Living with Bipolar Disorder: Reflections from a young woman in recovery from a psychotic break

Interview with Susan Page Gadegone conducted by Amy Olseth.

Living with bipolar disorder is something that more than 5.7 million adults in the U.S deal with every day. Sadly, many people use the term ‘bipolar’ casually to describe a moody person. This has helped add to the stigma of it not being a real illness.

In fact, often it is viewed simply as a personality extreme instead of the serious illness it really is.

What is bipolar disorder?

Society often downplays the seriousness of bipolar disorder. While often people will associate it with short moody bursts of excitement or emotion, it is so much more than that.

Mania is described as an episode with rapidly changing mood and heightened overall activation. It is part of the diagnostic criteria for bipolar. What makes this different from general excitement is that it lasts at least a week (symptoms every day) and is often accompanied by irrational behaviors.

Often mania is accompanied by paranoia (unfounded fear/suspicion), delusions (believing things/ideas to be true that aren't), and hallucinations (see/hearing things that are not there).

Meet Susan

I took note of Susan on LinkedIn as she openly shared her Bipolar Disorder diagnosis. I thought, wow, this is a lady who needs to be heard.

Susan shared my same passion for helping people, and wanted to share her story.

She and I agree that the only way to break the stigma and encourage appropriate and empathetic care for all diagnoses is to understand that mental health struggles are no different than a physical ailment requiring medical treatment.

It is always a bit awkward to get on the phone with someone you don't know and say, Hey, so tell me about your illness. I have never formally interviewed someone and had some nerves. Susan could have been reluctant, but she presented very calmly and willing to answer questions.

Being a trained psychiatric nurse, I could hear some emotional guarding in her voice, whether medication or reservation, she thought about her responses, answering slowly, and with little range in emotion.

Here is Susan’s Story

I picked a starting point and went with it. "Susan, will you tell me about how you were first diagnosed with Bipolar?".

"They gave me a 10 question questionnaire in the Emergency Room and told me I had Bipolar Disorder."

After hearing that out of Susan’s mouth it truly framed up how bipolar disorder is viewed to me. A person goes to the only resource they have, the ER, and that bomb gets dropped on them. She was alone and scared.

To understand how Susan got to where she is now, we have to take a step back.

Coping at an Early Age

By age 13, Susan knew her brain was "different from other people". She coped with her intense emotions through writing.

This early coping skill may have saved her life, and likely will continue to save the lives of many now and far into the future. Something Susan identified as ‘different’ was wanting to be alone versus with her peers.

Typically, Teenagers are social and peer-seeking by nature. Being introverted and artistic is one thing, however, isolating or not having peer support could be an indicator of internal/external stressors and/or budding mental illness.

Susan knew, “my emotions were much more intense than other people’s." She recalled being in her head a lot and not fitting in. She remembers being very attracted to social media.

"I know it (my amount of time on social media) affected me". Susan was isolating herself yet living within the contrived world of social media images and posts. She reported feeling like she was all alone to deal with these intense emotions and being overwhelmed by them from a young age, "my brain was just not working normally."

Mental illnesses often show their full intensity between 18-25 years old. This is the most common time for drastic/psychotic features to manifest in both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Sometimes this is referred to as a psychotic break, as the symptoms can no longer be hidden or dismissed, the intensity of the illness requires medical attention. I am not talking about college stress or growing pains; untreated, this is a high-risk point for suicide, accidents, and intensifying drug use.

Susan Reaches her Peak Intensity

Susan describes her "psychotic break" as peaking at age 22. Susan was having constant "racing thoughts, delusions, and suicidal ideation" interfering with her ability to perform daily activities.

Susan went to a support person and asked for help. "I slept on their floor until I could get help". She knew she needed help but was unable to think clearly about what to do next.

Fortunately, she knew she was not safe to be alone. Her bravery to ask for help is commendable. Not everyone has a place or a person they can turn to. Much of that time was blurry, if you can imagine being in a prison in your own mind.

When questioned further about her experience in the Emergency Room, I heard a shift in Susan’s voice. She paused and I heard a slight quiver as she recalled being in a "small room, alone, with a police, no security, outside the room".

Having been an RN dealing with these types of psychiatric emergencies, I probed her further about how she was treated. Though she didn't express being treated exactly poorly, she was somewhat dissociated from the experience.

"I was surprised that in my state, with a questionnaire, they could give me such a big diagnosis, but not send me with any medication".

The Truth About Psychiatric Emergencies

Typical of psychiatric emergencies, there is rarely an admission to the hospital or a referral to outpatient resources. While being attended in the emergency room, Susan did not see a psychiatrist. She was not given peer support or community resources; She was not prescribed medication at the emergency room.

Instead, she was given a tentative diagnosis and told to see an outpatient specialist. She could have easily gone home and tried to dismiss the whole experience. If her mood leveled out, she could have gone on another year until a more intense, and tragic, episode of mania overcame her.

As a reader, I encourage you to think about this scenario the next time you see someone on the street. Maybe they had nobody to call. Maybe they were alone and didn't have the support they needed and didn't receive the care they needed once they finally went to the last place they could think of for help. Susan’s experience is not the exception, it happens every day at Emergency Rooms throughout the country.

