‘How did I make those decisions?’ Like so many times before, I was so confused and broken.’: Mom with bipolar disorder shares mental health journey

More Stories like:

Disclaimer: This story contains mentions of suicidal ideation that may be triggering for some.

“My first suicide attempt was at 13 years old. I knew it was wrong, so I concealed my despairing thoughts from everyone. It’s amazing what a smile can disguise.

little girl's school picture
Courtesy of Allison Henderson

I remember that day so vividly. I lined my bookshelf with an entire bottle of aspirin, placing them right next to my awards and Native American figurines. I meticulously counted each pill as I laid them down in a long row of soldiers. They were my warriors in this battle, or so I thought.

The black fog of irrational thoughts consumed my mind. No one would understand my pain or why; to me, dying was the only solution my broken heart could find. I swallowed each pill. One by one, those soldiers marched into the war that waged inside of me, and I waited to meet my Lord.

The idea of being in heaven, away from all the pain I was in, was a freeing thought. I turned the radio on and rested my head on my bedroom floor. As I was surrounded by my porcelain dolls and smiley face decorated walls, the room violently began to spin. It wasn’t long before I started feeling so sick to my stomach. ‘Was this death?’ I thought. ‘Was all my pain finally coming to an end? ‘

My stomach groaned with an intense ache as I slowly crawled my way into the bathroom. I couldn’t let my mom see. Quickly, I began vomiting up a chalky, bitter liquid. I felt such disparity in that release. Even the soldiers I sent to wage this war had also abandoned me.

‘No!’ my thoughts screamed.

As tears streamed down my face, the utter devastation that it wasn’t going to end sunk deeper than the pills I had now flushed away.

I realized at that moment that my failure was my rescue.

woman taking a black and white photo
Kelly Topping Portraits

Because I believe God saved me once again.

Throughout my life, I have struggled with those irrational thoughts many times, and in those moments, in that fog of darkness, indeed, there is pain that others can never understand unless they’ve lived it for themselves.

I’m not speaking about sadness, heartache, or severe life circumstances that cause you sorrow.

No. I’m talking about an illness that wipes out your mind’s ability to process things rationally. Depression is valid, and there is no choice involved in mental illness.

‘A rational mind can never comprehend its antagonist.’

Shame. Why do we allow a mental illness to cloak us in a coat of unworthy?

I was 17 when I was first ‘cloaked’ with the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. As I’ve shared, that struggle began long before the label came.

woman letting go of a black balloon
Kelly Topping Portraits

Medication, hypnosis, and therapy bombarded my undeveloped 17-year-old mind. With the drug prescribed to me and a dosage that was not the right kind, I became a zombie, a shell of a human being. I felt nothing: no joy, no sadness, only an empty void inside me. I piled on so much bodyweight from the high lithium dosage and loss of motivation. I couldn’t stand the absence the high mania brought on or even the lows of depression that, after so many years, felt like normality to me. So, I stopped the medication. If you know anyone who struggles with mental illness, you understand that staying medicated is one of the biggest struggles to maintain active recovery.

I began to believe I was misdiagnosed. Everyone I had heard speak about bipolar disorder made jokes or called individuals with this struggle crazy. ‘The weather is so bipolar!’ ‘She’s crazy; she’s so bipolar.’ The negative connotations were everywhere. How could that be me? So, I hid that label away. It’s a dark and twisted hole when one begins to believe their lies. For years I self-medicated with drugs and alcohol, yet called it ‘experimentation.’ I tried to hide that too. I wasn’t bipolar. I was just like you. In reality, I was numbing or boosting the constant waves of mood shift my mental disorder created.

I often thought to myself, ‘Do others feel this shift so often too? Is it normal to want to die, self-harm, or hate yourself one day but shift into a high of productivity, inflated self-esteem, and joy the next?’

In my ‘experimentation,’ or in reality, my self-medication, I became addicted to methamphetamine. I was destroying myself, and the darkness began to consume me. So back to the psychiatrist I went. Once again, the cloak was placed upon my shoulders by the words he spoke, ‘You have bipolar disorder.’ I got clean, but this time refused to take medication or therapy. I threw down the cloak of shame that labeled me. I explained it away as just an addict’s behaviors, you see.

woman posing on luggage
Kelly Topping Portraits

For years after that, the mood shifts rolled like the waves in the ocean. They were pounding day by day upon the shoreline in my head. They felt normal. The waves of emotional turmoil were all I knew. As I’ve learned today, most people with bipolar disorder only seek help when in the pits of despair. The highs of mania are like a drug, so many ride that wave into a world of creative genius. You wouldn’t believe the amazing things that erupt out of a manic state or that the same mania could destroy relationships, jobs, and lives along the way.

Mania is a beautiful disaster.

