Mental illness is so hard, especially when you—and those around you—experience it at the same time.
I know that now but didn’t always. As a nurse patient care coordinator for UnityPoint at Home, my career started back when I was 14 years old as a dietary aide in the same nursing home where my mother worked as a nurse. She taught me a lot about nursing, and she taught me a lot about mental illness.
Although I didn’t understand it at the time, my mom is how I first experience what mental illness is like. She was extremely ill. When she was only 54 years old, I made the decision to put her in a nursing home. It was a lot to care for her while married and raising my own young child. She died just three months later. And while my relationship with her death is complex, admittedly, I felt some relief. She, nor I, had what we needed to properly care for her. It was a helpless feeling—one I hoped to never feel again.
Soon after her passing, I recognized some similar mental illness symptoms in my husband. He was depressed, angry and often couldn’t get out of bed. He had always been that way, but her death opened my eyes to seeing him more clearly. He was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and severe anxiety disorder. We knew he needed help, which led to committals in mental health institutions. The anxiety I felt while dealing with all of this was overwhelming.
"There are no handbooks when it comes to this stuff."
I felt very lost, so I started to do research. I bought every book I could find on managing bipolar disorders as a caregiver and how to cope with it and found an online support group. I started applying what I learned, and he became more receptive, but it wasn’t fixed. I knew he needed more help, but the lack of available services left us both struggling.
In the years that followed, his issues led to my own. My heart would race. My head was foggy. I couldn’t make decisions. I knew I needed help. I started by talking with my primary care provider about how I was feeling. I answered screening questions honestly and was put on two prescriptions for anxiety and situational depression. Those medications brought me back to me. I could function again. I could think straight.
In 2019, my husband died due to an issue unrelated to his mental illness. As a 40-year-old widow raising a teenager alone, I knew I needed more help. Besides continuing on the anxiety and depression medications, I reached out to a therapist through the UnityPoint Health Employee Assistance Program. I don’t publicly talk about my husband or mother’s death much, but when I do, I feel proud to still be standing after everything I’ve dealt with.
"I can weather just about any storm that comes my way now."
My life experiences have taught me life is about learning lessons and forgiving yourself. Dealing with mental illness in my own life, and with my loved ones, showed me how to be compassionate. It made me a better person, a better nurse.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a work in progress. I have days I don’t want to get out of bed. I’m grateful to have co-workers who help me realize when it’s time for a day off. On those days, I focus on organizing my space, taking a breather, pampering myself or playing with my four furry pups.
Everyone has mental health struggles. People may be reluctant to come forward, because they see it as a sign of weakness. The best advice I can offer, which took me a long time to internalize, is to try not to care what people think. It’s freeing.
"Going through life trying to pretend everything is fine helps no one."
Get the help you need, for you. If you don’t know where to start, try doing what I did – talk to your primary care doctor.
- Jennifer Kirchoff, RN