Mental Health Counselor
Living with Bipolar I Disorder, PTSD, and ADHD

After being diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 17, Adrienne was later diagnosed with ADHD and PTSD. Despite her endeavors to find the treatment that was right for her, she believes that her diagnoses opened the door for her work as a mental health counselor and have made her the caring and empathetic person she is today. She wants others experiencing conditions similar to hers to know that “If you have a mental illness, it is not a life sentence to loneliness or disability. You can work, have meaningful relationships, and enjoy hobbies and community while living with mental illness, and have a full, thriving life.”

Adrienne’s Story

Briefly, how has your condition impacted your life?

I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 17 years old in 11th grade, while I was in the middle of the worst depression I have had to date. I got on medication, and after that episode, I cycled between stability and mild depressive and hypomanic episodes through high school, college, and part of grad school. In college, I was diagnosed with inattentive ADHD, and when I was in grad school, my ADHD medication triggered a severe, psychotic manic episode. I got on stronger bipolar medication, learned to keep a mood chart, asked my future husband for help with keeping a regular sleep schedule, and after 2 months the manic episode ended. I couldn’t take ADHD meds anymore, so I sought acupuncture, which relieved my ADHD symptoms, and I caught back up in school. Since I’ve found the right medication for me, I have had only mild depressive and hypomanic episodes, alternating with periods of stability. I consider myself in recovery from bipolar since 2013. I was later diagnosed with PTSD in 2018 when trauma content through my work triggered my past trauma. I took a medical leave of absence from work and did intensive EMDR trauma therapy, and I utilized the natural supports of my husband and a best friend in my healing. After 3 months leave, I returned to work successfully instead of quitting my job, and a year after the start of my symptoms, my PTSD was in full remission.

What is your life like now?   

Today I am doing a good job in my work as a mental health counselor. Work doesn’t trigger PTSD at all anymore. I am happily married, I am an involved family member, a dedicated friend, active in leadership in my synagogue, play two instruments in a community band, and plan to have children in the not-too-distant future. I still have mood cycles between mild depression, mild hypomania, and stability, and will for the rest of my life, but I am able to function well in my life with this level of mood fluctuation.

What help or specific strategies helped you to get well and move to stability?

To get to this point in my life, it was very important for me to patiently experiment with my prescriber and find the right medications that work for me, and take them every day. My prescriber taught me to keep a mood chart, and this has given me insight into my patterns and symptoms over the years. I was in therapy from 2007 when I was first diagnosed until 2019 when my PTSD reached remission. Through therapy I learned how to parent myself, understand my patterns and pitfalls, develop my strengths, coping skills, boundaries, and my window of tolerance, and reprocess and heal my trauma. I started attending peer support groups through the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, in 2014 right after my severe manic episode, and this community has been an invaluable support to me. My natural support system (husband, parents, best friends, clergy) are always integrally involved in my wellness, and I go to them for support and ask them for help in my healing whenever I need it. In my work, I am open with my supervisors about my mental health and include them in my support team when I need adjustments or support at work.

What positives have come from having a mental health condition?

Through relying on my support system when I need it, I have deepened these relationships. Through NAMI, I met one of my best friends. As this friend says, “Your struggle is your strength, compassion is your strength.” Having a diagnosis in recovery allowed me to start my career as a peer counselor, where I was able to help others in their recovery through my own recovery story. Although I no longer share my story as a mental health counselor, my struggle has made me a more compassionate, empathetic person, and I am able to use my own story to inform my work with my clients, and sometimes tell them stories of “my best friend” (me) to inspire or encourage them.

How has your condition impacted your work and your career? 

Having a diagnosis in recovery opened the door for me to enter the mental health field as a peer counselor. Once I got my degree, I have felt like my life experiences continue to make me a more competent, compassionate, and empathetic mental health counselor. Working around trauma daily did make my work difficult for me when I was diagnosed with PTSD, however, an FMLA leave of absence and intensive EMDR trauma therapy allowed me to return to work trigger-free. I have always been open with my supervisors about my mental health conditions, and I have found myself to be more supported as a result when my conditions have made my work hard.

What words of encouragement would you give to someone struggling with a condition similar to yours?   

Long-term stability in bipolar, with only manageable mood fluctuations, is possible. The key is to have the patience and working relationship with a prescriber to do the work to find the medication combination that is right for you and then take it every day. Complete recovery from PTSD is possible, and it doesn’t have to take forever. EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, sometimes paired with exposure therapy with my husband or a best friend to pair triggers with safety, were the key in my recovery from PTSD.

Are there resources that inspired you that you would recommend to others?

I enjoy memoirs like An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison, Madness: A Bipolar Life and Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher. I also highly recommend getting involved with your local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, who provides support groups, educational classes, inspirational speakers, and advocacy opportunities.