I hugged a stranger in a bar…

This is almost an oxymoron for me – the words “in a bar,” not that I hugged a stranger. Let me explain.

My body doesn’t handle alcohol well. It causes migraine headaches and so I made the decision years ago to drink water, coffee, milk, and an occasional orange juice. So for me to sit and sip with friends in a bar is an unusual event for me. For the record, I sat with fellow writers in the bar/grill at the Renaissance Convention Center in Schaumburg, Illinois at the Catholic Writers Guild LIVE conference.  After a day filled with new friends, learning, and sharing our faith, we gathered to share food and stories.

Because of the size of the convention center, there were other groups sharing the beautiful facility. By 9 o’clock, the bar appeared to be the destination spot for a large sampling of the various organizations that held their meetings here.

Because I’m an early riser, I knew my day needed to end. I sang “Good Night, Ladies” to the women at my table and squeezed my way through the crowd. I had almost made it to the exit when I bumped into a young woman who grinned at me. “Are you looking for a drink?” she asked.

“No, I’m looking for my room.”

She laughed and the conversation began. I inquired which group she represented. She mentioned the business, and I countered with “I’m with the writers conference.” She wanted to know what I write and of course I brought up my favorite topic – mental illness. And the bump into a stranger morphed into a connection that illustrates a sobering statistic  – one in four families deal with mental illness.

Within minutes I knew about the death of a neighbor/friend to suicide after a battle with depression. We shared grief, hope, and the cultural reaction to it. I understood the pain for I’ve experienced the loss of someone I love who suffered the same illness.

“I want to buy your book,” she mentioned. I happened to have a copy of my book, Broken Brain, Fortified Faith in my tote bag because a fellow writer asked me to bring her a copy. We hadn’t connected yet so she could purchase it. I told the young woman and she whipped out her wallet. I signed the copy as we stood in the crowd. I finally knew her name as I wrote it in the book.

We hugged and parted with a promise to reconnect via e-mail.

This is not an isolated incident. It doesn’t matter where I am, who I’m with, or the circumstances of our encounter, I meet companions on this journey.  At least twenty-five percent of people I meet have dealt, or are currently in a situation that involves mental illness. I meet people in church, at parties, while I shop, and now in a bar. I smile as I think about it. I want to be a disciple of Jesus, to take His love to all those I meet. I just didn’t think it would be in a bar and I smile at the irony. God must have a sense of humor.

And so I continue to open the door to meaningful conversations with everyone I meet. I want to share our common human experience, support others in their struggles, pray for them and their loved one. I want to bring awareness to the epidemic of mental illness, donate to the research we need to understand it more and change the culture of stigma that surrounds it. I want everyone to live in hope, that recovery is possible and that maybe one day it will happen for everyone’s loved one. We’re all in this together.

 

 

 

 

 

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Sometimes I want to cry.

I like to devour new information about schizophrenia as it becomes available. I feel excited when new research studies get released as I gobble up the results. And then I want to cry.

But maybe not for the common reasons that makes a mom cry when her child has schizophrenia. Our child battled the symptoms and came through it as a survivor, a victorious survivor. But it took a lot of work and support.

As I read new information, I get emotional. How did we know how to do the things that we did to help our daughter, Amber, during her first episode of psychosis in 2004? I remember the feelings of frustration, hopelessness, helplessness. I also remember that I begged the Lord for help. I listened for an answer and followed the instructions given to us (my husband, Roy and I.) Many of those answers came through the people around us. We just had to listen.

Some of the things came through our eldest son, Mitchell who’d spent hours researching articles at trusted sources on the internet. First, he encouraged us to leave our state of denial behind and act quickly. “I think she has schizophrenia,” was a comment I remember with clarity. “She’s not going to get well without treatment, she’ll only get worse,” he said to us without judgement, only compassion.

If I’m honest, I wanted to live in a bubble where I thought my love would fix the problem. Our son didn’t let me. He helped me face reality and as a result, we had Amber in forced treatment a little over one month after we moved her home. Today, over a decade later, she’s in a maintenance mode as she stays in treatment.

Other plans of actions came through our local NAMI organization and the classes they offered, as well as through ideas generated during my daily devotion/prayer time. Again, I listened and reacted. I treated her as a mom would treat all the other illnesses our children get, such as cancer. I let her rest when she needed it. I cared for her, took her to treatments, managed her medicines, and held her when she cried.

