“I’ll never hold anything in. Ever again.” These 7 words shook me as I faced a reality I wasn’t yet ready to share. Since 2015 I’ve lived my life fairly publicly as compared to most. When I faced a major event I posted about it, talked about it and openly shared my journey of reconciling whether it was a gift or a lesson. This included going through a divorce and publicly apologizing and taking accountability for my mistakes to finding myself homeless leaving a hospital with a baby in my arms at 40 years old. In 2017 I started recording what I called “Mirror Conversations.” These Facebook live videos were simply me putting on my make up for the day while sharing what was going through my mind and through my heart. Initially I started sharing them so I could go back and watch them. And because I had found myself wading through cycles of depression. One thing I noticed was that when I was depressed, I showered less. So these mirror conversations were a way to inspire me to shower and share. I thought I might be able to use these reflections as guide posts for signals of what was to come in my future or what lessons I needed to learn. But within a few months, I grew tired of watching myself and continued recording because when I didn’t I’d get a private message from someone telling me how much they looked forward to them or saying a particular video had just helped them through a tough time.
I have always had an innate ability to walk into my fear and learn the lesson, publicly with humility. In the early days of this, it helped that I genuinely didn’t care what anyone else thought of me. I was powered by confidence with a slight hint of arrogance. My core belief system was that I was here on this planet to be an example of what could become of human potential. And I lived my life in accordance with actions that aligned with that even when it felt uncomfortable or might come with a dose of humble pie. I love the journey of life and have always known that somehow I would make it to the other side of whatever was in front of me. As Glennon Doyle says, “If we stopped being so afraid of pain, we would find our power.” So you can imagine my surprise when for the first time in my life I sat with a truth I could not escape AND I wanted to hide.
“I have bipolar disorder.” I had to try the words on for size as I looked myself in the mirror. Could I speak them and love them at the same time? Could I love the me that was speaking them? Was there a gift in this diagnosis? Or would it somehow become a lesson I would one day look back on with gratitude? “I have bipolar disorder.” I uttered the words again hoping they would loose their charge. The truth is I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder a year prior. I had experienced a manic episode that was so intense I had completely lost touch with reality…with my reality. I felt like I was being controlled by an entity that thrived on my fear and reveled in my sorrow. As every trauma I’d experienced in my lifetime flashed before my eyes my body ran room to room in a sheer panic creating sorting games of things that in some dimension held meaning to something I couldn’t explain. Every emotion I felt was so intense that every hair on my body stood on end and my body shuddered and shook through the emotion. Every once in awhile I would find my way back into the controller seat and say the same 6 words, “I’m using all of my tools. I’m using all of my tools.”
A meager attempt to signal to my family that the “I” they knew was still inside there, somewhere attempting to find her way out. That night ended with me in a locked room in the ER passed out on the floor after they had forcefully shoved two needles in my leg. Diagnosis. Bipolar disorder. The next day I was released with no discussion or explanation of the diagnosis and given a follow up appointment with a psychiatrist. An appointment where I was handed a prescription and told, “don’t come back until you’ve been on these for at least 2 weeks.” No discussion about what the diagnosis was, how it fit what I had experienced or empathy to lessen the blow of a label that lasts a lifetime and is covered in humanity’s shame. My shame.
I left that appointment and never came back. That next year was one of the most difficult years of my life. Somewhere inside of me I found the strength to get out of a toxic relationship, negotiate a custody agreement for my now 2 year old son, move into a new house, find a new Executive position at a company I love and finally align my work with my passions. The episode became a distant memory, as life continued on and I learned how to thrive in my newly created reality. I was on top of the world. It was New Year’s Eve and I was in a retreat cabin with my best friend, Jessie, a shaman we trust, and a stunning view. This gift of spiritual space had become one of my wellness tools and this weekend was the best one yet. There were moments of laughter, tears and friendship that goes beyond words. And there was a lot of healing. I felt the pressure valve release. And then in a moment of meditation the words, “It’s not time to panic. But it IS time to prepare.” came through. I saw visions of stocking up on food, medical supplies and hiking for 100 miles with my children in tow.
A piece of my feminine intuition that I knew I would be unable to explain to others. These premonitions or strokes of intuition had become a part of my daily life, but this one was different. It was intentional. And it was precise. So we listened. In January, we started doubling up on non-perishable food items, ordered 250 N-95 masks when we saw Coronavirus overwhelm China and even packed bug out bags in case that 100 mile hike became a reality. At work, I pulled our executive team together and we started asking ourselves questions like, “how can we make our companies anti-fragile if there were a war, an economic depression or the electrical grid went down?” And we charted out our answers, formulating mini contingency plans and moves we could make to move to offense and protect everyone’s jobs, no matter what would come our way. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with intuition.
