WELLNESS
09/05/2014 08:16 am ET Updated Sep 05, 2014

'This Disease Has A Great Potential To Be Fatal. Fighting Is Important And Very Real'

Jeffrey Thompson via Getty Images

Suzanne Greif, 51, of Athens, Georgia, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 14. This is her story.

When I was 6, my mother was institutionalized. At first they thought it was schizophrenia, but then they figured out it was bipolar. They didn't even have lithium [a common bipolar disorder treatment] back then. People thought something was wrong with me because of my mom. A lot of the stigma I faced I think was fear-based; people just didn't understand.

I went to visit her at the hospital, and I met people who were really interesting. I thought it was pretty cool, actually. Mental illness was just part of the whole landscape when I was growing up.

I was diagnosed when I was about 14 years old. At first, everyone thought it was just "emotional teenager" stuff. I couldn't control my crying. I would get extremely energized and think I could take on the world. All the way through college, in many ways [mania] was an asset.

My senior year of high school, I started drinking. I was invited to a party where there was beer, and after a few drinks I felt like I was fitting in with the cool kids. When I drank, I found the secret to being able to talk with people. Sometimes the mania would get too uncomfortable, so drinking became self-medicating as well. For a long time, none of it seemed to be a problem; I wasn't getting arrested or missing work. I was actually pretty successful.

I went back to college for a second time and started feeling like I didn't really want to drink all the time, and that my partying was maybe more intense than my friends'. But I still didn't really want to quit. It wasn't until I ran into a really, really hard time at work and my body started rejecting the drinking physically that I stopped. I started a 12-step program in 1997. I've had a lot of relapses, but I'm on my second three-year stint of continuous sobriety.

I tried seeking medication when I was in college, but I didn't like the side effects or the idea of taking medication. When I was 31, I started taking Wellbutrin, in my first real committed effort in taking a drug. I was drinking on top of that. When I started getting sober, I also sought out psychiatric help, and they started me on several different medications to treat mania and depression. Over the years, I've been through a lot of different medications, and a few times I think I may have been overmedicated.

I'm back to three medications at a pretty low dose now. I'm still digging my way out of a year-long depression that was by far the most severe and brutal I've experienced to date. I couldn't shower daily, I couldn't cook anymore, I gained about 30 pounds. I think a lot of people may have thought I was drinking again. I continued to see my therapist and psychiatrist, really communicating with them and trying to see what could be done. I was really close to doing electroshock therapy, but the risks seemed to outweigh the benefits. One of the other things that kept me from doing it was I would have had to travel an hour and a half. I was way too weak and tired.

It got really scary to tell people I had mental illness, because I think people don't think you'll be able or competent, especially in work settings. I've been unemployed since 2009. I do a lot of volunteer work around my community. Even when things are really, really bad, there still seems to be things you can be useful doing. I'm starting to look into foster parenting. Maybe some people think you're just not capable of handling certain stresses, but I've worked in some extremely stressful and challenging careers, and I was pretty good at what I did, and I really loved it.

Sometimes I don't feel comfortable asking people for help, because I'm afraid they'll think I'm exaggerating, or that the problem I'm having is because of my mental illness. If something doesn't show up on an X-ray, for example, I don't feel like I get the full attention that other people get because [doctors] look at the medications in my records. I'm afraid of asking for certain types of help because I'm afraid it won't be worth it, or it's going to get the wrong kind of attention.

I think the majority of [people with mental illnesses] really work hard to live with it and want good things out of life, want to succeed, want to have families, do stuff that people without mental illness get to do. But at the same time, it would be nice if people understood that what we're fighting is like other diseases that are more visible. This disease has a great potential to be fatal, and that's scary. Fighting is important and very real. Sometimes people think we're just sad or can't control ourselves or aren't working hard enough, but I don't think people would say that to someone with cancer or in a wheelchair. I've had that frustration with people. I can understand [where they're coming from], but it can make getting well much more difficult, and it can make being sick much more painful.

As told to Sarah Klein. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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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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