Slowly, Amber recovered through treatment which included medication, therapy, education, brain exercises, and lots of support.

Since 2004, I delved into published articles where I’ve discovered that early treatment is part of the equation that may allow long-term successful treatment. This morning, this article published on May 31, 2017 by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, almost brought me to tears.

“For people with psychosis in early stage schizophrenia, early treatment is important. Patients whose psychotic symptoms go untreated for longer periods tend to have more severe symptoms and a lower quality of life, even after treatment.

New research published March 15 in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology finds that a longer period of untreated psychosis is also associated with less connectivity to and from the striatum, a part of the brain linked to antipsychotic treatment outcomes.”

What if Mitchell hadn’t persisted? What if he hadn’t reacted the way he did which forced us into a court committal for hospitalization/medication? What if we hadn’t listened?

I read further…

“At the time the study began, participants had been taking antipsychotic medications for no more than 2 years. Brain scans were taken for each patient, and their symptoms were monitored for 12 weeks while they were treated with a second-generation antipsychotic (aripiprazole, risperidone, or risperidone plus an omega-3 fatty acid supplement).

The researchers found that not only did those whose symptoms had been untreated the longest have the worst treatment outcomes, they also had less brain activity connecting the striatum to specific regions in the brain’s cerebral cortex”

I highlighted the lines that drew the tears.

a second-generation antipsychotic (aripiprazole, risperidone, or risperidone…  About a month after we realized that our daughter needed help, the doctors prescribed an injectable antipsychotic to stabilize her. I read the list and knew she received one of them. In the beginning, she refused antipsychotic medications. The first doctor she saw told her she had mild depression and that’s where her brain wanted her to stay – she didn’t have schizophrenia – she didn’t need that medication. That’s when we went through the courts to force her to take medication. She stayed on the injectable for the first year or so. Later, she switched to pill form. In the spring of 2007, she understood that her brain needed medication to function properly – much like a pancreas needs insulin or metformin for diabetes.

plus an omega-3 fatty acid supplement). Mitchell also brought bottles of high quality fish oil supplements that she took each meal. He’d found an article about fish oil helping with brain function. He found the pills, purchased them for his sister and delivered them to our home. She had a steady dose of the omega-2 fatty acid supplement for the first few years.

I begged the Lord to send me wisdom. He did – through the people around me. He gave me the grace to listen to those wiser than myself. And it makes me want to weep in gratitude as Amber stays in recovery.

It’s been almost twelve years since we discovered she battled the symptoms of schizophrenia. Today, she lives on her own, works full-time and manages everything herself. She’s proof to me that early treatment does indeed work. What if I hadn’t listened? Would she be where she is today?

Sometimes I cry tears of gratitude.

Elephant in the Room, Part 3

I learned about the elephant in the room, the situation everyone knows about but no one discusses it, when mental illness entered our life in 2004.

In reality, it may have been there before then, but I didn’t know the signs. As a result, it entered in silence, much like the elephants that entered our campsite in the wild in 2011.

I think the elephants are magnificent creatures. For one thing, they live in families with a matriarch at the helm. The older the matriarch, the more successful they manage their family. Her experiences help the herd adapt to the changes in their circumstances. Why? Elephants have an amazing memory, according to Scientific American. She uses it to the advantage of the herd.

When schizophrenia attacked our daughter, Amber in 2004, our family reacted in a way that was similar to a matriarchal pachyderm. We surrounded her. Our experiences guided us to protect her and help her into recovery. Our extended family and friends rallied around us and we used a herd mentality to fight off the invader and chase it into submission.

I think elephants resemble mental illness. They can enter in silence.

As a result of my experience in the wild game parks in Africa, I learned they can leave a path of destruction behind them. Left unchecked, they ravage a landscape in search of food. Mental illness can do the same. Sometimes, if left alone with no advocate or management, it can devastate lives.

destructionThere’s s a fable from India about six blind men in a village. They heard about an elephant and set out to discover it. Upon their return, they had six different reactions about what an elephant is like. Each man touched a different part and knew only how that section felt. They couldn’t agree on what it resembled – a wall, a pipe, a tree, a pillar, a hand fan, or a rope. In reality, each man was correct for it was what he had observed. So much like mental illness, each person, each family experiences it in a different way. That is what they know, therefore it is correct for them.

