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From an early age, I was driven by conventional markers of success: academic and professional accomplishment and most importantly, financial wealth. As the child of immigrant parents, these markers were particularly important to me. I saw money as a measure that transcended cultural barriers and norms. Enough of it would establish my worth in our adopted home.
So, I worked diligently toward this dream. I excelled in school. I graduated high school early and completed college and then law school. First, I was a lawyer, and then, I wanted to become an investment banker, so I could have even greater earning power.
My early career was a life of work and nothing else. I would proudly work 14-16 hours a day, including weekends. I’d brag about how I could pull all-nighters. I wanted to be a workaholic. I saw others in the same field working just as hard as I was. I came to believe that this was what being successful was all about. Slowly, as I tired of being exhausted all the time, watching the years of my youth pass by, I started to change my views.
My MBA program and early exposure to investment banking only cemented my growing dissatisfaction. How I felt forced me to confront the realities of this career goal. All my life I had worked toward a dream that made me miserable. My ambitions were deflated. And I didn't have a backup plan, so I wasn’t able to redirect my energy elsewhere. Depression took over. It took away all my hope. Then I had my first manic episode. That manic episode combined with several more in the coming years swallowed me up and hijacked my life.
From Dreams to Suicidal Ideation
Suddenly, I was “bipolar.” To me, this could have no place in my success. I tried to dismiss the first manic episode and the diagnosis. I convinced myself that it was a one-time anomaly and not a part of me. I refused to come to terms with my bipolar disorder. This refusal would lead me toward self-destruction.
I started to believe the limitations society projected onto me. I accepted society’s stigmas toward mental illness and turned them into self-stigma. I no longer believed I could achieve success or have a high-powered career. I felt like a complete failure, like I had disappointed my family, especially my spouse and parents. I was embarrassed and ashamed.
I took preemptive strikes to protect myself from other people’s reactions toward the “ill” me.
I pushed people away. I refused help. I stopped communicating with my spouse. I communicated with my parents only enough for them to know I was alive. I refused to take calls from friends. I told them to leave me alone. It was a way of staying in control. I completely retreated and isolated myself.
I was hopeless and helpless for many years. I felt I had no reason to live. I wanted to escape my pain and suffering. I was convinced I could never make it stop. I was left considering suicide as a way to fix the situation. In my head, it was the only way. My suicidal ideation gradually increased over the years. It took over my thoughts and my mind. I reached a point where I spent more time thinking of reasons to die than to live.
Finally Finding Hope and Meaning
My last hospitalization due to a manic episode gave me a jolt of realization. I happened to learn about peer-based support, and I was exposed to examples of other people living well with mental illness. People who defined success not with money, but with what made them happy. I found a network of peers, a community, that was diverse and vibrant, and successful in many ways. They inspired me. They helped set me on a new path to find meaning in my life and combat my suicidal ideations. These are the three principles I learned along the way.
1. Career success is doing something that makes you happy.
It has been long established that helping others benefits both the recipient and the giver. This is my life philosophy now. Every day I wake up in the morning hoping to inspire just one person that recovery from mental illness is real.
I developed ForLikeMinds with this goal. It may not make me successful the way I used to define it, but it brings me immeasurable wealth. I also love volunteering with my local NAMI-NYC affiliate and writing for the NAMI Blog. Knowing that I am in some way contributing to people's understanding of mental illness and helping others adds true meaning in my life.
2. There is no happiness or success without strong relationships.
For years, I distanced and isolated myself from my family and friends. I was too consumed with my own pain and suffering to realize what I was doing to others. I didn't speak to some of my friends for five or more years. I never fathomed that they needed me as much as I needed them.
When I reached recovery, I apologized to my family and friends. I realized my family never stopped loving me. I was wrong to think otherwise. My friends focused on the fact that I was back and not why I had retreated. Of course, many of my former friends did not take me back, but the most important ones did.
I wouldn’t have experienced such long periods of suicidal ideation if I hadn’t isolated myself. As I emerged from suicidal ideation and recovered, I realized the true meaning of the love of family and caring friendships. Now I nurture and cherish them, and they help keep me well. They come above all else.
3. To live well with mental illness, you have to understand your mental illness.
It has taken me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I have mental illness—that it’s a chronic disease that will not go away. But it also doesn’t mean I can’t have a fulfilling life. It required a lot of adjustment, but it was critical to learn how to live well with mental illness rather than letting the struggle of it take over my life.
I also had to better understand the risks—especially suicide—of bipolar disorder and not be complacent or dismissive of them. I have grown to respect the seriousness of my illness and take more responsibility for it, such as prioritizing treatment.
I’ve learned to transform suicidal thinking into thoughts of hope. I can now manage and cope with these thoughts and be empowered by them to help others. Mental illness may take a lot away from us, but the struggle can bring us closer to understanding the meaning of our lives. Now, I have many reasons to live for. I have hope to share, and I want to share it with as many people as possible.
Author's note: I would like to dedicate this blog post to patients in psychiatric units. After discharge from the hospital, patients with mental illness experience suicide rates of 100-200 times greater than the general population. I hope that in the depths of your pain and suffering you'll find the hope you have within you to pursue the beautiful life we all deserve.
Katherine Ponte is a mental health advocate, writer and entrepreneur. She is the founder of ForLikeMinds, the first online peer-based support community dedicated to people living with or supporting someone with mental illness, and Bipolar Thriving, a recovery coaching service for caregivers and their loved ones affected by bipolar disorder. She is also the creator of the Psych Ward Greeting Cards program in which she personally shares her recovery experiences and distributes donated greeting cards to patients in psychiatric units. She is in recovery from severe bipolar I disorder with psychosis. She is also on the board of NAMI New York City.
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