Recovery from Mental Illness

Women with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other problems may struggle, but many can have rewarding and productive lives. Here’s how three women overcame their symptoms

by Ginny Graves
mental illness illustration image
Photograph: Illustration by Gérard Dubois

When Hunt still wasn’t able to return to work in the fall, she lost her job. While that scared her, it also triggered something: an “inner tenacity,” she says, that she hadn’t known she possessed. “From then on, I made getting well my job,” she says.

She found a psychopharmacologist, a psychiatrist who specializes in medication management, who was equally determined to get her back on her feet. Finding that doctor was key. “Anyone with a mental illness that’s difficult to treat should consult specialists like a psychiatrist, because they have more expertise than primary care doctors about the different types of psychiatric medications,” says Wayne Katon, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The doctor Hunt saw prescribed a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (the family of antidepressants that includes Prozac), and when that didn’t turn her mood around, he added Abilify, a medication for bipolar disorder that can sometimes heighten the effectiveness of antidepressants.

“I also started seeing my psychotherapist several times a week and doing lots of little things that seemed to make me feel better—journaling, meditating, walking regularly, doing yoga,” Hunt recalls. Even so, there were many days when the only reason she got out of bed was that her dog needed to be fed and walked.

In 2008 her doctor added Lamictal, an antiseizure drug that is FDA approved for bipolar disorder but has been shown to be effective for some people with depression as well. That kind of medication tinkering is crucial to helping people feel better, Katon says, and in Hunt’s case it worked. “The combination put my chemistry right and started turning me around,” she says. She returned to work part time that fall and full time last year.

“I’m a different person now in many ways,” Hunt says. “I have always been driven to achieve, but now I just want to be healthy. I want to be a good teacher and a well-rounded person. I cook and garden and hang out with friends, and I continue to do all the things that helped me in my lowest moments—journaling, meditating, yoga. I accept that I have an illness I’ll always need to manage, but I’m grateful that I was able to find the right treatments to help me live a full life.”

Lisa Garcia, 57
Part-time peer-support specialist in Rancho San Diego, California. She has bipolar disorder.
In April 2000, Lisa Garcia hit rock bottom. She’d been gambling in a casino for four days straight on almost no sleep and had lost at least $5,000. Her younger son, Shane, 10 at the time, had just left after a weeklong visit. (She also has a son who was then 21.) Shane had been living with his father for four months because Garcia was unable to take care of his daily needs. Saying good-bye to him made Garcia feel like a failure, and when she passed the casino, she pulled in on a whim.

For two years, Garcia’s life had been an emotional whirligig. There were periods of restless, irritable, unstoppable energy—during which she’d put in 16-hour days running a large catering company, then stay up all night cleaning her house—followed by moods so dark and dangerous that she tried to take her own life twice. “I went in and out of the hospital several times, and I eventually stopped working. Doctors had diagnosed me with depression, and I was taking an antidepressant, but I was still very, very sick,” Garcia recalls.

Once she entered the casino that April day, her mood shifted dramatically. “I became the life of the party—laughing, gambling, making friends with the dealer and the pit boss,” she says. “I had no idea I was losing so much money. I was in this sort of euphoric fog.” Four days into Garcia’s spree, her sister Wendy tracked her down. “Wendy came to my hotel room with her husband and my best friend and pounded on the door. They said they were taking me to the hospital. I broke down sobbing and said, ‘OK, I give up. I just want to get well.’ ”

First Published in the May 2013 issue

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