So I don’t compare our journey through mental illness with any other one. Each of us are on a journey, but mental illness shares  common symptoms. I think we all feel frustrated stressed, heart-broken, hopeless, and at times, alone. We get angry at the unfairness as it strikes those we love. But I can take my feelings and turn them into compassion, support and a resilient attitude. I can strive to continue to learn about mental illness, give to research so that scientists can unlock the answers. And I can dream of the day that everyone can enjoy a life spent in recovery.

I vow to continue to bring awareness to the elephant in the room, to spread a message of hope, to erase the stigma that surrounds mental illness and to reach out to those who struggle. I want everyone to know that it is a biological issue, not a character flaw. One day I hope to see everyone who battled mental illness strut and wear a t-shirt that states, “Survivor.”

Words…

Today I want to focus on positive words.

Yesterday I talked about the power of words. I focused on the effects of negative words.  Today I spotlight positive words that impacted me. Here are a few reviews for Broken Brain, Fortified Faith from Goodreads. I am truly grateful to these authors who took time out of their busy lives to read my book. Thank you to all who wrote reviews and for your kind words.


“Broken Brain, Fortified Faith by Virginia Pillars is the most absorbing book I have read all year. It is a true account of the rough road to accurate diagnosis and medical treatment of an independent college student who develops schizophrenia, but it reads like an exciting investigative mystery novel. The student, “Amber”, a name given to protect the young lady’s privacy, is fortunate to have been born into a family of faith and friends, because it took all the family, friends and faith she could use to navigate the mental health system. Amazingly, Amber, with the monumental help of her advocate mother, eventually does manage to achieve a successful plane of independent living again, though it takes many years. Written in the mother’s POV, Pillars is delightfully revealing about her reactions and chaotic emotions to the repercussions of her daughter’s illness upon the extended family, and then the coldness of some of the professionals, and the horror of drug side effects encountered. When it becomes obvious how important it will be to document events for her daughter’s healthcare, Pillars’ husband suggests she keep a comprehensive journal. Details from this journal provide the descriptive information for the story and make this book a must read for anyone involved in the mental health care of self or a loved one.
In moments of peace, Pillars’ faith “her as she adopts an attitude of gratitude, thanking The Creator for the gift of all the great advice and concrete help from friends and family He sends her way. She knows the Lord intimately enough to lean on Him with petitions for increased knowledge and wisdom as she tackles the mountains of paperwork required to reduce Amber’s debts for medical, hospital, apartment, student loans, etc. Only a loving mother would attempt the overwhelming tour-de-force Pillars engages in for the sake of her suffering child. When all looks the bleakest, Pillars clutches to her heart the hints of recovery that peek through. Hope sustains and victory prevails in this vastly readable true account.”  Elaine Lyons Bach


Broken Brain, Fortified Faith is the true story of how one woman deals with her adult daughter’s diagnosis of schizophrenia, several hospitalizations, legal issues, and other family crises, over a two-year period, including: infertility, the death of an infant grandson, and her daughter-in-law’s breast cancer. This memoir describes how the family struggles with these difficult issues and responds to the setbacks with the help of trusted friends and support groups.

Once I began reading Broken Brain, Fortified Faith, I found it difficult to put down. It is a compelling read, understandable, and well-written. The author writes in a captivating, candid style, sharing all her emotions – her anger, frustrations, and heartaches, as well as her blessings, hopes, and joys.

The central theme of this book — the miraculous power of love and prayer to bring healing and hope in the midst of pain and suffering – captured my heart. Reading this book was like having an intimate conversation with a good friend, the kind of friend who is honest, loyal, and supportive. The author is certainly someone I would want for a friend in a time of difficulty – a woman of fortitude, prayer, and patience who finds her strength in the Rock, the Fortress, and the Deliverer. By sharing her beautiful memoir, she is blessing many who feel alone in these challenging trials.

Broken Brain, Fortified Faith is the poignant, uplifting, and hopeful story of one woman and her family to conquer crises by drawing strength from one another and God to deal with the trials He sends them. It is a book that I especially recommend for all who have had to deal with the stigma of a mental health diagnosis, their family members and friends, and those who counsel and assist them.” Jean M. Heimann


“This is an inspiring, courageous story of one family’s journey through the fear and isolation of mental illness. It sends the most powerful message of all: there is always hope.” Barbara Claypole White Barbara is an award-winning author who writes novels with characters who deal with mental illness.


