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.
Having bipolar disorder has not made for an easy life. But within my pain and struggles there have been transformative gifts, that I honestly wouldn’t change it if I could. It has offered me the opportunity to create a meaningful life, the ability to feel compassion for others, and allowed me to discover the unshakable joy and gratitude that comes from having survived deep suffering. At 37, I am more fulfilled than I ever dreamed possible. In fact, I was certain I wouldn’t live past 30. For many years, I wondered if I was born to suffer. To be alive, healthy, hopeful, and truly happy is nothing short of a miracle for me.
Around age 13, I started to experience extreme mood swings that got worse over time. Within one day I would be giddy and supremely confident, then crash suddenly into worthlessness and despair. This split made it easy to live a double life: one was the smile I showed the world, and the other was a sharp, suffocating, secret darkness.
My secret self escaped with food binges began a decade-long battle with self-harm. My world continued to grow smaller and darker, culminating in two suicide attempts. Both times I lived and wondered why I was forced to stay here and be tortured. Desperate for a lifeline, I started seeing an irresponsible, cruel psychiatrist who further injured me in my vulnerable state. When I quit my poorly prescribed medications, I flew straight into my first real manic episode. I spun high into the stratosphere, and then like clockwork came the sudden, terrifying drop. This spurred years of maniacal ups and devastating downs, and I became completely disheartened and hopeless. Finally I was diagnosed correctly, but it took years to secure the right medication, psychiatrist, therapist, and self-care routine to create a stable foundation.
Discovering what I needed to keep balanced and receiving my therapist’s unconditional support built up my confidence brick by brick. To truly heal, I had to address my embarrassment for my very visible breakdowns, grieve the years I lost, love the part of me that felt defective, and learn how to trust myself again. I had to accept my diagnosis and its limitations, but also be willing to live bigger than that. My mental health condition forced me to question what happiness meant for me personally. If I wasn’t meant to die, how could I make my life worth living? I started opening up to the idea that maybe my life had been saved for a greater purpose. From this new lens, I decided to become a therapist so that my experiences could be used to help others. This felt both exciting and terrifying. I took a risk on myself, giving school one more chance. My success there was an incredible surprise, and I finally started to believe in myself.
Now four years into my therapy practice, I consider each day with clients a precious gift. Guiding others to find peace and empowerment, no matter how painful the circumstances, is my calling. The ever-changing nature of bipolar disorder makes you an expert at the art of riding life’s ups and downs, and it also cracks your heart open to allow you to love more fully. Maintaining balance and weathering mood disturbances will always be a part of my life, but this diagnosis does not have to be a life sentence. Instead, it can be an invitation to see the world in a beautiful, meaningful way, and to share your unique vision with others.
At 19, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. From that point, life was a struggle. My moods were all over the place. I never knew what to expect. In my late 20s, I decided that I wanted to take my life. In the end, I just couldn’t do it.
Life changed drastically when my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer in September of 2007. I promised her I would be at her side for everything; and I was. She passed away in January of 2008, and my life fell to pieces. I was filled with grief that I was unable to overcome.
In June of 2013 depression hit me like a brick. Overwhelmed by sadness and grief, the suicidal thoughts were taking over. I missed my mom immensely. I couldn’t cope with my life any longer. I cut myself and took an entire bottle of pills. Sensing something was wrong via text, my husband came home and took me to the ER. I stayed in the hospital on suicide watch for five days. I was then told that the state was having me committed.
When I was released, I promised myself that I would never put my husband or my family through any of that again. I decided that if I told my story, it might help people. By helping others, I knew I would be helping myself. I began writing a blog detailing my struggles with bipolar disorder.
People from all over the world have written me to thank me for coming forward. My writing has been the best therapy I have ever known. I continue to write my blog, and I’m extremely proud to be able to say that I’m now a published author. I consider myself an advocate for mental health.
Life is much better, but I need to be realistic. I will never know life without bipolar disorder, and medication will forever be a part of my life. I am OK with that. If anyone I know isn’t, I don’t need them in my life. I’m taking care of myself for the first time. I’ve lost a lot of friends and even family members because of my suicide attempt. Some people consider me selfish.
I’m here to tell you that suicide has nothing to do with being selfish. Having bipolar disorder doesn’t make you selfish. Allowing yourself to find happiness doesn’t make you selfish. I’m 43 years old, and I’m living proof that you can succeed despite your mental health condition. It will take a lot of work, and you will stumble more often than you sprint, but it can be done.
Over the years, medications changed, counselors changed, locations changed, but the condition was always there—relentless. Bipolar disorder takes me to a place I call the Nothingness. Sometimes my thoughts are like a game show wheel that some outside force spins again and again. Sometimes, a darkening of my senses descends, causing my thoughts to fold and turn inside out. Thoughts come in slower and slower waves until they threaten to disappear entirely. It has been a daily battle for over 40 years, a battle I hope I will win and then someday die of natural causes and not the Nothingness.
Five months ago, my husband and sanctuary of love died of cancer. I feared the worst for myself. I made a list of hospitals that were okay and those that weren’t for when I fell apart—I was ready for the end. But that isn’t what happened.
When Bill once passed out during chemotherapy treatment, I called my brother Jim who lived four hours away. He said, ”I am on my way.” Ten days later Bill died at home. At that moment, a sensation something like energy rushed into my chest. It was a feeling of power and love and it filled me. I experienced a shift in how I viewed myself. And with that love and power came a calmness.
Jim helped me pack up and move to Gig Harbor to live with him. I have my own room, which is my art studio plus a bed. I wake up every morning with a great ache at Bill’s physical absence, but there is also gratitude that fills me and gives me strength. What Bill’s love taught me is that I am loveable, creative, smart, and funny. My mind is grounded in reality and the Nothingness has not swallowed me as expected. Daily I do what everyone who survives bipolar disorder does: I take my medications, manage my stress, create art, give of myself to new friends and my spiritual community, and, most surprising to me, I continue to draw on the strength of Bill’s love that still lives in my soul. This is not my end.
The Nothingness was like a wind that blew and bent me as though I were only a tiny tree. However, the years of persistence and the love of others have helped me grow into a mature tree; now that wind only flutters my leaves. A new artist friend said to me over tea, “You are so strong, so full of joy and peace.” I realized that no one had ever said that to me before. I felt that, yes, I can survive and grow in this world. I feel alive. I feel gratitude and that sustains me.
Sheri is the author of the Dark Side of the Mood and creates stuffed animals she calls Unity Babies to teach the concept of Unity in Diversity. She has been a member of the Baha’i faith for over 45 year and holds a master’s degree in health education and minors in art and dance.
One of the most emotional moments of my life was when I decided I was staying—when I took suicide off the table. I was stable for the first time in years, and as I stood in the shower in complete darkness, hot water and shampoo running down my back, I had a moment of clarity. I realized I was going to fully experience life with all its difficulties, heartache, monotony, delight, joy, and excitement. I committed to keep myself here, and in that moment, I cried tears of sadness and relief and strength.
I was 18 years old—a freshman in college—when I was hospitalized for the first time. For a year I had been taking different antidepressants which sent me into what my doctors recognize now as a mixed state. The on-call doctor spent about 15 minutes with me, told me I had major depression, switched me to a different antidepressant, and released me after 72 hours. A year later, after several more medication changes, I was back in a different hospital.
