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

(CLIMATEPROGRESS.ORG/FOTOLIA/HEALTH)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.

Next Page: Getting the right diagnosis was a challenege [ pagebreak ]Doctors couldn't agree on a diagnosis
Back then there was very little medical consensus on bipolar disorder—and there was very little patient consultation on which treatment would be preferred. The medication I was given snowed me. I couldn't function. I was sleeping during the day, wide awake at night. It was horrible. My family was extremely supportive, but it was a very confusing time. My condition was not officially called bipolar at this time because I hadn't had enough episodes for a clear diagnosis.

At the end of the six-week period, my energy levels stabilized, and I felt like myself. When I was ready for school, the college wouldn't accept me—something about me not being an ideal student. I went to a different college while my father appealed for my reentry. The following year I returned to my original college of choice, and I eventually graduated.

Stigma about mental illness was very common then, and it remains a challenge now. I think the best way to combat this stigma is to talk about it, its symptoms, the genetic component, and also how lifestyle choices can influence your susceptibility to more manias.

What triggers her manic episodes
My next manic episode happened when I was 25. I have since had seven or eight episodes, and they usually happen when I undergo a major change: my mother's death, a new job, or a longer commute to work. Although I find it hard to remember my behavior during my manic stages, I know I have a bundle of symptoms: I tend to lose my sense of humor, I find it hard to follow directions, I can be unreasonably suspicious, and I cry easily. I am happy to say that my episodes have grown less frequent as I've aged and become more aware of my personal triggers. Bipolar can be different for different people and come on differently at different times in their lives.

Today, I manage my bipolar condition by keeping a regular schedule. Routines. Without them, I'd be far less healthy. I try to exercise regularly, I don't drink alcohol anymore, and I eat "happy" foods like raw fruits and vegetables. But even with the most discipline, there's always a chance that I could slip back into a manic state. Sometimes my mental illness is in the foreground, sometimes it's in the background.

Next Page: Her family had a hidden history of mental illness [ pagebreak ]Bipolar disorder ran in her family, but she didn't know it
The genetic component of bipolar is something that I cannot control. And like many families, I didn't even know that mental illness was in my family until much later in life. A few years ago, a genealogist contacted me while he was researching my family for another individual. He told me that my great-grandmother had killed herself and that she likely suffered from some mental illness. This came as a complete shock to me, and I'm certain that my father (he passed away years ago) didn't know about this either. Knowing this information about a relative—although tragic—somehow helped me understand and accept my condition a little more. It also reminded me of the importance of managing my condition.

My family didn't talk about my great-grandmother's illness, but they were the only ones who knew about my mental illness for a long time. The privacy was comforting, but it also limited my social support network. That changed when I was in my 30s. I started to branch out socially. I discovered that I loved ballroom dancing, and it became my favorite hobby. I traveled with a dancing tour group and we went as far as Australia. In addition to learning new steps, I made lasting friendships. And my closest friends know about my bipolar diagnosis. When I told them, more often than not, they would always respond by telling me they knew someone else in their family or network of friends who also had bipolar.