Senior Advisor, Managing Director
Living with bipolar disorder, anxiety, and PTSD

Kimberly Allen is a boxer, spouse, dog-lover, and person of faith. She is also living successfully with bipolar disorder, anxiety, and PTSD. For Kimberly, living successfully means “having the courage, tools, resilience, and confidence to sustain what is necessary during the hard times.” Now, she advocates for mental health policy changes and is a certified peer for people in the mental healthcare system. Kimberly’s story is one of strength and compassion. She says, “be compassionate toward yourself in the spirit of reconciling anything internally that you feel you could have done better.”

Kimberly’s Story

Briefly, how has your condition impacted your life? When were you first aware of it? What was your most difficult time?

My condition has impacted my life primarily in terms of stigma, including self-stigma, the inordinate cost of quality, ongoing healthcare, and challenges related to living with anxiety, as it can be very taxing. I did not become aware that I had a mental health condition, until after I was 10 years sober from alcohol misuse. My first 10 years as a young, sober, working adult, were not particularly easy, so though I was a bit relieved to receive a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, it was sobering unto itself, as my father also had that diagnosis, dying at age 57 due to alcohol-related medical conditions. Basically, when I received confirmation that I shared these conditions, it was scary, and I felt rather resigned and hopeless regarding my longer-term future.

Still, the most difficult time for me was about 15 years post-diagnosis, as it took time to learn to manage the illness in an effective fashion and to really accept the permanence of it. At that time, I opted to attend an intensive outpatient mental health program and learned that I also had PTSD. I knew that this condition is also stigmatized, so I knew I would likely have to consider how to address this in the workplace and in my social life. At that time, I was largely “closeted” about living with a mental health condition and knew that compartmentalization led to my feeling inherently dishonest, which resulted in deep despair and shame, two feelings that are inherently deadly, I think. So, I had some serious decisions to make, as it related to disclosure, so I could remain alive and ultimately, strive toward a relative peace and happiness, which at the time, was hard to ascertain.

What is your life like now? What does success/living well look like for you?

My life now is largely the kind you dream about! Professionally, I am a national consultant in behavioral healthcare. As a person in recovery, I partner with leading organizations in advocacy and in medical science, serving on several Peer Councils, including global research projects related to brain health, bipolar disorder, peer engagement strategies, and building healthy workplace environments. Most importantly, I have been happily married for 25 years, so living well, for me, means that I am able to maintain relationships in an even and consistent fashion. I am highly productive in my work and I work out often. Success means that I am open and honest – two things that help to create and maintain a sense of knowing who one is. I know who I am. Not everyone is in a position to be able to live in a transparent fashion, so I say this with the caveat that I know I can afford to be open, especially now that I am 61 and am independently employed, so I am able to sustain any negative commentary, if indeed that happens. Yet either way, for me, success means having the courage, tools, resilience, and confidence to sustain what is necessary during the hard times. I am successful because I have been able to access care and expand upon what I have learned and experienced. It took a lot of work to get here and I feel very fortunate to now be 61 and living a happy life.

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

First, I have a spouse who elected to be educated in this area, through reading, participating in therapy, and attending family peer recovery meetings, so I am very fortunate to have both her support and equitable participation. Also, I access all resources available, including low-cost to no-cost online resources, community resources and support groups, and clinical care, as needed. This included inpatient treatment setting for an eating disorder, outpatient treatment for alcohol dependence, and ultimately, the same for PTSD. Currently, I attend counseling and psychiatric care to manage appropriate medications and I am a recreational boxer. But most importantly, I never stopped working on myself, no matter what. I read a lot about my diagnosis and I do much research, as I want to stay current on all available science and updated wellness strategies. So, education, attaining professional and peer recovery support services, and speaking in a candid fashion are strategies I use. I am transparent, as my experience is that this is indeed a key to a connected and healthy life, for me.

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

Currently, I box, routinely. I own a heavy bag and all sorts of speed bags because I like the discipline and routine of boxing. For many years, I have also swum and lifted weights at least three days per week. Also, I work with a trainer, and I attribute this to much of my success as it relates to wellness strategies. I read daily and I particularly appreciate poetry when I feel discouraged. I also sit outside in the breeze with my dog and my spouse as wonderful companions! I speak openly about my mental health, and I think I am respected in business, as I am well-researched. More than anything, I help others and I feel this is vital. Though I am a licensed counselor specializing in substance use disorders, I frequently serve as a peer, sharing my experience to help others. I attend counseling. I do not drink. I take medication, as overall, I find it helpful. I do this even when it does not seem particularly helpful, at times! I choose to believe in God. I visit with my neighbors. I am respectful to others. I vote and participate as part of this world and my community! I feel very fortunate to be alive. So overall, for me, it is candor that keeps me aware and open, and my peers in recovery keep me inspired and hopeful! Finally, my marriage and home life are the most important thing in my life and have been for 25 years. I prioritize my family, just as I do my health and we have a peaceful and happy home.

Are there positives that have come from having a mental health condition? If so, what?

Absolutely! I have met fascinating people from all over the world, and they are a dazzling array of what courage and persistence look like! Also, I have the luxury of being compelled to always learn and to focus outside of myself, offering me the clarity to know that many others suffer more than I, and this keeps me humble and compassionate. I am inspired to fan the flame of my life, even when the flame feels small, and I am grateful to have others help me with that. People are generous and they are kind, typically. I think being a more vulnerable person can allow a gentle heart, versus constantly being competitive. Thus, I feel that one can witness the majesty of who people truly are, versus experiencing only what people present, externally. It is a privilege to hear peoples’ stories and I feel honored to experience people in that way.

