Living with Mental Illness Does Not Define Me

Stories of Hope: An Interview with Jacqueline Cioffa

This is part of a series featuring individuals who share their life experiences with mental health issues. Recently, I asked mental health advocate and author Jacqueline Cioffa about her history of mental health challenges and about some of her current advocacy efforts. 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 continue to affect you before you sought treatment?

JC: My initial diagnosis at thirty-five came out of the blue, after about six months of a slow build of manic symptoms where I was experiencing grandiose ideas, insomnia, talking non-stop, writing excessively and incoherently, arguing with friends and losing an excessive amount of weight. At the time, in the throes of mania, I had little control and no idea what was happening to me. I thought I was fine.

Luckily, I was living with my brother in New York and in constant phone contact with my mother upstate. My family has a large and convoluted history of mental illness, and my father had been living with bipolar disorder for many years with my mother acting as his caregiver and advocate. My family recognized the signs and made arrangements to get me home to the Finger Lakes from New York.

After disastrous treatment with SSRI’s (a type of anti-depressant medications) prescribed by my physician, exacerbating my symptoms and making me sicker, I was referred to a psychiatrist who I honestly can say saved my life. She prescribed Lithium, and slowly over the course of a few months I became stable enough to return to New York, a successful career as a celebrity makeup artist and independent life.

I would remain stable for a decade, a compliant ‘role model’ patient. Upon my return, friends who weren’t speaking to me had no idea at the time (nor did I) how sick I was, or that I’d been diagnosed with a mental illness. I wrote letters explaining what transpired to make amends. I learned a great deal about myself, the stigma of mental illness, and how difficult it can be for others to be empathic and understanding.

It took many years before I could come to terms with my diagnosis, and later use my voice to help others living with mental illness feel less alone. You can have a mental illness and still make a positive impact on the world, in spite of the huge challenges. Living with mental illness does not define a whole person, and with the correct medicine, support and coping skills, life can be filled with accomplishments, purpose and happiness despite the enormous challenges and setbacks.

DS: What was the turning point that led you to decide to seek help?

JC: Without the love and advocacy of my family when I no longer was able to help myself, I’m not sure I would have gotten the help I desperately needed. I probably would’ve been a statistic, as suicide ideations were omnipresent. When you’re in the throes of mania or depression, you cannot survive an episode without an army of support. A good therapist and psychiatrist is essential as well as the support and empathy of family and friends.

DS: What has your treatment consisted of, and what have you found that has worked well for you?

JC: After three psychotic breaks, one hospitalization, Lithium toxicity, electric shock therapy and too many different drug trials that proved unsuccessful to mention, I’ve learned to balance alternative and western medicine. As a person who is medication-resistant, I had to become my best advocate and search outside the box for alternative treatments, such as essential oils, Reiki, and DBT (dialectical behavior therapy), as well as reintroducing Lithium, which I consider the gold standard for manic depression. Quite frankly, Lithium, despite the horrible physical side effects, has been the one drug that best stabilized my mania and depression.

As my disease has progressed over the last seventeen years becoming more challenging to manage, my psychiatrist is very willing to work with me, (after seeing the horrific side effects from the various drugs I tried unsuccessfully over the years). We’ve added miniscule doses of Seroquel and Valium in case the Lithium goes toxic again, and I need to have a back up. I’m very strict with my diet, eliminating sugar and eating mostly green and clean, a gluten-free diet. I exercise regularly, practice yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to help manage the illness and anxiety.

DS: How are things going for you now? What have you learned that has helped you stay positive and healthy?

JC: After a thirty-day hospitalization in 2016 and psychotic break, last year was the roughest for me and my recovery process back to stability has been long and arduous. I recently was able to go away on an extended vacation to Europe and realized I’m stronger and managing better than I think. I laughed a lot and am now looking at volunteer opportunities to stay busy and to remind myself how fulfilling it feels to give back and help others. I continue to write my blog, books, and my column, “Bleeding Ink” with Feminine Collective as well as writing poetry, prose and fabulous guest interviews (like this one!) for other literary sites.

DS: You’ve been very active in mental health advocacy and social media. Tell us about your involvement in those activities.

JC: I have been very fortunate to network and collaborate with many different mental health advocates such as The Lithium Chronicles, Julie Anderson with Feminine Collective, Rachel Thompson, Life After Project, Allie Burke, Sarah Fader from Stigma Fighters, Kitt O’Malley, Shareen Mansfield at Open Thought Vortex, and yourself of course. It’s inspiring and humbling to read other people’s stories, and be able to relate to share experiences.

If someone is ever bullied, I love how quickly the advocates join forces to stick up for the person, even strangers, and inspiring others to keep going. I’ve met some pretty fantastic advocates, and have been told on numerous occasions my story and authentic voice has helped others struggling with mental illness. That makes dealing with the negativity and unpleasant aspects of social media worthwhile. A healthy dose of social media works well in moderation!

DS: What would you like to say to encourage others who are still working on their journey of recovery?

JC: Everyday you’ll have to work hard on your recovery, but try not to be too hard on yourself. Take time to just breathe, go for a walk, talk to a friend and don’t beat yourself up. (I’m the queen of self-deprecation.) If you’re having a shitty day, and you will, try to remember there is the possibility of a fantastic one tomorrow. Take it minute by minute, and don’t be afraid to reach out. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how many people are on your side, rooting for you.

“We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.” – Carlos Castaneda

About Jacqueline

Jacqueline Cioffa. Feminist. Mental Health Advocate. Poet. Activist. Dog Lover. Model. Celebrity Make Up Artist. Stone Crab Enthusiast. Humanitarian. Author of the poignant soul-stirring saga, “The Vast Landscape” and “Georgia Pine,” Jacqueline’s work has also been widely featured in numerous literary magazines, and anthologies. She’s a storyteller, observer, truth teller, essayist, potty mouth and film lover who’s traveled the world. She believes passionately in using her voice to advocate to help and inspire others. Look for her column, “Bleeding Ink” with Feminine Collective, or visit jacquelinecioffa.com. You can also find her on Google+, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads or Amazon

Thanks so much to Jacqueline for her advocacy and her inspiring story of hope!

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. Finally, if you enjoyed this post, please share it with a friend. Thanks!

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