Stories of Hope: An Interview with Kitt O’Malley
This is part of a series featuring individuals who share their life experiences with mental health issues. Recently, I asked writer and mental health advocate Kitt O’Malley about her history of mental health challenges and her current activities. 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?
KO: As an 18-year-old pre-med freshman biochemistry major at UCLA, I struggled with suicidal thoughts. I didn’t tell my parents or my acquaintances at UCLA, but I did tell my good friends from high school who insisted that I make a verbal contract promising to get professional help. My friends who knew were concerned.
My friends at UCLA who didn’t know about my suicidality were shocked when I told them at the end of my freshman year that I was quitting due to depression. I hid it well as a high-achiever. I was so ashamed of failing, that I didn’t tell my parents, instead using mononucleosis as my excuse for withdrawing from UCLA.
Though I didn’t tell my parents that I was suicidal, I became the identified patient in my alcoholic family system. I was the one who sought and received treatment. Unfortunately, that has not inoculated me from the burden of living with mental illness. It’s not easy for me or for those I love and love me.
DS: What was the turning point that led you to decide to seek help?
KO: Twice that freshman year, I sought help. The first psychologist I saw dismissed my case as easy, and spent the hour regaling me with stories of the cases he had cured. I was angry, for I considered the risk of taking my own life a big deal. I didn’t return.
Later that year, I came up with a suicide plan, with intent and means to kill myself. I gathered all the pills I had, wrote a suicide note, planned to make a phone call at 5:00 p.m. after which I intended to take the pills. I managed to step outside myself, saw what I was doing and thought, “Wow, I’m actually going to do it this time.” That so alarmed me that I called a dear friend to come stay with me while I had my dorm resident assistant find me an excellent cognitive-behavioral psychologist who helped me to stop my negative thoughts and rewrite them.
DS: What has your treatment consisted of, and what have you found that has worked well for you?
KO: At UCLA, I found cognitive therapy helpful until it bored me. Then, I wanted to go deeper. As I was no longer attending a university full-time, I saw an intern at a free clinic after I quit UCLA. She wanted to see me and my mother, but my mother refused. I became the identified patient, told that all the family’s problems were due to me. I grew up in an alcoholic family, and was enmeshed in my relationship with my parents.
While attending a psychodynamic graduate school program in my mid-20s, I started going to psychoanalytic therapy one to three times a week, which helped me work through my issues with my parents. By the time I was 30, though, I got so sick, so depressed, that I could not get out of bed.
At the age of 30 I sought medication in conjunction with therapy. When I was given a tricyclic antidepressant medication, I ramped to a week of mania and found it difficult recovering from the episode. I moved back in with my parents to stabilize my mental health, at which time I went to a group practice where the psychiatrist and psychotherapist worked as a team. As a clinician, I loved working with multidisciplinary treatment teams, and am a big believer in coordinated care.
I was diagnosed and treated for dysthymia until I was 39, at which point I was diagnosed and treated for bipolar type II. Since then, I’ve been hospitalized once, when I was 41, followed by months of partial hospitalization, which consisted of structured groups all day long with a break for lunch. At that point in my life the group therapy helped.
Now, at 55, I avoid groups, for fear of triggering hypomania. My psychiatrist keeps trying to get me back into group, which I did attend and found useful until my mother had a stroke, at which time I became overwhelmed and decided to just do individual therapy for the time being.
What helps me most now is medication and psychotherapy with a psychologist familiar with behavior and symptoms of bipolar disorder.
DS: How are things going for you now? Are there challenges you are still facing? What have you learned that has helped you stay positive and healthy?
KO: Honestly, I have some work to do on being positive right now. I’m not as highly functional as I would like to be. I find being at home on disability challenging, primarily because I hate cooking and cleaning and feel like I should do more of it since I’m home. My husband shoulders far too much. I find mothering my teen son who struggles with migraines very challenging. Getting him out of bed and to school exhausts me.
I become hypomanic when overstimulated by social contact, so I keep to myself. Honestly, I prefer to be alone, though I’m never really alone. I feel connected to others, even when I’m by myself. I have family. I have friends. I have an online community.
Recently I’ve starting using a meditation app to aid in falling asleep when struggling with insomnia.
There are things I should do, like exercise and bathe, that I’m finding hard to do right now. Maybe I’ll bathe today…
DS: You’ve been very active in mental health advocacy and social media. Tell us about your involvement in those activities.
KO: As a former psychotherapist who lives with bipolar disorder, I draw on both clinical training and personal experience when I write on my blog, kittomalley.com. Blogging brought me in contact with many other mental health advocates doing fabulous work. There is an overlap of mental health advocates and writers, and I feel right at home in both communities. Those communities embraced and supported me. I’m thankful to both.
My advocacy has included volunteering for NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and sharing resources and research on social media.
DS: What would you like to say to encourage others who are still working on their journey of recovery?
KO: Mental health recovery is not linear, especially for those of us with cyclical mood disorders. Mental health recovery is much like the journey of life itself, it involves ongoing learning, learning coping mechanisms, making better choices, changing what you can, accepting what you cannot change. Acceptance and forgiveness of self are so important. Honestly, I still struggle at times, like now as the days shorten, I find myself feeling heavy and know that I must take care of myself.
I hope that my writing makes a positive difference in someone’s life. I do believe that my life is purposeful. Realizing that your life has purpose even though it may not be what you had planned helps tremendously. We all struggle. We all learn. We all love and are loved.
If you check out Kitt O’Malley on LinkedIn, you’ll see that she has worked as a legal assistant, psychotherapist, and commercial real estate professional before reinventing herself as a mental health advocate. Nowadays she’s a mental health advocate, wife and mother, who neglects housework as she writes at kittomalley.com about living with bipolar disorder, parenting an adolescent migraineur, and loving parents with dementia. She’s overwhelmed, to say the least. You can connect with Kitt via her website, Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
Thanks so much to Kitt 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!