“Why I Keep Away From Madness” – A Stigmama Contribution

Me and my writing muse Lucy 

 

Since its inception a year ago, I’ve been a Regular Contributor to the groundbreaking website STIGMAMA.  There’s nothing like this website out there…you can take my word for it!  I’m so glad it exists because STIGMAMA has become one of my virtual tribes.

STIGMAMA’s tagline is “Motherhood. Mental Illness. Out Loud.”, which I love, and its Facebook page has almost 17,500 likes, clearly demonstrating that there’s a need for an outlet and resource such as STIGMAMA.

STIGMAMA has given me a platform to share my feelings about living with postpartum bipolar disorder. The fact that I can receive feedback and encouragement from its followers is fulfilling, to say the very least. 

I encourage you to check out STIGMAMA http://stigmama.com/about/ and consider becoming a contributor.  You can submit any type of writing, be it a poem, fiction or nonfiction, that addresses women and mental illness. (PLEASE NOTE: you do NOT have to be a mother to submit a post. Check out my friend Elaina’s contribution “I Am Not A Mom” for an excellent example:

http://stigmama.com/2014/09/24/i-am-not-a-mom-by-elaina-j-martin/

STIGMAMA offers monthly themes that contributors can write about. March was “March Madness” month.  April is “Open Submission” month, and May is “STIGMAMA# Poetry Slam” month. 

Of my latest STIGMAMA March post, Dr. Walker Karraa, founder of STIGMAMA and author of the bestselling book “Transformed by Postpartum Depression: Women’s Stories of Trauma and Growth” wrote,

“The amazing STIGMAMA Regular Contributor Dyane Harwood rounds up our month of posts regarding the topic of “Madness”.  I want to thank Dyane for her deeply felt embodied response to the topic, to the word itself. There are millions of images, interpretations, insinuations, and myths held within the concept of ‪#‎madness‬. Dyane poignantly reveals the lived experience of how the concept can be an insult to injury. Thank you, Dyane for your work, your writing, and your leadership in the advocacy movement.”

 

WHY I KEEP AWAY FROM MADNESS

In the past I considered “madness” to be a fascinating topic. I never shied away from facing it through books, movies, or art until I was diagnosed with postpartum onset bipolar one disorder (PPBD) at age thirty-seven.

My PPBD manifested as hypomania immediately following the birth of my second daughter.  As the weeks flew by, I became more and more manic.  I even became hypergraphic, a little-known, bizarre condition in which one writes compulsively.  I wrote hundreds of pages in less than a week, often while tandem breastfeeding my newborn and toddler.

Something was clearly wrong.

Six weeks postpartum, I voluntarily hospitalized myself in our local behavioral health unit for treatment. I used to live one block away from the distinctive redwood building.  Every day while I drove to work at a state park non-profit, I glanced at the “B.H.U.”, never imagining in my wildest dreams that one day I’d be locked inside there.

I had been in locked-down mental health units before, but as a visitor. My father, a professional violinist, had manic depression like so many of his brilliant colleagues.

I visited my Dad at UCLA’s renowned Neuropsychiatric Institute.  As soon as I got my driver’s license at sixteen, I drove alone to visit him during one of his numerous hospitalizations. I brought his Stradivarius violin and his favorite Wrigley’s spearmint gum to cheer him up.

How naive I was back then – I didn’t realize that neither item was allowed in such a place, especially the million-dollar violin!  When I left his unit, I felt like I had just gotten out of jail.  I felt so guilty to see him that depressed.  As I watched my father shuffle away in an ugly hospital gown instead of the elegant black suit he wore for his Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts, I never thought I’d be a patient in such a hellhole.

When my turn arrived to be a mentally ill patient, I had to walk away from my six-week-old baby and my toddler and husband into a sterile unit. That was my first hospitalization among the “mad”, and I wish with all my heart it had been my last.

During my six subsequent mental hospitalizations, I was stigmatized by some of my own family, friends, and by a variety of hospital staff.  It was crystal-clear that I was regarded as “mad” and nothing else.

When I was housed among the “mad” I lived with many different kinds and degrees of madness.  I have PTSD from my time spent in those locked-down wards. As a result, I’ve experienced enough madness to last the rest of my life.

I hold a Bachelors of Arts degree in English and American Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz.  I’ve been an avid reader since a young child.  Since my PPBD diagnosis, I’ve read many bipolar memoirs and bipolar-themed blogs that have become ubiquitous, but I’ve become much more cautious with what I read when it comes to bipolar disorder.

Nowadays, I automatically avoid anything with the title “mad” or “madness” in it.  I refuse to read all accounts of mental hospitalizations.  I may seem like I’m burying my head in the sand – and yes, I might be missing out on a gem of a read, but I can no longer immerse myself in the world of the insane.

I first went mad when I wanted to hang myself with my thick, green bathrobe belt hours after I took one amitriptyline (Elavil) pill.  Even in my darkest moments, I had never wanted to hang myself before I took that medication. It was obvious that the amitriptyline was causing the suicidal ideation in
my brain, and – thank God – my husband was home.

“I need to get to the hospital,” I told him, unable to look into his eyes. Once again he took me to the behavioral health unit with our baby and toddler in tow. I entered the ward as a ghost of my former exuberant self.

