Episode 4: Liz
Andrea: Just a warning - this episode mentions thoughts of suicide. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, or if you just want to talk - you’re not alone. You can call the Sucide prevention hotline any time of day or night at 800-273-8255. Ok - here’s the show.
because I've been through struggles and I've been through depression. I've felt suicidal and I feel like I've come out the other side
yes, it's an illness, but I also see it as a strength
Welcome to Getting Thru - I’m Andrea Sonnenberg.
There are so many ways that mental illness can affect a person. Even though as a culture, we are more open about these issues, talking about them still comes with a stigma.
Today I am speaking with Liz. Liz just got married last year, and works in development for a Hospital here in LA.
This isn’t her real name, because while she wanted to share with me about living with bipolar disorder, she was nervous about the impact talking openly about her issues might have. But Liz spoke honestly with me about stigma, about her rock bottom and how she manages in the midst of terrible grief.
Andrea: [00:03:56] Tell me what interests you, what your passions are. Yes. Where you are in life. Just how would you how would your friends describe you? [00:04:06][10.3]
Liz [00:04:09] OK, so I think it's always hard to talk about yourself, especially. It is a positive, attributes can be hard, and that has to do with you to jump right into it. Anxiety and feeling insecure and all those things that come with it, it can be really hard to to say what positive things. But I guess just about myself, I, I grew up in Los Angeles. I have siblings. I have always loved to play sports and be active and get outside.
I can really struggle to be in the present moment. And when I'm outside in nature, I just feel more alive and present.
I am newly married. It's been a very interesting year with the pandemic. We were supposed to have a big wedding and we ended up having 12 people in my dad's backyard, but it ended up being just a really beautiful, lovely, intimate ceremony. I think my friends would say that I'm a good friend. I'm really good at listening. And I think it has to do with everything I've been through.
For me, having someone to talk to is so important. And having numbers that I can just call and I'm struggling and I also want to be that person for other people.
Andrea: Liz didn’t have a traditional four year university experience
Liz: Out of high school, I went to a four year university in Wisconsin, but I was only there for a couple of months because I was really, really struggling mentally. I was not doing well. I was struggling also with addiction and alcoholism. You know, when I went there, it was still kind of things are OK. And I was meeting friends and I was going to classes. And I mean, within a month, I was just every night alone
crying really depressed, really struggling with addiction. really came down to when I wasIn a dorm room alone, just I mean, just barely eating anything, I lost a lot of weight. I wasn't it wasn't really going to classes and I would just be on the floor of my dorm room just bawling, just crying every night. I just felt. So broken and I couldn't stop taking Xanax and I was terrified and I was just really, really bad place and. And I just didn't want to be alive. I just didn't want to be alive and. I and my cousin had given me her phone number a couple of weeks earlier because I'd gone home for, for Thanksgiving break. And I didn't want to go back to school because I knew something was really wrong. Like I felt - I knew something was wrong. But I went back. And like two weeks later when I was just, felt so broken and I was done and I don't be alive anymore. I called her and I just said, I can't stop know you're so wrong. I can't stop taking medicine. And I just feel totally broke and I don't know what to do. And she's like, call your parents. She's like, I'll talk to you later, Hang up. If you don't if you don't call them, I'm calling them. And I called my parents and I don't know why I called, but I did. I just did it. And everything I put into motion.
Andrea: Her father flew out to bring her back home, where she went into treatment
Liz: [00:43:55] that was the most alone I had felt, and I'm so. Grateful and glad, looking back, that I reached out for help, because if I hadn't reached out for help, I don't I don't know where I would be. But that was I knew I knew I needed something, had to change. I knew I was cannot continue like this. But I don't think I would have survived the path I was going. Deciding to take action was really tough, partially because in the moment, Liz felt like in order to change she would have to press pause on her whole life. It felt like her classmates and friends would get ahead and leave her behind. But the reality was like I could never move on with my life and be my own version of successful, if successful, if I didn't take care of myself first.
Andrea: But even before she went to college, Liz experienced challenges. In elementary school she was diagnosed with Bipolar and anxiety disorder.
