“I don’t want any easy life. I want a wonderful life, and easy things are rarely wonderful.” – The Mental Runner
Chad, who goes by the pseudonym – The Mental Runner, struggles with mental health issues. He suffers from bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety. Chad was in and out of hospitals and doctors didn’t hold out much hope for him. But that did not stop him from doing something about his situation. With hard work, determination and perseverance, Chad learned how to get the better of his illness.
Yes, he takes his medication, but it’s more than that. Every day, he commits to a healthy lifestyle: he exercises; he runs; he eats healthy foods and he manages his stress. Every day, he expresses gratitude for the good things in his life – his family, his friends and his community.
Chad is a great believer in the power of inspirational quotes. He has quotes everywhere: on his desk; around his home; in his car; on his phone. He says that he is in a better place because of them. Today his life is a mix of both joy and struggles. And, no matter what life may throw at him, Chad keeps trying; he keeps focusing on solutions. He knows how to help himself and he knows how to reach out to others who need help. Chad has his own website and he uses social media to inspire and help others (see the links at bottom).
I recently had the chance to discuss Chad’s illness with him. Below is our interview.
1. When were you first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety?
My first trip to a doctor to address an area of concern about my mental health was when I was four years old. My mother was worried because I wouldn’t talk. I remember lying to the doctor and telling him that I didn’t have anything I wanted to say. The truth was, I was terrified of saying the wrong thing. From my earliest memories, I was extremely nervous and sensitive. At the age of fourteen, I was put on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications for what they thought was severe depression coupled with an anxiety disorder. At the age of seventeen, I was admitted to my first of four mental wards. I’m not exactly sure when they figured out I have bipolar disorder. It came during several turbulent years I had in my late twenties, early thirties. That diagnosis was slow in coming.
2. How has the diagnosis changed your life?
I remember when I was a teenager feeling like an outsider. At that time, in the southern U.S., diagnosing mental illnesses in adolescents was frowned upon. It was not common, and I kept it a secret from most people. Over time, being diagnosed with mental illnesses allowed me to accept who I am. I am not weak. I am not bad. I have an illness. Accepting that fact has brought me a great deal of peace.
3. Some people with bipolar disorder describe it like being on an intense roller coaster ride or having a windmill spinning out of control inside their head. How would you describe it?
Because I have experienced symptoms since I was a small child, I don’t have a good reference point to be able to give a good description of exactly what it is like. It is my normal. Comparing how I respond to life to those in my life who don’t have bipolar disorder, I can see why some say that it is like being on a roller coaster ride. It seems that I feel things to a degree that others don’t. I am wildly excited about experiencing life. I am interested in everything. On the flip side of that coin, I also experience crushing sadness at times. Because my condition is on the severe side of the spectrum, I have also had psychotic breaks where I have lost touch with reality for weeks. Coming back to reality and realizing I was sitting in a mental ward was disconcerting, to say the least. However, I have learned how to minimize symptoms enough so that I can live a wonderful life. I take the good with the bad.
4. Some people with bipolar disorder experience “triggers” or events that set off a mood change. Do you have any such triggers? If so, what are they and how do you handle them?
I do have one rather strong trigger. I feel a deep connection to the sick, the weak and the downtrodden. I’m sure it has to do with my struggles and diagnoses. When others take advantage of people who are weaker or less fortunate than them, I have to be on guard. My sense of revulsion can cause me to spiral into a deep depression or a furious anger. Neither state is good for my mental health.
I handle this trigger in two ways. The first is by working to help the weak, the sick and the downtrodden. I found that being for things, instead of against things, was much better for my wellbeing. Helping people in need instead of fighting manipulative, power hungry people is much more rewarding. The second way I handle this trigger is to avoid newscasts. To stay informed, I have to limit myself to reading from a few well-respected, journalistic sources. I don’t have the luxury of watching or reading politically motivated news that is designed to shock people into staying tuned in. That is sure to cause me unbelievable grief.
5. You describe yourself as a naturalist – a lover of natural remedies, health food, and regular physical exercise. How did you come to terms with the fact that you need to take medication on a regular basis?
I had several realizations that allowed me to make peace with the fact that I have to take medication. Probably the most important one was when I realized that taking medication was one of the bravest things I could do. Summoning the courage to admit that my very best efforts, without the aid of medication, weren’t good enough to achieve the life I wanted to live was a huge accomplishment. I believe in being strong, self-reliant and brave. I realized that I was using those ideals as defense mechanisms to shield me from my fear of needing help. Those pill bottles are trophies from one of my most terrifying victories. Strong people need help just like everyone else.
6. How can more people with the condition get support to change their lifestyle and adopt healthier habits?
I found that immersing myself in solutions was extraordinarily helpful. I don’t read negative books or blogs. I don’t watch negative shows or movies. I found that if I focus on the solutions, I find solutions. If I focus on the problems, I find more problems.
After I had made that decision, probably the next most important thing I did was to make an unequivocal decision to keep trying, no matter what. I have failed more times than I could ever possibly remember, but I have never actually been defeated. The only way I can truly fail is if I quit. If I’m still trying, the story isn’t over yet. I can decide at any point in time to say that this is not how my story is going to end, and I often do. I write my story. Of course, I don’t control all the plot twists, but I control my reaction to them. That decision, to keep trying no matter what life may throw at me has served me well. If I’m going down, I’m going down swinging.
7. What has been the most difficult thing about living with bipolar disorder and how did you turn things around? What is life like for you now?
One of the most difficult things for me was learning to ask for, and accept, help. I have always gone to great lengths to make sure I don’t end up with the “victim mentality”. Finding a balance between pushing through difficult times and realizing when I need to ask for help has not been easy. How I learned to gauge the appropriate response is by imagining that a friend of mine was facing a similar situation. I ask myself what I would want him/her to do if they were facing what I was facing. I have found that I am much harder on myself than I am on others. That has helped me to be easier on myself and allowed me to ask for help when I truly need it.
My life today is a wonderful mix of joy and struggle. I have found more contentment than I would have ever believed possible for someone with a severe mental illness. That doesn’t mean it is easy because it isn’t. That is fine with me. I don’t want any easy life. I want a wonderful life, and easy things are rarely wonderful.
8. What advice would you give so that more people with mental illness can live their lives to the fullest and not be ashamed of their illness?
I have done two things that have helped me immensely. The first was deciding to be the best version of ME that I could be. That allowed me to loosen up. If I can truly say that I have done my best, then I can relax because I can’t control outcomes. I can only control my actions. If I take the appropriate actions, then I can let the chips fall where they may. I did my part. That decision also freed me from constantly trying to please others. I realized when I made that decision that not everyone was going to like me. I decided I was okay with that. I don’t expect, or even want, everyone to like me. What would that say about me? As Aristotle said, “There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.”
The second thing that I did that I think helped me in more ways than I could have ever imagined was to surround myself with like-minded people. My mom was right; we tend to be like the people we hang around. I went out of my way to find supportive, solution-oriented people online that I could be around. I also began to limit the time I spent around non-supportive, pessimistic people. I even started my own website, a Twitter account, a Facebook Page and an Instagram account to send positive messages out to fellow sufferers, because I believe what Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.”