Is Mental Illness a Life Sentence?
What felt like a life sentence to Susan Natzke-Ingram began in the spring of 1994. This is her description of that time; “The culmination of holding damaged emotions from childhood, being hypervigilant of everyone and everything, dealing with constant med adjustments, along with being thrown into an intense mixed episode, caused my mind to break into a million pieces.
I was taken to HR with my immediate supervisor and our boss because I was failing at work. I broke down and cried; something I didn’t do. At that time, I lost my self-identity. I left work for a long weekend with the promise to come back and tell HR what I wanted to do. Either I do my job better or go to the psych hospital. I chose the hospital.
I cried when I told my psychiatrist that I couldn’t take this any longer. He said he thought he knew what to prescribe me. That was when I started taking a medicine that finally worked. I feel that it saved my life.”
At that time Susan only thought that she had major depression. It wasn’t until her psychiatrist passed away that she found out the truth. She picked up her mental health file from her office and opened it. There in writing was the word “BIPOLAR”. This was a diagnosis that nobody had told her about.
Susan didn’t know much about bipolar disorder, so she started to research it. She learned that it causes extreme mood swings that range from the extreme agonizing lows of depression to the extreme highs and, in her case, angry emotions that sometimes come with mania.
Susan not only experienced each mood swing individually but sometimes the two met at the same time, and she experienced a “mixed” episode. These episodes were the worst for her because they caused irritability so severe that she just wanted to scream and jump out of her own skin!
She once saw the painting by Edvard Munch, “The Scream”, and said that that is what it feels like. “I cannot express enough how much my life felt as if it was hell,” she said.
Susan had heard the stigmatizing misinformation surrounding the diagnosis of Bipolar. She had heard people mention the words, “bipolar” and “crazy” said in the same sentence.
She now felt that this endless rollercoaster ride was her future and that she was truly crazy. After getting her diagnosis, it all made sense. All the years of little sleep, sporadic energy, periods of poor judgment and misbehavior were explained in one word.
Acceptance was a hard pill for Susan to swallow. With acceptance came the realization that many of her dreams and goals were not going to happen. What she didn’t realize was that there were new dreams and goals waiting for her.
She didn’t realize that some day she would become a Certified Peer Specialist, Recovery Coach, President of 2 nonprofit organizations and support group facilitator.
As she did more research, Susan learned that there were treatments. This gave her some hope. Her diagnosis actually gave her a place to start looking for her peace.
Susan set out on her journey to find some resemblance to a life that she would be satisfied with. Susan tried many different avenues of treatments, medication and therapies. What helped her to find her peace was entering into an intensive outpatient program, EMDR which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, working with a Certified Peer Specialist, taking NAMI’s education class called Peer to Peer, and gaining support from her peers at The Gathering Place.
Susan says, “The Gathering Place is a safe place to recover and heal. I
didn’t have to worry about how I was seen. I could take off the mask that hid my emotions and sit quietly in the corner and that was ok.
There were no expectations of me except for me to work on recovery, which at that time meant going into public. I know that all I have to do is put on my clothes and there is a cup of coffee waiting for me. If I don’t feel like talking, I don’t have to. If I do want to talk, there are people to chat and laugh with. The groups are immensely helpful. When I walk into the support group, the feeling of safety that already exists goes to a new level. I can talk to someone after the group too if I need to. I can walk in in a bad mood and walk out feeling better.”
“I have bipolar in remission, but I can’t live looking around the corner to see if it is going to come back tomorrow. I appreciate that I am doing well now, and it may not come back. If it does, I know I’ve been here before and know what to do. It is not going to ruin my life. I can’t live my life wondering if at any moment it will come back. I need to live to live.”
“Don’t give up. Recovery is Real!”