By this time, my life had almost completely collapsed. One month I felt like the most brilliant, productive, successful person on earth. The next month I was suicidal, convinced I was worthless and pathetic. I dropped out of college and moved back home. I slept most of the day and was suicidal during my few waking hours. All of the big dreams I once had for myself seemed completely unattainable. My mom would watch me sleep and cry, wondering if I would ever recover.
Unlike the first time I was hospitalized, the doctor at the second hospital spent several hours with me. At the end of my evaluation, I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. I learned that the antidepressants I was taking had likely made my moods more erratic and that my desire to do everything was not just a personality trait—it was hypomania. I spent the next few days talking with other patients—some of the strongest, most resilient people I have ever met— about their experiences.
Now, after years of therapy and the right combination of medications, I have my bachelor’s degree, live in Washington, DC, and have been able to pursue a fulfilling career. I am married to my high school sweetheart, who has been with me since the beginning of this journey and has loved me even when I felt unlovable. I lead a normal life, though I am aware of my bipolar disorder every day and often struggle with my moods, even in periods of relative stability. I am hyper-vigilant about changes in my sleep patterns, which often foreshadow a change in my mood. I am not the same person I was before bipolar disorder; the ongoing journey of recovery has made me stronger than I ever could have been without this illness.
Many people don’t like the word recovery to describe relief from the symptoms of a mood disorder; they prefer remission. I understand that. Even after diagnosis, I have changed medications too many times to count. When I’m depressed or overly energized, my doctor will add a medication, and when I’ve leveled out, I’ll go back to my baseline routine.
My doctors have always celebrated my successes with an asterisk. When you live with a mood disorder, there is always the possibility of relapse in the back of your mind. There is no cure for this condition, and I will struggle with it for the rest of my life. But to me, recovery means being able to live a normal life without the weight of the asterisk attached to my chest.
One of the most important concepts I have taken from treatment is that of self-efficacy—a belief in one’s own ability to overcome challenges and succeed in the face of adversity. Managing bipolar disorder—learning to take the positive things it has to offer and succeeding in spite of the negatives—has given me more pride, strength, and self-efficacy than any other accomplishment. I have weathered the most violent storms, and I’ve seen they always pass. When darkness comes again, I will keep hanging on for that inevitable shimmering light.
I’ve always excelled in everything I’ve tried. In grade school, I swam on the YMCA swim team. Every time I dove into the pool to race or practice racing, I beat my own best time. But no one knew how anxious and depressed I was; I had very few friends. Even after graduating from high school as a member of the National Honor Society and then college with summa cum laude honors, I was still very sad and anxious. I’d also functioned on very little sleep in college and didn’t understand why.
I moved to another state after college graduation, trying to run away from my depression and anxiety, but that only made things worse. I had a really tough time managing a full-time job and started to see a psychiatrist. One day, I was at rock bottom and called my doctor, saying I wanted to hurt myself. Ten minutes later, the police were knocking on my door. They took me to the hospital and I don't remember much after that. My parents were called and my family was great about taking me back home to live them. (I hadn’t been an easy child to raise—the illness was there and there wasn’t a diagnosis.)
Once home, I had a really significant stay at a hospital that lasted for a month. I thought I was someone else entirely and was convinced that the police were coming to get me. It was there that I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychosis not otherwise specified. I was paranoid, thinking that the nurses were trying to poison me with my meds. They finally gave me injections to help me feel better. I would not eat, so they kept up my nutrition with an IV.
My road to wellness actually began when I did get on medication. This was the very first step in a long process—I’ve tried many treatments. The medication helped bring me out of a psychotic state and since then I’ve used all kinds of therapies, medications, and ECT to get to where I am today. Looking back, I think the scariest part of my journey was when I didn’t know who I was anymore or who I could trust. But I wouldn’t trade my experiences for the world because I’m proud of the person I’ve become.
I currently work as a peer advocate, supporting people as they learn more about themselves. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. I can relate to them and talk about what has worked for me. Maybe someone will follow my lead and feel more positive about their life. Today, just as I’ve always done, I’m constantly trying to improve.
To put it mildly, my upbringing was pretty tempestuous. As a result, I developed woefully low self-esteem—I was inherently not good enough, no matter the situation—and grew from a reclusive young boy to an adult who struggled for a solid identity. I did not have meaningful relationships because I was never fully there. I could not accept love because if someone loved me, there had to be something wrong with them.
In spite of the vicious voice that had set up shop in my brain, somehow, somewhere, deep in my soul, I had a sense that I was good. This slight glimmer of hope gave me the strength to contact a psychologist and it was a crucial moment in my life. Through sessions with my therapist, I learned that I had clinical depression and that I was not an unlovable loser.
It’s said that knowledge is power. Now that I know about depression, I perceive it as Enemy No. 1. I have learned that the depression and the depressive voice constantly talking in my head are NOT ME. Fundamentally, I am optimistic and, at my core, a happy person. It’s just the crippling thoughts that cloud my perspective.
Throughout my life, and in spite of my depression, I have maintained a strong commitment to a fulfilling life. I knew there was more to it than the ugly thoughts that ran rampant in my mind—I knew it. I also knew I had a fight on my hands, a fight for a happy, purposeful, goal-achieving life.
Today I am ready to prosper and take on life’s challenges. I have been blessed with the love of my girlfriend for nine years. For me, this is monumental—a loving relationship is something I have never, ever had in my life. She provides a view that is opposite to my depressive thoughts. She encourages me and reminds me that my depression is not me. It is a blessing to be loved and accepted; from this place we can grow.
As I have moved forward in my life, I have developed tools to combat my mental enemy. First of all, it takes constant vigilance to overcome the negative voices. I frequently check my thoughts, asking myself “Is this thought congruent with the healthy goals I pursue”, and I build my resolve by meditating and writing in a journal. I cannot say enough about how effective meditation has been in my life. The practice of stilling the mind goes a very long way in identifying who you truly are. Meditation, coupled with journal writing, has given me clarity and hope for the future.
I will need this clarity, as I have been diagnosed with stage four cancer. Now, more than ever before, I need my meditation. I cannot afford to have my precious days clouded by depressive voices. I am a survivor and I know I will overcome the challenges that this cancer will bring. I know this to be fact because I am able to still my mind and move forward with dignity and grace.
One day, a little more than three years ago, I was lying in my mother's bed curled up in the fetal position. It would have been one thing if I were six years old and afraid to go to school. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. The reality was that my mother was away in England and, at age 56, I was avoiding the world and hiding in her bed!
Sometime later, my marriage broke up and at one point family members insisted I go back to the hospital. Reluctant and terrified, I finally agreed and tried another course of ECT (my fourth). Seven weeks later, I was discharged after 20 ECT treatments, only slightly improved and still scared to death. But then there was a miracle—I discovered a DBSA support group right in my own backyard! That was when my attitude and my mood began to change.
If I could turn my life around with the loving support of a DBSA support group, so can you. If you need a little encouragement, you can contact me via a letter or note to the DBSA national office and I’ll be in touch.
That’s my story.
I define my life by one never-ending belief: I believe in me. That belief has guided me from hell into a fulfilling life based on resolve, personal growth, and learning.
During my school years, I left a trail of clues about my depression through photographs. Family pictures and class photos always showed me on the very end of a row with my eyes downcast, or me leaning away from my family with a look of unhappiness. High school, however, seemed to spark a turnaround. I was class president, in the top ten percent of my class, and the recipient of scholarships. I was Big Man on Campus!
