How a Bipolar Patient Learned to Manage Mania

Like many people with bipolar disorder, Laurel Lemke, 54, of Lakewood, Wash., cycled in and out of hospitals and tried various treatments before being diagnosed and treated with her disorder. Though she will likely never be "cured," her mental illness no longer is central to her life. Here is how she copes today

If someone had told me when I was in my teens that one day I'd be a spokesperson for a mental health group, I wouldn't have believed them. Chances are, I wouldn't have understood them either. When I was 18, I was drowsy on antipsychotics and hospitalized for my first manic attack. But a lot has changed since then, and over the last 36 years I've learned how to manage my health. And, as a member of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), I help other people understand mental illness for themselves and their loved ones.

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Mental illness made college hell
Today I talk openly about my bipolar disorder, but for a long time I didn't tell anyone about it. First of all, I didn't really understand the illness, let alone want to share this big secret with people. Though, at times, it was hard to conceal. Whenever I was stressed or overtired or feeling enormous pressure, I was at risk of going through another manic episode. That's what happened when I started college at a reputable liberal arts women's school—which will remain nameless.

The unfamiliar surroundings, the irregular class schedule, and the unlimited opportunity offered me too many choices. And it resulted in unmanageable stress. I couldn't sleep, I would forget to eat, and I would talk incredibly fast. I even thought I had ESP—when a song would come on the radio, I thought, "Hey, I predicted that song." I sensed something was wrong, but I didn't know what it was. So I visited the college's infirmary.

During the first few visits, the college doctor focused on my insomnia. He gave me medication to sleep and sent me home. But when the sleep medication didn't work, and I was getting more hyper and my energy was peaking beyond control, the doctor sent me to a hospital. To my surprise, they had me stay in the hospital for six weeks. Imagine: I had just started college, a bright-eyed, ambitious student and then, three weeks later, I was a patient in a mental ward of a hospital. It was hard to understand, even harder to accept.

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As told to: Tania Haas
Last Updated: May 01, 2009

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