At 50 years old, Joe experienced what he considers his first manic episode. He was fired from his job—a career he spent 33 years building. After getting the news, he drove straight to the hospital. “I walked in through the employee’s entrance, all stressed out,” Joe explained. “The people working there were like, ‘Hello? How are you?’ And somehow or another the word ‘suicide’ came out. The next thing I knew, I was laying down, strapped in.”
It was during this first admittance of many that Joe was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“I ran away from my diagnosis,” Joe explained. He was also alone, because Joe’s doctor encouraged his wife to take a break from him. After 30 years of marriage, he went two years without his wife and children. Isolated from his family, Joe lost hope for his future. He spent this time believing his family was better off without him.
“I ended up in Florida, somehow on a beach all by myself. My wife very fortunately came down and encouraged me and supported me.” After being reconnected with his family, Joe focused on recovery.
What really made a difference for him was getting involved with the mental health community. He participated in multiple education programs and joined a support group. After experiencing the positive benefits of education and support, he decided that he wanted to help other people learn about mental illness too. So, he began presenting NAMI In Our Own Voice.
Joe decided that this was his calling—his second career—that gave his life purpose again and helped him not only recover, but become well again: “I have a purpose now that I did not think I would have after I was diagnosed.”
After years spent volunteering for NAMI, Joe wanted to pull from his own experiences to express his message of hope. So, he created a presentation-program to help people with mental illness achieve wellness. It’s a five-part program that consists of Inspiration, Illness, Self-Help, Education and Wellness.
The program includes audience participation and helps people feel more comfortable talking about mental illness. Joe says that he “wants people to feel comfortable talking about it, as I do, and just give them hope of getting well.”
People living with mental illness are often told their goal should be recovery—to be okay living their lives, managing their symptoms. While this message is important and well-intentioned, Joe believes we shouldn’t stop at being just okay. “Recovery sounds to me like you got to that point and that’s it. And to me, getting to wellness brings it to another level of living healthier. I believe I have gone beyond recovery and into wellness.”
For a man who was diagnosed at age 50 (when 75% of mental health conditions make themselves known by age 24), who was still able to recover and achieve a life of wellness, Joe’s mental health journey should inspire all. He is a living example that, at any stage of life, it is possible to recover from mental illness and even become well.
Like Joe, there are so many people experiencing debilitating conditions who have gone on to lead happy and fulfilling lives. Recovery is a long journey, but it is not the destination.
Laura Greenstein is communications coordinator at NAMI.