Meet Retta, a mother & blogger from Massachusetts USA, balancing life & mental health.
R: Tell us a little bit about yourself… Who are you?
RB: I’m Retta Barry and I’m a 37 year old mother of two (18 and 20 years old) and I’m in a long term relationship with a great man who doesn’t have much experience with mental illness but, he tries to be there for me. I suffer from bipolar II, ADD, anxiety, and PTSD.
R: Where do you live?
RB: Whitman, MA
R: What do you do?
RB: Nothing at the moment, I am unemployed due to a prolonged physical illness. Right now I am blogging and working to recover from said illness and a really dark depression.
“I sometimes get delusions of grandeur when I am hypomanic. I feel that I have the power to change the World or my life in a massive way.”
R: Did you study?
RB: I was in school for computer programming until my recent illness. I plan to go back once I’m settled into my next job.
R: What is the difference between bipolar I and II?
RB: I can only accurately speak to my own experience. Bipolar II for me feels like constant depression of varying severity with occasional hypomanic bursts of energy and motivation. I sometimes get delusions of grandeur when I am hypomanic. I feel that I have the power to change the World or my life in a massive way. From what I understand of bipolar I it is more of a mixed state, the mood swings are more frequent and you have manic episodes which are more intense than the hypomania I live with.
— RealismBites (@RealismBites) February 7, 2016
R: How long have you had it?
RB: I think since about 2001 but, I wasn’t diagnosed until about 2003.
R: How did you realise you had it?
RB: I was in therapy for depression and my therapist recognized the signs and explained bipolar II for me. It all seemed to add up.
R: What made you see a doctor?
RB: I was deeply depressed after a bout of hypomania had faded, even though I didn’t know it was hypomania at the time. I was diagnosed with depression in 1998 but, I never saw a therapist consistently for very long at that time. I would often find a new one or go back to my old one if I liked them whenever things got really bad.
R: Were there symptoms earlier in life?
RB: It is hard to tell, I am not sure which actions were due to my being a rebellious teenager and which may have been due to hypomania or depression. I definitely had anxiety and ADD my whole life though.
R: Has it got worse over time? or better?
RB: The depression has gotten worse but, the hypomania has gotten much better. It started with me spending $3,600 in a month and having a lot of sex with a lot of men. Nowadays my hypomania usually focuses on making the world or my life better. It is usually a nice reprieve from my depression but, I do get jittery and irritable and I’m still a bit less frugal (but in much smaller doses) so it isn’t all good.
R: How would you describe it in your own words?
RB: Having bipolar II is like being incapable of taking care of yourself for most of the year and then getting a second wind in which you are suddenly all business and have a plan and motivation. The plan usually fails because it is too aggressive which just sends you into an even deeper depression than you were in before.
“The depression started after I had my second child and the bipolar II seemed to start when I got divorced.”
R: Were you an anxious child?
RB: I was pretty fearless when it came to climbing or sneaking into abandoned houses but, I had severe social anxiety.
R: On your blog you wrote that you also have suffered depression, ADD and anxiety along with bipolar. Did they develop at the same time?
RB: No. The ADD and anxiety have been around my whole life, I just didn’t recognise the disorders until I learned more about them. The depression started after I had my second child and the bipolar II seemed to start when I got divorced. There’s something about milestones or trauma, they seem to have a knack for unlocking potential mental illness.
R: How do they affect your normal day?
RB: It’s difficult to separate them so I’ll just talk in general. I have very low self esteem, I have trouble taking care of myself (showering, eating, etc.), I have trouble following through on tasks, I procrastinate, I beat myself up constantly, I have panic attacks at times (not regularly anymore thank goodness), my mood is very low, I don’t like things I used to love like sex, I sometimes stay in bed all day, and I feel this dread lately when I am left alone with my thoughts for too long.
R: How long has the anxiety been around?
RB: All my life as far as I can tell.
R: Does your anxiety overpower the bipolar or do they all sit together? Or take turns!?
