Photo: September 2016. My niece is helping me show off my custom menswear business. As always, she steals the show!
The following is an Interview that I wrote for David Susman’s Stories of Hope series. David is a PhD, Clinical psychologist, mental health advocate, professor, and writer. He shares resources and inspiration for better mental health via his website davidsusman.com.
My name is Julia Stabler and I live with Bipolar 1 Disorder. I am 29 years old and currently reside in my hometown of Bellevue, Washington. I work independently as a stylist for a custom menswear brand as well as an online stylist for a women’s clothing rental company. I spend my free time golfing in the summer, snowboarding in the winter, hanging with my family and friends, and watching far too much tv J I have been active in the mental health community since June 2017. You can follow my advocacy Instagram @julia_lives_bipolar and my business/personal instagram @jstabler. You can also find my short stories at my website julialivebipolar.com.
DS: Tell us about when you first started becoming aware of concerns related to your mental health. How did these issues continue to affect you before you sought treatment?
JS: I first became concerned about my mental health when I was in college. I realized that it was becoming a problem when a professor I admired expressed his concern. At home I was in a near constant state of panic, stressed all the time about school, my social life, everything really.
I didn’t feel like I fit in at my college and it took a toll on my happiness. In order to keep my grades I let my health slide. I frequently stayed up all night to finish my papers. When previously I was able to manage the workload, I started asking for extensions and coming to school unkempt, in my pajamas. I was a great student slipping downhill. My professor gently shared his observations with me one day in a one-on-one meeting. In the kindest way possible suggested that seeking help might be a good thing.
Before, I had a vague idea that depression ran in my family but figured I could tough things out without medication. This incident changed my mind and I sought counseling through the university. The therapist decided that it would be best for me to visit a doctor. She said I was clearly and visibly depressed, she could see it in my face.
I fully expected to be diagnosed with depression and begin anti-depressants…I was ready for some relief…. but when the doctor diagnosed me as bipolar I was totally shocked. I wasn’t totally against the idea of being bipolar or taking the medication prescribed to me, but then my parents expressed equal levels of surprise.
Upon their urging I sought out a second opinion, ending up with a psychologist outside of the university. I was kind of on my own to try and figure this out, which my parents now regret. They wish they had brought me home and helped me figure it out with trusted referrals.
The guy put me through a battery of tests that I can’t really remember. He determined that I was not bipolar, but actually just incredibly sensitive. He suggested I just take better care of myself using natural methods like exercise, healthy food, sleeping consistently, meditation, etc. At the time I was relieved, threw away my medication and signed up for yoga classes, got a massage, and turned vegan for awhile.
I spent the next three years of my young adulthood struggling with the roller coaster moods of my untreated Bipolar 1. I came close to attempting suicide once. I struggled with my faith, my beliefs, my relationships, my direction in life, my jobs, my self-esteem, my impulses.
The worst consequence of living untreated came when I was 25 years old, living away from home in San Francisco and working in a fast paced start-up culture. Over the course of a few months a manic episode ramped up so strongly that it drove me into a state of psychosis.
During the time leading to my hospitalization I was fired from my job, engaged in scarily risky behaviors, made out-of-character decisions, pushed the limits with my friends and family, put some of those relationships in jeopardy and eventually existed purely outside of reality. Psychosis changed my life because it forced my family and I to face the illness we had so quickly swept under the rug and forgotten a few years before.
DS: What was the turning point that led you to decide to seek help?
JS: When I was admitted to the hospital I was in a full-blown state of psychosis. That morning I had risen from bed to find a hallucination of a black etched ring being converted into a brilliant white circle hovering just in front of my face. It told me that the energy of the Earth was changing from negative to positive because of me.
For the rest of the day I pranced around my apartment to the beat of my delusions while my roommate enlisted two of my friends to come help until my mom could get to us from Seattle. They thought maybe I had been drugged; I was clearly out of my mind.
Mom made it down by dinnertime and they cajoled me into a car headed to the hospital. In my mind the hospital was secretly Hogwarts. I was not scared nor did I resist my admittance because I thought that I was a witch.
Once the doctor told me that I was having a bipolar psychotic break, my attitude changed. I didn’t believe it. I was paranoid that evil people were after me. They were trying to destroy my magic with their Western medicine. I was given several chances before being pinned down and administered a shot of antipsychotic medication. I blacked out and woke up in a different psychiatric unit. My family was waiting for me when I woke up, afraid but ready to help.
I struggled deeply with accepting reality. Coming out of psychosis is an experience I still struggle to explain. You’re living in another dimension but everyone that you love tells you it’s not real. It’s absurd.
My mom was there every day. My dad and sister came to visit from Seattle once. My aunt, uncle and cousin came to support my mom, who was terrified and traumatized. They let me call my closest friends.
