My story is not unique, but our society and organizations are experiencing a mental health crisis —- we are experiencing a mental health crisis —- so hopefully what I've learned will be of some use to others.
I was just a small town kid -- public schools, mowed lawns, worked hard. Got lucky -- an Ivy League college, then Stanford law. Then, on the cusp of the American Dream, a bombshell diagnosis: Bipolar 1. Suddenly, it was a dual life -- big-city lawyer by day, relying on my brain to pay off my school loans, and psychiatric meds by night, treating that very same brain — because now there was something officially wrong with it. A tough diagnosis, no doubt.
I was terrified -- I knew society has stigmas about the mentally ill. About psychiatric meds. The world of law certainly does. It turned out I believed those stigmas, too. I was certain I was now flawed, broken, irredeemable.
So I kept it secret. All of it. I had to stay employed. All those loans. A child on the way. I kept it secret for 13 years; only my close family and two friends knew. All the while, my self-stigma and shame got worse. It grew into self-hatred. I couldn't even look in the mirror.
And the hypomanias -- the mild manias — got stronger, even with the meds. And so, just to get sleep, I developed what is called a co-occurring disorder -- substance abuse on top of the mental illness — in my case, I self-medicated with alcohol, at night, so I could get some sleep.
And now it was lawyer and dad by day -- and two serious disorders -- both in secret -- by night. And the self-hatred grew. That's the "stigma, secrecy, and shame" part of my story. It lasted 13 long years. Then came rock bottom. It was sudden and severe. When I speak and consult, I tell that part too. It's relevant to any story of recovery and hope, even though it's still difficult to tell.
But it's the "hope, recovery, and inclusion" part that matters most for people and their organizations — this is what we need to focus on, given the mental health crisis that organizations and society both face. This is the part about what can be done when there is access to treatment — a doctor, talk therapy, medicine, inclusion, and support -- this is the part about what a real person with even two serious co-occurring disorders can do.
My experience? You have to believe there's a better future after your initial recovery -- after the emergency support is gone. You have to truly believe that there is a long-term future and that it will be better. This hope can be borrowed from others at first, and then it can be nurtured and grown and instilled.
I was able to believe this, thanks to real support -- both true inclusion in my circles, and true professional help: An excellent doctor, excellent talk therapy, and well-prescribed meds, monitored by blood work, through labs. This is what I want for others like me — and this is what forward-looking organizations will want, too — the chance for people to have this full range of good treatment -- a psychiatrist, talk therapy, medicine, inclusion, and a support team -- so that others like me can believe in their own recovery too. In my experience, it works.
Fast forward to now — 2019 — over six years since everything fell apart in my own mental health crisis — I'm six years into real recovery, one day at a time. My co-occurring disorders are no longer secret. I'm completely public. It lifted such a weight. I'm no longer living in fear. I’m no longer ashamed. I've worked through my self-hatred. None of it was easy at first -- going public, doing all the hard recovery work, taking action each day -- but now it's no big deal.
And the little action steps I take each day, for management of my bipolar 1 and for recovery from my alcohol self-medication abuse -- those steps provide all kinds of extra dividends and benefits along the way. The little steps of daily action are making me, I'm told, a better father, friend, and human, helping me grow and improve, in the most important areas, bit by bit each day.
None of it was possible without true hope about my future -- thanks to my excellent psychiatrist, crucial talk therapy, the right mix of psychiatric medicines, real inclusion and support from my family and friends . . . and one pretty neat surprise that happened in recovery, when art suddenly started pouring out, along the way . . .