Liz: I think I always felt uncomfortable. Just even as a little kid, I really had trouble making friends. I'd rather go or even say I'd rather library at lunch. I just would go to the library at lunch and read because I didn't really understand how to interact with other people. I had a lot of anxiety.
And I think even.. I was just really insecure and didn't like myself and I. yeah, I just was really sad all the time And I think even that was when I was eight, I was on medication.
I felt so much shame, so much confusion, having a label that I had anxiety or bipolar and having to take medicine as a little kid and not really understanding why. And I thinking something was wrong with me. I felt really different than everyone else. Yeah I really struggled with that, with. Yeah, it really affect me, I think it gave me an identity that I was really uncomfortable with,
and it got worse as I was in middle school, I still had trouble making friends and didn’t have a lot of friends in high school. I'd like one friend,
Andrea: At this point, Liz had been in therapy since she was little. She remembers they used to mostly play games. But when she was a teenager, her relationship to therapy changed and she started abusing drugs.
Liz: I mean, maybe they can help you. But if I'm not being honest or not in a good headspace, I did the best they could, but I just wasn't in a place to get help really or to listen. And once I did get sober, which did take, you know, therapy and a lot of work, I really improved going to therapy and working with a psychiatrist. Because I was sober and I was in a headspace where I could listen and work on what they were telling me to work on.
Andrea: Despite all strides she has made, Liz still feels shame and stigma surrounding her mental health.
Liz: I am open about my sobriety, very open about recovery. And and what's interesting is in terms of my mental health diagnosis, I'm a lot less open about that and. I think there there has been a huge young person's college movement to be open about recovery and sobriety and maybe I don't know as much as there has been about mental health. I focused more on recovery, but I, I struggle a lot more talking about the fact that I have mental health issues or struggle with mental health. And I still I don't think I feel shame today. I'm not ashamed of it. I think a lot of people struggle mental health, but it's still not talked about enough for I feel comfortable even using my name. And I wish I would use my name on the podcast. I wish I could be the example and say this is my name and and I have mental health struggles. But I still, unfortunately, feel a lot of fear that it could impact me in a negative way, understand that. And that's sort of why we're doing this. And the more people we can help tell their story, whether they identify themselves or not, the more comfortable people feel with with the fact that we all struggle. I mean, statistically, one in four in the states struggle with mental health issues is pretty large. That's a pretty large number.
Andrea: So how would you say that your illness affects others like your relatives and your friends and people in your circle? [00:17:19][11.7]
Liz: I guess it's called mental or physical mental illness. I don't even like I guess I like the term illness. [00:17:39][17.5]
Andrea: Yeah, I hear you because I think in that maybe I know it's a it's a medical condition. I get that it is conditions. But I think even that term illness brings up those feelings I had as a kid. It's like I'm sick. There's something wrong with me.
Andrea: Mental health diagnoses can be closely linked to identity. For Liz, part of succeeding in the face of these challenges has been taking charge of her own identity. Obviously there's a lot of negative aspects of having anxiety and bipolar, but also I think it's made me like a better friend and a more and more empathetic person, because I've been through struggles and I've been through depression. I've felt suicidal and I feel like I've come out the other side yes, it's an illness, but I also see it as a strength because I'm able to help other people based on what I've been through and how it's how it's. Your question was how has it affected people around me think it can affect people in a negative way? I haven't really had any open conversations with my parents about what it was like raising me or what it was like getting a call
saying I can't stop taking and Xanax and. I don't I don't I'm not happy, I don't want to, you know, I'm not OK. I'm sure that is really scary for a parent to hear.
I think the fact I'm in a lot better place now is really great for them. I know they're really proud of me. My mom actually died, but she has said you knoe, before she died, that she was really proud of me. It affects my relationship, it can be really, really hard to be dating or married to someone. I think with mental health struggles, there are days when I don't want to get out of bed. There are periods where I just cry and I don't know why I'm crying. And I think that can be really hard for a partner, because when you're with someone you love, you want them to be happy and, you know, you really can't. As much as my husband wants to fix me, sometimes he just - there's nothing he can say or do. And I think that can be really hard to watch someone struggle that you love. But, you know, we have to look at it in a way it's no different than a physical illness if you had diabetes or high blood pressure or some other kind of chronic condition. There are good days and there are bad days.
