Life Unlimited Stories
Each month, DBSAlliance.org features new, empowering stories of individuals whose lives have been touched, but not limited by, a mood disorder. Our hope is to provide inspiration to individuals living with depression or bipolar disorder—to acknowledge that, though there may be dark times, there is also hope, and we are not alone.
If you would like to participate in our Life Unlimited feature by sharing your story, please submit your contact information.
When I found out I had been named the recipient of DBSA’s 2014 Life Unlimited Award, I was stunned. I would characterize my life as remarkable, but I also know each one of us is remarkable in some way. Each one of us is created for some kind of greatness.
I remember as a very small child believing that I was created for greatness. Somewhere along the way that inner voice was squelched. My home life had the normal dysfunction that many families have here in America. I went to college for a couple years and married at a very young age. Nearly a decade later, my mental health became unmanageable. I lost my home. I lost my family. I also experienced hallucinations and began to loathe myself and my life.
I tried ending my life more times, and in more ways, than I can remember. I was very angry with God for not letting me die. I couldn’t escape from the pain of this world so I began physically abusing my own body. I would lash out at myself in ways that I would never treat another human being, but I didn’t feel like a human being. I didn’t feel that I was deserving of anything good, let alone anything great.
Seemingly without warning, the trajectory of my life began to change. There were people who loved me when I wasn’t able to love myself. My Pastor would consistently say that “People are sacred creations of God”, and my Mentor taught me how to hold myself in unconditional high regard. I slowly began to fight for my life. Today I fight for life—my life and the lives of others—to the same extent as I once fought for death.
It was at a women’s conference when rumblings began to stir within me, within the depths of my soul. I remembered that voice from long ago which told me that I was created for greatness. Excitement crept back into my spirit. This expectation, the expectation that my life is of great significance, continues to shape my work as I move forward with the highest expectations. Today I serve as Founding Director of Sacred Creations, a statewide network in Illinois comprised entirely of persons with mental health conditions. I also work as an Associate Director for Pathways to Promise, a national interfaith organization which provides technical assistance to faith communities regarding mental health. My roles with both organizations have afforded my inner voice the opportunity to be heard nationally.
My life has value and meaning and purpose. I understand my identity. I understand my purpose. I know that I am created for greatness. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have challenges; I do. I have challenges every single day of my life. I still have unwanted thoughts of suicide, but it doesn’t impact me in quite the same debilitating way. I still have sensory challenges which make it very difficult to worship during a church service or concentrate when I am in an airport. Noise just hurts and I cannot escape it. In the midst of the chaos, there is something gained by continuing to move forward. I am still learning that whatever capacity I have for pain, there exists equal capacity for pleasure.
To me, Life Unlimited means that all things are possible. Life Unlimited means that I am moving forward in a manner which advances humankind. It means that all aspects of life have value because we have value. We were all created for some kind of greatness.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder shortly before my 30th birthday. Acutely manic, powerfully overconfident, and terrified that medication or even stability would kill my creativity, I refused to take meds.
When I fell into a crushing depression a few months later, I realized that no matter what happened to my art (my passion, my livelihood, my identity), my survival depended on stability. Desperate, I succumbed, and set out into the dark, tangled forest of meds, blood draws, side effects, and big learning curves.
After a years-long arc of frustrations and triumphs, recorded in stacks of sketchbooks and journals, I found a tentative stability that became increasingly reliable. I wanted to make sense of that overwhelming tangled mess, and I turned to my art to shape my experience into a graphic novel.
I'd never felt so much pressure on myself to get a story right. I needed that for my own psyche, but I also wanted to offer my story up to whoever might find something useful in it. I wanted to give specific tools I'd learned and made up, like the cognitive behavioral therapy exercise I’d found helpful and a lesson on how to swallow your pills in one gulp. I wanted to give other sufferer-warriors company, as Kay Redfield Jamison and William Styron had done for me in their memoirs, An Unquiet Mind and Darkness Visible. I wanted to offer myself as a scientific case study correlating mood disorders and creativity. I wanted to transform my negative experience into something positive. I wanted it to be a good book.
In January 2012, I turned in the final draft of Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me. It was a strange feeling: a combination of exhaustion, excitement and tremendous anxiety. I'd always been quiet about my bipolar disorder. What would happen when people found out? Would I be forever dismissed as crazy, untrustworthy? Would people be shocked? Would it be worse if they weren’t?
I learned something huge from putting my story out in the world: as I’d hoped, people told me I was giving them company, but I was given so much company, too. I was not a weirdo bipolar cartoonist specimen. Strangers, friends, readers, even interviewers would more often than not (I mean that) disclose their own personal experience with mental illness: their own diagnosis, their family history, their friend's suicide, their son's struggle. I didn’t know—couldn’t have known—how many chords my story could strike, or how many people were ready to be given an opportunity to come out.
Here’s the million-dollar question I get a lot: “Don’t you miss your manias?” The answer is very unsexy: “They’re not worth the risk.” No one asks if I miss my depressions!
My own, originally unexpected conclusion about being a crazy artist is that stability is good for my art. Mania was too distracting to get much work done and depression was too stifling. My current meds don’t pin me down, and a healthy lifestyle of regular sleep and good nutrition doesn’t rob me of my punk rock.
Stability is relative—I’ll always live with bipolar disorder, and I’ll always need to deal with that. My latest trick involves my blood draws, which, after all these years, I still hate: I buy myself a fancy tea drink afterwards. (My current favorite is Matcha Mint Mate Soy Latte.) Now when I’m on my way to the lab, I think about my fancy tea drink. Pavlov knew what he was doing. It works!
YOU HAVE COMPANY. TREAT YOURSELF NICE. And: DO YOUR ART!
Seattle cartoonist Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir, Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me, is a New York Times bestseller, with six foreign editions. She recently presented her work as keynote speaker at the Comics & Medicine Conference 2014 at Johns Hopkins Medical Campus.
Images from Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney (Gotham/Penguin, 2012).
Could depression be a gift?
I hadn’t accepted my depression passively. Over the course of 5 years, I tried 23 different medications, underwent ECT (shock therapy) on 20 occasions, engaged in cognitive behavioral therapy, and participated in many other programs for the treatment of depression. I also pursued many other alternative treatments, but the black thoughts, pitiful energy levels, and complete loss of confidence seemed terminal.
It got so bad that on July 24, 2004, I put pen to paper and said goodbye to my family. “I just can’t be a burden any longer,” I wrote.
Recovery one step at a time
Meditation proved to be my next breakthrough. I completed a short course and experienced peace from my new daily habit.
The next step in my recovery was volunteering for an organization that placed people recovering from a mental breakdown to work with charities. I observed how well these people responded to working again. Suddenly they had a reason to get up every morning, to mix with people, and to make a contribution again. As their sense of self-worth grew, so did mine.
I began writing about my experiences and that of others who had overcome depression or bipolar disorder. This eventually lead to my new book Back From The Brink, which I developed in partnership with DBSA. I interviewed former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, TV talk show host Trisha Goddard, and many others, who courageously described their recovery journey.
These anecdotal insights set me on another quest. I had personally felt frustrated that my mental health professionals focused mainly on medication and therapy, and so I decided to ask my fellow travellers “what worked best for you?”—this lead to some surprising findings.
Out of 60 options, fulfilling work rated number 6. To put this in context, cognitive behavioral therapy, the gold standard in mood disorder treatment, rated number 11, and the highest rating medication came in at number 23.
I became energized by helping those who were depressed discover the value of exercising, engaging with loved ones, finding great mental health professionals and fulfilling work. It is the most fulfilling work I have ever done.
As improbable as this seems, I now believe that my depression was a gift, because it forced me to make the truly important my first priority.
Based on the stories and research from my book, I have created a free 30 Day Mood Boost Challenge which provides people with one story and tip each day to hasten recovery. May the best in life and love and happiness be ahead of you.
THE POWER TO HEAL
It’s not, of course. It’s locked, and it’s made of three layers of unbreakable glass. Once you’re let through that first door, there’s another one, also locked, and then another one, locked. I suppose if you went up the stairs, just any old person, you’d find that the door wouldn’t open, and you’d figure the place was closed.
Not so. One floor up, there’s Unit A, and two floors, more locked doors, and you’re at Unit B. I remember the click of those bolts into place as the last of the doors clicked behind me, and I realized that the locks weren’t to keep strangers out. They were to keep us in.