In a manic episode, I began destroying my marriage through infidelity and cutting away at the heart of my loved one. During that time, it all felt so real. I had intense feelings for this other person and a disdain for my spouse. I didn’t know then but do so now that delusions had engulfed me. That is another wave in the ocean of this mental disparity. I left my husband and rode the manic wave until it came crashing down into the sands of depression. Like so many times before, I was so confused and broken. I couldn’t understand how I believed all the delusions. ‘Who was I?’ That was a question for which I didn’t have an answer. ‘How did I make those decisions?’

woman reaching out to an umbrella
Courtesy of Allison Henderson

When you shift from mania and come down from that high, your mind can’t comprehend the choices you’ve made or the reason why. It’s almost like a split in identity. The immense guilt you feel for the things you’ve done is overwhelming. It sends you drowning in the deep waters of depression.

Back to the doctor I went.

By this time, there was a coat rack of medical records waiting to hold that cloak of shame just waiting for me. ‘You have bipolar disorder.’

This time I took the medication. Once again, the wrong dosage and combination of pills sent me into suicidal ideation, and I was institutionalized for my safety.

You’d think this would be the end of the story, but it was only beginning.

I was discharged from the hospital and left the cloak behind. They can shove that coat back on the rack; I’m not bipolar. I’m just fine, and I won’t be back.

For many years I rode the waves of hypomania (which is less severe than full-blown mania). I wrote music, taught piano lessons, started a ministry at church, painted every room in my house a different color, and acquired more dogs than I had children. I was a functioning hypo-manic addict, with sprinkles of depression weaved within.

woman leaning against the wall posing
Kelly Topping Portraits

I didn’t hit rock bottom until my daughter gave me the courage to be authentic and not view a diagnosis as a cloak of shame. The way she did that would break my heart in two.

It was May 21st, and we were all at the beginning of this COVID nightmare when God stepped on the scene and allowed the most painful mirror to be placed in front of me. That mirror was my 14-year-old daughter, Brooke.

She struggled with anxiety, but I had no idea how seriously she was suffering. That day, God would shine like a beacon of light and pain through her. Only in that shining, I would break like a shattered vase thrown against a wall.

I will never forget walking into the therapy session and hearing the doctor’s words, ‘We think Brooke should be hospitalized for her safety. Her depression is dangerous.’ Then for 11 days, I remained shattered in pieces as I couldn’t see or hold her but only hear her voice.

For 11 days, I cursed God. I admit it. For 11 days, I stayed broken.

family photo
Courtney Carter Photography

BUT— I couldn’t ask for help because I was too afraid others would hurt my daughter more. I was too scared of what other people would say in gossip to damage my beautiful girl further. I was too afraid of the cloak of shame being wrapped around her precious heart.

For 11 days, I saw every traumatic and broken moment of my life flash before my eyes. I saw the waves of emotion I’d ridden all my life. For 11 days, I fought every waking moment, and I chose to rise above it and fight.

For her at first, but for me too.

No one brings casserole when your child is suicidal.

While Brooke was in the hospital, I realized that the only way to protect her, the only way to stand against a world that would never understand our mental illness, was to own my mental health diagnosis, to reject the cloak of shame. So that when she chose to accept her diagnosis, maybe, the world would be kinder and more aware.

That may be the world would see the beautiful person she was and not just a label or the struggle she bears.woman taking selfie for a daughter

I waited 38 years for freedom because God used my daughter to set this captive free. I own this diagnosis because my daughter chose something I never dared to do; she decided to live a life of authenticity. Brooke decided not to allow her diagnosis to become her identity. Even if it meant hurting, disappointing, or losing everyone she knew. My Brooke had the bravery to choose to heal and to stand and fight with the perseverance it requires to walk her healing out every day of her life.

Today, two years later, we both thrive in our mental health. It took a year of trying different medications before I finally reached stability, and even then, I chose to do intensive group therapy to heal from the addiction I had to a life of ‘surfing’ the bipolar waves. I’m now a writer, podcaster, and passionate mental health advocate. I no longer fear sharing my diagnosis. It’s liberating. I deeply desire to break the stigmas associated with mental illness.

We are not our diagnosis. I have bipolar disorder, but bipolar will never have me.

In this life, we never know what someone is struggling with. Be kind. Your love could be their life raft. See the person, not the diagnosis. Break the stigma of shame that so many are still cloaked in.”

family photo
Courtney Carter Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Allison S. Henderson from Houston, TX. You can follow her journey on Facebook and website. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read more stories like this:

‘We think you have depression.’ I felt like a freak. What would people say? I thought no one could ‘fix’ me.’: Woman becomes mental health advocate, ‘This is my purpose’

‘My anxiety and depression can make me a sh*tty friend, but I’m not sorry.’: Woman thankful for friends who stick around despite mental health struggles

‘Your son cut class today.’ I got the phone call no parent expects. ‘Excuse me?!?!’ I was LIVID.’: Mom comforts teen son battling depression, ‘we should treat mental illness the same as physical ailments’

‘Why are you home early?’ my husband asks. I haven’t showered in 6 days. He didn’t know. People with depression are great at hiding it.’: Woman candidly shares the reality of mental illness

Do you know someone who could benefit from reading this? SHARE this story on Facebook with family and friends.

 Share  Tweet