HEALTHY LIVING

How Realizing Her Bipolar Was A Medical Condition -- And Not A Spiritual Failing -- Helped This Woman Heal

09/02/2014 08:26 am ET | Updated Sep 02, 2014
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This is the story of Holly S., of Atlanta, Georgia, and her experience with bipolar II disorder.

My whole world growing up was Southern Baptist. My parents were missionaries. My father had a Ph.D. in nuclear physics and was on staff at Georgia Tech University and my mom was an interior designer, so they both left very successful careers to go into full-time Christian work. I'm the youngest of six, and was raised in a Christian home where we ate, slept and breathed the Bible, God, Christianity, church and the whole culture. My culture was that. I'm not knocking it, but I didn't know anything else from that.

The first time I experienced depression was in my early 20s. When the onset of it happened, I didn't know any better except to go to what I'd been taught in terms of the solution. I thought, "Oh, I need to pray more? I can do that. I need to fast? That's discipline, I can do that." But it never went away.

So I up and left Atlanta, saying, "I'm sick of the South, I'm going to move to New York." Some would say that that was a bit of a manic episode, but I ended up moving to Manhattan. I was very successful in sales, working for a Fortune 500 company. I had never been in sales before and had never worked from home before, but I was determined to do it. Some would say all this was a bit of mania, but I was successful -- I didn't do anything crazy, but every single night for five years, I cried. I didn't take any medication. I just prayed. It never occurred to me that I was sick. I wasn't doing anything destructive, so there wasn't any indication that something was wrong.

When I was still with that same company, a girlfriend of mine said, "There's rust in your brain if you're thinking one way all the time for years." And I thought, that's interesting. It never occurred to me -- I always thought, "It's a spiritual problem, and I'm sure it can be addressed by prayer." But in her casual comment, I went to see a psychiatrist. I had just quit my job, which was another manic thing, because I was so depressed working from home for five years. I thought, "I don't care how much money I make, I'm going to be a waitress or an actor" -- and this was a little bit manic as well. So I did go to a psychiatrist, and he said I was probably hypomanic. I didn't really know what that was, but my story resonated enough for the doctor to say, "Yeah, something's a little off here." So they prescribed me medication.

The medication I was on left me feeling drugged. And I was not doing any therapy, because I couldn't really afford it. And then 9/11 happened. I had always wanted to be in broadcast journalism, and when 9/11 happened, I said to myself, "You know what, I'm poor, I'm not making any money, I'm not going to be an actor, so I'm going to be a TV reporter." And just like my success before, I got myself a TV job on air in Savannah, Georgia. So by Halloween 2001, I had a new job in TV in Savannah. By this time, I wasn't taking any medication at all, which is typical of bipolar. I didn't have any accountability in my life.

I moved to Savannah and was pretty successful in TV, doing that for about three-and-a-half years. I met a guy, who turned out to be my husband, and that was interesting because I had been pretty aloof from men in general. I never really dated that much because I didn't feel like I had that much chemistry with other Christians. But then I met Tom -- and we had a fiery, stormy relationship for three-and-a-half years, basically the entire time I was employed in TV. We dated on and off, and as part of my illness, I was constantly breaking up with him. At this point, I was still not receiving any care -- no medicine, nothing.

He eventually asked me to marry him -- not just once, but two times. The second time, I agreed. We had a six-month engagement that I broke up -- literally, with no exaggeration -- probably 10 times, with all the intensity as I could muster. During that engagement period, we were also seeing his third cousin, who worked at a church, for premarital counseling. He discovered I was breaking off the engagement every two weeks, and he said, "You know what, there's someone you need to see." It was a renowned psychiatrist in the area, who has thousands of patients, who you can never get in to see. I was only in Atlanta for three days, but he had an available appointment and he was taking patients. This was 10 years ago. I went to see the psychiatrist, who did say, "You're depressed." We did a lot of drug therapy. And I did proceed to marry Tom. But life only got worse.

I was seeing this doctor, at this point, once or twice a week to get medication. Meanwhile, I was also trying to see a counselor on the side because all my psychoses and energy was channeled toward and against my husband. It was hell. I got violent toward him -- fist fights, slaps and claws. And then on New Year's Eve of 2004, I got so violent that my husband called my psychiatrist and told him, "My wife's out of control." So he prescribed something that totally knocked me out -- I couldn't even get out of bed. So when I went back to see my doctor, I said, "That medicine really knocked me out." And he said, "Exactly."

That's when I got the diagnosis of bipolar II disorder. I asked my doctor, "Was I just not a clear-cut case?" He told me, "Most doctors would've misdiagnosed you as just having depression. It's a serious label to put on someone, Holly. And if I was going to call you bipolar, according to the DSM-IV definition, you better have it." So he diagnosed me in January 2005 with bipolar, and then began a very long journey of trying out 10 different medications, just trying to figure out which one worked best with side effects and all that. So I wasn't really stable -- the best medication I got was lithium, the last resort. The lithium really worked. Before taking that medication, I wasn't stable -- I was mad as hell at my husband for who knows what reason, and I even ended up in jail one night because I slugged him. I was very violent. I never used a weapon or anything like that, but I did go to jail for one night.

I guess the net of my story is that I had to try several solutions. It wasn't just medication. Was it part of it? Absolutely. But it was also emotional -- I also learned a method for emotional releasing. And then there was the spiritual part. For years, I was just functioning, but miserable on the inside. It really only manifested when I got into an intimate relationship with someone who turned out to be my husband. I even had a suicide attempt, about two weeks after we got married. That was still when I hadn't been getting the proper medication.

I wanted to have a baby. Once I had gotten settled on lithium, Tom and I had been married for probably four years, by that time. When I told my doctor I wanted to have a baby, he put me on Abilify and Prozac [Lithium is associated with a small birth defect risk], and that was the magic cocktail.

I tried to have a baby after two years, and was declared to have unexplained infertility. I went to a doctor who did the emotional release method (QNRT) on me, and I conceived 10 days later. My son is healthy, and we actually had another baby after that, so now I have two healthy boys.

Now, I'm only on the Abilify and Prozac, and still see my psychiatrist -- but I only have to see him once a year now, whereas before I was seeing him once or twice a week for two years.

I don't blame my parents -- they loved me and were awesome in their own way -- but growing up with bipolar, I thought, "This is just demonic, I need to pray away the demons." And I just wasn't getting better, no matter what I did. Someone had to basically hold me -- like you'd hold a little child's face in your hands when you're trying to get their attention -- when I was 38 years of age, and say, "You are bipolar. This is an illness."

I am a Christian, and I do believe in Christ, I've got faith. And in some ways, you can say that God is the one who gave the doctors the belief and ability to diagnose me. I do believe that. But there can also be such a shame in Christiandom, that I think keeps people locked up in bondage. They're enslaved to an illness or enslaved to their own shame, and it doesn't have to be that way. I'm living proof.

If I had any advice for people who are going through what I went through, I'll use the words of Kay Jamison, who said in The New York Times, to get competent help. And by that, I don't mean go to your personal care physician or gynecologist, who can prescribe you meds. But go to a competent psychiatrist and counselor who who can respect your faith at the same time as understanding that you really do have a medical illness.

I had to have my thyroid taken out because of a carcinoma, and now I take medication for that every day. Do I have shame about that? No, because it's my thyroid. But mental illness is no different from having a heart illness or a thyroid condition.

As told to Amanda Chan. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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