I turned 30 two weeks ago and have been officially living with bipolar disorder since September of 2013. I wholeheartedly believe in being open about my mental illness because I have nothing to be ashamed of and I want anyone going through something similar to know that they are not alone.
Prior to my psychotic break, in September of 2013 at age 26, I can’t say I experienced any aspect of my illness like what came after. If I look back on my life, I see two very different components, one I call pre-bipolar diagnosis and the other post-bipolar diagnosis.
I’ll stick to talking about post-bipolar for now, even though I often talk about pre-bipolar as a way to delineate how much my life has changed as well as how much I’ve changed. Post-bipolar includes three hospitalizations for mania with psychosis and one mania with psychosis where I was kept out of the hospital. (I am forever grateful to the psychiatrist who kept me out of the hospital.) Post-bipolar also includes a depression during which I self-medicated, a suicidal depression that lasted about ten months and remains the single hardest thing I’ve ever overcome in my life, and an emergence from suicidal depression that was slow and included a sustained period of anhedonia (complete lack of emotions).
I saw at least a dozen psychiatrists, none managed to balance the imbalances happening in my brain, before finding the wonderful psychiatrist who is now my doctor. I was put on (and taken off) more medications than I can count, each producing their own set of side effects, one of which was horrific to deal with and has left permanent damage. When the correct medication was finally found, I gained 30 pounds in a matter of a few months and when I complained to my psychiatrist at the time he said something along the lines of “would you rather be crazy or fat?” I am not someone who believes in placing physical appearance as my top priority, but I definitely believe in doctors who work and think with their patients so they are not left to make a choice between two dire alternatives. This is another important message that is meant for patients as well as for doctors: there is no such thing as a lost cause.
I have now been stable for about a year and a half. And stable just means that I haven’t had an episode, not that I haven’t had some difficulties associated with my illness. The last year and a half has been an intense learning process that has involved discipline, introspection, self-knowledge, support from family and friends, and proper treatment. When I emerged from suicidality and overcame the remaining depression, I was left with a feeling of immense gratitude but also a feeling of indebtedness. I feel indebted to the universe for the fact that I am still alive; for a long while I was convinced that I was not going to make it. Yet, here I am.
I have had people and tools come into my life that have helped me get to the place I am today: a place of health and strength. I want to mention them because I want to thank them and because I want others to search these things out in their own lives. I also want caregivers to know some of the things that have the possibility of helping immensely.
In late 2015, two years after my diagnosis, but only a few months into being stable, I had yet to meet anyone with bipolar disorder outside of a psychiatric institution. I didn’t know the psychological effect this was having on me until, one day, by incredible chance, I was introduced to Paul. Paul had a very similar experience to mine. Similar in the severity of his mania, his foray into psychosis, and his battle with suicidality. Unlike me, however, Paul had been stable for 6 years when I met him (via e-mail at first). The first time I learned about Paul’s existence, I had to fight back tears. I was completely overwhelmed with emotion, blindsided by the fact that I had no idea how entirely desolate my journey had been up until that moment. I finally had company. I had a peer.
I proceeded to write Paul a deeply personal e-mail which was by no means short. It is true that Paul was, supposedly, a stranger, but I knew that he would recognize our shared experience and that would erase all sense of strangeness in a second. He wrote back almost instantly, responding with a very sincere e-mail where he welcomed me to the “other side,” to which I referred in the beginning of this post. He told me I had a gift - a view which we both continue to share. He made himself available to talk.. A phone call happened shortly after in which we were both incredulous and overjoyed to hear someone else who had experienced what we had, who knew what we knew, who had overcome what we had overcome. An in-person meeting followed. And in the ultimate coincidence, his entire family traveled to my tiny home country, Guatemala, a few months later. It was there where I met Paul’s father, and he and my father sparked a friendship driven by their shared experience of having been through the pain of our health crises.
I remember a phone call with Paul’s dad, where he imbued me and my father with the keys to staying stable: strict sleep schedule, exercise, no drugs or alcohol, sticking to medications and treatment. He offered his unyielding support. He shipped me three books that I could use as sources of education and reference. Paul and his father are the reason I found my current psychiatrist. Last, but not least, Paul and his father gave me one of the most powerful tools to combat stress and to find my center when I feel that I am losing it: Transcendental Meditation. Paul’s father gifted me a Transcendental Meditation course and I have now been practicing the technique for almost a year. I know Paul would agree with me when I say that meditation has been the ultimate tool in holding on to my health and strengthening it.
After my experience with a myriad of psychiatrists that left me disillusioned, my faith has been restored by the many noble hearted people I met during 2016. In order to repay my debt to the universe for my making it out of suicidality alive, I decided to embark on a lifelong philanthropic project in the realm of mental health. I had to first become educated about the issues surrounding mental health given that all I knew was my own experience.
I dedicated a large part of my time in 2016 to meeting professionals in the realm such as researchers, caregivers, and, of course, Fountain House. People who work constantly and tirelessly towards the common goal of empowering us and giving us access to dignified care so that we may participate in our communities, pursue our goals, and lead fulfilling lives unencumbered by our illnesses. They do so as our partners and allies, treating us as equals and with respect.
I have to mention one person in particular because she is also someone who has become, in her own way, a peer: Dr. Elyn Saks, a professor at USC who also runs a think tank dedicated to addressing the issues surrounding mental health. She was welcoming and kind from our very first exchange. She was patient with me and gifted me a signed copy of her book, which is a detailed account of her journey and battle with mental illness. I read the book quickly and with deep fascination. I don’t know if Elyn knows it, but her strength is powerful enough for me to feel it wherever I am. Her strength gives me strength and her generosity is just as commendable.
Neither Elyn nor Paul form part of my daily existence, but the very knowledge of their existence and the kindness they’ve shown me have left me with an infinite sense of support, belonging and gratitude.
This is my first foray into writing about my experiences publicly, and my main driver is solidarity to those who have not yet managed to come out the other side. Wherever you are, whatever you are dealing with, please know that there is another side and we are all waiting for you to arrive. In the meantime, I am here for you and so are many others. If you feel misunderstood and alone and completely unable to communicate what you are going through to those around you, you are not alone. If you take anything away from what I write, I hope it is this very necessary message: you are not alone.