As long as I’m able to lead with my heart I will do so.
The hardest part of managing my depression and anxiety is playing the tug of war game that is mental illness. Sometimes it takes away my ability to lead with my heart. I’ve said some awful things to those I love. I’ve done plenty of other things while experiencing the wrath of depression and anxiety that I am not proud of. But I will continue being me because that’s the best I can do.
No, I am not living with a struggle everyday. Was I? Yes. It took me almost 10 years to find something that worked for me. Mental illness is so complex. No two people will feel the same despair. Every single diagnosis and every single story is different. For me, I am at my best. I didn't get to where I am now however, without going through the worst.
Is my depression gone? Absolutely not. I hate to sound like a Debbie-Downer, but for me to believe that I'll never go through a difficult time again is naive. For me to believe that I'll never experience debilitating anxiety again is just plain silly. This is not negative-thinking people. This is me accepting and learning how to manage my mental health appropriately.
I'm on one med. I sleep well. I exercise regularly. I'm not working like I was, but I'm doing what I feel passionate about. I think I've found the job I was meant to have. Yes, I still think teaching is a part of me, but now it's time for me to teach in a different way.
I’ve always wanted to make a difference and help those in need. I've been blogging and sharing my story now since September of 2018. That's approximately 38 weeks. This is just one way that I am educating others. There's more.
In lieu of the past year, Sarah and I have made some big decisions. One of those has been the incorporation of our nonprofit, Project Blue Co. We just filed with the state of North Carolina and are happy to be official. Our goal is to change the way people think about mental health, specifically mental illness. We want to encourage people to share their stories; those who suffer from having a mental illness as well as the ones who surround them and witness their struggles. We believe healthcare professionals and emergency medical responders need better training when it comes to mental health crises. We want to help develop these programs. All of this will help society respond positively to mental health in general. Hopefully it will be placed in the forefront.
We will be doing this right from the comfort of our new home, The Sol Bus! We've also decided to change the way we live; sell things that don't matter, downsize our lives, sell our home, and travel around North America. We want to connect with people. We want to continue sharing our story and hear new ones.
This is the beauty of our struggle. We believe we are exactly where we are meant to be because we made it possible. We took a real shitty situation and made it better. It made us think about what we wanted in life and how we could make a difference. We believe we'll be okay, but we know others are not. We need each other. People need people.
I hope you found my story useful. I wish you joy, peace, and love for the rest of time. May you find strength to persevere. May you lead with your heart.
Thank you for listening to my story.
In Kindness & Love,
What’s the difference between…
A) Adam had to pullover on the side of the road during his morning commute because he had diarrhea. He never wants anyone to know about it.
B) Ashley has been unusually sad lately. It is hard for her to get out of bed in the morning and go to work. She has been turning friends away for social gatherings and isn’t sleeping too well. There’s a history of depression in her family. She’s too afraid to tell someone and doesn’t want anyone to think she’s crazy.
Adam had an embarrassing moment at one point in his life and keeping that a secret isn’t a big deal. Ashley however seems to be having a serious struggle and should talk to someone about how she’s feeling. If only it were that easy, right? If only our serious concerns came out like diarrhea. I often feel that if we were unable to hold in our concerning thoughts about our own health, that we’d in fact be healthier.
I wish for people to feel comfortable enough to talk to someone about their health concerns, especially those involving mental health. These are concerns that you should not hide. Yes, you may feel embarrassed about them, which can be a difficult emotion to overcome, but concerns such as these can be life-threatening, unbeknownst to you and your loved ones.
The most rewarding part of navigating my own mental illness is hearing another story. Since I made the decision to start blogging about my depression and anxiety back on September 11th, 2018, I’ve had so many people approach me with questions. Often times they just need someone to share their experience with. I feel...honored, happy, and encouraged when people feel safe enough to talk to me. I’m not knocking on anyone’s door. I have nothing written on my forehead. I do not send out mailers. I’ve shared my story and it seems to be working.
It’s not just my blog though. My wife and I have had many conversations with people about our time here in North Carolina. Sometimes she’s having them in my absence and vice versa, and other times we’re together. Just depends. Regardless, the story of our struggle usually comes into play. Lots of our neighbors want to know why we have a big ass bus in our driveway. Or a new friend might ask us what we do for a living. We decided a while ago that it’s just best to be honest. We have nothing to hide. It’s not always easy sharing what some consider personal information, but it has only proven to provide positive experiences.
It’s as if people are just coming out of the woodwork. Maybe I do have something written on my forehead. I like to think people can see my heart on my sleeve and it just invites them in to chat.
Just the other day a neighbor drove up next to me as I was standing in another neighbor’s lawn. Right out of the gate she spilled her beans and just opened up. She asked me about resources and what steps she could take to help herself and her boyfriend. We barely know each other, but we’ve spoken a handful of times about random stuff. She knows a little about our bus and our reasons for it. Whatever it is that we’ve shared with her, she felt safe enough to share with us too. That’s important.
This is why loving your neighbors matter. It doesn’t have to be the same love, like the love you have for your spouse or your children. I mean, it’s basically the same concept, but different feelings accompany different types of love. At least that’s what I think. Being kind, offering your yard tools, inviting them over for a cookout, etc, are all ways that you can express to your neighbor that you are there for them. They may just need you in a serious matter. They may come out of the woodwork after hiding for far too long because some nice person made them feel like it was okay.
To bring something out of the woodwork is to bring it out of hiding and into the forefront. Your mental health should be in the forefront of your life. Get that shit out and feel better soon.
Ps. Diarrhea can be a serious thing too, so don’t run away from the runs.
