Thank you, Lianne Sauvage, for inviting me to share my mental health journey at Belmont High School’s Mental Health Assembly!
For my speech, I adapted content from My Bipolar Thoughts, my memoir work-in-progress. The speech was scheduled for 25 minutes!
I plan to refine these speaking notes and use them again for future speaking engagements:
My Mental Health Journey
- When my parents introduced me as a child, they always said, “Kitt is going to go to Harvard medical school and become a doctor when she grows up.”
- High school, I aspired to become a brain surgeon. Total overachiever. Medical Explorer Scout. Emergency Medical Technician training. Active on campus. Drama geek. School newspaper. High GPA.
- Applied to colleges with the highest acceptance rates into medical school.
- Didn’t get into any of those schools.
- Receiving rejection letter after rejection letter hit me hard.
- I had always been told I could go to school anywhere I wanted and could do anything I wanted. Wrong.
- Instead of attending an East Coast Ivy League school, I started my freshman year at UCLA as a biochemistry major.
- Letter from UCLA saying I had to take remedial summer courses since my SAT scores totaled under 700.
- Back in the 80’s the math portion totaled 800, the verbal portion 800. My math score alone was 720 (yes, I was once a math geek).
- Apparently, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) incorrectly reported my scores to UCLA.
- When I showed UCLA my SAT scores, not only did I not have to do remedial work, but I was eligible for College Honors, in which I became active as a freshman.
- As a freshman at UCLA I fell into a deep depression,
- believing that my parents, my sister, the whole world would be better off without me alive.
- When I told my friends of my suicidal thoughts, they made me promise to get professional help.
- I saw a UCLA psychologist whose cognitive therapy, which works on rewriting your thoughts, helped me with my suicidal thoughts.
- Still, my underlying mental illness remained.
- Very active on campus, I volunteered in UCLA Medical Center’s emergency room, participated in College Honors’ Social Committee (glorified party planner), and trained as a peer health counselor.
- For all but my closest friends, I hid behind a mask of competency, social skills, and overachievement.
- But I was miserable and wanted to get quit.
- The August before my sophomore year I came down with mononucleosis and used that as an excuse to quit UCLA.
- For the next year and a half, I visited family and friends, worked part-time, and attended community college part-time.
- Then, I transferred to UC Berkeley as a legal studies major, an interdisciplinary program I loved.
- During my junior year at Berkeley, symptoms of depression returned.
- My mother was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I was devastated to learn of my mother’s diagnosis. At the time, studies indicated a five-year prognosis, that she would die in five years. She’s still alive thirty-five years later thanks to clinical trials at UC rival USC Keck School of Medicine.
- That same academic year, my maternal grandfather died. My grandfather always held a special place in my heart. He was a kindred spirit as a gifted orator (I’ve always loved the stage) and storyteller (here I am telling you my story). When he died, it hit me particularly hard. My mother’s family asked me to give his eulogy, which was a huge honor. In speaking at his memorial mass, I was carrying on his legacy.
- On my way home from the funeral, as I was driving over the San Francisco Bay Bridge, I fell into a trance state.
- I felt a tingling all over my body, an energy pushing out, and a warm cleansing energy replacing it. The fact that I was driving over a bridge at the time disturbed me. At the time it seemed safer to continue off the bridge than stop on the bridge in the middle of traffic.
- Now, I see that experience as a euphoric state of hypomania. At the time, given my history of depression, I knew if I went to a mental health professional and described the experience, they would diagnose me with a mental illness. But I found the experience meaningful, as somehow related to my grandfather’s death, and did not want the meaning dismissed.
- Having graduated from Berkeley as a legal studies major, my first profession was as a legal assistant in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Working twelve-hour days six days a week, I crashed after a year on the job. What looked like over-achievement was a symptom of unrecognized, undiagnosed hypomania that came with a steep cost – my mental health and stability.
- After working two years as a legal assistant, I quit, took time off, and applied for graduate school in psychology. While in graduate school, I worked as an administrator at a battered women’s shelter and completed my field placement doing play therapy with severely emotionally disturbed children in day treatment.
- I got my master’s in psychology and became a licensed therapist. I worked with pregnant and parenting teens and severely emotionally disturbed adolescents in residential and day treatment.
- Though my career as a psychotherapist was short-lived, only five years from ages twenty-five to thirty, it influenced how I think about mental health. My understanding is colored by both my experience living with depression and bipolar disorder and treating others living with mental health issues.
- At thirty, my grandmother died, a dear friend from high school died, and a client threatened to rape me during session. I had a complete major depressive breakdown and found myself unable to get up out of bed and return to work. For the first time, I sought medical help for depression, seeing my regular doctor and then a psychiatrist for medication. Up until then, I had managed my depression with psychotherapy alone.
