Comorbid: finding stability on shifting ground. (Guest post)

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image credit: Beth Kirby

About a year after getting clean, I was sitting in my therapist’s office, and I decided, with her encouragement, to start a website and forge the career I really wanted. I poured myself into it as I’d previously poured myself into my own dissolution. A lot of my weaknesses are also my strengths; that’s how it goes, I think. I liken it to nuclear fission—it can either power cities or destroy them.

This post comes to you courtesy of Off We Go: Entrepreneurs & Mental Illness, a guest post series coming to you every Tuesday while I’m off, writing and Internet-less, at Hedgebrook. Today’s post is by Beth Kirby.

Listen to me read this piece below:

 

I’ve been thinking about identity a lot, that patchwork of signifiers we quilt and name “I”. Who am I? Do I ever really change? I’m Beth, a freelance writer, photographer, stylist, and recipe developer, as well as the creator of the food & lifestyle blog Local Milk. I spend my days doing everything from creating & testing recipes to planning & hosting events, photographing & styling shoots to writing, and catering dinners to doing all the little things one has to do to run a business and keep one’s home in some vague semblance of cleanliness and order. I’m more than what I do though. I’m also who I love & who loves me; I’m a partner, sister, daughter, and friend. A soon to be aunt. I’m a 30-year-old woman, a southerner. I’m a thrower of ambitious dinner parties, an avid wanderer, and a lover of linen. I’m a cat owner, a collector, a divorcee, and a hat lady. But I’m other things too, harder things, and I’ve been those other things a lot longer. Alcoholic. Addict. Bipolar I. OCD. ADHD. Comorbid. That’s me on paper.

And for a decade it seemed as if those words were the whole of me. I wasn’t entirely hollow, not at first. I wrote, albeit infrequently, mostly non-fiction lyric essays about casual sex, cocaine, dissolution, and running. I cooked, drunkenly but passionately. I never baked. Ever. I always said I “lived the book I couldn’t write.” It wasn’t glamorous, and by the end, as the years wore on, it was downright terror. Razor blades and dirty needles, faceless men and hysteria — I self-medicated myself to near death, but I survived, little more and hardly that. I’m not a fan of war stories. I share all this in the hopes that if you know that I came from there to here — dive bars to farmers’ markets —you’ll know anyone can. Recovery is possible, thriving is possible.

No, it doesn’t sound good, but it’s all too common, comorbidity — disease heaped upon disease. When it rains, as they say, it does in fact pour. But what is disease? A lack of ease, quite literally. So what does it mean to have comorbid mental illnesses? It means I have multiple sources of lack of ease — lack of ease in thought life, emotions, behavioral control, perception. It means it’s hard. So much so, I never dreamed I’d be a functional human being, let alone self-employed. Truth be told, I’m not even sure I knew the reality I now inhabit — a reality in which I’m creatively fulfilled, have healthy relationships, and can take care of myself — even existed.

Because mental illness isn’t the province of ghosts and demons, nor is it the province of willpower and moral fiber. It took me a long time to understand that last part; I still struggle with it. It is physiological. And it’s no more my fault than my grayish eyes.

Anti-psychotics to anti-epileptics, benzos to SSRIs, I’ve been prescribed so many different medications over the course of my life I couldn’t even begin to remember them all. They say people with bipolar disorder are terrible historians anyway. Their side effects have been legion, from narcolepsy and nightmares to hair loss, weight gain, mania, and so much more. At 28 years old due to lithium toxicity, my thyroid stopped functioning properly. I’ll be on medication for that for the rest of my life. I spent one morning years ago in a hysterical panic, so convinced alien ships would darken the sky and spell certain death that I was taken to my mother’s house, put in her bed, and promptly sedated. I’ve been institutionalized twice. These things happen. Because mental illness isn’t the province of ghosts and demons, nor is it the province of willpower and moral fiber. It took me a long time to understand that last part; I still struggle with it. It is physiological. And it’s no more my fault than my grayish eyes. That bit, that bit allows me freedom. That bit allows me to work, create, and have relationships, to ride the waves instead of allowing them to suck me under. I’m down to only two pills for mental health now, but I take them dutifully each morning because I accept the simple fact that my brain does not function properly without them. It doesn’t function perfectly with them, but it’s better.

