Hope Starts With Us: Maternal Mental Health & Bipolar Disorder

JUN. 14, 2023

Hope Starts With Us: Episode 23

In this episode of NAMI’s podcast, NAMI CEO Daniel H. Gillison Jr. speaks with actor, mental health advocate and NAMI Ambassador Alessandri Torresani, about her journey with maternal mental health and bipolar disorder. Tune in to hear more about Alessandra’s journey balancing self-care with motherhood, decisions about medication during pregnancy, and living with a mental health diagnosis and stigma.

You can find additional episodes of this NAMI podcast and others at nami.org/podcast.

We hope this podcast encourages you, inspires you, helps you and brings you further into the collective to know: you are not alone.  

Episodes will air every other Wednesday and will be available on most major directories and apps.


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Featured Guest:

Alessandra Torresani

Alessandra Torresani

Alessandra Torresani is an actor, advocate and NAMI National ambassador.

She was born in Palo Alto, California. Before becoming an actress, Alessandra studied dancing and singing from the age of two and achieved a Black Belt in Tae-Kwon-Do by the age of nine. Torresani's television debut was at age nine when she hosted the WB Kids' Club for San Francisco's KBWB.

Her television credits include guest appearances on The Big Bang Theory (2007), Batwoman (2019), Lucifer (2016), Two and a Half Men (2003), The Fosters (2013), Workaholics (2011), American Horror Story (2011), Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008), CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000), Warehouse 13 (2009), Arrested Development (2003), Malcolm in the Middle (2000), and ER (1994), among others. Torresani was cast as Zoe Graystone in Syfy's critically-acclaimed Caprica (2009), a prequel spin-off of Battlestar Galactica (2004), which debuted in January 2010.

Alessandra is the host of the EmtionaAL Supprt podcast, which is funny and revealing and each guest is unique, speaking out their own mental health or work in the field.

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Episode Transcript:

Dan Gillison: [0:01] Hi, everyone. I'm Daniel H. Gillison Jr., CEO of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

[0:08] [background music]

Dan: [0:08] You are here for our podcast, "Hope Starts With Us."

Alessandra Torresani: [0:13] I'm Alessandra Torresani, mental health advocate, NAMI ambassador, a critically acclaimed actor. I did not write that, but I will totally take that right now. [laughs] You may know me from shows like "Big Bang Theory," "Two and a Half Men," "Caprica," "Workaholics," "Lucifer."

[0:30] I am here not only as an ambassador and someone who lives with bipolar I disorder, but for my own podcast, "EmotionAL Support."

Dan: [0:39] We're doing something special this week. We're doing a double‑drop on both NAMI's podcast and Alessandra's podcast, so you can tune in to hear our conversation on either platform.

Alessandra: [0:52] Today, Dan will be asking me questions about maternal mental health and bipolar disorder. We hope this episode helps in continuing to educate the public, break the stigma, and let anyone else out there going through something similar know, you are not alone.

Dan: [1:11] As I start this, Alessandra, I want to say this, that when you say critically acclaimed actor...

Alessandra: [1:17] [laughs] You can just call me Al. Everyone calls me Al. That's the easiest.

Dan: [1:20] Al, everyone calls me Dan, so I'm just Dan.

Alessandra: [1:23] There you go. Al, just go with Al. It's easier.

Dan: [1:26] We want to start by thanking you so very much for taking your time to be here. You are a very acclaimed actor as some of the credits that you've shared with us, and you only shared some. We know how busy you are, and we're so appreciative that you'd use your platform and lend your talent to us for our platform.

[1:49] Thank you for being a part of this conversation. As I begin, let me set this up a little bit. Moms face so much pressure on a day‑to‑day basis at every stage of motherhood, even during pregnancy. It can be even more difficult for moms who are already facing mental health challenges, which is something you've spoken about openly.

[2:11] As someone living with bipolar disorder, you've talked about your own internal struggle of wanting to keep yourself safe by taking medication, but also wanting to keep your baby safe during the course of your pregnancy, which might have required you to stop taking medication.

[2:26] Can you talk more about what that felt like and was with our audience, and how did you wrestle with these conflicting feelings?

Alessandra: [2:35] Sure. I'm so happy to be talking about this subject, because this was something that was very hard for me to figure out what I wanted to do. I wanted to obviously do the safest thing for my baby and the safest thing for me.

[2:52] I always use the example of when we're on an airplane, you got to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you take care of anyone next to you. This was a different situation, because when you're first pregnant, you hear all these things, "Oh my gosh, you can't have an Advil, you can't have a Pepto‑Bismol. That will kill your baby."

