Sara Berelsman

Sara Berelsman is a contributing writer to this blog. Sara has also recently released a book on her experience with coming out of substance addiction.

We do not choose this.

Sara Berelsman

(03/21/14)

We do not choose mental illness and we do not choose addiction.

If you think otherwise, then get on your knees right now and thank God, because you have never experienced the true horror that is addiction.  You have never suffered through mental illness.  You are one of those people who happened to be born with a “normal” brain.  Many times I’ve been jealous of you, but I’m not anymore.  These are the cards I was dealt.  I often think that God just took the stack of cards and flicked them out onto the population, and is then sitting back, watching crazy situation after crazy situation unfold.  God has one hell of a sense of humor.

I quit drinking two and a half years ago.  I didn’t choose to become an alcoholic.  An addict is born an addict.  We are born with a genetic predisposition, something in our brains that doesn’t signify when enough is enough. It’s never enough.  Never.  It took for me to become a completely different person, and one that I didn’t like at all anymore, for me to realize I had to quit drinking.  Something else happened; this power came over me, and helped me make the decision.  God was part of the decision.

I’ve never been someone of blind faith.  I’m always questioning the existence of God.  The intellectual part of me overpowers the intuitive part of me, and because I don’t have concrete proof of God, I don’t believe.  At least, that’s how it’s been up until this point.  What happened to me this week changed all that.

When I quit drinking, I felt as if God for the first time in my life was really present.  I felt it.  This decision to quit was bigger than I was.  It was fate, combined with my decision to quit.  That’s something else I’ve always had a hard time with.  Is it fate or is it free will?  Well, my therapist thinks it’s both.  Now I believe that, too.   It is incredibly hard for me to not think in black and white terms.  It’s all or nothing.  Go big or go home.  My brain is wired differently than a “normal” person’s.  I am bipolar.  I am an addict.  This is where much of the population seems to step in and voice their opinions about addiction being a choice.  About anxiety being for “pussies,” as one of my Facebook friends stated quite confidently this week.  Man up, pussy.

Fuck that.

Anxiety is real.  It is very real.  It is biological, not a choice.  I know this with every fiber of my being.  Depression is real.  So horribly, horrifically, terribly real.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to die.  And I’m an intelligent person with a lot going for me – everything going for me.  Please tell me why I’d choose to feel suicidal.  The answer is, I don’t.  And for people to minimize depression, to scoff at it, to trivialize the very real thoughts I’ve had about wanting to kill myself because nothing is good – I don’t care how everything appears to people on the outside – depression is biological.  I love my children more than anything.  I love Andy.  I love my parents.  Yet, when I’m depressed, that doesn’t matter.  All that matters is the here and now, and it is horrible.  There is no future in depression.  The only thing I can ask you to do is to take my word for it.  Trust me, Philip Seymour Hoffman did not choose to die.  He did not choose his mental state.  He did not choose to be an addict.  I am no different than he is.  Addicts crave a high.  Once the high is achieved, the brain is automatically chasing the next level of high.  It’s like an elevator that’s rising to the top, but stops on every floor.  And suddenly is going by itself; no one is pushing the buttons.  One beer used to get me tipsy.  That wasn’t enough anymore.  I needed that next level of high.  Two beers was a little better, but nothing like the euphoria of three beers.  Of four.  Of five.  It’s never enough.  Never.

I found God again this week.  I was telling my therapist yesterday, that all this time, the past few months, I’ve been wondering, where the fuck is God?  The answer is, God’s always been here.  It’s, where the fuck was I?  I know this because I felt God’s arm around me this week in a way that I’ve never experienced.  True, I had a life-changing experience when I quit drinking.  I found God.  As my therapist said, though, as human beings we grow, and then we regress.  It’s normal.  We take a few steps forward, then take a few steps back.  It’s life.  Well, I had regressed and didn’t seem to be going forward again.  I was frustrated and lost.  I lost God.  In the back of my mind, I knew this.  It just took a dramatic experience for it to really sink in for me.

While I gave up alcohol, I still smoked, and I took Ativan for anxiety.  It calmed my nerves.  It was something I could still do to achieve pleasure.  Except I discovered the electronic cigarette.  You see, in the past when I thought I was addicted to smoking, I was wrong.  I really didn’t smoke much at all.  With this new invention, however, I could do it anywhere.  All day.