- Rapid changes in prescribed antidepressant medications triggered mania. I ended up spending a week awake, thinking simultaneously at rapid speed in binary with ones and zeroes streaming through my head like I was a computer, about chaos theory, and about mystic saints. At the time, I wished that there had been a way to record my thoughts, so later I could decipher them and see if any made sense.
- Though I clearly had a manic episode, I was not diagnosed bipolar at the time. Those who knew me then find this fact shocking. Since the episode was likely precipitated by antidepressants, I was not prescribed a mood stabilizer. My psychiatrist prescribed a three-day regime of antipsychotics which stopped the racing thoughts in their track and allowed me to sleep, which I needed.
- After the manic episode, I was unable to function on my own. I would fall asleep driving to my temporary job. When at work, I couldn’t even read. The words were all jumbled. I appeared competent. No one could see that I, a highly educated and articulate former professional woman, COULD NOT EVEN READ A SENTENCE.
- To my parents’ home and care I returned. They were supportive and encouraged my recovery. While living with my them, I received psychiatric treatment and psychotherapy. My new psychiatrist carefully administered an antidepressant, slowly increasing my dose. I remained stable on a low dose of antidepressant for almost a decade.
- Once I was up for it, I returned to work, starting as a temporary file clerk for a commercial real estate firm. What followed was a decade long career in commercial real estate. It was a welcome change, not emotionally draining as helping severely emotionally disturbed youth, and it used my analytic and problem-solving skills.
- Still, I continued my pattern of overdoing it, working long hours and neglecting myself, leading to repeated burn out and cyclical depression. As a result, my résumé lists numerous short stints at various jobs — shooting high, crashing hard — time and again.
- Soon after moving back home and starting work as a temporary file clerk, I met my future husband. Three years after we met, we married and later had a son. I found being home with an infant difficult. At the same time, I found being at work, away from him, heart-breaking.
- Depression during pregnancy and after pregnancy poses risks to both the infant and the mother. With my doctor’s blessing, I took an antidepressant when I was pregnant and nursed my son.
- After my son was born, I returned to the workplace part-time. My job consumed more and more of my time. I went from working two days a week to four days a week until 7PM. At that point, I decided to quit work and stay home with him.
- Staying home with my son full-time lasted a year and a half. Then symptoms of hypomania returned. I thought that God was calling to one church for spiritual direction and another church for bible study. Though going to church wasn’t “bad” for me, I recognized the feeling of religious euphoria as hypomania.
- To be a good mother to my son, I sought treatment for symptoms of bipolar. Finally, at the age of thirty-nine, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 2.
- Fearing that I was now an unfit mother, I proceeded to put my son in daycare and reenter the workforce.
- Once my diagnosis changed from depression to bipolar, my internalized stigma reared its head. As a clinician, I knew bipolar is considered a serious progressive mental illness. I believed that I could be a danger to my son and he’d be better off in the care of someone else.
- I was wrong. I was the same person before and after the diagnosis. The only change was my treatment. Instead of only taking an antidepressant, now I was also taking a mood stabilizer.
- Despite the challenges of bipolar disorder, and those challenges are real, I’m a good mother. I work hard to be a good mother.
- Keeping with my history of hypomanic workaholism, I worked increasingly long hours until I once again fell apart. I broke down crying in the parking lot at the office and found myself unable to pull myself back together and return to work. To get myself stable, I had myself voluntarily hospitalized when my son was four and haven’t returned to work since.
- For me, acceptance has been an ongoing process. I’ve overcome denial and internalized stigma about what it means to live with bipolar disorder. I’ve owning my diagnosis and allowing others in to help me.
- I had been a high achiever, a perfectionist. Accepting that I have a mental illness involves accepting myself as broken, as imperfect, as fallible, as human.
- That acceptance has allowed me to forgive myself for not living up to early life expectations. I never became a doctor or a lawyer.
- But I did get my bachelors, a master’s in psychology, and much later even attended graduate school studying religion twice after my psychiatric hospitalization.
- Given my history of mental illness, I’ve questioned my sense of calling, of having a higher purpose. My mental health journey has led to purposeful mental health advocacy.
- I am not weak. I am vulnerable. There is strength is being vulnerable. I accept that I’m not perfect and flawless. I am loved, lovable, and loving the way I am. My life has meaning.
- My life experience gives me purpose in helping others. I am grateful that I can speak and write to share my journey with others, hoping that it inspires others to accept themselves and others living with mental health issues and to get help if they need it.
- Thank you.