[3:11] All these really, really scary things are thrown on you within the first couple of weeks of when you find out you're pregnant. I knew that the medication that I was on, that there were a few side effects. I did the risk versus reward, and I thought, "What is the best possible thing that I can do?"

[3:29] For me, I decided to wean off my medication before I got pregnant and made sure that I had a team of doctors, a team of individuals with me that were constantly watching and monitoring me to make sure that even though I was off the medication, that I still felt like I was on the right track, that I was safe.

[3:50] The biggest issue that I feel like I want to talk about, so push it to the world is that we need to have more communication with the doctors and the scientists.

[4:04] Yes, there may be a .01 percent that something may happen with the medication, but that's very scary for a pregnant woman to hear any percentage that something might happen to your baby. Guess what? If it happens to your baby, that's something that you live with for the rest of your life that you may regret for the rest of your life.

[4:22] The statistic may be low, but to a mom, to someone who's pregnant, going through it, it's very high. I challenge the doctors out there and the scientists to do the work, to do the test, to make sure that it's 100 percent safe, the best possible way that we can, to make sure that we can take care of our mamas and we can take care of the babies.

Dan: [4:44] Thank you, Al. As you spoke about that, I want to ask you if you could reflect back for a moment and look at what you know now. Based off what you know now, would you have done anything differently? If so, what would that have been?

Alessandra: [4:58] I don't think that I would have done anything differently, because it's one of those things where it is where it is.

[5:05] I'm very happy with the choice that I made, because for me, when I weighed my options out, let's say, I felt I was in a place and a state of mind where I had been dealing with my mental illness for 15 years and that I was lucky enough and could afford the right doctors and the right specialists to be around me, to monitor me.

[5:30] Not a lot of women have that opportunity, have those finances. It was so expensive, Dan, to make sure that I had all the specialists around me. I was very blessed in that situation. Other moms are not, and I'm very well‑aware of that. It is so expensive to be able to take care of your mental health and then add a baby on top of it.

[5:57] What I recommend to every mom out there is, "You do a self‑analysis." That means a lot of moms will get off their medication, and then get back on their medication and choose not to breastfeed, and say, "You know what, I'm going to formula feed, because you know what, fed is best.

"[6:15] If I can get back on my medication afterwards, after I deliver, then I'm going to do that. That's the best thing." There's different things that you can choose of, "What am I going to do in this situation?" You have to do the own personal choice of, how can you take that risk and decide on your own? It's the pros and cons for yourself.

Dan: [6:36] Thank you for sharing that and doing the best for yourself. Also, what you shared about the doctors and the scientists, in terms of what they need to bring to the table, and being a part of this collective is very important. Thank you for sharing that.

Alessandra: [6:49] Of course.

Dan: [6:50] As I started out saying, there's so much pressure on moms in general. I can imagine that it's hard to balance your own mental health when many often feel, many times, you often feel so much pressure to prioritize and care for the rest of your family's wellbeing above your own. How do you manage that?

[7:13] What advice do you have for other moms? Moms are breadwinners. Moms are navigating the rest of the family and the whole system, and they're expected to stand everything up for everyone else. What advice would you have?

Alessandra: [7:29] Take a deep breath. That would be the first thing that I would say is because it is a rollercoaster ride. Whether you have one kid, two kids, three kids, sometimes your husband or your partner feels like a kid at times to you, and you get so overwhelmed by having to take care of everyone.

[7:46] The best thing that I learned is I take that moment and I breathe. I'm a big believer in meditation and breath work, so I find that moment to take a second. The biggest thing we can do is find a support system.

[8:03] Whether that is family members, whether that's friends, whether that's a support system that you can reach out to, even on the Internet, taking an hour to yourself to take that break. We all need a break.

[8:18] Especially moms are living on such a high frequency that they're constantly going, going, going that literally a bath for me is all that it takes for me to reset my mind, and focus, and be like, "You know what? I can breathe through this. It's going to be OK."

[8:38] The number one thing that you can do as a mom is find a support system, whether that be a family member, a friend, or if it's a stranger on the Internet that is part of a self‑help group. That is the best support that you can have is for yourself to stay strong.

Dan: [8:56] Al, you've talked about some things that are a part of our mantra. We say nothing about us without us. We also say you are not alone. That you are not alone is a part of what you just talked about in regards to a support system. Don't navigate this by yourself. Become a part of a support system.