RB: My anxiety and my bipolar seem to work together. My depression might make me feel worse about myself and my anxiety will chime in with everything I’ve done wrong and it’ll just spiral until I am thinking about something I did wrong in 1992 and I end up even more deeply depressed. My anxiety and my hypomania do not mix well, I get so jittery and I have more frequent panic attacks, I have to switch to decaf when I am hypomanic.
R: Have you found any positive aspects of Anxiety?
RB: I can’t say that I have but, I’ll try to think of something now. I suppose my hypomania can make me very impulsive and I think my anxiety probably helps to temper that, with stress but still.
Anxiety takes away your sense of wellbeing in my experience. It's constantly stirring up negativity/fear/doubt in my mind. #MHChat
— RealismBites (@RealismBites) January 27, 2016
R: If you had the option to lose your anxiety would you?
RB: Yes, definitely.
R: Does Anxiety keep you awake at night?
RB: Sometimes. I have been sleeping better lately but, I have had times when I can’t sleep because I’m stressing about a decision I made in 2004.
R: Do friends or colleagues notice you’re anxious?
RB: Yes, my former boss would point out when my voice changed pitch, which was when I was anxious or irritated about some work problem.
R: Does it affect your relationship with them?
RB: It didn’t with that boss because she knew everything that was going on with me but, my anxiety makes it difficult to form relationships. My anxiety and my bipolar team up to tell me that person really doesn’t want to hang out with me, they were just being nice so I often don’t pursue possible friendships.
R: Do you think your life would be different without anxiety?
RB: Yes. I think my bipolar might not get quite so bad the depression side of the coin in particular. I think I would be more able to get things done and make decisions.
R: How do you best manage your depressive episodes?
RB: I haven’t quite found a way to do it well yet. Often when I have a severe “can’t get out of bed” episode I just don’t go to work, I then stress so much about missing work that I have a panic attack and miss the next day too and it keeps going until I’ve missed a whole week of work. It really is debilitating. I think routine helps and I am currently working on forming a regular routine to try to make it easier.
Just freaked out on a telemarketer. OK maybe I'm not doing so well today after all.
— RealismBites (@RealismBites) February 4, 2016
R: Are they frequent?
RB: I have at least 4 a year.
R: Do they have a largely negative impact on your life?
RB: Yes, very. I never have enough PTO time to take a vacation because I am out so often due to depression.
R: What was your inspiration for launching realismbites.com?
RB: I recently had an existential crisis which revolved around finding my purpose. I thought of all the things that were wrong with this world and wondered what I could do to help. I tried to hone in on a cause but couldn’t think of one. I luckily came out of that state, which was very blank and depressed, even though I didn’t find any answers. Then in a recent hypomanic burst I decided mental health awareness is my cause and it was something I could actually help with. By sharing my stories in a very raw and honest way, people can see that they’re not alone. This is the most sustainable idea my hypomania has ever produced. I love to write and I have lived a very long life for a 37 year old. Sharing my story is therapeutic and hopefully helps others.
R: What is your primary aim?
RB: My primary aim with Realism Bites is to help others see that they are not alone. I share all of my symptoms even the most embarrassing ones in the hope that someone reading it will stop thinking that they are the only weirdo who does this or that. I say that because I often feel like that. I am grossed out by my issues with showering and felt like I was the only one who had this problem until I saw a graphic with a man wearing a medal that read Brushed Teeth. That little graphic helped me realise I’m not the only one who has issues with self care.
R: Have you received any great feedback / response?
RB: Yes. I have received a few comments on the site. When I opened up about my emotionally abusive ex husband I was thanked and told that I was very brave. I really appreciated hearing that. Other posts have received, more of the “me too!” kind of comments which I also fully appreciate. I get a lot of RTs on twitter too.
R: Have you been officially diagnosed by a health professional?
RB: Yes, I have.
R: Did they prescribe medication?
RB: Yes, I am on 5 medications.
R: Do you / Did you take medication?
RB: I do, I used to have a lot of trouble with taking my meds but, lately I’ve been very good about it.
Going to try meditating. Hopefully I can actually relax and not have a panic attack but will keep anti-anxiety meds close just in case.