How has your condition impacted your work and your career?

Early on, it was taxing to understand that a state of high stress may not always be the place for me. Although I have maintained leadership roles for many years, there are positions that I left earlier than I actually preferred, largely because various work cultures and environments were too driven for me, so I elected to depart, as my health really must come first. And, though I did attain a master’s degree, it took me longer than some, so it was quite expensive. Though I think my career is now a successful one, there is no doubt that I could have earned more than I have and done so earlier. Bottom line, I opted to lower my health risk, versus accepting higher risk at a higher income level, but I learned the hard way that I have to be responsible, and perhaps I am doubly conservative in that way. Either way, I manage myself carefully and I manage my risk, so my “health portfolio”, so to speak, may not be as high earning as it would have been, but that is okay with me. My health is my responsibility and priority, so I selected that for myself.

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

I would encourage people to commit right now, to accepting what is true, for you, and to not forget that you do have a gut instinct and you can regain your confidence. You can responsibly consider the realities of what works and does not work, for you. I encourage you to not die of shame and despair. You are important and you are the most important person in your life! Nobody knows you like you do, so be as honest as you can be, and always know, that you are special and being special is a good thing! You may not necessarily be within the bell curve, but you are wonderfully unique! Also, to be curious about yourself and know that we are learning more every single day about the incredible brain and about what makes us so wonderfully unique, and we are learning more about solutions to very troubling conditions! More than anything, speak up and know that there is no one like you, anywhere! So, bottom line, take heart, and know that you can do this! Some days will be hard, as you know, so in particular, on those days, find people that have lived experience with what you live with. It is very comforting. And more than anything, know that you are 100% worth it! Finally, forgive yourself for anything you feel you could have done better. Learn from those things and know that we all have things we wish we had done differently, but tomorrow is a new day and you will learn from your experiences and our stories!

What motivated you to join The Stability Network? What do you hope to get from it?

What motivated me initially is Katherine Switz, herself. She is a brilliant speaker and leader, so I wanted to know more about The Stability Network, as she is the founder. David Chow, another Stability Leader, also inspired me. I heard them both speak at a global project we are all involved with and I wanted to hear more of what they had to say. Also, the focus on the workplace is a very important part of The Stability Network. The workplace is typically where we all spend much time, so I feel it is vital that we be able to build better workplaces and communities through stigma reduction and appropriate educations and programs. My hope regarding The Stability Network is that, as a pioneer and warrior on some days, the ongoing support through The Stability Network, and the ongoing role-modeling, will allow me to continue to express myself with confidence and offer my story to help the many people who struggle in silence. Also, I like to laugh and smile with The Stability Network! We enjoy our time, together! It is really nice, as we 100% accept each other and we always share what we have learned and experienced, and for me, that is a dream come true!

Are there resources (books, videos, websites) that helped and/or inspired you that you would recommend to others?

Many! I learned a lot through reading Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” and John Howard Griffin’s “Black Like Me”, as well as “Reluctant Activist” written by Robert Bonazzi. I study a lot about stigma and how people have stayed not only alive, but also lived beyond the very hardest of circumstances. I read Ken Wilber’s book, “A Brief History of Everything” because he is just smart, and I enjoyed a look at his account of the universe. I read Admiral William McRaven’s “Sea Stories” because it is inspirational for me as a leader and spurs me to set goals. I read all sorts of poetry! Right now, I read Langston Hughes and really enjoyed his poem “Mother to Son”, because life is not always easy, but we can carry on. In terms of resources, I have enjoyed a relationship with Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance national for about 7 years, and I keep up with the DBSA website, as it has many cost-free resources and is very helpful!

Is there anything else you want to say or share?

First, I want to acknowledge all those whom we’ve lost, including my father, who did not survive this illness. There is never a time I speak, nor advocate, without being aware of the staggering impact of stigma and the ongoing lack of choice related to effective medications. We need to invest in more research related to medicines and to patient-reported outcomes. Also, a research and advocacy focus for me includes health insurance benefits design. Many continue to not have appropriate insurance coverages that are affordable and offer respite, so it is vital the employers and others focus on what we can do better to help people access needed care. Second, I want to say thank you to courageous leaders, peers and advocates, including leaders like Rose Kurland, who founded DBSA. Third, I want to thank the businesses who are getting behind science over stigma, and thank organizations like One Mind, led by Garen and Brandon Staglin, and The World Economic Forum and the Healthy Brains Global Initiative, for including those of us with the lived experience as part of the dialogue in brain health, research, science and sustainability. I want to thank the brilliant, scientific minds that surround our projects, including places like The Dauten Center, Harvard Medical, Johns Hopkins, the WHO, and sponsors like Johnson & Johnson, that invite us to the table in important health and fiscal discussions! I want to thank the caring clinicians who work so hard when we don’t feel well and kind team members who flank us as patients when we are hospitalized, or in medical settings, feeling really anxious. I want to thank the spouses and children who choose to love us, and particularly my own partner, who did not give up on me at my lowest point. Finally, I must thank the Spiritual Order of the Universe, so to speak. I cannot help but think that there are so many things that are here for a real reason. I see the Life Spark in the eyes of my dog, in the lives of elephants and other amazing creatures that so clearly illustrate things that many spiritual things are not necessarily able to be captured and addressed by science, rather there appears to be an incredible flame that lives in all of us, so I really cannot ignore that, no matter how many books I read. And last but not least, thank you to Katherine Switz, the team at The Stability Network and thanks to all Stability Leaders for your courage, dedication and ongoing commitment to allow our voices to be captured and routed as a potential lifeline to others, and for broadening the footprint that offers change for those coming along behind us! It is an honor to know you.