The following story was contributed by Tammi, one of MHAG’s Peer Support Specialists.
I started my sophomore year at UNC-Chapel Hill with a bang. I developed new friendships, joined a dance team, and even became the leader of my dance team. Unfortunately, my grades were below average. I had the strategy of staying up all night to study and write papers. No one thought it was unusual for a college student to stay up for days, and my parents didn’t think that my lack of sleep was an indication of a bigger problem.
Two major events occurred during my sophomore year of college. My maternal grandmother died. I was very close to my mother, so I was concerned for her loss. I also went through a very a bad breakup, which caused me to spiral into depression. It was like a switch went off. I experienced stomach pains—a symptom I thought came along with being in love—I lost my appetite and couldn’t eat, and I began to hear voices. These voices would tell me I was pregnant and that I need to end my life by jumping from my dorm room window or off of the 6th floor balcony outside of my room.
I often went to class in tears because I was hearing voices and did not understand what was happening to me. I thought my fellow classmates and other UNC students were talking about me, so I feared even going to class. It was like I was on an island all alone. Soon, thoughts turned into hallucinations. I now believed I was pregnant, and at 12 a.m., I found myself calling my parents to tell them that I was pregnant and to beg for forgiveness. My father answered the phone and told me that my mother wasn’t there, and I became psychotic.
My mother was a nursing assistant and worked third shift, but the voices in my head told me she was dead because of my lies; I was inconsolable. Initially, my friends tried to give me a ride to the hospital, but I declined. However, when I heard my grandmother telling me to go to get help, I packed a suitcase of towels and walked to the hospital. I spoke to everyone in the hospital and told the doctors my dilemma. I was sedated until my parents came to take me home.
I was checked into a behavioral health hospital in Greensboro, NC, where I was asked questions I couldn’t remember the answers to. I had a moment of clarity when I looked to my mother and asked her was my grandmother dead. My mother nodded as she started to cry. To this day, I believe my grandma was working to get me the help I needed.
I was discharged from school and could only re-enroll with the school psychiatrist’s permission. I still had psychosis and many hospitalizations—and two years later—I was finally diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder 1. My father’s first question after hearing the diagnosis: “What took you so long to diagnosis her?” A bipolar diagnosis has to be slowly investigated, so it takes a while to be diagnosed. After the diagnosis and medication adherence, my grades improved, and I was able to graduate in five years instead of four.
I was a typical young adult on medication that caused weight gain and adverse side effects. I believed that if I was well, I didn’t need any medication. My recovery journey included many hospitalizations and some them were because I didn’t take my medication. I had every excuse as to why I couldn‘t take them. I function like everyone else in the world; I can’t afford these high costs. But when my recovery became my priority, I found the money to pay for my medication. I got tired of going to the hospital, waking up and getting dressed by 7 a.m. to call my children to tell them I love them and to have a good day at school.
I have been managing a bipolar disorder diagnosis for 27 years—12 years of hospitalizations that I can recollect. This number does not reflect how many times I’ve been in a severe psychotic state where I don’t where I was, who I was, or why I was.
At my worst, I would hear voices telling me that my husband was out to get me. I would often replay traumas in my head as if they were still occurring. I wouldn’t sleep, and I would stay up and write for hours. I have experienced being very high with delusions, hallucinations and paranoia. After this process was contained with medication, the depressive shoe would drop. I would have suicidal thoughts and sleep all the time. I had no wants or needs; I just wanted peace, even if that meant I had to die.
At my worst, I was involuntarily committed many times. I would have no memory of my inappropriate behavior or the ways I treated my loved ones. After a psychotic break and when I was released, I would go to family members ashamed and guilty. I would just say, “I am so sorry.” For my recovery, my therapist suggested to my husband that my family not let me know what happened during a psychotic break. It causes too much guilt and it became hard for to get past hospitalizations.
I have four important keys for my recovery:
- Medication Adherence. I stick to taking my medications like I am saving my life.
- Therapy. This is where I am understood and validated.
- Psychiatry. I have a psychiatrist who listens to my concerns, and I believe has my best interest at heart.
- A support system. My support system is my husband, best friend, sister and other loved ones.
As a result of actively working on my recovery, I completed my master’s degree in counseling studies. I started looking for volunteer work and was led to the Mental Health Association of Greensboro (MHAG). The recovery classes and compeer assignment allowed me to see my diagnosis as more than a medical component, that I can be whole in spite of my diagnosis.
During these classes at MHAG, it was recommended that I become a Certified Peer Support Specialist. After certification, I became a peer support specialist on an ACT Team in Greensboro. One year later, my mentor Myla Erwin hired me to become a Peer Support Specialist at MHAG. I am now a facilitator of classes and support groups, and I conduct one-on-one peer sessions. This recovery journey showed me that manic depression was not going to be my death sentence. In fact, I believe bipolar disorder was part of my purpose.
My intention with this story is to provide hope to those living with a mental health challenge. Even with obstacles, we can live very productive lives. It is not easy, but it can be done. I no longer judge this journey; I am doing the best I can with what I have, and that gives me hope daily. As the senior saints say, “I wouldn’t trade nothing for my journey now.”