Words. The words written by others uplifted me and gave me courage to move forward as I speak to groups. I will strive to use my words to encourage, to show compassion, to express my sadness to life’s tragedies without judgement, to acknowledge both the pain and triumph of others, and to support those around me.

Sticks ‘n Stones

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

I heard this childhood rhyme on the school playground many times while I grew up. Usually it was after one classmate hurled an insult at another.

I thought about these words after a recent social media post left me feeling unsettled. I had read a Facebook post by an acquaintance that read, “Am I Bipolar, or what?” The person went on to question her choice in music. I groaned as disappointment set in.

Really? I thought how can you compare a choice in types of music with Bipolar- a debilitating brain disorder? I felt the comment made light of an illness and perpetuated stigma – as if a person had a choice to be Bipolar or not. I made a public comment expressing my concern with the choice of words and the spread of stigma. This wasn’t the first time I had expressed my displeasure about making light of mental illness. But in the past, I sent it as a personal message. I’m not sure why I didn’t choose this route and instead posted my comment on the person’s page that day. There wasn’t a reply, so I didn’t add anything further.

Later that day, I had a phone call to tell me that my comments on the post had upset my Facebook friend. The caller admonished me, pointing out that it was indeed a correct use of the phrase, bipolar. The caller had looked it up and read the description from the dictionary.

I didn’t intend to offend my Facebook friend, so once I knew that I had, I sent an apology in a private message and removed my post. My friend’s response assured me my observation was understood – that it was a result of my well-publicized passion for mental illness. Somehow, I didn’t feel better. I no longer believe the childhood chant. Sticks and stone can break bones. Words can hurt. Period. I had just done it to a friend in my effort to educate. It made me think about words and how they hurt.

Social media enables us to use words to hurt on a broader scale. Words that drive a nail into our wall of defense, now seen by scores of individuals are repeated and hammered permanently into our self-worth and we tend to believe them.

The Facebook interaction left me pondering the tide of word censorship, the use of words and my view on the subject. Have we become a society that is too sensitive to common words and their new implied meaning? I thought about bipolar, the word that started all of this and decided to explore it. Before 2005, I wouldn’t have given the word a thought. But, in 2005, I became involved in the world of mental illness. I’d always known that it existed, but I didn’t think I’d become an advocate for those affected.

This attitude changed in 2005 when I learned about the world of mental illness by default. I had a stream-lined education when schizophrenia manifested in our twenty-four-year-old daughter. But through the grace of God, I found the organization, NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness.) Through this group, I found guidance and understanding. My attitude toward mental illness changed. Along with that came an awareness of my own use of words. I no longer tell someone, “You’re delusional,” when I think their logic seems confused. I’d witnessed my loved one suffer the mental anguish that accompanies delusions. I catch myself before I tell someone, “You’re crazy,” and replace it with “I think that’s silly” or “I don’t agree.” Why? Because too often I’ve heard it referred to as a component of a mental health condition.

I decided to explore word censorship by typing bipolar into the google search engine. The first definition referred to having or relating to two poles or extremities, such as north or south poles. The next one stated: a biological disorder of the brain. Most people call it mental illness. Reading this made me think about my use of words.

This led me to another question: when did bipolar become a term for the previously named Manic Depression? More internet research gave me the answer. On April 14, 1980, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) changed the classification diagnosis – thirty-seven years ago.

So, with that knowledge I had to ask myself again, “Am I over-sensitive about the use of the word bipolar? And if the answer is yes, do I have the right to call people out on social media? Does this help the cause or just hurt feelings?

I stewed about it for hours before I came to the conclusion: I rarely hear the word bipolar used anymore except in reference to mental illness. Yes, bipolar can mean opposites, such as north and south poles with magnets or undecided because of opposing views. But I also realized for most of my life, I’d only heard a more common phrase, “polar opposites” that referred to indecision. But the most important revelation: I can only control my own words.

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Ephesians 4:29 I like this verse. It says a lot to me.

When I publicly chastise others for their use of words, it sounds judgmental. Is that building them up? Isn’t a better approach to lead by example? Or to share my view privately with an explanation why I prefer to use alternate words?

I know me. I will wince when I hear others make fun of mental health hospitals, call someone delusional or crazy, or refer to indecisiveness as bipolar. But I will hold my tongue in public or keep my fingers off the keyboard. A better approach for me is to explain my view on the use of words with compassion and a gentle spirit. In addition, I plan to choose my own words with care, being mindful of how they will affect others. Because sticks and stones may break my bones, but my words can also harm others.