And your support system has to be there to help you on the good days and bad days.
Andrea: This is something I personally feel really passionate about. We need to have this of physical and mental illnesses. They're no different. Mental illness just happens to affect the brain. It's neurological. But society views mental health so differently than physical health and unfortunately there is tremendous stigma surrounding mental health issues.
I'd love to talk about medications like first medications that were prescribed to you by a psychiatrist, I assume, and if they were helpful and how that transpired and then sort of talk about the abuse of the medications and how that happens, that's something I'm really very interested in as well, because my son was involved with lots of psychiatric medications and sort of went awry and ended up that's really resulted in his death. So I'd love to hear you talk about that.
Liz: really struggle with with taking medication, I still take medicine and it helps me, but there'll be periods where I don't want to take it. And I think I really associate it with like there's this problem. And, you know, it's like like you said, if if I'm taking medicine for diabetes or if I can't, I is getting chemotherapy. You just do it. But medication for mental illness, for me least, it just there is the shame, the shame associated with medicine. And also, I know this isn't your question, but I have a major issue with how insurance works and how difficult it is to find a therapist or psychiatrist and network. There is I was trying to find a psychiatrist. They told me to call back in June that they won't even consider thinking about taking on new patients until June. It's April. That's like April made it three months. It shouldn't be like that.
Andrea: But Liz’s frustration with health insurance doesn’t end there. She told me about one time when she went to refill a prescription for three pills a day. But her insurance would only cover the cost of one pill per day - Despite the fact that the larger dose was the one prescribed.
Why do they make it so hard? When someone reaches out for help they shouldn’t make it so hard. And that’s something that really frustrates me.
But back to your question about medicine. So I was prescribed Xanax for anxiety and I was prescribed Vicodin for a wisdom tooth surgery. And I started abusing those. And I wasn't honest with my psychiatrist. And, you know, I was taking more than more than was prescribed. I was refilling them more quickly. I was lying and. And I just got really bad, really fast. I did have a bad experience with a therapist where I told her that I was abusing the medicine and she's like, you'll be fine, just stop taking it. I wish that she had not just been like, you'll be fine. I think that would have been a good time to say. Like, it sounds like you have an addiction. You probably should go to treatment.
Andrea: You actually mentioned to your psychiatrist that you felt you had might have an issue? [00:24:56][5.5]
Liz: So I didn’t mention it to my psychiatrist, I had mentioned it to my therapist.
Andrea: This is actually an important distinction, therapists are licensed counselors who use talk therapy to treat mental health issues while a psychiatrists are a medical doctor who can diagnose and prescribe medications to treat mental health disorders. But regardless of who she told, the professionals in her life were not giving her the support she needed.
Liz: before I went to Wisconsin, I was abusing Vicodin. And she told me just to stop taking it, to eat some chocolate cake and I'll just withdrawal, not addicted and I'll be fine. So I so I withdrew from Vicodin, got really sick, and I stopped taking it. But just stopping taking an addictive medicine. When you're so stuck with mental health, you're going to find - or at least for me - I wasn't cured, I wasn't fine, and I wasn't getting treatment. I wasn't getting help. So I went off to college and I had and I hadn't abused my Xanax prescription before, because I no longer had the Vicodin. I started. I put the Xanax in that place and started using that and reached out to her again for help. And she was like, we'll be fine. Just stop taking it. You're not addicted. So then I called my cousin and I was like, I'm like, I don't want to live anymore. Can't stop taking medicine. My cousin is like, just call your parents right now. And my dad got on a plane, flew out to Wisconsin. So the psychiatrist didn't know about the abuse until my parents told her the therapist did. And I really wish that she had responded differently.
