The Unseen Disruptions of Living with a Mental Illness

It’s early April as I write this – the evening of April 3rd, 2016, to be exact. Now the temperature has fallen back to around 42 degrees F. But it was a balmy 65 degrees when we were out walking the Aldo Leopold Wetland Management Area in Columbia Co. We were stretching our legs and taking in big healthy breaths of good Wisconsin fresh air. Relaxing, being contemplative, and Intent on the low key beauty of the marsh.

The many varieties of ducks we saw were not surprising and neither were the geese, but the eagle! The eagle was a special gift and unexpected. It soared far above us in the clear air and we delighted in its flight. Then returning it descended quite close so that I had a good view of the raptor‘s majesty. It was wondrous.

A little while later, outwardly unrelated to this day’s explorations, a feeling of impending doom cast its spell on me. I was experiencing my first panic attack in recent years. Once again it was as if an octopus had released its fluid, so dark and inky and totally encompassing was the sense of foreboding ruin. Danger lurked everywhere; there was no safe niche for me or for us. Not If I believed my false mind. Not being able to depend on one’s own mind, to know its emotions are reliable, is one of the most difficult aspects of having a mental illness. Certainly there was no danger. I was even in touch with my husband – holding his hand – yet I was struck by a chilling miasma.


Luckily, I have experience now. I recognized and knew this episode was a panic attack (please note *) . That meant my feelings weren’t accurate and I had to hold on to myself firmly enough to wait it out. Wait out the fear and wait out the panic. A cool 20 minutes, while awash in waves of alarm and high alert.  Today’s attack was pretty smooth because there was just Jim and I walking in this vicinity. When I was a younger woman, our children would have been outdoors with us, exploring for the first signs of spring. Things were awkward then for all of us.

Panic attacks can happen any time or anywhere. From my NAMI Family to Family Education Program curriculum (2013): “You might be shopping, sleeping, or in the middle of a meeting. Suddenly, your heart begins to race, your face flushes and you have trouble breathing. You feel dizzy, nauseated, out-of-control —- maybe even like you’re going to die.”

What to do?

What did I do? I kept on walking……walking at the same steady pace. Today I do not run; I do not desperately seek to hide, to retreat. And we did not begin bright cherry talk in an attempt to break free of the imploding fear. Instead, I informed Jim as to what was going on. I asked for and received a quiet squeeze and we pursued our goal, a simple late afternoon walk.

As I have found from my experience, and as psychiatric treatment and research has shown, learning about and accepting a panic attack for what it is can help lessen its effect. A panic attack is often a reaction to fear, and some of the strange physical reactions experienced during an attack are the result of the body reacting to this fear. One may become mentally anxious over a past, traumatic event and the body responds as if it will happen right away. Or a person may not only picture themselves experiencing a traumatic event, but perhaps also fear losing control and not being able to handle the current situation.  Your body goes on alert and automatic bodily reactions ensue. Your mind remains stuck on fearful thoughts.

Giving this array of physical feelings and scary thoughts a name, i.e., panic attack, cuts the phenomenon back to a human scale. I have found that the more I understand my fears, the better I am able to control them. Here are some practices I have found helpful:

  • Simple breathing and relaxation techniques.
  • Walking and light aerobic exercise.
  • Confronting your fears.
    Try writing in a journal about your panic attacks. Read the description when you’re feeling better. This technique is helpful for two reasons: you’ll learn what to expect and two, you can look for patterns to find similarities between attacks. From this practice one gains some mastery which can help counter the overwhelming flood of helplessness that fear and doom brings.

It was also helpful for me to remember that panic attacks were relatively brief and not real in the sense that the doom wasn’t real.

For those whose loved one experiences panic attacks, my husband passes on this message:

“…..Simply and gently ask the person experiencing a panic attack what would make them more comfortable. In years past we tried to help by focusing on a bright sunny sky, for example, but Gail’s panic worsened and she felt rejected. Best was a calm acceptance and a safe presence while panic flooded her person. Try reminders to do deep breathing. Again, give gentle reassurance that the frightening experience will pass. Allow some time afterwards for a breather for everyone to recover before you attempt to get back to things as they were.”


(*) I’m speaking here of the experience typically termed a “panic attack.” They may be infrequent or never occur again, but if you have recurrent, unexpected panic attacks and spent long periods in constant fear of another attack, you may have a condition called panic disorder.  Please seek help.
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Oh So Real: Pregnancy and Suicidal Depression

“Oh baby,” I said, as he/she came down the birth canal, “You are born!”. It was 1979. We didn’t know the sex of the child before birth. The birthing experience was wonderful, a balm for the difficult pregnancy caused by the onset of major depression in the fourth month of pregnancy.

I was alone.

Don’t get me wrong, my husband was with me very much during the pregnancy. But I was alone with being pregnant and being ill. I knew no other woman who was or had been pregnant and seriously depressed to talk to, to compare notes, to help me express my feelings or to hug. I hope this summary of my story of the difficult pregnancy will help other mothers who find themselves struggling with similar experiences today.

If you are pregnant and depressed, you are Not alone.

People with mental illness want to succeed as parents

Parenting. I know that when my son was born, and I had serious depression, I was overwhelmed by the thought of taking care of a newborn, the rest of the family, the home, meals, …..the whole shebang. No one in my health care team thought of arranging for assistance for me or even meeting with me. My extended family assumed once the baby was born the depression would correct itself and, with the joy of the new baby, I would manage fine.

Actually the terror of my anxiety level worsened. I was sure I would do things wrong. The depression worsened.

My children are now ages 35 and 40. They are well and we are doing well with each other. I couldn’t be more blessed as a parent. In fact, now I am a Grandparent to two children, a boy and girl who are 5 and 9. Their birthdays are coming up and celebrating grandchildren’s birthdays  is an awful lot of fun!

I’ll discuss some things I would have done differently when my children were born in a second post.

Parenting, continued….

Raising children, for me, while taking care of my own mental illness, was a double challenge. I was a parent before major depression, and later Bipolar Disorder II, evolved. My article on parenting (in the menus above under “Real Life, Real Challenges”) was written several years ago but this post gives me the opportunity to add to my observations.
Support should be given to them every step of the way, as needed, per individual. We love our children and want to do the best for them. Support during pregnancy check-ups; assistance at hand, if wanted, when the baby is about to be born; coordinated discharge planning when mother and baby are leaving for home; weekly in-home visits, etc.

With that in mind, here are some things I would do differently if I had the opportunity:

  • I would be less critical of family members. In fact, I think that some parenting classes can be suggested to parents with mental illness ( we’d learn the program and we’d all learn from each other) Stress techniques that would teach how to do positive reinforcement so the parent with depression/mental illness has some tools to use.
  • I would teach my children at an earlier age, in simple terms, that I had an illness and that sometimes I needed the house to be extra quiet and I had to nap because I wasn’t feeling well.
  • I/we would teach that the illness and bad feelings that I had were not the children’s fault, nor anyone’s fault.