ATLAS Stories: Lily Johns

By Emma Spring

In the county of Washtenaw, Project Coordinator Lily Johns’ roots are firmly planted, intertwining her personal experiences growing up with her current research endeavors just a stone’s throw away from her childhood home. It was during her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan, after her gap year spent at an in-patient unit recovering from an eating disorder, that she discovered her academic interest in mental health.

Reflecting on her difficult gap year between high school and college, Johns experienced a transformative period in which she found herself entangled in the web of anorexia, and the  challenges she faced fueled a shift in her aspirations. 

“I started to have depressive symptoms in [junior year of] high school. I kind of used restrictive eating as some type of coping mechanism. Once you lose a lot of weight, then your mental health just gets way worse,” said Johns. “It just snowballed.” 

Johns treaded the path carefully, navigating through the terrain of distorted body image and a declining mental state. With the unwavering support of her family, Johns embarked on recovery, reestablishing a healthier relationship with food at an inpatient facility, a place of separation and healing.  Group therapy sessions became a window into the raw and painful stories of her peers. Empathy intertwined with sadness as she listened to their tales, realizing the privileged position she held in life. 

“When we would have these sessions, I always thought it was kind of weird because these people were my friends. You would listen to all the terrible things that happen to them. It was really sad,” said Johns. “I remember thinking that I’m a lucky person… I felt kind of bad about it.”

It was a turning point, within those walls: a realization that one’s journey through mental health struggles transcended mere circumstances. Johns hopes to eventually focus on her passion for understanding bipolar disorder, shrouded in misunderstanding and under-researched territory. Johns’ curiosity blossomed from her own symptoms, the variations and fluctuations that defy the traditional trajectory of bipolar disorder. She yearns to comprehend the diverse manifestations and delve into the reasons behind such variations, questioning misdiagnoses and unraveling the mysteries of symptom presentation. Johns’ own diagnosis came at the age of 19, a post-inpatient revelation that shed light on her condition. An adverse reaction to an antidepressant acted as a catalyst, catapulting her into a state of hypomania. Yet, her depressive state remains a constant shadow, a muted undertone in  her life. It is a delicate balance, a tightrope walk between these two opposing poles of her existence. 

“For me it’s mostly mild depression the whole time and then I have some manic symptoms occasionally, which I find very irritating. I just don’t understand it,” said Johns. “This is why I’m interested in wanting to know why [it’s so varied]. And I’ve heard other people have similar experiences. I feel like life is crazy and you just find yourself in various places at various times.”

As Johns continues her work on the ATLAS Project, she is a facilitator, orchestrating the harmonious collaboration of minds and ideas. Johns aims to contribute to a field where acute events are no longer the sole focus, but rather, a holistic understanding of the interconnected factors that shape an individual’s journey through life. Her own past becomes the foundation upon which she builds her future, melding her personal experiences with the broader landscape of mental health research.

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