Nowadays, I look like your average neighborhood dweller, and I walk past the building often on my way home or walking my weird little dog. Nowadays, I glance up at the window on the top floor where, some twenty-five years ago, my snub-nosed, freckled teenage face was staring down. I was there because, back then, I was what authorities called “a problem child.” The kids in there knew better. We knew that really what we were—what the world thought we were—was just crazy. The leftovers of a broken system, a bunch of freaked-out kids that needed to be kept off the streets and away from the world. The world then—as, in many ways, now—thought that “troubled kids” were pretty much a lost cause before we’d even begun. The world assumed we were destined for a life of the streets, bums and bag ladies at best.
Well, what the hell did the world know? I mean, for Pete’s sake.
Now, the girls are let out at 2pm for a chaperoned walk around the park—I see them every day, and I remember the burst of hot, humid summer on my face when they let us out some rare afternoons (back then, they let us out to smoke!). Listening to them laugh, I remember us as giggly kids who were, in that locked world, safe from our own pain for the first time in our lives.
I want to talk to my former self. This is what I’d tell her, and it’s what I’d tell any kid with a mental health diagnosis now.
Look, kid. They don’t know what’s going on with you, and they won’t for years. So, just FYI, you’re no more crazy than anybody else—not one of you is crazy, as a matter of fact, and all of you are going to survive this hard time. You’ve got a brain disorder—and in twenty-some years, so much will have happened in science, medicine, and in your own life that the disorder will be treatable, manageable, and you’ll describe yourself as a person in recovery. They don’t know yet that recovery is even possible for people like you. They’re going to think they can write you off.
So prove them wrong. Because by the time you’re grown, there will be millions of people like you, people who’ve survived a kind of hell, and come out the other side incredibly strong. And there will be a whole new generation of people for whom treatment is vastly more effective, a whole generation of people who won’t have to suffer nearly as long.
You can make it, kiddo. Just don’t give up. Not ever. You’ve got what it takes: you’ve got the power to heal.
Marya Hornbacher is an award-winning journalist and the author of five books, including the New York Times best seller, Madness: A Bipolar Life. Marya is a DBSA Honorary Advisory Board Member, and will be a Keynote Speaker this August at DBSA New Jersey’s 8th annual conference.
I always knew something wasn’t right. Throughout childhood, I swung back and forth between states of high energy and low self esteem. As a young girl, I turned to self help books and inspirational quotes to try to fix what didn’t seem right. I could never understand why I didn’t seem like everyone else. I was a cheerleader and sang in the choir in junior high school. I always felt like an outsider.
In high school, I twirled a rifle in the marching band color guard and was editor of the school newspaper. I worked a job which filled my time, so I didn’t remember I wasn’t going to the dances or hanging out with friends. Life brought similar experiences in college and beyond.
It wasn’t until my second daughter was born that I felt time was running out. I needed to do something—anything—to fix this. It did not occur to me that I was another chapter in the history of my family’s mental illness.
My maternal grandmother was hospitalized and treated with shock therapy when I was a little girl. She was deaf, which made treatment difficult. I remember going to her doctors’ appointments with her and my mother. The doctor did not use sign language, or know how to communicate with her. She would speak to my mother, who would ask my grandmother how she was feeling. She was given her prescriptions and we left.
Although my mother never went to a doctor for mental illness, she had all the behaviors of someone who would have benefitted from mental health care. Unfortunately, she passed away at the age of 62. She signed her own papers to cease dialysis treatment for kidney failure, which was caused by late-stage diabetes.
Why I never associated my symptoms with my family history still confuses me. I can only attribute it to the stigma of mental illness which existed then, and still does, to some degree, today. Like many, I felt like I should just be able to snap out of it. After a few attempts at finding relief, I went to a psychiatrist. I started taking a medication which did improve the quality of my life.
Unfortunately, psychiatric care was not covered by insurance, so I only saw my psychiatrist once a year. In early 2012, I walked into my boss’s office and sat down and sobbed. I couldn’t take it anymore. I asked for time off, which was granted. I went home and called the employee helpline. I wanted to end it. The counselor on the phone found me a local therapist, who advised me to go to the hospital. I was entered into an outpatient program where I spent the next few months learning cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) techniques.
What I learned was life changing. Mental health care is just like dental care! I see my dentist a few times a year, but in between, I brush and floss daily. With mental health care, I see my psychiatrist a few times a year and a therapist when needed. I take my medications regularly and as prescribed. I practice what I have learned from CBT and DBT. In between the professional help, it is important for me to maintain a healthy lifestyle of eating well, limiting alcohol and caffeine, staying active, and getting sleep, as well as being mindful of moments that bring joy. I learned that I am the advocate of my own health, which is my future. I still have my low moments from depression and bipolar. It is a process of recognizing symptoms and avoiding triggers. I have also learned to forgive myself for not being like everyone else. I have come to accept where I am right now and how much more life has to offer me in the future.
Today, I work full time and try to help others challenged with mood and mental disorders through my support group, Checkpoints Anxiety and Depression, and my involvement with DBSA Greater Chicago. I participate in advocacy with DBSA National in the hopes of making the stigma go away, and of mental health treatments being made available to everyone who is in need.
My message is simple: You can be better!
If I had to pinpoint a time when I first felt the symptoms of depression—
the feelings of sadness, aloneness, and worthlessness—
I would say it was around the age of eleven or twelve. Sometimes the journey wasn’t all that bad, as when the symptoms were managed through medication and therapy. Sometimes the journey was very rough, however, and I spiraled downward into months-long episodes of major depression. The absolute low point of my journey happened during my junior year of college.
As I entered an episode of major depression, I started to isolate myself from friends and family. I chose to sleep rather than deal with my increasingly intense feelings of self-hatred and worthlessness. I avoided any social interaction because of the fear of judgment. I thought to myself, “If I don’t like me, how can I expect other people to like me?” So I spun deeper and deeper into a world I created for myself—a world which consisted only of me and my dark thoughts.
After living this way for a couple of months, I forgot what life outside of depression looked like. I felt like I had been having these thoughts and feelings all my life. I couldn’t remember a time when I wasn’t depressed, and I couldn’t imagine a future where I wasn’t depressed. I felt hopeless. When I became tired of trying to live and hold it all together, and when the thin string of sanity that I was holding onto finally snapped, I decided to end my life.
But, thankfully, that’s not where my journey ended. I stayed in a psychiatric hospital for a week before entering an intensive day program for six months. During this time, I took a medical leave of absence from college, and focused on a new kind of education: learning to love myself and learning how to live with depression.
After graduating from the day program, I returned to college. It was important for me to prove to myself, and to those who supported me throughout my recovery, that my suicide attempt was not going to derail my life. I would not let it force me to compromise the goals I had set for myself.
I want people to know that I am not ashamed of my suicide attempt. I want them to know that there is nothing shameful about the feelings associated with depression. They are real and valid feelings, and ignoring or dismissing them is not the answer. For me, it took a suicide attempt for these feelings to come out, but it doesn’t have to be that way for other people.
Speaking openly and honestly—
without guilt or shame—
about my depression has taken my journey with depression in a new direction.
I continue to advocate and share my story in the hopes that knowing others have or are experiencing the same feelings can provide hope to teenagers and young adults. I have had the opportunity to participate in a program that provides mental health screenings to elementary and middle school; I recorded a StoryCorps interview with my mother that aired on my local NPR station and will be archived in the Library of Congress; and I will be a panelist at the Illinois Department of Public Health’s 2014 Statewide Suicide Prevention Conference. Excitedly, I will also serve as the co-chair of DBSA’s newly established Young Adult Council. All of these activities not only help to promote awareness and education about mental illness, but are instrumental in supporting my efforts to live a life of wellness.
My journey with depression will be a lifelong one. The journey isn’t over because I’ve learned tools and practice skills that promote living in wellness. Not every day is perfect; and some days, wellness is hard to achieve. However, life is beautiful and enjoyable once again because I’ve learned to accept and embrace this journey. And sharing my journey with others only makes it that much more rewarding.
“I wish my son had cancer instead of depression” the mother of an Indian teenager I recently met said to me. “If he had cancer, I could at least share our pain with our family and friends, and ask them for help” she said, tears streaming down her face.