My electronic cigarette had become a permanent fixture.  I had a routine.  Wake up, reach for the electronic cigarette.  Drink coffee and vape on the e cig.  Write an article and vape on the e cig.  Drive somewhere and vape on the e cig.  In the beginning, I was going through maybe a cartridge a day.  That turned into two.  Which turned into two packs.  Then, this week, I blew through the equivalent of a few cartons of cigarettes.  I don’t know about regular cigarettes, but my e cigs contain 16 mg of nicotine.  And I never understand nicotine withdrawal until this week.  Because I’d never really been addicted to it until now.

I’ve been in a cloud the past several months.  I was feeling better mentally, so I stopped taking my mood stabilizers.  This happens often with bipolar people.  Even thinking about it now sounds stupid, but when you’re high, you don’t remember what it’s like to be low.  When you’re low, you think you’ll never be happy again.  Take my word for it.  So since I was feeling better (and I’ve done this numerous times), I thought I didn’t need that medication anymore.  The thing is, I was feeling better because I was taking the pills.  In order to continue to feel good, I had to keep taking my medication.  When you’re manic, that makes no sense.  At all.  You often feel great, so you think you’re fine.  You’re not.

I noticed my highs and lows were cycling much more rapidly than they usually did.  It didn’t occur to me that the absence of a mood stabilizer was responsible for this.  After all, I was fine.  I went off the meds because I was fine.  Sometimes, it takes getting down to the lowest low to think otherwise.

I’d been in a fog.  No inspiration to write.  Nothing.  I thought maybe by ingesting as much caffeine and nicotine as possible, I’d push myself into a nice manic mood and feel inspired to write.  I did become manic, but it was not a good manic.  Think of the best you’ve ever felt.  Multiply it by one hundred.  That’s mania.  Except lately, my mania wasn’t euphoric this time.  It was agitation and restlessness.  Extreme uncomfortability.  Thoughts darting in and out of my light at lightning speed, and nothing I could do to turn them off or shut them out.  Picture how in movies or TV shows when they speed the cameras up so fast that you see traffic moving at lightning fast speed, flashes of colors and lights.  That’s a manic brain.  Burning, burning, burning, and nothing can stop it.

My therapist said it was a perfect storm for me to have the major panic attack I ended up having Thursday morning.  I slept Monday night.  I did not sleep Tuesday night.  Or Wednesday night.  I’d been awake for days.  I’d also unknowingly been sucking down nicotine around the clock.  I say unknowingly because it really was.  It was like breathing at that point.  I didn’t even notice it.  I was constantly switching from whichever cig I was vaping on to the one that was charging, because I was using it to the point that it needed charged every few minutes.  I was manically sucking on this thing.  With every breath I took.  For about two days straight.  I had also been taking Ativan every day, three a day.  But then three didn’t cut it.  I was up to five a day.  (Most people are prescribed one a day.)

Ativan is classified as a benzodiazepine.  Benzos are extremely addictive, incredibly hard to come off of, and easy to build up a tolerance for, which is what I’d done.  In the back of my mind, I’ve known since I quit drinking that I probably shouldn’t take them.  But what did I have left?  I needed something to take the edge off.  But my addictive brain could no longer be satiated with the edge being taken off.  I needed more and more and more pills to achieve the desired effect.  Well, I ran out.  Before my prescription could be refilled.  This happened right around the same time I took my final puff of the electronic cigarette.  I was out of cartridges.  I wanted more.  I didn’t have any more.  It was the middle of the night, and I’d been awake for days.  This was when I started having withdrawal symptoms.  Symptoms that are the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced.  Symptoms that scared the living shit out of me.  I was shaking all over.  I couldn’t stop.  No part of my body was still.  And it couldn’t stay still.  I couldn’t lie down.  I’d lie down and my legs thrashed around involuntarily.  My arms were flailing.  I paced around the house.  And paced.  And paced.  And paced.

Then, the really scary shit started happening.  My lips were making the puckering motion made when inhaling the cigarette – involuntarily. They would pucker up, the twitch back to normal.  Pucker, retract.  Pucker, retract.  Pucker retract.  I was scared as hell.  I woke up Andy, having involuntary muscle spasms, telling him I didn’t feel right.  I couldn’t stop.

This went on for hours.

