We Can All Live Extraordinary Lives

My name is Andrea and I am known as the Bipolar Babe. It is quite a story how I earned this catchy nickname and it began in 2004. My past personal challenges always lay at the forefront of my mind and they form a story that I will tell others for the rest of my life in hopes that they will find something in it that will encourage them to move forward. I want people to be assured that the most difficult of times will always turn around, and no situation is ever hopeless.

At the age of 25, I arrived in Ottawa, ON, with my political science degree in hand, to pursue a dream of working in the House of Commons to make a difference on the political stage for my country. However, it was not a dream job and a dream life that found me in Ottawa, it was actually bipolar disorder. My seemingly ‘normal’ world fragmented as intense manic episodes increasingly took a hold of me. I was soon in the throes of a psychosis that gripped me so strongly that I could not tell the difference between reality and non-reality. I was fortunate that a police officer offered to call me an ambulance, upon responding to my frantic 911 call begging for help when I was in a fit of terrifying delusions.

In the following days, I was hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I tried to heal from that hospitalization but I eventually hit a depression so dark that I could not grocery shop for myself, taste my food, or have the energy to shower on most days. I gave up completely and I even attempted to take my own life at the age of 26. Luckily, I survived. I received proper care from a supportive psychiatrist and was given an effective mental health treatment plan during my second hospitalization. Subsequent to my mental health breakdown, I soon journeyed to South Korea to heal, write and reflect on my past. During my second year living there, I began drafting some ideas on paper about my dream. My dream to create a mental health charity that would help people like me.

I did not want one person to suffer in silence like I once did.

I made it back home to Canada after 2 years. That whole time away I kept sharing with others about my dream of building a mental health charity. I playfully created a t-shirt with a logo that showcased the slogan Bipolar Babe – Stomping Out Stigma. I wore that t-shirt proudly in public and eyes often peered sideways as I shopped in grocery stores. Some found it amusing and cute, but I felt like I was making a statement, which is that “it’s okay to have a mental illness.” I longed to share my personal story with students and Bipolar Babe soon became my personal brand, and to my surprise, people in the community coined me as the Bipolar Babe. During this time in 2009, there was rarely any discussion about mental health or stigma, but I felt I had to share my experience with young people in schools. In doing so, I hoped that my story helped others to know that it is okay to talk about our mental health and that nobody is alone. I, eventually, presented to one classroom in Victoria, B.C. and shared my story with 15 students; today I have presented to nearly 50,000 students.

I, eventually, met some amazing and supportive people in the community who became the first Board of Directors of our newly formed charity called the Bipolar Disorder Society of BC. The Bipolar Babe name became the brand for the Society’s programming for years to come. For years, I worked arduously as a volunteer while I built the charity alongside a supportive team. As years passed, we designed mental health programs, such as the youth peer support group that I hosted out of my basement suite, for the charity and it truly grew. As time unfolded, so did the success of the charity, which was rebranded as the Stigma-Free Society in 2016. I had a vital decision to make during this time and I took a chance to start fresh with a move to the much bigger City of Vancouver to expand the Society with a new colleague and friend, Dave Richardson, who helped make it all possible.

Today, I am the Stigma-Free Society’s President, which is my full-time employment position and it has been so for the past 7 years. Our Society has a staff of 10 amazing individuals and we deliver educational programs about all stigmas with a focus on mental health. Our presenters deliver impactful programming supported and informed by their own personal stories to children, teenagers and countless individuals in the community. The Society’s programs are in great demand provincially, and we share our message of hope across British Columbia, even reaching many rural communities up north.

I am very candid about my suicide attempt in 2005 in my presentations as I feel this is a subject that all people should feel comfortable discussing, especially our younger generation. I ended up in the intensive care unit (ICU) for three days after my attempt and it took seven years to understand that I did not have to be ashamed of having bipolar disorder. I accept that I have been plagued by psychosis for years, but I am one of the lucky ones because my mental health treatment plan now works to keep me stable and healthy.

During the many years after my diagnosis, I never imagined that a full and meaningful life was possible. I now have stronger ties to my family than ever before.

I understand my mother’s plight as she also has bipolar disorder. I feel that having this condition has actually brought us closer. I have supportive friends who understand that mental illness may cause me to isolate at times, where I do not reach out to anyone for days or even weeks. I am fortunate that those times are no longer a significant concern as my mental health has improved so dramatically it often feels like I am in a type of remission. Additionally, a loving and supportive romantic relationship never seemed to be a possibility. I felt too different for anyone to accept, and considered myself to be unlovable because I had a serious mental illness. I was so wrong. I am now married to an accepting man who understands my ever changing energy levels and embraces my authentic self with all of my moods.

There are numerous mental health advocates surfacing in Canada daily and for this I am grateful. We are all working in unison and bringing forth a vitally important message into the world that There is always help and there is always hope. As for myself, I have finally found deep meaning in my diagnosis and the tragedies that happened in the past, and I am assured that it all took place for a very significant reason. On the darkest of days, I remind myself that I am one of the lucky ones, I made it through and it is my responsibility to let the world know that no matter our challenges, we can all live extraordinary lives. It is because of this mission, this reason, that I would not change a thing.