My Path from Bipolar Patient to Mental Health Activist
Editor’s Note: Gabe Howard is the second-place winner of HealthCentral’s Live Bold, Live Now Photo Contest. This is his story.
My name is Gabe Howard and I live bold every day with bipolar and anxiety disorders. That phrase, along with the hashtag #voteforgabe, became my rallying cry for the three weeks voting was open in Health Central’s Live Bold contest . . .
. . . a contest I had no intention of entering.
I didn’t intend to enter the Live Bold contest simply because people with mental illness don’t often do well in these types of things. I’m just a regular (if redheaded) guy living in Ohio. I do manage a chronic illness, but not one that people find inspirational to overcome.
Americans have been celebrating overcoming disabilities and illnesses for as long as I can remember. We celebrate someone who, in spite of their circumstances, lives bold. We love an underdog, and want them to win.
We live in a society that isn’t very open about mental illness. When it is uncovered in a person, the whispers start. The person with the illness often tries to hide it. When people do find out, they don’t show up with food and compassion. Outside of mental health circles, we rarely see anyone celebrated for overcoming mental illness. I thought the contest was interesting and inspiring and overwhelmingly positive.
As a mental illness activist, speaker, and writer, I spend most of my time educating the public. I stand in front of groups and boldly proclaim that people with mental illness are just like everyone else, only with a chronic illness to manage. The misinformation about mental illness greatly outweighs the truth, and that isn’t acceptable. I have made it my mission to tell the entire story.
I entered a national contest designed to show people living boldly, despite a health challenge. The day voting started, I took a deep breath and thought, “What possible chance does a guy with mental illness have at placing at all?”
Over the next few weeks hundreds of people would answer that question for me. The outpouring of support was nothing less than amazing. It may be my name on the ballot, but this victory belongs to all of us.
My Journey to Activism
Looking back, I had the symptoms of bipolar disorder starting in my early teens. I was either talking a mile a minute and bouncing off walls or so tired and depressed I couldn’t move. As far back as I can remember, I thought about suicide every day. I did not see any of this as abnormal, but as part of my personality.
I was bullied as a teenager and had a difficult time relating to my peers. I felt isolated and misunderstood. I did not understand how others could live with the weight of these emotions and not be burdened by them. Many of them seemed happy and I felt terrible and worthless.
The symptoms continued into my early 20s, but no one noticed. Or if they did, they neglected to say anything. The older I got, the worse the illness was. Mania became a life-threatening ordeal with drugs, alcohol, hyper-sexuality, and taking other unnecessary risks. Since I was an adult, there was no one to slow me down.
Depression became a life or death struggle and my inability to control my emotions estranged me from friends and family, including my wife. As my wife and I divorced, my mental health finally reached a breaking point. I was depressed, suicidal, delusional, and no longer able to manage without help.
The symptoms I was exhibiting would be very obvious to anyone with even a tiny bit of knowledge about mental illness. The people in my life, myself included, had no idea what the warnings signs of mental illness were. I wasn’t violent, shaking, psychotic, or acting crazy, so no one thought I was sick at all.
Fortunately for me, a woman I was casually dating at the time did have a working knowledge of mental illness and knew that I needed help. She took me the emergency room, where I was admitted to the psychiatric hospital. It was during that hospital stay that I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. About a year later, the anxiety disorder was diagnosed.
After I was diagnosed, however, I started to experience firsthand what society thinks of people with mental illness. One co-worker told me killing myself wasn’t that difficult and, had I really wanted to die, I would have been successful. People who used to respect me started to avoid me. I had been at my job for over three years and suddenly I was an outcast. I was trying to utilize the resources afforded me by my job to manage my illness but, after a period of time, I was terminated from my position.
Battling bipolar disorder, managing symptoms, and dealing with the discrimination and stereotyping of people living with mental illness is a difficult thing to do. Standing up to discrimination helps bring mental illness out of the shadows. It helps reduce stereotypes and provides society with the opportunity to be educated.
There is no cure for mental illness, just recovery. I live with bipolar and anxiety disorders every day. Living well is difficult, but possible. It took me over four years to achieve the level of wellness I have today.
But I did it and, because of my efforts, I can now say, with absolute certainty, I live bold.