Mental Health America Indiana Blog

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A Champion On and Off the Field

A Champion On and Off the Field

On June 13, 2014, Mental Health America of Indiana will host our 17th annual Symposium on Mental Health.  This year's theme is "Building Resiliency in Our Most Vulnerable".  There are many populations that are considered "vulnerable" in our society: children, elderly, and homeless to name a few. Most of us would never include NFL Super Bowl Champion in group,  but there is at least one Super Bowl Champion who includes himself.  Keith O'Neil, who was part of the Super Bowl XVI Championship Colts team, was fighting a battle off the field with a formidable opponent - Bi-Polar Disorder.

Bi-Polar Disorder, or what was once called "Manic Depression", is a brain disorder that causes extreme shifts in mood and behavior.  Like other mental illnesses, people with BPD may also abuse substances to "self medicate" or because of their severe changes in behavior.  BPD impacts professional and personal relationships, as well as physical health.   Keith talks about his diseases on his www.keithoneil.com in his weekly blog posts.  The following is one of his recent posts.  Join us on June 13th and hear more of Keith's inspiring story in person!

Going Public

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2010. I kept the news of my illness secret from nearly everyone I knew for almost three years. That included my friends and extended family.  I was learning to live with my newly diagnosed illness and it’s symptoms as well as the insecurities that came with it. I didn’t want anyone to know, not to due to any embarrassment  but because I was scared and I was sick, I didn't know how to handle it.

At the time of my first severe bipolar episode I had a great job in a great industry. I was working with orthopedic surgeons in medical device sales.  At the apex of my mania I went on disability.  After just two weeks I forced myself to return to work out of fear others would figure out what was going on with me. It wasn’t the best idea but I was swimming in uncharted waters with no idea what to do.  It was me vs. bipolar. I was the one making the decisions not my doctor. At work I tried very hard to act “normal” but it was very difficult. The day to day of my job was very high stress.  My days were spent in the operating room with the surgeon and his staff assisting them on the proper usage of  my company’s surgical instrumentation. It wasn’t easy in the best of conditions; it was pretty difficult in my bipolar state. Even though I was very reliable and well liked, the job was too much for me during that time.

In 2011, one year after my diagnosis,  I resigned from my job because I was too sick to work.  I was also feeling inadequate because I had recently turned down a promotion. I wasn’t quite ready for the corporate jump. I couldn’t even take care of myself how could I add more stress to my life? Without a job or anything to serve as purpose to life my depression only got worse. I remained secluded in my home and slept most of the day. Even when  awake I was completely useless. I couldn’t do anything. My depression lasted for eighteen long months. I gained almost fifty pounds and my physical health declined right along with my mental health. It was the first time I had experienced true depression. This prompted me to realize that depression is real; it’s not just a mental weakness. It was very frustrating not only for me but for my wife and family. I needed help.  I was very ill, mentally.

By August of 2013 my health had improved greatly due to many factors, including adjustments to my medications, talk therapy and time.  My family and I were living in Arizona and I was trying to find the purpose I once had in my life, to this end I began looking for a new job. Eventually I was offered a job in construction sales. The offer had prompted me to do some online research about the company and the position I was going to take. I also began researching how to handle bipolar disorder in the workplace because of the experience I had in the past. I came across a webpage that discussed how to handle bipolar disorder in the workplace.  I now was hopeful things would be better this time around.

After reading several other websites on the topic a common theme emerged.  They advised not to share your bipolar diagnosis with anyone in the workplace.  If you must do so, only share it with a few trusted co-workers.  Unfortunately, I found it unfortunate that I agreed with this advice because during the most difficult times I had experienced in the workplace what I needed was to share my illness with whomever I wished. Yet,  I agree with this advice and I understand why this advice was given.  Mental illness has always been a very secretive and personal type of illness.  Some may go so far as to call it taboo and it has certainly been stigmatized.  Society has yet to accept or fully understand it.  So why should the workplace be any different?  I assume most co-workers, clients, bosses, etc. might have a difficult time understanding mental illness and how to handle it and by extension how to interact with those affected by it.

 I went an entire hellish year keeping my illness a secret at work before I resigned.  So when I read these webpages it struck a nerve; and  even  though I agreed and understood with what it said, it still struck a nerve.  I instantly felt sympathy for anyone who lives with a mental illness that has to balance it with the demands of the workplace. I couldn’t help but think about myself a couple years prior and how I wish I had shared it with whomever I needed to at work. In fact, I wish I had told everyone I knew that I had a mental illness but I didn’t know how. Having been an athlete, especially a professional athlete, my life has always been very public.  Now, for the first time in my life I was living in with a secret and a big one at that. The social isolation was debilitating.  I went from winning the Super Bowl to unemployed, alone and mentally ill in less than three years. My fall from grace.

By the time I had finished reading those websites, I had already decided to immediately create a Facebook fan page that would share my bipolar disorder with the world. WiIhthin minutes it was done. Once it was finished, I didn’t hesitate to hit the share button. And there it was.   The secret I kept for three years was out, the oppressive secret I had kept was lifted away by sharing.  It was a big deal for me but I was relieved.  It was a weight off my shoulders and a burden to heavy to hold anymore.  People now knew why I had disappeared and the rumors of my illness were now confirmed.  I no longer had to hide and I could now move forward. I now realize the Facebook page wasn't for anyone else but me.  It was so I could breathe. After sharing I took my son to Costco. It was there that I decided to turn down the construction sales job and devote the rest of my life to raising mental health awareness....I then bought twenty rolls of paper towels.  I was moving on. 

 

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