Andy told me to try lying down.  This was the pattern for the next 24 hours – lie down, get up, lie down, get up, lie down, get up.  Right away.  When I was walking, I felt uncomfortable.  When I was lying down, I felt uncomfortable.  I was horrifically, painfully uncomfortable for hours.  My heart was beating out of my chest.  My skin was crawling so badly.  I wanted to jump out of my skin.  I couldn’t breathe.  I just started breathing like you do when you’re in labor, and with every passing millisecond, I had to tell myself that I would live through this – through this pain that was worse than childbirth – worse than anything I’ve experienced in my life.

That’s when I felt God’s arm around me.  I could just feel it.  I told myself that I could live through this, I would live through this, I had to.

My jaw and neck were still involuntarily tensing up, my mouth was still moving on its own.  Still, I tried to breathe and tell myself that with each passing second, it would get better.  I would live through this.  See, the thing is, during the past few months, I haven’t cared if I lived.  I wasn’t really doing anything to attempt to actively kill myself, but I also wasn’t doing anything to help myself.  If I died, I died.

It was in the midst of this withdrawal Hell that I decided I want to live.

And I don’t mean just live; I want to take an active role in my well-being.  I’d been stuck at this plateau for so long.  As my therapist said yesterday, It is only through pain that we grow.  No one grows when they’re comfortable.  It is only through pain that we grow.  He said he knows that without a doubt in his mind.  I believe him.

While I was experiencing these symptoms, I wished more than anything that it could just be over.  I’d have given anything.  Now, though, I see that it was essential.  I’d been passively sitting here, letting whatever be, be, when deep down I’ve known something is missing.  I’ve known I had more potential than what I was showing, but I was too scared to let go.

Thursday morning came, and there was a two-hour delay at school.  At this point, I had been awake since Tuesday morning, and things were really starting to accelerate.  I felt like I was going to die.  I was sure of it.  There was nothing I could do; I couldn’t fall asleep, my body was still involuntarily twitching.  Yet if I went through this much longer, I would die.  I couldn’t drive Adele to school.  I couldn’t function.

I called the doctor’s office, thinking at the time that my Ativan was due to get refilled that day.  I asked the nurse about it on the phone, who said, “That’s not supposed to be refilled until the 15th.”  I told her I’d thought it was the 13th, and she told me again it wasn’t until the 15th, because it was a 28-day prescription, not 30, as I’d thought.  “You’re not supposed to get it refilled until the 15th,” is all she kept saying.  Then, “Have you been taking more than you’re supposed to?”  I told her, “Sometimes…to help me sleep.”  Then she told me she knew the doctor wouldn’t refill it until the 15th, and I wanted to scream at her, “Do you know what I’m going through, you stupid bitch?!  I need something!”  And I thought I did – I thought, if I just take a few Ativan, it’ll take the edge off; maybe I’ll feel better.  Instead, “I asked, “Well, is there anything I could have for anxiety?  I was having trouble with my speech, along with all the other withdrawal symptoms. I was kind of slurring, and sentences were longer and more drawn out than normal.  She just said no, and I felt like some sort of drug seeker, of a junkie begging for a fix.

Suddenly I was up outside of my body looking down at myself.  I was having a panic attack.  I called Andy, saying, “I feel like I’m going to die,” and I started crying, saying I’d called the doctor, that I desperately needed something, and the nurse made me feel like a criminal.  “I can’t do this,” is all I kept saying.

At the same time, I had to somehow find the strength to get my kids through the day.  I love my kids more than life itself, but this made me appreciate them even more.  I heard Adele whisper to Eleanor, “Something’s wrong.  Mommy’s upset.”  Eleanor came over to me as I was crying and asked, “’Cause you lost your job?”  For the first time in days, I started laughing.  The girl’s obviously noticed a pattern with my inability to keep a job and my ability to cry about it.  I was still on the phone with Andy, and he told me, “See?  Just do stuff like that.  Sit with Eleanor and laugh.”  I called about ten people before someone answered.  It was Lisa, Eleanor’s preschool teacher.  I told her, “Ummm…I wondered if there’s any way you could drive Adele to school?  I’m having a panic attack and I can’t function,” as my voice cracked and I started sobbing again.  “I’m gonna start crying,” I told her, and she said it’s okay, that she would be here to pick up Adele.

When she got here, I told her not to look at my house, which was in complete disarray.  I was wearing my stained bathrobe, crying, still enduring waves of impending death.  She came in the house and the sun was shining directly on her through the kitchen window.  She was an angel, here to save me.

