For others, it can include meditation and massages.

Second, you need to plan where you are going. For us, this means thinking about major events that are coming up like family activities, travel, stressful work, or even changes in the seasons. We need to make sure that we are not over booked and that we have a plan to get through the events. Sometimes it means saying no to things that we might have otherwise done.

Third, you need to pay attention to where the car is actually going. For us, that means watching for signs that things are starting to go badly. Some of those signs include staying up late, empty candy wrappers appearing around the house or starting dramatic projects like reorganizing her office. Each person has slightly different signs, so it is important to understand how your friend or loved one responds.

Finally, you need to carefully steer the car back to the center as soon as you notice that you are going astray. For us, that can mean a doctor’s visit, increasing dosage of medication, or something as simple as taking a walk. For others, it can mean a trip to emergency room or a stay in the psychiatric hospital.

Just like driving a car, managing a mental illness requires making constant small changes and periodically following some pretty complicated detours. I know that since I am traveling though life with someone with a mental illness, our journey will not be as simple and straightforward as it could be. I also know that my life is richer because we are traveling together.

Breaking the Silence Conclusion: Rev. Katie Norris

The last thing I want to say is that mental illness is not all bad. My illness makes me who I am and I appreciate that. There has been a lot of research done lately on the positive sides of mental illness. Dr. Nassir Ghaemi says depression enhances empathy and realism, and mania enhances creativity and resilience. They are continually finding more positive sides to these illnesses and newer and better treatment options, which means there is always hope. If we can create supportive communities and advocate for better research and end the stigma, the future can look bright for people with mental illness. May this be what we work for in our churches and communities as this allows us to live out our first principle that says everyone has inherent worth and dignity.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The "Brat" Phenomenon

I keep witnessing a parenting style that is driving me crazy. I see it everywhere- in people's homes, at the mall, and on the playground. It is something many parents do yet no one is talking about the negative affects it has on our children. It's what I call the Brat Phenomenon, or name-calling.

I am so tired of hearing parents call their child a "brat." It is so common, and said in a million different ways:

"You are such a brat!"
"My kid is an annoying little brat."
"You're my little brat aren't you?"
"Stop being such a brat."

Merriam Webster defines brat as an ill-mannered annoying child. We all know it means even more than that: an ill-mannered, ungrateful, annoying child whom no one really likes.

So please tell me, why is anyone calling their child a brat? Calling your child names, like brat, which have negative meanings only hurts your child. It is a form of emotional abuse and can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and often is the trigger for mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders.

I typically notice parents using the term in two situations, one where they are mad at something their child has done, and the other in a sarcastic way as if they are just joking. Well, if you are mad, talk to your child, don't call them names and berate them. And if you are being sarcastic and think it's funny, it's not. Your sarcasm just shows that you are insecure and feel the need to tear your child down in order to build yourself up. We all mess up as parents, but can we please try to stop making ourselves feel better by calling our kids names.

I see this so often, but in particular "brat" is a favorite term used by many parents. So, I have decided that the next time I hear someone call a child a brat in front of me and their child looks up at me with those sad eyes full of shame and embarrassment because of the actions of their parents, I will say to the child: "Do you know what I think brat means?"

It means you are:
Amazing and

Someone needs to tell these children that they are amazing, wonderful, and loved just the way they are. 


Rev. Katie