Andrea: Did you feel that the medications that you took. For your bipolar disorder, we're helpful. And do you feel like they are helpful now? [00:26:41][16.1]
Liz: So I think there were points where I was overmedicated, as I have previously said, because I was abusing medicine. I don't think my psychiatrist could really prescribe things properly. So once I did get sober and start working with my psychiatrist and being honest about how I was feeling, because if you're not honest with your doctor about how you're feeling, they can't treat you properly. So now I think medicine does really help me. I still don't like taking it, but I do feel a lot calmer and more stable. And also, the psychiatrist I work with now, the ones I've worked with now, doesn’t medicate me as much, they actually try and have the least amount possible that keeps me stable. So I'm not in that place of feeling numb. And if I'm struggling with other periods where I get more depressed or sad, I'll see my psychiatrist sooner, we’ll adjust the medicines. So just being for me, being honest with my psychiatrist, same thing is being honest with a doctor. If I don't feel I have to tell them what's wrong. That's the way they can treat me better. [00:28:46][122.2]
Andrea: [00:28:46] Oh, that's great. That's great to hear.
[MUSIC for a beat]
So you mentioned the loss of your mom. I'm so sorry about that. And having lost a significant loss myself, I really understand. How did that play and how does that impact your mental health? Grief is a really strong emotion and something really impactful that we all experience. And how would you say that impacts your mental health? [00:29:18][29.6]
Liz: When my mom was diagnosed with cancer, she basically diagnosed with terminal cancer. I just I mean I mean, as anyone, but I just I just broke I mean, I. I was. Just so scared and so sad, and I've been sober for eight years and. I had been sober for eight years and. You know, for me, the reason why I abused prescription medicine was because I wanted what is one feeling felt, sometimes truly feelings feel so intense that I just can't handle it. There's just too much going on in my feels like there's so much going on in my head, whether it's depression or anxiety or sadness. And I just want to shut down. And I just want to crawl in bed or numb out. And so for me, that's why I said I couldn't work, because it felt like I was shutting my brain down. I didn't have to feel anything. And so when you get when you get sober, all these emotions come back up and you have to find healthy coping skills. And that's what I did. Going for me is going to meetings, talking to friends, asking for help when I needed it. And so when my mom got sick, it's like, again, just it was an overload of sadness and fear and anxiety.
Thank God for my friends.
Throughout her illness, and then when she died, I just broke down. I felt my feelings and I called people and asked for help. And I think the most important thing is that when you're struggling to not be silent. And I know it can be really hard to ask for help, I, you know, I used to see that as a failure. Like: “Just be strong, just suck it up, smile. You'll be fine.” And so it can be scary to ask for help, but that's the most important thing to do.
And in terms of grief. I think the hard part about grief is, one, if someone has an experienced it, they don't understand it. They just don't. And I ended up going to our house, which is a grief support group, and I was in a group for young adults in their 20s who were grieving a parent. And I think something that's really great is when you're struggling with something, you find people that are going through the exact same thing. They can relate. And just having this group of people that knew exactly what was going through was so comforting.
When you lose someone, I can't remember the exact phrase they use in a grief group, but it's like it's like two losses. It's the loss of the person and then the loss of the future you have with that person. So all of the rest of your life, like for me, losing a mom, it's like I start thinking about like my wedding day. My mom want to be there. And, you know, when I got married and I got my mom wasn't there and it was OK for me, someone painted this beautiful picture of me and my mom and we put it on a chair and we had flowers for her and think about having kids and she won't be here while I'm pregnant and having a baby and I'm Jewish. The holidays and all these this second set of losses, the loss of the future. But I heard people talk about how they got through it and what they do in their life to honor the person they lost. And I get to incorporate that and be OK.
And the other thing about grief, too, is .. it really lasts a long time. It just doesn't go away like it doesn't it doesn't heal. I mean, it gets. You know, it's it gets I don't know if I use or better, but it like you learn to live with it. I've learned to live with it, so I'm not crying every day. But there are still days where I just break down and it's been three years and I feel it's hard not to beat myself up. I feel like I should be you know, it's been three years, like I should be over it by now. But when you lose some money. I lost my mom. You lost your son. When you lose someone that you love, that's so incredibly close to you. There's just, for me there's just this whole and there's nothing that can fill it.
It can be a random Wednesday where I just really miss my mom and I break down crying. It feels like everyone else has moved on. so I don't know if you can relate to that, but that's my experience of grief, feeling completely.
