I wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar until I was 52 years old and it was difficult for me to accept my diagnosis. I always thought that I was immune to mental health issues; I knew they existed but I never thought they would radically affect my life as they have. I didn’t accept my diagnosis initially because of the stigma that surrounds mental health and the ridicule I expected once I admitted I was bipolar. However, I felt like I was living in hell before I accepted my diagnosis; I would spend days in my bed crying, I had a heart attack, and it was very hard for my family, especially my kids. I ended up losing everything and my family lived through this with me. It ended with me having a nervous breakdown. Once I accepted that I was sick, it was the first step towards wellness and recovery. Nothing helped me until I accepted the fact that I needed help.
By trade, I’m actually an entrepreneur and, before I was diagnosed, I was living what many people consider the American Dream. However, no one could pay me enough to go back to that time. I have had 4 successful companies, but mental health is more fulfilling than any of the companies that I built. Even though I’m not as rich, in a monetary sense, I feel that I’m richer now than I was when I actually had lots of money, because I’m not going through depression or major anxiety right now. I still run a company but I also have a practice and moderate Facebook groups about mental health. I have put a lot of time into mental health, and my strength is my experience; what I’ve lived through and the people and the organizations that helped me get to where I am.
I suspect that my bipolar disorder was passed on to me from my Dad. My Dad was in 5 different concentration camps during the Holocaust and, at the age of 7, his whole family was killed. He only had my Mom and his kids until he passed away. I can only imagine the pain he was living in and he never showed it. I feel, because it’s a genetic disorder, he could have given it to me, I don’t blame him, but from the age of 6, I could have been bipolar and not known.
I found out about NAMI from another mental health organization, The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA). After I got out of an intensive outpatient program, I did not want to stop seeking support, so I would attend DBSA support groups three times a week, religiously. I eventually became a facilitator for these support groups and some of the participants mentioned NAMI to me. As soon as I heard of another mental health organization, I clung on to it. Now, I’m a NAMI In Our Own Voice (IOOV) presenter and when I speak I try to get people to think for themselves and say ‘I want to recover’ because I can’t tell them to recover. They need to commit to themselves in order to start a journey to wellness and recovery. I also reiterate the fact that it takes pain to recover; my pain was doing things that were almost difficult and doing them anyways, consistently and every day. I still do them today, because I know if I didn’t take the pain, I would not recover and earn my pleasures which are wellness and recovery. I’m not saying that anything will happen for people who follow my way, but I set the foundation and what really stays close to my heart is that there is a pattern that we all carry to recovery and it’s a structure.
I love speaking in front of people and sharing my story. Besides being a NAMI IOOV presenter, I’ll also be on a TEDx stage talking on mental health challenges and the stigma that resonates worldwide. I can relate to people in my audience because everyone’s stories are different but the feelings and emotions are probably very similar to the feelings and emotions that I felt. It’s a very powerful moment because as I’m giving them hope, they’re giving me hope. I consider myself a teacher and a student at the same time. I speak in front of people selflessly and selfishly because I’m doing it for them, but I’m also doing it for me so that I keep myself in front of my disease. I feel that if I didn’t do it selfishly, I couldn’t give anyone else anything. If I don’t have love in me, I can’t give love. If I don’t have energy in me, I can’t give energy. You can’t give what you don’t have.
I think my purpose in life is to get rid of the stigma that surrounds mental health, worldwide. Mental health is no different than cancer, lung disease, or diabetes. It’s actually bigger than all three combined because of the fear and stigmas that exist behind mental health. One of the things that I would like to see changed is awareness. If people could just listen to others without judgement, that would be a huge accomplishment. There’s no shame or guilt having a mental health disorder, but the stigma and bias shame all of us. We are all imperfectly perfect. I didn’t ask for this, but, the funny thing about disease is that it doesn’t discriminate. No one is immune to mental health issues. Being bipolar is not a sentence behind jail. It’s not the depletion of your life. It’s not living in mediocrity. It’s not settling for the worst lifestyle you could live. Being bipolar is an opportunity to give back to the world, to help people, and there is recovery, resurrection, and salvation within it.