Melissa's Bipolar Disorder Story

There have been two things that defined the majority of my life: 
Being mentally ill. 
Being overweight. 

Neither of those things is a desirable predicament but together they are particularly toxic. They tend to feed off of each other in a vicious and hard-to-break cycle. The thing is, no one was ever confused about the fact that I was overweight - it was quite obvious from a very early age. Unfortunately, no one actually knew that I was suffering from a mental illness until I was 26 years old. 

I was officially diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in 2005; but, I had suffered from the effects & symptoms for nearly twenty years before that. From the time I was probably ten years old, I can recall knowing that something was “off” with me. I just had no idea what it was or how to quantify it. Unfortunately, I grew up in a time (the 80’s & 90’s) & a place (the South) & a family environment (I am a “preacher’s kid”) that weren’t exactly conducive to even having a conversation about mental illness - let alone getting a diagnosis and proper care. During one particularly manic episode early on I kept telling my parents that I did not know if what I was saying was “the truth.” I don’t recall exactly what was going on in my head; but, I remember I knew that some of my thoughts were not based in reality. I just lacked the ability to explain (or really understand it) myself. I remember my parents going with me to talk to a family friend (another pastor) who talked about spiritual things I suppose. I recall very little of it except that nothing he said helped. 

The older I got the worse my behaviour became. It is HARD to be a teenager, period. It is exponentially harder to navigate those years when you are in the grip of untreated mental illness. It also did not help that I was under intense pressure to be the “perfect” pastor’s kid, had no real roots or family in the area because we had moved around my whole life, my hormones were out of whack because of PCOS and I had ZERO self-esteem due to being overweight (which was also exacerbated by the PCOS). When I finally reached a breaking point (during what I now realize was a bout of mania), I tried asking for help. I was, once again, taken to a couple of “Christian counsellors” but I never an actual doctor. I don’t recall the counsellors doing much more than talking to me a little (again, about spiritual matters) and praying for me. 

It took me a lot of years to work through my anger with my family over their lack of help & support. But I eventually accepted that they did the best they could with what they knew. I know they wanted to help me and did not want me to suffer in any way. They just lacked the knowledge and tools to address the situation properly. 

I was incredibly lucky to have survived untreated for so long. While I had plenty of manic episodes, the majority of my illness manifested itself in severe depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. I was caught in a vicious cycle where my manic periods would manifest, for instance, in excessive sexual promiscuity paired with a need to find validation and acceptance (mostly due to my weight issues) and then the guilt and shame would take over during depressive periods and lead to overeating, isolation and suicidal ideation. I would go through these destructive cycles over and over and over. Somehow, despite everything, I managed to remain an A student, was my high school’s salutatorian and got a full ride to college. I suppose my perfectionist tendencies (on top of an expectation that I behave a certain way so that I did not embarrass my family in front of the church or community) was both a blessing and a curse. It was why I went untreated for so long but it was also what held me back from the brink. Unsurprisingly, that did not last forever. 

I started college in fall 1998. My freshman year started off okay. But by the end of the first semester, I was living alone because I had waged a campaign to run off my roommate (and succeeded), was in a serious car accident that left me with chronic whiplash and was dumped by the person I (and everyone else) thought I would marry. I returned to school for my sophomore year but right before Christmas break my beloved grandfather suddenly died. I went home after finals and never returned. Over the next couple of years, I lived with & cared for my grandmother (until she, too, passed away). I worked and even started taking classes at a local college where my dad was teaching. I held it together on the surface as much as I could but I was in a tailspin. I had suicidal thoughts constantly, withdrew from social interaction except on the (newly emerging) internet and began displaying the early signs of an eating disorder. Once again I found myself in a toxic mix. It did not take long for me to become obsessed with the “wild west” that was The Internet. Everything in my real life came second to my online life - my escape. Unfortunately, my “escape” also came with toxic “relationships” (one of which only ended after I was forced to listen on the phone as he attempted to shoot himself in the head). Despite the unhealthy state of mind my internet obsession stirred up, I was lucky enough to actually meet some good people online (with whom I still keep in touch). In fact, I met the one person who would end up saving my life. 

