Sunday, October 6, 2013

Meet Merf—Living Well with Bipolar Disorder

Last week I introduced you to Merf and today I’m so excited because she has agreed to open up with us about her life and how she’s successfully living well with bipolar disorder. As a parent raising a child with the same diagnosis, it’s so encouraging to see people who are living good lives. Please welcome Merf to our community and enjoy her interview.

* * *

Welcome Merf, please share with us a little about yourself:
I was born in 1973 in Michigan, moved around a lot as a kid, but mainly grew up in the Atlanta area. I graduated from LSU in 1996 and moved back to Atlanta with my husband who is from New Orleans. We have four awesome kids, ages 15, 13, 9 and 1. I taught middle school for only a couple years after college, but quickly realized I wanted to be at home with my kids and have worked very hard and gone without a lot of things to be able to do that for the past 13 years. I began freelance writing about a year ago and spend much of my time writing about mental health issues. I also have a knitting business and sell my hand-knit throws and baby blankets on Etsy. I love loud music, Metallica is my favorite band ever but lately I’ve been listening to Skrillex and other loud dubstep a lot, I’m a huge fan of Mr. Bob Marley, I have several tattoos, I love beer, and my biggest pet peeve is when people don’t use their blinker.

What is your diagnosis? 
Bipolar 1 Disorder, ADHD

When were you diagnosed? 
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder about 6 years ago and with ADHD recently.

How old were you when you first started experiencing symptoms?
This question is very hard to answer because I really just don’t remember. I definitely had a major depressive episode in around 1993 when I was in college. I remember having some symptoms of bipolar and ADHD going back till about the time that I entered my teen years. Basically, I have just been “me” since I was born, so I grew up, like most people who have mental illnesses, just thinking I was normal and had the same issues everyone else did. In college, I took a lot of psychology courses and one of them was “Abnormal Psychology” (I’m guessing they have a more politically correct name now) and learned about all sorts of psychological illnesses. When they started talking about bipolar disorder, I remember thinking “That’s abnormal?” I didn’t realize a lot of what I experienced was not considered “normal”.  So, I have most likely exhibited symptoms of bipolar and ADHD since I was a young child.

When did you realize that something was wrong? Was there a particular event or experience?
The time that I talked about in the previous question, about when I learned about bipolar disorder in college, is probably the first time I realized I may be “different” from the “norm”. After that, I forgot about the whole thing and did not revisit the topic until I was about 34, about 6 years ago. At that time I had a friend who I knew had bipolar disorder and he expressed his feelings through painting. I remember seeing some of those paintings (dark, morbid, heavy, philosophical) and feeling a deep understanding, as if I also felt the same way at times. I started researching bipolar disorder and found that I had pretty much all of the symptoms and always have.

What were your symptoms like when you were first diagnosed?
Roughly six years ago I was having trouble with depression. I had three kids at the time, I felt severely overwhelmed, I was having very frequent crying spells revolving around my kids…. I remember crying very easily, like having complete breakdowns, right after we got back from a family cruise. I would look at pictures of my kids and cry and cry because I didn’t want them to grow up. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I asked some family members of older kids if they had issues with that, being super sad about your kids growing up, and they said no. I realized I wasn’t feeling like I should and that was when I started suspecting bipolar.  Anyway, I went to the doctor and she put me on an antidepressant, saying if I had bipolar disorder I would definitely show signs of mania after some time of being on an antidepressant. Sure enough, about two months later I started having racing thoughts, not sleeping, and generally feeling extremely caffeinated (shaky, way too much energy, rapid speech). I called the doctor when it was clear I was manic and she put me immediately on an anti-psychotic, but I got worse instead of better and ended up in the hospital that night due to mania/psychosis.

What are your symptoms now?
I have issues with rapid-cycling moods and lots of mixed episodes, which are the worst. Rapid speech, racing thoughts, insomnia without feeling tired at all, tons of creativity, tons of ideas, excess energy and motivation, akathisia, euphoria, severe irritability, anxiety, lack of concentration or too much concentration (obsessive behavior), cravings for carbohydrates, I start a lot of things without finishing them, feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem sometimes but feelings of grandeur at other times, morbid dreams, suicidal ideation, lethargy, periods of time when I’m not hungry and can’t eat so I lose a lot of weight…

Do you take medication for your disorder? 
Yes, but I do not talk about which ones and this is the reason: Everyone is different. People experience different symptoms of bipolar and other mental health issues in different ways and to varying degrees. People also metabolize medications differently. What works wonders for one person may be toxic to another person. Lithium is a life-saver for many people but makes all of my hair fall out. There is no getting around the fact that bipolar disorder is difficult to treat and we have to go through a trial-and-error phase to find a combination that works for us. I take an antidepressant, a mood stabilizer, a stimulant for the ADHD, and I also keep anti-anxiety medicine handy but don’t often take it.

Is it working?
For now, yes.

If you take medication, was it hard to find what worked for you?
Oh yes. It took me a trial-and-error phase of more than five years to find a combination that works for me. Part of that is because we (my doctor and I) didn’t realize ADHD was an issue until recently.  I’ve been on pretty much every psychotropic medicine known to man.

