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Mike McCarthy

My name is Mike McCarthy and I live with severe bipolar and clinical depression mental illness disorders. I also live with suicidal ideation. I want to thank you for allowing me to come and tell you my story. It is a story of hope and the desire to diminish the stigma associated with mental illness.

Just to let you know, there will be a quiz at the end.

Perhaps, you know someone who deals with mental illness, but do they know they are dealing with it?  About 2/3 of us go untreated. 

I blame and judge myself. Mostly… out of shame and what people will think, I ask, Will I lose my job?…. my family?… my friends?

It is not who I am, it is something I live with…like diabetes or high blood pressure.

I want you to know more of me. I am a son.  I am a grandson, I am a father, and I am a grandfather.  Sometimes being these are great and wonderful. And sometimes, when depression swoops in like a dense cloud, I could care less about what I say, do, or basically anything. I lack the filters that help other people manage stress. 

Here are some of the faces of my mental illness.   

On the outside, depression looks like:

  1. “I have challenges focusing on things at hand. I judge myself for not being able to focus.” 
  2. “I may not be able to do daily tasks. I withdraw from taking showers and getting dressed for days at a time. I retreat from contact with other people.” 

On the inside:

  1. I see things from the negative rather than the positive. I think things like, 

“I am stupid for feeling this way.” 

“If I could only fix it, I would be okay.” 

“It’s all in my head, get over it.” 

“Oh, no, not again. I’m in it again.”

“I find that I often have difficulty when they all pile up, trying to put the pieces back together again.” 

What’s it like for you?

When I feel manic or bipolar: 

  1. I can function at a very high rate and get a great deal done with very little sleep. 
  2. I don’t seek help during this time. It feels great, like a high. It’s usually feedback I get from other people or environment that lets me know. 
    1. I lash out at people and seem to know it all. 
    2. When I am hyper, it’s exhausting for others.  It’s hard for them to be around me.
    3. I even think I am funny.  
  3. (Circle prop) This is what it is like for me when I am in bi-polar mode.  What color is the ball? I see only one side of the ball and because of it I often make bad decisions.” 

Does this happen to you? Do you know someone who deals with this, too? 

Some things I have learned along the way:

  • I know what it is like to feel broken, hide myself away and hibernate like a bear in winter. I also know what it feels like to be whole, feel at ease, feel like I matter and feel love.
  • It is not who I am, it is something I live with…like diabetes or high blood pressure.
  • I cannot turn it on and off like a light switch, nor fight my way through it when I am in it.  I must accept it is happening and ride it out.
  • At the same time, I feel the shame of knowing that it is happening again. I am powerless in that moment to break free. 
  • I find I need to apologize for mistakes that I make. I am willing to do this. But, I do not apologize for whom I am.
  • I cannot not always be happy and I am not always depressed.  It comes and goes. Because of this, I choose to live with purpose. Purpose allows me to stop, check it out and give me some room. My purpose includes being here today.
  • For me, both the bi-polar and depression are friends to me.  They let me know when I need to stop and look and listen. I accept that this is how my brain works.
  • I need to use my counseling, medication, exercise, meditation and volunteering to support myself. Coming here today, though a bit scary, is part of my healing. Thank you for being a part of my healing in this moment.

At some of these talks, when we have the Q&A, people ask me when I became aware of this mental illness. I can say that, though not diagnosed until 7 years ago, I have been living with it as far back as I can remember. In my teens, it was a feeling of not fitting in, of not being good enough. It was in my late twenties and early thirties that I began having difficulty getting and keeping a job.  

I was a young Dad and my immaturity and hurting manifested as anger. That was how our family handled things- we were yellers. Our toolboxes only had getting angry with each other and walking away. That was what I learned and what I knew- instinctively and instantly. 

‘Okay, you may have friends who are hurting, who may not know what to do or are afraid.’ ‘Give them 10 minutes.’

When I was 40 and had a good job, I became severely ill with an auto immune syndrome called Guillain Barre Syndrome.  It’s in the family of Lou Gehrig’s disease- ALS and MS. I was in intensive care for over 90 days and died three times.  I also went insane from the trauma of it all.  Because of it all, death was something I faced everyday.  GBS causes paralysis and I was a full-blown quad in the matter of 4 days. I recovered and it impacts me today with a lack of balance and confidence in moving around. But it was truly a blessing and something that, though I don’t wish upon anyone, I am grateful it happened to me. 

As I approached 50 and until I was 58, I had developed a pattern of getting a job, then 6 months later, either losing it from non-performance or I would sabotage it.  I saw a pattern of my filters were not working well and that exists today.  I have been doing these talks for 3 years and I need to tell you…I need to be here today.  It is how I heal myself, how I manage the ups and downs and learn more each time.  I need to take my medications, go to counseling, volunteer and spend time with my family. I have received such great support and understanding from all the folks like Mari and Chantal and our other speakers. It helps me face the next layer of the onion-this thing called mental illness.

Part of the stigma is one that I place upon myself. I try to think- I live with a disease, I am not violent and do not have any history of abuse. It’s a disease, like diabetes. So, I do the best I can.

Last, I want to talk about a final option- suicidal ideation. According to the National Institute of Health, suicide is growing as a last resort for many men my age. Being alone, out of the loop of work and family and lack of hope are cited as reasons for this increase. 

Six years ago, I had come to the end of my proverbial rope.  I attempted suicide. I was hospitalized and diagnosed. Today, I find that I get to the final option in my thoughts and feelings very quickly when the bottom falls out. I have learned that those feelings are also my friends. They help me know that I need to pay attention, get to a safe place, both in location and inner environment and seek help.

Now, I volunteer with teens in after-school programs. After the first time I told them my story, one of my students came up to me and asked, “What can we do? We’re not doctors or nurses. What can we do?”

‘Okay, you may have friends who are hurting, who may not know what to do or are afraid.’ ‘Give them 10 minutes.’ Because… in 10 minutes, I will be able to focus again.  ‘In 10 minutes, I will be able to climb back off the ledge. And if I’m still in trouble after 10 minutes, can we get to people who do have the tools to help?’

No judgements, no advice, no thinking you know the answers- because you won’t. Just listen. I will respect you for this.  I will be willing to go and seek help. It may be unnerving and a bit difficult to hear, but it will make a huge difference if we can talk. And we will talk, if we feel safe and you give us a chance.  

We need your love, your compassion and genuine support. We don’t want your pity, to be shunned or secluded.  You won’t need to fix us, just listen to us. We genuinely appreciate your help and encouragement. 

Do you have people in your family or you work with who struggle? Perhaps you can give them 10 minutes. And that may include, after 10 minutes, getting help with a professional.

Now for the quiz.  What are some things I do to manage this mental illness and Alzheimer’s? 

Join us. Together we can help stop the stigma and the discrimination surrounding mental illness!! Thank you for letting me come before you today. In this moment, you have made a difference with and for me. 

Thank you.