When I was a teenager, I would frequently remind myself not to be like my mother. My developing brain could not make sense of her behavior, which I would come to learn was actually bouts of hypomania, anxiety and depression. Even when she reached a crisis point and expressed suicidal ideation, I didn’t quite understand what she was experiencing. This was so out of character for her and incredibly disorienting for me, so it felt like my mom had turned into a troubled stranger.
A decade later, I would reach my own psychiatric crisis with mania, psychosis and depression. This experience forced me to understand what I couldn’t as a teenager. It unearthed the voice — sometimes quiet and sometimes loud — of mental illness.
The Onset Of My Mental Illness
When I was 19, I graduated from college with a degree in psychology. Starting a full-time job three days after graduation did not seem like too much to handle at the time, but it certainly was.
I started getting an avalanche of ideas that I imagined would radically improve the small company I was working for. I would wake up in the middle of the night fully energized to send emails and write things down without realizing how much friction I was creating. These whispers of warning signs didn’t raise a red flag for me because the mania felt so rewarding.
However, my mental illness escalated from whispers to shouts after I got fired from this job that was too much too soon. My family took me to a psychiatrist at the mental health clinic where my mom received treatment, and there I was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder. In my confusion and frustration, I believed my family was against me. I also believed that the psychiatrist was monitoring my every move by tracking my smart watch and conspiring with my neighbors. My psychosis had convinced me that he was madly in love with me and wanting to avoid a lawsuit for malpractice.
I can’t recall the point when a clinician told me I had bipolar I disorder. I remember talking with my doctor to express my many frustrations. I also remember having a lucid moment when my dad explained my diagnosis. He was incredibly compassionate during that conversation; he understood the disease because of my mom, and he knew to approach the subject delicately. When the mania returned, however, I felt like I had to prove my father wrong. The shouts of a mental illness are resounding when reality is too heavy for us to deal with.
Getting On The Right Path
Being hospitalized twice in less than a month (and, as a result, having frequent contact with patients who were also suffering from mental illness) helped me get on a path to recovery. I’d hear from peers that had been recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder and started treatment, and I’d listen to stories from those that stopped treatment and needed to restart intensive treatment. I’d also met people who had been in treatment for many years and created beautiful lives with children, serving the community and traveling. Hearing all these stories helped me realize that I can overcome and thrive — it gave me hope that things can get better no matter how awful they seem.
I also embraced techniques from interpersonal and social rhythm therapy, which centers on approaching life 24 hours at a time, with a routine for daily activities while also sustaining healthy interactions with a support system. True recovery from my mental illness has taken a village and persistence with maintaining my balanced rhythm.
My family’s involvement has also assisted me in my recovery. My parents will often ask me, “Where are we on a scale from one to 10?” with one meaning crisis and 10 meaning euthymia (wellness), which nudges me to be honest, self-aware and to rely on them when needed.
Creating The Silver Lining
Losing my mental health as I knew it before the onset of bipolar disorder involved grieving. Accepting the reality of my diagnosis after denial, anger and depression took time. I refused to take psychotropic medication when my mental illness was shouting, and this distressed me and my loved ones. Nonetheless, I believe that our biggest breakdowns can lead to our biggest breakthroughs.
I understand that although the shouts of my mom’s bipolar disorder were loud enough that everyone could hear, she worked tirelessly to remain safe with the whispers of it. She managed to raise three children, practice law in our native country and transition our family to live in the U.S. She was the source of my frustration as a teenager many times, but she has become my inspiration. She has taught me that it’s possible to get through life, with all its challenges, while not losing track of the voice of bipolar disorder.
Now I see my medication and coping mechanisms as a safety net rather than a sign of weakness. There are things I need to be mindful of like regular exercise, counseling, attending support group meetings and nutrition. This lifestyle makes it easy to recognize the voice of the mania and depression from my mental illness. We’re all capable of creating a life worth living if we’re willing to listen to the whispers before they become shouts.
Yerika Germosen grew up in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to the U.S. in 2013. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Central Florida and works as a crisis counselor. Her blog, “Pursuit of Eureka,” is about finding joy in discovery for living meaningfully.