In late 2001, despite the fact I was in emotional and mental free fall, I found myself engaged and planning a wedding. While working and taking college classes. And living this whole other life “online.” And spiralling deeper and deeper into debt (my occasional bouts of mania often came with excessive spending sprees). I was putting up a good front (I thought) but I was falling apart. One fateful interaction online brought it all to a tipping point. I met a guy named Shane through a website I was running for a friend. We began talking online and then on the phone. Although I was engaged to someone else, our friendship started turning into something more. One night - as I was adamantly refusing to leave my fiance with whom I had security & familiarity for a chance to maybe have some kind of relationship with a man I had never met face to face - Shane said (in his uncannily nonchalant way) “well marry me then.” Had I been “in my right mind” I am pretty sure I would have laughed at him or hung up. But for reasons known only to the bipolar-ridden mind of a 22-year-old, I said “okay.” I can’t think of very many “good” things that could ever come from unchecked mental illness but, somehow, fate delivered one to me that night. The immediate aftermath wasn’t pretty though. 

I had decided on a whim to agree to marry a stranger! And I did it! I nuked my entire life. I left my family, my friends, my home, my job and my dreams of graduating college behind to move across the country with a guy my mother was convinced would kill me. My parents tried to “talk some sense into me” but it was pointless. I left a lot of scorched earth behind me and ran toward this new life 100 mph. I had started talking to Shane in early 2002 and by June 25th of that year we were married. I was sure it was going to be the answer to all these problems I seemed to have been running from my entire life. And for a while it was. 

But it didn’t take long for my problems to become our problems. I came into marriage saddled with debt and kept adding to it. I was no longer working or taking classes so I shopped, sat around all day playing video games and ate. Because I had been trying (through ED-like behaviour) to trying to lose weight for the wedding to fiance #1, I was actually probably at the lowest weight I had been at in years when Shane & I were first married. But as I sank further into the depressive cycle of isolation, inactivity and overeating again the weight started to pile on. The honeymoon was obviously over. I started working to try and help keep our strained finances above board but I hated my job. On top of that my relationship with my family was in tatters, we were still broke and the only “relief” I could find was… more food. So I ate. I ate by myself. And we ate as a couple. Food became our “thing.” As the pounds piled on the depression deepened even further which made me eat more which deepened the depression… you get the picture. Before I was even thirty years old I had developed high blood pressure. I was also suffering with complications of my chronic whiplash and, obviously, was in a bipolar spiral. 

In 2004, I was working in accounting for a large retail chain when I developed a repetitive motion injury in my right hand. Because it was a worker’s comp situation my already insufferable work environment became pure hell by 2005. Finally, I walked out. We had endured both of us being unemployed at the same time in 2003 and filing for bankruptcy in 2004. But my unceremonious departure from this job in 2005 was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. The next few months were one long, manic episode that ended with lifelong friendships destroyed, our marriage in flames and me cutting myself & contemplating suicide again. One day Shane came home from work and found me in the shower, mostly incoherent and covered in my own blood from repeatedly cutting myself. He called a mental health hotline and, for the first time in my life, someone actually got me help. 

I was admitted to a treatment program and received my actual diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder. Over the next year, I completed treatment and started working with my psychiatrist to find the proper medication combination. I got a new job working for the government and began rebuilding my marriage. Unfortunately, finding the right combo of meds can be tricky and during one period of medication adjustment, I began spiralling again. I was unable to work and was headed for a full-blown manic episode. Thankfully my husband intervened and the doctors were able to stabilize me before I lost yet another job. Even at my best during those first years though, I struggled daily with depression & anxiety. I was still gaining weight and eventually developed Type II diabetes. I was trying to deal with years of self-hatred and shame over my body and guilt over the damage & pain I had caused everyone in my life and it was taking a toll on me. Yet, I was lucky enough to have qualified professionals helping me and blessed enough to have a husband who loved me even through the worst of times. 

