Some of you may not know that May is mental health awareness month.
Studies show that approximately one in every 25 adults in the United States suffers from some form of mental illness in a given year. To put that into perspective, that is over 18 percent of the entire U.S. population, which is roughly 43.8 million Americans.
Studies also show that one in every 25 adults in the U.S., roughly four percent, live with a serious mental illness that substantially interferes with or limits their abilities to perform major life activities. However, among the various mental disorders, there are few that carry such a noteworthy stigma and lack of public understanding than bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder, also known manic depressive disorder, is a form of mental illness which causes severe high and low moods. This can affect a person’s energy level, ability to sleep, thinking and overall behavior. Those who battle with bipolar disorder are characterized by having intense periods of happiness, confidence, joy and high amounts of energy, which then gives way to other periods of sadness, hopelessness, low energy and depression.
While between the manic and depressive phases, the person may feel completely normal, but practically anything can trigger a sudden change in mood. It is a serious illness, and one that can certainly be life threatening.
Though there is no cure for the illness, a comprehensive treatment plan can greatly reduce the intensity of the high and low periods of manic and depression, allowing those with the dis-order to adequately function in everyday life.
According to the latest study on the prevalence of bipolar disorder quoted by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), and conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 5.7 million adult Americans, or about 2.6 percent of the U.S. population 18 years and older, live with bipolar disorder.
According to Dr. Wes Burgess M.D., a psychiatrist, scientist and author of “The Bipolar Handbook: Real-Life Questions with Up-to-Date Answers”, almost 10 million people will develop this mental illness sometimes during their lives, of which almost half those affected will never receive the correct diagnosis or treatment.
In today’s age and throughout the course of history, there have been many cultural and political icons that have influenced our music, art and politics that have lived with a diagnosis of bipolar or whom psychiatrists have come to believe displayed the characteristics of this disorder.
Today, cultural icons such as pop-star Demi Lovato, or comedian and actor Russell Brand live with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Other entertainers, such as musical icon Amy Wine-house, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, actress Carrie Fisher, comedian and actor Robin Williams and the Oscar winning actress Patty Duke, were said to have sought treatment or displayed the characterstics of bipolar disorder. Even historical figures, like British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and artist Vincent Van Gogh, were able to achieve immense accomplishments while struggling with symptoms of the life-altering diagnosis.
However, to truly understand what it means to be bipolar, we must communicate with those who live their lives managing this mysterious mental illness.
Meet Kelley Smith*, a 21-year-old student of design aspiring to become an illustrator for children’s books. Smith, who was diagnosed with and received medication for depression as a young adult, first became aware of her disorder after experiencing a manic phase while struggling with the stresses of high school. She was diagnosed with bipolar one after turning 19.
“I knew something was off, even before I was diagnosed,” says Smith. “I was really anxious a lot, even in preschool, in fact, I was held back because I wouldn’t socialize with the other kids. So, the disorder has been affecting me all my life. My first couple years of high school were good, and then about junior year I started to get really stressed over college. I was already taking college level courses, but I had troubles handling my stress. I eventually attempted to kill myself. That is when I started seeing a psychiatrist. When I found out what was going on, things started to make more sense as to why my mood was the way it was.”
For Smith, living with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder makes for an ever changing world, one of emotional highs and lows that she must continuously manage.
“I would say that every day is different; one day you might get out of bed and feel great and the next day you dread getting out of bed, getting involved with the world and doing day-to-day life,” attests Smith. “Sometimes, I go through many emotions while experiencing a mood swing. At first I might feel very angry, and then I feel upset. Though some people believe in going natural (to cope with the disorder), I believe that medication re-ally does help. It really does help the mood swings and allows me to have some-what of a normal life.
For Smith, managing her bipolar disorder means actively communicating with specialists about her illness, and finding the right medication for her individual needs.
“I see a therapist on a regular basis, usually monthly depending on if I’ve had to change medications or not,” says Smith. “There is no one certain fix; it’s a combination of things, you might even say it takes a village. You need a counselor who can help talk you through things, a psychiatrist that can get you set on good medication, and also a group of friends and family that can be your constant support system. Also, diet and exercise play a big factor, too. I try to keep myself on a schedule, which means going to bed at the same time every night, and I also try to work out almost every day. That really helps with my mood.”
