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Shannon Flynn Lewis, age 42, married, research recruiter, counselor, Germantown, MD
Realizing Something Was Wrong
"The first sign that I had bipolar disorder was a depressive episode I experienced at age 17, which got progressively worse until I went into a depressive stupor. It was an agitated depression at first—I was panicky and scared. I would do weird things like cut up my school uniform and sew patches of it onto other clothes. I would write lengthy surveys and try to make other students take them. I would sit up in the middle of the night drinking black coffee with salt and pepper in it—it tasted terrible, but I had this feeling that I had to drink it. I would read Greek, which I did not know, but I had this idea that I could teach myself how to read it. I started being unable to function at school, and then I dropped out. I would prick myself and bang my head on the wall, and stopped eating most of the time. At first I couldn't sleep, then I started sleeping too much. My mother worked at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and she found me a wonderful psychiatrist. They put me in the hospital for a month and on medication—an antidepressant and a low-dose antipsychotic. Once it started working, it really, really helped me."
"We Believe in You"
"Once the medication started working, what maintained me was my great support system—my family and friends. I basically tanked my senior year of high school, but I went back the next year and got straight As. I had great SAT scores and got into all of the colleges where I applied. I played the lead in the school musical. All of this happened because my parents said, "We believe in you. Yes, you had this major depression and maybe this is an illness you'll have to live with through the rest of your life, but that should not stop you from doing what you want to do. You can do whatever you want; you have our support and love."
I ended up getting my B.A. in psychology from Georgetown University and a master's in art therapy from George Washington University, then I got certified as a counselor, and now I plan on pursuing a Ph.D. I think I can bring something to therapy that other people can't. I've been on both sides of the couch or desk. I can empathize with patients. Even if I stay stable for the rest of my life, I will always remember what it's like to be suffering.""
Psychotherapy has also helped me tremendously, especially when I faced academic stress. My therapist helps me manage not only my bipolar disorder, but also day-to-day issues that arise, by understanding issues in my past. When I'm under a lot of stress, she helps me plan how to structure my activities so that I can get everything done, and she helps me decide when it's time to give up an activity temporarily to take care of myself. I also see a psychiatrist who is a top expert in bipolar disorder. He's been very careful about changing my medications, but at the same time is willing to collaborate with me in deciding what we're going to do to tweak them if things aren't going well. He treats me like an equal, not like a patient."
The Power of Painting and Poetry
"It's so important that people who have bipolar disorder have some kind of creative outlet to express their extreme emotions in safe, nondestructive ways. Even if they don't think they're good at it, that doesn't matter. For some people, it might be dance, drama, writing, cooking or even sports. For me, it's painting and writing poetry. The poet Wordsworth once said, poetry is 'emotion recollected in tranquility.' I think that's true."
Some people are scared of people with bipolar disorder. They say, "Oh, they're so up and down. You can't predict them. They're wild cards." People with bipolar disorder are all around you, and you might not even know it. We're your friends. We're your neighbors. We're your relatives, and we want the same things anyone else does."