College began a different kind of turnaround. In 1970, I experienced the first of what was to be six, three-month hospitalizations, marked by trips to the “quiet room”, my arms and legs shackled to the bed, a suicide attempt (the most successful failure of my life), and, in total, seven hospitalizations that sapped away a year-and-a-half of my life. Much of this was the result of ineffective treatment because of a misdiagnosis of paranoia schizophrenia. I fault no one. My behaviors could have easily been translated into that diagnosis by any professional.
In 1978, I received what I consider a gift: the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. With medication and a dedicated psychiatrist, my life turned a corner. I found the positive me. My seventh hospitalization lasted only two weeks instead of three months. I also landed a job as an advertising representative for a daily newspaper. The meds worked. I was growing.
These changes did not come easily. I worked diligently with my psychiatrists and took my meds without fail. I held several jobs, but none for long. I dated and married while still misdiagnosed; the marriage lasted nine months. Nothing seemed to stick for very long except my condition. Then I found the best medicine—I met a pretty, smart, lively young woman. We married after a year and we’re now entering our thirty-sixth year of matrimony. Cindy loves me for who I am; for both of us, my diagnosis doesn’t define me. We have two wonderful sons and life is good.
I started an organizational development business from which I retired seven years ago. Since then, I’ve acted, performed stand-up comedy, and I’m on the storytelling circuit. But perhaps my true legacy has come from my depression. I have founded groups for men dealing with transitional issues in retirement. We strictly avoid offering therapy. That said, we disclose issues of personal importance and bond through breakfasts and social activities. Many said this wouldn’t work—I’d heard that before! We currently have 12 groups of 130 men.
So, what did I learn? Simply this: to never, ever stop believing in myself. I never stopped taking meds and I never missed an appointment with a therapist. Today, I love growing and learning, even at 66. I always believed I would live a good life and I have. You can too!
I have always loved technology. I even go as far as saying, “My mind (aka my CPU) is my favorite and most powerful muscle.” But sometimes the source of our greatest strength can also be that of our greatest weakness.
Shortly after I graduated from college, my CPU overheated for the first time and I was admitted to the hospital. I thought I was there because I was having trouble sleeping and eating. What I had not realized was that I hadn’t eaten or slept in over 72 hours.
While in the hospital, I got a long distance phone call from my cousin who was stationed in Japan. He said one thing that helped to calm my panic: “Please listen to the doctors because they are really doing their best to help you." And it was my trust in my cousin that got me to take my first dose of medication.
I spent the next 13 years resisting the idea that medication was very important in managing my bipolar disorder. I could never come up with anything better than “there has to be a way other than medication to beat this condition!" I had many conversations with my therapist and psychiatrist. Multiple times, I rolled the dice by stopping the medication without telling them. I would be fine for a while and then, like clockwork, I would be back in the hospital.
Later I came to realize that every time I took my medication, I felt like I was admitting that there was something wrong with me. I had never had this same feeling with taking cold medicine or using my asthma inhaler. So why with my mental health? My therapist told me, “The medication is used to help us have a productive conversation on how to best be able to learn the skills to manage the condition.”
In hindsight, I realized I would always stop taking the medication when it was working best. I thought it was degrading and hindering—even killing—my potential. I now realize that it enables me to realize my potential and push my limits in a healthy way.
It took me over a decade to find the right support plan and team. I now have a healthy relationship with my therapist, psychiatrist, and my medication. Meditation, exercise, and journaling helps to complete my self-care plan.
The New York Times wrote an article on the importance of family support in the treatment of bipolar disorder and featured my family’s story of dropping everything to help me. This article was written at one of my lowest points. Six years later CNET, a website that tracks consumer technology breakthroughs, wrote an article about how I combined my experience with technology with my lived experience of bipolar disorder to start a company called ThriveStreams. Our driving mission is to use technology to improve mental wellness.I hope my story will help those struggling with mental health challenges to be patient with the process of designing a healthy support plan to monitor, manage, and accept their condition. This is how I am now able to Thrive!
It happened very quickly. I had just finished my sophomore year at college and was working at a summer camp. I sank into a depression which quickly turned suicidal and psychotic. Fortunately, the camp nurse sent me home to get help before I spun too far out of control.
I have limited memories of the three months after I returned home: doctors, medications, mixed states, hearing voices, not being able to tell what was real, no sleep, too much sleep. It’s all a blur. But I did emerge from this and returned to college, still shaky in my mental health but trying to move forward with my life—and it was not a linear progression. I was hospitalized twice during my senior year, but managed to graduate. Slowly I built a tool kit that has served as the foundation of my mental health stability.
I grew more adept at managing my recovery, despite my shaky start. Over the ten years post-graduation, I developed a career I love in international health and development policy. I finished graduate school, got married, and had a child. I lived abroad in China, which taught me to build a social support network in lieu of the mental health treatment facilities I had used in the United States. There were still bad days and weeks and months, but the skills I developed in therapy and group allowed me to manage them better.
I have learned that while you have to be vigilant about symptoms, you can live a full life pursuing your goals. You do not need to let the illness define you or what you can do. Don’t ignore the illness, but work around the limitations. And there will be set backs—I’ve been hospitalized a few times since college but each time I’ve bounced back faster. If I’m ever in the hospital again, I’ll know that I have bounced back before and can do it again.
Three things have turned out to be the most important to my recovery: a schedule, sleep, and medication. Having to go to work gives me a routine even when my brain is not in the mood to function. Work and taking care of my son keep my life anchored and help head off larger mood swings. Sleep is also essential to my mood stability and I know that even an hour variation in my schedule can have serious consequences.
Medications are great for managing my mood. Medications, of course, do not resolve all symptoms and can have nasty side effects, so you must tinker until you find the right levels. Therapy, mindfulness, family, and friends have also played important roles in my mental health, but the triad of schedule, sleep, and medication are what keep me functioning.
Now, except on the worst days, I look forward to what the future will bring.
“You’re not good enough!” “Things will never get better!” “It’s hopeless!” These are just a few of the voices of bipolar disorder that have been living in my head since I was a teenager. But on a day that has been etched into my mind forever—I was 15, lying in bed contemplating suicide—I heard another voice whisper, “One day you will share your story.” I found it absurd that such a thought would pop into my head at such a desperate time, yet over the years I have heard it more loudly and frequently. It is nothing short of miraculous that I am here, 30 years later, doing exactly what that voice assured me of so long ago.
Without a doubt, I know it was God carrying me through this battle, teaching me that my struggles would one day provide hope for others. I’ve wanted to give up so many times. There have been lows filled with despair—seemingly lasting forever—when I’ve wanted nothing more than to die. Then they would switch to mania, resulting in nights of sleeplessness.
I have been fairly stable for a few years. After countless hours of therapy, endless trials with different pharmaceutical cocktails, numerous hospitalizations and leaves of absences from my teaching job, I can finally say I accept living with a bipolar diagnosis. I see moments where God has clearly saved me when I’ve called out to Him in desperation. He’s given me strength and courage to speak out and help others by blogging and sharing my story with struggling teens. The moment I put my complete trust in God, even though it didn’t seem to make sense, doors began to open. My life changed when my purpose became clear.
