“Should you shield the canyons from the windstorms you would never see the true beauty of their carvings.” ~ Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Why has this happened to me?
That was the first thought that came to my head, as I was taken into a psych ward for a bipolar disorder 1 psychotic breakdown.
The paranoia followed me there. I assumed the police were working with me to find out who was plotting against me. I had no idea that this wasn’t true—that people were concerned for me, and that I was completely unstable.
The first time I was in a psych ward was in December 2015. I had never been diagnosed with bipolar disorder before. In fact, stable had been my label. If manic, it made me productive. If depressed, I thought it was situational as my life had not always gone as planned. And the psychosis never occurred until my first stint in the hospital.
It was hard for me to get help when no one saw anything wrong. In fact, I could be a workaholic, productive, and even purposeful. The manic state did not end in psychosis, but that productivity. It wasn’t until signs and symptoms worsened that my family acted, twice in two years, to get me into a safe place.
My relapse occurred in October 2017. The second time was worse for me. I was more fearful and more unstable. I felt alone and in the dark.
And yet, I looked for the light.
The breakthrough revealed that I did not have to work anymore. I did not have to be the best. I did not have to win each race. I could be with the broken at that moment and be humbled, be still, and feel the grace of it all—my mind was being returned to me. I was not the sum of my achievements; I was enough as is. That was a difficult revelation because I so wanted to fight to be productive as time passed slowly in the inpatient facilities.
I was transferred from the hospital to another inpatient facility for an extensive stay.
Again, this happened to me twice. I recognized staff when I got there, and knew I’d be there around five months due to the length of the program.
When I got out both times, I was at a loss. What now?
Stigma made it hard to go out in the world with this. I had a story to tell but no listeners. I struggled to open up about my reality.
I was made to go to psych rehab after the longer stay at an inpatient facility—at first for three days a week and then two upon my insistence for less.
When finally discharged, I had no idea how to spend my time. Time had been taken from me.
I had everything working against me, and just before that, I had everything.
My world was turned upside down. And yet I practiced gratitude every day, even for things as simple as air.
In a way, I had nothing.
I left my job.
I left friends behind.
I left titles and any notion of societal success behind me.
I woke up from some type of slumber. I was dreaming, and I was not realizing that eventually, reality would set in. I wasn’t well. I had a mental illness—bipolar—threatening to destroy all of me. I was afraid, and I was lost. I thought I had nothing to look forward to and a life out of reach when I looked back.
I recognized I had something. I had a spark in me, a fire, toward life. I was alive. I had that.
My mental stability returned on better medications and dosage. Struggles I had never faced in my life, I began to face for the first time. I would appreciate life again. I decided something: I would choose this life, even if it was hard. I would not give up even if I wanted to. I would accept it all and change what I could. Because it was my life.
I would get this one chance to live. It was not nothing.
It was worth everything to live for this second chance at life. I got well again because I kept self-advocating. Others in my situation weren’t as lucky. I held on when I felt there was nothing or no one to hold onto.
It made me angry.
At least, at first, it did. I never got used to being in the mental health system. It did not get better for me there.
I could not thrive in that circumstance, even if I knew it was temporary. Keeping that thought in mind, I kept going with “this too shall pass.”
Being discharged should have been the best day of my life.
Normal wasn’t me anymore—it was just a setting on a washer machine. I wasn’t the same. I was changed, and I was glad to be different.
When we’ve been in the dark, we think we’d run automatically to the light. It is the opposite sometimes. We feel vulnerable and weak when the light touches us. We want to stay hidden.
I let it all go and became raw and real with others—honest to a point of taking the shame of stigma away. I also figured I had come this far, why give up now? The question was no longer, “Why has this happened to me?” It was “How can I use this to become a better person?”
I was altruistic in a way—but not codependent. I also learned to have healthy boundaries. The same way a child crawling first learns to slowly walk, I was starting over.
I tried to give too much when I got there. Someone wanted my money, and they wanted my ear for all their problems. I felt like I was in danger—like I was about to be used.
I quickly cut ties from the individual, cut the caregiver in me off from the person before they burned me. I learned to seek the right arena to give. It has to be the right person and right situation and right way. And I had to put myself first.
There’s a well-known example that on an airplane if there is a need for oxygen masks, you must put one on yourself before you put one on another person or a child. You can’t help others until you help yourself.
Months may have passed, but I did not lose my longing for life. I wanted it more, in fact.
In the darkness, I knew I would help people one day, and that thought got me through it—the idea to become a light.
I realized I had not been living in the mental health system. I was merely existing and waiting to live.
