"My Bipolar Disorder Has Been a Gift"

Nancy Foster, mental health advocate; mom of two; grandmother of three; married for 41 years to Bob Foster, mayor of Long Beach, CA

Feeling Apart From the World

"Looking back, I had symptoms of bipolar disorder as early as my teen years. There were times when I just felt strange, apart from the world, but I didn't tell anybody. Then I would have other spells where I'd stay up until 3 a.m. and feel like I didn't even need to sleep. I spent about 11 years with periods of depression and extreme anxiety that were undiagnosed. I was told I was allergic to wheat and to fabric softener. I was put on megavitamins. I stayed off sugar for three years, and tried different food combinations and Rolfing, a type of soft-tissue manipulation. Nothing worked."

About two months after my second son was born, when I was 35 years old, I started feeling strange again. I was very down. When I had to make a decision, my world would come falling down. Daily tasks, such as going to the dry cleaner, became monumental—I would fret about it all day long. I felt like a prisoner in my own body. Living from day to day became difficult, but I realized that my children needed me and I had to be there for them. I decided to see a psychiatrist after I read a magazine article about depression and psychiatric problems and recognized myself. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed a mood stabilizer. Within about three weeks my life became much easier to manage. I started enjoying life. I was able to go out to lunch with my friends, whereas in the past I would either feel too down or too anxious to socialize. Going to events with my husband became fun, whereas in the past I'd pretend to feel normal—I would fake it. After I started taking the medication, I actually enjoyed going out and being with people, and I was able to make plans and follow through with them."

A Public Life, a Powerful Voice

"One evening, we were at a Christmas party and a friend overheard me telling someone about my mental illness. Later, she told me she couldn't believe I was talking so openly about it. She said she didn't want anyone to know about her own problems. That made me realize that people are really ashamed of having a mental illness, and that shame can keep them from getting help. That conversation gave me a little shove. I felt comfortable talking about my mental illness, and because my husband was the mayor of Long Beach, I knew I could have a voice and maybe help other people by talking about my own experiences."

If you have a physical illness, you can go through treatment and get better. Mental illness doesn't have a straight course, and there's a stigma attached to it. I want to talk about my bipolar disorder because I believe that the more people hear about something, the more familiar it becomes, and that starts to alleviate the stigma. My advice to other women who are newly diagnosed, or who think they might have a mental illness, is to start talking to other people. Maybe someone knows a great psychiatrist, or maybe someone else has been helped by a certain medication. You will get information and feel less alone."

Movement, Music, Joy

"In addition to finding the right medication, seeing a psychologist for therapy helps me tap into different areas to maximize my treatment. Exercise is also important. I do aerobics, but what I enjoy most is weight lifting, which I do four times a week. It's a safe haven for me. I look forward to being in the gym and knowing it's my time and I have control over this. Listening to music on my iPod when I'm working out elevates my mood too. I kind of get into another world in which I'm just listening to the music and I zero in on what I'm doing."

In many ways, my bipolar disorder has been a gift. I'm so grateful that I have a husband who has stood by me for all of these years, and for my children and grandchildren, and that I have wonderful women friends in my life. I think the gift that depression and bipolar disorder has given me is to feel genuine compassion for others. If it's made me a better person to be able to hurt for other people, then it's been worth it."

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