[9:16] You also said take a moment and breathe and take a break. We talk about the treadmill. Sometimes, you need to get off of the treadmill and just breathe. It's so important what you've shared. You've also spoken very openly about your own journey with bipolar disorder. Can you talk to us about that?

[9:37] What has your personal journey been like? What was it like to receive a diagnosis? Do you feel like there are particular stigmas associated with bipolar disorder?

Alessandra: [9:48] Absolutely. I still feel like there are stigmas that are associated with bipolar disorder, which is wild because we live in a world now where we're all going through something.

[10:00] We all went through, as a world, through the pandemic, a mental health crisis, and yet it's still looked down upon, and yet it's still shamed. With my journey, I am now almost 36 years old. I found out that I was living with bipolar disorder when I was around 20, 21.

[10:20] For me, I had been on so many different types of medications, seen so many doctors. No one could pinpoint exactly what the problem was. When I got my diagnosis, unlike a lot of people, I was happy. It felt like I could take a deep breath.

[10:36] It felt like I could relax my shoulders, because, for the first time, I could identify an issue, and that I knew that there was medication, that there were doctors, there were specialists, there were therapists, there were people that could help me through this now that we identified it.

[10:54] It was very hard living with bipolar disorder being pregnant, because in the second trimester, I was told from moms in my life, and from reading articles and hearing podcasts, and whatnot, "The second trimester is the best. It's when you giggle. Everything's so exciting. You have so much energy."

[11:15] For me, that was actually the worst. That's when my highs were higher and my lows were lower and the mania came on. It was scary because I didn't feel like I was "normal." I had felt quite normal, like, "This is what a normal woman does. They have a baby. This feels good."

[11:34] When I felt out of whack, the only place that I found comfort were in places like Reddit and I would say TikTok, finding moms through the algorithm that maybe were living with mental illness that were afraid to talk to other specialist doctors about it at first because it's scary.

[11:54] You don't want someone to take away your baby. You don't want someone to say you're an unfit mom. That's something that a lot of people with not only bipolar disorder, but mental illness in general struggle with because they're afraid, "I need to be perfect. I need to be good for this baby. My brain needs to function. It needs to be fine."

[12:13] What we need to do is come together and say, "It is OK if your brain is feeling this way. It is not you as a mom. It is how your hormones are reacting to the chemical imbalances. This is not speaking to your heart and soul."

[12:28] That's where people get a little, not a little, they get very judgmental. I found a lot of people on social media as I started speaking about being bipolar and living with bipolar disorder and being pregnant.

[12:42] A lot of people were very judgmental of, "You're too crazy. You shouldn't have the right to have a child." These were strangers on the Internet. There's always going to be bullies. When you're in a vulnerable state and you hear something like that and you are open and sharing, it's very hard to take that over and over and over again.

[13:01] I want to share with those who are living with bipolar disorder, "You are not alone. You should not be shamed for it. So many more people in the world live with bipolar disorder than you can even imagine. We can get through it together as long as you're ready to share your story, share your story."

Dan: [13:18] Alessandra, I have to say to you that what you're sharing is so critically important, and we're so appreciative of it. You mentioned that when you learned of your diagnosis, you said you were happy, you were relieved because you now knew. What was that like as you shared it with family?

Alessandra: [13:40] It was interesting, because my mom is my best friend, so she was along the journey the whole time of being the one who was trying to find hypnotherapists, regular therapists, cognitive behavior...She was doing everything she could to try to find the person that was going to be the miracle help.

[14:00] Being able to share it with my family, I think that they were so relieved as well, because they knew that I had been struggling for so long and no one could identify what the problem was. When I was at my worst, I would say it was when I was around 15.

[14:17] People would say, chalk it up to being, "She's just hormonal. She's going through puberty. That's all it is." When family started hearing that and what another awesome blessing is once I started talking about my mental illness, other family members were diagnosed with bipolar disorder, with Asperger's, with autism.

[14:40] There were other sorts of mental illnesses that were coming to light because people in my family, they were going, "I had never felt like this was right. This feels interesting." Hearing my podcast, hearing certain things, they're like, "That person sounds like they're going through what I'm going through."

[14:56] Our family is now this beautiful, soup of mental illness in the most beautiful way possible. [laughs] We're now so open about it. We're too open about it sometimes. It's been nice to know that I'm not alone within my own family even.

[15:17] That was being the first person to push through it, and then hearing all these other stories that are coming to light years later.

Dan: [15:26] You're such a leader and a champion. A champion for change, a champion for anti‑stigma, and a champion for what we can do with. This is such a wonderful conversation. We also know that it takes 11 years between when a young person first has the symptoms to when they get treatment.

