Forum member Alan Smithee asked a series of questions regarding what we share and what we keep secret due to mental illness. She asked:

Do you keep secrets from your partner because of your mental illness (MI)? Do you keep secrets from your best friends because of your MI? Do you only share some things with other MI people and not non-MI people?

I’d like to pull two specific threads out of these questions: The first is the basic question of keeping secrets. This is not a matter of whether we keep anything to or for ourselves, but whether we keep secrets specifically because of our mental health. The second thread is the issue of degree — degrees of closeness, degrees of relatability — which, in short, asks whether certain people or certain relationships warrant more honesty.

Lastly, I’d like to add one more layer to Alan’s questions: Do you lie? Beyond simply keeping some things private, beyond issues of omission, do you lie to keep your secrets?

Click for sourceLet’s be serious: it pretty much goes without saying that it’s been a while since I sat down and started a new conversation topic here. And perhaps that should be the topic of discussion as I have been reminded that the discussion helps. I have been thankfully reminded why I started this forum in the first place: that we lack an appropriate venue for support, that we often find ourselves in a place where we don’t feel it’s appropriate to share when we need to share, ask for help we need help.

Define Functioning is a tricky place for me.  It is not a blog, but a discussion forum. It’s a space I truly benefit from as a participant, but also a space that relies on me as facilitator and moderator. So, when my life gets a bit rocky, it is easy for me to doubt what good I can bring to the discussion.

Forum member Alan Smithee sent me an email recently asking that I bring Define Functioning back. My response was that I am not in a place to do it alone right now. To the extent that this is a place for discussion, it is also a place for this little community of ours….and, as they say, it takes a village. I get a great deal out of the conversations we have….I am just not always sure that I can lead the conversations.

So, on that note — the first conversation in the revived Define Functioning is this: What do you want to talk about? I’m compiling a list and will post a new discussion topic at least once a week for as long as we, together, have new things to talk about or old things to talk about more. Just let me know what’s on your mind.

As always, thank you all for everything.

Upfront Disclaimer: This is going to be less of a discussion post and more of a moment of reflection. Please indulge me.

It’s New Year’s, a day or moment I happen to loathe. It’s also a year since I made the resolution to embark on my Odyssey through 2001 — a decision partly responsible for the formation of this site. While I have, clearly, not been doing the best job posting regular discussions as of late, I have inadvertently wrapped up 2011 with a great deal more understanding of a decade ago. Perhaps needless to say, this holiday season has been a doozy.

Ten years ago, I reached a bottom that terrified me. I honestly can’t tell you where I was or what I was doing ten years ago today. I have no idea right now what I did for that New Year’s. I know I had finally been properly diagnosed. It was post-seizure, and I was prescribed 16 pills per day and wasn’t able to stay on any of them because of the side effects. I know I had been in the emergency room six times in December 2001 and had surgery scheduled for the first week of January. (Much like my mind, it seemed that my body too had cracked.) I know I couldn’t sleep, much like tonight.

With the bipolar diagnosis came some answers but no solutions. The medication they prescribed was no solution, and I didn’t have a therapist able to work with me. I was psychotic. I was paranoid. I was being taunted by voices without bodies. I was lying constantly. I was hiding. I couldn’t take care of myself. I was anxious. I was probably in a mixed mood. I was really very scared.

I thought months prior, when they finally figured out what was going on in my head, that it could be addressed and somehow fixed. I didn’t know that the worst, for me, was yet to come. By New Year’s 2002, I was barely there. And I was so very scared — sure that the life I had was gone, sure that the person I knew myself to be was gone, sure she wouldn’t come back, sure she couldn’t explain, sure that I wouldn’t survive.

I managed to work, and the work I did was not my best but better than decent. And no one knew what was happening inside me.

With this New Year’s, I suppose my Odyssey — at least in its formal sense — is finished. I made it through the year, and it’s brought me here: trying to remember a moment during which I was too far gone, too lost, to be able to commit anything to memory. Perhaps unsurprisingly or perhaps completely by coincidence, this week has been hard. I tried venturing out yesterday, and failed miserably at the hand of a terrible anxiety attack.

Four years ago, January 2008, I went back into treatment after six years out. And what comes next, after my Odyssey, is probably just what has happened every day for the last four years: More trying, more work, more dedication to getting by and getting through. More self-realization. More self-actualization. More reflection. All in service to my knowledge that being in my head is neither the same nor as meaningful nor as rewarding as being in the world.

Last year’s resolution — the decision to let myself examine what happened to me in 2001 — is the only New Year’s resolution I have ever kept. I will not make one this year. This year, I will only commit to continue doing what I’ve been trying to do every day for the last ten years: try.

Happy New Year to all of you. I thank you for all you’ve shared and look forward to much more as, together and individually, we keep trying and working and doing. Since I should include a question for discussion, and since I’ve never really asked it outright before, How are you?

A few topics ago, Jen brilliantly suggested that we start a discussion about making friends. Last spring we had a rather good conversation on this topic (here)* but not quite in the context that it was recently presented. Among other insightful things, Jen said

The friends I do have I don’t feel really know me well because they don’t know the truth about my life and what I deal with. And for most of them, except for the few who do know, I don’t think they care to understand it. So I do understand that feeling of “Why bother?” I don’t have an easy answer for this.