There you have it. You know more about me than ever before. What do you think? People will disagree with my transparency and say I’ve shared too much. That’s how this works though in my mind. It’s all or nothing. I feel like I would be wasting your time if I left out all of those potentially embarrassing and shameful moments because they were very much a part of my anxiety. I do not feel ashamed however because I know my story has a greater purpose.
The point of my entire blog isn’t to make people feel sorry for me or “woe is me”. I’m here to speak up for others who’ve been unable to do so for fear of disappointment and judgement that may fall upon them. By sharing my story I hope to encourage others to tell theirs. Even if you think no one will care, find a way to share it because the only way our society will start accepting mental illness as an actual illness is if enough of us let them know how real it is.
And it’s not just about me or about people who are diagnosed. It’s about YOU too! If someone you know struggles with mental illness than it most likely affects you. Maybe you’re their caregiver or their boss, or a friend just wanting to know how to help. We are all affected in one way or another. How do we work together on this then?
It starts with education. The Internet has tons of trusted resources. If you know someone who struggles with a mental illness try listening to them and offer to assist in finding professional help. You may feel like you have no clue what you’re doing and that’s okay. You do not need to have all the answers, or any of them. Someone who’s in a mental health crisis may need you to think for them in that particular moment. They need to come down and grab a hold of reality again. We all need help sometimes. We cannot do things alone. We need to take better care of each other.
One important thing to understand is that there are many different diagnoses. The severity changes from person to person. Some manage their illness very well and some do not. Some need meds and some do not. Do yourself a favor and do not compare because like I’ve shared with you, every story is different. I’m on meds. I was unable to hold a job for a while, but believe I am now capable of doing so. While I’m in a much better place than I was almost two years ago, I still struggle with certain things. I believe I have my depression and anxiety under control, and simply have small things to work on. They will take practice, but have come as a result of my mental illness, the shame I’ve felt. A few things on my list include:
I tried to make that last one sound a bit overwhelming, but with a touch of humor to make myself feel more human-like. Did it work? Are you thinking that everyone has these feelings? It’s true. We all go through bouts of these, but there is a difference between a fleeting moment and a long-lasting one. Especially when accompanied with a chemical imbalance that can result in the brain thinking ridiculous things, scary things, unwanted things, and so much more. Trust me, there is a difference. When these things start affecting our ADLs (activities of daily living), our performance at work, and our relationships, that is not normal, and beyond fleeting moments of sadness and disappointment.
So what can you do? I’ve already said to try and listen. Open your heart and let people in. Don’t judge. Start there. Then, educate yourself. I’m not going to repeat what you can find in the links below, so just visit these sites. These are great, trusted resources for you and anyone else wanting to learn more. The NAMI Homefront is FREE, and helps people understand PTSD. You should really check it out. Also below, is a resource for Teens. Even if you’re not a teen, but let’s say a parent of one, this is still a great resource for you.
The effort it takes to visit these links and to read the information they provide is extremely minimal. It takes up your time, but even 10 minutes will do some good. But, the difference you can make in doing so is extremely important! Personally, I would be very grateful for your time, but I also want to thank you in advance on behalf of others because I know that someone you love would be very appreciative of your time.
NAMI National Alliance on Mental Illness
NAMI Homefront is a free, 6-session educational program for families, caregivers and friends of military service members and veterans with mental health conditions.
NAMI Family Members and Caregivers
NIMH National Institute of Mental Health
I’m going to tell you what it’s like for me when I visit my psychiatrist. Before I do that though, let’s talk about why people call psychiatrists and psychologists “shrinks”. Where did this term come from anyways?
If you Google it, its various definitions include:
A psychologist who wrote for Psychology Today wrote,
“From what I can tell, the word shrink is a shortening of “headshrinker,” referring to Amazonian tribes who preserve and shrink the heads of their enemies – certainly not a very positive connection! So, on the dark side, there are connections to shamanism, magic, and spiritual rituals, but in a more positive light, it is also suggested that psychotherapists [the term was first used to describe psychiatrists and psychotherapists] who might “shrink” problems to make them more understandable.”
Personally, I prefer the problem-shrinker to the head-shrinker. I’m still not the biggest fan of either because my psychiatrist doesn’t do the work for me. He assists me along the way. I also don’t like the term “problems” because we all have problems. I guess. My psychiatrist and I work together to help manage my depression and anxiety so that I can live the most productive and happy life possible.
On one hand, I don’t want to be that person that everyone thinks gets uber-sensitive over vocabulary. But if I’m not some kind of version of that type of person than how do I give 100% to preventing the stigma surrounding mental health? I have to care to some extent. I want to. Now, I’m not going to lash out at you if you ask me how my shrink is. Honestly, it’s easier for me to write about it than to have a conversation. I’m a bit passive, but I need to work on that. I have to be confident and comfortable with having an open dialogue with others about the proper way to address and/or describe others. I get it. In the comfort of our own homes we talk about a lot and say things we would never say in public. So my advice would be to do just that, especially if you’re unwilling to make an effort to respect people. Calling me crazy and telling others I see a shrink is something I can personally handle. But this isn’t just about me. I hope you see that. Think about all the other things we say that may be offensive to someone. Go ahead, list them in your head. I can think of a few that I hear too often and I do not use them myself. People think they need to watch their every move and constantly pay attention to what they say. You don’t. It’s not that hard. Just be respectful and kind. Have you seen Bambi? Well Thumper’s mom tells him, “If you can’t say anything nice than don’t say anything at all.”
Now that you understand I see a psychiatrist, let’s talk about my visits to his office. No, I’m not going to tell you every detail, but my goal in sharing this is to let everyone know that it’s not so bad. Actually for me, it’s not bad at all. It’s hard sometimes, but let's not confuse the two. My opinion, everyone could benefit from talking to someone who has the skill to hold a neutral position and listen to whatever you need to say, without judgement. The only downside, it can be expensive. Other than that you’re talking to someone who’s not your spouse and who you don’t have to worry about fighting with. Sounds like magic to me.