[15:51] For a 14‑year‑old, they might start experiencing symptoms then, and their treatment doesn't start happening until they're 25. There's something there, in terms of what you just shared.

[16:04] It's so cool that your mom is your best friend. I can imagine that as you were anxious sometimes, she was there to support you.

Alessandra: [16:11] 100 percent.

Dan: [16:13] That is wonderful. I also heard inside of what you were saying about the social media, and Reddit, and some of the other platforms is don't bend to the peer pressure, and step up. That's why support groups are so important.

Alessandra: [16:29] It's so important, because just hearing someone's story, even if it's not exactly like yours, there's enough of a similarity there where you're going to be able to take something.

[16:40] There were a lot of women that I had heard speak about who were living with mental illness, some who didn't discover they were living with mental illness until they were pregnant as well.

[16:52] Hearing certain tips and tricks that they did or that they were able to get through it, and they're here thriving, and they have a beautiful baby, it's something that was inspiring and encouraged me to want to share my story even more because I thought if I could help one person, that that was all that I needed to do.

Dan: [17:15] I want to ask you a question. It's not in the script, but I'm going to ask it, because I am a father and I have a daughter who's 36. What is it that a father needs to do as he's navigating this space and helping his loved one if his loved one is in this situation?

[17:35] In our generation, we grew up a certain way. We navigate things a certain way. We read things a certain way. In our world where we know that we want to be both and, what would you say to fathers that are in this space and they want to do better? What would you offer to them?

Alessandra: [17:57] Dan, I'm tearing up right now, because it's so sweet, because I think that that's so wonderful that you're even asking. That is the number one thing. I don't have a relationship with my father, so for me, hearing you say that is like, "Oh my God, how wonderful is that? How blessed is your daughter? That's so incredible."

[18:17] Just asking, how are you really? Whether your daughter, or if you had a son, your child, whether they're pregnant, not pregnant, just dealing with their mental health, just dealing with life, the simple question of, how are you really?

[18:36] Asking them, just to know that someone cares enough to see how you're doing, to feel how you're doing, is the most important thing. When you're navigating specifically, I feel like with a woman that's pregnant, there's something in sharing space without even being all...I don't know the word exactly, but being a helicopter parent, you know what I mean?

[19:05] The best moments that I had with my mom and with my family was when they just sat there with me, being there, feeling their energy. If there's those who are in different states or whatever, a FaceTime.

[19:19] If you're having a tough day, if you're pregnant and you're hormonal, knowing that someone is there sharing space with you is so important. You feel that love, even if it's across from the phone. [laughs] There's so much love there.

[19:34] Dan, just asking the question, "What can I do?" it warms my heart, because that's so wonderful. If you can have a parent like you, that's so beautiful.

Dan: [19:45] Thank you. Thank you so much. I would tell you that what you talked about in terms of we say that we are a collective, that we are a community, and that's what this is all about, is that collective and that community.

[19:58] People need community, and they need to be a part of a collective. You mentioned asking someone, "How are you really doing?" We have a book, "You're Not Alone ‑‑ The NAMI Guide to Navigating Mental Health."

[20:10] At the same time, what we tell people is if you take the time to ask someone how they're doing, that means you care about them. Take the time that when they give you the cosmetic answer, then say, "Tell me, how are you really doing?

"[20:22] Let's get past the cover of the book and get into the table of contents and the chapters. How are you really doing?" Thank you for that. That was profound.

Alessandra: [20:30] I would also love to share one more thing that happened to me with pregnancy, which I loved afterwards.

[20:38] I had a rough time postpartum, and one thing that someone had always recommended asking is asking a mom who's maybe a new mom who had just given birth or a couple of weeks, "How are you doing?" Everyone always asks, "How's the baby doing? Is everything OK? Oh my God, healthy baby."

[20:59] You can always ask that, but then say, "How are you doing? Are you OK? Are you emotionally OK? Are you physically OK? Is there anything we can do to help you?" On a baby shower, there's the registry of all the things for the baby, but there's never anything for mama. There's never any postnatal care.

[21:16] There's never, whatever it may be, there's no care for the mom. Always ask a mom how they're doing, if they need anything, too, because they might need something.

Dan: [21:28] That is such a good thing. We're now, Al, at the end of the podcast. This is the last section, and I wanted to ask you something and set it up like this.

[21:41] [background music]

Dan: [21:41] The world can be a difficult place, and sometimes, it can be hard to hold on to hope. That's why each week, we dedicate the last couple of minutes of our podcast to a special section called Hold On to Hope. We'd like to ask you, what helps you hold on to hope.

