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Mental Health Awareness
Written November 15, 2010
As a personal advocate for mental health awareness, I want to share the story of my own struggle with bipolar disorder and depression. The following details my journey with this disorder, and I hope it inspires and touches others as I fight to end the stigmas associated with mental health.
For as long as I can remember it has been my passion to write and create music. In the beginning I simply wrote melodies on the piano. When the lyrics started to come to me, they became my way of dealing with the challenges I faced growing up and into adult hood.
In my early youth, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and suffered with migraines. As a result, school was a great challenge for me, physically and socially. Music was my comfort and I spent many, many hours writing and singing at the piano. Thankfully, my family was able to provide classical vocal and piano training for me, for which I am forever grateful. Throughout my school years, I performed and flourished in musicals, spending all of my time in the theater. Nevertheless, I always felt most at home, alone singing my own songs. Depression was sneaking up on me, but we knew little about it at the time.
When I was thirteen I began recording in the studio and at fourteen had the thrill of traveling to New York to record my first professionally produced and arranged song. In college, I studied theater and world religion, yet in my heart I knew I wanted to be a singer and songwriter, as communicating ideas musically has always been my passion.
It wasn't until after my children were born that I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I had previously known it as manic depression and was aware of its effect because my paternal grandfather and aunt had suffered with it all my life. My grandfather, who was treated with shock treatments and lithium, remained functional most of his life as long as he stayed on his medication and was a brilliant and successful, yet eccentric businessman. My aunt Dianne was beautiful, artistic and exceptionally gifted. She was so special to me and I looked up to her and identified with all that made her unique. But she remained untreated the majority of her life and was therefore very troubled and mostly dysfunctional as well. She went on to commit suicide 7 years ago and one year later, her son, my dear, sweet cousin, shared the same fate on his birthday at age 25. He was unmedicated also and turned to drugs and alocohol in an attemp to deal with his pain. Their absence has created a hole in the family and their pictures are sitting on my piano today.
My own first major depression came soon after my youngest child was born and I was hospitalized repeatedly for bipolar swings from mania to suicidal depression.
I remember the feeling of mania well. My mind was rasing and I was full of creativity and spirituality. I would write endlessly to the point that it became a burden and I could't stop. I would sit for hours, even days at the piano with papers everywhere, unable to quit until the song was finished or my thoughts were communicated "perfectly". I was actiive in church, and felt the very real presence of God. I had a hightened sense that I had purpose and that God was directing my days. I felt like God was constantly having me on a mission to share my faith, encourage or otherwise be or do something that He wanted.. I would be at the grocery store or a red light believing every moment was destined or purposeful. My song "Kaleidescope" was written in these years. At first mania feels good. you have energy and are happy. Then for me, it turned to what I call as "tortured mania" . It is when a "mixed state" of mania and depression and is almost painful. My mind was exhausted, I was angry or sad, restless and plagued with the inability to sleep or quiet my racing thoughts. At one point or another, whatever goes up, must fall down and I would fall, low, low, lower until it felt as if I was being pushed dowm and smashed into a pit, a darkness, and sadness that can only be descrbibed as pure hell. Depression the worst doom imaginable. I hated myself and felt like everyone else did too. I was full of guilt, had no energy, and would cry but never quench the need to continue. I felt horribly alone. It was a black and white world. Nothing looked the same. I wanted out of my trapped body and wanted to die. I could see no point in carrying on. Life had no meaning. I would wonder why God was punishing me. I felt like I was like Job, in the Bible and that it had to be either God or the devil that was making me feel the way I did. Finally, I would swing back up again. If I was lucky the sadness would stop. If I wasn't lucky it would continue and the writing would start again on top of it. I would write poems and sad songs. A common theme was always guilt, and an undeserving humilty before God. My husband and I led home groups at church. (My husband was and is a rock, by the way. His steadiness was unshakeable and he was one thing in my life that never changed.) In those years I read the Bible like it was the most fascinating novel of all time. (Ha! I am laughing at myself a little now ;). I can remember one day when I was at the gym on the eliptical machine reading and a woman asked me what book had me so captivated. It is funny to me to me now to remember her awkwardness when I said it was the Bible! Anyway, I learned a lot in those years. My father is a minister and therefore theology had always been part of my life. But, now it WAS my life. When my bipolar worsened and I was at the height of my swings, I rememember being terribly frustrated and confused about the faith I once believed. I had studied so much that I had made lists of verses trying hard to understand the meaning of life and unlock the answers to free will vs God's soverignty. I also wrote out lists of contraidictions in scripture and was in constant turmoil that I was unable to reconcile them. At one psychiatrist visit I was pacing and said "Help! I have become and Athiest." I had studied so much that nothing made sense anymore but I thought that it was sinful for me to doubt and felt sure I would go to hell for it. In the final year before I was hospitalized the first time, I began acting outside of character. I was hyperreligious, hypersexual and hyper-everythigng! I went to the studio and began recording and got my sights set on recording music again. I was a stay at home mom and had to babies under 3. Once thing I can say that I am eternally grateful for is that I was also a hyperdiligent mom. Being a mom was the main thing in my life that I loved and knew was real. I was able to be a loving mother through all of this and never wanted my children to see me when I was depressed. My cycles were generally no longer than days or a week from depression to mania. So, if I was overtaken and felt I couldn't handle the babies, I called their grandparents or my sister and they came and got them and gave them and me a little "vacation". I am so fortunate to have a family that welcomed them with open arms when I needed help and whom I trusted to only be wonderful to my children. I knew they had a place to go and that I could get help if I became too overwhelmed to handle it. I also had a supportive husband who would come home for dinner every night and help me with the babies. That being said, there came a time to painful for me to talk about when I was so numb that I didn't feel like even being a mother anymore. I don't ever speak of that time because it is too sad to me. My sister is the one who realized what was going on. We had the family history of manic depression yet the stigma was so present that we never discussed it and I barely knew the name. It sounded like a bad word but I wasn't sure why. It carrried with it this hush-hush thing that my grandmother whispered about in regards to my grandfather, her husband, and my aunt, their daughter. The gene runs through my father's side and it has a powerful thread. in fact, our "Hanks" history can be traced (from my understanding) all the way back to Abraham Lincoln's wife. She was a Hanks and she was most likey bipolar, from all accounts. I tried medication after medication and wrestled with dosages and pills. I would get better and then sicker again. At one point I was so drugged that I would stare off in space or be confused by the red or green light in the car. After always being thin and working hard at it, I gained 80 pounds in one year from an antipsychotic. I needed it though, and it helped me more than anything else to function and quiet my brain back to normalcy when I started to climb up toward mania. But, as you can imagine, the weight gain did not help my depression at all! I was miserable. I haven't even talked about all the physical pain because it isn't the focus of this story. However, I could write a whole other chapter or BOOK about living with fibromyalgia and migrianes all my life! Just know that I had as much excrutiating and debiltating physical pain as I had mental pain for as far back as childhood. Finally, after all else was done and after surviving suicidal depression and mania and multiple psychiatric hospital stays,
my life was saved and restored through electroconvulsive therapy, otherwise known as ECT. Although my mind was restored to a place of peacefulness, the treatments erased my creative ability for six years. I was grateful for the quiet in my mind, but I greatly missed writing. I can remember the feeeling when the lights came on and I laughed for the first time and saif outloud "I can't believe I am happy!". I remember looking out the window and seeing colors again after years of black and white. I was free from the monster! Going through the shock treatments was hard on my body because the jolting caused so much phsycial pain when I woke up. Of course, during ECT you are under anesthesia and know nothing and feel nothing. But you have to do a course of 3 times a week up until you finish 12 times. It is rough in that regard but I encourage everyone with an illness like mine to do it! it is so worth the effort to be free. It is easier to survive ECT than to live with the disease. I know of so many cases where ECT has been succeful and know of none personally where any serious damage has occurred. There is short term memory loss and I do struggle with my memory and very little to o recollection of the time period around my ECT. I see pictured of Disney World and don't remember ever being there. But, I am glad because I was so sad inside in those years that it is like a favor for it to be erased. I think the hardest part for me has been remembering the day I woke up and discovered God, or who I had always known Him to be, was gone. I thought He had abandoned me. To this day over 10 years later, I don't feel God anymore. I am not sure what is true now and although I believe a Creator exists and wrote about Him in my songs, "Beautiful", and "Simple Things". I do not think it is possible for me to know who He is anymore. I feel betrayed that He allowed my mind to think that was Him all those years when it wasn't Him, but was a sickness. That part still has me confused and pondering and frankly, wounded. I do not go to a church. I learned through my years of doubts that the Christian community needs more discussion of doubt and understanding about mental illness. It is not a lack of love that many do not understand it, but a lack of experience or knowledge about these things. Although I was hurt by the church for reasons such as these, I don't harbor any bitterness and know that we can all only do our best with what we know and are dealth in our own skin. I am ready finally to walk through the doors (maybe) of a church again to talk about these things and help Christians understand that sickness is not sin and doubt is ok. (Listen to my song "Thats' Ok"). One day I hope to get it figured out. Meanwhile, I am grateful to be alive and hope to share my story with as many as I can because it is my greatest hope to help hurting spirits be freed to happiness again.