So there you have it. The first step I took towards functioning: accepting I am sick. Don’t get me wrong, accepting it is one of those one day at a time sort of things. I waver. I’ll probably always waver. I have a natural tendency to want to blame myself, to say, “I’m not ill, I’m just a weak person.” But what I realized was that taking responsibility for the treatment and management of my mental illness and blaming myself for them are two entirely different things. Once I accepted I was sick, which happened the second time I was in treatment, I was then able to get clean & sober and to then take responsibility for the management of the rest of it. If anyone out there reading this suffers from comorbid addiction and another mental health disorder, I’m going to go ahead and say, speaking from my experience, you can’t even begin to approximate functioning until you’re clean. So that was the first and biggest step for me.

mystic desk_1

A lot of my weaknesses are also my strengths; that’s how it goes, I think. I liken it to nuclear fission—it can either power cities or destroy them.

But what happened after that? Another raging neurosis leapt in to take the addiction’s place, and I ended up in an outpatient treatment facility for an obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s been a long path. I had to accept that too. About a year after getting clean, I was sitting in my therapist’s office, and I decided, with her encouragement, to start a website and forge the career I really wanted. I poured myself into it as I’d previously poured myself into my own dissolution. A lot of my weaknesses are also my strengths; that’s how it goes, I think. I liken it to nuclear fission—it can either power cities or destroy them. It’s my belief that reality isn’t entirely cruel and mental illness is not without its perks. The same thing that almost ate me alive also fuels my creativity and my drive. I didn’t get cured. I live with mental illness, learned to live with it. That, not some magic pill, is what allows me to have a full life. Accepting it has allowed me to build a life, something I never even dreamed of, in spite of my daily struggles and maybe even because of them.

Sometimes my house falls down around my head, and I can barely stand the thought of getting out of bed, and other times I only sleep every 48 hours and get oodles done. I simultaneously accept that and look to manage it. I’m not ashamed of it. I work with myself, not against myself, and by doing so, I can swing back to that ephemeral spot in the middle, that spot I’m tempted to call normal, much easier.

I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention the how of my accepting & managing. I believe we’re multi-dimensional creatures, infinitely faceted and complex. I believe we are physical, emotional, and spiritual beings. Therefore I take a multi-pronged approach to what I would call my treatment plan, my plan for living. Know this “plan” is an ideal, not something I always live up to. Unfortunately mental illness often stands in the way of the very things that make it better, and that is why we fight, must fight, always.

To treat the physical I take medication, eat healthy & take supplements, try (okay, largely in vain) to keep a regular sleep schedule, and aim to practice yoga and move about during the day. Emotionally, I give time to my relationships, and if I’m at a time when I feel I need to see a therapist, I don’t hesitate. I talk about what I’m feeling. That’s all feelings really want, even the ones that don’t make sense. I don’t judge them. Now for the last prong.

Spiritually, I do what I choose to do. It is my own. I don’t think one has to be a theist to have a higher power. Quantum physics can be your higher power. Hecate can be. It doesn’t have to fit into a traditional framework, and it doesn’t have to not fit. Your spirituality is your own. But, speaking solely for myself, I’ve only found peace in this life when I have some form of relationship to some higher power. When I’m interacting with the mystery, when I’m making a decision to have faith in something bigger than myself—that is where I’ve found freedom. That’s where many people like me have found freedom. You don’t have to believe in a god to meditate. You don’t have to be an atheist to see the divinity in math. You don’t have to be pagan to believe in the power of herbs. It’s this life, this planet, this great singular metaphor — this wonder and this bigger than I — that ultimately gives me freedom. It’s the interconnectedness of it all, the myriad languages to describe the various facets of reality as we experience it. I live in wonder of these things. I have faith in the mystery and in the bigger than me. I choose to believe everything happens for a reason for no reason other than I live better that way. I live in the hands of something other than myself. I rest there. In my blind, amorphous faith I give up my need to know so much, and there’s so, so much acceptance to be had in that place.

 

I morphed. But, as in the mathematical branch of topology, I don’t believe I’ll ever compromise the Euclidian space I occupy. Whether I’m a donut or a coffee cup, I’m still a thing with a hole in it.

