By: Briana Libby, Public Awareness Programs Coordinator, NAMI Minnesota
Trigger Warning: Briana Libby is sharing her personal story of mental illness and recovery.
It is January 2013, I am nineteen years old, and I am standing in the waiting room of my university’s health office. A year ago, I was in this same room to see the Registered Nurse for tonsillitis. This time, I am here for an entirely different reason. When called to the counter, I glance around and tell the receptionist in a low voice, “I need to make an appointment with a counselor.” She asks if it is an emergency, and I immediately tell her it isn’t, wondering what constitutes an emergency in this case. The next available appointment isn’t until February – even though I take it, I’m not sure I’ll make it that long. I’ve had my plan for suicide in place for about a week now, and it’s only been a matter of timing.
That was my first experience seeking treatment for mental health concerns, but I would continue to experience how spread thin my school’s resources were. This issue of mental health services for college students is not unique – the growth in college enrollment is dwarfed by the growth in student demand for mental health resources.
I continued to experience just how spread thin they were. In my one hour appointment that barely scratched the surface, I was given a prescription for an anti-depressant, and a follow-up with the RN in March. But, not with the counselor?
Despite a disclosed family history of bipolar disorder, the RN viewed my elated mood and increase in energy as a sign that the medication was working. I readily believed her and decided to ignore the insomnia, lack of appetite, and shortened fuse. I can now recognize the following months as my first-full blown hypomanic episode.
Over the next year and a half, I would bounce between therapists, cycle through multiple hypomanic and depressive episodes, intentionally ruin multiple close friendships, drop-out of college, distance myself from my family, move in with someone I had only been dating for a short period of time, and overall push myself closer and closer to self-destruction.
A Correct Diagnosis
In October of 2014, after managing to stick with one therapist for a long enough period to properly witness my moods cycling. I was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder type II, social anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Those few remaining close friends seemed shell-shocked by my scarier diagnoses, and my relationships ended.
My parents, — who I had effectively estranged myself from — welcomed me back home with open arms, but also voiced their skepticism of my diagnoses. The few coworkers I disclosed the state of my mental health to seemed uncomfortable. I quickly learned not to talk too openly about my mental illnesses, though I kept up with therapy and began a new medication regimen more appropriate for my diagnoses.
Ending the Silence and Talking About My Mental Illness
My silence ended in March of 2016, three years into my own treatment when my coworker died by suicide. The conversations that followed dodged the issue – explanations from our corporate team never used the words depression, mental illness, or suicide. Instead, she had died unexpectedly, leaving us all to quietly ask in backrooms, what happened? I began to wonder who else around me was also struggling alone and I worried what isolation might do to my own already precarious stability.
My decision was clear: I had to talk about my mental illness. I started a blog about my mental illness, sharing each new post on my Facebook page. I was terrified – this was a lot of personal information that I had previously believed too intimate to share. But I immediately started receiving messages from friends and family applauding me for doing this, so I decided to push on.
I had friends that I hadn’t talked to since my initial hypomanic episode confess that they had also recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, or borderline personality disorder. Family reached out to offer additional support. People I barely knew thanked me for being so open.
However, the most profound response I received was from another coworker, thanking me for being so frank in the wake of our shared grief. As I continued, I realized that I needed to share this on a larger scale.
In My Own Voice with NAMI
Around this time, I also was looking for a new job and my therapist suggested I look into the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota. Through a series of very lucky events, I found myself as the new public awareness coordinator, overseeing the In Our Own Voice program. In Our Own Voice presentations are given in pairs, the content being entirely the very real stories of the presenters – 100% of our volunteers in this program live with a mental illness.
While my main focus these days has been providing the structure for others to talk openly about their mental illness, I still have opportunities to share my story as well. The solidarity I have found in an office where we all either live with a mental illness or are the loved one of someone who does has given me the strength to continue to push forward with my own treatment
Four and a half years later, at twenty-four years old, I can happily say that I am living well in recovery. I have a job that I love and I am back in school. My support system is solid, comprised of my astoundingly loving family, friends, significant other (who has held my hand through some of the messiest parts of my recovery), and the cutest gosh-darn cat you’ve ever met.
I still see a therapist twice a month where there is plenty that we are working on and I have regular check-ups with my psychiatrist to make sure my medications are working for me. There are some people out there who still don’t fully understand mental illness, don’t recognize it as a real issue, or don’t believe that treatment is possible for the more “serious” diagnoses like mine. That is why I continue to share my story and why I actively work to provide space for others to share their stories through programs like In Our Own Voice.
Sharing our stories gives those still struggling with mental illness, either their own or a loved one’s, the hope and knowledge that recovery, whatever that may look like for them, is possible.
We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. Call 1-800-273-8255 or chat online.
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Briana Libby is a passionate advocate for many social justice issues, with mental illness and LGBTQ rights being at her forefront. She lives in Minneapolis, MN, where she works for the state chapter of NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) as the public awareness coordinator. She likes to say that she has three-quarters of a bachelor’s in theater arts and management from Hamline University (St. Paul, MN), and is currently finishing her bachelor’s in human services with a focus in psychology at National Louis University (Chicago, IL). Though it is not always easy, Briana strongly believes in sharing her story publicly in order to add to the growing narrative of lived experience with mental illness and to encourage others to seek recovery. If you are interested in becoming a part of the NAMI movement, you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org, or join your local NAMI affiliate.