When I first started seeing my psychiatrist I cried A LOT! Every time I went in I cried for at least half of the 1-hour appointments. I didn’t cry for 30 straight minutes. It was off and on. You talk about whatever you want, but because I share everything I was navigating through some tough stuff. It’s hard, so you cry. We all cry. I cried because I was scared about sharing. I cried because I felt helpless. I cried because I wasn’t sure how long I’d be feeling the way I was feeling. I cried because it was expensive and I had a hard time justifying the cost. I cried because I just wanted to go home without seeing my wife exhausted. I cried because people close to me became distant. I cried for us. I just cried.
We also spent a lot of time working through various medications. It takes a while to find one that works. That’s just the nature of the beast right now in these types of medications. So every visit we’d talk about any side effects I was experiencing; no sleep, too much sleep, not eating or eating too much, irritable, anxious, extremely depressed, suicidal, overly excited for long periods of time, extreme amounts of energy, and the list goes on.
Some things we’ve also worked through included breathing exercises that could help me control panic attacks. I’ve had panic attacks, some very mild and only a couple that were severe. The first one I ever had woke me up right out of a deep sleep. I literally sat up in bed, felt like I was going to pass out, had trouble breathing, and sat in the bathroom. My body went numb and I was naked on the floor. It was the strangest feeling and I had no clue what was going on. I had never felt anything like that before. Breathing exercises and forms of meditation can be very effective for some people. So if you think it’s corny that’s fine. Maybe it’s not for you. But don’t knock it until you try it. And certainly don’t judge someone because they are engaging in a strategy to manage their panic attacks. If you do, you’re just a bully. Grow up.
I’ve been doing very well for quite some time now. My appointments are down to once every 3 months and we meet for 30 minutes. The routine is different for everyone. I started seeing him twice a week. We talk about how I’m doing, any new changes, and we prepare for anything that I anticipate coming up because one of my triggers is big change. So that’s a bit of what it’s like for me. I enjoy seeing my psychiatrist and I would do it for the rest of my life. He’s very supportive and has even agreed to contribute to my blog. So what does he have to say:
A note from my psychiatrist
I’ve been a psychiatrist for the past 5 years and practice currently in Raleigh, NC. I view psychiatry as a unique combination of philosophy, sociology, literature, and medicine in the pursuit of creating meaning in our lives and addressing suffering. We all suffer in different degrees with anxiety, depression, anger, paranoia, grief, ect. And about 1/5 people suffer enough throughout their lifetime to meet criteria for a psychiatric disorder.
The simplest advice I would give to family and friends of those suffering is to have an open mind and listen. You don’t have to have all or even any of the answers, but the simple act of compassionately and attentively listening to someone’s struggle is helpful. In fact
that is probably the single most important reason psychotherapy (regardless of specific orientation) all work. Just the act of feeling heard is therapeutic.
The next piece of advice I would give is to take care of yourself and utilize your own support network if you find yourself caring for someone with mental and/or physical illness. See your own therapist. Keep up to date with your health. Cherish and cultivate your family and friends. Some people find it helpful to connect with others going through similar struggles. NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Health) can be a great resource for patients and family members alike.
So the next time you think about me seeing my shrink, imagine me reclining on a beach chair sipping on a pina colada, sharing my problems with the ocean. It’s pretty fu*king awesome. You should join me.
It’s been a couple weeks since I’ve blogged. I took a week off after my last post, which discussed results from some Facebook Polls I took, concerning mental health. After that week I was so distracted with other things I decided I wasn’t in the right mindset to blog. If you’re a writer, you know what I mean.
So where the heck have I been? Don’t worry, 95% of the time I’ve been great. A rough day or two since we last met, but nothing to be super worried about. They were just days I consider “normal” and sort of expected. It has taken a lot of practice just to get to the point of embracing them, but even with their anticipated arrival, I’d still rather do without them. But less is good, so I’m on the right path. I’ve come a long way in managing my mental health and I try to become better at it each day.
After I last posted, there happened to be some talk about why I share my business with all of the world? I’m not naming names because that’s not the kind of person I am, but it still bothered me that I got word of it.
If you know me, you know that I wear my heart on my sleeve. It’s all or nothing for me, even if that means I’m taking a risk of exposing information that could open paths of judgement. I’m okay with that. I’ve been fairly open with who I am for several years now, and not one time, has it brought me harm. I enjoy that part of being human; sharing with others and making meaningful connections through my personal story. It has proven to be nothing short of spectacular. So, that’s the most obvious reason why I choose to blog and post my story all over Facebook. Technically, it’s not “all over Facebook”, it’s on my personal timeline. I also have a blog of course, or website if you prefer. I’ve also encouraged friends and family to share with others.
I recently made one of these connections with a stranger on an airplane. Last weekend I flew to Wisconsin to support my sister in her first physique competition. She was awesome BTW! While on the plane (remember, flying is where I was first inspired to start blogging) I met a man named Musa. We got to talking and I told him all about The Sol Bus. He then wanted to know why such an adventure that most people would never take on. Of course I told him about the hard times my wife and I went through over the last two years in North Carolina. My mental health came up and he immediately responded with, “That’s funny you say that because I’ve been having a difficult time understanding my 19 year old son.” He proceeded to share with me that as a military man, he is frustrated by his son’s lack of motivation, poor hygiene, and severe social anxiety. After talking to his son and his wife, they decided it was best to meet with a mental health professional to determine what was going on. Based on the information Musa shared with me, it was clear that his son was struggling with something only a professional could help mend.
