Headshot of Stability Leader Shannon Flanagan

VP of Global Industry Strategy: Retail & Consumer Goods, Talkdesk
Living with bipolar 2 and ADHD

Shannon Flanagan knows what it’s like to navigate life while living with bipolar 2, a codependent upbringing and marriage, raising three children, and advancing her career as an executive. She also knows how seeing a psychiatrist, finding the right medications, receiving therapy and life coaching, journaling, exercising, and making difficult but right life choices have led her to the best place she’s ever found herself in. Through the many challenges that life presents, Shannon strives to incorporate her past and present, and to be empathic, authentic, and transparent.

Shannon’s Story

How has your condition impacted your life? 

Though I was not diagnosed until I was 38, the minute the doctor explained it to me, my whole life made sense, though it did not suddenly make it easier. What it did was give me a framework that I could operate more effectively in. Its greatest impact is that I feel the highs and lows of everyday life intensely.

I feel blessed that I can always find the silver linings no matter how big the storm cloud is. I suspect this was a coping mechanism at first and is now firmly core to how I process life. I am enthusiastic, passionate, creative, compassionate, curious about people, super fun, pragmatic and real AF.

Conversely, my downs are psychically painful, all consuming, and life becomes so hard, like living in molasses. Being easily irritable is always the first sign. I’ve learned, and have had to accept, that I can’t think my way out of it. I wait for it to pass. I do the best I can to keep everyday life on track and work like hell to not let it overtake me. I wish I could say it gets easier with age. It hurts even more each time. But what I can hold onto is that it won’t last forever even if it feels like it will.

Lastly, I can be “too much” for many, even those who love me dearly. It doesn’t help that my life has more drama than most and I wear my heart on my sleeve. I can’t radically change who I am; however, the older I get, the better I am at reading the room and adjusting as appropriate.  

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

I had struggled with depression since I was 12. I broke during down my sophomore year in high school, and called my mom after third period saying I couldn’t do it anymore. I wasn’t suicidal but was hurting, just like I have felt as an adult.

I was an only child, codependency raging, trying to help my dysfunctional parents as their marriage and lives fell apart. I had had a few concerning episodes with alcohol. My family is overflowing with alcoholics on both sides, so my parents put me in treatment. The doctors told me I had situational depression, meaning I just got more depressed than the normal person when things happened. Thankfully, the program gave me tools to manage, but the struggle continued.

In my 20s, I was diagnosed and treated for ADHD. When not pregnant or nursing in my 30s, I tried antidepressants and had brief success with them between a miscarriage and baby #2. I white-knuckled it through my pregnancy and nursing #3. I tried a few meds with no success.

In the spring of 2011 when I quit taking my medication, a hypo-mania state was triggered. My husband at the time suggested I might be bipolar (this also runs in my family). I clearly remember sitting on our couch saying, I don’t care, I want to ride this high for as long as I can. I’d always felt I had a purpose greater than being a mom, a wife, and an executive. I had found it – writing a book about the role reversal of stay-at-home dads and working moms (our situation). I was so energized, focused, and productive! Then one day in August, it was like someone took the needle off the record and a physical hurt overcame me that was unbearable.

I’d had sleep issues since being pregnant with my second child, experiencing every type of insomnia with no success in resolving it despite going to a sleep clinic and trying many medications. I was riddled with anxiety every night I went to bed. I felt like a sword was cutting my head in half. I felt crazy and plagued with drowsiness during the day which hurt too. All the while, I was living with an alcoholic, a 5 year old, a 2 year old and a 1 year old, while working as an executive.

By late fall, I sat on the screen porch, sobbing, saying this has to stop. I can’t go on. I called a doctor friend and I asked to be referred to the best psychiatrist in Madison. I needed a definitive diagnosis I could trust. Within minutes of meeting, he told me what I had. The first step was getting me to sleep again. And with it started the bumpy ride of finding the right medications.

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

Today is very different from a year ago. And the year before that, so forth and so on. I’m unrelenting in my commitment to reflection, growth, healing, patience, and accepting that life is like the cha-cha. Respecting healing as a process and patience as a requirement to do so has been my focus of late. Ultimately, it’s about being true to myself. This has meant making some very hard, scary decisions; but they were right. And though messy, painful, super terrible times came with my choices, it has led me to the best place I’ve ever found myself in.     

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

I never underestimated the value of reaching out to others. I’ve been in therapy on and off for years. Life coaching has been incredibly powerful for me—so much so that I studied to be one myself). Journaling is a must. That being said, I’ve learned I do so in waves and that’s okay; as is also true with exercise. So, the strategies are more about mindsets, philosophy, and applying metaphors. Life ebbs and flows, it comes with trials and tribulations, tradeoffs, the good, bad and ugly–no different than my condition. Leaning into this reality, which is true for all humans, grants me Zen.

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

I’ve had to process, many times, that it is a part of me forever. At times this made me angry and envious of those who don’t struggle. I don’t suppress these feelings; instead, I appreciate that we all have struggles. I let go of the stigma of medication, understanding I will very likely always be on it. (Like most, I tried a time without them which was a glaring reminder that they are necessary). I maintain a close relationship with my psychiatrist and when necessary, tweak my medication. Sharing my story is now becoming a key part of staying healthy. As I mentioned above, journaling, exercising, being in nature, taking care of myself, staying curious and committed to learning and growing has all helped me.

Are there positives that have come from having a mental health condition?       

I always knew I wanted to speak and write, but I had no idea about what (kind of silly I know)! Now I do. So many people don’t feel a purpose or a passion. How fortunate I am that I know what my calling is. Additionally, since I feel with so much vigor, I can love deeply in a way many can’t and I believe giving that love to others is one of my gifts.      

How has your condition impacted your work and your career?

I do think it has been key to my success while also being a distraction. As is true for all, our greatest strengths can also be our challenges. I think fast, speak fast, act fast. I sense and see things before others do. I can alienate people as a result and it can give the perception I’m not focused, I don’t listen, or I’m pushing my own agenda. The range of feelings I can express, recognize, empathize with, positions me to create meaningful connections. My energy can be magnetic but also overwhelming for some. I don’t fit in a nice square box and that has come with consequences. When I’m down, I will avoid people and contribute less. My energy may be noticeably subdued. In the same breath, I work hard to conceal it so most don’t know. Instead, it shows up more at home. 

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

Embrace it. Yes, easier said than done, but it’s possible. Accept it’s with you forever and it’s what makes you you. We all are a mixed bag. There will still be down times, but you have the tools to get through it now. You are not alone. The conversation is rapidly changing. More and more people are sharing their stories Maybe share yours? Even if most don’t live with a chronic condition, they aren’t void of hard emotional times. Shame be gone! You wouldn’t have it with diabetes. You aren’t flawed. You are dynamic.

The world wouldn’t be where it is without hearts and minds like ours (it would also be very dull too. 

What motivated you to join The Stability Network?

When I realized my calling was to tell my story, I decided to be brave and vulnerable. I reached out to my network to learn more about how I could bring more awareness to corporate America, believing mental health conditions are the last frontier of DE&I and must be addressed. By doing so I was introduced to Michelle Tenzyk and the rest is history. It should go without saying that I’m perfectly aligned to the TSN vision and mission. Eventually, I want to focus on advocacy full time. 

What resources (books, videos, websites) have helped and/or inspired you on your journey?

The most impactful book was When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. It enlightened and inspired me to be intentional about living a life of Zen which includes accepting all that I am.

Is there anything else you want to say or share?

It is through sharing our stories that we can create a world where there is no more shame, and access to services becomes easier, research is advanced, treatments improve, policies change, and people’s lives are made better and even spared.