My heart breaks every time I hear about the deep sense of isolation many Indian families feel in supporting their loved one struggling with mental health issues. As an Indian woman who has struggled with debilitating anxiety and depression, I know first-hand the difficulties of overcoming the stigma of mental illness within the Indian community. Growing up in India, my family and I had no understanding of mental health issues. By the time I was 18, I was debilitated by undiagnosed generalized anxiety disorder and panic attacks. At 23, as a young mother in America, I struggled to free myself from the death-hold of depression. And, at 25, on a trip back home to India, I suffered a massive breakdown and became obsessively suicidal. Finally, my family physician recommended that my parent’s take me to a psychiatrist.
“I pray no one we know sees us here, Gayu,” my mother had whispered, scooting closer to me in the waiting room. “You never know the vicious rumors people can spread.” Within minutes of examining me, the psychiatrist had diagnosed me with clinical depression. But, the diagnosis soon became a noose that threatened to destroy me and my family. Ironically, in India, where our national motto declares “truth alone triumphs” my family and I were terrified that my truth, my diagnosis of mental illness, will destroy us all. So, we decided to keep my diagnosis a secret. And, my family and I lived like prisoners in our home, hiding behind a veil of shame and secrecy. Despite my return to the U.S. and access to the best medical care, I continued to suffer recurrent bouts of depression. Years later, after yet another failed suicidal attempt, I finally chose to be hospitalized. On April 30, 1989, Confined in the seclusion room of a psychiatric ward, stripped of freedom, dignity, hope and humanity, I promised to emerge a messenger of hope and healing. For every indignity that I had suffered in shame and silence, I promised to fight to restore my dignity and the dignity of others like me around the world. And for every moment that my family and I had lived in despair, I promised to bring hope to the lives of others like us.
Although my stay at the psychiatric hospital was traumatic at times, it was ultimately life-transforming. For the first time in my life, I met others like myself in the hospital, people with mental illness, and I realized that I was not alone. The caring staff, and the many educational opportunities and therapeutic interventions they offered, helped me pave my path to recovery. One day, one step at a time, with self-determination, hard work, effective treatment, and the unconditional love and support of family and friends, I have created a healthy, meaningful life. Today, as the Founder and President of ASHA International www.myasha.org a nonprofit organization promoting personal, organizational, and community wellness, and the author of my upcoming memoir Shadows in the Sun: Healing from Depression and Finding the Light Within, I am dedicated to helping others struggling with depression and mental health issues to overcome barriers to recovery and achieve wellness.
According to a recent article in India West by Sunita Sohrabji, suicide rate among Indian Americans is on the rise. We are stressed, depressed and struggling with other mental health issues. But, we don’t like to talk about it. Nor, do many of us like to seek help. Unfortunately, the cultural stigma surrounding mental illness sentences people into lives of shame, secrecy, and needless suffering, and prevents people from seeking life-saving treatment and supports.
As a mother and mental health advocate, the struggles of families breaks my heart, and strengthens my resolve to promote mental health awareness, and bring hope and healing to people struggling with mental health issues and their families. It is time we break the silence surrounding mental illness in the Indian community, and start the conversation about mental health If not for us, we have to do it for our children's sake. Fortunately, organizations like the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, and ASHA International can help us get started.
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” Pr. 13:12
This scripture beautifully describes the journey I have traveled in healing from profound symptoms of Bipolar I disorder and PTSD. For many years I did not have the hope of living a full life. Hope lay on a dry river bed of despair. To give perspective, I am fifty-eight years old, and I am thriving now. I enjoy meaningful work, writing, family and friends, recreation, and pastimes. I work in the field of geriatric social work, both in hospice and mental health, as a licensed master of social work and a thanatologist (death, dying and bereavement counselor.)
I want to focus on work life since it was so difficult, yet so rewarding for me to come to a place of fulfillment. I had some jobs during my twenties and early thirties. In my late forties I again began to work a bit. But, for the seventeen years in between I received Social Security Disability Income (SSDI.) I felt so ashamed when I first received the letter from the Social Security Administration that I called their office and told them, “I don’t need it. I’m going to be okay. Give it to someone who is truly sick.” I told a friend of mine what I had done, and she said to me, “Call them back! It is a lifeline from God! Take it.” Fortunately, I listened to her because I needed an income to live; I could not work or study beyond a month or two before getting sick again. This was a crushing blow to my hopes for a career. My heritage was of a family of doctors, for heaven’s sake.
Why couldn’t I have hope for that kind of success? What kind of hope could I have? I had been struck with a psychotic episode when I was twenty-five. By the time I was thirty-one I’d had three psychotic episodes, and that third one got my attention. I began the journey to find out what was wrong with me. That was in the day when mental health diagnoses were long in coming for some of us. It took another three years to get a definitive diagnosis, and I went through shelter homelessness, public assistance, and multiple combinations of medications and therapies before I had any kind of stability.
But, despite the best efforts of us all, I had at least twenty-two hospital stays. I stopped counting when I was forty-two years old. When I add it all up I’ve spent about a year and a half of my lifespan in a psych hospital. This is a sad fact, and I hope others can be spared such a history, or such a future.
A turning point occurred when I was forty-five. I became involved with the mental health consumer movement, and soon my state’s Behavioral Health Department contracted me for ten hours/week to revitalize the DBSA local chapter. I am especially proud of my collaboration with the board to get a grant that allowed us to provide contractor positions to consumers. They worked in various capacities, some of them moving on into the work world. I also served as president; giving to others more than I ever thought I could.
What a gift I’ve been given! I haven’t had significant symptoms of Bipolar I or PTSD since that time. I think this is because I: had the attitude, “I’ll do whatever it takes,” relied on my faith and spirituality, worked hard in therapy, stayed committed through all the medication trials, learned recovery tools through DBSA education, and gradually engaged in meaningful work.
Hope deferred does indeed make a “heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” I encourage all of us to grab onto hope because HOPE WORKS!
After a distinguished career in the Navy, I was proud to join the public sector utilizing the immeasurable discipline and knowledge I had acquired serving in our country’s military. I enrolled in a rigorous doctor of education (Ed.D.) program at Vanderbilt University with an emphasis in Human Resource Development. I was well on the way to establishing a new career as an independent management consultant. Areas of focus included organizational development, prospective employee screening, and middle-management development.
Always keeping an eye on my roots, I pitched a proposal on the needs of returning veterans to The Tennessee Department of Veterans’ Affairs and even provided testimony to the Subcommittee on Oversight of the Committee on Veterans Affairs to the 102nd Congress. Also, immediately after retirement, I researched the impact of military base closings for then, Senator Al Gore in his Washington, D.C. office. I was a man headed toward success, but my body and mind had different ideas.
Mental health detour
Just shy of completing my doctoral program, I was stricken by an acute episode of depression. I couldn’t get out of bed. I had no energy. I couldn’t focus. After a year of recovery, it became apparent that I would not complete the requirements for my doctorate degree. I was devastated. My goals, dreams and aspirations drifted away.
While not recognizing it at the time, I was one of the fortunate ones. My insurance provided access to the mental health services and prescription medications I required. However, I did not readily accept the help available to me, for I faced an obstacle I now recognize as internalized stigma. It is a legitimate problem for people facing mental health challenges and can delay their receiving treatment and recapturing their lives. I got back my life through the help of a Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance support group. I drove 100 miles one-way, once a week to attend a meeting. By modeling to me their own lives rich in community, meaningful work and friends, I eventually threw off the resentment and bitterness that I had been carrying inside me about living with a mental health condition.
From the board room to the advocacy board
Today I am putting to work all of the education and management skills I acquired before the onset of my depressive disorder to build a new career for myself as a mental health advocate. I am the founder and current president of DBSA Jackson going on its 12th year. This organization conducts three different inspirational support groups. One, a weekly group in its fourth year, is held with inpatients at a local behavioral health hospital.
In 2011 I published my first book ˗ The Two Agreements: A Good News Story for Our Time with all proceeds going to the DBSA Jackson chapter. My book outlines the foundation of a healthy spiritual life of my own design that fuels my passion for service to others. I am presently working with the Small Business Development Center and DBSA Jackson board members to establish a partnership for stability, growth and exposure of the chapter.