So have I really changed? Did some fundamental shift happen? Yes and no. I gained faith in something. That was my turning point. I morphed. But, as in the mathematical branch of topology, I don’t believe I’ll ever compromise the Euclidian space I occupy. Whether I’m a donut or a coffee cup, I’m still a thing with a hole in it. I believe we remain homeomorphic to ourselves. Which is to say, we are who we are and on a fundamental level we remain that way, but the manifestation of that I are vast. Mental illness most certainly doesn’t mean defeat. If you’re laboring under the misapprehension that it does, because it certainly can feel like it does, my advice to you is to know your weaknesses, carve out a space for them in your life, and then climb. And fall. And climb again without fear. And fall again. And never stop. You’ll find you’ve climbed very far and achieved more than you thought possible, even with all those falls. And personally, I think you’ll be better for them. Suffering can breed a wisdom and compassion you’d never have without it. So let reality bend and ripple, let alien waves of sadness come followed by great gusts of wanton electricity, and work hard when you can, rest when you can’t — it’s okay when you can’t.

BIO

bethkirby-smBorn and raised in Tennessee, Beth Kirby currently works as a freelance photographer, writer, recipe developer, and stylist, and she spends the rest of her time blogging about cooking with locally sourced ingredients, travel, the sacred found in the mundane, and entertaining on her website, Local Milk. Her work has appeared in print in Home and Hill Magazine and Food & Wine, and online on Kinfolk, Food52, Saveur, The Kitchn, Spenser Magazine, and more. When not behind the stove, lens, or keyboard she can usually be found combing farmers markets & flea markets alike in search of inspiration for her next project. You can find her on Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

 

P.S.

Find more posts from the Off We Go: Entrepreneurs & Mental Illness series here. Other pieces of writing that you might find interesting include On Robin Williams, Mental Health Advocacy, & Small Gestures of Comfort, Briars: Beyond Coping, and my own e-book about compassion and living well with mental illness, Light Gets In

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  • I am so moved by your story, Beth. Thank you for sharing. I’m working on acceptance in many areas of my life, including my anxiety disorder. Your self care practices are similar to mine – and they are a godsend! Wishing you well. Bella.

  • Wauw, thank you SO much for writing and sharing this. You are so brave! I find so much strength in what you write on how your weakness is also your strenghth and that being ill is not your fault!! This really inspires me.
    Wish you all the best.

    Xo Suus from Food Bandits

  • Thank you so much for sharing your story Beth. I am familiar with so much of it…diagnoses, dirty needles, hospitalizations, medications, and the hopelessness that comes from thinking nothing will ever change. I’m not functioning quite as well as you but I am working on it. Your story has encouraged me, and I’m sure you understand what a gift that is.

  • Thank you so much for sharing your experience with addiction and bi-polar. My sister is suffering from both however she is in prison serving a 4 yr sentence. Don’t get me started on the unfairness of the justice system, but what I will say is that your story gives me hope that my sister can indeed find her way.

  • Hi Beth,
    Your beautiful life story resonated within my soul. We are sisters in the magic and the melee of sobriety, clean living and comorbidity. I follow you on Instagram and I’m Tinaslo . Every word meant so much. You are a wonderful and creative soul.
    Tina

  • Thank you so much for sharing this part of your story Beth. I struggle daily dealing with my sister who is both an addict and diagnosed as bipolar and psychotic depressive. I can only hope she learns to manage her illnesses as well as you have. I also love that you said believing in a higher power helps you find your freedom. While I’m not religious, the beauty I find on this Earth and in this universe helps keep my trivial problems in perspective. Again, thank you for sharing.

  • I hardly leave a response, however i did a few searching and wound up
    here Comorbid: finding stability on shifting ground.

    (Guest post). And I do have 2 questions for you if you do not mind.

    Is it just me or does it appear like a few of the comments
    look like they are written by brain dead folks?
    😛 And, if you are writing on other social sites,
    I’d like to keep up with everything new you have to post.

    Could you list of all of all your communal pages like your
    Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?

