Bipolar Disorder Is My Biggest Competitor

Stories of Hope: An Interview with Amy Gamble

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 Amy Gamble about her history of mental health challenges, her advocacy activities and her recent memoir. 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?

AG: Well…this is a complex question for me. I really started to struggle with severe depression when I was a senior in high school. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, I just knew I had a hard time getting out of bed. I wasn’t motivated to work-out or practice basketball. I felt lethargic and heavy.

I might have even been sad, but I really didn’t know there was something wrong. I would not have identified it as depression back then. But it clearly affected me. It kept me isolated from friends and away from my usual activities. Several months would pass and then I would get better. Kind of a bounce in my mood.

The first time I had suicidal thoughts is a landmark in my map back in time marking my mental health journey. I was a sophomore at the University of Tennessee, playing basketball for the legendary late Pat Summitt. I was struggling with every area of my life, including relationships, spiritual, and just having the motivation to do daily activities. I was depressed and suicidal. It caused me to leave Tennessee and return back home to my family in West Virginia.

While I did reach out to my family (thank goodness), I never sought professional help. I enrolled in school at West Virginia University and just kept fighting my way through the depression. I managed to become well enough to make the 1988 Olympic Team Handball squad.

It was ten years after my first depressive episode before I sought help. I was living and working in Las Vegas and my depression was so severe I took myself to my primary care doctor. I thought there was something physically wrong with me. I never expected to be told I had a mental illness. And there was no way I was going to accept that diagnosis, that label.

As time passed, it started to become more noticeable that I was having mood swings. Boundless energy, very happy, jovial, partying with friends, and to the other end of not having much interest in anything and being a bit isolated. The swings between hypomania and depression were happening more frequently and started to be disruptive.

My family was more worried about me when I was depressed than when I was hypomanic. Of course friends loved it when I could brainstorm ideas and help find solutions to difficult problems. But when depressed, no one really wanted to be around me. I was not any fun.

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

I honestly had a few turning points. I really wish I could say I got the proper diagnosis, learned how to manage my condition and moved on with my life. But I was in denial and any time a different physician would give me a different diagnosis, I would latch on to it and pretend I didn’t have bipolar disorder.

I finally got very serious after I was found wondering alone in the middle of the Idaho National Forest. I was taken to the local hospital and admitted to the psychiatric unit. I had excellent treatment and a nurse explained to me about bipolar disorder and how to manage it.

I almost lost my life because I didn’t take bipolar disorder serious enough. I didn’t understand that it was “not my fault” I had mental illness. But even though I learned the hard way, I realized I could turn things around and live a good life with well-managed bipolar disorder.

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

AG: I have taken a holistic approach to my wellness. I believe in mind, body and spirit. I pay close attention to taking care of all three.

I worked with an excellent psychiatrist who helped fine-tune my medications. We had to find the right combination that wouldn’t leave me feeling like a “zombie.”

I also worked for a couple of years with a really great therapist. She was amazing and I will always be grateful for her help.

I have utilized peer support through the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. I believe peer support groups can be really powerful. Currently, I also attend NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) support groups.

Once I was stabilized I had to learn how to forgive myself for my behaviors that were out of character when I was not well. This total and full acceptance of myself really propelled me to become mentally healthy and ready to take the next step in my journey.

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

AG: My life is so blessed now. I am the Executive Director of NAMI of Greater Wheeling, WV. I get to take the things I have learned and help build an advocacy group that helps provide education and support for others.

I have learned that I can’t change the past and all of my mistakes in how I handled bipolar disorder, but I can use all the wisdom gained to help other people. Keeping things in perspective and allowing myself to be inspired by helping one person at a time, keeps me healthy all the way around.

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

AG: I had started researching mental health advocacy about seven years ago. I started out with a blog called, “Shedding Light on Mental Illness.” I learned how to manage my illness by reading how others had managed theirs. I thought I might be able to help a few people with what I had learned, especially my fierce notions about recovery.

One thing I am really proud of is that we (NAMI Greater Wheeling and Youth Services System) are bringing “This is My Brave” to Wheeling, WV in November. “This is My Brave” is a national non-profit organization that licenses their concepts on storytelling to organizations across the country. We have 17 cast members who will be sharing through essay, poetry or original music on November 14, 2017. I’m just so proud of our community for making this happen and I’m happy my mental health advocacy passion played some small part.

One of the worst things that happened to me before I found the proper treatment was I entered into a stranger’s house while I was psychotic. They weren’t home, but I did some damage and was later incarcerated for a few weeks. While I was in jail I started writing in a journal, and that journal served as an outline for my book I wrote called, “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor.”

I call bipolar disorder my biggest competitor because it has challenged me more than becoming an Olympian did. Of course I had times in my life when I struggled. I certainly struggled during my time of training for the Olympics. But there has never been anything in my life that was any more difficult than learning how to beat bipolar disorder, It is in fact, My Biggest Competitor.

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

AG: I want everyone to know that recovery is possible. Whatever you do, don’t give up, don’t stop fighting, because when you get to the other side of the road you’ll be so happy! Recovery is a lifetime journey, but there are places along the road you only have to visit once and then you never have to see those places again.

About Amy

Amy Gamble is a small town girl who has always had big time dreams. She followed those dreams all the way to the Olympic Games. She is now the Executive Director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) of Greater Wheeling, WV. She is a Certified Mental Health First Aid instructor and a mental health speaker. Amy has over 18 years experience in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry. She has worked on Disease State Management Programs and worked as a consultant to the pharmaceutical industry authoring a Depression Training Manual for clients. Amy has a M.A. in Organizational Management and a B.A. in Communication. Amy’s mission in life is to help those who live mental illness and their family members find help and hope. She strives to eliminate stigma by sharing openly her struggles and triumphs of living with bipolar disorder. Amy has recently written a book called Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor: An Olympian’s Journey with Mental Illness. You can connect with Amy on Twitter, Facebook, or on her website.

Thanks so much to Amy for 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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