Despite my illness, I have been able to accomplish things my 15-year-old self would never have thought possible. I have overcome an eating disorder and alcoholism, both of which I turned to in order to cope. I am now in my eighteenth year of teaching elementary school where my experience with mental illness has given me more insight and compassion for my students. I have an amazingly supportive family, comprising my husband and two boys with whom I travel the country every summer in our rv.
Whereas at one point I could not imagine seeing past the darkness and fog, I now truly appreciate all the beauty this world has to offer. We organize concerts as a family to benefit our community and also bring anti-bullying assemblies to elementary schools. My husband and I write the programs which are performed by our 11 and 13 year-old sons’ band. I achieved a bucket list goal of completing a 30-mile ultramarathon and I’m now pursuing my dream of writing for the purpose of bringing others hope. I blog at maotribe.wordpress.com and have a book that is in the works.
I never truly believed I would make it this far. As I’ve struggled, my faith has grown that God will have my back when I ask for help and that He has brought me to this moment. I vow to keep pressing on in the hope that my journey will help others see that they, too, have a purpose and that there is hope. There is always, ALWAYS hope!
The years after my diagnosis weren’t much of an improvement. I gained over 100 pounds and could not hold a job for more than seven or eight months at a time and moved more times than I can remember. Overdrawn accounts, broken leases, and a couple stints being homeless also didn’t help much. To be honest, I also didn’t stick to any medication regimen for long either. I tried fish oils and other “remedies” but saw no improvement. It wasn’t until my first child was born in 2005 that I decided to stick with my prescribed medication treatment for the long haul. After a few months, I had finally found a modicum of stability. It was because of this newfound inner peace that I was able to handle the series of tests that came next.
The years that followed saw a steady stream of tragedies in my family. My wife was diagnosed with cancer in 2007 when we were expecting our second child. My wife survived treatment but we lost the child who was to be our second daughter. In 2009 my child was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. In 2013 we had another daughter, but she was born with a congenital spinal defect that required a spinal fusion surgery on her first birthday. There was more, but I will stop there.
You see, while my family and I did experience one tragedy after another, it was religiously sticking with my treatment that made it far easier to bear. From every incident, I learned a new skill or life perspective. From my wife’s cancer, I learned to be proactive. The best way to deal with a problem is to face it head-on, resolve it, and file it away for future reference. From my daughter’s diabetes, I learned to take better care of my health to set an example for her. I ate right and became active, eventually losing over 130 pounds in two years.
Let me take a moment here to provide a bit of insight. While prescribed medication was helpful in a number of ways, it was very important to be mindful of how I felt and work with my doctor to make adjustments accordingly. While losing weight, the drug regimen I was on became toxic. I was scared to switch medications, but given my state at the time, I was open to anything. I’m glad I made that decision because the new regimen has brought me stability, clarity of thought, and razor sharp focus.
There’s much more to my story. I’ll probably write a book about it someday. It’ll have to wait, though, because with my new lease on life, I have been extremely busy in school. I finally graduated from college and am now completing a master’s program. Next year I plan on continuing my education in another graduate program to get my PhD in public health (you can guess what my inspiration was), and despite the health issues that plague my family, we are happy and looking forward to the future.We all walk our own paths with our mood disorders. What I hope you take away from this is the knowledge that no matter how hard something is, you can always learn from it and apply that lesson to your life. Know your limits, know your strengths, and, most importantly, know thyself. It is through the hardships you face that you will grow and learn to overcome anything life throws at you. Bipolar disorder may seem like a life sentence, but you have the power to not let it be so.
I developed major depressive disorder when I was eighteen, caused by severe social anxiety. Treatments failed, perhaps not unexpectedly, as most of them focused on the symptoms of the illness, and not the cause. I tried Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in an attempt to fix the underlying issue but that required effort. Since I had no energy, it too failed.
For a long while I had wanted to go backpacking and use it as exposure therapy to treat the social anxiety. I dissuaded myself for years but when it became clear that I was not getting well, I finally committed to the trip. There was nothing to lose, after all.
In 2012 I began a six-month backpacking trip around Asia. It was an opportunity to face my social fears, repeatedly, every day. Cafes had intimidated me, so I went to one each morning for breakfast. Restaurants had frightened me, so I went to one every lunchtime, and again in the evening. Bars had made me particularly nervous, so I went out for a few drinks every night. I had always avoided talking to other people, if at all possible, so I talked at every opportunity. Where I had always said ‘No’ to invitations and new experiences, I now said ‘Yes’ and experienced as many things as I could afford. The trip healed me completely of social anxiety which, in turn, healed most of the depression. It was the most miraculous transformation.
In 2015 I fell into depression again, this time as a result of life events. I knew that my previous method of recovery could not help here—I didn’t need exposure therapy. What I needed was an opportunity to retreat from life and to think through my issues. The Camino de Santiago beckoned. It’s a pilgrimage—a backpacking endeavor where participants walk 750 km across the north of Spain. It’s open to everyone regardless of their religious beliefs.
I went to Spain and started my Camino, a long walk broken down into short daily stages. Each one completed provided a daily boost to my self-esteem and I also benefited from socializing with the other walkers. I was always one step outside of my comfort zone and I had time to think. Once again, I recovered from depression. The Camino is a loving, safe and supportive environment and I recommend it.
I maintain a blog called the Depressed Backpacker and have written a book with the same name. I hope to encourage others to participate in this form of recovery. There's nothing to lose and everything to gain.
As with many of us I knew from an early age I was different from the children and adults that were in my life. I spent my childhood, school years and college riding the rollercoaster of bipolar disorder. I also grabbed onto things and people I defined as all good and put those judgements on a pedestal when those people and things failed to be perfect, I couldn’t see any value in them and would completely disregard and ruin the relationships. I joined DBSA about 5 years ago and attended only 2 groups. I came back because I found them again after a suicide attempt. I heard people saying the things I had been feeling for decades. I was so overwhelmed I broke down sobbing uncontrollably. For the first time in my life, I was not afraid of being judged, and I didn’t feel threatened.
DBSA became my life saver. If I hadn’t been able to attend support groups on a weekly basis, I’m sure I would have made another suicide attempt. I kept going to meetings and kept getting stronger. I was asked to facilitate a group and after much deliberation, I agreed. Later I was asked to serve on the chapter board of directors. Again I thought it over carefully. As with most of us with mental illness, we hold ourselves back from what other people may see of us because of our low self-esteem issues. I now serve on my local chapter board. I have learned I am safe at DBSA. I’ve learned I am accepted and I can be involved without letting the bipolar or the borderline personality disorder destroy my relationships with DBSA. I have also received remarkable help from a great psychiatrist and an even better psychologist. I’ve learned I need to identify my moods, triggers, and splitting. I have learned how to deal with them before they get a hold of me. Now I breathe. I talk things over with my professional support team and a trusted friend. When a trigger comes along, I frame it in ways I learned through therapy and by belonging to DBSA. I continue to attend groups. I recently attended a DBSA Conference in New Jersey where I was able to shift the paradigm of my thinking:
I am glad to see DBSA emphasizing the idea we can move from Illness to Wellness. I hope everyone who has received mental health diagnoses can move along through their lives with wellness and thriving.
I had a happy childhood, so the first time I felt depressed, it came as quite a shock. I was 18 years old and away at college during my second semester. I felt displaced, alienated, withdrawn, and also paranoid. I didn’t have any appetite, and even easy things were difficult to do. I couldn’t concentrate. I called home a lot crying, and finally had to leave the college, interrupting my education. That was my first episode of what would be many to come.
