Like many people, my bipolar disorder was misdiagnosed for years. On average, people wait six years for a proper diagnosis. For me, it was decades. In hindsight, my new diagnosis made so much sense and explained so much of what I had been through over the years.
It explained the implosion of my first marriage, the numerous jobs I had lost, the Master’s degrees that I had collected, the credit card debt, the dating many women at once, and so much more. I suddenly understood why years of treatment for unipolar depression would end with me deciding I was all better and abruptly stopping treatment.
Eventually, it all became too much. I found myself sitting in a parking lot, crying, days after I had called the National Suicide Hotline. My first attempt to take my life was at the age of 13, but I could not understand why those feelings were back at this time. I had recently adopted two daughters – I had so much to live for, why was I still thinking about suicide?
At the encouragement of my therapist, I checked myself into a psychiatric hospital. I should mention here that my entire career has been in behavioral health. I have fought for the elimination of mental health stigma and encouraged others to seek the help they need. Yet here I was, falling prey to the very stigma that I railed against. I found myself ashamed to have fallen to the point of being hospitalized. I was embarrassed to be there and kept to myself. I was not participating in the group sessions and I barely spoke to anyone. Because I had been hospitalized for suicidal ideations, I had to earn the privilege of eating in the dining room. Until that time, I had to eat on the unit sitting near the nurse’s station where I could be observed eating with my plastic cutlery.
After a few days, I earned the right to eat in the dining room. In a more social situation, I found myself starting to talk to others, but I was still not ready to open up. Eventually I developed relationships with others in my unit, and one day, I was challenged to speak up in a group session. Suddenly, it all came pouring out. Years of pain and suffering came tumbling out with lots of tears. I can now look back and mark that very moment as the beginning of my recovery journey.
I was started on a new medication regime and scheduled for appointments with my therapist and my primary care physician within days of my discharge. I committed myself to a long term relationship with my therapist. I am still seeing her years later, but we adjust the frequency of my appointments based on how I am doing. That way, I get to maintain the relationship when I am feeling better, and avoid suddenly stopping treatment. It has been an important part of my recovery.
I have developed new skills, like meditation and mindfulness, to keep me grounded. My therapist uses Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to help me deal with some of the trauma in my past. She has helped me establish a “safe place” to go when we do this work. At this point, that safe place is so well imprinted on my brain that I can go there anytime I need.
To make up for falling prey to stigma, I have doubled down on my efforts to fight stigma wherever it may be found. As the Director of the New Hampshire Office of Consumer and Family Affairs, I am actually expected to have a mental health diagnosis. It is the perfect platform from which to fight stigma. I have become a NAMI In Our Own Voice speaker, which allows me to speak to groups about my recovery journey, from my lowest point to where I am now.
I still struggle at times, but overall I feel stronger and more able to take on challenges that may come my way.