Don't See Me as Bipolar. See Me as Tricia.

JUN. 05, 2015

By Tricia Ellis

Mental health in schools   Tricia Ellis, left, and Elaine Demello of NAMI New

Tricia Ellis won second place in the inaugural Paul Quinnett Lived Experience Writing Contest at the American Association of Suicidology Annual Conference for her story below. The award was designed with the hope of starting new conversations about suicide and living through suicide. 

Everything was dark. I felt alone and isolated from the world and I didn’t feel like anyone could or would understand what I was going through. My feet felt like they were held down by cement blocks. Every step seemed to weigh me down more. Conversations seemed drawn out and torturous and pleasantries seemed completely unnecessary. Everything took so much energy and effort. My soul felt like it was being slowly sucked out of my body.

I lived like this day in and day out. Not knowing where to turn for help not knowing if there were others out there like myself. Pain and misery followed me around every corner and it seemed no matter how hard I tried it would never stop. Hopelessness and helplessness consumed me. I stopped reaching out to others. I withdrew. I didn’t believe this feeling would ever evict itself from my being.

My grades began slipping and I began socializing less. For a while I tried to fake my way through it. I tried to pretend to be happy but my attempts at looking “normal” faded. Anguish and suffering took its place. Drugs and alcohol became a way to escape my emotional rollercoaster. I’ll never forget those days. I’ll never forget people trying to “cheer me up.” What they didn’t understand was that I was in a deep dark place and their “pull your boot straps up” mentality wasn’t working for me.

I was 16 when I attempted suicide. It’s not something I’m proud of. It’s not a romanticized or noble act. For me it was an act from an individual that was being tortured every day. Tortured and sorrowed by life itself. The simplest tasks such as brushing my teeth or combing my hair became anxiety provoking tasks. My dark days are certainly not my favorite, but it’s important you understand where I was to understand how I got to where I am now.

It was the day before Halloween. I remember because there was a crepe paper pumpkin on my breakfast tray the morning I awoke in the hospital. My mind was foggy and I was confused. I looked around the room reading the letters on the wall. I thought it was peculiar that they would write the word “cab” over and over again on the border surrounding my room. It wasn’t until later that day that I realized I was in a pediatric unit and the letters were a-b-c, but whoever the person was putting up the border had started on the letter C.

I tried to laugh and smile when people came in. I tried to tell jokes and pretend everything was OK. I was embarrassed about what I had done and terrified at the fact that I might have to talk about it. Now everyone was going to know I was different. They were going to know that there was something wrong with me. Would they make fun of me? Would they laugh? Would they deny my pain? I wasn’t sure but all I knew was that if I thought things were hard before they were going to be harder now.

Mental illness runs in my family. It’s not something that anyone liked to talk about. Or at least it felt that way. Was I “disturbed”? Was I “crazy”? Would my parents and my friends abandon me? I wasn’t sure and I was scared to find out.

When I left the hospital my parents were given “resources,” which just consisted of therapists and psychiatrists in the area. I was told that I needed to seek therapy and take psychiatric medication. I went through many therapists and psychiatrists—10 or more. I just didn’t feel like I connected with anyone. Some of them might have not been good doctors but the fact was I wasn’t ready to accept that I had a mental illness and everyone around me just kept pretending that nothing ever happened.

Nobody knew what to say or how to act around me. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do and there was no one there to guide me. I was never told that I had a specific diagnosis or given any support groups to go to. Nobody wanted to talk about what happened, throwing me into and even deeper isolation.

I had been an honor roll student. My last two years I skipped school frequently and began engaging even more in drugs and alcohol to relieve my anxiety, depression and the battle I faced every day. I managed somehow to muddle through high school. I still had suicidal thoughts frequently but I thought if I continued this path that I could squash them down with substances.

I was accepted to college and I thought my life would change. I would be on my own and things would be better. I really tried when I went to college. I tried to pull things together. I vigilantly wrote in a journal and slowed down my abuse of drugs and alcohol. Things seemed to be getting better but then my mood started fluctuating beyond my control.

One day I woke up and decided I was going to run for the student Senate and fix the school. I also signed up for all honors classes, signed up to be a double major in psychology and English, and even put in an application to become a skydive instructor. A few hours later I contemplated ending my life. I lost track of time frequently. I would fall asleep in class or I would be bouncing of the walls and jittering in seat. I decided I needed help. I knew I could no longer do this on my own. I began seeing a counselor at the school and a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It was the first time in my life I had felt any relief. I knew now what I had. It had a name. It was real. It wasn’t just me and it was manageable.