At age 21, I ended up in the hospital for six weeks because I tried to overdose. I was put on many different medications, but no meds were working. So, I was transported to a university hospital where I spent another six weeks. As a last resort, I was given ECT—electro-convulsive therapy. Finally something worked.
I have been hospitalized three times because I have been a danger to myself. For 17 years, I had the diagnosis of major depression until I had an “up” (manic episode). Then I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The up days were great! I needed almost no sleep, had tremendous energy, could read and recite several books at once . . . the world was so beautiful! But these days would follow with anger, then severe downs, where I would end up with deep self-hate.
Fear of rejection was difficult for me in the beginning. I feared that if people knew I had a mental illness, they would judge me. Now, I actually feel that I don’t need to be ashamed anymore . . . and it feels good being honest about where I’ve been in life. The illness is not all of who I am, but it is part of my path.
My last episode of depression was in 2011, and ECT helped me again. My regular treatment consists of taking medications, seeing my psychiatrist, and being aware of my stressors. I read positive books and I’m conscious of the thoughts I think. I release my negative feelings, keep my focus on the present moment, and rely on my inner self to calm me and guide me. These are my greatest tools for wellness.
I feel passionate about my recovery, and this passion led me to become a life coach for people with bipolar disorder. (www.embracetheinneryou.com ) I guide them to find love for themselves and learn to process difficult feelings as they come up. I help them to live their best lives even though they are living with a mental illness. I created a support group for women with bipolar disorder, I also am a facilitator at my local chapter of DBSA, and I do some speaking in order to share my message of hope.
My experience with bipolar disorder has taught me so much. I now have a deeper connection with Spirit, a genuine acceptance of myself, and a better understanding of others. It has taught me to have an attitude of gratitude and a real trust in life. Because of all it has taught me, I know that pain really does serve a purpose. Although it was a painful experience to learn from, it led me to my purpose in life, and I’m happy to be sharing that purpose with others.
It never crossed my mind that I might be suffering from a mental illness, despite staying awake for days at a time, working myself into an aggressive stupor, or tearing apart my relationships. I thought it was just my personality until I was diagnosed with manic depression in 2004. I didn’t think too much about it when it was suggested that I attend counseling, which I did, and take medication for the rest of my life. That was my problem. The medicine. As a young 24 year old mother with two sons and a husband at the time, I couldn’t fathom taking medicine just to get through a day without feeling “different.” So I avoided medication and continued on with my life of tyranny for the next 11 years.
Finally, I hit a brick wall. No, I didn’t hit a brick wall… it hit me. Suddenly, I was in a position in my life that I had never been in: arrested. I had worked my entire life to go to college, graduate, own a business, get married (and divorced) raise my two sons and do things most people only think about. I had spiraled so out of control that it landed me in jail. That was what did it for me. Once I bonded out, I called my doctor and told her I was ready. I knew I needed the help but avoided it even when it led to me being hospitalized in 2007 for a week. Prior to my arrest, I felt that I was stronger than any mental illness, after my arrest, I was ready to seek support.
It’s laughable now but jail was the greatest reality check I needed. I went to my doctor and she started my treatment plan. What a relief. Or so I thought. It has taken me time to get over some of my past mistakes. I didn’t realize how much damage I caused the people I loved because I refused treatment. I wanted and needed to be stronger than my illness because in the Black community, mental illness feels like it is only your burden and shame, with no help for those in need. So you walk alone. I had to decide to step out in walking alone to help others.
I started to video journal my story about being Young, Black and Bipolar on YouTube as an outlet for others, like me, who are trapped inside of their minds and their communities. My videos allow me to humble myself and ask for forgiveness but most importantly to forgive myself. I try hard to stay on the right path because sometimes I want to let the worst part of me come out but I enjoy being kinder and more thoughtful of my actions. It’s nice to know who I really am versus contending with the symptoms of a mental illness gone unchecked.
I’m a 47 year old single mother that used to maintain a wonderful career in the healthcare industry and had a very productive life until the end of 2008. After having personal difficulties, I found myself needing to take a leave of absence from my job, which led to my resignation in 2009. I experienced a deep depression and with the economic fall out, I found myself in financial debt and emotional despair. This went on until 2011 when I finally found myself so desperate that I asked for help with my dark depression. I felt alone, worthless, sad, and empty because no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get a grip on life. At my doctor’s appointment, I was prescribed an antidepressant. Six weeks after being prescribed the antidepressant, I went into a full blown mania episode. It just so happened to be the first day of my daughter’s 8th grade year of school. It all began three days prior, when I found myself struggling with insomnia. It was a very scary and confusing time for me. I was experiencing increased energy, giddiness, and racing thoughts. Eventually I became paranoid, delusional, and sick to my stomach. I was confused and I did not understand what was wrong with me. I alerted my closest relative who took me to the doctor. I was immediately put on an antipsychotic and the antidepressant was lowered. I was told that day that I have bipolar disorder. After many visits, it was clarified to me that I had a chemical imbalance which led to the mental break and resulted in me being diagnosed with bipolar disorder type I.
I am lucky that I have a great, loving family, and I trust my doctor’s advice and instruction. I had to give myself time to adjust to my new self that now has to take a smaller dosage of the same antipsychotic and different antidepressant. It has been a trial and error finding what dosage works best for me. But I also had some financial and emotional setbacks. I had to move in with a family member for over a year to get back on my feet. During this time, I regained control of my emotions and became more financially secure which allowed me to move into my own home.
I have learned that I am stronger than I realized. If you have love for yourself and others, you can live a normal life with a mental health condition.
I know that I have to take my medication daily, eat right, have the proper sleep, and keep my stress level down in order to maintain a well-balanced life and to manage my bipolar I disorder—just like most productive people. I know that having a mental health disorder is no different than having an illness such as arthritis or diabetes. I am currently blogging to try to teach others that they should not treat anyone less because they may have mental issues such as I do. Being my own advocate is the first step to standing up for social equality for people who face the stigma of mental illness in our society today.
Currently, I am still a work in progress. I enjoy activities with my daughter, family, and friends. I have found it necessary not to be shameful of my disorder. Talking and sharing my story not only helps me, but hopefully could help someone else. It has definitely been a character building experience and I have learned a lot about myself and how much of a fighter I am.
On a fragrant, spring evening in 2006, my mood and behavior were marred by somber darkness and crippling psychosis. It was my first break in several years. Screaming into the phone at my psychiatrist, I couldn’t hold back gibberish and nonsensical speech. I don’t recall, but somehow I contacted an ambulance and I was on my way to a community hospital.
My psychiatrist, who was at the hospital, attended to me. Full of grandiosity, I screeched sounds repeatedly. My clothing was quickly replaced with a white straight jacket right out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I had become violent. Kindly, they placed me in a darkened room where I ruminated about the world coming to an end. I saw myself as Jesus and concocted over and over elaborate schemes to save earth.
I envisioned myself as omnipotent. My bipolar disorder I was at its absolute worst.
After a week, excellent psychiatric care and an opportunity to rest my mind and body helped me to heal. I had arrived at this state because I had asked my former psychiatrist to take me off my medicine because of terrible side effects. After a few weeks of not sleeping, I spiraled into sleep deprivation psychosis. It was traumatic for a few days. Initially, I still resisted sleep. However, as bad as it was, I can compare my current mental health and it is now much better. Yes, there are times when I still have hard times. But they are few and far between.