I may never know how his appointment goes, since it was a future appointment, and beyond my time with Musa. In the 2 hour plane ride we talked the entire way, mostly about my personal story and how he could better support his son. He thanked me numerous times for opening up to him because even if he still was lost in understanding his son, he felt like he could be more compassionate. He later shared that his daughter received her master’s degree in mental health counseling. We shared so much on that plane ride.
Do you know what we said to each other? IT WAS MEANT TO BE! This interaction with a complete stranger, is what I live for. It was validation that sharing can open up a world of change.
There are other reasons why I have chosen to share my personal story with you. If I don’t talk, who will? If I want to help our society eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness, then I have to talk. It has to start somewhere. Somewhere can be anywhere, but if one person starts the wave, hopefully it continues until it sweeps across the country.
They say to ‘Be the Change You Wish to See in the World’. At least that’s what I believe. Though I’ve made mistakes, I am completely confident in saying that I’ve stayed true to my values. That’s what matters. I choose to see the best in people. We all have the ability to right our wrongs, to believe in each other, and to step outside the box. To be that change.
If you’re of the mind-set that you’re just one small person in a world of billions, then you don’t get very far do you? But one person CAN make a difference. That’s why I choose to share my personal story, because it’s personal. It means a lot to me that I can courageously step outside of my box to reach others, even if it’s just one. I know I’ve already done that. But I’m far from accomplishing all of my goals. I have more work to do. I want to reach more people.
So those who question my sharing are free to do so, but you don’t get to angrily, resentfully, and disrespectfully judge me. You can have opinions that you keep to yourself. I respect that. Just know that I may know someone you know, that I reach. Doesn’t that matter to you? What if I’m that person that feels comfortable talking about mental illness and I’m able to open my heart and listen to others who are afraid to talk about it? Because that’s who I am.
So, if I don’t talk who will? Will you? Or are you a part of the stigma? You can change that.
We last connected when I made an effort to explain why I think the criminal justice system fails those who suffer from mental illness. It fails many of us in so many ways, outside of the mental health piece, but it’s important to know what’s going on. Not just with the criminal justice system folks, but with many issues that affect your civil and human rights!
If you don’t care and you don’t use your voice, then you have no say. To not have a say in something that affects you is kind of sad. It’s unfortunate really. If more people spoke up and had the courage to fight for what they believe in, then maybe things would be different. Actually, I know they would. Your voice matters.
Over the last week, I asked three questions via Facebook Polls. Below are the questions, which include the number of respondents and the results. It is important to note that the results are not necessarily representative of everyone with whom I’m associated with on Facebook, yet still have significant value to what I’m trying to accomplish.
1) Do you OR someone you know struggle from a mental illness?
# of respondents 48
100% of people said yes
2) Do you honestly feel that you have the knowledge to understand how mental illness affects the brain?
# of respondents 44
13 people said yes 30%, 31 people said no 70%
3) If a friend or family member began talking about their mental illness, would you feel comfortable with the conversation?
# of respondents 48
47 people said yes 98%, 1 person said no 2%
What could these results mean? What might they say about the mental health stigma?
Let me first say that overall, there were about 50 people who responded to each question. That's a nice number to work with and it helps that the number of respondents wasn't so varied.
I think it's best if I just respond to each question separately, so here are my thoughts:
1) There was nothing surprising about these results. Now, because I was the one asking the question it is very likely that those who responded know me, and therefore know I struggle from mental illness. So you're thinking, "Duh, yes we know someone who struggles from mental illness because it's YOU, and YOU post about it." I get this. Maybe a silly question, but after talking to Sarah about it, she said that ya'll probably knew what I was asking and likely assumed you knew someone other than me, who struggled with mental illness OR it was you who struggled so that's what your response meant. Now, Question #1 was a two-part question really. The only way of knowing which part each person responded to would be to ask them. I have not done that. That is not something I'm doing at this point.
The results were clear: 100% of you (48 people) said YES. You either struggle from a mental illness and/OR you know someone who does. POINT: We are all affected by mental illness whether we choose to be or not. You may not be the one with the mental illness, but you know someone who does. You may be that friend or family member that is trying to figure out how to support someone with a mental illness. You may be that person's husband or wife. It's also possible that you have no idea how to help them. But don't worry, we'll figure that out. First, let's just recognize that mental illness is real.
2) I was not surprised by these results either. The truth of the matter is, we don't know much about mental illness. I do think that those who are diagnosed with it certainly learn more because a formal diagnosis teaches you something, but you'd be surprised by the illnesses and conditions that we may suffer from, yet never care to know more about. Sure, some of us just don't care, but I don't believe that's usually the case. There are thousands of people who go undiagnosed for so many reasons. It's fricken expensive! Seeing a psychotherapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist costs major moola! Not having insurance, or really crappy insurance, makes it more daunting to even find room for it in your budget. So, how do you choose between your mental health and putting food on the table, or paying your heat bill???!!! It's not as easy as you think to make that decision, especially if you're caring for others.
No one said you needed to know everything about depression or anxiety. Or schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. So just because you know someone who suffers from any mental illness doesn't mean you need to have all the answers. It's not your job too, unless of course you're in a profession that requires you too. I think we need to stop feeling pressured to learn it all. Yes, making an effort matters, especially if someone really close to you suffers. In my case, it is almost necessary for my wife to know what's going on with me. On those days where I'm simply not doing okay, I need her. It took us awhile to learn that, but she knows how to help me now. Most of the time it involves listening and an extraordinary level of compassion. Which we are all capable of. You may need to read some articles online to learn more about the panic attacks your spouse experiences, or how to handle suicidal thoughts that your teenager talks to you about, but ISN'T IT WORTH IT???!!! It doesn't take a medical degree to do these things. We can learn more by making more of an effort.