Once out, the real work began. I realized bipolar would not define me. I realized I was enough as I was. I realized my authenticity was all that mattered.
Once I took off the mask, I realized stigma could be changed. If we didn’t all pretend like we had it all together, some progress could be made and lives could be saved.
“Saving lives…that has a nice ring to it,” I found myself thinking often.
When discharged from all of the programs, I made more progress.
I started blogging for a nonprofit, volunteering at a mental health coalition, and writing books—each teaching the concept of letting go. I rebuilt my life and created my own hope again, even though I didn’t know how things would turn out.
A lot of things had been redefined for me.
Success, in fact, had been redefined for me.
It was no longer about being in the top school or top position. It was no longer my credentials; it was my character. It was not about how much I was doing; it was who I was being or becoming.
I found happiness in doing good and in small personal achievements, like living again after being locked away with other mental health patients. I took it day by day to live in the moment.
Happiness is a journey, but I found it at my weakest. Stripped of everything I knew before, I was able to feel happy still.
I had struggles with body image. Instead of putting myself down, in the mirror, I would say an “I Am” statement—such as, “I Am Beautiful” or “I Am Unique.”
Being unique helped me because I couldn’t see the beauty—no matter how hard I tried. I saw the sleepless nights, the tears cried, and the fight for my life, all worn on my face.
Through all this, I surrendered. I went with the flow and stopped resisting everything. I took a deep breath and started over. Simple as that. Putting months lost to being on wrong meds or being in the mental health system behind me.
I was new.
I learned how to get through anything and that I could become anyone.
I stopped focusing on the reality of the situation and started to focus on the opportunity it brought me. I could speak on my story, shed light on the flaws of the mental health system, and connect the dots to building my dreams.
Most of all, I was being not just doing. My pace of life completely changed. I wanted to be well so much more than I wanted to be successful. Again, my very definition of success had changed.
I was not alone. Something beautiful was happening to me, inside me, and I felt like I had the keys to life itself. And life was engulfing me with its brilliance, as I walked my journey.
I couldn’t explain it. It was just something I felt.
I had hours on end to do what I wanted with my time when I got out because I was on disability and used it creatively, to write and volunteer.
I found fulfillment but it was a different kind. It was an unexpected kind.
I enjoyed my life again, the simple things.
It takes time to return to oneself. It takes not throwing in the towel. It takes learning to love life again. It takes putting down your shield and weapons for war in order to really feel something. Vulnerability. It takes truth. It takes not always getting your way. It takes acceptance of time that was lost to you in the dark. It takes motivating others so you can motivate yourself. And lastly, it takes the ability to see potential in the pain and value personal happiness.
Because happiness…it can be ours. All we have to do is reach for it.
It’s hard to listen to oneself over all the other voices—to the obligations we think we must keep, the goals we set, the expectations others have of us, and the idea that to change our vision is due to a lack of willpower or laziness. Rather, we have changed if our vision has changed. And, that is a good thing.
We like to judge ourselves on what we “should” be doing.
What if we simply did what we wanted to do? Where would we begin?
Or maybe we’ve done all that we want to do and it wasn’t right for us.
We can say no. That’s a boundary. We can decide to say no to things, to people, to situations. Put ourselves first.
If something feels wrong, it’s time to reconsider your priorities. It means saying no in the face of someone who is depending on us, maybe for the wrong reasons, to do something that would benefit only them. It means setting boundaries to get what we need, putting ourselves first, and not feeling guilty about it. It means simplifying to discover what is most important rather than try to accomplish all things. It means finding purpose in a painful situation and power. It means strategizing our survival so that we cannot only survive but thrive.
That’s what we are here to do.
I know now having two mental breakdowns wasn’t the end of me. It wasn’t over. It was just another obstacle I had to get over. And instead of fighting, I surrendered. I surrendered and learn how to live again, one baby step at a time.
It took years to come back to myself. It took time to undo the damage my brain had undergone from mental health crises.
It took a toll on my soul.
But I’m here now. And that’s how I changed having nothing into having something—I realized life was worth it even through loss. And that nothing is perfect or permanent.
We are all here on separate types of journeys but yet the same. If we can keep going, we will find a way through it. I know because that’s what happened to me. I found my purpose in my pain. My plans had all been taken from me. But one thing wasn’t taken: hope. With hope, we can do so much. We just have to learn to appreciate life itself. It is a gift.
And that is not nothing.
That is something.
It took until now to get the right help and right meds. But I’m alive, and I will never take it for granted again.