WOW!

good things can happen from bad circumstances when I learn from them; when I share them with others.

I’m doing a happy dance today because of yesterday, May 24.

Let me explain. Earlier this year I submitted my book, Broken Brain, Fortified Faith to two different awards. One award: the Catholic Writers Guild Seal of Approval (SOA.); the second one: the coveted Selah Award.

What are they?

From the website for the SOA: “The purpose of the Catholic Writers Guild Seal of Approval is to help Catholic bookstores and venues in their determination of the Catholicity of a work. This reassurance from a professional organization can assist authors in marketing alogo-color-cwg-soa-copynd promoting their works. Books are also judged by their editorial integrity as well.

Readers can be assured that SoA books will not offend their faith and have a certain level of editorial quality.”

At the end of March I received notice that Broken Brain, Fortified Faith had received the SOA.  I did a happy dance!

On May 2, I received an email that Broken Brain, Fortified Faith had made the finalists list for The Selah Award. From their Facebook page: “The Selah Awards, which are awarded annually at BRMCWC, are awarded to books within Christian publishing that are considered excellent within their genre.”

Talk about excited!

Last night, the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference (BRMCWCSelahs_Seal_WINNER_2017[3098]) announced the Selah awards for the top books in each genre. Since I couldn’t go, I tuned in via twitter which posted as they were announced. I’m glad I was alone during the awards. As I read my name in the twitter feed, “Winner, Memoir, Virginia Pillars — Broken Brain, Fortified Faith (Familius) contd,” I cried tears of gratitude  –  and no one watched.

If you’ve read this blog, you may understand that I didn’t think of myself as a author. I didn’t write much until I hit my 50’s. (Yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks.) Even as I met with success, I didn’t consider myself in the same category with the award-winning authors. I just didn’t. I’m too new in the world of writing and publishing.

This morning, after I calmed down a bit I picked up one of my daily devotionals. I sat stunned as I read yesterday’s reflection. (I hadn’t taken the time yesterday –  shame on me.)

As I read the words written by Twila Belk in her book, Raindrops from Heaven, I had a feeling of empowerment.

May 24When I work in tandem with the Holy Spirit, powerful things happen. My mouth moves, and messages come out that I didn’t even have in my head. And those messages impact lives. It’s so much fun! Thank you for giving me stories to tell and for the power to get them said.”

“It IS fun!”

Don’t get me wrong, the story I wrote was NOT fun. Anything, but, and I’d never wish the situation on anyone. But happen it did, and to our family. But the second installment of my story is fun. The writing, the publishing, the awards! Now, I truly believe even when I didn’t feel capable to write and share our story, the Holy Spirit guided me. I asked, listened and then moved forward.

If reading our story, or my thoughts in this blog helps another person, then I feel it gives the journey I took meaning.

Rejoice with me. It can happen. And to top it off, the award came during Mental Health Awareness month. Broken Brain, Fortified Faith shares my struggles as my daughter battled schizophrenia. Now, I hope, countless people are aware! Plus, as a final bonus, I get to put award stickers on my book and my press release reads: “Award-winning author.”

Wow! Somebody pinch me.

One Mother’s Story

…the cruel nature of mental illness. One family who did everything to help their daughter.

Today I want to post another mother’s story.  A librarian I met recently sent me this link to a regional newspaper, The Cedar Rapids Gazette, where this story appeared during Mental Health Awareness Month. It illustrates the cruel nature of mental illness. One family who did everything to help their daughter. They loved her, they enveloped her with support, they searched for the proper treatment and doctors. And yet, recovery continues to elude them. And this mother’s heart remains shattered.

One Mother’s Story

My heart feels heavy for this family. Even though I don’t know them personally, I feel as though I do. Their story shares so many similar traits with other families I meet. And my heart continues to break with theirs. But sitting around in sadness doesn’t help the situation.

I can only resolve to remember that we, as a culture, have so much work to do. I personally feel compelled to pray for answers for others who battle each day and their families. I want to support the families and the individuals who feel hopeless and helpless in the face of an unrelenting, cruel illness. I vow to strive to bring awareness to those who misunderstand this biological illness and somehow think it’s a character flaw. I want to continue to donate to help fund the research to unlock the mysteries of the broken brain.