Stories of Hope: An Interview with Julie Kraft
This is the first of a series of ‘Stories of Hope’ articles featuring individuals who share their life experiences with mental health issues. Recently, I asked Julie Kraft about the challenges she has faced with her mental health and how her journey of recovery is continuing to unfold. Here’s our interview:
DS: Tell us about when you first started becoming aware of concerns related to your mental health. How did these issues affect you and those around you before you sought treatment?
JK: Looking back, I’d say things started to go downhill (at full speed) when I hit my teen years. I was that geeky, gawky girl, the one with the monobrow but no boyfriend. So it’s no surprise I was an easy target for the bullies. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the strength to stand up to them or keep their constant teasing from crushing my spirit.
Sadly, I tied all my self-worth to things outside myself, including the way I looked and being liked. After high school, things only seemed to get worse. My first serious relationship ended abruptly and left me with a broken heart. I lost all confidence and spent my first year of college crippled with anxiety, hiding in my dorm room and skipping class. That was my first, and by far my darkest, depressive episode.
Thank goodness things eventually took a turn for the better. In a span of only two years I discovered tweezers, got married and became a mom. But my anxiety remained. Daily life was such a struggle; grocery shopping, driving, getting gas – it all overwhelmed me.
The crazy thing was, most people had no idea. I somehow managed to hide everything behind a giant smile. I just never felt the freedom to let others see the real me. I truly believed they would only ever love a ‘happy-go-lucky’ Julie.
It was an exhausting way to live and impossible to sustain. Things began to unravel, and I began to unravel. All of my pent-up frustration and anger was unleashed on those closest to me – my family. The people I loved the most always got my worst. It was a vicious cycle that I had created and then continued to fuel for almost two decades.
DS: What was the turning point that led you to decide to seek help? What diagnosis did you receive?
JK: I wish I could say I had this mind-blowing epiphany on the top of a mountain at sunset and decided to seek help, all on my own, but I can’t. If my recovery had been solely up to me, chances are I’d still be struggling.
But, it wasn’t all up to me. When things hit their worst, I wasn’t the only person in the picture. There was also one very weary husband and three very impressionable children who were caught up in my chaos.
Even so, I never thought my husband would ever reach a limit. I just assumed I could use him as my punching bag for the rest of my life. Well, let’s just say I assumed wrong. My husband gave me an ultimatum that scared me to death. “Get help,” he begged, “or I’ll go with the kids, and get us help.” I knew he was serious.
I hated (yes, ‘hate’ is a very strong word) the idea of getting help. I didn’t want a doctor or anyone else to see my weakness. Yes, there was most definitely a pride issue on my part. I was scared too, scared of a real-life diagnosis and what it might mean. I even worried about being strapped to a stretcher and rolled away.
Ultimately, the fear of losing my family outweighed everything else. This time around, I knew it was time to get over myself and get help. A few doctor visits and what seemed like five thousand questions later, I was diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder.
I’d be lying if I said I was relieved. I was embarrassed and ashamed. My only perception of bipolar disorder was negative. My online searches turned up images of crazed people and cartoons with twisted smiles, but never pictures of people living ‘normal’ lives. I was so afraid that others would only see me as my illness and that it would overshadow everything I did and said for the rest of my life.
DS: What has your treatment consisted of, and what have you found that has worked well for you?
JK: The advice of both my psychiatrist and my primary care doctor was to take mood-stabilizing medication. I must admit I had a really hard time with the idea of medication. I just didn’t like the notion of needing to pop pills in order to function properly.
And, there were parts of my bipolar disorder that I loved, such as my creative manic episodes when I would write and paint for weeks on end. As an artist, I couldn’t bear the thought of losing that part of me and living an emotionless existence.
In the end, I decided to take my doctors’ advice. It’s been five years since, and so far, so good. The side effects have been minimal, my moods are much more manageable, and best of all, although less extreme, my manic episodes still come.
So for me, for now, medication is the right road to take. Of course I know there are more steps I could be taking to keep me on track, such as seeing a counselor on a more regular basis. And I keep hearing about this thing called ‘exercise.’
DS: How are things going for you now? What have you learned that has helped you stay positive and healthy?
JK: I’ll quietly and cautiously say things are going well for me. I’m in a really good place. First things first, I’m still married and my kids still call me ‘mom.’ My mask is off, and I finally feel the freedom to just be me, no matter my mood.
But I sure didn’t get to this place overnight or on my own. I owe so much to my family and friends for their unconditional love and support and for seeing me as more than my mental illness, so much more.
As far as things that help keep me positive and healthy, I’ll start with something that’s simple but significant – getting enough sleep. I’m an absolute and undeniable train wreck when I’ve underslept.
I’ve also become far more discerning and intentional about the people I surround myself with. I now choose to spend my Friday nights with uplifting friends who have my best interests at heart and know exactly when to give me a hug or a hand slap.
Just as important as my externals are my internals. I have to constantly monitor my mind and internal monologue. My default setting is to take everything – unanswered phone calls, ignored emails, being cut off in traffic – straight to heart and in the worst possible ways. It’s a good thing my kids remind me daily that I’m actually not the center of everyone’s universe.
And last but certainly not least, my faith in God plays the biggest part in staying positive. At the end of each day, knowing that I don’t have to rely entirely on my own strength to get me through is such a relief. My faith gives me peace in the midst of chaos, and rest when I’m weary.
DS: What would you like to say to encourage others who are still working on their journey of recovery?
JK: Well, as cliché as it sounds, I’d want others to know they’re not alone. I’m right alongside, working on my recovery too. It’s definitely an ongoing, day-by-day, and at times, minute-by-minute process.
I’d also tell them to take a deep breath and be gentle with themselves. It’s so important to remember we are not doomed or defined by a few moments of madness (or the shape of our eyebrows and number of people who like us). We are not the sum of our worst moments. Mental illness is something we have, not something we are.
I’d also encourage others to be vulnerable, to let others ‘in,’ and not keep this part of themselves hidden for fear they’ll be ‘defriended.’ The stigma surrounding mental illness is being shattered and the more we open up and talk about it, the less misunderstood and feared it will be.
And to all those silently struggling – seek help (you should have been expecting that). Needing help isn’t a sign of weakness, and getting help is a sign of incredible strength. No, It won’t be easy (anything in life worth having, worth fighting for, rarely is) but it will be worth it. It could be the difference between saving your marriage, keeping friends, holding down a job or… losing absolutely everything.
If you don’t have the desire to do it for yourself, do it for the sake and sanity of those around you. Hope and help exist, compassion and empathy await, so never lose heart or ever give up. There is a bright light at the end of the tunnel. My greatest hope is that you, and others, will believe it’s there and find it.
As a busy wife and mother, Julie Kraft enjoys juggling her time between caring for her family and pursuing her many creative interests. Over the past two decades she has worked in all areas of art and interior design. After spending three years living in Germany, she is thrilled to be back in her hometown of Vancouver, Canada. She has recently published her memoir “The Other Side of Me: memoir of a bipolar mind” in hopes of opening minds, shattering stigma, and offering hope to those walking a similar path. You can connect with Julie on Facebook and also check out these videos: The Other Side of Me & You’ve Got This – Bipolar Disorder to hear more about her journey.
Thanks so much to Julie Kraft for her candor and courage in sharing her inspiring story!
Here’s a question: Would you like to share your story of hope? I plan to feature more personal accounts like this from time to time on my blog. If you are interested in sharing your story, please notify me via my contact page. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Thanks!