— RealismBites (@RealismBites) January 27, 2016
R: How do you best manage it? (medication, meditation, yoga, alternative medicines, or something else)
RB: I see my therapist weekly and take medication daily. I am currently building a routine which seems to help a lot too. I’m using the habit stacking method which really works for me. This is where I learned about habit stacking
R: Did any treatments work?
RB: I haven’t undergone any treatments.
R: Do you feel as if you’re in control now?
RB: Not entirely but more than I was in the past. I worry that my daily routine which I think is helping me regain control will fall apart any minute though and I am working hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.
R: Have you seen a therapist?
RB: Yes I see a therapist weekly.
R: Anxiety & alcohol often go hand in hand, do you drink? And if so, in moderation? If not, how do you keep it under control?
RB: Alcoholism runs in my family but, luckily I did not get those genes. I drink very rarely and usually just in social situations.
R: Where does your Anxiety, bipolar & depression come from?
RB: I think it is mostly genetic but, I have also suffered multiple traumas which may account for some of it.
R: Did any health professionals explain where they originated?
RB: We discussed the genetics and the learned behaviors that may have attributed to or worsened my disorders.
“Neither of them socialised very much so I think that is why I had such a hard time in school.”
R: Do family members have Anxiety, depression or bipolar?
RB: My Father has bipolar and ADD and my Mother definitely has anxiety she just doesn’t believe in talking to someone about it.
R: Anxiety can result from a difficult childhood. How were your early years?
RB: My parents moved to MA from NJ after losing a child. They had very different parenting styles which often clashed. My Father would give us a punishment and my Mother would let us do whatever we wanted until Dad got home. My Father loved us but, he was a man of few words and praise was not given all that often. When I would bring home an A- he would ask me why it wasn’t an A. My Mother, who was definitely going through undiagnosed mental issues, treated us as if we were a burden. There was no abuse and I don’t think either of them meant to cause any harm but, they did. Neither of them socialised very much so I think that is why I had such a hard time in school. I was unpopular and bullied.
R: Do you tell friends, family and colleagues that you have Anxiety depression or bipolar?
RB: I probably tell too many people that I have anxiety and depression. I tend to keep the bipolar II to a smaller audience. I worry about what they will think if they know. Bipolar sounds so scary and it can be but, I’m not scary.
“When you open up so readily about your own issues you tend to find out a lot of people are suffering through something as well.”
R: Do you know others with mental health complications?
RB: Yes, friends, coworkers, family. When you open up so readily about your own issues you tend to find out a lot of people are suffering through something as well.
R: How do you educate yourself on management and resources? Do you read specific blogs, magazines or news articles?
RB: I generally rely on my therapist though I have read Driven to Distraction and found it very helpful. I tend to scroll through twitter and Pinterest for blog posts about mental health. I have a Pinterest site devoted to mental health.
R: Have you read any great books about anxiety?
RB: I haven’t that sounds like a great idea though. I find that reading about my disorders helps me understand them and myself better.
R: Or seen any movies?
R: Can you recommend any therapists / doctors / specialists / coaches / mentors / clinics / foundations?
RB: Yes my therapist Doreen Jackson who currently works at Luminosity in Stoughton, MA is phenomenal and my previous therapist Carol Garfinkle who works in Canton, MA was great too, I only left her because my insurance changed.
R: What’s on your horizon for 2016?
RB: Well first I have to figure out how to get a job while depressed. I am stressed about what to wear as I have gained too much weight to fit into my suits and I worry that I’m not ready to rejoin the workforce yet.
R: What next for your mental health?
RB: My therapist and I are going to try EMDR to help me get over the many traumas I’ve faced which I am currently repressing. My mood has been very low lately, the darkest it’s ever been, and my therapist is hoping that a med change might help.
R: Any thing else you’d like to add?
RB: I hope that my blog posts, poems and even tweets are helping people. I am always looking to reach more people and appreciate this opportunity. Thank you.
Follow Retta’s mental health advocacy:
Rodger Hoefel in conversation with Retta Barry
Cover Photo by Retta Barry