Since then, I haven’t been back in the hospital. Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to have excellent care. Even though I initially went off my medicine, I have since learned that “pharmaceuticals for better living” made a huge difference in my life. My recovery included learning how to take care of myself. If I felt mania coming on, I would often go to the beach and read soothing literature. I would soak up serenity. Support from friends and family eased me back to a calm state. Sometimes a heart to heart conversation with a close friend makes the difference.
I worked as a writer for most of my adult life. I wrote about health and mental health. After successive breakdowns, it became difficult for me to write and work full time. I learned that brain chemistry is altered from trauma. I am currently reinventing my writing life. Through writing and asking questions of my psychiatrist, I have learned quite a bit about bipolar. I am passionate about understanding bipolar in order to help others and myself. Education about mental illness is improving. Yet, when I shared with a neighbor that I had bipolar disorder, she was quick to call me a lunatic and looney when she became angry at me. Sometimes, I feel that my desire to help others is because of that neighbor. I am not a lunatic, but old scripts have people calling me or others names because they just don’t understand. I believe that many people are frightened of mental illness because there is so much stigma. Once I began to understand bipolar, it became my intention to educate others about the condition. I encourage those who are having mental health difficulty to seek help. A longtime friend jokingly says my picture should appear on posters for people seeking therapy. I provide referrals to therapists or other mental health professionals in order to ease suffering. I have delivered speeches about mental illness in order to reduce stigma. Sometimes that can be frightening but I believe it may help.
I recognize the need to take care of my own mental health. I recognize when I am cycling up or spiraling down, I need to intervene. I use techniques to calm myself and work closely with my mental health team. My goal is to help myself so I can help others with bipolar disorder.
Finally and Forever
In the dark year of 1999, I was challenged with a dilemma that I thought could not be solved. But luckily, with treatment and time, I recovered gracefully. I learned how to grasp onto my once lost will while I erased my self-pity, self-doubt and self-defeat. In essence, I overcame my mental disorder, bipolar, and I refused to let it block my success in life. I never thought I would have been able to write a self-affirming story about my experience with bipolar. My suffering seemed too gloomy without any possible retraction. My psychiatric disorder began when I was twenty-six years old. I was a top customer service representative and I received many accolades for my performance along with other merits and awards until my one-year anniversary. My life took a total spin.
As a customer service representative it was normal for me to handle a high volume of calls even if they seemed overwhelming. Without notice, it seemed as if I lost control of my thoughts. The calls at work were decreasing in volume, but to me it seemed as if they were quadrupling by the millions each second. I became unaware of time. I also began to lose touch with reality. The more calls I received, the more confused I became. The voices of customers were distorted and scary to me. I also began to have “visions”. My perception of the biblical world became an unreal fantasy. Now I was in two worlds—real and unreal.
Hence, I could not perform my job any longer. My unreal mind told me that I was going on a pilgrimage, so I, without question left my place of employment, with resignation that I was “going into a new world.”
I was so focused on becoming my own Savior that I walked night and day trying to save the world, to find Jerusalem, but to no avail the many days I walked around without a plan led me not only to be malnourished, but an undiagnosed patient into a crisis center (the night I tried to drive myself to space or heaven).
Thankfully, on December 31, 1999, treatment began for me when my loved ones coaxed me into going to a crisis center. Although my behavior was mimicked in the year of 2003, and I was once again convinced to go to a crisis center again. When I was admitted I was given medication that “woke me up” or rather brought me back to reality. Once I discovered that my disorder was a lifelong illness I was disappointed as well as depressed. I turned my depression into words of pain, anxiety, and frustration on paper—I journaled every day. Tear drops landed on many pages of my many entries.
Though I journaled, I almost became reclusive. I was ashamed of who I was. But I came to an epiphany, “why worry?” My misery soon was released after three years of writing, and journaling. I concluded that bipolar should be a major concern and managed with responsibility, but not obsessed with worry.
Empowered, my low self-esteem eventually diminished. I chose to believe that bipolar was only a “condition” and a part of me, which I accepted. I began to love myself for who I am and moved forward. I regained my confidence and re-established what I had lost. I found employment, gained control of my finances, and my social life; it was like a bad dream and waking up to a new fresh morning.
Furthermore, as recovery is always an ongoing process, I claim myself as “healed.” I continue my methods of treatment. Faith, prayer, and positive thinking contribute to my everyday lifestyle. They all are a part of my daily routine, and keep me well. I will live with this disorder for eternity, but I will embrace my journey that led me to be able to tell this story. Also, I greatly wish for others who have this disorder to overcome it and defeat stigma without giving up hope, and to identify themselves as “extraordinary.”
When I was eight years old I announced that when I grew up I was going to be a famous artist and live in Paris. My mother, then a full time college student, instilled the belief that I could be whatever I wanted. She sat me and my twin siblings down to inform us that we could attend any college we desired for free because our father died. As a kid, I didn’t understand anything about social security or Veterans survivor benefits; I just knew that my mom had given me a dream to hang onto.
Creating art was an escape that helped me cope with the suicide of my father in our home and the subsequent emotional numbness that enveloped my mother. When I was 19 years old, my brother had his first psychotic break, and I was scared that I would be next. After ten years of watching my brother decompensate with severe mental illness, I began to have uncontrollable crying spells that baffled me. Already confined in depression, intense fear that something horrific was about to occur crept in and swathed me in anxiety. I desperately sought relief from the heaviness that weighed down the muscles needed to speak, much less smile. With determination and faulty reasoning, I figured I would find out what was wrong and fix it so that I could get my life back. It wasn’t an easy fix, and I couldn’t do it by myself.
After being diagnosed with major depressive disorder and taking anti-depressants for several months, I rocketed into rapid cycling and was hospitalized for the first of many times in 1992. After many medications and more hospitalizations I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The mania symptoms I experience are not the classic type you see in movies. I mostly experience dysphoric mania, which is the concurrent presence of depressive and manic symptoms, the most dreadful state I’ve ever endured. Imagine feeling despondent, exhausted, detached and hopeless while simultaneously agitated in warp speed. I could not sleep or eat, was confused as racing thoughts spun in my brain while what felt like jolts of energy zapped through my torso into my extremities.
I joined a six month study at the National Institutes of Mental Health in Bethesda, MD. My time living at NIMH allowed me incredible opportunities to listen to some pretty smart folks explaining brain functioning and treatments for mental illnesses. I spent a lot of time in the vast libraries on the campus and participated in every type of therapy available to me. I especially benefitted from art therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, and exercise groups.
Back in California, I struggled through mood swings to continue learning about bipolar disorder. I was empowered by expressing my experience with mental illness through drawing, painting, photography and mixed media, and having my artwork displayed in galleries. I attended many support groups and became an advocate for myself and others. Psychotherapy was an immense help in learning to cope with my new “normal.”
As I began to get better at managing my symptoms and the psychological distress they bring, I decided I wanted to become a therapist. I went back to school and completed a Master of Science degree and am now a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.
It’s been 15 years since I was last hospitalized, though I haven’t forgotten the confusion, fear and pain of the most challenging time of my life. That’s why I now have my own business specializing in working with women living with anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder.
I don’t consider myself “recovered,” as bipolar disorder is not a broken bone that I can completely recover from. I manage bipolar disorder with therapy, medication, practicing coping skills, paying attention to sleep, nutrition, exercise and surrounding myself with healthy relationships. I also embrace joy and laughter every single day.