Creating your Safe Haven

Unlike many who have diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health illnesses, Susan never self-medicated with alcohol or illicit substances. She attributes this to her strong parental influence and innate feeling that she didn’t want to "alter [her] core being".

When asked what made her parents a safe haven for her, she reported feeling like they "did everything right - I remember not thinking that at the time”.

Susan reports her mom came and got her after her Emergency Room visit and took her back to the family home. She was then taken for psychiatric evaluation, medication management, and therapy.

I cannot speak for Susan on this, but from working with many in this age range resistant to support/treatment, I got the impression that there was a foundation of safety and security within her family. She did not appear to feel judged, alienated, or controlled by her parents. It seems like she was provided guidance and boundaries.

When I work with parents of adolescence, I stress the importance of establishing a foundation of trust before an acute crisis. Susan’s story may have ended very differently had she not had the relationship she did with her parents. I discuss ways to establish this rapport with your teen in one of my online courses. I cannot stress enough the importance of being a foundation of safety versus a best friend to your teen.

Using Your Disability/Diagnosis to Help Others

Susan now works with young adults ages 18-25 as a peer support specialist. When asked if she shares her diagnosis and story with her clients I was impressed by the maturity of her answer.

"It is client specific. If a client self discloses a bipolar disorder to me, I will let them know I have the same diagnosis."

I’ve worked in inpatient psychiatric and addiction care. I have heard many peer support and technicians disclose their personal experiences without invitation.

As the nurse, I’ve often interjected or provided education to these colleagues, suggesting they allow space for the clients to speak and inquire versus imposing their own journey on them in an attempt to help. It is a balance of listening and sharing. The listening must come first.

Susan clearly has a gift that outshines any diagnosis on a medical chart. Her compassion, articulation, and insight into living with a mental illness is extraordinary. As a result, her program participants are in an extremely supportive environment and have optimized chances for stability.

Another point that keeps replaying over in my mind was Susan’s statement about stabilization being more challenging than her early recovery process. "I thought life would be a breeze."

Though she identifies as "stabilized" with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, she still faces challenges. “[In recovery] I knew exactly what I was supposed to do: go to therapy, groups, take my medication. Everything was focused on recovery.” Susan reports that her life revolved around therapy for many months as self-care while living with and supported by her parents.

Susan discussed her current state with candor. "Life is harder now". Being stable is "not what I imagined".

Susan talked a bit about life in the real world; how she is living life, but now when things affect her she must implement coping and life skills to deal with challenges, “I don’t just get to run to my therapist.”

Susan’s honest discussion of this phenomenon really hit me. I liken it to other illnesses/diseases such as Diabetes or Cancer. One may be stable or in remission but the work is still being done every day to maintain balance and wellness. It is no different for those diagnosed with a mental illness; often it is a chronic illness that has gone into remission due to proper care and medical management. It doesn’t just go away, it is a daily effort.

Finding Hope

"I’ve learned you can find hope in the most unexpected places."

This statement brought those slow, peaceful tears to my eyes. I wanted to just slide through the phone and give Susan the biggest hug ever. Not out of sympathy, or even empathy, but out of respect for her resilience and courage to speak so openly about her experience.

Susan’s openness is seen in her social media presence, blogs, and work with peers. She truly is a living stigma-buster by talking about her mental illness.

The Stigma surrounding Bipolar Disorder is still abundant. It is a term tossed around in society, among friends, and by untrained health care providers.

A questionnaire is never an appropriate, definitive diagnosis. Often, in Emergency Rooms or Underserved/Rural Areas, that is the best to offer. Telehealth and widespread education have improved both the stigma and access to appropriate care.

Bipolar is not simply a "moody person". There is imbalance and very real consequences to the decisions made and actions taken when experiencing severe shifts in perception of reality.

Susan is a gifted writer and hopes to pursue professional writing and ongoing service work to those working to stabilize from acute mental illness. She is married to a very supportive spouse, and I could hear the gratitude in her voice as she spoke about him and their relationship.

I couldn’t help but sound like a mid-forties nurse/mom when I expressed my pure joy and hope for her and her abundance of potential to be and do anything she dreams of. When I speak about loving human potential, Susan is the exact type of human that inspires my relentless beliefs.

She has taken a struggle and a diagnosis and has not let it define her but empower her. She does not negate her illness or experience, she shares it. I find her absolutely remarkable.

Susan has a blog of her own. To check it out, visit

For more information on Bipolar Disorder please see this article

This entry was reviewed by Susan prior to publishing. Phrases directly from Susan are notated in quotes and bolded. The rest is the voice of the interviewer or paraphrases of the interview experience.

Holistic Interventionist thanks Susan for her honest and forthright contribution to the Human Potential Blog. The views of the individual contributors are their own and do not constitute advice or recommendation from Holistic Interventionist LLC. Holistic Interventionist selects a variety of guest blog writers for their expertise, insight, and willingness to collaborate for the wellness of as many individuals as possible.

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