Losing myself that way – losing my will to live and wanting to take my life using a method that had formerly been anathema to me – traumatized me.  I don’t want to read about others’ experiences in insane asylums.

Because I’ve spent weeks in mental hospitals and I have PTSD as a result, I don’t want another glimpse into those environments.  I understand why others wish to learn about people’s experiences with madness, but I’ll refrain from examining those mental states as much as I can.

As I continue to keep away from creative works that focus upon madness, I feel empowered. I value the freedom I have to make this decision, as for far too long I felt powerless when it came to my own sanity.

I’ve been mad for long enough. Thanks to the help of medication, a good psychiatrist, therapist and self-care, I’m able to stay sane.

Avoiding the world of madness helps keep me that way.

Good Surprises, Bad Surprises (I prefer good ones.)

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Happy Friday Everyone!

I’m glad it’s here because Spring Break begins for my kids.  I’ll enjoy a respite from the frantic morning rush, as well as a breather from the passive-aggressive minivan brigade en route to school.

Today I was interviewed by a psychologist-in-training.  She’s interviewing mothers with bipolar disorder for her dissertation, and she made quite a trek to reach these Deliverance-esque mountains.  We spent an intense ninety minutes while I answered her questions. I was thankful she was very compassionate, because I discussed the toughest, most disturbing years of my life.  I was drained afterwards, but I’m glad that I did it because I know her research will help other clinicians understand moms with bipolar a little better.

Meanwhile it has been a weird week.  Well, it’s always weird around here, but it was a touch weirder than usual.  

Bad surprise #1 happened Wednesday morning.  I woke up around 4:30 a.m. as nature called.  I needed to answer her fast or regress to six-years-old and wet the bed.  On my way back to bed, I paused in the doorway and spotted a puddle on the floor – ooops, Lucy had an accident. It happens once in a while, and it was actually a blessing in disguise. When I crouched down to clean it up, I saw movement to my left.  I gasped inwardly, as I didn’t want to wake everyone up, especially Lucy, who was out of sight on the other side of the bed.

It was Zoe, Rilla’s Syrian hamster.  Somehow Zoe had escaped from her cage and she was having a splendid time exploring the house. Miraculously Lucy missed her spree.  I hadn’t handled the little creature much up to that point, but I immediately scooped her up before Lucy awoke.  I thought she’d wriggle out of my hands, but she was calm.

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I thanked God over and over that I was the first one to find Zoe; if Lucy had seen her, Zoe would’ve become a Scooby snack and Rilla and Avonlea would have been devastated.  (It turned out that there was a faulty part of her cage.  She leapt five feet down from its perch without hurting herself, another small miracle.) While I categorized this as a bad surprise, it did have a happy ending. Hurrah!

hector

Good surprise #1 was “Hector and the Search for Happiness”. This was a wonderful film!  I watched it on my portable DVD player with headphones while the kids were glued to the insipid Nick Jr.’s “Austin and Ally”, a show that makes me want to scream.

“Hector and the Search for Happiness” is about Hector, of course. He’s a burned-out psychiatrist (what a surprise, eh?) who goes on a pilgrimage to research how to help his patients (and himself) be happy.  I don’t want to give away spoilers, but it was unique as well as a great reminder about what creates true happiness.  Some of my favorite actors are in it (Toni Colette, Stellan Skarsgard, Jean Reno and Christopher Plummer, still going strong in his 80’s!) and actors who I was unfamiliar with, namely the outstanding lead Simon Pegg.  I definitely give it a “thumbs up”.  

On to bad surprise #2.  Some of you know I work out almost daily on my beloved Nordic Track Elliptical. Yesterday as soon as I hopped on it, the flywheel made a ghastly screeching sound.  I had to stop, which sucked as I really needed an endorphin boost.  Craig came downstairs to see what caused a noise that could wake the dead. He took the elliptical apart to discover a huge amount of fluffy pink insulation material stuffed inside the flywheel that wasn’t supposed to be there – surprise! It was jumbled up with scraps of paper. You can guess where this is going, right?

My workout machine had become a haven to RATS!!!

rat

Oh. My. God.

Grooooooososssssss!  At least there was no rat poo in it as far as I could tell, and there were no rats or parts of rats in the elliptical.  That was a major plus, yes indeed.  Our home is rat-free; we had sent our rats to the afterlife long ago.  But this was definitely a bad surprise, and there’s no way I can put a good spin on it!

I certainly can’t end on that note.  Good surprise #2 came from my seven-year-old last night.  Rilla and I were talking about odds and ends. She said, “I look up to you, Mommy and I want to be a writer too.  I want to be like you!” 

I was so moved by what Rilla said, because I haven’t exactly been Mother of the Year since her birth in 2007;  the year I was diagnosed with postpartum bipolar less than two months after she was born.  To hear that she wanted to be like me (she knows I have bipolar, and yet she didn’t let that get in the way of anything) was beyond awesome.  I was also surprised that my writing has made a positive impression upon her.  

After all the crap I’ve put this child through as a result of my mental illness, I harbor residual guilt.  I worry about the trauma my girls have suffered from bipolar-related events. So you can imagine how cool it was for me to hear her words, to feel her soft arms wrap themselves around me in a hug, and to hold her small hands with their tiny, scraggly fingernails….the hands of a budding writer.

Until next Friday, I send you my love, and some good surprises that will make you smile.

xoxo,

Dyane

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