Though living a normal life with bipolar dis- order can be difficult, it is certainly possible. Just because one has been given a genetic cocktail that has made it much more difficult to regulate their emotions and requires them to seek outside help, doesn’t mean that they are unable to have a family, have a healthy marriage and succeed in their chosen career. There is no greater testament to this statement than author Courtney Frey. Her story is one that is purely unique in her ability to overcome struggles brought about by her bipolar disorder and to attain “Redemption”, which so happens to be the title of her third published book.
“The first time I sat in front of a doctor he told me I had bipolar disorder, wrote me a prescription and told me he’ll see me in six weeks. I was confused, I thought I was fine,” states Frey. “The biggest misconception is, even for someone like me that has been diagnosed, is the belief that you can control it (on your own), that it’s all in your head and that you just need to be stronger. I grew up in a very religious family, so I had family members that said it wasn’t a real thing and that all I needed was to just pray it away. So, I didn’t take my medication for several years because I felt that it was all my fault, and that I was doing something to cause it. It wasn’t until my third hospital visit, after I almost died from an attempted suicide, that I began to realize there
was more to this.”
Frey attempted to end her own life during a depressive state in which she felt guilt for some- thing she had done during a manic state caused by the disorder. After her release from the hospital, she had to leave her family, her marriage ended in divorce, and she moved out with her belongings stuffed into a duffle bag. However, Frey decided that she was going to take back her life.
“It was so critical for me to have a counselor who truly understood bipolar, and could begin to walk me through what this looked like. I finally began to realize that while I couldn’t control the mood swings, there was medication that could help ease them, then allowing me to become accountable in helping to manage my own disorder. No one had told me this before. My counselor helped me realize that I didn’t have to fight this thing alone. She compared my illness to other diseases by asking me that if I had diabetes would I take insulin. Of course, my answer was yes. She helped me to see that bipolar was just another illness, one that if I took my medication, I wouldn’t be quite as sick.
She gave me coping skills and mechanisms to help me and I, along with my family, discovered
signs thathelp me to realize when I am going into a manic phase. Though bipolar disorder looks very emotional, in the end it is a chemical disorder, and one that can’t be fixed by a change of mindset alone. It’s looking at the sky and seeing purple when everyone else sees blue. You have toembrace it, and manage it, so that the purple doesn’t turn to red. Though the medication doesn’t make it go away, it makes the pendulum of emotions not swing as hard. Managing an illness takes time, effort and care. When I finally let go of my illness, like a demon in a closet, and embraced it, it was like a whole new world opened up for me.” Years later, Frey would go on to rekindle her relationship with her husband, remarrying the love of her life and rejoining her three children. She would also go on to write three books telling her story and experiences, in order to provide hope for others in similar situations. She has now been happily married for 23 years and lives with her family in Iowa.
For those battling bipolar disorder, seek- ing help and treatment is synonymous with the pursuit of a manageable and happy life. Bipolar disorder is a deadly illness if not kept under control, due to the intense feeling of depression it causes which leads to a daunting rate of suicide and self-harm among untreated victims.
Here, the role of a counselor is not only a necessity, but in most cases, a life-line. No one can attest to this more than Judy Keappler, a Licensed Professional Counselor working in Atlanta, Georgia. Throughout her professional career, Keappler has counseled numerous patients and their loved ones who have felt the weight of dealing with bipolar disorder throughout everyday life. With a professional motto, of helping clients “find hope, healing, and change”, she founded Judy Keappler Counseling to help patients take on the everyday struggles felt by those who suffer from anxiety, depression, grief and various other mental disorders, in order for them to discover a life of mental wellness.
“The goal of the counselor is to assist the patient in understanding their bipolar disorder and what it will take for their brain to respond to life more effectively,” says Keappler. “The patient’s brain cannot regulate their emotions, and anything may set them off. Triggers can be not getting enough sleep or exercise, having too much stress, or things like traveling, time change or even exposure to too much light. It’s a brain dysfunction. Now, imagine having this disorder in a relationship, having a baby or getting into an argument, all while balancing these severe mood swings.”