Andrea: And do you feel like. This tremendous grief is a trigger for your mental health issues. [00:34:27][0.7]
Liz: Yeah, I think that grief can be a trigger for mental health issues. And when I do start to feel really sad, I worked on a lot of different not just medicine things, for me, it's important to have other coping skills as well. So, like. Meditating or just pausing and and breathing, if I start to feel my senses are being overwhelmed. I mean, it's OK to cry, look like I have a friend who's a she's a psychologist and she'll be like, feel your feelings and so don't, like, stuffed them down. It's OK to cry. But I also don't let myself go to that place anymore where I'm just like so broken I can't function. So I'll, I'll cry and feel sad. But then I’ll, you know, my husband will rub my back or center my ground myself and breathe. And so it does definitely trigger and set off more intense emotions, which can kind of, I can see leading me to a breakdown. And I try and stop myself from getting there by using these coping skills that I've learned. [00:35:35][64.1]
Andrea: Oh that’s wonderful. So that’s something that you’ve learned about yourself and how to achieve success which it sounds like you really have.
Liz: especially when I was. Younger. I didn't think I would live past was 18. I just was so. I was just so felt so broken and I really didn't even see the point of life because it didn't seem like a way to live and. You know, for me. For me, getting sober. Which allowed me to get help. Allow me to to listen and to get help and rebuild my life. But when I when I was younger, I, I was so depressed and just broken that I didn't really see the point. And after I got help and like we talked about it, it took me a long time to rebuild my life. I felt like a failure, dropping out of school, having to go to treatment, going to community college, but. I ended up graduating. From a four year old from UCLA, I never thought I'd get married. I hated my when I was younger, I hated myself so much and I thought I was so worthless that I didn't think I was lovable. And, you know, through therapy and doing a lot of work on myself, I was able to finally start valuing myself. And then I met this amazing man who's now my husband. And I never thought I'd get married. I never thought I'd have kids. We don't have kids now. We want to have kids. And, you know, I really reflecting back. Like it it gets better and it's not always better and their days are really hard, but just not giving up and continuing just to reach out for help and get that help has allowed me to have a life of you having a career, having a husband, having been close with my family. Again. Being excited about the future. Not dreading the future is really it's it's really a great place to be.
And I never thought, losing my mom would be able to stay sober through that and still find happiness in life. And I think that's the other thing is like, yes, losing my mom has caused an immense amount of grief and sadness and depression. But I also still get to laugh and live my life and enjoy it. [00:38:47][151.4]
Liz: It’s not like I got to a point where, like I'm cured and everything's great. And I don't I don't hit these highs and lows of bipolar. I still do. it's less scary now, now that I've had where I've come out, kind of like the other side where I'll go through a depression, but now that I'm doing well, that means I know I can reflect back on my past and know, yes, there are times and I'll all sink into depression will be really hard. But I have experience of coming out of that. So I know it will be OK because I can reflect on the past and I know what to do. I know to call my psychiatrist, make an appointment, maybe see my therapist sooner, call a friend and ask for help. And that's how I manage it to get back to feeling better. [00:41:43]
Andrea: [00:55:12] And - advice that you would give to people today that are confronting issues similar to yours? [00:55:20]
Liz: Never stop asking for help. I really let, when I was younger and let my diagnosis define me like that became my identity. And I think when I made that my identity, I got really stuck in it and thought I was that I was something was wrong with me. And now I don't let that's not my identity anymore. That's that's just something I live with, you know, like I like we've talked about if I had diabetes, I live with diabetes. Being a diabetic is not the one thing that defines me. And so I think that mental health is just a part of me. Yes, it's impacted me, but it doesn't know I'm not someone other. I don't feel like there's something wrong with me anymore. [01:01:43][41.8] I can thrive with it. Basically it does not define me. It’s part of me, its a small part of me and I am so much more.
Everyone experiences good and bad moods - but Bipolar Disorder causes a person to have intense swings of extreme emotion ranging from periods of very high mania and very low depressive moods. Depression can be debilitating while manic states can cause a person to lose control over their thoughts and actions. Sometimes these episodes can last for days, making it difficult to function normally.
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Getting Thru is made possible with the support of USC Hillel through the Bradley Sonnenberg Wellness Initiative.
It is produced by me, Andrea Sonnenberg, Micah Smith and Hannah Beal. Original music by Micah Smith.
Thank you for listening.