I would love to say the story ends there and I magically started my medication and went to therapy and everything was A-OK. But that’s not how it worked out for me. I went through many years of taking medications or not taking medications and self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Besides struggling with a mood disorder I also struggled with who I was. I struggled with what I was. It wasn’t until years later that I was able to finally distinguish the fact that I have bipolar disorder, not that I am bipolar disorder. I believe acceptance of your disorder whatever it may be is truly the key to recovery. With acceptance I could look at it objectively. This is not who I am; it’s something I have and it is treatable. I wish I could tell you the day, the time, that exact moment when that epiphany hit me but it came gradually over time.

For years I have been attending therapy, seeking psychiatric treatments, and reading everything I can get my hands on to learn more information about this disorder that had stunted my life. I wish I had all the answers. I wish I had the key that I could hand over to the next person I meet, but I don’t. Not yet.

I believe that everyone suffers differently and recovers a little differently. Finding the right treatment for you whatever that may be. Therapy and medication works for me as well as paying attention and being more in tune with myself. When I get angry or upset I know how to work my way through it. If I’m a little more sad or happy than usual I ask myself why? Does this emotion make sense? If they don’t, I start to go over the things in my life that could be exacerbating the situation. Am I sleeping enough? Am I sleeping too much? Have I been actively taking my medication at the times and frequency that I am supposed to? Do I have added stressors in my life? Which ones can I work on? Which ones can I eliminate? These are very basic things but for someone like myself these triggers could cause me to end up becoming suicidal or manic. Balance it so important.

I’ve also reached out to find a support network. As a psychology major I decided to attend a NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) class. It was there that I met some wonderful people that were very empathetic to my situation. In this class I was able to see someone do a speech called NAMI In Our Own Voice (IOOV). It was someone just like me talking about what it was like to be in recovery and how to maintain stability.

The day I saw that presentation my life drastically changed. I wanted to become more involved I wanted to do something that no one had done when I was suffering. I wanted to talk about it. I feel like talking about it takes away from the stigma associated with mental illness. In turn it is easier for an individual who is struggling to accept their diagnosis and get the help they need and move on with their lives.

I attended the IOOV training in 2011 and have been doing IOOV presentations since then. It fills my heart with joy and sometimes even moves me to tear up at the end of a presentation. I’ve never felt so good about myself. I don’t see looks of hate or judgment. I see people who are hearing my story and are moved. All those times that I felt people didn’t understand it was because I didn’t have the words to tell them what I was feeling in a coherent way. After starting IOOV I began to attend many different NAMI meetings.

I currently run a support group for other individuals with mental illness and they are some of the most amazing people I have ever met. I can understand that someone without a mental illness may not understand what they are going through. But what I can’t understand is how one could not look at these individuals and hear their story and have anything but admiration for the struggles that they overcome every day. I’m very proud to be a facilitator to a group of such extraordinary people.

I currently work full time and I spend most of my free time doing volunteer work for NAMI. I am currently an IOOV presenter, NAMI Connection (peer support group) facilitator, and a NAMIWalk Committee member. NAMI’s goal to provide education, advocacy and support has become mine. Knowledge is power and the more people know and understand the less stigma there will be. Less stigma will then lead to more individuals being able to accept their biologically based disorders and others to be able to talk about it. I have made a vow to myself to use my personal experience to help others. Reducing stigma and increasing support from the community as well as making mental health as important as physical health conditions is a priority. The more I talk about my journey the better I feel and the more I realize that people don’t see me as Bipolar. They see me as Tricia.


FEB, 03, 2018 10:31:21 AM
you are very inspirational to me. so happy to have you in my life as a advocate and as a friend.

AUG, 03, 2015 08:24:59 AM
Robert Tice
Your story is truly inspirational and god bless you.

JUL, 01, 2015 11:26:06 AM
Helen Han
Healing & Recovery

JUN, 29, 2015 04:16:17 PM
Paulette Vitale
Thanks for sharing, Tricia. How do I find a support group for bipolar? I live in Moore, Oklahoma?

JUN, 29, 2015 11:12:06 AM
agnes worthington
I was bi-polar. my therapist who worked with me 29 years, at some point said I was,not, believe it or not I was able to question her. She said I take my medication.
Tricia I am so glad you did not get stopped, but kept going. I raised my two children, took L.P.N. course at a time I had no self confidence

JUN, 27, 2015 03:27:02 AM
Kurt Olsson
I understand completely and many of us with mental health problems go through the same thing. Coming out is difficult or reckless as I was, flaunting my condition. I seem to have a positive look at my mental health issues as I focus on its benefit, yet when I am down I am certainly down. You are not a lone Tricia, and thank you for sharing your work!