3) I was very surprised by the results of this question. My immediate thought was that, if there's this stigma that exists, than how can we be so sure that we're comfortable talking about it? Isn't the hesitation to talk about it part of the stigma? I would also respond YES to this question. I am always here to listen to those who want to talk to me about their struggles. Listening is a very important skill. But, listening doesn't eliminate stigma unless there is action. That action can be in many forms. For example, let's say you and this person (the one with the mental illness) were out to lunch with some friends. They are not aware of the mental illness. In conversation, the topic comes up and one of them says something offensive to you. Do you speak up and find a way to engage in a polite manner or do you ignore it? It's an uncomfortable situation to be in (trust me I know), but this is what allows a stigma to exist. This is only one example of a million others.
I needed to understand your responses better, so I did some reading. I learned that there are different levels of stigma: social stigma, self-stigma, and health professional stigma. I did not know this. In addition, there are dimensions of stigma: peril, origin, controllability, concealability, course, stability, disruptiveness, pity, and aesthetics.
How many of you thought stigma was just stigma? I did. There are so many reasons why a stigma exists. There are stigmas associated with drugs and alcohol, sexual assault, race, gender, sexual orientation, and the list goes on.
Stigma is a weird word. It just doesn't sit well when you say it. A mental health stigma definitely exists, and there's a lot we can do to change that. Maybe we just need to start with a different way of labeling it.
Thank you so much for your participation in my Facebook Polls. I enjoyed the interaction with you and it taught me a lot.
***In a future post I would like to feature some guest stories about others who are suffering from mental illness. It can be you or someone you know that you may want to reach out to. Regardless, these stories will remain anonymous. The point I want to make is that I'm not the only one. So, if you'd like to be included please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Before you read any further, let me suggest you read last week’s post about the failures of the healthcare system. It is a lead up to this post. Here is the link: how-did-the-healthcare-system-fail-us.html
Also, my wife is once again a guest blogger this week and that makes everything I do way better! ;-) We write this post together just as we did the previous two.
Our opinions on the healthcare system and the criminal justice system are strong. We stand by them. We are not saying that those who work in those areas are failures. We have plenty of friends who are nurses, doctors, psychologists, counselors, and lawyers. They are passionate about their jobs and do what they can to help take care of others. If anything, we speak on their behalf because, can you imagine doing something you love while also trying to advocate for positive change? It’s not easy. We stand up for what’s right and for those who want to make things right, but may need help along the way.
To start our discussion for this week, on the failures of the criminal justice system, let me fill you in on what happened after I was released from the Wake County Jail. You read my conversation with my wife on our drive home right?? It’s hilarious. Here is the link: prison-changed-me.html
The charges that were pressed against me were dropped. After several court visits, dates being postponed because the charging parties did not show, and $800, I was a free woman. Sort of. I then had to wait for my record to be expunged. I had been out of work and was not actively searching for a job. Applying for one with a record was not a good idea. It took almost 6 months for that to happen. Turns out the nurse who I kicked in the face didn’t even know of these charges. He never wanted to press them in the first place. It was the police officer that had done so. After the 3rd attempt at a court decision, the judge finally requested that someone call this nurse so that a decision could be made. We were there when it happened. It took less than a minute to call this guy and then tell me the charges were dropped. It was...ridiculous. All that time wasted, money wasted, for an arrest that never should’ve happened in the first place. Let me add that my wife was with me for every single visit, which means she was away from work. I am so grateful that she was there for me.
Sometimes I just want to look that police officer in the eyes and say, "HELLOOOOO sir, do you realize I was brought to the emergency room in serious distress from major depression and anxiety. Did you really feel it was necessary to file a simple assault charge against me?"
My psychiatrist has referred to my diagnosis as Biopolar II, but I’m sort of on the fence. It’s tricky, but I say this because it can help to further define what I experience. Google it if you need to. I was experimenting with different psychiatric drugs, still trying to figure out which one was going to work, and just feeling like nothing was going to. As I’ve said before, I do not consider myself suicidal, but rather Biopolar II with suicidal ideation. You can also Google that. My point is that I needed help and the process of finally getting there was crap. Then, to slap a criminal charge on someone who was there to seek help and unintentionally kicked a nurse!!! Not how our criminal justice system should function.
After my last post, I had a friend from college message me. She said that if I didn’t think I deserved to be arrested and charged, then how do we determine what happens to people who suffer from mental illness and commit crimes? She was wonderful in her approach and wanted to learn more. I really appreciated the conversation we had and her bravery to ask questions. That’s exactly what I want. My response was, “I don’t know that I have the ultimate answer to that, or that there is one solution, but I know putting people behind bars who suffer from mental illness will not help them manage their illness, nor attempt to live a better life.”
In a mental health crisis, people are more likely to encounter police than get medical help. As a result, 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year. Nearly 15% of men and 30% of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition.
The vast majority of the individuals are not violent criminals—most people in jails have not yet gone to trial, so they are not yet convicted of a crime. The rest are serving short sentences for minor crimes.
Once in jail, many individuals don't receive the treatment they need and end up getting worse, not better. They stay longer than their counterparts without mental illness. They are at risk of victimization and often their mental health conditions get worse.
After leaving jail, many no longer have access to needed healthcare and benefits. A criminal record often makes it hard for individuals to get a job or housing. Many individuals, especially without access to mental health services and supports, wind up homeless, in emergency rooms and often re-arrested. At least 80% of jail inmates with a mental illness d0 not have access to needed treatment.
Jailing people with mental illness creates huge burdens on law enforcement, corrections and state and local budgets. It does not protect public safety. And people who could be helped are being ignored. (Courtesy of NAMI, National Alliance on Mental Illness)
And it doesn’t stop there. We have other frustrations over our criminal justice system such as prison privatization and the treatment of minorities.
