By Catherine Ponte, as reported to Stephanie Watson.
I had a normal, happy childhood. I was always ambitious, though somewhat insecure. My parents moved from Portugal to Toronto, Canada. None of them completed high school. Being the first in my family to go to university, I was very anxious to please them. So I always felt pressure to perform well.
I earned my Bachelor of Arts degree in Politics and my Law degree. After working in Brazil for a few years, I moved to the US and started an MBA program at the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. Not only was I insecure that I wasn’t performing as well as my classmates, but I was also alone for the first time in my life. My parents were in Canada and my future husband was working in New York.
Academic and career stress combined with loneliness forced me to withdraw and isolate myself. In 2000, I was diagnosed with major depression. I thought it was just a phase that would pass. I went to a psychiatrist and tried medication, but after a few weeks of no improvement, I stopped taking it.
Around the same time, my father lost his job where he had worked for 30 years. I was sexually assaulted by a classmate. All these stresses came together, and I started acting erratically and out of character. I sent a long, rambling email to my classmates — all 800 of them.
My vice dean at Wharton said, “Something’s not right. We need to get you to the counseling office.” Within 5 minutes, they had diagnosed me with bipolar disorder.
I refused to accept my diagnosis. I felt sick because of everything I was experiencing.
I tried the new drug, but I didn’t like the idea of taking it. To me, it was an admission that something was wrong with me, and I was having a hard time accepting that I had bipolar disorder.
I managed to graduate from Wharton, but I went into a deep depression soon after and became completely immobile. Even when I moved to New York and reunited with my future husband, it was a very difficult time. Sometimes I was so depressed that I couldn’t get out of bed.
I was not treated for 6 years. Then in 2006 I had a major crisis. I thought the world was going to end and I was the messenger who was going to save it. When my husband came home one day, the apartment was a disaster. I had torn it. My hysteria and psychosis became so severe that she had to call 911.
Three police officers and two paramedics arrived at my apartment. It felt more like a criminal arrest than a medical emergency. They put me in a wheelchair and took me to the hospital in an ambulance.
I landed in the psychiatric emergency room. The doctor who admitted me opened the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) to bipolar disorder. He asked me, “Are you experiencing any of these symptoms?” And pointed to the page. I said, no, no, no. But he said yes, yes, yes.
For 2 days, I lay on a gurney in the hallway of the psychiatric emergency room because there were no open rooms in the hospital. They made me desperate to bring me down from my intense manic episode. I woke up in leather restraints in the lockdown unit. It was disturbing.
Before I was discharged, I had to arrange to see a psychiatrist for treatment. Within weeks of starting my medication, I felt I was healed and no longer needed it. So I came off the medication, got sick, and ended up in the hospital again. I was hospitalized three times — in 2006, 2010 and 2014. A separate manic episode led to my arrest as I once again thought the world was ending.
A new direction
The turning point for me came during my last hospitalization in 2014, when I saw a video of a woman who was living with him. Mental illness. I couldn’t believe that she was really living a full life. She was running her own company. She seemed 100% stable. She looked happy.
I began to believe that I too could be happy.
I became involved in peer support, meeting and talking to other people with mental illness. It really helped. In fact, it was critical to my recovery. They understand what it’s like to live with mental illness. It gave me hope, which inspired me to act.
I had to find the right medication and the right psychiatrist. I have been with two psychiatrists for 5 years, and it felt like they were keeping me alive. They were trying to relieve my symptoms and keep me from being hospitalized, but my condition was not improving.
I was on a medication regimen that had me sleeping 14 hours a day and caused me to gain 60 pounds. My condition was getting worse. I had to find a new doctor.
I contacted a bipolar disorder clinic in California who referred me to a local psychopharmacologist — a doctor who specializes in using medication to treat mental disorders. I felt, either I’m going to try it or I’m going to be unhappy.
When I met the doctor, I told him, “I want to get off the medicine that makes me sleepy. I don’t want to be fat anymore. I want to be able to work and do something with my life.” Be, and not live the senseless life I’m living.”
My doctor gave me medication options and then asked my preference. It was a completely different form of therapy that I had never experienced, called shared decision making. I was surprised that he was actually asking me which medicine I liked. It was a sign to me that he respected my opinion.
My new doctor didn’t just treat me to manage symptoms and side effects and avoid risks. He treated me to achieve my life goals.
He took me off the medication that made me sleep 14 hours a day and made losing weight almost impossible. He then put me on six medications, including mood stabilizers for my mania and depression. Within 2 days, I was down to 10 hours of sleep a day. Within 6 months, I had lost 50 pounds.
I don’t like taking medication, but once I saw that it allowed me to live a full and meaningful life, I accepted being on it. I have been stable since 2016.
My spouse has also played a very important role in my recovery. Families can play an important role in the recovery of their loved ones.
My mother recently sent a card to my doctor. In it she wrote, “Thank you for giving us back our Kathy.” She said tears welled up in her eyes.
Paying it forward
When you’re in the psychiatric unit, there are no well wishes or flowers. There is little hope that you will recover. Once I started getting better, my mom started sending me cards once a week, and they really made me feel better. I wanted to do the same for other people.
I started this program where twice a month I visit psychiatric units at two hospitals in New York. I get people to donate greeting cards, which I distribute to patients. Patients also decorate and leave their own messages on cards for other patients. During these visits, I talk to patients and share my lived experience. This makes them tick. They say, “Oh, you’re one of us. You understand where we are and how we feel.”
I also created an online peer support community for people living with mental illness, substance abuse, and stressful life events, called ForLikeMinds. We have over 10,000 members. It is a place to meet people and share your experiences. Peer support was really important to me during my recovery.
Also, I recently created a coaching service called Peersights. I help people and families living with mental illness recover. The goal is to inspire hope, help them find the resources they need to get better, and improve communication with each other and with doctors so they can better advocate for their needs.