Not long after she left, I called the woman who helps with my support group, who also used to be a psychiatric nurse, and told her all my symptoms.  She calmly helped me understand that I wouldn’t die, that I could get through this.  I called my therapist, who told me to take a walk outside, to do whatever I could to expend energy so I’d finally crash.  My feet were raw at this point from pacing around the hardwood floors and walking up and down the stairs of our house, nonstop, for days.  My whole body ached as if I just ran a marathon – my joints were swollen, everything throbbed.  Still, I was willing to do whatever these people suggested to feel better.

My mom came over and confiscated my electronic cigarette, which I gladly handed over.  We had some good times.  I remember looking at it in the middle of the night, thinking it was the devil.  And it is.  For me it is.

I was starting to get better.  While my mouth was no longer involuntarily puckering, it was still involuntarily tightening up.  Part of me wanted to lie down now but I was still anxious.  I threw snow boots on over my sweatpants, threw a coat on, and took a walk.

As I walked down the street, suddenly everything seemed perfectly peaceful.  I was still in pain.  But I all of a sudden knew that it would all be okay.  I was feeling so much better than I’d felt hours ago.  I could do this.  I heard the birds in the trees, which for the first time in months sounded beautiful.  Lately the sound had agitated me and only made me want to shoot them.

The snow was pristine and sparkling.  I could see my breath, so I knew I was alive. I walked to the IGA and bought lots of candy.  My oral fixation was out of control.  It’s exactly like newborn babies, when they crave the nipple.  It’s painful.  It’s uncomfortable.  You need it.  I understand.  I understand why they scream their fucking heads off.  I needed something in my mouth.  As I walked home, I sucked on one of the Dum-Dums I’d bought, and it was the best thing I’ve tasted in my life.

I came home and ran water to take a bath, something else I was told to do to try and relax and come down from this panic attack.  I poured some lavender bath fizz in the tub and played some Kings of Convenience, music I listen to when I want to zone out.  My head-to-toe aching body felt so good getting into that water.  It was like experiencing a hot bath for the very first time.  It was indescribably amazing.

I’ve always hated my body.  My looks in general.  I compare myself to supermodels and live in a constant state of negativity.  When I got out of that bathtub, though, and looked in the mirror, for the first time maybe ever, I thought, you know what?  My body is just fine.  In fact, it’s pretty fucking spectacular.

It was like my entire outlook on life changed from going through this experience.  On Friday I went to the psychiatrist and explained everything, and I’m back on mood stabilizers.  I will stay on them this time.  I went to my therapist after that, and covered pretty much every issue going through my head.  He asked me how I’ll make sure I’ll keep taking them this time.  I will never forget the pain I was in, and I never want to go through that again.  I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.  I will re-read this if I ever think I should go off my meds again.

All of my cognitive distortions were making sense now.  I could change my thinking, my therapist said.  I’ve never believed I could change my thinking.  I now believe it’s possible.  I now see myself as a creation of God, and who am I to criticize one of God’s creations?  I need to try to be the best version of myself and stop comparing myself to everyone.  I need to focus on what’s good about me.  And there’s a lot.  I feel like a bad mom a lot.  I don’t want my kids to see me this way.  I want to shelter them from this.  I feel guilty for possibly passing my DNA on to them.  I don’t want them to be like me.  “But what about the good things you’ve possibly passed on to them?” my therapist asked.  “What are some good things about you?”  I never think of it like that.  As for sheltering them from this, this is life.  They will learn that there are bad days.  And when they’re old enough to understand, I will sit them down and explain Mommy’s disease.

I will never forget how horrible I felt during this withdrawal.  I’ve never in my life felt more like I wanted out.  I wanted to not feel this pain anymore.  But I made it through.  I know for sure now I can’t handle nicotine.  I can’t handle Ativan.  I can’t do moderation.  I am an addict.  I was born this way.

The misconception so many people have is that it’s the choice to do drugs.  The genetic predisposition is there.  Lots of people try cigarettes and stop.  An addict can’t.  Our brains are wired differently.  Cancer patients get nothing but sympathy.  The mentally ill are still largely seen as weak, and addicts are seen as people who choose to fuck up their lives.  Why would someone with the talent and luxuries of Philip Seymour Hoffman choose to fuck up everything he had?  Choose to leave his children?

