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- Bipolar disorder affects about 1-2% of the population.
- It’s characterised by manic episodes, depressive episodes, and potentially some psychosis.
- Katherine Ponte spoke to INSIDER about what it’s been like to live with the disorder for the past 15 years.
- She had several manic episodes where she thought the world was coming to an end, and went through periods of severe depression.
- Being manic gets you into trouble, but it’s the depression that can kill you, she said.
When Katherine Ponte had her most extreme manic episode, she ended up on John Lennon’s “Imagine” mosaic memorial, lying down in Central Park, thinking the world was coming to an end.
She had previously been in hospital for about a month, but as soon as she came home she threw all her medications down the toilet. She truly didn’t believe there was anything wrong with her, and she refused to accept her diagnosis of bipolar 1 disorder.
Ponte’s husband watched as tourists surrounded her and laughed and took pictures. An ambulance finally pulled up and wrapped a sheet around her head to toe and placed her in the back.
“They said they had a ‘wild one,’” Ponte told INSIDER. “And I remember that very clearly… It was very difficult to hear that because you feel like you’re an animal the way they refer to you.”
There is a huge contrast between high and low moods
Ponte was first diagnosed with severe bipolar 1 in 2000. Bipolar 1 is a mental health disorder characterised by manic or hypomanic episodes, depressive episodes, and potentially some psychosis.
According to the mental health charity Mind, mania “lasts for a week or more and has a severe negative impact on your ability to do your usual day-to-day activities – often disrupting or stopping these completely.” Some of the symptoms are racing thoughts and speech, delusions and paranoia, hearing or seeing things other people don’t, and being uncontrollably excited.
People in bouts of mania are hard to communicate or reason with, often talking a lot at high speed, and saying things that don’t make a lot of sense. They may be rude and aggressive, or behave out of character. It’s also sometimes associated with taking serious risks with their health and wellbeing. For instance, many misuse drugs, act dangerously, or spend an inappropriate and excessive amount of money.
After a manic episode, people with bipolar 1 disorder may then feel ashamed about how they behaved, or they might not remember it at all. They may also fall into a depressive episode where they feel down, upset, lacking in confidence, or even suicidal.
“Many people find that a depressive episode can feel harder to deal with than manic or hypomanic episodes,” it says on the Mind website. “The contrast between your high and low moods may make your depression seem even deeper.”
Ponte said that being manic gets you into trouble, but it’s the depression that can kill you.
“When you’re manic, you don’t think you’re going to die, you think you’re on top of the world, you can do anything,” she said. “But it’s when you’re majorly depressed that these thoughts of suicidal ideation come to you.”
Denial and stigma
There were a number of triggers in Ponte’s life at the time of her first manic episode, including academic stress, doubts about her career, being wrapped up in issues of social injustice, and being sexually assaulted.
“All of these things came together in a very short period of time,” she said. “That’s what really triggered my mental illness, and at the beginning, I had a very difficult time with it.”
But although she was diagnosed within minutes at the office of counseling and psychological services at her university, Ponte was in denial. There was a lot of stigma at the time, she said, and after trying several different medications that didn’t work, she stopped getting any treatment.
Then in 2006, she had a major manic episode, where she made religious shrines and thought she was receiving messages that the end of the world was imminent. Her husband returned home to find their apartment trashed, so he called 911 in a panic. Within 15 minutes Ponte was surrounded by four armed NYPD police officers and two paramedics in her living room which, understandably, freaked her out.
She was taken to hospital, placed on a gurney and injected with chemicals. Later, she woke up in leather restraints and was taken to solitary confinement – a room empty except for a two-inch thick mattress, because everyone on a psych ward is on high alert for suicide.
“And they have guards which just adds to the feeling that you’re being watched and every minute, every second,” Ponte said.
“It feels a lot like a jail. You can’t come and go, people rifle through everything you bring in with you, there’s no fresh air, you can’t go outside, there’s no breeze.”
She was also heavily sedated – as was everyone else around her. Every day her lithium levels would be checked, which she found discouraging because she realised “just how bad a state” she was in to be put in a place like that.