My determination to understand bipolar disorder by educating myself, creating art, having very supportive family and friends and an outstanding professional treatment team helped me to stabilize. I didn’t just get my life back; I created the life I wanted.
Some of my earliest memories go back to when I was in kindergarten. These are not happy memories of friends, coloring, chocolate milk, and cookies. Rather they are memories of profound sadness with a strong desire to disappear. I did not know the words depression, suicide, or mental illness, but I did know that I was very sad, alone, and all I wanted to do was just go away and never be heard from or seen again. In later years, coming to terms with these memories actually became a comfort to me as I realized that a five year old would not be having suicidal ideations all the time if there were not some profound clinical cause of these feelings and thoughts. This helped me realize that my character was not flawed and that I was not a “bad person”. Instead I was sick. I have a real illness. However, I had a difficult road to this realization.
In my teens, I started to self-medicate my constant feelings of despair and sadness. It did not take long before I was addicted to alcohol. In my mid-twenties, at the intervention of my employer, I went to drug and alcohol rehab and became sober. My first year of sobriety was as if I unleashed a terrible monster in my mind as my untreated depression raged at full fury without the numbing effects of alcohol. In little time, I became jobless, delusional, and suicidal. I had a clear and intentional plan to kill myself. I sincerely thought I would be doing the world a favor and the voices I kept hearing in my mind told me it was the right thing to do.
Another intervention saved my life. An out-patient addiction counselor I had been working with called the local crisis team. In minutes, two people knocked on my door and sat down and spoke with me. I spent the next eleven months between in-patient psychiatric care and an out-patient partial hospitalization program. After numerous trials of medications, combinations of medications, intensive and sometimes confrontational therapy, and a round of ECT, the wounds in my soul suffered from a lifetime of depression began to heal.
In the nearly two decades since I was hospitalized with severe, psychotic depression, I worked in several capacities caring for and providing community based services for people with a variety of disabilities. I also cared for my wife, who was slowing dying from complications caused by lupus. When my wife passed away in 2005, I found myself again at the door of a professional counselor. I have since come to view monthly appointments with mental health professionals as “preventative maintenance”, much like taking my car for an oil change. I remain on psychotropic medication and will be for life. I continue to monitor my symptoms, mood changes, and even my behavior. I am okay with this because I have also learned that I have an inner strength and a determination to persevere, survive, and thrive.
I once had grandiose ideas of what I would become in life. I now know that a simple life being honest with myself and others and working to help make the world just a little bit better is truly noble and honorable. I have left full-time employment but I continue to volunteer my time and energy to helping others. Bipolar type II has been added to my diagnosis to reflect the frequent hypomanic episodes I experience. I must continually monitor symptoms and my medication sometimes needs adjusting. I have remarried and my spouse is truly a partner who supports and encourages me to maintain my mental health. She monitors my symptoms and is honest with me even when it may make me uncomfortable. Being male, I have learned there is no shame in being honest about my mental illness. I feel a calling to help other men realize this as well because society has long taught that talking about our feelings was not okay. This barrier caused by stigma destroys many lives and needs to be broken. There is strength in honesty and healing.
My name is Robbie Graves. I am a man with mental illness. I preserve, strive, and thrive.
My journey with bipolar certainly has framed my adult life, but it hasn’t defined it.
Just getting a correct diagnosis was certainly half the battle early on. For me I was acutely aware that I was running away from a lot of emotional issues in high school. Once I got to college I had insight to seek professional help in dealing with them. For better or worse, the help I received lead to a misdiagnosis of depression. I was compliant with treatment and put on a medication. Less than two months later my sleep and eating became erratic and I became hypo-manic. This episode reached its climax when I ended up walking 3 plus miles to seek treatment at a local hospital.
Over the next two years I would wrestle life at college and the harsh reality of adapting to life on medication. For me at this time, I viewed taking meds as the only way I was going to be stable enough to go to class. After two semesters and three credits to my name, it became clear that having success in the classroom was going to be an uphill climb. At the request of administrators at the university, I was told not to return until I had proven I could handle life and academics at that level. I never wanted to leave, but I knew I needed to find stability in my treatment regimen and I had to develop a whole new way of staying busy while I was getting back to the classroom. As medications allowed I read more, I exercised, I would swim at a local YMCA, and I also discovered the craft of journaling. At first I had tons of downtime, and I would spend it at a local park, just observing the world around me and not being afraid or critical of what I wrote down. Eventually I found part-time work, which was a struggle at first. I remember that I read The Power of Positive Thinking, and I would jot down affirmations and put them on 3 by 5 cards and read them on my way to work in order to keep myself focused and not get down about not being at the university.
Eventually I picked up momentum and I took classes at a community college. I kept on taking the next logical step, taking more difficult classes and transferring to the next college. In February of 2001, I covered another hurdle and I was accepted back into the University of Michigan. In August of 2004 I received a Bachelor of Science Degree. Post-University I certainly have had struggles adapting to professional life. There have been times where I have thought that the easiest way to achieve goals was to take a “shortcut” and get off my meds and be “normal” so I could be accepted by more people in general. This approach backfired every time. I now know that in order to achieve my dreams staying in treatment is an absolute necessity.
Today, I am a really creative person. I have published two poetry books, composed dozens of songs, I have dozens of paintings and ceramic pieces, and I love taking photos of nature. I have tremendous creative goals (I am in the process of writing a symphony) and I know they are achievable if I have faith in myself and patience knowing that as one of my teachers put it “life is made in inches”. Having a supportive family certainly has helped in my journey. They have helped me stay true to myself, and their value as been immeasurable. Through every turn in the process I have learned that if you are determined and you focus and commit yourself to a desired outcome, anything is achievable in life. Having a mental illness doesn’t stop you from your dreams, it provides you with an awareness that helps you become a better you.
As a college freshman, I fell into a suicidal depression, believing that my family and the world would be better off without me. I knew I needed help, and saw a psychologist whose cognitive therapy helped me with my suicidal thoughts. Throughout my twenties, I used psychotherapy to cope with my depressive symptoms. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s the hypomanic symptoms of bipolar disorder type II were not yet diagnosed. I was considered an overachiever battling chronic depression. I went on to attend graduate school and become licensed as a psychotherapist, specializing in the treatment of adolescents.
At the age of thirty I had a complete psychiatric breakdown. I was unable to get up out of bed. For the first time, I turned to medical doctors for medication. A psychiatrist prescribed a tricyclic antidepressant which led to manic psychosis. I spent a week without sleep with thoughts racing in binary (zeroes and ones), about chaos theory, and about Christian mystics. Although my psychosis was manic, I was not prescribed a mood stabilizer. My psychiatrist prescribed a three-day regime of antipsychotics which stopped the racing thoughts in their tracks and allowed me to sleep. At that point, I simply couldn’t function on my own. I would fall asleep driving to my temporary clerical job. When at work, I would try to read a word or a sentence over and over, unable to string the letters and words together, unable to make sense of them. I appeared competent. No one could see that I, a highly educated and articulate former professional woman, could not read a sentence.