When I was living through the darkest, scariest part of this ordeal, I knew I was no different than Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Addicts are addicts.  Withdrawal symptoms are painful, no matter the drug.  I don’t know why people don’t believe us when we say we do not choose to be mentally ill, we do not choose to become addicted to anything.  It was hurtful to read the comments I read on Facebook following Hoffman’s death.  Following Whitney Houston’s death.  Following Amy Winehouse’s death.  Hurtful because I get it.  I completely get it, and telling me that the completely horrible feeling of not wanting to feel at all anymore is something I choose to feel, couldn’t be further from the truth.  I would have traded places with any one of you during that time.  Believe me.  We do not choose this.

Why would any talented celebrities want to throw away their lives?  They have it all.  Addiction is an equal opportunity disease.  It doesn’t care how much money you have, how well you can sing, how many Oscars you’ve won.  We do not choose this.

I’ve gained empathy from this experience.  I’ve been kind of questioning lately whether I should be going back to school at all; what if I’m not meant to be a chemical dependency counselor?  I have a renewed sense of wanting to help people.  I want people to understand that having a mental illness is no different than having cancer.  To state otherwise slices through me like a knife, hurts me at the core of my being.  If only you could experience this.  Then you’d get it.  You’d understand, and you’d realize how ignorant and hurtful you’ve been to those of us who suffer with abnormal brains.  Trust me.

We do not choose mental illness and we do not choose addiction.

Me is back.

Sara Berelsman

(08/18/12)

I’ve been kind of emotional lately.  Yeah, it’s been over ten months since I quit drinking, but last summer was my craziest summer ever.  It also is what compelled me to quit drinking…which is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made…but it’s been kind of hard being around everyone at parties, cook-outs, festivals…this is my first summer sober, and summer to me, especially last summer, is associated with lots of drinking.

Sure, I drink my N/A beer and I still have fun…to a point.  Since I’m not getting wasted, I’m not acting crazy; I’m not loud, I’m not…who I used to be.  I’m still trying to find myself sober.  So far, I’m seeing that I’m an introvert…although, one of my friends, Chris Botkin, said about me, “In a brilliant flash of boredom at work yesterday I thought of a word that’s just right for you: ‘inexplitrovert.’ You are both an introvert and an extrovert, and it can’t be explained.”  Hmmm.  I agree.  I also feel it can’t be explained.  Maybe being bipolar has something to do with it.  I just know that my personality has “settled down” from how it was when I was drinking.  And even though the drinking might have usually taken place at night, it really affected my entire day.  Strange but true.

I’m acting more like I did in high school, I think…before I started drinking.  I’m shy.  I’m sensitive.  I’m quiet.  Public speaking terrifies me.

Even though I taught college courses for several years, and many times for a large audience, and I got used to it; I wasn’t scared to speak in front of them anymore.  I was easy, breezy.  Well…I’m not anymore.

I recently spoke in front of around 40-45 people, which might have been the size of most of my college classes, and I was pretty nervous up there.  I thought, This is new…I’m someone who can do this all the time with no problem…except, I’m different now.

I’ve had so many people recently ask me what’s wrong…why am I so stressed?  Why am I so depressed?  These are questions they want me to answer, yet…I don’t feel that I’m stressed, depressed all the time…nothing’s wrong, at least, nothing more than usual.

Yeah, I still have lows.  And highs.  And the lows are still more frequent.  And I have high hopes this new medication will work.  But the biggest factor contributing to my mood right now, I think, is that I’m figuring out who I am again.  Finding out who I am sober.  It’s crazy.  That girl who used to do all the insane things I did drunk…she seems like someone else.  Someone I wouldn’t necessarily want to hang out with.

I’m a thinker.  I observe.  I hate small talk.  I analyze everything.  I’m neurotic.  I’m who I was before booze entered my life.  Like I said, I’m who I was in high school.

I’ve gone to a handful of AA meetings, and I’ve been thinking recently of going to them again.  Either way, I want to do the 12 steps.  Even if I do them on my own.  I want to apologize to anyone I’ve hurt while I was intoxicated.  I’m sure there are many who I’m not even aware of because I was blacked out.  I blacked out a lot.

Who was that girl?

Well, I’m not sure who she was, but I’m figuring out who I am now…the Sara Mangen of the 90s is back.  Luckily, I still have the Doc Martens I wore then.

I think I might wear those tonight.

One size fits all… Right!

By: Sara Berelsman

Alcoholism is not a one-size-fits-all experience.  And it drives me crazy when people treat it as one.  I drink N/A beer.  I drink alcohol-removed wine.  I swish with Listerine.  I take Nyquil.  Deal with it.