  • Dear Beth, I have nursed a child through anorexia, and learned so much about myself along the way. Even when the brain tricked her and her behaviours were scary I never stopped loving the child she was. I bristle when sportspeople are labelled mentally strong……I cry out, NO, mentally strong are those who have overcome, those who have been tested daily, those that show true courage and resist the path of least resistance, those who face each and every day doing the things they must do just to stay well. Mentally strong people are the everyday men and woman who do not have adulation and society approval but those who face deep despair and somehow hold on.
    My daughter recovered and I found true meaning in my life, I was sad that she suffered so much but glad I was given the opportunity to see and show real love.
    You and all of us that overcome a mental illness are not weak or faulty, we are true heroes, tested and found to have what it really takes! I am proud of her and proud of me, we faced a demon and stared it down, we are freaking awesome!
    When the dark clouds gather, I know how to endure, I know I can give in or accept it and it will pass, I accept the cycles they are part of life, I know life is what it is, neither good nor bad but just is.
    Beth you are a true warrior woman. You are mentally strong, you are a survivor.

  • Beautiful and inspiring. Your writing is amazing. Your words resonate so much with what I struggle with.
    Love your work and creativity.
    Thanks for sharing and wish you all the best.

  • Thank you for sharing this. I’m a 25 year old jewish guy from NYC. Superficially, we’d probably appear to be total opposites but intrinsically, we have so much in common. I am just getting clean now while fighting with extreme anxiety and depression and your words created a little blip of happiness in my day. Sometimes, those blips can be catalysts for something much greater. Thank you again.

  • I have a few dis-eases myself, like depression, anxiety issues, substance abuse history, PTSD. Hello… I think I may be multi-polar!?
    One way I cope is to avoid everything and try to laugh at it all. Not all that successful so another is doing some talk therapy and hang out in the pool doing aquatic PT.
    I also bake. Breads are my passion. Talk about therapy!
    Although I was raised in MA, I lived in Nashville for 10 years, where I got a lot of my cooking and baking experience. In MI now.
    Thoroughly enjoying your blog which I discovered this morning while perusing another blog regarding pancake layer cakes, and so found your link to waffle cakes. Yum!
    I’ll be visiting again soon. Be well! And thank you for being, well, you!

  • Hello im Angie from Lancashire uk. Im 41 married with three children. I dont drink or smoke……anymore. Oh wow im so glad to know u here on instagram. I just read your whole story and was shocked at first that such a calm satisfied soul had been so tumultous and broken but then i remembered myself

    I was addicted go alcohol after a very raw divorce tried to self medicate

    My life absolutely started to crumble.

    I was diagnosed depressed put on citalopram and diazapam..

    I prayed to the Lord cried out for help and thankfully here i am sober for life godwilling. Its been a long hard journey but i feel same as u…like ive found true peace … i see sacred in the daily mundane… i feel contentment. My addictive personality did find a replacement tho…. praise God it was crochetting and making handmade patchwork quilts x i have need to love and GIVING brings much joy to me..i long to see smiles on faces as i give a blanket ive spent weeks making…just that five second smile makes every stitch worthwhile

    I pray you journey on in peace sweet soul may u be forever blessed because your page brought much joy and peace and grounding to my heart

    P.s i would love to know more about your retreats x

  • Today as I prowled my Instagram feed I came upon a post that made reference to a stellar Instagram account that was not to be missed. Casually clicked on the link, what I found was a glorious collection of photos that took my breath away. I felt compelled to follow the link in the bio; after perusing away I came upon a link to a post on mental health. The adventure that began with beautiful photos led me to one of the most well written pieces on living with mental disease. Thank you. Thank you for sharing your story. It’s so important that those of us surviving mental illness and thriving share our journeys of recovery.

  • Beth,
    I am newly sober and have been diagnosed with a mental illness.
    I saw that you were participating in the Atlanta Create & Cultivate event here. I didn’t know of you so I googled. I read about you and found your writing about your mental illness.
    What apoke to me in your article was your acceptance of a higher power. Attending AA, I have been struggling with just this concept. I am at step 3 and I now read your article. It’s as if God or a higher power is talking to me THRU you and your article.
    Thank you for writing this and I thank my higher power for showing it to me.

    Fondly,

    Page

  • for the first time in my life I have found a confirmation of my escalating and decelerating moods, debilitating fears of things, situations, feelings I cannot even begin to describe. Thank you for saying what I wanted to for a long time but didn’t know how