An Invisible Illness is Still an Illness
May 22, 2017 | By Kevin Grimm
When I was eleven years old, I walked through a plate glass window. There was a lot of blood, and I was rushed to the nearest hospital, panic-stricken, with a wound on my leg and another on my face. My mother was concerned that the rather superficial wound on my face would leave me disfigured for life. Because this was my first serious accident, she decided we should wait in the ER for what seemed like hours for a specialist who spent about fifteen minutes sewing up my face and about thirteen seconds on my leg.
About two weeks later, while walking with my mother, I experienced the worst physical pain ever shoot through my leg. My grandmother’s husband joked, suggesting that the doctor left a piece of glass in my leg. My mother figured it was just a cramp and told me to “walk it off.” However, just shifting my weight caused unbearable pain. My mother caught a glimpse of the pain on my face and rushed me back to the doctor’s office that day.
And yup, there was a three-inch piece of glass that actually showed up on the X-ray in my leg.
I learned two valuable lessons that day. One: Sometimes the most well-intentioned people can offer the worst advice. Two: Something can be seriously wrong inside of you that only you can feel.
I have a mental disorder with a long, fancy name: Schizoaffective Disorder Bipolar Type 1. And it’s something only I can feel inside of me. On a good day, I wake up refreshed from a good night’s sleep, eat breakfast and plan for a productive day ahead while listening to some tunes on the radio. “Productive” for me means getting some exercise, talking to my spiritual advisor, going to a support group meeting and taking my medication exactly as prescribed by my doctor. On a really productive day, I may spend hours reading and writing—two hobbies that bring me a lot of joy and give me a sense of accomplishment.
Being on permanent disability, I have the blessing and the curse of not having to work for a living. It’s a blessing as I get to choose to spend my days doing what seems meaningful to me and it’s a curse in that some of my days are very, very long and tedious. I make it a point not to let too many people see me on my bad days.
For me, living day-to-day with mental illness is like walking on eggshells—you never know which one is going to break. Friends that I have only known for a few years are sometimes surprised at how fast my mental state can spiral out of control. Something as simple as drinking too much coffee and not sleeping for a day or two can cause me to lose all touch with reality and before you know it, I’m walking around thinking I’m Jesus Christ. This actually happened to me back in August of 2015, and I ended up having to check myself into a mental hospital to adjust my meds and get some much-needed rest. Alcohol, though, has a much worse effect on me; I can quickly go from drunk to depressed and suicidal in a matter of days.
The good news for anyone with a mental health condition is that there are ways to overcome just about every kind of illness. Sometimes, medication is needed to restore the right chemical balance to your brain. Sometimes a combination of therapy, behavior changes and medication are needed. Only you and your treatment team can decide what’s best for you. For many of us, myself included, sound mental health is something I strive for every day.
If the dream of sound mental health sounds impossible to you, you are not alone. A lot of people think that. But it is possible and a good place to start is by taking a NAMI class. I am a recent of graduate of NAMI Peer-to-Peer. In the class, I not only learned to lean on my peers from support, but I also learned how to add new tools to my recovery tool belt.
By far my favorite tool is the mindfulness technique we learned in class. In a nutshell, you learn to train your mind away from your problems by focusing on an immediate object in your environment. The object can be something you carry around with you, or it can be something already found in the environment. I keep a small smooth stone in my pocket at all times for this practice. It reminds me both of my recovery and of my firm resolve to get better.
Another powerful tool in recovery is learning to share one’s story with others. From start to finish, we told our stories in class. I was surprised to learn how much I had in common with my peers. By the time class came to an end, I had come to learn a little something about each new friend.
An illness like mine is invisible. The only people who can see it are the people I chose to let inside. It felt wonderful to meet other who shared my same struggle. No longer was I walking on eggshells. For the first time in many years, I could look the world in the eye.
And it all began to by taking a class—it really was that simple.
The last twenty years of my life has been spent in large part learning to recover from mental illness. It has been a long, slow process filled with many hills and valleys. My dreams for the future are to become an NAMI In Our Own Voice presenter and a professional writer. Many people have helped me along the way—doctors, therapists, friends and family—and I would like to return the favor. With NAMI’s help, I feel I am well on my way.