None of these things might seem outlandish to some, but I’ve been harangued at AA meetings for admitting in engaging in such insane activities.  This is why I’m reluctant to attend these meetings.  And that’s another thing.  Not everyone needs AA to do this.  But don’t tell that to some AA members.  They’ll flog you.  Then throw empty Nyquil bottles at your lifeless body.  (I kid.)

But seriously, I have been criticized for the way I’m choosing to go about not drinking.  N/A beer has worked for me.  I haven’t gone back to regular beer because of it, the biggest fear of hardcore AAers.  I can use mouthwash without being tempted to chug the whole bottle and catch a buzz.  Nyquil helps with my cold symptoms if that’s the case, and it helps me sleep.  It doesn’t get me drunk.

It really, really bothers me when others try to shove their own agenda down my throat, dismissing my own hard efforts, even though my efforts have proven successful for close to nine months now.  Thank you, as I pat myself on the back.

I just want to scream at these people, “What about your coffee addiction?  Or those Marlboro Reds you’re chain-smoking?  But I can’t incorporate mouthwash into my nightly routine?”

Please.

It is my opinion that anyone who has a problem with the way I do things has his or her own deep-seeded insecurities with the way he or she has been dealing with his or her own shit.  I am fine with the way I’ve chosen to begin and continue my sobriety.  Now leave me alone.

I’m not saying all AA members are evil.  I’ve met a few wonderful people.  I’m just saying it doesn’t work for everyone, and not everyone needs it.  More often than not, I left meetings wanting to drink, and I didn’t when I got there.  I hesitate to go back because of how I’ve been treated.  To me, that’s not a successful program.  But that is just my experience.  I’ve proven that I can do this on my own.  Some people can.

It just irks me when people put others into these arbitrary boxes and expect them to function the way they want them to.  It doesn’t work that way.  I know some recovering alcoholics who still smoke pot.  Guess what?  Pot doesn’t cause them to act in the damaging ways alcohol did.  They’re fine with it, and I’m fine with it.  I don’t judge anyone else’s non-drinking lifestyle.

I’m sure I’ll get criticism for some of my beliefs.  I’ve gotten it my whole life, for various reasons.  This is just how I feel.  You may feel differently.  That’s the beauty of living in a society in which we are free to disagree.  And life is beautiful.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to run to the Dollar Store.  We’re almost out of Listerine.

Trust

By: Sara Berelsman

(05/30/12)

Funny, I used to joke around by saying I didn’t trust anyone who didn’t drink.  Now, for the first time in a long time, I finally trust myself – because I don’t drink.

It wasn’t that every time I drank I did something untrustworthy…but every time, before I took the first sip of the night (or afternoon…or day) I had butterflies in my stomach…and not the good kind.  Not knowing what I’d do, what I’d say, how I’d react this time.  It’s a horrible feeling not to trust yourself.  Why it took me so long to realize how to remedy the situation, I don’t know.  I just kept finding excuses to keep drinking.  It wasn’t me, it was my medication.  It wasn’t me, it was mixing vodka with Red Bull.  It wasn’t me, it was Tuesday.

While I do sometimes reflect and wonder why it took so long to just finally quit, that’s really irrelevant.  What matters is I finally did stop, and I can say I’ve never been happier.  Sure, life can still suck.  Problems are still there.  They are much easier to tackle without a crippling hangover.  Plus, I’m so much more confident now that I can trust myself…that alone affected every other area of my life, and I didn’t even realize it.

Sure, I still sometimes wish I could escape into a nice moscato at the end of the night, but the knowledge that I’ll awake without a headache and no memory of what I did the night before far outweighs that desire.  My marriage has never been better and my friendships have never been stronger…maybe partly because I now trust non-drinkers.  As it turns out, they can be some pretty cool people after all.

May is Mental Health Month.

By: Sara Berelsman

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 20.9 million American adults, or about 9.5 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year, have a mood disorder. Mood disorders include bipolar disorder. It is also estimated that 1 in 4 people will encounter a mental health issue in their lifetime.

I have talked to various individuals recently about mental illness — people of all ages and backgrounds — with personal experience with a disorder or disorders. The disorders ranged from anxiety to ADD to OCD to depression, but what they all have in common is the desire of each person afflicted to be like everybody else. It’s a daily struggle.