I continue to offer leadership serving as the State Director, DBSA Tennessee. But fighting stigma whether internal, at the workplace, or in schools continues to drive me. Serving as a board member on the Consumer Advisory Board for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, with my urging, an ad hoc committee to focus on anti-stigma initiatives has been created. A few days ago, I became a member of the Board of Directors for the Tennessee Mental Health Consumers' Association, one of the only national mental health consumer/survivor owned and operated organizations.
I recently returned from Washington, D.C. after participating in the largest national mental health advocacy event. I visited my elected officials. I told my personal story and described the dire needs of members of my support group. Before leaving their office, I asked each staff member this simple question, "Can you imagine how I feel each week faced with desperate, resourceless attendees in my support group and I am without any more telephone numbers to give out in order for them to find help?"
Erasing stigma supports access to mental health screenings, enabling those who need it to seek and accept treatment. We all can, and should do our part so that I never run out of phone numbers to hand out.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder during my sophomore year of college. I distinctly remember how alone and scared I felt during the months leading up to my diagnosis. I knew that something was wrong when I began to fail classes, withdraw from friends, and experience depression and mania, but I did not know what was wrong or where I could go for help. When I finally did open up to family and friends and get the treatment that I needed, it was a relief. At the same time, though, the diagnosis felt like a burden. Like many young adults, I had begun to develop an image of who I was and where I wanted my life to go, and my diagnosis put many goals on hold. My focus shifted from classes, friends, and my future to therapy, medicine, and the belief that my life would be limited by my diagnosis and that I could never fully recover.
The turning point in my recovery journey came when I joined a group on campus, Active Minds, dedicated to educating the college community about mental health and reducing stigma. I realized that I was not alone and that there were other students facing similar challenges, as well as those who did not have a mental health issue but cared and wanted to make a difference. Through participating in the group, I no longer felt isolated and began to see my bipolar disorder as a strength that could be used to help others. I now viewed past events, such as taking a semester off or struggling in a class, not as failures but instead as obstacles that I had overcome. I finally felt optimistic about my future and my ability to lead a productive and happy life.
It has now been seven years since I discovered that I had bipolar disorder. Through the support of family, friends, professors, and doctors, I graduated from college and am now working as a peer specialist, supporting individuals as they go through their own mental health recoveries. I am living on my own, have meaningful relationships with family and friends, and can genuinely say that I am living the kind of life that I had been striving for before my diagnosis. Life no longer feels limited, but full of possibility and hope.
Maintaining my personal wellness has been a critical part of my recovery. In addition to the excellent care that I receive from my therapist and psychiatrist, I have learned to reach out to family and friends when going through a difficult time. A large part of getting this support has been working to overcome the shame often experienced by those with mental health conditions. For me, self-acceptance was the catalyst towards truly engaging in my recovery and seeking out the support that I needed and deserved. In addition, being surrounded by people who believed that I could recover instilled a belief within me that my life can move forward.
Seven years ago, I felt defined by my diagnosis. My hopes and dreams seemed shattered. In retrospect, I realize that it was the consistent love and support from those around me that kept those hopes and goals alive within me. This is not to say that every day is easy or symptom free—being well takes work. However, I now believe that I, and anyone dealing with a mental health condition, have the ability to recover, be well, and lead full and satisfying lives. Being an individual with bipolar disorder used to be a source of shame, and the core aspect of my identity. Now, I now see it as one strand in the colorful tapestry of who I am, and who I hope to be.
If you met me five years ago, it may well have been on a locked psychiatric ward. I may have told you I was a prophet, or a high-level advisor to Barack Obama, or a goat, or all of the above.
It took ten years, a suicide attempt, an acute manic episode and a psychotic break for me to finally get an accurate diagnosis of bipolar disorder. By that time, I was 29, and I had already graduated law school, passed the bar, earned a Master’s in Public Health, published my first book and won an award for it. I’d also overcome a serious physical illness that nearly killed me, married the smartest person I’ve ever met and read all three parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In short, things were going well.
Then I lost my mind. For years I’d been jumping from paradise to purgatory to hell and back. It was my normal. I was sensitive, eccentric and creative. I was highly in tune with the bigger picture. I was a philosopher. I was not crazy.
But alas, I was—or at least well on my way. I received my diagnosis in isolation. Literally and metaphorically. Still under the spell of mania and psychosis, I was having none of it. I would have been more likely to accept a diagnosis of prostate cancer than bipolar disorder.
It took roughly a month for me to believe and acknowledge my diagnosis. The antipsychotics worked remarkably fast, and soon, I was confronting the reality of my hallucinations, delusions, and erratic and irrational behavior from the perspective of someone who was neither acutely manic nor psychotic. I couldn’t very well deny the diagnosis after looking back at the things I’d done while manic: disrobing in public, yelling obscenities at an infant, trying to give away all my money and belongings—and that’s not even the half of it.
While I was quick to accept my diagnosis, I was far from happy about it. Despite the fact that I’d already achieved a good deal professionally and personally by that point, part of me was sure I’d never do anything even remotely useful again. Part of me was sure I’d be disabled for the rest of my life. And part of me was sure I’d never write again, let alone get someone to publish anything I wrote.
This August, my second book, Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life, was published by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House. I’m now able to make a living as a full-time writer, and I recently realized a longtime dream of mine—getting an editorial published in The New York Times. My book, that op-ed and plenty of speeches and articles in between relate directly to my experience living with a mood disorder. Some might say I’ve managed to make a living off of my “disability.”
I say that I’ve managed to make a life that works for me by finding value in variation. I’m not cured by any stretch. I struggle with this illness every day. But I have consistently refused to believe the countless people (including many mental health professionals) who told me that I couldn’t get anywhere near where I am today—and that has made all the difference.
Living with bipolar disorder, writing and speaking about it, and gaining strength from others who share in this fight, I’ve learned never to underestimate the power of compassion, perseverance, resilience and faith. I now know that I can come back from hell, that I need not settle for purgatory and that heaven will wait for me. A hard-won lesson for sure, but well worth it.
I was born in the middle of the great depression in 1933. Hoover was president and my family was trying to make ends meet.
I must have been depressed from my early years. I wrote a suicide note when I was in the third grade. My father tore it up and said, "What a dumb thing to write." That was the end of it.
I struggled through high school on the honor roll or, when depressed, on the dishonor roll. The same happened in college, but I received my Bachelor of Science in Education and got a job teaching. I married my wife Dorothy and had a son. Two more sons were born and I got my Masters Degree. I changed jobs, looking for something more rewarding. Depression was always in the way.
I took on several volunteer jobs with community groups and began to medicate myself with alcohol. My depression got worse, and in November of 1980, I was hospitalized. I was in the hospital until the end of April, 1981.
Dr. Martin Kafka had me try an experimental medication. It took time to find the right dosage. He also introduced me to DBSA, a new group for people with depression.
I know now that three things are necessary for keeping me well. The first is finding a doctor you can work well with. Second, taking the time to find the right medication, and third, to have a good support system that includes family and my DBSA Boston group.
I have worked with DBSA Boston from 1983 and have taken an active part in the group. For twenty-seven years I have worked in the office three days a week. Though depressed, I never waited for better days to come or tried to recapture better days past.
I drive fifty-two miles each way to get to the office to be of help to others.
There were bad days when depression was a burden, but with the help of family and my DBSA friends, life could become better.
Hope is what I have. Hope that tomorrow will be better than today. Hope that I can be of help to others who have the same ailment as myself.
DBSA honored Everett Page with the 2013 Life Unlimited Award at the DBSA 2013 National Conference.
What I have learned about living with and overcoming bipolar disorder can be summed up in three words: faith, hope, and knowledge. Faith cements your hope that you will overcome, and knowledge informs on how to live well, using better judgment in managing what can be a devastating and life-altering disease.
After a diagnosis of bipolar disorder in 2001, which came at the heels of a harrowing post-partum season of my life, I momentarily lost more than just my sanity and ability to cope. I lost the solid footing under me of memories and experiences of my life as I was swept up in a whirlwind of retrospective questioning. As a spiritual person, I had revisited every “mystical” encounter and questioned it. As a new mom, I revisited every decision I had made and wondered if I knew what I was doing. The questions continued: Was my marriage based on manic impulsivity? Was this the reason why I could never finish anything I started? Or spent uncontrollably? Or was increasingly anxious and paranoid of people and the world? Finally, was I really just the sum total of chemicals gone awry in my brain?