And so we ask: Why bother? More specifically, perhaps, What do we gain from sharing our MI stories with friends? Are you able to consider those who don’t know “friends” at all? What are the consequences of, both, sharing and not sharing — consequences for them, consequences for the friendship, and mostly consequences for yourself? And then (it has to be asked), If you are ever lonely, what’s the relationship between your MI and that loneliness?

I am woefully behind on certain aspects of my life including moderating this discussion forum, and while I hope that is not the case for each of you, I can’t say that it’s all bad…and that’s pretty much what I want to put forth in this topic: functional prioritization when everything seems like it might be too much.

At the core of this topic is what — at least for me — I wouldn’t trade for the world, despite the occasional difficulty. The truth is that I can’t complain about a sometimes overwhelming life. I am fully cognizant of how lucky I am to have the opportunity to be overwhelmed by stresses and triggers and “too much.” There were (and may in the future be) times in my life when that was not the case, when all I could do all day each day was work on keeping my head in one piece. So, I do not intend to complain about my good fortune, but it is a very important part of my daily existence that I be able to gauge when it’s necessary to step back and take a mental inventory of my life so as to keep that life going.

Without dumping it all here (although I probably will in the discussion), let’s suffice it to say that, as I’ve mentioned briefly before, my life has been upended, and I’m hoping the Me that emerges is a more aware and intact me than I’ve ever been. This however takes time and attention.

So, here are the questions: Given the responsibilities — to our loved ones, to our jobs, to our lives, to ourselves — that we are fortunate enough to have, that we’ve worked hard to create, How do you step back when you need to? Are you able to recognize if or when you need to? How do you explain needing to take some time away from your typical activities? Do you try to explain? And, lastly, because my sense of responsibility and obligation has caused rather self-destructive decision making in the past, What happens if you don’t step back when you need to?

As a final note, it seems now would be a good time to remind everyone that you should always feel free to send me topics for discussion. I’ll be happy to post them up for the group.

As always, a big Thank You to Meredith for this Reading Response. If you are reading something interesting and would like to add it to our reading room, please contact ∃ at definefunctioning [at] gmail [dot] com. What follows is from our friend Meredith:

Anne Sexton: A Self-portrait in Letters edited by Linda Gray Sexton and Lois Ames provides an interesting portrait of Anne Sexton, poet. It proposes to help explain why she killed herself in October 1974, one month before her 46th birthday. To me, who deals with mental illness of a personal nature, it does. I saw it early. But I’m not sure it explains her death to those who have not experienced the tremendous weight of living on the planet as well as the euphoria of doing so without explanation for such experiences.

She wasn’t diagnosed bipolar until her third therapist later in her life. However, anyone familiar with being bipolar will easily glean that diagnosis from her letters. By 1955, the year her second daughter was born, she had been admitted to the hospital. She was in and out of hospitals for most of her years and tried suicide numerous times. After some of her hospital stays, she did not have custody of her children. In the late 1950s, she was put on Thorazine and continued with alcohol, but the Thorazine kept suicide attempts at bay for only a little while. Although some historical background is inserted between letters, most of this information was written by her to someone else; she held very little back.

What ultimately happens with a portrait of a person through their letters is that we don’t get the full story because we lack the instigating letters or replies from the people to whom she was writing. I did want those letters sometimes. What was it he/she said to warrant this response? Anne wrote constantly, and most of her letters were long confessions. Her poetry often had that same sense to them. I had the complete volume of her work next to me as I read her letters. She refers to the poems in her letters so it was helpful. Anne seemed undaunted by 1950s and 1960s propriety as she delved into very personal issues with not only fellow poets, but with students who wrote her as well as a monk.

She shared her mental instability with almost everyone to whom she wrote. She often mentioned her trials with depression or her visits to the hospital. She even told some people about her continuous attempts at suicide. She seemed to have no fear of being “out” even though her long demanding letters lost her some friends.

Many in our community often discuss the stigma we feel as people with mental illness. I was amazed at Anne’s candor from the 1950s until she died in 1974. As I read her letters, I could feel her agony at continuing to live. She often wrote my own feelings down, the struggle with feeling bad, constantly. While I don’t feel that way as often now, I remember, especially when I’m having a hard day, how it was. There were some letters that didn’t mention suicide or her feeling awful; however, they were primarily before she had children and before she entered a hospital, and they were not the majority. Reading A Self-portrait in Letters gave me a sense that it was perfectly normal to talk about being depressed and taking medication.

How did we miss that road to freedom? How did we get to where we are now? I don’t suppose it does any good to answer those questions as mostly we need to appeal to the likes of Anne Sexton and ask “how do we get out of here?”

As usual these days, I’m a little late to the party. This past week was NAMI’s Mental Illness Awareness Week, which provides an easy means toward reminding everyone that Define Functioning is collecting contributions for its first book project.

The project (first announced, conceived, and introduced in May) simply asks one question: What do you want people to know? The responses gathered are being collected into a small publication to be launched in time for next year’s Mental Health Awareness Month (May). The hope is that among the other methods of spreading awareness, we may not only add our voices but that we may also bring attention to the issues and concerns of our particular corner of the MI community.

I will continue to collect responses until the very last moment I can. Until then, feel free to enter contributions into the comments of any post about the project (like this one right here!) or to email them directly to definefunctioning [at] gmail [dot] com. Specific contributions will not be attributed, although credits will be listed (by the screen name under which responses are submitted) at the back of the book.

Thanks again for everyone’s participation!

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