Keappler agrees that a diagnosis of bipolar disorder does not have to be a hindrance for one’s
career or one’s ability to make meaningful relationships. In fact, she counsels clients managing bipolar that have established lucrative careers in business, in which she has helped enable them to fully understand their disorder. As Keappler suggests, it is only through knowing and embracing their disorder, that someone will be enabled to cope with the illness.
“You have to be able to distinguish what is the illness and what is normal. For instance, when someone with the disorder is sad or feels hurt, which is normal to feel sad or hurt by others, you have to decide if the instance is a normal reaction or a bipolar reaction. It can be very difficult to tell. And if the issues are not real it can be impossible for them to work through.”
It is imperative that the illness be treated in order to keep the patient out of the severe mood swings that can spiral those with the disorder to a severe depression that causes them to contemplate or commit self-harm.
“(Bipolar depression) is not a normal depression,” Keappler explains. “It feels so real and so heavy, and with the inability to regulate emotions, one can’t pull themselves out of it. That is why it is a necessity to have a medication working as a mood stabilizer, to keep the patient stable enough to be able to use normal brain regulation to deal with shifts in mood.”
Medication is not about suppression, but about regulation. It gives patients the ability to regulate their emotions, not having the extreme ups and downs. It can take time for the patient to find the right medication, and a counselor can help keep a close watch on how the medication is working.
It is also important to understand that there are different types of bipolar disorder; bipolar I, bipolar II, and bipolar III. Now, more and more people are being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. However, bipolar I is uncommon. There are more people diagnosed with bipolar II, where the patient suffers more from irritability and anxiety. Ultimately, for those who live their lives with a mental disorder, the sky may very much seem purple when the world screams it’s blue, as Courtney Frey would suggest. However, the sky can be much darker for all of us when even a small percentage of our community is shut out due to a misunderstanding of any mental illness. A community exists to extend a hand, one of understanding and unconditional love, to any and all who need it. And so it is up to all of us, to give hope where needed, to shine a light on the unknown darkness that tries to hold some of us down, and to try and see the sky in all colors.
*Some names have been changes to protect the identity of patients.
It was during one of these performances that a man approached him about having wrestling matches at the restaurant. “I couldn’t believe it. He told me if I let him put a wrestling ring in here then he would pack the place out. And, he did.”
Although the wrestling ring is no longer in The Deli, it is still a conversation starter. Accord-ing to Lepre, people loved it and he saw many customers come through his doors because they “wanted to see the ring.”
He has since replaced the wrestling ring with pool tables and claw machines. It is clear that he and Carol do not want to simply serve food. They want The Deli to be a place where you can explore what makes you happy, and, of course, enjoy a great meal.
When asked about how many events The Deli currently has a week, Lepre’s reply was, “not enough.”
He says that he and his business partner Carol will do anything as long as it works for them and their customers. Lepre is not shy about admitting that his main motivation is good business but he also values his customers and wants them to feel at home in his establishment.
“Carol and I work hard but it is our customers that keep us going. We do these events to make money but they are also for you guys,” says Lepre.
When asked if there was something he would not do to create business his answer was immediate. “Alcohol. We won’t serve alcohol because we want the shows here to be for all ages.”
Lepre has been known to chase away those patrons who try to drink alcohol in the parking lot. He uses a bullhorn and yells at them about how he could lose his business and how he will have to quit hosting shows. For him, drinking alcohol at The Deli is no laughing matter.
“We want people to feel safe and protected. So, I enforce the rules,” he says with a serious look in his eyes.
He talks about his customers and his family but he also talks about the other businesses in the strip mall. “We want our events to benefit our neighbors as well. We want to help them put on events and to reach people, too. That’s what it is about,” he says genuinely.
While his personality and willingness to host almost any event at his business make him interesting, (he is currently planning a gun show), the real story of Lepre and The Deli is in the community that exists there. On an almost weekly basis, there is a hardcore punk show at The Deli. These shows are often headlined by touring bands but are opened by bands made up of local kids. It is at these shows that you are able to see what The Deli has done for people. Adults and teenagers alike flock to the shows for entertainment and to spend time with one another. They see The Deli as their second home; a place where they can be themselves without fear of being ridiculed.