JUN, 26, 2015 01:02:57 PM
Sherlie Martinez
Thank you for sharing your story. I can relate so much on what you went through.... I have experienced a lot of encounters with people who are so ignorant and think that one could just turn the moods and the negative feelings on and off. Or that you chose to be that way. You couldn't have said better, I will borrow your phrase: See me as Sherlie not as Bipolar Disorder. Thank you

JUN, 26, 2015 08:48:58 AM
pranesh nagri
Thanks for sharing your experiences. You are doing a wonderful job. It is very encouraging to read this.Let us all have faith in love.Thanks.

JUN, 25, 2015 02:12:47 PM
Will B.
Great story, Tricia! I too have Bipolar Disorder 1 and during the past year have recovered from it to a great degree. Tomorrow I start Connections Counseling Training and I hope to make a difference in the lives of others, just as you have...

JUN, 25, 2015 10:15:27 AM
Not only are you an amazing and persevering person, but you are an excellent writer. Thank you for your empathy and sharing your experience to help others!

JUN, 25, 2015 09:48:06 AM
Ashley Wehrmann
Well said, as someone who has been blessed that suicide is not a part of my disease, but also had the early onset and highschool hospitalization, but as the opposite that I had good providers and frequently reached out for help. In my 30's, when I believed I truly knew how to manage my disease I ended up going through my first major manic episode, I don't know where was shocked more once I knew, my providers or myself. I feel like afterwards I lost myself and became bipolar, not Ashley. Thank you for your story. I have always been open hoping to help others understand, and even find myself being more open with someone I realize is uncomfortable with it. We do face struggles everyday that even those closest to us can not understand. Healing is hard to face, but with the right support we can do extraordinary things with the gifts our minds have also been blessed with. :)

JUN, 25, 2015 12:34:06 AM
Cathy Pennington
What a blessing you are... So great you have come to a place of acceptance and turned it into an opportunity to give out, educate, encourage others. It is clear that by giving out to others, you are being filled. Keep on keeping on...You are a wonderful role model.

JUN, 24, 2015 09:03:05 PM
John Gibson
I've lived with 2 'mentally ill' daughters for 25 years now. My wife and I have taught 6 NAMI Family to Family classes and shared their experiences. I also have read about how our brain functions.

I learned to practice 'mindfulness' from one of my daughters.

In F to F classes I like to first say 'the fruit doesn't fall far from the tree'.
Then, I say, no that's wrong, it should be 'the tree is not far from the fallen fruit'. Someone once said, don't you mean 'nut'? Well, OK, if that shoe fits, wear it!

My father was an alcoholic. I won't go into our mix of nationalities because they all fit together in a double helix strand which led to my formation and birth. I had my own experience with alcohol when I was young and then I began to exercise regularly and finally was able to 'live with' that and some of my other behaviors which could have harmed my life and my family.

Of course, I didn't realize this as such during the first 65 years of my life.

Read this quote from a newsletter that I get and think about what is being said in terms of the speakers 'being'.

The Ingenious Mudhole
Tammuz 6, 5775 · June 23, 2015
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Print this Page | Read Online

There is an urge within us, at once both imbecilic and ingenious.

Imbecilic, because it will not look beyond its mud hole and move on.

Ingenious, because to defend its muddy fortress it will summon circumstance, DNA, unfit parents, incompetent teachers, society, evolution, creation, low self-esteem—a myriad of excuses to avoid making one step ahead.

Every excuse but the real one: Its instinctive obstinacy to remain in the mud hole it knows so well.

This quotation to me illustrates how we tend to think of ourselves and our reaction to our environment and our life experiences.

What I see in my Dad, me, and my 2 daughters is that we all have 'disorders' in our brains which result from our inherited DNA.

I think of my brain as having a 'mind' of it's own. It certainly keeps my bodily functions going without any command from me. It keeps me standing upright and together with my muscles can learn to do such things as swim. It puts me to sleep at night and sometimes keeps me awake. It makes me feel pleasure from just the sight or smell of things like peanut butter cookies. It remembers the smell of fresh milk in a bucket from when I was perhaps only 8 years old. When I sleep it 'relives' situations that I've been in and will even change them or invent totally new ones which surprise me.

I have to watch out for it when I'm swimming in Lake Chelan and I get into deep water and there is no bottom in sight. I may have an instant panic reflex which I think comes from a near drowning incident when I was 3 that I don't remember but it does.

