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Wendy Williamson

Inside the interview

As young as 8 years old, Wendy Williamson took flurries of words from her head to paper. She studied at Virginia Tech, and after a decade in corporate America, embarked on her writing career. Her introductory book, I'm Not Crazy Just Bipolar, is a memoir of healing and hope. Her second book is in the works. Wendy has written for The Two River Times and is the founder of The Red Bank Writers Group. She is a director on the board of the Mental Health Association of Monmouth County and an advocate for people with mental illnesses.

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Interview With a Woman With Bipolar Disorder: Wendy Williamson

Just weeks before her final semester at Virginia Tech, Wendy Williamson was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is a serious medical illness that causes shifts in a person's mood and energy. The person may feel very happy and "up," which is called mania, and then feel very depressed. During her 20s, Wendy ignored her illness and turned to alcohol and other destructive behaviors to try to feel better. But they didn't help. Rather, they led to more times of mania and of depression. Eventually, Wendy accepted her illness and got treatment. Learn how she takes care of herself today and her hope for the future.

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder, sometimes called manic depression, is a long-term illness that some experts say affects over 10 million Americans. It causes extreme shifts in mood and energy and repeated episodes of mania and depression. Those episodes can last days to months. The illness affects men and women equally. Most people are diagnosed in their late teens to early 20s, like I was. People with bipolar disorder are more likely to suffer from substance abuse and have suicidal thoughts. Bipolar disorder has no cure, and it is often a bleak illness. But, with proper medication and support, I've found that a person with bipolar disorder can lead a full life.

What was your life like before you were diagnosed with bipolar disorder?

I was your average "girl next door." I was always busy with school, work, activities, and an active social life. I pushed my limits and at times would get depressed, but I always hid behind a smile. Other than feeling lonely at times, I was unaware that anything was deeply wrong with me.

How old were you when you were diagnosed?

I was 22 years old and a senior at Virginia Tech. I was six weeks from graduation. It came at the worst time!

Did anything specific happen to make you want to see a doctor?

It wasn't one specific thing. Rather, it was a string of out-of-character behaviors that tipped everyone off. My roommate noticed I was acting odd. I was not sleeping or eating. I was pacing and ranting, drinking too much, and being very sexually active. She called my parents. Another friend made an appointment for me to speak to a counselor at the on-campus health center. That counselor referred me to the school psychiatrist immediately.

How did you feel when you were diagnosed?

My parents immediately flew in from New Jersey to go to the psychiatrist with me. I remember that day as if it were yesterday. I sat there, feeling disconnected, watching my parents talk to the doctor like I was on the outside of a dream. Having to take medication terrified me, and I was livid that I couldn't drink. Despite not believing the diagnosis, or not wanting to believe it, I knew I was never going to feel the same.

Can you explain how you manage your symptoms?

The most important things for me are to take my medication, get eight to nine hours of sleep, not drink alcohol, and stay honest with my doctors and other people in my life. I've learned that a lack of sleep can bring on mania, so sleep is a top priority for me. Sometimes, my doctors and I adjust my medication. We do that often in the spring, when my manic season comes, or during fall or winter, when I get more depressed. Another thing I've learned is that it helps me to be brutally honest with my psychologist and psychiatrist. I don't just show up and say everything is fine. I rat myself out when necessary. I listen to people I trust, even if I don't like what I'm hearing. Also, getting exercise and eating healthy help, but I need a lot of improvement in those areas. My faith has really helped me too.

What is life like for you now?

Life is less challenging and more exciting. Today, I set goals and go after them. I don't let the fear of mental illness get in the way. I've learned a lot about who I am and who I want to be. I don't want to work at a 9-to-5 job. I was miserable doing that. I do want to keep writing and speaking to help others. If I fail, I know I tried. I used to just dream about things, but today I go for them. Yes, it's a tough, often bleak illness. However, the positive side is that I have this incredible, creative brain. I try to use that brain to inspire others to hang in there. The view today is amazing, and I thank God for helping me to see it.

Has having bipolar disorder affected your friendships, personal life, or professional life?

Without a doubt, it has affected all three. This illness has caused more pain in my personal life than professionally. Losing a job doesn't hurt like losing a friend or having a sibling distancing themselves. My sister and I haven't been close in over a decade, not by my choice. To say that hurts is an understatement. I've also had friendships end because they don't understand my illness or choose not to try. To avoid resentment, I focus on the wonderful friends that have stood by me and my amazing family members. Those people who choose to distance themselves from me are missing out on knowing a wonderful and caring person.

I've only lost one job due to my illness. My co-worker died tragically, and after a few weeks, I left one day to gather myself together and never came back. I went into a deep depression and had to go on disability. I felt shame over the way I ended my career there for a long time.

Bipolar disorder can be a very disruptive illness, and it can negatively impact most areas and relationships in our lives. All you can do is your best and stick by people who are supportive. I've adopted the motto of Dr. Seuss: "Those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind."

How do you think society treats people with mental illness, especially bipolar disorder?

Not very well, I'm afraid. The stories we hear in the news or on TV shows are of people with bipolar disorder who have committed crimes. I can't handle watching yet another episode of Law & Order where the suspect turns out to be mentally ill! There are very few positive images. If someone is in a wheelchair or has cancer, that person is more socially accepted. However, with mental illness, no one can see it and the illness doesn't seem real. There's no doubt we're treated differently. I am pleased that more famous people with mental illnesses, ones who have received treatment and are living stable lives, are coming out. This helps public perception tremendously.

Have you ever felt discriminated against or looked poorly upon because of your disorder?

Absolutely. It happens all the time. Sometimes it's subtle, but other times it's very clear. It has happened with people I know and love, and even with some I am meeting for the first time. You should see the look on people's faces when I tell them the title of my book, I'm Not Crazy Just Bipolar! With some people, it's obvious the title has instantly changed their perception of me. Discrimination is everywhere, and having a mental illness makes me subject to that.

Do you have any words of advice for women with a mental illness?

My advice to women is:

  • Get help. Whether it is being hospitalized or receiving outpatient treatment, allow yourself to get help. With mental health, you have to learn to put your needs first, even if you think you're hurting other people's feelings or being selfish. I'm here to say: Get selfish to get well. See a psychiatrist or psychologist. Find a certified alcohol and drug counselor External link (CADC) or a 12-step program. (There are even 12-step programs especially for women).
  • Educate yourself about your illness and find support groups for yourself and loved ones. The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance External link and National Alliance on Mental Illness External link offer information, free meetings, and family programs.
  • Find the medications that work for you and stay on them.
  • Try to get seven to nine hours of sleep. This one can be hard, but it's important. Talk to your doctor about how much sleep you need.
  • Surround yourself with positive people.
  • Customize your wellness plan by making a list and doing those things that make you happy. Have a friend come and double your fun! You might try taking a walk, listening to music, calling someone, going for ice cream, doing a good deed, lighting candles, or wearing your favorite perfume. I do any little thing I can to make me happy, and it is all part of my wellness plan.
  • Never give up. Remember that if you're down, you'll come up again. The longer I have lived with this disruptive illness, the better I have learned to cope. As a result, I'm experiencing fewer episodes of mania and depression. I do these basic things and, although mental illness can be rough, times of peace are possible. It takes practice, discipline and hope, but you can live a fantastic life.

Content last updated September 19, 2011.

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