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A bright pink t-shirt with the words “Bipolar Babe” on the front has led to a movement to stomp out stigmas that allow negative attitudes and perceptions of people with differences to persist.
Andrea Paquette, 41, of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada made the t-shirt nearly a decade ago to overcome feelings of shame related to her diagnosis of bipolar disorder. The move was part of an empowerment strategy she devised after recovering from a suicide attempt. More than helping herself, the t-shirt became the impetus to start the Stigma-Free Society, a not-for-profit charitable organization (the equivalent of a 501(c)(3) organization in the United States) dedicated to spreading acceptance, understanding and empathy and stomping out the stigmas related to mental illness, physical and developmental disabilities, race, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and religion.
Andrea’s mission has taken off. Since launching the charity with the help of dedicated partners, she has told her story to more than 18,000 youth in high schools in British Columbia. She contributed a chapter to the book Hidden Lives: Coming Out on Mental Illness (2012), and is working on a book about people who have overcome immense challenges to live extraordinary lives.
Folks caught up with Andrea to find out why her story is so powerful and share her stigma-stomping message with our readers.
Why are personal stories a good way to stomp out stigma about mental health?
My passion was to share my story so others don’t have to suffer in silence like I did. People connect with personal stories; it’s what moves them in their hearts. Hearing about a person facing extraordinary things helps others relate to the issue. It makes us feel more human to be with another human being who has suffered or is dealing with some kind of challenge.
People connect with personal stories; it’s what moves them in their hearts.
Tell us about the first time you told your story?
I was asked to speak in front of 500 people. I was scared and shaking and red-faced, and I looked around at all these people, and I said, “Hi everybody, my name is Andrea, and I have bipolar disorder, but I’m not bipolar disorder. I’ve learned I have a mental illness, but I am not defined by that illness, and I can live an amazing life.” I knew in that moment the stigma had shattered. It was time to come out, I guess you can say, and just be okay with having bipolar disorder.
How did you react to your diagnosis?
I had a major psychotic episode when I was 25, which led to my hospitalization. I got diagnosed quickly, and I’ve been asked if that was a relief, but, to be honest, it really devastated me.
Growing up, I had a mother who had bipolar disorder, but it was always swept under the rug, and it was never discussed as a family. Mom would just disappear for weeks on end, and we were never given an explanation other than “she has nerves.” You would think I’d be aware or look for signs of mental illness in myself, but I never did. The diagnosis was quite a shock.
Describe some of the challenges you faced after your first episode.
I hit my deepest, darkest depression of my entire life. I couldn’t grocery shop for myself because it felt too overwhelming to even step into the store. Even cooking something easy felt like building a house. I couldn’t even shower; it felt like climbing Mount Everest. It was horrible.
I’m very candid about what happened. I medicated myself with sleep for two weeks, day and night, because I didn’t want to see the sun. And then I attempted suicide, which landed me in the intensive care unit for three days. I luckily survived.
What I always say following up with that, because it can be traumatic to hear about my attempt, I say we need to talk about suicide because we don’t talk about it enough. It’s quite taboo still in this society. I didn’t reach out for help; I didn’t talk to my family; I didn’t reach out to my friends, my doctor, any community resources. I wasn’t alone but I felt very alone. We need to remember there is always help and there is always hope.
We need to remember there is always help and there is always hope.
What’s in your tool kit to help you through a bad day?
Near the beginning, I thought that that dark place was where I was going to be for the rest of my life. But the truth is, it passes. We’re not always going to be in this really bad, dark place.
Nowadays, I know I have access to my psychiatrist, who is a partner in my mental health journey. I’ve sought out counseling — cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy, which is about mindfulness and learning those types of strategies. I also have an app called Simple Habit. It helps me go to sleep with five, ten, twenty minute guided meditations.
If I feel really off, I can take an extra dose of my medication, doctor directed. Self-care is huge. It’s not just about bubble baths, but it does include bubble baths, too. Surrounding myself with positive people. If I’m not feeling well enough to go out, I’ll get on the phone and talk to my best friend for hours. I’m lucky I have people in my life who are there to support me and love me no matter what.
And my work. What’s kept me going is to make a difference in the lives of other people and to let people know that there is always hope.
What are some things people misunderstand about mental illness?
When you’re in a mental health crisis, people often have this stereotype that you’re scary, violent or dangerous, the scary guy in an asylum in a straight jacket. For myself, I was more kind and empathetic and loving than I’d ever been in my entire life. That’s how it showed up for me. One of the stories I always tell in presentations is the day I saw a man with no legs in a wheelchair. I felt so much empathy, I was crying. I gave him my gold diamond ring that was given to me by my deceased grandmother. I said you need this more than me.
What do you want people to remember when they’re having a dark day?
Peer support is one of the best avenues when you’re having a dark day. With mental health, it’s about connection. People are feeling disconnected, they need to create some connections. A medical model is great; seeing a doctor is needed. But you need community. You need people who understand you. Support groups, especially for youth, who often feel like they’re the only ones dealing with a mental health issue, will get people that social interaction.
When you’re in a mental health crisis, people often have this stereotype that you’re scary… For myself, I was more kind and empathetic and loving than I’d ever been in my entire life.
What has surprised you about your mental illness?
When I woke up from my attempt, I was devastated to be alive. My psychiatrist is the one who brought the sunshine back in my life. He made me realize mental health is manageable. I didn’t think it was; I thought my life was over; I thought who I had been was gone. I ended up becoming a better person for it. My biggest curse became my biggest gift.
I look at my life now, and I’m very happy. I have a very blessed life, pets and family, people who love me, job and opportunities, travel. I never thought having a mental illness I’d be able to have all this. People often think that when you have a mental illness you’re stuck at home cause you’re a lost cause, but you can lead a very, very full life. I never let bi-polar disorder stop me.
Some people take the point of view that we shouldn’t speak openly about suicide because drawing attention to it can cause others to follow suit. What do you think?
I am an advocate for presenting about suicide in an appropriate way. I never think we should be sugar coating our conversations to make people feel comfortable. It’s an uncomfortable topic, and it needs to be talked about.
The suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain made international headlines. What kinds of conversations took place around their deaths?
When celebrities like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain commit suicide and are revealed to have mental illnesses, it’s a real testament that anybody can be affected by hardship, by losing hope in life. It’s just really sad. Their deaths are a horrible tragedy, but I’m just grateful these incidents are opening up an even deeper conversation. Celebrities are talking about mental illness and suicide on stage; the media is talking about it. I pray we can learn something from their loss.
When celebrities like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain commit suicide, it’s a real testament that anybody can be affected by hardship, by losing hope in life…
Do you discover more about your story, gain more insight into yourself, the more times you tell it?
I feel like every time I tell my story I get a little piece of my heart back. It’s always healing. During this interview, I’ve had tears in my eyes talking about my story. There’s always room for further insight, healing, discussion. I just pray that telling my story brings benefit to people. Maybe someone out there will hear the message that there’s hope and there’s help.
Any parting words for our Folks readers?
I close all my presentations with these words: No matter what our challenges, we can all live extraordinary lives. We can go through challenges; we can go through hardships; we can go through hell. But you know what? We can make it extraordinary.