And then COVID-19 hit the United States. By March it was clear we were living in a very different reality. One where we were relegated to working at home with daycares and schools closed and people were scared to leave their homes. Every public venue was closed. The virus was spreading from state to state. The economy was in a nose dive. The pressure to give it all at the office and at home combined with no self care started to take its toll. I was working in my bedroom, an area I typically kept free from electronics. The equipment to support my job just kept rolling in and being integrated into a space I once knew as sacred was being invaded. My 2 year old son was home being watched by my Mother and his 9 year old sister was being homeschooled by her Father who was also trying to balance the demands of work and home.
It was almost a month before my 2 year old settled in and stopped coming to my bedroom door barging into a meeting or crying at the door, not understanding why his Mom couldn’t entertain him when she was home like she always did. April passed. Then May. By this time it’s clear our lives will never be the same. Working from home had set in. Daycares started re-opening with caution and caring for the children of emergency workers who were on the frontlines of a war we never expected. A war against humanity’s way of life. Entire industries were getting decimated; restaurants, movie theaters, concerts, theme parks and all things fun were closed for business, no end in sight. Gathering in public a distant memory. The number of unemployed workers continued to rise first in millions and then in the tens of millions as cash ran out and entrepreneurs waited in bated breath hoping the government would send them a life preserver.
By this point, my job had become my life. Thinking about anything other than ensuring all of our proverbial sailboats stayed afloat felt gratuitous. My mind had taken over calculating variables, potential outcomes and strategies to save people’s jobs and emerge from this war stronger, not weaker. My role as a market strategist and being able to spot trends became all-consuming. Our executive team laid down its priorities and it was clear that I had a major role in helping the company get off of defense. We drew up our plans to force an industry turnover and make a single hail Mary pass that would ensure that no matter what else happened we would be at the head of the pack. And it was working. Everything was working. So well that the volume of work was increasing while our team’s resources were flat. Grateful to have jobs and to keep my team employed we plowed through knowing that every decision counted and every move mattered. And we watched as 20 million people lost their jobs all around United States. And then George Floyd was murdered. Tensions around the country flared as we found ourselves in a new civil rights war. A war to fight for the value of human life and our right to do more than survive.
Then June hit. The protests were in full force and every Executive in the world found themselves trying to navigate a completely unpredictable business climate, uncertainty over repayment terms for the PPP loans that were supposed to bail them out, a shift to all remote work in weeks instead of years and a requirement to make a statement and commitment to preserving human rights and human life. It’s a level of complexity that would make any sane person’s head spin. And for me, it was all adding up. Anxiety was crawling into the corners and hiding under the surface of the smile that crossed my face. Sleep had become a fading memory as my mind was set to overdrive calculating every probability, reviewing every decision and making sure I hadn’t missed something.
By June 7th I was in on an emotional high riding the waves of everything continuing to click, continuing to work and a future that looked more bright than bleak. I was surprised I was doing so well considering all of my usual wellness tools were no longer available; no gym, no sauna, no massage. Nature walks, evenings spent on my deck, enjoying my newly planted container garden and an occasional sunset. I felt incredible. But I wasn’t sleeping. The tossing and turning had been replaced by long nights staring at my ceiling and meditating to get some form of rest even when my body wouldn’t allow it.
Then a break through happened. Our corporate strategy was showing promise. And the endless possibilities were laid out before us allowing us to choose our own adventure and begin to shape the future of an industry that was ripe for transformation. Market pressures had accelerated our customer’s best laid plans and it was clear our help was needed to face what was coming their way. I found myself dancing on a tight rope, no net required. I had never felt better.
Until I didn’t. On June 12th it all hit me at once. 5 days of no sleep. Self care plans that had crumbled under the pressure. The fear of making a mistake and the anxiety of an unknown future. There was so much energy running through my body I couldn’t sit still. I had to keep moving, keep talking, keep writing. Something, anything to express what was welling up in my body and demanding to be let out. The fear took over as I saw all of our systems of control combined with an inability to guarantee our privacy. I was beyond fight, flight or freeze. I was in panic mode. Only I wasn’t alone. I was in a meeting with my CEO and I was no longer the one in control. The panic took over and my consciousness rested in to the observer seat. Watching as I explained what was important to me and why I feared what was happening all around us. A world that was out of my control. A mind that wouldn’t stop. Emotions that held me in their paralyzing grip.
