After 35 years of dedication, hard work, patience, and perseverance, I had finally achieved my version of the “American Dream”: a beautiful home, a loving husband, two wonderful children, and a stable and fulfilling teaching career. However as my job became increasingly more stressful and my work environment grew more toxic, I suffered a major breakdown. In a single day, I went from taking care of my family and teaching high school English to being admitted to a psychiatric unit. While there, I was diagnosed as “Bipolar II” and forced to take an emergency leave from work. Life as I knew it ended that day.
After countless trials of medications with all sorts of unpleasant side effects including a 30 lb weight gain, fatigue, dizziness, confusion, nausea, constipation, and low libido (just to name a few), I slipped into a paralyzing suicidal depression. I could barely get out of bed and I spent most of my time sleeping or crying. I felt like a failure, not only as a teacher, but, more importantly, as a wife and mother. I hated this stranger I had become and I wished to die rather than live in such unbearable pain and despair. Despite medication, ongoing therapy, partial hospitalizations, support meetings, nothing was helping me. I tried Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), a new treatment for depression with a high success rate for depression, but I felt no relief after 41 sessions. Defeated and desperate, I decided to try Electro-convulsive Therapy (ECT) though I was absolutely terrified.
Finally, after 18 rounds of ECT and a new medication for treatment-resistant patients, my depression began to lift. While I was far from my energetic and passionate self, I could at least get out of bed and accomplish basic tasks. No longer incapacitated, I forced myself to get out of the house by attending support group meetings. I went to therapy weekly and took my medication as prescribed. I challenged my distorted thinking and I practiced self-affirmations. Eventually, I felt well enough to return to my job.
However, as a result of medication and ECT side effects such as fatigue, short term memory loss, nausea, and frequent crying spells, I struggled to keep up with all the new policies, procedures, expectations, technology, and curriculum changes. In a highly critical, unsupportive, and inflexible work environment, it didn’t take long until I was once again out on medical leave and back to square one. Despite my Masters in Education and 15 years of exemplary evaluations, I was unable to juggle the demands and stress of teaching. So after consistent employment from the age of 16, I suddenly found myself applying for disability. Feeling ashamed and worthless, I spiraled into yet another agonizing depression. I grieved my losses, wallowed in self-pity, blamed others, cursed a God I no longer believed in, hated myself, and mourned for the past. Bitterness and jealousy consumed me.
In time, I realized that no matter how much I wanted to return to the way I used to be, it was not going to happen and unless I accepted my circumstances and explored new opportunities, I would never get well. So I replaced self-defeating thoughts with positive self-talk. I avoided triggers and exercised. I read self-help books, inspiring memoirs, and online blogs. I even started my own blog and received support and encouragement from others who were struggling with the same issues. I attended peer support meetings and met others who struggle with mental health issues. I explored faith by attending Bible Study. I volunteered at the Literacy Center, joined a local Mom’s Club, and volunteered at NAMI. I wrote an article sharing my own struggle with mental illness for the NAMI newsletter. Several years ago, I was featured in a PBS documentary on Depression. https://www.pbs.org/video/close-to-home-depression-9p3tsx/
I finally resigned from that teaching position that caused me so much pain and stress and moved onto greener pastures. Now I am a professional writing tutor at a local college, a professional speaker for National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and an Education Facilitator for Public Broadcasting System (PBS). I co-founded a writing group, which is still going strong, and I perform in community theatre productions–most recently, the musical Mamma Mia!. I remain hopeful and confident about my future and I no longer live in fear, shame, and silence. In fact, I now share my story to patients in Behavioral Health units at local hospitals on an ongoing basis, teach Peer to Peer Education courses, and run weekly support group meetings.
Ultimately, mental illness has given me far more than it has taken from me. I gained the courage to leave an unhealthy work environment and seek new employment opportunities. I learned to prioritize and put my health and family first. I learned humility and gratitude as I had to accept help from others and respect my new limitations. I learned that self worth and confidence must come from within, not from external factors such as a job or public recognition. I developed empathy for others through my own dark and desperate battles. I learned to live in the moment and make the most of each day since the past is over and the future is unknown. I learned to monitor my stress, avoid triggers, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep. I learned I am far more resilient than I thought. As a result of my struggles, I lead a more balanced, authentic life. No, I am not the same as I was prior to the onset of my illness–I am stronger, wiser, more compassionate, humble, hopeful, thankful, and confident.
By sharing my story, I hope to help and inspire others who may be suffering in silence. Remember, you are not alone. Even though it may seem like you can’t survive another day, recognize how far you’ve come. Whenever you are convinced you will never get well, think of all those who felt the same way and now lead happy, fulfilling lives. And you will, too. It may take time, patience, perseverance, and strength, but no matter what, there is always hope. You will get through this. As a wise soul once noted, “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.”