I was a freshman in college and a friend with bipolar disorder committed suicide. This prompted me to research the illness. And everything started to click – I realized I had half the symptoms of bipolar disorder; it explained the inexplicable episodes of depression, the highs due to what we now know as hypomania, where I couldn’t sleep and I had racing thoughts.
So I saw the campus psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with bipolar II, and I got a second opinion, which confirmed the diagnosis. Now, with therapy and medication, things were much better. But something was missing. What nobody taught me was how to get stuff done when I was depressed.
So, on my own I developed creative strategies. I graduated from Northwestern University cum laude with two majors, I competed for Northwestern speech team, I was a state champion, a national quarter-finalist, a national semifinalist. I also co-founded an organization to help depressed students on campus. But bipolar disorder was not my only foe.
When I was 19, I was diagnosed with a very painful polycystic ovarian syndrome. And then when I was 24 years old, an autoimmune neuromuscular hurricane by the name Myasthenia Gravis invaded my life. I’ll never forget my first episode. I was climbing up this long flight of stairs at work, this beautiful sunny day, when all of a sudden I couldn’t feel anything below my waist. And so I kept falling, and falling, and I could hear my high heels tumbling down the stairs. At first I thought, you know, where are my quadriceps? I know I brought them with me when I left the house this morning.
But then, my thoughts turned somber as students stepped over my limp body, in a rush to get to class. And my mind was screaming ‘Get up!’ But my body couldn’t move. And I couldn’t speak. A few weeks after that, I was diagnosed and hospitalized in critical condition with Myasthenia Gravis. The doctor gave me a 50/50 shot of living. And that was 7 years ago.
So today, I carry a cane for the Myasthenia Gravis. People often ask me: ‘Hey, what’s it like to live with 5 diseases?’ And I tell them the truth, I say: ‘Well, I see myself as Rocky and my 5 diseases as Rocky’s different opponents’.
So, bipolar disorder is Apollo Creed, the polycystic ovarian syndrome is definitely Ivan Drago, Myasthenia Gravis is Mason Dixon, asthma is Clubber Lang, and psoriasis is Tommy Gunn. The odds of getting the first 3 of these 5 diseases are 1 in 50 million.
And after that I stopped counting because I just didn’t think there was a point. So, every day I wake up in pain and what I do when I wake up is I play ‘Eye of the Tiger’, and I put on my Rocky boxing gloves, and I pray to God for strength to get through another day. Today, I’m a health activist, a writer, and a speaker, I have my own award-winning blog, ‘Fashionably ill’, which is about surviving pain with style and humor, and I’m a contributor to several other websites, including The Huffington Post, MSNBC did a documentary on my life, Psych Central named me a mental health hero.
And right now, I’m really excited about a project I’m working on; I’m consulting on a project with Rutgers University and University of Massachusetts medical school. We’re developing a program that will help young adults with severe mental illness finish school and find meaningful employment. And that’s the thing I want to talk about today, it’s how to get stuff done when you’re depressed.
The three themes we’re going to address are proactiveness, urgency and difficulty. So, proactiveness. What does it mean to be proactive? Do you have a plan for the next time you get depressed? So, let me give you an analogy: Over the years, my Myasthenia Gravis has gotten better with medication, physical therapy, nutritional supplements, practice. But there are still times when, all of a sudden, I can’t feel my legs, or I’ll lose feeling in one half of my body, either the left or the right side. The other day, I was talking to one of my students, I coach high school debate, and I could sense that I was losing feeling in my legs.
So immediately, I sprang into action. I clutched my cane harder because I knew what was coming. In the same way, when I sense that I’m getting depressed, I spring into action. I call my therapist right away, schedule an appointment, I start exercising more than usual. Because exercise releases endorphins, the feel-good hormones, that help us fight stress and depression.
But, in order to make a plan, you need to know two things: Your symptoms of depression and the strategies that work for you. When we usually talk about the symptoms of depression, it’s a generic list. You’ve probably seen it in a pamphlet or read it somewhere on the Internet. But the truth is, no two people are exactly alike.
So what are your symptoms of depression? Some people, when they’re depressed, they lose their appetite. Other people tend to overeat when they’re depressed. Some people have insomnia. For others, they sleep too much. Some people have outbursts of anger; and still, many people with depression have no temper at all. Know yourself.