But it wasn’t enough. As soon as Ponte got back home, she threw away all her medications. That’s how she ended up at the John Lennon memorial.
“I thought I wanted to save the world,” she said. “Yeah… it gets that way.”
- Son of Groucho / Flickr
Ponte finally accepted she needed help when she came back from hospital and went to go see a psychiatrist. But what followed was a string of bad experiences, including one doctor who kept falling asleep in her sessions. Another psychiatrist changed her medication, and she put on 60 pounds in less than three months.
“I just felt like a balloon,” she said. “I told her that I wanted to come off it, she made a medication adjustment, and quickly after that medication adjustment, I went manic.”
During this manic episode, Ponte had more religious preoccupations and broke into a house of worship. She befriended a homeless man and invited him back to her house for somewhere to sleep. Her husband was furious, and immediately threw him out, but Ponte wasn’t able to recognise the problem.
She said at this time, before getting the right treatment, she had no hope for any sort of answers or recovery. Her psychiatrist told her she would only get worse and her manic episodes would get stronger and more frequent.
“This is often the grim diagnosis that people with mental illness face,” Ponte said. “They’re made to believe there is very little chance that they will recover. And this is one thing I take very big issue with.”
‘Living before treatment was living without hope’
But after another manic episode in 2014, Ponte finally found someone who could help her. She had lacked faith in health professionals for over a decade – but then she was referred to someone called Dr Goldberg by the Stanford University Bipolar Disorders Clinic.
“I just had a very good rapport with him,” she said. He was attentive and listened to her concerns about her medications and didn’t dismiss them.
“A lot of people don’t understand the side effects of medication,” she said. “They think if you’ve gained all this weight, you must be lazy, sitting on the couch, eating junk food. And they also think because you’re sleeping as much as you do, and you look as garbage as you do, that you must not be active enough.”
So often the advice given to people struggling with their mental health is “go out, do something, get some exercise.”
“That’s really disheartening to someone with mental illness because they don’t want to sit there and explain,” Ponte said. “I’m on this medication, which may make me gain a million pounds, and I’m on this medication that keeps me asleep all day. You just get very discouraged when you hear those sorts of comments.”
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Thanks to building trust with her psychiatrist, Ponte hasn’t had a manic episode in over four years. She started working towards her goal of having a career and starting a family, and started up ForLikeMinds, a resource for connecting people with others who are going through something similar to them – whether it’s mental illness, substance use, or the stresses of life.
Ponte knows first hand how hard it is to face a diagnosis. In the early stages, you want to shut it out, she said, and think about it as little as possible. But when you start to accept it, you want to learn more and more about your condition, and she aims to help people out with that.
It’s also hard every step along the way. Often, people with bipolar stop taking their medicine because they start to feel better. Some come off it because they miss the way it feels to be manic.
Someone with bipolar is never fully recovered
Ponte knows she is living with her mental illness and that it will never go away. You’re living in a state of recovery, you’re never recovered, she said, “it just means that you’re living with it in a way that doesn’t take away from you living a full and meaning for life.”
Ponte’s manic episodes put her in hospital in 2006, 2010, and 2014, so this year fits in with the four year pattern. But she feels she has enough control over her treatment and mental health that it won’t derail her life completely if she has another episode in 2018. She also can’t wait for the stigma of mental health to go away to start living a normal life.
“People with mental illness, they can’t just wait around for a stigma to go away for them to start taking more control of their life and believing they have that possibility,” she said. “Recovery gives people hope, and I want through my work, using my example, to give that hope. I haven’t been sick since 2014, and I feel really good.”
It’s all about giving people the right environment to let them dream again, she said, and learning that it’s not about defeating your mental illness, but coexisting.
“I spent many years battling bipolar and fighting with it, and arguing with it and saying ‘go away, leave me alone,” said Ponte. “But I finally came to accept it… I came to accept that this is in my life and so I have to learn how to coexist with it, and I have to learn the best way to coexist with it, because I can’t let it overtake me.
“People are able to control it. You are able to tame it, if you know how to.”