A life of bipolar disorder, years of struggle — and, eventually, happiness
By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
Emily Grossman has been living with bipolar disorder for most of her life.
Grossman is a Montclair resident, as well as training director of the New York-based nonprofit Coordinated Behavioral Care, which focuses on better outcomes for Medicaid beneficiaries with serious mental illnesses, chronic health conditions or addiction disorders.
She’s long been out about her own diagnosis, her struggles with the disorder and the path to managing it. It’s her hope that by speaking frankly about her own journey, she can help more people to understand mental health disorders don’t necessarily need to keep those who face them from being productive, from achieving goals or from happiness.
Symptoms started to show up in high school, Grossman said. She experienced anxiety and depression, but she didn’t see a therapist and didn’t get treated until she was in college, where her symptoms increased. Grossman said she started to have panic attacks and suicidal thoughts. Her family was worried about her, and saw the treatment she was getting in school wasn’t enough.
“I was having more and more suicidal thoughts,” Grossman said. “After a month, my family decided that I needed to come home to New Jersey for treatment.”
After moving back home, Grossman underwent her first psychiatric hospitalization. The experience was scary, Grossman said, but she felt ready to go back to school after being discharged.
Then she had her first manic episode.
“I was seeing and hearing things that weren’t there, and I couldn’t sleep for a couple of days. Just a very scary experience,” Grossman said. “Once that happened, my family and I decided that I shouldn’t go back to college because I needed more support. I was hospitalized again, and needed a lot more support than I could get being that far away from my parents.”
Grossman said the further treatment helped. She was placed on medications that stabilized her moods. She enrolled in school again, but things started to spiral out of control once more. Grossman said that during junior and senior years of college, and the year after she graduated, she was hospitalized 12 times.
“I graduated college while I was experiencing psychosis, and I think that’s important to note because many times people don’t believe that people who are experiencing psychosis can still accomplish things with their lives,” Grossman said. “And that’s just not true. I just somehow was able to focus on my papers.”
Once Grossman graduated college, she tried to apply for jobs and go to interviews. She said because she was internally preoccupied with her thoughts, and because she didn’t have the structure ongoing professional care could give her, she wasn’t coming across well on interviews.
After another hospitalization, her doctors considered sending her to a state psychiatric hospital without a discharge date.
“I was very, very scared because I always felt deep down inside that I could contribute to the world in some way. I wanted to make a difference in the world. I didn’t know how, but I know that once those state psychiatric facility doors locked behind me, I was not going to be in a position to be able to do that,” Grossman said.
Ultimately, she wasn’t sent to the state hospital. But Grossman said she had difficulties finding a job and finding a place to live. When she turned 23, Grossman was placed in supportive housing, where she lived with people in their 60s and 70s with schizophrenia.
“I just felt like my life had hit a real bottom because I wasn’t working. I was just in a program for mental illness, a day treatment program,” Grossman said. “Then, little by little, I learned a treatment.”
Grossman found a therapist who trained her in dialectical behavior therapy, which she described as “a therapy where people are able to learn how to manage intense emotions and difficult interpersonal situations.” It’s a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, which can help an individual identify and change destructive thought patterns.
“Although I had learned it a little in college, I didn’t start applying the skills until that time when I was at my rock bottom,” Grossman said. “I decided that I really wanted to get a job and live on my own independently. And little by little I was able to do that.”
With the skills she learned, Grossman was able to land her first job and move to an apartment living with people her own age. She found medications that worked for her, including antipsychotic medications. She said it took seven years to find the right doses.
Even though her first job lasted only nine months, Grossman said she was able to find another one right afterward, and decided to continue her education. She applied to Teachers College, Columbia University and had another breakthrough.
In grad school, Grossman discovered Buddhism, which she found life-changing. She learned meditation, and has continued to practice it for 15 years.
“I learned that I could use a very difficult situation, like struggling with bipolar and trying to recover, as like a springboard to my higher self,” Grossman said. “Because if I didn’t have bipolar, I would have never gone on a spiritual journey. I was desperate for anything that would get me to a place of stability. And, so my bipolar is really what led me to a higher form of spiritual life too.”
After working for three years as a teacher, Grossman decided she wanted to make an impact in the field of mental health.
“A lot of my students were coming to me with mental health struggles, and as a teacher, you’re not really in a position to help students in that way,” Grossman said. “I actually found a program in New Jersey that trains people to become a peer provider, which is someone with a mental illness who is in recovery who helps other people to recover.”
For four years, Grossman provided one-on-one care to individuals facing mental health issues, helped them get jobs and ran support groups. She then became a trainer for mental health providers on recovery, and has continued in that career ever since.
Grossman is working on getting a book published about her own mental health journey. She said speaking openly about it has helped combat the stigma surrounding mental illness. And she hopes this new project will continue getting more people to talk about mental illness, understanding they don’t need to be ashamed of seeking help.
“And it’s not just that people can live a happy life with [mental illness],” she said. “It’s that people can rewire their brains through the kinds of therapy, spirituality and treatments that we have now so that they can live a relatively symptom-free life.”