Everyone has ups and downs. I know a girl whose ups and downs are not “normal,” however. Being bipolar means that for stretches of time, she can be so depressed it is hard for her to get out of bed and function. Things she normally enjoys, like playing with her kids, are devoid of happiness and fulfillment. She feels empty, aching, and heavy. The simplest tasks are insurmountable. She is a writer, but during these times, she has no motivation and is mentally blank. She hurts all over. She doesn’t want to see or talk to anyone. She sometimes cries for no discernible reason. As strange as it may sound, it seems to help; she feels a little relief after a good cry. Music helps. Sometimes all she can do is listen to songs that seem to “get” her and how she’s feeling. She’s learned, oddly enough, it’s more helpful to “embrace” the depressive episode than try to combat it. Overall, she feels horrible – and she just wants to feel better again.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, when the “high” (mania) kicks in, her brain is bombarded with thoughts so fast and furious that she can’t write them down as quickly as they come. She feels an explosion of creativity, and the writing ideas are endless. She is compelled to constantly “do” in this state – clean, bake, exercise, shop; she can’t stop. She is euphorically happy; in the car, upbeat music is on the radio and she is singing at the top of her lungs with the windows down – everything seems perfect. She feels invincible, and therefore can act impulsively. In this state, she finds it unbelievable that she was ever depressed.

The lows are more frequent than the highs. It doesn’t matter if the sun is shining or if everything is going right; she can plummet into a downward spiral. She thinks part of why she likes fall and winter and rainy or snowy days – weather everyone else seems to dislike – is because there’s no pressure to be happy when the weather’s “bad.” If she’s depressed on a rainy day, it feels somewhat justified. However, the weather can be wonderfully sunny, and the depression can roll in like a dark fog, and hang on. And hang on. And hang on. She just has to wait it out, let it subside, and even though it feels hopeless and never ending, she has to remind herself that she will feel good again – until the next depressive episode. Because of the way she is, she feels guilty. Like a burden. There are times that she just doesn’t want to be here. She wonders what’s wrong with her; why can’t she be “normal?” Everyone gets sad. But this is so much more than just “sadness.”

From the outside, this girl has the “picture perfect” life. When people find out about her reality, they seem shocked. They kindly tell her she’s pretty, she’s smart, she’s funny, she has a beautiful family; she has it all…so why is she depressed? I’ve also tried to convince her of these things, but…

The girl is me.

I’m not big on labels, and I am reluctant to open up about myself. I don’t want people to view me or treat me differently. I want the stigma associated with mental illness to go away, though, and I know that talking about it will be the only way in making steps toward that – one of the goals of Mental Health Month. There are many misconceptions, and the media’s portrayal doesn’t always help. (Hello, Britney Spears meltdown.) Bipolar disorder seems to carry with it a particular stigma and “deranged” reputation – unqualified people magically morph into psychiatrists and ignorantly and inaccurately throw the “bipolar” label around all the time, to simply write off anyone whom they perceive to be “crazy.” Unless people are doctors who’ve administered a thorough exam, just as people can’t necessarily spot the cancer patient in the room, they have no idea who is battling what psychological disorder.

I realize there are people with good intentions, but if people really want to mean well, they should research. Talking to someone who has been given a diagnosis and really listening is one way. Telling someone with depression to, “Smile!” or “Pray about it!”  might come from the best place in one’s heart and doing those things might not hurt, but if only it were that simple. It also doesn’t help to say, “You just need to change your mindset.” Again, great in theory. When dealing with a chemical imbalance, however, (which has been discovered in the brains of depressed people) that can only go so far. Just as I’d never profess to know what it’s like to be in the mind and body of someone with cancer, if people don’t have clinical depression, they don’t know what it’s like to be someone who does. People seem to need physical evidence to believe someone really isn’t well. Depression is like being in a full body cast. Every part of the body is affected. Mental illnesses should be taken no less seriously than physical illnesses. The brain just happens to be different from that of a “normal” person.

It doesn’t help the clinically depressed when others assume they can guess what it’s like. They can’t. And that erroneous assumption makes those diagnosed feel worse in that there’s something fundamentally wrong. It can be frustrating, as well-meaning as people can be, to hear some of their cures, such as, “Count your blessings!” I’m extremely grateful for all my blessings and well aware of all the “real” problems in the world, and this adds another layer of guilt and distress – knowing that, logically, I should be happy. Logically I should. In reality, due to this chemical imbalance, I’m not. Many people with loving families and successful careers, such as Kurt Cobain and Sylvia Plath, have fallen into infinite pits of despair and taken their own lives. These disorders go beyond logic, beyond counting blessings. I don’t expect everyone to understand. I still don’t understand.

