I have always been one who has been open about my history, and my family's history.
Except for the last few months...or even the last year.
Many know the details of my upbringing, my dad raised me for several years on his own, before he entered the hospital with terminal cancer, and I entered foster care, eventually ending up with my now-parents.
Not everyone knows of my dad's struggle with mental illness. It wasn't so much a secret, as it was just not something brought up much. He sacrificed a lot when he became a father, the biggest thing being control over his life.
My dad was diagnosed as Schizophrenic in his 20s. He also had the classic symptoms of Bipolar, for which he was not ever fully treated. Throughout his younger years, he coped with his conditions with drugs, alcohol, and risky behavior.
When he became a father, my dad took his medications religiously. He hated the way they made him feel, and some of their side effects were not overly pleasant, but his first priority was his kids. When my birth mother walked out on him, leaving him with a 3yo and a 3mo, he almost fell back on his old ways, but he looked down at our faces, and realized that he was all we had left.
He stayed sober, he stayed clean, he stayed medicated. Even through the pain of having to give my little brother up for adoption, he continued to walk the line, praying that my brother would live a content and privileged life, and hoping that by giving him that opportunity, he could afford to keep a roof over our heads, as the family who adopted my brother was not interested in a 5yo as well.
When he was diagnosed with his cancer, there was nothing they could do for him but give him the choice between certain death, and certain misery. He held on as long as he could, and when he was forced out of work, with little to no money for weeks on end, still put my needs, and his medications above all else.
My dad was a tall man. Maybe 6' at his prime; an imposing looking man, with the soul of a saint. He was almost 100lbs when he finally passed away, after nearly a year in the hospital. His life all but forgotten by those who passed him daily.
He was a traveler, fluent in 3 languages, a mechanical genius, and a musical savant. If you gave him an hour with just about any instrument, he could figure it out, and play you just about any song. He loved the Beatles, and his voice was like butter across warm bread. I can still remember him softly singing Blackbird to me as he lulled me to sleep.
His musical skills were something smothered by his medications, but even though he could not enjoy it, he did his best to instill a joy of music in me.
I grew up with a different mental health outlook than my dad. I was diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum as a kid, developing the beginnings of anxiety, and after several years, grew to adapt to my environment, like my dad did.
After losing my daughter in 2001, PTSD was added to my portfolio, and I ran as hard and as fast as I could from the reality of my world. I joined the US Army, and within months shipped off to Iraq.
I watched people I know be killed, watched the survivors change before my eyes. I was shot at, and I shot back. I ran through a hail of bullets more than once, and I cleaned up more blood than I care to recall. All this, as a Combat Medic.
It was a great distraction from the pain of losing my infant daughter, but upon returning to the US, having endured 18mo of fighting and death in Iraq, I could not be my father's son.
I could not cope, and began drinking and self-medicating to dull the pain. And it worked... for a few weeks. I was never able to push myself into anything illegal, so it was just a few months down the road before the phone call that would save my life.
I hit rock bottom on a cold, dark night in Chicago. I had some pills and a building, because I wanted it all to stop, and I wasn't sure I even had the guts to do it, so I wanted options.
By then, my sister (adoptive), had been diagnosed as rapid-cycling Bipolar for about 10 years, and with a history of suicide attempts, I reached out to her for support. Fortunately, she offered me none.
Being across the country, stationed at Camp Pendleton with her husband, she call my mother in Kansas, who drove the 9-hour trip, all the while my sister kept me talking.
Looking back, I still don't know if I really had it in me to go through with my plans, but I am just glad, today, that I had a safety net in place that day.
With everything I've been through, I had always joked about my family history of mental health issues. Personally, I have a laundry list that includes PTSD (from losing my daughter, and from my deployment), SAD, GAD, OCD, ADD/ADHD, ASD, CP, Dyspraxia, and quite a few TBIs.
It was a relief to make it to my 30th birthday without adding my father's disorders to mine, and I have prided myself in my management of my symptoms over the years, seldom resorting to medications.
I am not one to refuse the help I need, but most medications thus far have shown to be ineffective for my complex alphabet soup of overlaying symptoms. I manage well, with alternative therapies (mindfulness, meditation, desensitization, etc), but seek help when I need it. With my history, and my complexities, I am not stupid enough to ignore the signs that things are getting beyond my control.
In 2014, something happened that would have been significant to most people, but given my history, was almost a laughing point.
While training at an out-of-state weapons site with people from an adjoining unit, I suffered a non-impact concussion, from the blast of a machine gun in a room too small for that weapon's use. The initial injury occurred around 10am, and by 6pm I was being taken to the Emergency Department at a local hospital for my symptoms. The hospital staff, not taking my history of concussions seriously (the more you have, the easier it is to get another), brushed it off and put my official diagnosis as "Migraine and Tension headache".
Upon returning to Virginia, the next day, and returning to work, I was immediately referred out to the TBI/Neuropsychology department at the Naval Hospital.
Having daily, debilitating headaches AND migraines, suffering memory loss, and having an inability to concentrate, I received consistent outpatient assessments and therapies for nearly 6mo. At that point it was decided that I had reached the limits of outpatient care, and was turned over to a self-paced program to help with any potential residual recovery.
I made it about 3mo on the self-paced program before I sought out counseling, having trouble coping with what we thought were the residual effects of my concussion. After additional evaluations, it was thrown out there that my new issues were actually Bipolar disorder, triggered by my concussion.
It was a shock.
Being in the medical field, I have seen cases of MH issues being triggered by trauma (my sister's Bipolar was triggered by sexual and physical abuse from her birth family), but its one of those things that you never think will happen to you.
I was resilient. I bounced back from the concussion. I have bounced back from ALL my concussions.
And I would bounce back from this.
We had to change up the way we structured our life, but over time my wife, my counselor, and I were able to find a balance. More structure here, less structure there.... Stepping back from some things, pushing forward with other plans.
And finally, we had our balance, as we were welcoming our youngest daughter into our lives at the end of last summer.
Things had stabilized well, but there were small things that were beginning to become noticeable to me, my coworkers, and my family. Mixing up words.... Losing track of time.... Losing track of conversations.... and being unable to communicate my thoughts to others.
These are all issues that can come from a concussion, but unfortunately, they had worsened (just slightly) since my recovery was deemed "adequate".
After further evaluations, discussing my entire mental health history, and breaking down each of my disorders, and every single symptom I have or have ever had, our world was rocked to the core.
With my new diagnosis, our lives are now forever changed. I am being evaluated to determine if I can continue to serve in the military, and we are having to make a lot of tough decisions about our present, and our future.
My diagnosis with Bipolar put my blogging on the back-burner for several months, and I didn't want that to happen with this diagnosis, since I may be coming to you all for help in the future. But MH diagnosis' are not easy, for anyone. Especially when the diagnosis is one that most people fear and do not understand. Even as someone with Autism (which is also feared, and not understood), I sit here worried about the rejection of myself and my family from both our virtual world and our community.
The stigma behind Schizophrenia is grander than most diseases.
And while I may not hear voices, or have hallucinations, I find myself wishing this was all just a made-up reality I concocted in my head.