Can you talk a little about the ways in which your illness works as a barrier to writing? What are some of the specific challenges you deal with?
Isn’t the first rule of mental illness that we don’t talk about mental illness? Kidding. I do have to say the word illness is the first barrier to the whole thing for me. I’m not ill. I’m bipolar. That said, it sometimes makes me feel icky, just like any illness. And we do need to recognize mental health on the same level as physical health, so I understand our need to have terminology.
Anyhow! Writing was a passion before it became a profession. This in itself brings challenges but I don’t think they’re any different for me than they are for any writer who has to pay bills or take care of the kids. I always want to be with my passion, but sometimes I have to keep that at bay until I’m done with the writing that pays the bills. I do find that when I am particularly engulfed in a creative project that I can’t get to because of other obligations, I don’t feel completely healthy. Is that because I’m bipolar or is it because I am a writer?
I have been very depressed at times in my life and during those times I have written, but I don’t think they’ve been very productive periods for me. Another barrier for me is focus. As in, it takes a while for me to get focused on my creative writing. I always have a long list of writing projects, but I don’t have the kinds of time and quiet I used to. I fell in love with poetry in college and it’s what I love to write. But since having children, I find it hard to get in that space.
The biggest barrier for me in writing right now is that I’m trying to write about the words “bipolar” and “motherhood” together. They are words that people feel uncomfortable putting together, but it’s possible to do. I’ve written about some personal things before but as a professional and as a parent, this is the scariest – this knowledge that there will be places and times in my life that will be a) difficult to visit and b) more difficult to share with the world.
But that’s where I am. And I’m chatting with you about it as the first step toward moving that barrier out of my way. So, thanks for this. And thanks for bringing this conversation to light.
Can you talk a little more about how refusing to identify being bipolar as a sickness has been helpful for you? (I'm particularly interested in your answer because for me personally, coming to think of depression as an illness has been helpful in learning how to manage it.)
Maybe I still have some accepting to do. And it’s not that I don’t see it as an illness, because it is. Maybe it’s because my label is “bipolar” that I have a harder time. The stigma that comes with it is difficult. Also, I’d be much happier to term it an “illness” over a “sickness”. And that said, I think anyone with any kind of mental health challenge needs to term it however is necessary to a) love themselves and b) keep themselves healthy.
What are some specific things you do to manage your illness that you find effective?
I cry. It actually keeps me from getting depressed. The world saddens me, but I can’t let it be me. I don’t bottle things up like I used to. I write.
I don’t do some of the things I know I should. When I have maintained a meditation practice in the past, it’s been tremendously helpful. When I actually began to manage my illness, I attended a 12-week program at a place called The Mind Body Medical Institute, and learned a great deal about the importance of mindfulness and relaxation. I meditated every day and kept a journal in addition to my other writing. I was able to manage negative thoughts and protect myself emotionally. I need to get back to this.
I have been staying off of social media a bit more. It’s hard, as a writer, I think, to disengage, for fear of feeling irrelevant, I guess? I’m not exactly sure why we are afraid to disengage. But I very much need to and lately I’m honoring that more. I also try to find ways to laugh every day. Or at least smile.
I should exercise more. I work part time and have my kids home part time, which gets me outside moving with them. They love to dance like I do. Which brings me to music. Music has saved my life, like poetry.
Of course, it is winter in New England, and how I feel definitely shifts with the seasons. I should be taking my vitamins and spending quality time with a light box. (I have one that dear friends passed on--just one example of the help I have received along the way.)
But what’s truly most effective for me is to not beat myself up for the things I’m not doing. This is really, really hard for me and something I need to be very conscious of. Beating myself up has been a lifelong habit and it’s a dangerous cycle for me. Life is, hopefully, long. I remind myself often that if I can get through this moment, I can get through the next and then the next.
What is your relationship to more traditional models of managing illness, like therapy and/or medication? Do you find them effective? Is accessing them an issue for you?
I have a love/hate relationship with both therapy and medication. I have found both to be, at times, extremely helpful and at times, tremendous wastes of time and money. I’ll spare you some of the stories but, right now, I see a therapist and take medication.
I’ve spent a good portion of the last five years pregnant and/or breastfeeding and I’ve had to find a balance that weighs the benefits and risks. I had visited a psychiatrist at the MGH Center for Women’s Mental Health before my husband and I started “trying” to conceive. It was a couple of years after I had been diagnosed--finally--as bipolar, late in my twenties. I was feeling healthy enough to start a family, but quite worried about what starting a family meant in terms of staying healthy.
Regarding medication--for years, like literally from the age of 13, I was treated for migraines with antidepressants, because neurologists believe(d) there is/was (I’ve lost track) a link between migraines and serotonin levels. Later, I actually was depressed, and off of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. When I was diagnosed correctly, I learned a lot about how antidepressants can fuck with you if you are bipolar. Since then I have been on and off of a mood stabilizer and an antidepressant--but never the latter alone.
Anyhow, currently I take a pretty low dose of a mood stabilizer, Lamictal. I feel the need to throw in that “you always need to be in touch with your medical provider about your own healthcare decisions,” disclaimer, but I wish we could be more open about this, particularly for women who want to have children, and that’s why I’m getting specific. There are safe medications and there are specialists who can work with you during pregnancy and beyond. You need a support system, and medication can be a safe part of that.