Gradually, over the years, my creative abilities were restored and I have been enjoying the process of writing, singing and producing music. I am fortunate to have worked with some of the most brilliant musicians around and I just completed my fifth CD in five year "Bluebirdy", (updated 2013) with much creative support, encouragement, and help along the way. I am endlessly grateful for all the support and guidance I have received throughout the years.
Through my journey, I have become extremely passionate about mental health awareness. I strongly desire to encourage others who suffer from mental health disorder, and I seek to rid the world of the ancient stigmas associated with them in all forms. As a long time sufferer I have looked for meaning and purpose for the pain, and I now believe I am finding clarity. Whatever the scale may be, if I can in some way comfort and inspire sufferers and help others understand the pain with new empathy in their hearts, I will have been successful.
I am amazed at what can happen in just a few years! It is so exciting to be a part of a much larger effort. I am now an active board member at "Mental Health America at Tarrant County" and a new member of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I feel very fortunate to have been able to share my message and music on Fox 4 "Good Day Dallas", WFAA "Good Morning Texas" and CBS's Channel 11 Nightly News among others. My story was featured by columnist, Steve Blow, and music by music critic, Mario Tarradell, both of "The Dallas Morning News". Each time I have the chance to share my heart in music and message I am so grateful and hope it makes a difference in the life of someone who is listening.
It would be untrue to say that I don't still struggle. Although the shock treatments did stabalize my severe bipolar depression/ mood swings and make me virtually well with no meds for 6 years, the last 5 years have been more difficult. Perhaps the stress of taking on so much has put a strain on me and is causing me to weaken. However, thanks to good medication and support, I am able to continue on. I am thankful for the inner core of family, friends, therapists and doctors who help me be the best me I able to be.
I was also diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis and Sjogren's Syndrome ( a singer's worst nightmare) this year. Singing has been very difficult, as I have gotten hoarse quickly and my voice is struggling. I am continuing to do my concerts and just figure, weakness comes with the territory and people tend to know my story when they come to hear me. When I get down and begin to worry that I am not all that I wish I were, I try and remember the scripture 'My strength is made perfect in weakness".
Contact Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org for questionsor message her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/heathermccready.
A New Diagnosis and Problem.Many of you know that Heather has been suffereing with chronic pain for over 25 years. Finally, she has recieved a diagnosis to explain her pain and is receiving treatment to help. Heather was diagnosed by an outstanding rheumatologist in Dallas with Ankylosing Spondylitis and Sjogren's. She is taking Humira injections now and medicine to treat the Sjogren's. One of the biggest concerns right now is how her autoimmune malfunction is affecting her voice. Heather is frequently hoarse but is still recording "Bluebirdy" doing all she can to combat it.
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Want Me to Come Give a Talk?I have been enjoying speaking at University and school settings on the subject of mental health with a particular emphasis on stigmas. Contact me if you would like for me to come and speak to your group. elizabeth@heathermccready,com or 817-231-0343. Thank you for your interest. I do have letters of references for my speaking work and will be happy to get them to you! Please contact email@example.com