My name is Kate Lynch O’Neil. I manage a diagnosis of bipolar I, but it doesn’t own me or keep me from living a healthy, vibrant life. I have free will and I’m my own person—I’m Kate, not Bipolar Kate.
It took a lot of diligent work and dedication to get to this more balanced, healthy place.
I moved to New York City in 1995 to market a financial software product. Although my career in PR was going well (my crowning glory at the time was a front-page Newsweek article featuring one of my clients), life overall wasn’t so smooth. In August 1997, when my roommate feared my life was in jeopardy and was tired of dealing with my habits (including an active sex life and dangerous drug use), he called my parents. The next day, I flew home by myself to Massachusetts.
The very next day, my mom brought me to the gynecologist because I kept complaining that I was pregnant with the devil’s child. Thankfully that OB-GYN recognized my symptoms and referred me to a psychological practice a few towns away. At about 10 that same night, my new psychiatrist heard my story in his home office in Boston and began treatment immediately.
Upon diagnosis, I was horrified, but my mom said, “Now we know. Now we can get the help you need.” I’ll never forget that moment. My family scoffed at stigma and was an integral part of helping me get on a path to wellness.
Although “normal” is different for everyone, my mother wanted me to be as “normal” as possible and therefore arranged for me to be treated on an out-patient basis as opposed to formally hospitalized. Recovering from that level of care would have only slowed down my overall recovery, she thought. Instead she ensured I was always with a trusted friend or family member while I was still severely symptomatic and adjusting to various medication regimes and directions from my mental health practitioners. On top of basically being babysat nonstop for three months, initially I also saw my psychiatrist and clinical social worker almost daily.
Now, in addition to my own awareness, I depend on my husband, Chris, as my mental health “litmus test”. He hasn’t seen me symptomatic, and he’s extraordinarily supportive, actively engaging in therapy appointments, answering questions, and of course listening to me. I recently asked him if there’s anything he watches for or thinks about regarding my disorder, and his response was straightforward and characteristically simple: “No, you’re Kate. If obvious triggers pop up or I see personality or behavior changes, we’ll talk.” After eight years of marriage (and a son, who’s now 6), there’s been no such discussion.
This is all seemingly easy, stress-free work now, but it took most of my diagnosed life to get here. Like everyone these days, my life is packed with challenges, triumphs, failures, and lessons—ups, downs, stressors, and joys. With humility and thanks to both hard work and support, I proudly state that my compliant life is a happy life.
The management of my bipolar disorder involves many logistics: tracking medications and refills, deciphering different medical insurance rules and edicts regarding what is and isn’t covered, and ultimately knowing I’ll do whatever it takes to maintain my health. So yes, I’m aware and I take stock in understanding when and if I need to ask for help. All of this takes up about 5 percent of my daily life.
Being self-aware and knowing I can take charge of my disorder has been extraordinarily powerful and enabled me to let go and love—and have a family. I never dreamed these would be aspects of my now “normal” life. It thrills me to be here and be able to share my story about being one out of countless who successfully manages a mental health diagnosis.
But I’m not naïve. I say all of this with respect, compassion, and great empathy for those who need help and cannot receive the necessary care, or do not recognize or want to ask for help. Often, wanting to survive is a good first step. I urge anyone who is struggling to feel comfortable to ask for help. Managing a mental health diagnosis is nothing to be ashamed or afraid of.
I also hope the general public—the four out of five without a mental health diagnosis—better understands that treatment is more productive than in the past, which is where stigma is rooted. If you don’t understand an illness and you know someone with a diagnosis, ask questions and be involved, then do research. This level of inquiry and interest breeds stronger empathy, which will not only help support those who need it, but enable you to get over stereotypes and judgments that no longer need to exist.
Here’s hoping boatloads of awareness and confident advocacy for my well-being will keep the demons at bay. I’ll hold faith (and a short supply of meds in my purse) just in case.
Kate Lynch O’Neil, a native of southeastern Massachusetts, recently moved to Richmond, VA, with her husband, Christopher, and their six-year-old son, Daniel. O’Neil is an ambassador for Bring Change 2 Mind and an advocate for philosophy’s hope & grace initiative.