Executive Assistant
Living with bipolar 2 disorder

It hasn’t always been easy, but Sepeedeh Zabala is deeply committed to creating boundaries and routines that prioritize her mental health and help manage her bipolar disorder. She says, “I had to…give myself permission to be exceptional. It was only then that I could find ways to shine.” Advocating publicly for others with mental health conditions has freed Sepeedeh from shame and stigma and empowered her to advocate for herself. She says, “I realized how misunderstood people with bipolar are and that if I didn’t speak up and help, who would?”

Sepeedeh’s Story

When were you first aware of your condition?  What was your most difficult time? 

I suffered my first depression when I was a 19-year-old sophomore in college. I couldn’t get out of bed or do anything for myself and went home for a year on a medical leave of absence. I felt like a horrible failure and did not recover from that perceived “fall from grace” even when I felt better and could function well enough to return to school. I would not discover I had bipolar 2 disorder for another 12 years when I was post-partum after my son was born. At that time, I went to see a psychiatrist and he finally diagnosed me with what turned out to be a family disease that was kept a secret despite my symptoms.

My most difficult time was that first time when I was nearly catatonic as a teenager far from home. The recovery was long and slow. The feelings of worthlessness and suicidal ideation felt like an eternal bottomless pit. I don’t know how I survived that time. My self-esteem is still recovering.

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

I live a dream life these days. I’m healthy and generally happy and free from the mood swings that plagued my life previously. I exercise and rely on meditation, yoga and a very supportive twelve step community and circle of friends who love and support me. It’s a battle to keep free from anxiety and toxicity which exacerbate symptoms. I am careful who I get close to and spend time with. I have boundaries that protect my energy and sleep: No caffeine in the afternoon or eve, no scary or suspenseful films at night, very limited relations and contact with narcissists.

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

In the beginning, medicine helped a great deal. Quicker recovery on meds (vs riding it out) helped me see the difference between healthy brain and unhealthy more clearly. Eventually, going off the meds helped me a great deal and I learned to manage my symptoms with the help of diet, exercise, careful/vigilant limits and an amazing psychiatrist/psychologist team who I kept in close contact with – weekly or more.

Surrounding myself with kind, grounded, loving and understanding people was also key. I needed to identify who had the patience and bandwidth to embrace my exceptional qualities – challenging for many, but not for everyone. 

Also, I made sure my job was not too taxing, even when it meant I was not tapping into all I could do. Nothing was more important than my health, so I avoided the stressors of a more demanding career. Now that the kids are grown, I am working on Act 2.

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

I manage my condition by staying in good touch with my medical team, seeing them weekly whether I’m symptomatic or not. I eat well and exercise and enjoy hobbies and recreational activities (horseback riding and singing, for example) that bring me joy and also keep me connected with a community of supportive people.

I am quick to rest or retreat if I feel overwhelmed and stressed. If that goes on too long symptoms can flare. I am very vigilant about not over-doing it and backing off if I sense I have pushed my limits.

I have learned to let friends and colleagues know about my condition and so that way if I ever need their help or simply need to take care of myself, they are understanding and better prepared to accommodate me.

I advocate publicly for greater awareness and support for mental health.

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

I take very good care of myself and can often give others much support and empathy and help them find solutions in their own situations. I have resilience and patience in all kinds of circumstances. I am an exceptional parent of children who suffer similar conditions.

I found TSN and a whole lot of folks like me, a few of which have become dear friends, even at a distance.

How has your condition impacted your work and your career?

I have needed to take leaves of absences too often and there has been backlash. I am an executive assistant who frequently hears on her reviews that she is exceptional but maybe needs to find more to do. My background, education and abilities are not used to their greatest advantage and I make much less money than I would if I had been able to push myself more.

I have alienated colleagues with choices that I have needed to make. Even if I did everything I could, it often was not enough to save trust in my relationships with colleagues.

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

I encourage anyone in similar circumstances to search for the solutions that are often at hand. I had to look at things differently and give myself permission to be exceptional. It was only then that I could find ways to shine, even in places where I’d been in the shadows.

Advocating publicly has been a lifeline in many ways and I encourage anyone with a similar situation to find ways to learn how to speak out and proud about their experiences. Nothing else would have freed me from the shame and stigma I suffered for far too long. It empowered me to advocate for myself most of all.

TSN provided the community, support, training, and inspiration to encourage me to get out of the closet and onto a stage. This was profoundly impactful, and I always mention TSN to anyone who may also want to join the network and engage.

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

Oh, so many. “Marbles” by Ellen Forney. The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance was an invaluable resource. Movies and documentaries like, “A Beautiful Mind”, “The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive” by Stephen Fry, “Infinitely Polar Bear”, and “Ride the Tiger” (PBS documentary).

Is there anything else you want to share?

Thank you TSN! Learning to tell my stories and speak publicly while supported by this community has been life changing. I am forever grateful!