Sara Butler | Contributing Editor
Local nonprofit hosts panel in Mission Valley
Erasing stigma through education. This is part of International Bipolar Foundation’s (IBPF) mission, which it tackled head-on during its Women’s Mental Health Lecture at Mission Valley Library on July 31.
Founded in June 2007, the nonprofit — formerly known as California Bipolar Foundation — is currently based in Serra Mesa at 8775 Aero Drive. IBPF works to improve the lives of those living with bipolar disorder through research, care, education and support.
Bipolar disorder, also called manic-depressive illness, is a “brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks,” according to National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). It is characterized by states of manic “highs” and depressive “lows,” which affected individuals shift between during episodes.
The euphoric highs may spark phases of extreme productivity and activity, often leading to “crashing” or burnout, which may spiral into depression. During mania, symptoms may include increased energy, insomnia, impulsivity, recklessness, or irritability; depression can cause hopelessness, fatigue, apathy, appetite changes, or suicidal thoughts.
The magnitude and length of each episode, as well as the multitude of symptoms, widely varies — demonstrating that bipolar is not the same in every person, and that not every person’s story is the same.
To illustrate that, three individuals — Claire Griffiths, Aubrey Good and Kitt O’Malley — took to the floor at IBPF’s July 31 event. Each panelist, all at various life stages, shared their personal journey living with the disorder.
Prior to finding out they had bipolar, all three women were misdiagnosed. This is partially due to the lack of research and understanding about bipolar compared to other mental illnesses. There is also a heavy stigma that those who have it are “crazy,” even though approximately 5.7 million American adults (2.5 percent of the population) live with the disorder.
Though the average onset age is 25 years old, 17-year-old Griffiths began treatment for bipolar at age 13. After daily self-harm to cope with panic attacks, staying up all night “writing poems that resembled Edgar Allen Poe — which scared my parents,” and other erratic behaviors, the diagnosis was a relief.
“I was really happy to have that [diagnosis] — that was really good for me because I had a name to put to the strange things that were happening to me that I could not control,” Griffiths said.
A bipolar diagnosis can help explain behaviors and mitigate symptoms affecting an individual, but the label is not always easy to swallow for others, such as 25-year-old Good. She didn’t know much about the disorder except the negative portrayal commonly found in the media, turning to coping mechanisms of isolation and substance abuse.
“I didn’t know anybody with [bipolar] at the time,” Good said, who was diagnosed at age 18. “[I thought] this isn’t me. This is not my problem. I don’t want to be talking about it — I’ve seen the movies, I’m not like that.”
O’Malley sought help after a suicidal breakdown while she was a freshman at UCLA studying biochemistry. She began her life-long relationship with therapy but wasn’t correctly diagnosed until later in life.
After a varying career path in psychology, real estate and other fields, she recognized that her workaholic tendencies weren’t a healthy fit for her hypomania. Eventually O’Malley decided to quit the work force and write from home; she just released her first book “Blogging for Bipolar Mental Health” in April.
Due to her high expectations of herself — growing up, her parents always said she would “go to Harvard and become a doctor” — she had a hard time reframing her life around her new illness. Though O’Malley felt capable of parenting with depression, she thought her bipolar diagnosis made her unfit to be a mother.
“There’s a process of bereavement that you go through when you come to accept your diagnosis — living with a diagnosis — that your life might not be what you thought it would be, but it doesn’t mean that your life doesn’t have purpose, or that you’re not worthwhile, or that you aren’t worthy of being loved or being loving,” O’Malley said.
Once correctly diagnosed, Griffiths, Good and O’Malley had to learn to manage their chronic illness using prescribed medication and therapy. They also said that moderate exercise, eating well, online support, and getting feedback from loved ones helps them handle their symptoms, as well as side effects of medication.
Despite Griffiths’ compliance with medication and therapy, things started to get worse, eventually leading to her attempting suicide as a teenager. After multiple hospitalizations, she tried electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), a psychiatric treatment in which seizures are electrically induced in patients to provide relief, which is a seen as a controversial approach by some.
“ECT has a really bad reputation because of how it’s portrayed in movies and TV shows — which is not how it’s actually done, which is good,” Griffiths said. “But we were willing to try anything … It helped. It saved me from that depression.”
Additionally, the women said that being honest with others about their bipolar diagnosis has helped them through the acceptance process.
“There were times in my life that I had a façade that I hid behind — even now, I look a lot better than my mind might be because I have certain skills,” O’Malley said. “In fact, that’s one of the reasons that I like to speak out — because I like to challenge people’s assumptions. Look, I have a mental illness. Am I scary? No.”
Good, who is now IBPF’s social media and program coordinator, said she is thankful for a work environment where she is able to disclose her illness and her mood shifts to her boss. However, she acknowledged not everyone has the same opportunity and hopes that speaking openly about it may change future circumstances for others.
While Good stressed that bipolar does impact her day-to-day life, she doesn’t let it define her.
“Even though I have bipolar disorder, I don’t think I’m different from anybody,” Good said. “I think my range of emotions has a different depth than you — or for those of you who have bipolar, it’s similar — but other than that I live a happy, successful life.”
As an IBPF ambassador, Griffiths speaks at various events, including one on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. She will also be hosting a TED Talk at North Coast Repertory Theater in Solana Beach on Aug. 25. Griffiths sees her bipolar diagnosis and her ability to share it with others as a strength.
“I’m happy and I’m bipolar and that’s a good thing — because that’s what made me who I am today. And I’m thankful for every day,” Griffiths said.
In addition to July’s lecture at Mission Valley Library, IBPF hosts other local events to educate the public and support those affected by the disorder. On Sept. 9, IBPF will partner with Aloha San Diego for The Aloha Run/Walk 5K and 10K at Tecolote Shores Park from 7–10 a.m. Interested participants are encouraged to register online at bit.ly/ibpf-run.
— Reach Sara Butler at email@example.com.