Thriving with Bipolar Disorder – Meet Deborah in Illinois!


I had never heard of ‘Chicagoland’ (thought it was a play on words at first and that she meant Chicago!) but now have – lol. And now you get to meet Deborah Matthews from Chicagoland, IL who is living successfully with bipolar disorder. She blogs about her life and the illness at Suddenly Bipolar: Trying to Find Stability and a New Normal.

Thriving with Bipolar Disorder - Meet Deborah in Illinois
Lovely Deborah Living with Bipolar Disorder

1.   Thank you for taking the time to share your story. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m a cat mom and have had up to 5 cats at one time, but only 2 elderly cats right now. I’m divorced, no kids, turning 40 years old this year and proud of it.

I used to be a Presbyterian Church (USA) minister but now am on disability because of the bipolar. I enjoy lots of movies and tv, hanging with friends, reading science and brain books as well as fiction, knitting occasionally and drawing occasionally too.

I’m highly educated and don’t get to use it anymore – a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Arts in Christian Spirituality and a Diploma in Spiritual Formation Studies – since I’m on disability now. I find concentration, retention and memory to be elusive.

2.   What events led to you receiving a diagnosis of bipolar disorder?

Five years ago I hit a hypomanic, high-energy cycle that morphed into a manic cycle (characterized by religious euphoria and grandiosity – normal for my manic cycles I now know). I didn’t know these cycles were happening – was normal life for me.

Instead of a depression or low energy that would happen after this phase, I dropped suddenly into my first suicidal depression and had my first of 25 psych hospitalizations. I was diagnosed during that first hospitalization.

3.   If you don’t mind, can you share how old you were at the time of diagnosis and what type of bipolar illness you have i.e. Bipolar I Disorder (BP-1), Bipolar II Disorder (BP-2), Cyclothymic, etc.

I was 35 and initially diagnosed BP-2, but revised to BP-1 once we realized I had had a couple psychotic breaks as a young adult.

Looking back, I had my first depressive episode at 13, manic episode at 17, and may have shown signs of cycling as early as 8 and 9.

4.   Do you have other diagnosed medical conditions besides bipolar (physical or mental)? For example, I have fibromyalgia and deal with chronic fatigue. I also have a form of subclinical hypothyroid. All of these have affected my bipolar states and when treated successfully my severe bipolar illness states (psychosis of mania, suicidal depression) improved much.

I have several medical conditions, most of which don’t affect my bipolar. Asthma, sleep apnea, diabetes, hiatal hernia, GERD, fibromyalgia, chronic pain (due to surgery at age 13 that fused my back from T3-L4 for scoliosis).

I learned through chronic pain and fibromyalgia how to endure and thrive even though things would never get better. That helped me come to terms a bit with bipolar. It is something that I manage, just as I manage the other conditions.

I also have Generalized Anxiety Disorder and the O of OCD (obsessive suicidal visions). They most definitely interact with the bipolar.

It’s a moving mess of psychiatric goodness that makes my life miserable when I’m in a bipolar mood phase or a high anxiety phase.

5.   Now for the good stuff! What things – medications, vitamins, therapy, books, alternative treatments, etc. – have helped you to not only survive this difficult illness but thrive in your life?

I went through an interminable amount of med changes and cocktails, including 2 med washes where the doctor takes you off everything and reintroduces items one by one. Done only under supervision, and usually inpatient.

I would say knowing that I could be safe in the hospital when suicidal was a coping skill. But in my everyday life, medications, weekly therapy, a strong support network of friends and community, and lots and lots of coping skills keep me going.

I have a plethora of coping skills from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (e.g. reframing thoughts), Dialectal Behavioral Therapy (e.g., mindfulness and riding the wave of emotions or harmful thoughts), and Acceptance and Behavioral Therapy (e.g., mindful values-focused – does this offer acceptance and thought diffusion so I can act toward my values?).

6.   What advice do you have for others who may be overwhelmed by the symptoms (hypomania leading to impulsive behaviour, rapid cycling mood changes, hospitalizations due to severe depressive episode or a manic episode resulting in psychosis…) and feel discouraged or without hope?

I have been hospitalized 25 times (that I can count – maybe more). It is a tune-up. Don’t put yourself down. Take what you can get from the break with regular life to stabilize and then go back out into the world stronger. You can do this!

Get a strong support system of family or friends or church or other community who know you and know your condition who are not afraid to ask how you are doing and hear the truth.

They may know before you do that you are changing moods or need to ask your doctor about meds or your therapist for help. They love you and want the best for you. You are not a burden to them (something I’ve had to learn and remind myself of many, many times).

You are not alone and we are all out here rooting for each other.

Thank you!

Great answers and I can so relate to the living with other chronic illnesses part and how that ‘learning to live well’ while struggling type of situation helps deal with other challenges.

I have fibromyalgia too, and was really bad when younger then the OTC medication Aleve helped and is very manageable now. I learned how pain conditions can make depression worse (a lot worse in my case, the pain was severe at times and unrelenting) and worse than that… make us very difficult for a physician to treat successfully. Sounds like you have had some similar experiences.

Your spirit shines though in the above and how resilient you seem to be though have clearly suffered much. I love the suggestions and message of hope you offer for others (“You can do this!”) who may be struggling.

I hope you continue to improve and recover and enjoy life as best as possible.

In friendship, Molly


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