Ending the Silence: My mental health story

Wendy is a newly certified Young Adult Speaker for Ending the Silence. Here’s her story. 

By Wendy Ascione-Juska

My name is Wendy. I was born and raised in Ann Arbor and graduated from Pioneer High School (more than a few years ago!). I went to the University of Michigan and got my bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Women’s Studies, as well as my Masters in Social Work. I currently work as a Community Outreach Coordinator at U-M. My favorite hobby is performing onstage in community theater. I also like reading, going to movies, and spending time with friends and family. My husband and I recently adopted our baby daughter, and we are currently living and loving the life of tired parents.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been dealing with depression. In high school, I remember shutting myself off in my room, not wanting to talk to anyone, and having trouble focusing. I had some good days too, but I always felt like depression has been in my life. I didn’t really get a diagnosis until I was in my 20s, when after grad school I moved away to Arizona and started working at a non-profit. At first I loved it; I loved the independence, being in a warm climate, and just being in a new place. A few years after moving there, I had a bad breakup. My boyfriend broke up with me by moving out of state. That’s when I first sought professional help for depression. I was 26. I saw a therapist and was prescribed an antidepressant. I started to feel better and decided on my own to stop taking medication. Then, on a Thanksgiving weekend when I was 27, I was attacked by a stranger in my home. A week later, someone who I thought was my good friend sent me an email accusing me of manipulating her and told me never to contact her again. Those two things (one big, one smaller) caused me to go into a deep depression. I would cry all the time, I felt like I was not going to ever get better, that my life was now only sadness and pain. I wasn’t suicidal, but I just didn’t want to live. I wanted the pain to go away. I had a hard time finding help. I remember going to the phone book and going down the list of psychiatrists and being told that they had a six month or longer wait. I ended up taking a leave of absence at work to go home to Michigan to recuperate. I sought treatment with a family medicine doctor in Michigan. I had several diagnoses at first: depression, generalized anxiety, PTSD. I got prescribed an antidepressant for depression and was able to feel well enough to return to Arizona. 

Taking medication helped my depression, but my mood shifted very quickly.  I felt “high” and on top of the world. I talked quickly, didn’t sleep well, and was acting irresponsible. I was spending lots of money that I didn’t have, I was being promiscuous and acting very self-absorbed. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was having a manic episode. Then, my grandmother died and I went back to Michigan for her funeral. My family (my parents and my brother) noticed that I wasn’t acting like myself and staged an intervention with two of my friends. They convinced me to go to the ER and helped me get into a psychiatric hospital in Detroit, where I was diagnosed with Bipolar I disorder. 

Being at the hospital was a blur. I only remember bits and pieces. But I think I stayed a week or so and flew back to Arizona the first chance I could. At first, I didn’t accept my diagnosis. I thought that the doctors were wrong. I stopped taking my medication because I didn’t think I was sick. Then, I was put on probation at work, told “not to bring my personal life into work” and was eventually fired. I was devastated. I prided myself on being good at what I did, and I felt like a failure. I fell into a deep depression after that and couldn’t afford to stay in Arizona. Thanksgiving weekend, a year after I was attacked, I packed up a car full of things and drove with my mother back to Michigan. That weekend was my 10-year high school reunion at a bar in Ann Arbor. My dad convinced me to go. I didn’t tell anyone that I was living at my mom’s and that I was fired recently. I lied about my fabulous life in Arizona with a great job. It was a memorable reunion for sure. 

Staying in Ann Arbor, I started applying for nonprofit jobs and for the county’s biggest employer, University of Michigan. I was fortunate. I interviewed for a fundraising position at U-M and got the job that December. I started working for the University in January.

I was still in denial that I had bipolar. I thought my manic episode was just triggered by the medication, not realizing that taking an antidepressant alone (without a mood stabilizer) can trigger mania in people who have Bipolar disorder. It wasn’t until I had another manic episode a year later (age 29) that I realized that the diagnosis was correct. I felt a sense of grief; I was grieving the loss of the person I thought I could become. I thought that person was out of reach with a diagnosis like Bipolar disorder. 

I was wrong. Though I was hospitalized again, my experience with my job was totally different. My dad would communicate with my employers about my hospitalization and my supervisor said to him that they just wanted me well. I was able to take a month off from work and return slowly back into my position. I will always be grateful to that group of people, who allowed me to stay at my job and didn’t penalize me for my mental illness.

As part of my grief, I thought I could never be in a good relationship, that no one would ever want to be with someone with a mental health condition. I started dating this guy when I turned 30 and disclosed my diagnosis on our third date. He had a hard time accepting it at first. He turned to Google (never turn to Google for medical answers!) and wasn’t sure he could date someone who fit the stereotypical diagnosis of someone with Bipolar. It was my worst fear, being rejected for having Bipolar. Fortunately, he saw beyond the diagnosis and dedicated himself to learning more. This guy has been my strongest support in the years since, and I’m lucky to now call him my husband. 

When I moved back to Michigan, I started seeing a therapist regularly and a nurse practitioner to help with medication. I dealt with a lot of side effects, things like dizziness, feeling very shaky, weight gain. Plus, I would still feel depressed and anxious. At first, it felt like trial and error to find the right combination of medications that would improve my mood. Although we’ve had to make a few tweaks here and there, overall, I think I’ve now found the tools that work best for my recovery. I take several medications that help my mood without getting manic and haven’t had a manic episode in many years. I work with a therapist who helps me deal with the anxiety and depression that still occasionally creep up. I have a great support system of friends and family, who love me unconditionally and support me when I feel unstable, especially around my depression and anxiety. And I know my limits. I know that it’s important to get good sleep because that could trigger mania or depression, so I make sure I get enough sleep every night. My husband has been amazing, taking the night shift with our daughter so that I can get enough sleep. I take my medication every day so that I can function well in society. And I own the fact that I won’t be completely without depression or anxiety and that I work hard to find ways to deal with it when it flares up. I am also open about my condition so that I can be an example to others who are struggling with something similar.

Success to me means different things at different points. If I can get out of bed in the morning, that can be a success. If I can live happily with my family, that’s a success. Unsurprisingly, work is another big one for me. To be able to go to work and accomplish the goals that are both expected for me and what I expect for myself is a big success. To be open with my diagnosis as well at work has been a major success and I know that’s not the case for everyone. I have an active social life. I have many friends that I love to spend time with, and who love me for me and encourage me to share my story. Sharing my story is a huge success. I never would have imagined this when I was first diagnosed, that I would be not only accepting of my mental health condition, but that I would embrace it and share my journey proudly. I hope to continue to share my story, to embrace my life fully, and quite simply, stay well.

About Ending the Silence

Serious mental health conditions often first appear when people are in their teens and early twenties. If left untreated, these brain disorders may result in great harm. Ending the Silence (ETS) is a 50-90-minute presentation NAMI volunteers make to educate students, parents, and teachers about the early signs of a mental health condition, how to get help, and tools that can be used to help safeguard mental health and well-being. Presentations include powerfully told personal stories. In-person and on-line ETS presentations now available: Ending the Silence – NAMI Washtenaw County (namiwc.org)

Wendy was diagnosed with Bipolar I in 2006. She credits medication, therapy, and the support of friends and family for keeping her living well with Bipolar Disorder. Wendy works for the University of Michigan and lives in Ann Arbor with her husband, Paul, her daughter, Genevieve and her dog Gatsby.

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