For as long as I can remember the majority of my days were full of hopelessness and dread. I don't ever remember being happy. The prospect of doing my homework or of going to a birthday completely overwhelmed me. I remember obsessing about what it would be like to cease to exist and to do so in a way that wouldn't hurt anyone else.
I had no idea that I was different from everyone else – that not everyone lived with these horrible feelings.
When I was 16 I discovered ways to ease that sense of dread – I drank, did drugs and sexed my way into oblivion. Anything that would temporarily ease my pain. It took a lot to ease that pain.
Somehow, even with all the dread and the drugs, I lived a productive life. I was very successful at whatever job I threw myself into. I got married and, when I got pregnant, I stopped drinking. I worked hard to be the very BEST stay at home mom and was a supportive wife and a loving daughter.
In spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, I still carried that sense of dread with me everyday. It was heavy. And exhausting.
Believe it or not, I really thought that I was doing ok.
And then I stopped sleeping. For a year. I lost 20 pounds, spent hours driving really fast on the back roads of Maine, did things that I shouldn't have been doing. One cold October day I found myself in a closet, banging my head against the wall. I had no idea what was happening to me.
A friend scooped me up off the floor of my closet and took me to a psychiatrist. It took him 20 minutes peppering with me questions, and confirming with my husband that I wasn't lying, to diagnose me with Bipolar II disorder. This was 9 years ago. I was 42 years old.
Having a diagnosis was HUGE for me. I could finally understand what I was going through. I was immediately medicated and within a month I wasn't depressed for the first time in my life. People would tell me that I looked different. "That's because I am not depressed," I would exclaim with a smile.
I accepted my diagnosis right away and set out to learn everything I could about my disease. Because that's what it is -- a disease. Like heart disease or thyroid disease. I had a disease and it could be treated.
Since my diagnosis I have been on a mood stabilizer and an anti-psychotic. My meds are an important part of my treatment because they raise the bottom of the pool for me, to keep me from drowning. Then I use my coping skills to really thrive.
My coping skills? Daily yoga, a healthy diet, lots of sleep. I also work hard to talk back to those destructive thoughts that can spiral me down into a deep depression. People always tell me to "think positive" but really it's those negative thoughts that I work on when I am depressed. And, 8 times out of 10, it works.
I also have a plan in place when I am in crisis. When I am manic it involves hiking in the woods and 1000 piece puzzles. When I am depressed it involves bed, yoga, chocolate pudding and TV, particularly The Walking Dead. I have learned to ride out those crises with a little self-awareness and effort. Well, a lot of self-awareness and effort.
The past 5 years have been difficult. I survived an ugly divorce, I took care of my mother as she died of pancreatic cancer, I raised two teenagers on my own and I moved to NYC from Vermont at the age of 51.
Throughout all of these transitions I have been able to maintain my mental wellness. Sure, I still have bad days but they are days, not weeks or months or years like they used to be. And here I am. Still standing.
Today my life's work is to educate, spread awareness and reduce stigma. I do so by working with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, traveling the east coast and sharing the story of my mental illness. Nurses tell me that after a presentation, one person who wasn't willing to accept their diagnosis does. Which is huge.
Because I know that, without acceptance, healing cannot begin.