I am Lisa Newell and I am bi-polar and in recovery from abusing alcohol and drugs.
I have to say, the mood swings started young. I went into a major depressive episode around the age of 12. From there, periods of risky behaviors and endless amounts of time in bed followed me through my 20s and 30s. During all those years I went to therapists and psychiatrists but there was never a diagnosis or medication.
I did, however, manage to get an undergraduate degree in Fine Art from the University of Florida, and a cum laude degree from a good law school in Massachusetts.
I started a number of different career paths following each degree, and ended up working for the Department of Mental Health as an attorney. When I was younger, I had a serious substance abuse problem but managed to get sober at the age of 30 and remained so for the next 18 years. In sobriety the mood swings remained, and when I started working for DMH, they got worse.
When I was 40, I was incorrectly diagnosed as depressed and put on medications. Unfortunately, they were a dangerous combination that took me into a psychotic break. I began hearing command voices from God and became aggressive and angry. Once, at work, my supervisor came into my office and asked me about a witness for an upcoming hearing. I started screaming at him. I was mortified at the words coming out of my mouth, but I just couldn’t stop.
Afterward, I called my psychiatrist and said I needed to go to the hospital. Once there, I was immediately diagnosed as bipolar – which, looking back, fits the extreme mood swings I experienced throughout my life.
Fast forward to 12 years later. Now I am retired but I’ve started to drink again after 18 years of sobriety. Over the next 10 years I would be hospitalized over 25 times. Picking up the bottle was the single worst thing I ever did.
I was a mess, and I wanted to quit – but after 30 – 60 days, I would throw in the towel and begin the horror show anew. My depressive episodes were frequent and I went to new lows. I took my meds piecemeal and of course, they don’t work well that way. The police knew me – the ambulance drivers knew me. The doctors and nurses knew me. Around and around we go….
Through one of my multiple hospitalizations, I got DMH services and was connected to Riverside. I was assigned a rehab advocate, an employment specialist, and a sobriety advocate. I was still drinking but tried to be semi-sober during appointments at my apartment. I continued to go to hospitals and programs while they stuck with me. It had gotten to a point that my family had had enough. They didn’t want to do this with me anymore, and I never felt so alone.
Then one day I was discharged from a program, and I was sitting in the back of a cab with nowhere to go. I’d had enough. I made a call to the Riverside respite program in Norwood and asked them if they had a bed. That day my life changed.
I lived there for almost two months. I had nowhere else to go. I was homeless for the first time in my life. I was scared but finally committed to sobriety.
The Respite Director worked hard at getting me into a Riverside dual diagnosis house, Milton Street in Dedham, where I lived for the next year and a half. I took my medication regularly and adjusted to a sober life. While there, I became a proud member of Neponset River House; a Riverside Clubhouse for people like me who have mental illness.
The Clubhouse turned my life around. I became very active, volunteering to do any and everything I could. I got my confidence back and I became a person I liked again. While at the Clubhouse, I became a Certified Peer Specialist and started looking for work again.
After living at Milton Street for a year and a half, Riverside helped me get an apartment of my own. I found a great apartment in East Walpole where I still live with my dog, Izzie. In the meantime, my family had come back into my life as well. And, I finally got that Peer Specialist job! I now work at the Riverside Respite Program in Norwood where my story began. Although I am working part time, I’m still an active member of the Clubhouse. It’s where I can always go and see my family of choice.
Ultimately, just as all of these steps were necessary to recover, the people who did, and still are helping me, are absolutely vital for guidance. You heard in my story how there were many different programs that helped me. Some programs hold you tightly while you are still wavering, and some are like a parent taking the training wheels off a bicycle. People being served and riding the bike might wobble a bit then take off; or some may wobble and fall; needing a hand up. Either way, there is someone from a service standing ready to see and fulfill the need for those like me. We have a lifelong illness that stands ready to creep back in when ignored; taking over and causing chaos in a life running smoothly. Thank you to all who keep me out of the hospital and on the right track.
Adapted from a speech Lisa Newell gave at a Legislative Breakfast in Worcester.