My life changed forever at the age of 26, when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. A whirlwind of mania with overpowering energy shook me to the core, depression crippled my ability to function, and psychosis convinced me I was not of this world. All eventually led me to the depths of a suicide attempt and a three-day stay in the ICU. I have been hospitalized in the psych ward twice—for a month at a time—and I have nearly slipped into homelessness and self-medication more than once. My history is full of pain and sorrow, but it has blossomed into a beautiful picture of hope, perseverance and empowerment. Though I once viewed it as a curse, bipolar disorder soon brought me the most amazing gift I have ever received.
Choices are key, even at your darkest. I chose to teach English in South Korea, telling myself that I was never coming back to Canada. As I spent time with young children, I experienced healing I had never anticipated, and as I journeyed on to teach university students, I felt welcomed and connected to a new place I called home. I wrote daily in the heat of my small one-room apartment, and I soon realized I wanted to share my story so others did not have to suffer in silence like I did. I also learned that South Korea was an escape, a means to avoid the tragedies that had taken place, so after two years I decided to move back home to Victoria, BC.
I suffered with my illness in South Korea, but I managed to make it through and returned home with a fresh perspective. Shortly thereafter, I attended a professional development seminar, where in front of 400 people I declared, “My name is Andrea Paquette and I have learned that I am not bipolar disorder—I only have this illness.” What an epiphany: Bipolar disorder no longer held me captive in my own mind, and the self-stigma of despising my image in the mirror faded slowly away. At another seminar, I was inspired when a fellow participant told me about her funny mental health t-shirt ideas. I declared that my mine would say, “Bipolar Babe: Stomping out Stigma.” I wanted to wear it proudly and spark conversation around the topic of mental illness, especially stigma—the idea that people with a mental illness are weak in character, violent or even inferior. I wanted to open up that conversation and show people that anyone could have a mental illness, and most of all that there is hope for all of us.
I joined an amazing woman I call my Depressed Diva in creating BipolarBabe.com, an online space for conversation and education. Through a swarm of media attention and local networking efforts, we garnered a significant amount of support and recognition for our work. As time went on, more people wanted to be a part of this project, and I began speaking at community events and in classrooms, and launched a youth support group out of my basement suite. This grassroots movement flourished into a non-profit society created in January 2010, and soon thereafter a full-fledged charity called the Bipolar Disorder Society of British Columbia (BDSBC). An amazing team formed and I was no longer a one-woman show; I was the Bipolar Babe working in the company of six passionate board members integral to our success.
Today, we provide five programs offering peer support and mental health education. Together with a dedicated staff, we coordinate and deliver programs that have an immense impact on many lives. We also created the Bipolar Youth Action Project (BYAP) in partnership with the Collaborative Research Team to Study Psychosocial Issues in Bipolar Disorder (CREST.BD), a research network at the University of British Columbia. I know now that years of perseverance and dream building have truly rewarded me in more ways than I could possibly have imagined. There have been countless amazing moments along the way, but I will never forget one in particular: A young man who had seen a classroom presentation stated in his feedback, “After seeing your presentation, I feel less nervous about meeting my biological father, who has bipolar disorder.” I have accepted my gift of bipolar disorder, as without it, BDSBC and the Bipolar Babe Project would not have come to fruition, and my mission of stomping out stigma would never have been realized. I have learned that no matter what challenges we face, we can all live extraordinary lives.
By Andrea Paquette