From my arrest to my record being expunged, I was fortunate enough to have the means to pay for a lawyer. I am also white. This matters. While we sat in court, there were tons of other cases being heard. Many of those people did not have lawyers. They would never be able to afford one. It was obvious that some were suffering from a mental illness and in some cases were sharing this with the judge. Being arrested and sitting there in court was not making their situation any better. Some were pleading with the judge to not postpone their court date again because they couldn’t afford to miss anymore work. There were younger adults there who had no idea what they were supposed to say or what a plea deal was. Many thought they were getting the better deal, but they weren’t. No one was helping them! We just sat there and witnessed this monstrosity. It angered us so much. Which is another reason we are here with you today, attempting to educate others about what the hell is going on right under our noses!
It shouldn’t take hundreds of dollars to afford fair and professional advice. It shouldn’t matter what color your skin is, what socio-economic class you fall into, and your mental health should not be ignored.
With the privatization of prisons, people who are mentally ill sitting in jails and prisons only suffer more. Staff are paid less, there’s less funding for staff training, and the rates of assault and suicide are higher. The companies that build and run private prisons have a financial interest in the continued growth of mass incarceration. That is why the two major players in this game—the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group—invest heavily in lobbying for punitive criminal justice policies and make hefty contributions to political campaigns that will increase reliance on prisons. They want you to get arrested and to remain behind bars.
Worldwide, there are more than 10 million individuals in prison at any given time with more than 30 million circulating through each year. Research has consistently shown that prisoners have high rates of psychiatric disorders, and in some countries there are more people with severe mental illness in prisons than psychiatric hospitals. Despite the high level of need, these disorders are frequently under-diagnosed and poorly treated.
A neighbor of ours told us he was happy to leave his job at a women’s prison because they were not providing rehabilitation for life outside of prison, only ways to help them continue to live inside. Many of these women were suffering from severe mental illness.
Mental illness does not belong in the criminal justice system and it certainly does not belong behind bars.
Last week my wife and I collaborated on my blog post, ‘Prison Changed Me’. We are doing the same thing for the next two posts. Our goal is to address the failures of our healthcare system and our criminal justice system, as they relate to mental health.
The concerns we’re addressing are based on our experience in the last year and a half. Please note that everyone has their own experiences and opinions to share. We are fairly confident however, that our experience is like millions of others around the world. We need to change this and make it better for everyone.
There are four main ways that we feel the healthcare system was less than adequate when addressing my mental health needs:
1. Access to Mental Health Treatment Options
Most people are not aware of the federal law (The Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008) that helps to prevent disparities between mental health and physical health insurance practices. AKA, if your insurance policy states that you can have unlimited visits to a doctor for physical wellness then they must also provide you insurance for unlimited visits for mental wellness. Sounds like this would make things easy for people seeking treatment for mental illness. Unfortunately, the statistics on people who have health insurance are unfavorable. And even if you do have health insurance, it’s still not as easy as you think.
When I first realized I needed professional help my only option was to make an appointment with my general practitioner. I couldn’t just go to a psychiatrist of my choosing and start there. When I met with my GP we discussed what I was experiencing. He first suggested depression and I shared my medical history with him. I also made a point to express my concerns with medications and being open to alternative medicine. His only answer to my needs was medication. So, as someone in desperate need of help, having just started a new job, I took the meds and went home. I felt hopeless. I tried the meds for a couple months and things only got worse. I was then referred to a psychotherapist by my GP. That didn’t work either. Finally, after visiting the ER twice, I was handed a stack of papers with a daunting list of psychiatrists to choose from. Maybe I was finally on my way to proper treatment. How long do people suffering with a mental illness have to wait for proper care?
2. Lack of emergency mental health providers
If we think about mental health as being completely differentiated from physical health (sarah absolutely hates this approach and thinks that it is the fundamental flaw in treatment of brain disorders) then why is it we do not have the same emergency care for mental health? Specific to our location, we have one Level 1 Trauma Center nearby, and if you have read my previous posts then you know they are not equipped to handle mental health emergencies. In fact, they do not even have a psychiatrist on staff.
3. Lack of training in emergency room staff
There is an incredible shortage of acute mental healthcare facilities right now. A recent report shows a 14 percent decline in available psychiatric beds. At this point in time, there are approximately 14 beds available per 100,000 people. At the same time, the number of adults who present with mental illness has increased. This results in people flooding emergency rooms for treatment, or worse, not seeking treatment. Nationwide, hospitals are reporting significant increases in patients seeking treatment for mental health crisis. Unfortunately, hospitals are not providing the appropriate staff trained to handle these situations.
4. General Stigma
One in four adults is diagnosed with a mental illness. One half of Americans live with a diagnosable mental illness at some point in their life. To put this in perspective, you are 11 times more likely to know someone with a mental illness than to know someone who identifies as LGBTQ, 1.3 times more likely than someone who has had cancer in their lifetime, and 6 times more likely than someone with blue eyes.
Our healthcare system influences the way society views mental health. If the healthcare professionals we trust are placing less of an emphasis on mental health, than we fail to believe that BRAIN HEALTH IS PHYSICAL HEALTH! MENTAL HEALTH IS MEDICAL HEALTH. Currently, we cannot replace or transplant a brain. Therefore, our healthcare system needs to put this at the top of the list.
If this is just my story, one story, than imagine what others are going through, who don’t have support, or insurance, or the financial means. In addition, how would being wronged by our criminal justice system affect their access to mental health resources and treatment? This is the second failure that we will address next week.
