Starting in 1999, my rollercoaster bipolar ride began and my husband, family and friends set out on a lifelong journey, not knowing what was ahead.
Through the lessons I’ve learned living with bipolar disorder, I’m striving to educate those who may have a friend, family member or co-worker who has this diagnosis and lives with it, or who needs to be diagnosed, and taught what to do about it, or how to take one step at a time to get help. By learning more about mental illness, health and wellness, you could actually be a lifesaver for someone in crisis!
Many people do not have any idea what bipolar disorder is all about. I certainly didn’t, nor did my co-workers, family, friends, and so many others in my life. The fact is, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 people will have a mental disorder in their lifetime! When you add the stresses in our lives because of the pandemic, that statistic is closer to 1 in 4. Take a look around you. If you happened to be in a movie theater or at a crowded football game, or even at a family reunion, do the math and guess how many of the people there might have some sort of mental health challenge.
When you look at it that way, it brings the challenges of mental health a bit closer to home. I no longer on the radio or tv, and I’m open to talk about my experience with bipolar disorder. I now feel that it’s my job to help break the stigma surrounding mental illness! So many people need help, but may not know there is help available for a friend, family member, co-worker, or even themselves! Many people haven’t been exposed to know anyone in their lives with some form of a mental struggle. They may not know what depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, panic attacks, and other mental health conditions are all about.
It is important, with any disease or diagnosis to use ‘person-first’ language. Thus, I never say I am bipolar. We are not our diagnosis, that’s why it is important to use person-first language. Just as you wouldn’t say “I am cancer” or “I am Parkinson’s”. I say that I struggle with or have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
My Journey Forward
Back in 1999, I was working at a radio station as a talk show host and would slide into a catatonic state. It was to the point where I was not able to function, and being that it was a talk show, meant it became a challenge to do my job. At the end of the week, before I left, I didn’t know what was going on, nor did I know how to stop this nose dive called my job. I went into the general manager’s office and gave him my keys. He told me he didn’t accept them and said to have a relaxing weekend. He said that everything would be okay and he knew I’d be fine.
At the time, we had new owners. They would eventually cut employees and I was one of them, after 17 years. Later on, I was called back and the peaks and valleys in my world continued. Over the years, at three different jobs, I worked with the managers and HR quite frequently. We all went through the warning slips, FLMA, ADA, final warnings and termination. While I'm not employed any longer, I sure learned a lot, and it is refreshing to be able to help others who are struggling.
Since then, I've learned how to find a good physician, psychiatrist, pharmacist, therapist, and support group. It’s taken long time, but I now realize how important it is to have all those elements in your life in order to have some sense of balance – and even that is no guarantee, but at least it’s a good start.
The support group I went to was in Bay City, and when I looked for a group in Saginaw County, there weren’t any. So, over the past 20 years, I’ve learned all I could about mental illness, health and wellness, and started a support for depression and bipolar disorder in Saginaw Township. Since then, we now have another one in Birch Run and continue to promote the resources through the NAMI organization.
When I started it, I had discovered a song by Christian artist and composer, Josh Wilson. He has had a lifelong challenge with anxiety and depression and speaks and sings very openly about it. He, like me, is working hard to educate as many people as possible about the struggles of mental illness and how to get help. The name of the song, and my support group, is It’s OK Not To Be OK. Because it is. The support group is for people with a mental illness and I facilitate, while being a person with bipolar disorder.
I'm now a "professional volunteer”. In addition to NAMI, my support group, I work on the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, and within my church, as well as assist various organizations with marketing, fundraising and publicity.
When it comes to mental health challenges, I’ve discovered that almost all of the people I’ve come across and chatted with have a brother, sister, spouse, friend, parent, grandparent or child with a mental illness. It could be depression, anorexia, OCD, alcoholism, drug addition, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or many others.
After starting a support group for depression and bipolar disorder, it’s become even more important to share information. It took two and a half years for me to be properly diagnosed, so I know that information is power. It was a long two and a half years that included seeing five psychiatrists, five therapists, and two priests, at least seven stays in mental health units, two hospitalizations in ICU including one on life support, one partial program as a transition from hospital to inpatient mental health unit, to working back to as close to normal as possible.
The Difficulty with Mental Health and Addressing Stigma
It’s often hard to know what the cause is when it comes to mental health. It can be genetic and some sort of trigger brings it out. Or it could be environmental and something triggers PTSD, depression, anxiety or a number of things. Environmental triggers can include changes at work, divorce, death in the family or friends, or other stressors.
Perhaps the signs go way back. In my case, maybe it’s a behavior that was normal and just an outrageous and part of my make-up, or was this a real problem that needed to be addressed?
With my many roles as an on-air cooking show co-host, promotions direction to two radio stations, and a life enrichment director and coach with an activities program at a local independent retirement home, I had to use what my Dad always called “sparkle” in order to do a good job. Thinking back, it’s hard to figure out what was and still is normal and what is mania and what is being depressed. It’s a delicate balance.
I feel mental health is still not discussed comfortably, but I do consider it a blessing that there have been several well-known people who have been open about their struggles in recent years. I pray that someday, we won’t have to say “mental illness” and instead, talk about mental health or mental wellness and striving to achieve it.
This is an issue REAL people deal with including perhaps your neighbor or cousin or uncle, or co-worker or fellow church member or yourself. Mental health touches everyone from elementary age to those in their 90’s and we need help – education for those around us, support, proper diagnosis and treatment and ongoing counseling and support groups or therapists, psychiatrists, etc.
One of the blessings I have received, because of living with bipolar disorder, is the opportunity to reassure those who struggle with mental health, like helping people who come to our support group, or noticing the behavior of family, friends, and others. Through my NAMI Certification, I work with family members and those with mental illness, doing my best to console, celebrate their victories, and help educate and support them.
It is my firm believe that through proper education and cooperation, and people’s comfort level in sharing their stories and expressing help, we can help save lives and help improve them and help break the stigma surrounding mental health!
Through my experiences with bipolar disorder, I have worked with many people over the years and I often tell them, “I know how you feel and trust me, you WILL get through this.”
There is a sign for people who struggle with mental health. It is the semi-colon, which is used to signify that this is not the end of the story. You are a survivor – you’ll get through this! My journey definitely continues, and I say Amen to that!
– Sue Smith
Community volunteer and bipolar support group leader