So, I read about 'Tricia' and with this background I see 'Tricia' as being her 'mind', her brain as an organ, it's 'mind' and all the shades of her feelings.

I sense that my brain has a program of it's own the 'realm' that I live in is made up of it's insatiable need to construct patterns and connect things and make 'us' feel like we are the center of the universe, but don't tell anyone.

I've learned to 'feed' my brain things which make it make me 'feel' good. Sometimes that doesn't work and I feel like life is not really worth living.

But, I've learned to form the idea in my 'mind' that remember John, it's just a feeling and reality is no different than the last time you felt good. Sure, there are chemicals that do this. That's what I get from exercise or an occasional shot of Cognac.

I was reading that alcohol interferes with the protein in our cell walls that is the Sodium-Potassium pump used in an energy cycle. I first feel a nice relaxing sensation in my throat and stomach and then up my spine and finally I get numb headed and my muscle reactions slow. If I'm having a good laugh with some other 'good old boy', I get lots of good feelings and laugh a lot. All because of the sodium-potassium pump.

So, Tricia, think about your brain as a separate and independent part of you. You injure it and we know that things may stop working.

I could tell you the story of a friend who had a stroke and his brain forgot how to even make his throat swallow. He couldn't move his head so you had to sit just right for him to see you. Then it was like nothing had changed. He was still my friend with the same personality and opinions and sense of humor.

So, Tricia, think of Tricia in this way and cherish your existence but learn how to have your 'mind' be aware of all the aspects of who you are and learn to use your brain and your body to be the Tricia that you want to be.

Just think about Tricia in the universe and your brain will make you feel the awe and splendor of it.

I think there is also some basic goodness in our 'being' just as programmed as in a Morning Glory vine that will always, always climb it's host in a counter clock wise direction.

What egotists we are. The DNA behind these brains are a wonderful part of the human but may be the death of it also.

Think about this statement in this way.

"Home of the Gentry", by Ivan Turgenev,

"The sweet, passionate melody captivated his heart from the first note; it was full of radiance, full of the tender throbbing of inspiration and happiness and beauty, continually growing and melting away; it rumoured of everything on earth that is dear and secret and sacred to mankind; it breathed of immortal sadness and it departed from the earth to die in the heavens."

JUN, 24, 2015 08:42:32 PM
Julie Klopf
Thank You for the work that you have done and continue to do. I work as an RN and am exited to finally see the models of NAMI in the hospital lobby/ER coming through. I hope this extends to college orientation groups as well.

JUN, 23, 2015 07:21:13 PM
Tricia Ellis
Thank you for all of your kind words :)

JUN, 23, 2015 05:20:04 PM
Bess Hall
Thank you for sharing!

JUN, 15, 2015 04:49:37 AM
Victoria Garcia
thank you for sharing your inspiring story. I have lived my entire childhood & most of my adulthood with a mother who suffers with many mental illnesses. she's been diagnosed with schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, bipolar, & many other illnesses. I was extremely abused by her as a child. as an adult, shes tried to hurt me with a kitchen knife. I always said & prayed to God, "please don't let me ever become like my mom" & always swore that if I had kids, Id never ever abuse them or hurt them in any way. I lived up to 1 of my promises. I'v never laid a hand on or spanked any of my 2 boys.I'v never been able to understand how a parent can hurt any child, in any way. well, im 43 now & have been diagnosed with bipolar, ptsd & am so very frightened that I may pass this very dark, confusing, lonely illness to my children. I beg of you please help me to find help for myself & more importantly help so I can learn the early warning sighns in my children. thank you

JUN, 08, 2015 11:39:08 PM
I have a 32 year old daughter who has been living "YOUR LIFE" She finally was told she is bipolar. My daughter us my hero, I really wish she could meet you

JUN, 08, 2015 06:33:14 PM
Catherine Ellis
Tricia you are truly a wonderful person. A giver and supporter that is inspirational in every way. I can't imagine a world without you in it. You have made me see many things in a different way. I love you

JUN, 07, 2015 05:37:12 PM
Marta Ortiz
Thank you for sharing this, I admire you for being a voice and being part of the movement to end the ridiculousness of stigma surrounding another biologically based disorder.

JUN, 07, 2015 12:49:59 AM
Floree McFadden
What did u did to get help and how did u except.

JUN, 06, 2015 10:03:53 PM
Kerry Arseneaux
Tricia I truly admire you and all that you bring to NAMI ~ you are such an inspiration. Thank you for sharing your story.

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