I was left to figure myself out, believing that I was stricken with something so dark and awful that I could never find anyone with whom I could relate. I didn’t have cancer. I didn’t have high blood pressure or heart disease or diabetes. I was—as I believed—weaker than the world in mind, body, and soul, and I would never measure up. My highs and lows were devastating. The depressions were abysmal beyond description, and I consider myself someone who finds it pretty easy to describe things. The suicidal ideations were always by my side. But all hope was not lost.
Reluctantly, I began taking medication and attending individual and group therapy that very same year. I quickly (and gratefully) learned that I didn’t need to hang up my faith in God, life, and health, because I was in good company. Interestingly, before my diagnosis, I remember always relating all too well to writers and poets, the likes of Emily Dickenson, Charles Spurgeon, Samuel Johnson, Robert Frost, William Blake, and even being disturbed by but understanding Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath’s plight. I found I understood them somehow. Now I know why.
And now I have actually met and dined and spent quality time throughout the years with many brilliant but burdened minds who have shown me that I am not alone and that I am actually in the best company. Fast forwarding to today, I started college in 1993, the same year of my first actual “break” or manic episode, and finally graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 2005. The road in between was not always easy, but was definitely worth it. I am now entering my second semester of graduate school. To learn more about the great minds that baffle and inspire me, I am working towards a Master of Arts Degree in English Literature and Creative Writing with a concentration in poetry.
My journey has been a long one and it continues. I have found health through a plethora of resources including my faith, medication, therapy, the support of my friends and family, my son’s smile, and informing myself incessantly on everything from research to the experiences of contemporary published authors and celebrities who fight along with me. Know that you don’t have to lose your faith, but you just have to grow its boundaries. See that hope is everything even in the most unsuspecting things: creation, the miracle of life itself, artistry, music—the list goes on. And educate yourself on what is happening in your brain and your emotions. That is more than half the battle! There’s always hope. There’s always a reason to look in the mirror and say, “I’m not just a survivor. I’m an overcomer.” There really is nothing you can’t still endeavor to do.
Listen to the mustn'ts, child. Listen to the don'ts. Listen to the shouldn'ts, the impossibles, the won'ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me—Anything can happen, child, anything can be. –Shel Silverstein, Poet
A diagnosis of bipolar disorder can change your life in an instant. Learning to not be defined by that diagnosis takes faith, support, and sheer will. My diagnosis came in September, 2001, but I had been suffering for years before that. I struggled with rapid-cycling mood swings that could take me from euphoric highs to agitated depressions within days, sometimes hours. Medication brought no relief, other than to render me too cloudy and lethargic to do much of anything. I had to leave behind a promising career in the law because working became impossible. I was not physically or emotionally available to my husband who struggled daily to take care of me and provide a stable home for our two daughters.
I was lucky to have disability insurance, and spent the next few years trying to cope with the illness. I saw a therapist, and I had a support team of friends and family. I tried some simple jobs and some community involvement, but the depression, hypomania, panic, and anxiety always got in the way. Each time a new symptom arose, I was back at the doctor for another medication adjustment. The changes never brought relief and often had undesirable side effects. By 2005, I was on a cocktail of seven medications that left me so disoriented I could barely leave home.
It was then that I went to an affective disorders clinic at a hospital three hours from my home. It was worth every mile of the trip. That consultation resulted in a change in meds that gave me a new lease on life. It took months to make the adjustment, and it wasn't easy. I faithfully took my meds, kept all my therapy and doctors appointments, and engaged my support network. And, I got better.
Then the disability ran out, and we simply could not survive on one income. I started looking for a job. Although things were going much better health-wise, I had no idea whether I was up to the task. Could I stay focused? Could I stay on task? Could I even manage to get to work every day and on time?
I would have worked in any job that produced a paycheck, but I was fortunate to find one in human resources, a field related to my former law practice. I took a chance and told my closest co-workers that I had bipolar disorder, because I knew I would need them to be part of my support team. They were compassionate and understanding. There were times I thought I would never make it through the day, but they were there to help me stay the course. I have been employed full time since then. I have been able to further my career with positions of increased responsibility, and I am now the human resources director for a rehabilitation hospital. I've served on the board of my professional organization and volunteered with community organizations and my daughters' schools.
Working a steady job was important, but I also needed to find an outlet for a personal passion: performing. In 2007, on a whim, I auditioned for a community theater production. I hadn't done theater since I was in my 20's. I was thrilled to land a role in the ensemble along with my husband and daughter. It was a challenge—six weeks of rehearsing several nights a week and weekends, all while working full time and having a family. I had to promise myself to sleep regularly and take my meds to keep balanced. I've never worked so hard or had so much fun. Then two years later I did another show, and another after that. This summer, I will perform in my seventh musical production since returning to the stage. I have joined a women's choir that is as much about support and sharing as it is singing. I have even started to take ballet. Nothing makes me feel more alive than taking the stage, and I count my fellow actors, dancers, and choir-mates among my closest friends.
It's been twelve years since my diagnosis. No one thing has allowed me to live a life this full. I'm thankful each day for the people in my life who told me it would be better, helped me believe it, and then made it come true.
“Never Give Up.” Three bold words written across my favorite SGI International t-shirt. The simple phrase resonates with a lesson that I learned from living with bipolar disorder: be relentless. Living with bipolar disorder for twelve and a half years made me relentless in never giving up on myself, in fully pursing my spirituality, and in never giving up on others.
From my initial diagnosis, bipolar disorder taught me to be relentless. Although I was riding in the backseat of my parents’ white minivan that spring of 2000, mania brought me into a New York psychiatric emergency room. I was speeding towards a wall of confusion in my manic state. I saw Jesus on the corner in one moment; in the next, I could speak Russian. Insight deluded me. Five hours after being brought to the ER, I was admitted. Now separated from my parents, I began my journey to piece my sanity back together.
That summer, I prepared to return to Harvard University for my junior year. It would be four years later, however, that my graduation robe would hug my shoulders. My time at Harvard became a mix of highs and lows, but mostly lows.
“My couches were like coffins—they held the seat of my dreams, sleep was stitched into cushions of my love seat.” These lines are from my original poem “Nadir,” and speak to the depression that I experienced.
In spite of the highs of the few hypomanic episodes and the multitude of depressive lows, my spirit was relentless. Over the course of years, I stuck to my treatment plan, adjusted my regimen according to doctor’s orders, worked with my helping professionals, attended support groups, and developed healthy coping mechanisms. Because of my condition, I could never give up in the pursuit of a balanced me.
My illness taught me to also be relentless in my pursuit for a spiritual connection. Even though the anguish of depression had me curled up on my dorm room floor, I still prayed. I sought the balance of spirituality and the comfort it brings. The relentless pursuit of spirituality was essential for me to realize that the moods and cycles that I experienced were a reflection of the larger spiritual system and nature’s ebbs and flows. Although difficult in the midst of experiencing the highs and lows, I gained comfort in knowing that I was not alone; even the seasons spoke to my condition.
My mother held her head in the way that only a distressed mother can that night in the ER. Even through my manic fog, I could see the pain on her troubled face. Now, looking back, I know what that was—a mother’s love. My father expressed his love in his own way: “Go to sleep, son, go to sleep,” he said in his tenor voice, trying to coax me to rest. I was helpless as a little child. Yet, this same distress made my parents fearlessly relentless.
My parents, 007 stand-ins, twice shuttled me from Harvard back to NY because I could not complete the semester. I left during the cover of night. Both times my parents were there to swiftly whisk me away. I had my parents, but more importantly, I had two souls who would not give up on me.
Looking back on those nights, I see that my parents had a relentless faith in my ability to pull through the mania and the depression. Their relentlessness taught me a profound lesson: do not give up on others. The question that I ask when I see some of my friends going through the throes of depression is, “How can I give up on you?” I may not be able to help each one of my friends, but I know I can say a prayer and believe.
