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I was diagnosed in the summer of 2010 when I was 47 years old. However, my first experience with mental illness was when I was 15 years old. It started as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). At one point it got so bad that I could not focus on my studies. I also experienced drastic mood swings. I could be joyous at one moment and drop to deep sadness the next without warning. Somehow I could not shake off the feeling of deep sadness even though my life then was peaceful. During my teenage years and my 20s, I also struggled with insomnia.
During the summer of 1994, I could not sleep for a couple of weeks, but I felt great. I was happy and energetic. I was enjoying life. But all of a sudden, I started to experience hallucination and became delusional. I stayed in my bedroom and was afraid to get out. I felt something terrible was waiting at the door. Eventually I was admitted to a mental observation ward. I stayed there for a week. My wife and people in my church prayed hard for me. One day I just came to my senses and two days later was discharged. However, none of the doctors and nurses involved told us what was wrong with me.
Over the next 16 years I only had episodes of minor depression and OCD. I found running was very helpful. I served in the church and was successful in my profession. I enjoyed family life. I thought my problem was behind me.
In the spring of 2010, I started losing sleep. My family doctor prescribed sleeping pills which helped a little bit. Then one day in late June when I went to my office and started reading e-mails to start the day, I realized that I could not understand them. I could read every word, but could not put them together to make any sense. I went to my doctor right away and he started me on anti-depressant.
After taking a few days break, I did not get better. I went to a psychiatrist and he tripled the dosage. In a couple of weeks, I felt well enough to go back to work.
Over the next two months, I felt great. I was happy and full of creative ideas. I got things done quickly and enjoyed socializing. Little did I know at that time, my anti-depression medicine pushed me to a hypomanic phase. After Thanksgiving, I sank into a major depression. I went back to my psychiatrist again and this time he diagnosed me as bipolar II.
In March 2011, I was laid off. My ego was terribly hurt. But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I was able to rest at home for six months. My wife and I did a lot of gardening. We also went camping with our kids. All of us had a great time. Both of my kids claimed that was the best period of time in their life. During that time, I started raising awareness about depression in social media.
Since that time, my depression has been controlled by medication, physical exercise, prayers, and a good diet. I was able to teach at a Christian school and continue leading a small Chinese church. I kept using social media to raise awareness about mental health. I have given talks in conferences and published an article in a well circulated magazine in the Chinese Christian community.
In November 2014, I started to run barefoot half and full marathons in Indiana to promote mental health. People first noticed my bare-feet and then noticed the message on the back of my T-shirt, which reads: DEPRESSION: REAL, DEADLY, BEATABLE.
There are three topics which I want to raise awareness of. The first is that most people don’t understand depression. Many people don’t even know they have it. I did not know I had it. When I was talking with my psychiatrist, my wife realized that she also had depression. It is just she got used to it and thought that was what she is. After being treated with an antidepressant, she started to have a much happier and fulfilling life.
The second is social stigma. We somehow feel ashamed of having depression. We hide it from colleagues, friends and family members. One of the common themes from the people I have helped is that they are afraid to let their colleagues and supervisors know about their condition. How can you tell your boss you need some time off because you are depressed? What will he or she think of you? Will you become a candidate for layoff? I know some teenagers who don’t even want to tell their parents.
The third is to show people with depression there is hope. Even though depression cannot be cured yet, it can be controlled just like high blood pressure or diabetes. It is hard to feel hopeful when you are in an episode. You think the dark cloud will never go away. You are afraid that you will become too much a burden for your family. Suicide becomes very tempting. But that is a lie. We can and will get better. We just need to put one foot in front the other and keep going.
This is why I love running marathons. 26.2 miles seems a long distance. But if you just focus on one step at a time, you will reach the finish arch. There are still a lot of misunderstandings about depression, and social stigma is still deeply rooted. But if we keep making baby steps, we will help create a society where depression is viewed as an illness, not character flaws nor spiritual weakness, and people with depression can be treated and live a productive life.
Life with a Mental Illness is meant to help remove the shame and stigma of speaking out, so that more people can be comfortable coming out of the shadows and seeking the help they need. Whether you are in Stage 1 and just learning about those early symptoms, or are dealing with what it means to be in Stage 4, sharing how it feels can be part of your recovery.
MHA Indy wants everyone to know that mental illnesses are real, that recovery is always the goal, and that the best prospects for recovery come when we act Before Stage 4 (B4Stage4).
Addressing mental illnesses B4Stage4 means more than burying feelings and refusing to talk about them, and waiting for symptoms to clear up on their own. B4Stage4 means more than wishing that mental health problems aren’t real, and hoping that they will never get worse. B4Stage4 means more than thinking that someone on the edge of a crisis will always pull himself or herself back without our help, and praying that someone else will intervene before a crisis occurs.
B4Stage4 means, in part, talking about what mental illnesses feel like, and then acting on that information. It means giving voice to feelings and fears, and to hopes and dreams. It means empowering people as agents of their own recovery. And it means changing the trajectories of our own lives for the better, and helping those we love change theirs. So let’s talk about what life with a mental illness feels like, to voice what we are feeling, and so others can know they are not alone.