My mom was a vigilant advocate for me. She demanded information, worked with the staff to understand what I was going through, seeking to know how to help me and how to get me out of the ward quickly, but not too quickly. She recalls the staff’s bewilderment at her tenacity. They appreciated seeing a family willing to do anything to help their daughter.
My dad specifically played a major role in helping me accept treatment. After meeting with my doctor he sat in a private room with me. At that point I was taking the medication for fear of being locked in solitary confinement again, but I was very resistant. He reminded me that he’s my dad and that he cares about me more that anyone in the world, that he was on my side and would get me out of there. He passionately reminded me that deep down I knew this. I remember remembering that he was right. I love my dad and he would never betray me.
It was a major breakthrough. All at once I decided to believe him over my delusions. He told me that the only way I could get out of this place was to take the medicine. He said that he and Mom were working on a plan to get me out. They would fly me down to LA to stay with my aunt and uncle while I went to an outpatient aftercare program down there.
I would have to go through treatment, but it would be outpatient and with my family by my side. He begged me to just trust him. I could even go to the beach. But I had to commit to the treatment plan. He promised me that in my aftercare we could learn more about alternative options and discuss getting off of the medicine if I still wanted to do that.
Throughout my aftercare I complained incessantly about the medication, but I complied. As psychosis dissipated, the gravity of my situation slowly set in. I started taking medication because of my family. I continued because I realized that it was my best chance at finding a way to eventually live a full and happy life.
DS: What has your treatment consisted of, and what have you found that has worked well for you?
JS: An antipsychotic was initially prescribed to bring me out of psychosis. The docs also started me on a mood stabilizer Lithium, which I currently take at night.
It has been four years since my psychotic break and just recently my psychiatrist suggested a second mood-stabilizing medication as an addition to help buffer my moods even more. I have found that as I grow older my life continues to grow in complexity and that my primary medication, while great, maybe isn’t enough anymore.
I also take a small dose of an anti-anxiety medication at night if I’m consistently not sleeping well, am stressed, and really need the sleep. My psychiatrist also serves as my therapist. We meet as necessary. Therapy is an invaluable tool to me.
DS: How are things going for you now? What challenges are you still facing? What have you learned that has helped you stay positive and healthy?
JS: Things are good for me now. I’m really happy with how I have been able to build a life that feels satisfying. I still face challenges, but they are much more “every day” challenges. Things that I feel like everyone goes through: career stuff, relationship stuff, dating (ugh).
Bipolar disorder will always shape my life. I have a watchful eye on things that could derail me. I have to be careful about my self-care especially. When I do feel an upswing or downswing I let somebody know. Then I let my therapist know the next time I see him. We keep an eye on it and adjust medications as necessary. No matter what though, I know that my mood can be normalized. I will be ok. Nothing is forever. I have so much to live for.
I have learned throughout all of this that I am pretty damn strong. Sometimes I’m amazed that I was able to survive, heal and move forward. All along I wanted a happy ending for my story and I feel like I found it by learning how to live again.
DS: You’ve been active in mental health advocacy and social media. Tell us about your involvement in those activities.
JS: On Valentine’s Day 2016, I watched as sweet photos of my friends, family and acquaintances flooded my Facebook feed. Meanwhile I was single and felt alone. Something clicked inside of me. I shouldn’t feel sad. I should feel happy I had my life back. It had been two years and I was doing great. I always knew I wanted to do something with my story, but I wasn’t sure what or how.
In just a few sentences I told the Facebook-verse that on this Valentine’s Day I was grateful for my friends, family and to be alive. I wrote that back in 2014 I was hospitalized by a bipolar psychotic break. That I spent a night in solitary confinement, a week in a psych ward and a month in an aftercare program before moving home to live with my parents. I spent the next two years rebuilding my life. And I was thankful to feel happy after two years of healing.
My network went nuts. A lot of people knew what had happened, but a lot of people didn’t. So many people I knew and cared about reached out to me. I was so scared that nobody would care, that I was being dramatic by sharing. But the response was enormous and positive. I felt more connected to my community, validated in my sense of purpose, and relieved.
People started asking me for advice and referrals. I was now helping people. That day I broke out of my cocoon and became butterfly. That day lit a fire under my ass. I knew I had to take advocacy seriously. I had a voice and people listened.
It took me another year until I gained the skills and vision necessary to launch my Instagram and soon after that my supplementary website. There I have spilled my guts sharing short stories about my journey. I’ve made incredible connections with other advocates and my readers. It feels special and I know that it’s my calling to continue my work in this community.
DS: What would you like to say to encourage others who are still working on their journey of recovery?
JS: Love who you are, be compassionate with yourself, lean on your support system in times of distress, never be ashamed of your brain. Do what you can to be vigilant about your recovery, treatment, and maintenance so that you can move forward with your life. You are worth it!