Twelve years after my diagnosis, I am proud to say that I have obtained dual masters degrees from Teachers College, Columbia University, pursued a coaching certification, and loved each bit of helping students while working in higher education. I am the proprietor of Live Breathe, LLC, a consulting business which focuses on speaking, coaching, and group leadership for college students, companies, and adults. I also work with National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in two capacities: as a presenter for the In Our Own Voice program and as an outreach coordinator for the Breaking the Silence lesson plan distribution project in Long Island. I record and write poetry, exercise, and maintain a vegan diet. Please feel free to contact me or join my Facebook page to find out about the work I do.
Twelve years later, I am strengthened by my guiding life purpose and the knowledge that I cannot give up on myself, others, or my spiritual practice. I am certain relentlessness is built into my DNA.
My first depression hit when I was 16. After an increasing downward spiral of drinking and abusing prescription drugs, I attempted suicide by overdosing on pills and was taken to the psych ward. I remained there for six weeks. Upon my release, I felt this crippling shame, this horrible sense of being flawed and bad. Unfortunately, there was no education at the time and no one explained to me what I was going through. My whole personality changed from that of an extrovert to that of a hermit who isolated and avoided people. Amazingly, my depression was not diagnosed at this time and I wasn’t given any medication or much help. For the next 17 years, I lived with untreated depression that colored everything in my life.
After high school, I went to music school to pursue my dream of becoming a professional guitarist, but my depression got in the way. I thought it was normal to have periods, sometimes for weeks where I felt totally down and unable to play. It was incredibly frustrating. I knew I loved the guitar, but half the time I felt like I didn’t care about anything. When things weren’t going well, I would plunge into depressions that lasted up to a year, isolating myself from everyone, sleeping most of the time, and spending hours watching TV. At 26, I hit rock bottom. Doctors told me that my music career was over due to a case of recurring tendonitis. I felt like my life was at an end. I just wanted to die.
Then something changed. Looking back, I realize that my depression temporarily lifted, and, all of a sudden, I couldn’t isolate myself anymore. I had to get involved in something. I began to do volunteer work at the Vancouver Crisis Centre and found something besides music that I loved to do and was good at. The Crisis Centre saved my life. I met all these great people who were volunteering there, and I really enjoyed being on the lines, partly because I could totally relate to many of the callers.
Eventually, they hired me to be their trainer, and I began to make use of my gift with humor by bringing in fun things to do with the volunteers during their training. Everyone loved it, and I started to get calls from some of the volunteers’ employers asking if I could come in and do workshops for their staffs. It was at this point that my career as a professional speaker on humor in the workplace was born. Today I give presentations to hundreds of organizations across North America, speaking at conferences, conventions, and corporate events.
It was also at this time that my depression was finally diagnosed. A psychiatrist I was seeing told me she thought I was depressed. At first I thought she was nuts, but she finally talked me into going on medication. It made a huge difference. Though I was more in control of my moods and ability to cope at this point in my life, the medications got me to a point where I didn’t always have to worry about coping. It’s been almost 15 years and I’m still on medication, albeit a different one, and incredibly grateful for it.
Obviously recovery involves a lot more than just taking meds. I’ve had years of therapy; I exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, and, among other things, enjoy my career, family, and friends.
During my stint at the Crisis Centre, I completed a counselor training program and began working as a therapist in private practice in 1991. I still see clients today, although I’ve had to cut back due to my busy schedule. My entire practice has always been on sliding scale. There’s a tremendous need for counseling out there, and the sad thing is that many people can’t afford it. I think that’s just wrong. So over the years, I’ve made all sorts of deals with people so they could see me.
I also discovered stand-up comedy at this point in my life. Eventually I was asked to teach a stand-up comedy course at one of the local community colleges, and that’s what gave me the idea for Stand Up For Mental Health (SMH), my course teaching comedy to people with mental health conditions as a way of building confidence and fighting public stigma. I’d see students overcome long-standing depressions and phobias, not to mention increasing their confidence and self-esteem. There’s something incredibly healing about telling a roomful of people exactly who you are and having them laugh and cheer. I thought it would be a great idea to teach comedy to people who wanted the therapeutic benefits.
So in 2004, with no funding from anyone, I began SMH. Originally, there was only one group in Vancouver, but now I run the program in cities across North America in partnership with organizations like DBSA and NAMI. I give the classes via Skype and then fly in at the end to do shows with the comics. I’ve trained and performed with a group of comics at every DBSA conference since 2008. Hope to see you at the next one!
SMH was also featured in the VOICE Award-winning documentary Cracking Up, and we’ve been featured in media throughout the world, including a piece done for the Australian show Dateline, which sent internationally acclaimed video journalist David Brill to do a piece on SMH. It's an awesome piece and really does a lot to destigmatize mental illness.
Please check out the Stand Up for Mental Health site. There are lots of videos of our comics to inspire you and give you a good laugh!
In 2002, I was on the way to marriage with the love of my life. I was a workaholic technologist with a comfortable income. Anxiety disorders and a misdiagnosed mood disorder had troubled me since childhood. Ten years later, I'm divorced; my mood disorder is more severe (ultra-rapid cycling, drug-resistant bipolar); my anxiety is worse; I'm going through menopause; I've been unable to work for years; my only income is a social security check 85% less than my last paycheck; and—my life is so good my friends and family are jealous.
Since December 2011, I've worked, lived, and traveled the U.S. in a 100 sq. ft. eco-campervan converted to my specifications with solar electricity and a dry composting toilet. The van conversion is designed to be economical, have low environmental impact, and to be a safe, healthy environment for me. It reduces my chemical exposure, provides an environment with no incandescent or florescent lighting, and is a secure, cozy refuge for me, my cat, and my psychiatric service dog. Unlike traditional RVs, it has no propane tank, no open flames, no blackwater tank, and no leveling system. This makes it easier and safer for me to handle when I'm not at my best.
I camp on federal lands, including stunning national parks, much of the year for $10 a night. I have no utility bills, no rent, no mortgage, and no storage fees. My income is spent on high quality, healthy groceries, insurance, and fuel. I love outdoors activities and am proud to be living a greener life with extremely low water use and energy conservation. I have solid relationships with my parents, children, and grandchildren. My mental health is improved; my weight and physical health are excellent.
This low-cost eco-recovery allows me to pay for my mission, the Service Poodle Outdoors/Outreach Tour. I became inspired to do this during my training by Advocacy Unlimited in 2010. My psychiatric service dog, Maeve, and I get the word out about federal civil rights laws that give people with psychiatric disabilities in all 50 states the right to have trained service dogs accompany them wherever the public is allowed, as well as the right to have untrained pets (emotional support animals) in no-pets housing without deposits or fees. I talk to groups and individuals. I have a website; blog; Facebook page; Google+ page; and am active on Quora and in a number of Linked In's groups on the topics of disability, Americans with Disabilities Act, and psychology. Maeve and I recently traveled from Connecticut to Portland, Oregon to present our workshop, Mental Health is Going to the Dogs (and Cats), at Alternatives 2012 and I'm beginning a project to write and speak about my recovery and lifestyle. Call me or send a message.
I was twenty when I found myself in a mental institution being handed a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. In that moment, I felt like a shattered version of the person I had once known myself to be. The old me had value, I thought, and was someone whom I, myself, had liked. How had I gotten there?
In the two years prior to this I had tried, unsuccessfully, to attend several colleges. Racing thoughts mixed with grandiosity were followed by the devastating inability to put a coherent string of words together on paper. Both sides of this roller coaster interrupted my attempts to manage my assignments and the stress that came with them.
I had to move back in with my parents because I could no longer take care of myself. Eventually, I became more stable. But being stable wasn’t enough to feel like my life mattered. Instead, my existence felt empty. All I saw in myself were my limitations. I couldn’t finish school and a trail of dead-end jobs had left me empty handed. It seemed that every direction I looked, there was nothing for me.
Things started to change when I met Tammy, a disabilities student service councilor at the next community college I attempted. I had returned this time to take one class for the simple purpose of something to do. I didn’t dare let myself think I was going back for real. But Tammy validated my feelings of frustration at not being able to continue my education because of my symptoms.
The first day we met she asked me a magic question: “What kind of supports do you have in your life?” I looked back at her blankly. Tammy added, “Did you know this whole office is designed especially to help people with disabilities overcome their challenges in school?” She also knew people that could help me get a job and organizations that could help me learn more about my illness and re-build my self-esteem.