After seeing the Magistrate and being released from the Wake County Prison, I could finally go home. Sarah came to pick me up and met me inside. We exchanged a few words with the women working there, including how ridiculous it was that I was even arrested. Then we walked out and drove home. This was our first time seeing each other since she watched me get handcuffed and put into the back of a police car. Here’s a bit of our conversation:
(Getting into car)
Sarah: Hey Andy from Shawshank. Or would you rather be Piper from Orange is the New Black?
Stephanie: Hey, you could just say ‘Hey Shawshank, or Hey Orange is the New Black.’ You don’t have to reference the specific actor.
Sarah: Damn. Prison changed you. (I should add that Sarah was so happy to be able to reenact this scene from pitch perfect.)
Stephanie: (Sighs. Hangs her head). Speaking of Orange is the New Black...
Sarah: You met someone on the inside didn't you?
Stephanie: That's funny, but no. They wouldn’t let me keep the cool orange sandals as a souvenir.
Sarah: Oh that's gross, they made you wear communal shoes? You were only there for like 45 minutes.
Stephanie: What am I going to do with my life? I’m ruined.
Sarah: Don’t be silly. We can get you some athletes foot spray or something.
Stephanie: But seriously....
Sarah: This whole thing is ridiculous. You should’ve never been arrested. On a side note, I am pretty sure your mom and sisters are ready to yell profanities at this guy. I kind of want to know what your sisters would do right now. I imagine Katie stalking him on social media and then sending him an email telling him what a jerk he is and why he made a mistake. Samantha on the other hand, would most likely tag him in her status on Facebook telling him to 'Suck a D'.
Stephanie: Bahaha, that's about right. Their hearts are in the right place.
Sarah: They always stick up for you. You Gaal sisters are scary. I wouldn't mess with you.
Stephanie: Will you be my lawyer?
Sarah: Hells yeah. Especially if it means I get a new Brooks Brothers outfit.
Stephanie: Oh man, I don't know, you might be a little too pricey for me.
Sarah: I’m glad we can laugh at this. I was worried you’d be super angry and, well, emotional. I wasn’t sure what was happening while you were in there, so naturally I was so worried. And of course I had no clue that when they arrest someone they don't actually take them to the police station so I went to like 5 different places before I was finally told to go to the Wake County Detention Center, which can I just say makes 'jail' sound like an after school special.
Stephanie: Honestly, I surprised myself. It certainly could’ve been worse, but I was so clueless as to why someone I didn't know was pressing charges against me for something that I didn’t remember, and certainly would never intentionally do. I’m a nice lady. I’m going through a hard time. The emergency room was where I needed to be. And now my mugshot is out there. They didn’t even let me look at the picture to make sure I was happy with it.
Sarah: I'm just glad you weren't wearing something ridiculous when they took your picture.
Stephanie: Like a UNC shirt?
Sarah: EXACTLY! If only people could hear our conversation.
Stephanie: They can. I’ll write about it.
Sarah: Ok, but first I think we are supposed to go to a crappy diner and your supposed to scarf down a bunch of food really quickly like you haven't eaten in days.
Stephanie: Soooooo we go to a crappy diner and all I have to do is eat exactly how I always eat?
Sarah: (nods her head emphatically).
So, that’s kind of how our conversation went. Why? Because Sarah handles everything with humor and it was exactly what was needed at the time. I know it’s hard to imagine when you’re not actually there, but we laugh A LOT, about everything! It’s one of our strengths as a couple, among many. What we’ve both learned from this, however, is very serious. Our views on mental health and the criminal justice system have changed. Individually and collectively.
You have to really imagine this situation. While we joke and laugh, it was very much a serious one. For several months I was struggling. I had no clue what was happening with me. I had experienced depression before, but this was different. More severe. The anxiety was new. Sarah had no clue what I was going through and she wasn’t sure how to help. I go to the emergency room twice, within two weeks. I hoped with all my might, that the sadness I felt, the worthlessness, and the guilt, would all just disappear. I didn’t want to die, but i certainly didn’t want to wake up another day and feel the way I was feeling. And that my friends is not okay. So Sarah did what every caretaker in this situation should do--she sought emergency medical attention for me.
We rely on healthcare professionals to care for us and expect emergency healthcare professionals to be trained to handle anything. This is where I feel our healthcare and criminal justice systems fail. Not all policies and laws make sense. North Carolina, for example, passed a law a couple years ago that makes it a felony to assault any provider on hospital property. This is one of those laws that Sarah has become so frustrated with. Admittedly, it sounds like something that would be good, right? Hospital workers deserve to be safe at work, but their jobs do have risks. And punishing people who are not able to control their actions because of behaviors resulting from brain disorders is not going to deter them or others from acting out in the future. It is only going to punish them more severely for something they can’t control. In situations where people are clearly hurting, these policies and laws only make things worse. People who need emergency medical attention for mental health emergencies (or those seeking treatment on their behalf ) should not have to worry that seeking the necessary medical attention could result in felony charges. In my situation, Sarah took me in for emergency help. My treatment consisted solely of Haldol and Ketamine. Less than 12 hours after pleading with a police officer to take my life, I was released from the emergency room without them even notifying my psychiatrist. This is the first failure...the failure of our Healthcare System.
After my 2nd emergency room visit things were calm...er. I can say with certainty however, that we were both on edge. I still wasn’t sure what I would feel like in the long run with the meds I was on. I was even more afraid of feeling so sad and hopeless again. Unfortunately that has happened several times, but it hasn’t been as scary, more manageable. No more ER visits since. I credit this mostly to adjustments with my meds and how they’ve been treating my unique little brain. I want to touch more on this specific topic, but I’ll save it for a future post because I think it’s important to note the role meds have played in my situation.