The next decade was filled with plenty of highs (like finally finishing that college degree!) but also plenty of lows (like nearly losing my husband to massive blood clots). For the most part, I seemed to be holding steady with my bipolar treatment but physically I was a mess. I just kept getting sicker and more overweight. I was functioning well at work & even advancing but when I was at home I would shut down. I would come home from work and be so physically & mentally exhausted that I would crawl in bed and not get out until time for work again. Obviously, over time it started to affect our already battered marriage. We hung in there, but I think we were both exhausted beyond words by 2015. Thankfully because of some truly amazing people things began to change. 

In April of 2015, some friends at work asked me to attend a Weight Watchers meeting with them. They knew I had been dieting on and off basically my whole life so they thought I might be interested. I walked in full of fear & hesitation. I walked out excited & hopeful. I felt like maybe, for once, I would be able to get my mind & my body both on the same page and actually just feel GOOD. I worked hard over the next three months and was losing quite a bit of weight! It was doing amazing things for my mental state as well. Then in July came another miracle. Shane was offered a job (a promotion) in Atlanta, GA. It would be enough of an increase in his pay that I would no longer need to work unless I wanted to. And more importantly, it would get me closer to my family that I had been separated from for thirteen years. I would finally have a chance to start repairing those precious relationships before it was too late. Things were definitely looking up. 

As we packed up to move I started going through old journals I’d been keeping on and off since childhood. I sat there reading page after page after page that had only one theme: I hated my body & myself. It was line after line of caloric intake or pounds lost or pounds gained or plans for a new diet, etc. Nothing about my life. No memories - good, bad or otherwise. No stories about the places I had travelled or the people I had met. It was just a chronicle of self-inflicted misery. And I got pissed. I was already working on losing weight and getting healthy but at that moment it CLICKED. I shredded every single page and vowed to never look back. I promised myself I would do anything in my power to make sure I not only kept my mental health in check but also my physical health as well. I wasn’t going to let mental illness & disordered eating steal any more of my joy or my memories. 

When we arrived in Atlanta in August of 2015 it was like I got a second chance at life. I am now blessed to be able to spend time working on my mental wellness, my physical wellness and my spiritual wellness on a daily basis. I have lost over 160 pounds of physical weight and incalculable pounds of mental weight. I went from taking four pills a day for hypertension to taking only ½ of one. I was declared diabetes free in 2018. Although I have a ways to go, I have learned how to have a healthier relationship with food and with my own body. And I have done it all while living with Bipolar Disorder. Unlike hypertension or diabetes I know that I will never be free from mental illness. But I’m okay with that. Everyone has something in their life they have to learn to live with. This is mine. By achieving balance in my medications, always working closely with my doctors and now working on my physical health / disordered eating I have been able to find a way to not only live with bipolar but to THRIVE. 

In 2019 I started chronicling my mental & physical journey to wellness on Instagram & Facebook. It is my first step toward finding a way to use my struggle to strengthen others. I’m not sure exactly where I’m headed on this new, exciting journey just yet! But I know I want to do my part to help others not suffer from the effects of being overweight & unhealthy like I did. And I want to show people who have a mental illness that there IS life beyond that diagnosis. I know, firsthand, how hard it is to find the energy and focus to work on being fit and healthy when you also struggle with something like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or any other mental/neurological condition. But I also know that hard does NOT equal impossible. I am living proof! 

I recently celebrated one of my “journey to better health” milestones by getting my first tattoo. I chose one that represents a mantra often repeated by the late, great Pat Summitt: “Right foot. Left foot. Breathe. Repeat.” That is the secret to ANY battle you find yourself in: just keep going. 

One step at a time. 
One breathe at a time. 
Always keep fighting. 

ALWAYS.

1 comment

Mary Alice

This is a great testimony for others who struggle. I work mental health with the homeless population. I see many people who have been “thrown away”. There is always hope. There is always a time for change.

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