This began a long series of introductions to people and organizations that had been there all along, just waiting to help me.
Flash forward ten years: I now hold a BA in Human Services and recently completed a graduate program in nonprofit leadership and management at the University of San Diego. I have become an active advocate for young adults, co-founding Impact Young Adults, a peer-run nonprofit offering social events and leadership development. A few years ago, I joined the Board of Directors of International Bipolar Foundation. My latest endeavor, ImpactMORE, partners with young adults who want more from their mental health discovery process. We support projects identified by participants that will make a meaningful difference in their community. Through this, young adults see that their contribution, and their life, matters.
All of this began when one person saw something in me that I couldn’t see myself—someone who could recover. It was not an easy road that led me to these accomplishments, and it was not due simply to luck, except for my chance meeting with Tammy. The reason I have been successful and continue to grow and accomplish the goals I set for myself is because I have taken advantage of the help that was available to me and I have hung in there. I would not have completed my undergraduate degree if I hadn’t listened to the advice of those I had grown to trust or utilized the support available to me. And I most certainly wouldn’t have completed my graduate degree if I had stopped every time I failed (which, believe me, I have!).
I walk into class, my shield a thick blue binder filled with my countless ideas and thoughts—my nature in disorganized paper form. Inside hide the pictures of relief—Cobain, Poe, Whitman, Twain. Others. Success stories. Reminders of what is possible inside my world. Our world.
The bipolar world.
I sit, my own little planet, and watch the passionate pleas and anecdotes—“Ban the ‘R Word,’” “Words Hurt,” “If You Only Knew Me”—on the student television show. I recognize their causes and struggles with a mixture of great respect and weary indifference. I’ve heard it all before; I’ve seen the beauty of social progression towards acceptance.
But there’s something missing.
Enter May: Mental Health Awareness Month. My mind has become increasingly preoccupied with the serious lack of education and consideration in the public school system for mental health awareness.
One could say that I have experienced the full and direct effect of such prevalent ignorance amongst today’s youth.
I received the diagnosis of bipolar II at the young age of thirteen. For nearly four years I catapulted through the air, soaring up and up and up only to plummet down to Earth, back to avoiding friends and feeling listless and empty. Bipolar disorder has been described as “the worst hell imaginable,” and I could not agree more.
That is why I take offense to the erroneous vision of mental illness. The stigmatized, generalized, and absolutely searing use of “bipolar” in everyday speech. Especially when the label is met with such horror and protest, such disgust at the very thought of being “crazy,” a daily experience I find to be incredibly upsetting and painful. I know that I am not alone in this.
Society has painted such a “comprehensive” portrait of this disorder; people can hardly tear their eyes from it. They refuse to listen or attempt to modify their reinforced views.
Some things need to change. By 2020, I want people to catch themselves when a bipolar label starts to slip off their tongues, and I want the label to be recognized as the derogatory and hateful term that it is. I want society to recognize the physical nature of the disorder; to capitalize on the strengths of an individual with bipolar disorder instead of seeing the disorder as a weakness or a horrific flaw.
In order to do so, the public school system needs to implement awareness programs in their curriculum for young students. Reinforcement of a concept can have positive repercussions—we learn the social inappropriateness of the “n-word” and the archaic term “retarded” at a young age. Why not “bipolar”? Though progress of consciousness is slow moving, if we start now, we are that much closer to ending the stigma. I no longer want to feel ashamed and afraid of my identity, and I want the silent community of people like me to shed their fear and embrace their identity for our world to see.
This essay won First Place in the 2012 International Bipolar Foundation’s high school essay competition.
I was first officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of nineteen after falling into a suicidal depression. I thought that I was the only one in the world experiencing what I was going through. When I was finally hospitalized I saw that other people were dealing with similar things, but they were all much older than me and had very different life circumstances. It was difficult for me to connect with my fellow patients.
After I left the hospital I struggled with extreme bipolar episodes and in turn felt more and more alone. Feeling like I had no one to talk to or who could understand what I was going through, I wrote. I wrote in journals every day, trying to come to terms with my illness, trying to understand what was happening to me, and trying to find a way to release all of my thoughts.
Eventually, after writing for many years, my mom and I decided to combine our writing and create a book that shares our story of a mother and daughter struggling through a diagnosis of a mental health condition.
Today, our book, Perfect Chaos (St. Martin’s Press), has been published and we are sharing our story with a wider audience. Finally, by voicing my story, I realized that I was not alone and that mental health conditions are universal. Being open about my journey showed me that I could help others who also felt alone with their illness. It was not only a relief, but it was also empowering.
Writing remains a stabilizing support in my life. Through sharing my story with honesty, I have learned that I am not alone and I have found allies in my journey. I also found that I receive better support from my medical providers. Through organizations like DBSA, we can begin to share our stories and let others know that they are not alone, but rather a member of a strong and supportive community.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2003 at the age 29 after friends and coworkers intervened, confronted my mood instability, and took me to the hospital. While I had pockets of depressive episodes and periods of productivity, I had never felt so helpless as I did then. I had worked hard to maintain stability by staying busy through multiple jobs, graduate school classes, and an excessive exercise routine. After a while, I couldn't mentally maintain this schedule and I crashed. I knew I was always a sensitive person who felt things deeply, but I had no idea with what I was dealing, nor how long it would take me to get my life back on track.
At first, I fought treatment options, fearful that they would break down the defenses I had built and afraid of potential side effects from the medication. Once I accepted the help, I felt lost, trying to find my way through the mental health system. Often, I was fighting myself as much as I was fighting this system. I even had a therapist fire me after a couple of years for lack of progress. It was during this time that I had multiple hospitalizations, because I felt more comfortable in the hospital than I did in my own skin. At times, I was self-destructive and abused one of the medications prescribed to me. Once I found an effective medication regimen, became involved with DBSA Metro Detroit, and accepted my diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I finally began moving forward in my recovery.
My journey started with my friends, family, and coworkers, and these people still play an important role in my treatment plan. I have now added my therapist, psychiatrist, medications, and DBSA to the mix. Currently, I am the president of DBSA Metro Detroit and run one of our 11 support groups. Being involved with the other board and group members helps to give my life meaning and purpose. In addition, I also go to therapy once a week with a therapist who fully supports all parts of me unconditionally through the Internal Family Systems model. Finally, I have a psychiatrist who is knowledgeable in explaining and tweaking medications and gives me a voice in my treatment plan. While my diagnosis does not define me, it is a part of who I am. Once I accepted it, I allowed myself to get on the road to recovery, and I'm finally living again.
The elite United States Army Airborne Rangers' motto "Rangers Lead The Way!" originated when the US Army Rangers were tasked in the June 6, 1944 Normandy Invasion to arrive on the beaches under a swirling maelstrom of withering German machinegun and artillery fire, to climb straight up a cliff and destroy enemy gun emplacements that threatened to annihilate US troops.
I became a Ranger in 1977 after completing the grueling United States Army Ranger School Course. This training was 58 days straight with two eight hour breaks, and, up to that point in my life, losing 25 pounds of body weight was the most arduous task completed. Several months before beginning Ranger School, I witnessed the shooting death of a friend and fellow Infantry Officer Second Lieutenant on an aerial target engagement range. Unknown to me or anyone else—because Post Trauma Stress Disorder was not yet recognized as a diagnosis—I developed a raging case of PTSD, complete with black dog depths of depression, anxiety, survivor guilt, and a deep sadness I feel even to this day thirty five years later.
I saw my friend lying,
And standing nearby I shall always ask why not I?
After serving three years with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), I left the army to become a roustabout. I wrenched pipes together to build oil wellheads and tank batteries, dug ditches for pipelines, and did whatever was necessary to construct what you might recognize as oil wells. I eventually owned several small independent oil and natural gas exploration and production companies, until one day, someone made a mistake at one of my newly fracked wells and I was struck by a high velocity pipe in the ensuing explosive release of natural gas. Lying unconscious in a cloud of gas, my brain recorded what would become more PTSD stressors, and in the recovery from the physical injuries, I found that I could no longer bear to fill up my diesel car, assist my father on his farm because of the exhaust fumes of the tractor, and I morbidly feared going near my wells. Then tragedy struck again when in a month and a day, I survived two mild traumatic brain injuries that robbed me of the ability to read polysyllable words and understand body language and changed my personality enough that it interfered with many of my relationships. The black dog of depression attacked with ferocity, as subsequently I was forced to abandon graduate school and was later fired from my job as an emergency medical technician. Then on March 9, 1999, I survived the rollover of a pickup truck in which I was a passenger. I required surgery on my right shoulder and had a third TBI. Within seven months, I was diagnosed with narcolepsy and hospitalized for mania, where I was told I had bipolar disorder.