This leads me to drugs, sex, and prison. Have you seen Orange is The New Black? You can also add the show Wentworth to your list which is 100X better. Sorry Piper! You can find Wentworth on Netflix. The sex (if you’re into that sort of thing) is not raunchy like it is in OITNB. And there are certainly drugs involved, which will likely piss you off and make you cry in one episode. Lastly, both shows take place in prisons, which brings me to my audition. No, I didn’t really audition for OITNB, but I felt like I did.
So I’m feeling pretty good right? It had been a month since my last ER visit. Sarah and I went out to walk our dogs and came back to discover two police vehicles in front of our house. Yes, we shit our pants. We thought maybe our neighbors had something going on because we live in a cul-de-sac, so the police parking in front of our house wasn’t really a definite sign that we were in trouble. Nope, that wasn’t it.
Then we immediately thought about the pot--the wicked neighbor lady behind us must’ve reported us for smoking. I was shittin’ bricks people! I didn’t want to be known as a druggie. Poor little me from Kansasville, Wisconsin, never touched pot in her life, swore she never would. Then had to cave because her anxiety was so bad and nothing else was working. Dude, I was so scared. How would I ever survive prison? Would pot lead me other drugs? I was doomed.
I had it all planned out in a matter of seconds. I mean, I had to act fast. I’d write Sarah a letter every day. I’d read tons of books and go back to school. I’d offer to clean the inmates’ prison cells so I wouldn’t have to smuggle drugs into the prison via butt. Would that work? Maybe I could sell cigarettes. Turns out the cops weren’t there for the pot either. Phew.
Sarah instructed me to stay on the sidewalk with the dogs. I observed from a distance of about 25 yards. I couldn’t hear a single thing, but she later told me what was said. She walked up to the house and asked the officers why they were attempting to open our front door and looking through our windows without our permission. Apparently they can do what they want.
They greeted her with, “Is this the residence of Stephanie Ryckman?” Sarah replies, “What can I do for you and what does this concern?” Sarah totally gave them a hard time and played sassy wife. I love her for that. She wasn’t about to give them any information without getting more from them first. Smart lady. They asked her again, knowing full well her intentions. She eventually said that I was in fact, a resident of the household and again asked what they wanted.
“We have a warrant out for her arrest and need to speak with her.” Sarah’s jaw dropped and her heart sank. Not good, not good at all. This is hysterical right, because here we have some cops about to arrest me, after I just broke my house, my car, and hassled eight EMTs while they attempted to strap me to a gurney.
Sarah replies, “Okay. So um, yeah that’s not gonna work. She was having a bad day earlier and she’s on meds. Let me be the one to tell her.” So Sarah walks toward me thinking they were just going to hang back, but nope! They followed her.
She got to me a bit quicker then they did. In the calmest way ever, she said, “Hun, the police are here to arrest you. It’s going to be okay.” So it’s me, Sarah, and two police officers standing in a circle, fairly close to one another. I think they were preparing for a potential chase. As if little oI' me, who has never been in trouble, would run...from cops..with guns...and cars.
We had a small discussion and they told me charges were being pressed against me by one of the ER nurses that I apparently kicked in the face. I almost passed out. I had no clue what they were talking about. I was clueless. I had no memory of arriving at the ER, let alone kicking someone. I was in a mental health crisis for crying out loud! Who the hell presses charges against a patient in a crisis, especially hospital personnel trained in such scenarios?!
I remained calm though. Sarah still tells me she’s not sure how I managed to just casually walk over to the squad car and hold out my wrists for them. Truth is, I thought maybe prison would be good for me. If I really had kicked someone, then what else was I capable of?
I am handcuffed. Put in the police car. And taken away. I had no phone. No jacket. No money. And no pot. SML
The inside of a police car is so uncomfortable. I felt like my arms were going to fall off. They were so numb by the time we arrived at the jailhouse. We pulled into an underground parking garage and I was taken inside. I was searched. I was fingerprinted. My picture was taken, which they would not allow me to smile for, trust me I tried. My shoes were taken away. And though I didn’t get to wear an orange jumpsuit, I did get a nice pair of orange sandals.
All I wanted to do was call Sarah. It’s amazing how lost one can feel without a cell phone. Sad really. I looked around the room and saw a payphone. What the hell am I supposed to do with a payphone? I didn’t have any quarters. Furthermore, why was there a payphone? This all felt too real.
They finally told me how to call out. I hear this prompt and I’m supposed to state my name. This way, Sarah would know that it was her wife calling from prison. She could choose to answer and hear my plea, or never speak with me again. I immediately thought of an idea for a podcast: K-Town, the life of a Midwestern woman from podunk Kansasville, Wisconsin, who sold DIY pottery barn clocks, falsely accused of a crime she didn’t commit. A girl can dream.
I sat in a waiting area for a long time until I was finally able to speak to the Wizard of Oz. Actually she was the Magistrate, but whatever. She asked me what I was doing there. I told her I didn’t know. She asked me if I knew the person who filed charges against me and I told her I had never met him in my life. I had no memory of it so I was telling the truth. She noted I had no criminal record (DUH) and was very empathetic toward my personal situation. She understood why I ended up in the ER in the first place. She literally told me that I shouldn’t have been charged and that the case would be dropped. Could it be that easy? Would they really just drop the charges?
Before I leave you, let me just make sure that you understand that I have never been to prison. I have no idea what it’s like or how it changes a person. I know what the Wake County Jail taught me in less than two hours but I am in no way saying it compares. I hope you recognize my sense of humor. I have a very serious opinion about our justice system. I’ll share that later.
What’s in store for next week? The hilarious dialogue between me and Sarah as we drive home from the jail. You do not want to miss it. Subscribe to my blog and you’ll get an email every Wednesday with a link to my most recent post.
Until then, do your best to stay out of trouble.
I just want all people to learn and grow together.