To the last part of your question about access; finding someone that I have been able to see for both medication and talk therapy has been a key for me. It took years to find someone that really worked for me.
My therapist is not “in network” for our crappy insurance company, so I pay out of pocket until I reach the deductible--spreading the appointments as far out as I possibly can--and then once I meet the deductible and insurance kicks in to pay a portion, I cram in some more visits if I need them. But it’s better than spending bad money on co-pays and time with people who don’t get me. This woman likes for me to wrap myself in a blanket and eat my banana on her couch. And she’s the only therapist I’ve ever been truly honest with about my addictive personality. She knows that if she were to prescribe one Ativan per day, I would like to take five, at least.
I have to acknowledge that my above statements come with the fact that I have health insurance. I feel a grateful that through myself or my husband, I have always had coverage, even if crappy. I’m cognizant that accessing mental health care is a barrier for many and this is one of the things that make me sad. I also will say that even with insurance, our system isn’t friendly towards people facing mental health challenges. Everything is a huge pain in the ass.
When do you struggle most with self-care? When do you find it easier?
It’s hard right now. My four-year-old is a smart, bouncing boy, which is to say he is challenging. I am weaning my almost-18-month-old. So I should say I think it’s getting better. I’m getting more sleep. We had the baby in our bed for at least half the night until a couple of months ago. Sleep is always the biggest area of concern for me, along with remembering to eat, and take my medication. I guess those are three big ones.
How does being a parent intersect with depression and illness for you?
That’s a super tough question. Before I was diagnosed as bipolar, I spent a few months in a deep depression, basically living in the corner of my couch. I no longer own that couch and there’s not really a good metaphor to insert here that will tell you how happy I am to be the mom of these two boys. I don’t want either of them to ever feel that kind of sadness.
That is the hardest part of it for me. Also, the fact that mentally and physically, I need time away from them. Is that because I’m bipolar or is it motherhood? And, of course, I don’t want them to see me sad, but it happens. And we’ll talk about it in due time. But, also, I have anxiety. A lot, and obviously more as a parent. This is a hard intersection. I might not meditate, but I take a lot of deep breaths.
What kind of relationship do you have to your illness? Does how you think about it change the way you live with it?
I tried to commit suicide when I was 17 and didn’t take seriously the fact that I had any illness until I was 27. When this extremely well-put-together psychiatric resident told me I was bipolar, I didn’t like it. When I finally accepted it, I was glad to have a new understanding of myself and some of the choices I made along the way. And now, it helps me stay healthy. If that means being labeled, I’m okay with it. That said, I don’t wear the fact that I’m bipolar on my sleeve. It doesn’t define me. I think some people I know will be surprised to read this, though I’ve been much more open in discussing it in recent years.
What's most useful for you in terms of support from other people? Is outside support important for you?
It’s very important. I am close with my family and have a very supportive partner. He doesn’t think of me as someone with an illness, though he is understanding of the fact that it’s sometimes how I feel. It’s not an option for me to put myself to bed for a few days, but it is an option to ask for help when I need it. It’s also not an option for me to let myself go too far into the mania part of bipolar. I can feel that coming, when I’m driving too fast or wanting to spend too much money. That’s when I know I need more self-care. If I let myself get too far up, I know now that it’s a lower place on the other side. (And the “up” isn’t always this euphoric place that some people think it is. For me, it’s a very hard to describe sense of wanting to leave my body.)
I also have good friends that I talk to--they aren’t my therapists, but they get it. Also, just being with people, having fun, enjoying my kids, being alive; it’s important enough in itself. That said, I sometimes require more time alone, and people in my life understand that too. I’m fortunate to have a lot of great people around me.
You're also a freelancer--how do you negotiate the balance between self-care and being a mom and writing for love and writing for work and working? (Or do you feel like you can balance all of that at all? That's a lot to balance.)
I’m a freelancer and I work “per diem” for an executive search firm that serves the nonprofit world. The work I do means I create my own schedule--it also means some weeks I have a lot of work and some weeks I have less. I have the same childcare schedule every week. I have had to figure out how to manage the shifts in my work life--mentally, financially and physically. I also work “from home” and some weeks it feels like self-care is just impossible.
But work is also really important to me. I’ve had a job since I was 13, except for once in my twenties, when I left a bad work situation. (It’s after that that I moved into the corner of my couch--and then finally found my way out.) I care about the work I do, which impacts my mental health in a very positive way. Work also means childcare and as I said above, some weeks I have more time for things that really nourish me. It’s then that I can write more. Needless to say, I would like to be writing every day. While it’s a goal, my priorities shift day to day and I have figured out, mostly, how to manage this. It’s definitely more difficult as a mom, but it’s totally worth it.
Jacqui Morton's writing has been published in places such as The Rumpus, Salon, RoleReboot and The Mom Egg, She holds an MFA from Antioch University and is a trained birth doula. A chapbook of her poems, Turning Cozy Dark, was published in 2013 by Finishing Line Press as a semi-finalist in the New Women's Voices Competition. Visit her at confessionalmama.blogspot.com, on Twitter @morton919, or at jacquimorton.com.