I am not bi-polar. I am a strong-willed, energized woman with many gifts, talents and a handful of foibles who manages a diagnosis of bi-polar I. My illness comes with the added effects of rapid cycling and both visual and audio hallucinations. But the good news: I am not my diagnosis. This paradigm shift came when I consciously decided not to be a victim of mental illness.

This shift took time and an enormous amount of support and guidance. A team of experts made my recovery possible. From my core friends and family who have always supported me – in good times and often hard to understand, difficult times –  to my psychiatrist, social worker and a bevy of researchers at Mass General’s Center for Women with Mental Illness, my support has been unbelievable.

This is the reason why stigma, I now understand, often ruins the path to mental wellness. Without unwavering, forgiving, and understanding support, being yourself and not your diagnoses is trying, if not impossible.

My trip began soon after my breakthrough episode in 1997. I was 25 years old and living in Brooklyn, NY. After college, I scored a pretty good job serving as a book publicist. I was making a salary at the time that seemed like a fortune. In New York City, though, it was a pittance. And keeping up with the pack was paramount. Couple this with my budding symptoms – overspending on clothes and going out, engaging in reckless behavior, drug use, and getting little sleep – and the “perfect storm” was about to hit.

Something was obviously very wrong as I was seeing and hearing things; not sleeping and high on my insanity – but no one knew what was wrong. I was the most oblivious. My roommate contacted my family, who put me on a plane to Providence, RI that same day. Being sick and home – with no interference from the buzz of the city – made my symptoms that much more apparent and more real.

Piercings were hip in the 90’s and I had a belly button ring. I remember fiercely and with vigor removing the ring as I was convinced the bauble had the power to impregnate me with the child of Satan. I can also remember sitting on my parent’s back steps – and seeing through my skin. I saw a small spider making its way up an artery in my leg, and thinking it was headed for my heart. And thinking that soon I would be dead.

My recovery was long and tortuous. Now I’m compliant with my treatment. I see my therapist every couple of weeks. I have my mental “is this bi-polar Kate or is this just Kate” check-list and I make a good go of it every day. When I started Lithium, I shook like a leaf for a year. I even wore ballet flats with my wedding dress so I wouldn’t shake too hard and fall off the more appropriate choice of heels. Prior to taking the Lithium, I was on Depakote and gained 30 pounds practically overnight. And I didn’t care. I’d rather stay on course and regularly monitor my medication with blood work and visits with my doctor than risk going back to that yes – racy and often creatively fun time, but potentially cataclysmic place. There are just too many ugly memories.

So how did I do it?

Family and friends saw through the illness and found me. They loved and supported me through my major episode as well as seemingly less traumatic outbreaks that were faster to overcome. When I first came home, for example, I was under constant supervision, which meant a team of family and friends were on board to “babysit”. At something close to baseline, I established a short list of friends who would always answer the phone if I called; assured me it would be o-kay and listened. I chose my support system carefully and was overwhelmed when friends were eager to help.  Seeking support can be scary and often daunting, but a little companionship distracted me from the self-loathing and trauma from my episodes.  Further down the road, my Mother would be responsible for approving my therapist with a letter grade (A, A-, B . . . D+). This technique helped us gauge how my report compared to those who saw me most. Now my husband regularly attends sessions with me. He has yet to see me sick, so his more objective report has been the cornerstone to my maintenance plan.

Life isn’t perfect. Or easy. I’ve lost friends and jobs – and my ego has taken a beating. Recovering is a bear and it’s easy to feel victimized. I’ve fought with God. I’ve asked “Why me”? To deny the pain is foolish. Accepting good support from people who care is essential.  And asking for help might save your life.

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