While there might not be one right thing to say to people you love who are depressed, simply loving them for who they are, the way they are, helps.

I know there are people who care about me and my happiness, and I sometimes exhaust myself trying to appear happy when I’m not. (It’s hard to feign excitement over a picture of someone’s puppy when you just don’t want to be there.) I think I get by this way, but a select few in my world can see right through me and know when I’m not “fine.” Though my husband still has a hard time understanding why I am the way I am, he has learned to just love and accept me. He’s stopped trying to “fix me,” because he can’t.

If you believe that you or a loved one is suffering from a mental illness, get help. MentalHealthAmerica.net is a website devoted to mental health issues. Their website states to call, “1-800-273-TALK if you, a friend or a loved one is going through a tough time in your life and you need someone to talk to.” The site also offers other information such as how to find treatment or a support group. You are not alone. I know it can be scary to talk about it. I know this alone doesn’t define who I am – but it’s part of who I am. If I can help just one person, that’s enough for me. Maybe if more of us start talking, the less scary it will be.

*Note – while this piece is primarily about bipolar disorder, I want to add that one of the major factors that contributed to my decision to stop drinking was that I was diagnosed. Alcohol and a depressed person don’t mix. The hangovers had me pretty much suicidal at times…not to mention alcohol interfering with the medication, basically messing my whole body up. Bipolar people tend to self-medicate, though, which is what I did for a long time with alcohol. So while this is not specifically about drinking, it is very much related. I am now much better off knowing my diagnosis and staying away from alcohol.

Six Months
By: Sara Berelsman

So I haven’t had a drink in six months.  (Please hold your applause.)  It hasn’t been easy.  It hasn’t been impossible, either.  It’s been, more than anything, “surreal.”

Sure, I miss it.  I miss being able to lose myself in a bottle of wine every night, to simply forget about the obligations, the nagging thoughts I didn’t want to entertain, the screaming children in the next room.  Who wouldn’t want to escape all that?

But the truth is, I was never escaping anything.  I was creating more problems for myself (though at the time of inebriation, that reality was nowhere near my consciousness).  It took a while, even after I’d stopped drinking, to fully absorb everything I had done while drinking…every poor decision I’d made…every unbelievable action I’d somehow justified at the time.  The sober me couldn’t believe it.  I still can’t believe it.

I was asked by someone recently for any pointers on staying sober.  God, I wish I knew.  What I’ve done, it seems, is simply trade one addiction for another…and another…and another.  I get bored easily.  First I became obsessed with tea.  I bought and tried all flavors, experimented with two bags of different flavors in one cup – I live dangerously like that.  I still drink tea, but the novelty has sort of worn off.

I’ve gotten more into exercise.  That comes and goes for me, somewhat dictated by my current level of depression and willingness/ability to leave the house and actually interact with real, live people.

The point is, nothing replaces alcohol.  That’s what I’ve been seeking.  I miss the buzz.  I’ve been chasing it ever since.  Nothing will ever replace alcohol or the effects of alcohol, however, so coming to this realization alone is at least a step in the right direction, I think.

For me, the best, most helpful “replacement” for my getting drunk in an attempt to forget my problems is to meet up with people who have many of the same feelings I do.  We don’t just talk about our problems, although we might.  And I’m not talking about an AA meeting, either.  I mean a few close friends who know everything about me and still don’t judge me.  Just forcing myself out of the house to meet with some people usually makes me feel better and reinforces that I’m doing the right thing.  Knowing you can hang out with a few “soul-mate” friends and have a great time proves to me that I don’t need booze.  I never did.

It’s still a struggle… a daily one.  Wine, especially, was my crutch.  I looked forward to it at night.  My anxiety skyrocketed when I quit drinking, and I’m learning new ways to deal with problems sober.  I’m learning how to fall asleep…how to have sex…without being buzzed first.  It’s a new way of learning everything.

So what are my pointers?  Take it not only day by day, but minute by minute.  Second by second.  Find new things you love.  Read more.  Enjoy baths.  Music.  You really have to constantly occupy yourself, and don’t be too hard on yourself.  No one ever said this would be easy.  Just focus on the beauty so many things really do have to offer.  And now you can take them all in and see them all for what they really are– they’re not blurry anymore.

Sara ( saraberelsman@ymail.com )