Senior Director of Programs and Operations, Loran Scholars Foundation
Living with bipolar disorder

Although she wasn’t diagnosed until she was 38, Heather can recall bipolar episodes stretching back to her early twenties. She has been stable for over ten years now and when asked if there are positives that have come from her mental health condition, Heather shared, “I appreciate my good health and stability a lot more than I did before.” She expressed that she is a much more empathetic person and can better serve her students who are experiencing distress.

Heather’s Story

What was your most difficult time? 

Initially, I experienced several weeks of elevated mood, followed by several weeks of stability, then several weeks of depression. These episodes occurred every 4-5 years and grew in severity over time. Finally, in 2008, I had an extreme manic episode that led to my diagnosis, followed by a profound depression that resulted in my hospitalization due to suicidal ideation. It was then that I finally agreed to start medication and work with a psychiatrist. This was my most difficult time, as I was ashamed of my diagnosis, hesitant to take medication (and deal with the side effects), and afraid of what this diagnosis meant for my future.

What is your life like now?

Luckily, I got stabilized relatively quickly and haven’t had any severe episodes since 2008. I’ve thrived at my workplace and have a stable, loving relationship. My friends, family and colleagues are very supportive and although I’ve gained weight and now have shaky hands, it’s a small price to pay for solid mental health. I am out about my mental health condition and am proud to illustrate how ‘normal’ someone with a mental illness can be.

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

First, accepting the need to take medication was key. I needed to realize the illness must be treated, just as any other health condition would be. Secondly, I joined a support group to meet others living with bipolar disorder. Through that group, I connected with a mental health coach who helped me devise a plan to come out with my condition (until then I only told very close friends and my boss). That was a turning point; whenever I disclosed my condition, I was invariably met with empathy and support. Maintaining good sleep hygiene and keeping stress levels low have also helped.

What do you do to manage your condition and stay healthy on an ongoing basis?

I am careful to take my medication daily and ensure I surround myself with positive, supportive people. I make sure I get enough sleep and try to eat well (although significant weight gain did result from the medication). These days I am trying to exercise more. I see my psychiatrist every three months and check in with myself daily to ensure I am feeling stable.

How has your condition impacted your work and your career? 

It has had a surprisingly small impact, beyond making me better at what I do (counseling students). I’ve only had to take off a handful of days over the past ten years. It’s made me a better manager as well.

What encouragement or advice would you give to someone suffering from a condition similar to yours?  

I would advise someone with bipolar disorder to find medication(s) that works for them, join a support group, get counseling, and then confidently share their condition with those around them. I’d encourage them to have faith that the condition can be treated and the future is not at all as scary as it can seem at first. I’d want them to know that as long as you take the steps to manage the condition, you can live a full and happy life. And I’d let them know they are now in the position to make the world a better place for all of us by demystifying mental illness and showing it is not the end of the world!