Since then, I founded Advocates For Mental Health, The Depression and BiPolar Support Alliance of Wayne and Holmes Counties (Ohio), and became the second Ohioan trained as a Facilitator of Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP). Becoming a Master WRAP Facilitator, I conducted the first WRAP Facilitator Training in Ohio in 2003. Subsequently I assisted Mary Ellen Copeland, Ph.D., and Ed Anthes in writing WRAP For Veterans and People In the Military, and assisted Jane Winterling in writing Steps To Wellness: A Manual For Building Community Supports. I became a Certified Peer Specialist after being trained by Larry Fricks in Georgia in 2004, and I returned to Ohio to advocate for Ohio adopting certified peer support as a Medicaid billable service. Later I served as the Senior Project Manager of The Ohio WRAP Study, the randomized trial of WRAP that resulted in WRAP being recognized as an evidence based practice last year by SAMHSA.
Personally, the years of black depression, mania, and alcoholism have given way before vigilant perseverance in self-directed recovery using Dr. Copeland's WRAP and Dr. Seligman's Positive Psychology. And, since 2009, with the help of a VA psychiatrist, I am free of enslavement to alcohol, nicotine, and no longer use any psychiatric medicines or any kind of therapy. I have lost 80 pounds in weight, resumed teaching Hakko Ryu Ju Jutsu, taken up yoga, and am in the best physical and mental shape I have been in the last 20 years. Rangers Lead The Way!
Acceptance. The acceptance of having the bipolar disorder was not something I knew very well. I had heard about acceptance during the years following my learning that the bipolar disorder doesn't just go away. Learning that something I was diagnosed with 20 years before never left me and that for 20 years alcohol had become my friend to manage the impacts from it. In my mind I now was "less than."
Shame, on the other hand, I knew very well. That shame being something that consumed me nearly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, taking time out only while I slept. Deep within my heart, I believed I was "less than." I no longer deserved respect for anything I would do from this point on in my life. I had a major character defect.
This belief was reinforced by the confusion and frustration my family felt as a result of mom having a mental illness. The fuel for the fire: a lack of education.
I then stumbled upon a few things that changed my life forever. DBSA and the simultaneous participation in an interactive internet study both focused on the recovery approach to achieving wellness.
Between my participation in face-to-face DBSA meetings, using the DBSA website recovery tools offered, such as Facing Us https://www.facingus.org/, the participation in the study, and learning that recovery is possible, "acceptance" is now better understood. Respect for myself and the goals in my life are reappearing, the hope returning. I can only touch the tip of the iceberg when trying to describe and explain how this feels. How understanding the "acceptance" of having a mental illness has given me my life back.
My name is Chris Jasikoff and I am being treated for major depression and social anxiety. My story begins way back in my childhood, when I thought I had to put on a "happy face" instead of expressing how I really felt. I was never really treated for my illness until I moved up to Massachusetts approximately 25 years ago and found an outstanding psychiatrist. Despite now being in Saratoga, NY, a 4-hour distance from where I was living before, my doctor still takes care of me.
My first hospitalization was a nightmare. I remember hitting the walls in the hospital and threatening to beat the windshield of a car—I was mad! After many years of enjoyment, I found work to become much more difficult. Anyway, my voice was taken away many years ago, leaving an empty, unhappy, depressed shell instead of the happy adult that I had pretended to be. On the outside I was happy and I was never able to express my true emotions. Thank goodness for my doctor, who worked diligently with me. Now I can speak openly about most things, but there are times when I sink into that shell and I still have trouble letting people in. I am working every day to fix this. Medication and psychotherapy really made a difference.
I am one of the founders of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) of Saratoga County, NY. We run three support groups, two of which are located in Clifton Park and one located in Saratoga Springs. Three years ago, the Clifton Park support group was started after a recent hospital stay. Two friends and I were talking one day at the hospital and we found that there weren't any support groups for people suffering from a mental health illness. So that night, I searched endlessly on the internet and the only thing that was remotely close to a support group was this organization called DBSA in Chicago, IL. After researching their website, it was very evident to me that I could start a chapter in a city of my own choice. I can remember that I was all excited about running a group, so I told the other lady who was interested about this idea. After speaking with her, we decided to base our support group in Clifton Park since it was mid-point between where our hometowns were located.
Soon after starting the Clifton Park group, I decided to get some additional training as a Certified Peer Specialist. And in February of 2009, I went down to St. Louis, Missouri, for a full week of Peer Specialist training. It was a very draining and yet a very exciting week. My skills as a peer support group facilitator and, later, as a peer counselor at a local hospital, had definitely improved! Not only did we start the Saratoga Springs support group, which was always my initial goal, but we then had an Annual Mental Health Awareness Walk held on March 21, 2011, which proved to be very successful. Through the walk, we promoted advocacy in our area! From the time I became engaged with DBSA, they have managed to keep me alive and well during these past few years! DBSA has definitely played an integral part in all of our support group activities. When help was needed, someone was always there with the answers or the know-how! Hats off to DBSA!
Dana Parker-Mathis, PhDc, MA, MHFA Instructor, DBSA Peer Certification
For over twenty years, I have struggled with symptoms of mental illness. When I was only twelve, my father passed away from a brain aneurysm in front of me. I was so devastated by the loss, I felt myself slipping into a place I didn't quite understand, but at my young age I didn't know how to share my feelings with someone so they could throw me a life-line. Life continued throughout high school.
Fortunately, I was admitted into the Intensive Educational Development Program at the University of Maryland and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Behavioral and Social Sciences in 1990. In 1994, I married, and on December 15, 1995, I gave birth to my number one fan and best friend, my now fifteen year old son, Zachary. I endured postpartum depression for several months, at which time I felt extremely overwhelmed.
My symptoms intensified and I began having thoughts. I was created for a special purpose. I was convinced my home and car were bugged. I believed the government spies were trying to take my son away from me. I spent hours driving on expressways and interstates chasing trucks and buses, reading them for clues and signs about what I was to do next. Colors symbolized both people and things, so every time I glanced at something green, it was telling me to grow-up, purple represented my mother, and yellow, my sister. Every color and every sight I saw meant something to me. My symptoms included severe mood swings, hallucinations, and paranoid delusions. It was both exhilarating and exhausting.
I returned to my home state of Michigan with the hope of benefiting from participation in a mental health research study called STEP, Services for the Treatment of Early Psychosis, at Wayne State University. Participating in this research study offered me hope while I endured the symptoms of Schizophrenia. The staff of the STEP Program worked diligently to create a well-rounded, all-inclusive treatment program for persons experiencing psychotic symptoms. The STEP program offered a three piece program: psycho-education, social skills, and medication management. This opportunity was the single most contributing factor to my recovery. I am a fervent believer that mental health research was what led me to a stable and fulfilling life. Research was key to correct diagnosis and finally finding a treatment program that worked for me.
I have been in recovery since 2005 and am living a fulfilling life. In May 2007, I completed my Masters of Social Justice Program and, as part of my required internship, I developed and implemented an educational support model program through my non-profit organization, Dig My Roots Foundation. Working with Wayne State University Psychiatric Centers, Detroit Central City, and Lincoln Behavioral Services, I have assisted many of my peers in gaining entry into higher educational institutions, trade schools, and GED completion programs throughout the metropolitan Detroit area.
I married a wonderfully understanding man in April 2007 and my son is performing exceptionally well academically and socially. I am currently employed full-time with Gateway Community Health Agency as a Prevention, Education, and Outreach Specialist, and I am also a Doctoral Candidate in Human Services with a specialization in Social Policy Analysis and Planning. Mental health research has had a positive impact on my life and I encourage every peer to seek out research opportunities and get involved.
To learn more about mental health research and research opportunities available, visit www.WeSearchTogether.org, a partnership between DBSA and the University of Michigan Depression Center that brings researchers and mental health consumers together as partners to advance research.
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