Norma Jean Wilkes is a small, pleasant-looking woman with a long, shiny blonde bob. On this particular night—Wednesday, December 5—she wore a black orthopedic boot on one foot and a stylish suede shoe on the other.  She’d broken her foot several weeks earlier, but that wasn’t going to get in her way. She traveled from High Point to the Greensboro public library to tell her story, broken foot be damned.  She could have sat on a comfortable chair beside the podium, but she stayed on her feet instead. For two hours.

You see, Norma Jean is one tough cookie.

Norma Jean Wilkes speaking at the Greensboro library in early December
Norma Jean Wilkes speaking at the Greensboro library in early December

She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her 20s, and it’s taken her for a wild ride. In her talk, “Brain Storms,” co-sponsored by the Mental Health Association in Greensboro and NAMI Guilford, she described rising to ecstatic heights and plummeting to the darkest depths.

“I thought about suicide,” Norma Jean said, describing how she felt during depressive cycles. “It wasn’t that I wanted to die. I just wanted the excruciating pain to stop.”

She compared her manic periods to the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy steps out of a black-and-white world into brilliant Technicolor. “Everything was intensified,” Norma Jean explained. “I felt like this manic me was who I was always meant to be.”

Mania had its dangers: In the grip of a manic episode, she removed all the tubes from her hospitalized newborn child. Fortunately, no damage was done.

On average, she had a dozen manic episodes a year and an equal number of depressive cycles. She careened from one to the next with no stability in between.

The audience listens to "Brain Storms"
The audience listens to “Brain Storms”

Psychiatrists prescribed one medication after another; nothing worked. Norma Jean tried more than 30 without experiencing any relief. She tried yoga, acupuncture, massage. They made her feel better for a day or two, and then the all-too-familiar symptoms returned. She traveled the familiar, harrowing path from euphoria to despair again and again.

In total desperation, she tried electroconvulsive therapy, which was neither effective nor bearable. It wiped out her memory: at one point she found herself puzzling over a fork, wondering what its use was.

Five years ago, Norma Jean finally found a combination of medication that helped cap her mood swings. That, plus professional help and support from others with bipolar disorder, have kept her on the recovery path. Every day holds its challenges, but, like Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold, she has turned her pain into something precious: She works part-time at Daymark Recovery as a peer support specialist, providing hope and support to others dealing with mental health challenges. She speaks to audiences, giving them insight into bipolar disorder,  answering their questions, and steering them toward mental health resources.

For Norma Jean, recounting her story is cathartic. “Every time I tell my story, some of the internalized stigma and shame lifts,” she said. “This is the way we spread hope.”

Read more about Norma Jean Wilkes in the Winston-Salem Journal.