This time, it had gone too far. This thing that was controlling me had entered my life and was interfering with the things that mattered to me most. The threats over taking my children from me, words uttered by my children’s Fathers on more than one occasion as they attempted to weaponized my mental health in court, long before I had a mental health diagnosis. What would happen if I actually did? Would accepting a diagnosis give them the weapon they had tried to wield against me with the power it needed to strike a final blow? My mind calculated scenario after scenario. What would become of my career? I’m an Executive. I’m responsible for leading a company, leading a team and being an example of getting life RIGHT. Was I nothing more than a fraud? Pretending to have emotional intelligence while suffering from mental illness? How could my team and co-workers respect me if I accepted a label with decades of corporate taboo? How would I repair the damage I had done?
I started to list out all the symptoms that I was experiencing during the episode. I started to list out all of the conditions I had created for myself before I would feel safe to seek treatment. One by one until 38 things were on a list so I would know if this was ever happening again. And then I went into self care mode. I took a week off of work and stared at the ocean while making appointments to understand what had happened and how I could be sure it would never happen again. This time, I got a referral to a psychiatrist my doctor said I could trust. And then I surrendered. I surrendered that whatever it was…IT WAS and there was no way of getting around it. I had to face it. I had to own it. And I had to find a way to love myself, more, not less in the face of it.
Two days later I was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder. The psychiatrist walked through everything that had happened and explained how it aligned to the common symptoms of others who had experiences like me. She explained that the serotonin imbalance I had been experiencing after the minor strokes I had in 2014 and 2015 isn’t uncommon and likely led to these episodes. Finally, she explained that the most reliable way to correct the serotonin imbalance that was causing my symptoms is with medication. A medication that would not numb me, but would help me with sleep and ensure I didn’t end back up on the intense roller coaster of emotions I had been experiencing for the last 6 years.
She handed me two prescriptions and told me she wanted to see me the following week to make sure they were working. I filled the prescriptions and that night I began the journey of coming to terms with being diagnosed with Bipolar disorder. As the medicine entered my blood stream and my mind slowed down I was able to see a future that contained an even greater me, an even healthier me. A me that had found her way to her peaceful center and regained balance in her life. A me who stopped carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders and learned only to pick up on what she could carry. A me who slept through the night and woke up inspired and energized for life. A me who wasn’t afraid of her diagnosis and instead recognized that in order to heal she needed to know what she was healing.
But I was still silent. I told no one of what had happened other than family. I started to look at all of the things the word “Bipolar” had meant to me in the past. Crazy. Mentally ill. Uncurable. Words I had heard others use to describe their friends and family who shared my diagnosis. Out there. Loser. Then I looked myself in the mirror and said, “”I’ll never hide anything. Ever again. Not even this.” I could not, would not hide in shame as I sought treatment for a disorder I have no control over. It found it’s way to me, I certainly didn’t go out seeking it. I knew I had to find the strength and courage to HAVE the conversation. To tell people about my diagnosis and feel empowered when I did. Hiding in shame would be far worse than telling the truth. And so I did. I started with my team at work. Sharing that I had been diagnosed and that I was grateful to find a combination of medications that support me. I found a way to move past the episode with my CEO whose empathy and commitment to me goes beyond any leader I’ve ever experienced. I told my media firm that I was willing to go to go public with my story.
And then I created this site. There are 792 million people around the world living with a mental health diagnosis according to Our World in Data. I am not alone. WE are not alone. I realized that by telling my story I could offer perspective on what it’s like to live with Bipolar disorder, what it’s like to lead with Bipolar disorder and what it’s like to Mother with Bipolar disorder. But I could also do something else even more important. I could give mental health a voice in the workplace. I could give it a face in the workplace. And if I could be brave I could help remove the stigma attached to mental health labels. I could help leaders learn how to lead with emotional intelligence and create safe space for emotions in the workplace. And maybe I could create a runway for people to feel safe sharing their own diagnoses at home, at work and in their communities. And maybe, just maybe they could be met with open hearts and open arms by the people they told.
Getting diagnosed with Bipolar disorder is the beginning of the next chapter in my journey. But it certainly isn’t the end of my story; Malcom X said it best, “when I is replaced by we, even illness becomes wellness.”
Thank you for joining me for an entertaining truth in my journey to mental wellness.