Alessandra: [22:04] What helps me hold on to hope? Looking in my daughter's eyes, something I never thought I would experience, honestly. I didn't know if I was going to be able to conceive. I didn't know if I was able to be a mom living with mental illness.

[22:20] When I look in her eyes, I see so much hope for the future and hope that by me overly sharing my story all the time to her, she meets all these people in her life that are all in the mental health world.

[22:34] I hope that she takes a little bit from this and learns that she's not alone and that there's always a community and there's always going to be people there for her, for her emotional wellbeing.

Dan: [22:45] That is incredible. It's so cool that she has you as her role model.

Alessandra: [22:53] I hope so. [laughs]

Dan: [22:53] Isn't that cool?

Alessandra: [22:54] Dan, can I ask you one final question, too, that I always ask my audience?

Dan: [22:58] Yes, you can ask me anything you want.

Alessandra: [23:00] The question I always ask my guests is, what is your emotional support?

Dan: [23:08] My first and foremost is my best friend, and my wife of 41 years is my emotional support. She's my ride or die. That's my emotional support. From the standpoint of how I manage some of my mental challenges, if you will, is every now and then, I go out and I have a group of friends that it's about community.

[23:33] I try to go out and play golf with them on Saturdays. I don't care where the ball goes. It's about being with some friends that I can be myself with, and I can say whatever, and they're not judgmental, and it's therapy. When I get done, I feel whole. It's that, and it's my best friend and my wife.

Alessandra: [24:02] I love it. You feel whole, and then hopefully, you get a hole‑in‑one.

[24:08] [laughter]

Dan: [24:09] One day. One day. Thank you, Al. That would be wonderful. The most important word in the English language for me is dad. When I hear dad, I melt.

[24:24] Our children are both adults, but you wouldn't know it when they say the word dad, because that's when everything stops and the world becomes very small for me, because I'm very focused on whatever comes after that word, dad. That's it for me.

Alessandra: [24:02] I love that. I love it. [laughs]

Dan: [24:47] Thank you for asking that.

Alessandra: [24:48] You're welcome.

Dan: [24:49] As we close out, is there anything you'd like the audience to know or to remember going forward? I love what you shared about, hey, ask about the mom and do something for the mom. Everyone thinks about that newborn and, "Oh my goodness."

[25:05] There's some nuggets inside of that. You also talked about sitting down in community. Are there any other nuggets that you'd like to share as we close out?

Alessandra: [25:15] Yeah. I would say always ask how the mom is doing. For those moms that are out there that maybe feel alone right now and maybe don't have a community, a family around, or friends, and maybe feel super isolated, if you keep Googling, looking up resources on NAMI, if you're looking up maternal mental health, there are many, many communities that are out there.

[25:44] You have to dig deep. I found a bunch of them. They're on my website for emotionalsupportpod.com. If you want any help of learning how to belly bind, eat your placenta, all these wild and crazy things that I tried for my own mental wellness through my pregnancy journey, come to the podcast and listen.

[26:04] I have some incredible, incredible interviews with some interesting folks that I had never heard of before that helped me with postpartum depression and mood and anxiety disorders afterwards.

[26:20] Some great people at some incredible hospitals and organizations. Come on over, join the Emotional support club, and we can figure it out.

[26:29] [background music]

Dan: [26:29] This is fantastic. Thank you for sharing those resources, because we don't want anyone navigating it by themselves. They don't have to. Take advantage of the resources that are available. Thank you for sharing that.

[26:43] As we close, let me say, this has been Hope Starts With Us, a podcast by NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. If you are looking for mental health resources, you are not alone. To connect with the NAMI helpline and find local resources, visit nami.org/help, text HELPLINE to 62640, or dial 800‑950‑6264, or NAMI.

[27:10] Or, if you are experiencing an immediate suicide, substance use, or mental health crisis, please call or text 988 to speak with a trained support specialist or visit 988lifeline.org. We so thank you for being here, and we hope that you get so much out of our shared podcast.

Alessandra: [27:31] Thanks, Dan.


About the Host:

Dan Gillison

Daniel H. Gillison, Jr.

Follow on Twitter: @DanGillison

Daniel H. Gillison, Jr. is the chief executive officer of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). Prior to his work at NAMI, he served as executive director of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation (APAF) in addition to several other leadership roles at various large corporations such as Xerox, Nextel, and Sprint. He is passionate about making inclusive, culturally competent mental health resources available to all people, spending time with his family, and of course playing tennis.

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