Have you experienced any bad side effects?
I could talk for days about all the bad side effects I have experienced during the process of finding the right medicine combination for me.

Do you keep your disorder private, or are you open with it?
I am extremely open with it. I want people to be educated about mental health conditions and not be ashamed to talk about them. I write a lot about mental health issues and consider myself a mental health advocate. I am neither ashamed nor embarrassed about the fact that I have bipolar disorder and ADHD and I work hard to contribute to the fight against stigma so that one day NO ONE will be ashamed or embarrassed.

Do you have regrets about this?
Definitely not. And I’m not done. The writing I have done to help educate the public about mental health issues is only the tip of the iceberg.

Have you faced the stigma of mental illness in your own life as a mom and a business owner?
Oh yes, of course. In fact, I wrote a page about How NOT to Talk to a Person with Bipolar Disorder that addresses ways people talk about and joke about mental illness. On that page I mention something that happened to me recently: I caught up with an old friend on Facebook and we talked a bit about what we’ve been doing for the past 20 or so years. I mentioned I have bipolar disorder and he promptly called me “crazy” and told me to never contact him again. Although it stung like a bitch and I was so angry, I quickly decided not to respond to such ignorance. I deleted the conversation and unfriended him. He is not worth an ounce of my time.

How has your disorder challenged you?
It makes life difficult at times. It is hard to get things done when you are depressed, for sure. I guess my most difficult challenge is just dealing with everyday stress when my brain has difficulty with dealing with stress. I get very overwhelmed sometimes and have learned to ask for help with garden-variety, everyday tasks. My brain likes to shut down when it gets too overwhelmed, sort of like a full cup of coffee… you just can’t fit anything else in that cup because there is no room. I also have issues with social anxiety sometimes, depending on what type of mood I’m in. Sometimes I just don’t want to talk to anyone, so I end up coming across as anti-social or just plain rude. I am very often misunderstood. Substance abuse has also been an issue for me in the past, as it is for many people who have bipolar disorder and other mental health illnesses.

How has it blessed you?
It has blessed me in so many ways. I love my periods of intense creativity and productivity. Also, I have experience with all kinds of deep and intense emotions, so I am able to identify with feelings my kids may be having. It has made me understand the importance of being open, honest, and forthright about mental health issues. Most importantly, it has made me spend less time judging people and more time accepting them and appreciating them for who they are.

Were you concerned about the challenges that motherhood would bring knowing you have a mood disorder?
No. It wasn’t until I had three kids that I was diagnosed. Since then, I have had another child who is now 18 months, but I have to say I did not have any concerns about the challenges, probably because I already had so much practice with the other three.

What support do you have in your life?
I have wonderful support of loving family members and friends who live nearby and help me quite a bit. My husband is very accepting of me and loves me for who I am. What more could I ask for?

It is obvious that you are a great example of a person successfully living with Bipolar Disorder, can you share with us how you do it?
Medication. I am a mess without it. I really cannot function without it. Also, I am not afraid to ask for help when I need it, which has a lot to do with my supportive family and friends. Many people aren’t as lucky as I am.

What advice would you like to share to us moms who are raising kids who have mood disorders?
Educate yourself in every way possible about mental health issues and illnesses. The more you understand, the more you can help your child. Always be there for your child… be open and honest. Speak the truth about mental illness and do not be afraid to talk about it. Teach your child to do the same. Be your child’s advocate and fight tooth and nail for his/her rights and equal treatment, but at the same time don’t let your child use his/her illness as a crutch. Speak out against mental health stigma because it is perpetuating incorrect and harmful beliefs that will hurt your child if it hasn’t already. Mental health illnesses are just as real and just as serious as cancer, diabetes, and other diseases that society recognizes. Suicide stats are high. Know the facts and help spread the truth.

Here are some pages about mental health issues that I have written:


  1. Hi Merf! This is an awesome post. I am a 31 year old woman with Bipolar 1 and Adhd (inattentive) as well. I can relate to pretty much all you have said and I really appreciate you being so candid. I do have a question though. Have you ever struggled with the impulse to just stop a med due to delusional thinking or paranoia? I get that way about once a year and I cut out my mood stabilizer a few months ago because i was convinced it was harming me (I see how that is stupid now). I have since been put back on it due to mixed episodes and rapid cycling. But do you know where I am coming from? If so how do you keep yourself on track? Thank you again for this post.

  2. I have gone off my meds several times thinking that I'm ok and don't really have bipolar, which is very common with people who have it. I don't know if it was because I was delusional, per se, but maybe just in denial. After going off of the meds several times only to be proven that I do indeed have bipolar, I now have convinced myself that I do indeed need the meds... I accept that now and take them religiously. I still do have issues with mixed moods and rapid cycling, though, so I guess the med situation is still in flux. I think maybe if your symptoms aren't in check WITH meds, then maybe it is time for a med change? I don't know, obviously, but I guess that is how I feel sometimes - if the meds aren't doing the trick, time to switch (again!).