As both a psychotherapist and as a patient, I have experienced optimal results when care providers and family members work as a team to support the patient. Since I could not take care of myself, I returned to my parents’ home where I visited a group practice and saw both a psychotherapist and a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist prescribed a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. This treatment team and medication provided me with relief from depressive symptoms. My parents encouraged my recovery by giving me work to do around their home and charging me room and board. Once I was up for it, I got outside employment, starting as a temporary file clerk. This temporary position led to a decade long career in commercial real estate. Although I continued to show hypomanic symptoms, working long hours and periodically burning out, I seemed to be coping well.
Soon after moving back in with my parents, I met my future husband. On our second date, though I was living with my parents and filing invoices as a temp, he told me that I was the most independent woman he had ever met. I laughed, for my then-current life circumstances were far from independent. But, he could see beyond that. He saw me, not my illness. Three years after we met, we married and later had a son.
At the age of thirty-nine, I realized that once again I was experiencing the symptoms of mania. I sought psychiatric treatment and medication for bipolar disorder. Eventually I had myself voluntarily hospitalized, spending two weeks in the hospital and months in partial hospitalization. The hospital offered an excellent highly structured program in which we attended groups throughout the day. In these groups, I learned many coping skills and met others with similar struggles.
I look much like the other mothers in the neighborhood, but life remains a balancing act. Now fifty-one years old, I blog (kittomalley.com) and communicate online with other mental health bloggers, advocates, poets, and writers. I reclaim my life. I am a mother. I am a wife. I am a writer, a blogger. I live with bipolar disorder type II. I am a mental health advocate.
I was raised in Los Angeles, the daughter of a world-class violinist who played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. My father had bipolar one disorder and we were very close. Back then I was a happy-go-lucky teen who did well in school and ran cross-country. No one suspected that I’d be diagnosed with bipolar disorder in my late-thirties.
I graduated from the University of California with a degree in literature and I became a freelance writer. I interviewed mental health luminaries Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison and Dr. Martha Manning for magazine articles about depression and exercise. I pursued my dream to become a certified personal trainer and led a healthy lifestyle.
At age thirty-seven, after the birth of my second child, the combination of genetics, sleep deprivation and hormones triggered postpartum mania and the rare condition of hypergraphia (compulsive writing). Six weeks after my daughter’s birth I was diagnosed with postpartum onset bipolar one disorder (PPBD) and was hospitalized. Over the next seven years, I endured multiple hospitalizations, medication trials, and rounds of unilateral and bilateral electroconvulsive therapy which helped pull me out of severe bipolar depression.
In 2013, I found a psychiatrist who was a good fit. With his guidance I developed a regimen of five key ways to keep me stable: seeing my team (psychiatrist and counselor) regularly, medication, exercise, writing, and enough sleep!
After I was diagnosed, I felt so lost and isolated in my small mountain community. Despite struggling with depression, I founded the first DBSA Chapter of my county—that gave me purpose. I arranged interviews with local newspapers to inform them of the chapter, and to share my story of living with bipolar disorder. Through DBSA’s auspices I created and co-facilitated support groups where I met people with bipolar disorder who have become close friends. I’ve benefited from online support as well through Facebook bipolar-themed groups.
In 2014 I became an International Bipolar Foundation blogger, and was honored to have my story be selected for IBPF Story of Hope and Recovery. During my years of bipolar depression, I never would have dreamed such a great thing could happen to me.
These days I’m working on my book, Birth of a New Brain—Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder with a foreword by Dr. Walker Karraa. Writing this book is a true labor of love, but it’s incredibly challenging. The discipline required to write lends a positive structure to my days. My blog, Birth of a New Brain, gives me the opportunity to connect with a wonderful virtual writing community and I get valuable feedback on my writing. I was thrilled when, after discovering my blog, bestselling author/advocate, and my now writing mentor, Wendy K. Williamson (I’m Not Crazy Just Bipolar and Two Bipolar Chicks Guide to Survival) nominated me for the WEGO Health Activist Best in Show Blog Award.
I believe that anything is possible when it comes to living with bipolar disorder, and that we can reach stability with the right support and tools! Accolades are the icing on the cake, and I appreciate them, but what matters most to me is keeping stable for the long-run. If I’m well, I can continue helping other people who live with bipolar disorder, which is therapeutic for me too!
I was stuck in the morass of depression for so long that I didn’t think I would pull out of it. If you’re in that place, please don’t give up. I know this will sound like a cliché, but reach out to others. Seek a therapist and/or psychiatrist. My Dad always told me that by the time I was older, a cure would be found for bipolar. Although that hasn’t happened yet, we shouldn’t rule out breakthroughs with the tremendous amount of research happening worldwide. In the meantime do all you can to get support. You don’t have to suffer needlessly—there is hope for each and every one of you!
My mental illness emerged at the very end of 2005 in December—two years into my marriage, but before kids came along. At twenty-six, I was at the top of my game as a creative staffing agency recruiter, enjoying married life, and building our first house. One week my husband was on a business trip and I was so wired I couldn’t sleep. For a week. This led to a manic episode that landed me in the hospital. It left everyone close to me, including the psychiatrist who treated me when I came out of the hospital, scratching their heads. No previous mental health history we could identify, and nothing that we knew of in our family.
After a few days in the psych ward, I took the rest of the week off from work, and returned to my job the following Monday, attributing the entire incident to the intense deficit of sleep.
But two weeks later the mania was back with a vengeance and I was hospitalized on Christmas Day, certainly one of the darkest days of my entire life.
One time was a shock, twice forced the reality of the situation to set in. My husband never left my side, even though he must have been scared to death. My parents, clearly devastated this was happening to their daughter who had been perfectly healthy her entire life, suddenly were thrown into dealing with two psychiatric emergencies in one month.
My life was turned upside down.
As you would expect, I began seeing a psychiatrist regularly. Once the doctor got the mania under control, the anxiety flooded my body. I tried to return to work while figuring things out, but the normal stress of my high-pressure sales job sent me into a debilitating tailspin. In March of 2006, I was diagnosed with bipolar type 1. Just three months after my mental illness broke through the surface of my life, I was forced to resign from a career I loved and excelled at to focus on getting well. This caused me to slip into the cold, gray hole of clinical depression, where I curled up for about a year.
I found myself consumed with fear, embarrassment and shame. Not because of anything I’d done. I felt these emotions because of society’s stigma towards mental illness.
Over the course of years of psychiatrists and meds and therapy, after two more hospitalizations and with the incredible support of my husband and family, I made it through. My best friends knew about my condition and what had happened to me, but I kept it hidden from everyone else because I was afraid of being treated differently.
The internet became a place of healing for me, as I found myself online reading about people who were overcoming mental illness. I was inspired to start a blog, and began writing my story. As I shared bits and pieces, it became clear that writing was helping me heal, and it was also showing me that I was not alone.
Last summer I had a vision of creating a theater production made up of real people from the community sharing their true stories of living with mental illness. I wanted to give them a voice. A way to express their pain, their journey to overcome stigma, and a way for them to inspire others to reach out for help. With an incredible creative partner, we launched This Is My Brave and through a successful crowdfunding campaign, raised the money we needed to make the concept a reality.
This past May, our cast took to the stage and shared their stories of living with mental illness through poetry, essays and original music in front of a sold-out audience.
Being able to take the mask off and reveal all parts of me, including the fact that I live with a mental illness, has been a tremendous factor in my recovery and continued stability. By talking openly about my illness, I’m breaking down stigma. There is power in sharing positive stories and bringing mental illness into the light, and my hope is that our non-profit will help many more people in the future the way it’s helped me.
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