January 2021 Alumnae Voices: Breaking the Silence on Mental Illness

Tackling the “self-care” buzzword head-on, Joanna Mannion '96 continues a candid conversation on mental health by sharing her personal struggles with mental illness and building a case for self-compassion. Read on for a moving account of her journey through highs and lows to self-acceptance.

Alumnae Voices: Breaking the Silence on Mental Illness 

by Joanna Mannion '96

Editor’s Note: This personal essay touches on mental illness, suicidality, alcohol abuse, and disordered eating. Please read on with care. A sampling of national resources are linked below if you or someone you know needs help.*

SAMHSA - Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration    /    NAMI - National Alliance on Mental Illness    /   NEDA - National Eating Disorders Association

To say that the past year has been a test of our society’s collective mental health is the understatement of the century, and the challenges did not magically end as we rang in 2021. Careers moved to Zoom and home spaces while families added child care and teaching to their already packed lives. Essential workers have faced unrelenting stress, and nonessential workers are facing unemployment. Experts have been telling us to take time for ourselves. “Self-care” has become a buzzword splashed across the media at a time when taking time out for self-care seems, well… selfish.  For those of us already struggling with mental illness, we add these fresh challenges to an already long list of daily anxiety-causing obstacles. Sometimes, though, that “one more thing” can be the impetus for a long overdue change in perspective that inspires us to do things differently. My mental health journey has been filled with ups and downs, but it has forced me to build a tool kit that helped me face my eventual diagnosis of Bipolar-II, along with the uncertainties of 2020, with a bit more ease. Self-care is the mantra, but not exactly as the media presents it. Here is a snapshot of my own journey.

Joanna poses in Notre Dame Stadium

Mental illness has been a part of my life since I was young. It has manifested itself in myriad ways, sometimes rearing its head publicly, often destroying relationships, and always resulting in my feeling the “uns”: unfinished, unmotivated, unattractive, unsuccessful, unlovable, unworthy. When I stepped foot on Notre Dame’s campus as a first-year student in 1992 and saw droves of intelligent, confident-appearing women, I immediately felt inferior. Admitted from the waiting list, I placed an imaginary asterisk on my credentials. The academic and social anxiety I felt was paralyzing. Out of fear and self-doubt, I ate nearly every meal at the dining hall in solitude. I coped by exerting control over my physical fitness. In the summer after freshman year, I began to work out twice daily, limiting my food intake to 800 calories a day. I returned to campus for my sophomore year 30 pounds lighter and I convinced myself that this made me a confident and disciplined person, as I imagined my classmates to be. By my senior year, in my mind, I was succeeding because I was succeeding on paper: I participated in every Center for Social Concerns immersive program, made the Dean's List, studied abroad, and overloaded my class schedule, allowing me to graduate early. I left campus ready to take on the world, but as an inauthentic version of myself.  

The next 23 years are best described as a roller-coaster ride. I checked many of the boxes that I thought a woman with a degree from Notre Dame should check, personally and professionally. I also made some poor choices, moving and changing jobs far too often in an effort to find happiness and escape the growing feelings of inadequacy (though publicly I attributed my perpetual state of motion to a serious case of wanderlust.) These frequent changes gave me doses of short-lived happiness, but a lingering sadness always returned. I sought the help of doctors who, over the next two decades, would prescribe numerous medications for anxiety and depression. I dismissed the possibility that I might have bipolar disorder since I had never been hospitalized, made abrupt lavish purchases, or felt overly happy for an extended period (or ever, really). What I did not realize was that in my almost-constant state of depression, my personal mania was masked by the behavior of an indecisive but gainfully employed person. 

Like the moves and job changes, the medications worked for spurts of time, but were exacerbating my underlying manic symptoms. As my mood shifts increased in frequency and intensity, I turned to drinking to numb the pain. I thought I was the life of the party and wore my many “most intoxicated of the night” badges with a strange sense of pride. Coupled with the ineffective meds, society’s most common depressant was putting me into a deeper hole. It was during this period that I made my first attempt to take my own life. After a particularly long day of binge drinking, I washed down a box of sleeping pills. When I woke up, I felt immense shame and was too mortified to ask for help. I dismissed this incident as an alcohol-fueled mistake and kept it a secret as I continued on a cycle of being medicated, feeling worthless again, and drinking to cope; wash, rinse, repeat. I moved across the country six months later in the hopes of putting that incident in my rear view mirror. 

Joanna and two of her three sons. (All photos courtesy Joanna Mannion)

During a welcome period of stability, I met and married my husband, Mike, a calming force who would also have a front row seat to my decline to rock bottom. I had three wonderful sons, but was too tired and sad to be the mother I wanted to be.  My doctors added a new diagnosis of postpartum depression and I was, again, treated with ineffective medication. Sleeplessness and family/work stressors coupled with the medication and my continued alcohol abuse was creating a toxic cocktail of despair. I was holding my life together with emotional duct tape composed of Zoloft and Sauvignon Blanc. I was laid off from my job and started sleeping 16 hours a day. At this darkest hour, I again felt exhausted, on the verge of concluding that I was a failure—that my children and everyone in my life would be better off if my illness and I were not in it. 

My primary care doctor at that point referred me to a psychiatrist who identified my roller-coaster as Bipolar-II Disorder (BP-II). In contrast to Bipolar I, BP-II involves milder episodes of hypomania alternating with severe and longer lasting depression. The relief I felt in putting a name to what I had been experiencing was quickly swallowed by intense shame and guilt. I started ruminating on the most humiliating mental footage including hangovers, my wayward career path, foiled relationships and friendships, and the anguish through which I had put my family. I knew that I had to move forward, though, for my children and for myself. I began a journey to try to make amends with those whom I had hurt. Most were receptive, some were not, and I have had to come to terms with that.

I started talk therapy, where I was matched with a no-nonsense psychologist who helped me out of the abyss. She tasked me to do three self-care tasks daily. This sounded foolish, jejune, and insurmountable, all in the same breath. In the months immediately before my BP-II diagnosis, I had barely been able to get out of bed. I countered by saying that I could try to do one thing daily for myself; she acquiesced to this entry-level regimen.                                                                                         

The first week, I slipped on my “athletic” shoes. I did not do anything else, such as walk out of the house in them, but it was one thing; box checked. The following week, I laced up my shoes and exited the house. “Progress!” my psychologist applauded. I eased into a walk around the block, which on some days felt akin to climbing Mt. Everest, but my confidence was growing and my mood began to climb. After several weeks of this upward trend, my therapist asked me to challenge myself by taking a yoga class. I scoffed. Yoga? I have run marathons. Stretching is not enough to make me feel better. What I was really saying was, “I’m scared, I’m disappointed in myself, and I’m humiliated.” The medication I was on, coupled with my forward momentum, helped me to commit to a month-long challenge of daily 20-minute streamed yoga sessions at home. 

The positive effects of this new regimen were felt almost immediately. Within a few months, my body began to transform, my confidence was elevated, and I felt an empowerment I’d never experienced. Yoga is called a “practice.” There are no finish lines, no medals, no personal bests. The destination is in the journey itself. I found it to be a practice of listening to my mind and my body. I recognize there will be days my body may not be able to give me a one-armed crow pose, but I get on my mat anyway; the ultimate reward is the recognition and acceptance that I am worth caring about. 

While I view my mental health journey with all of its ups and downs as a net positive, I am acutely aware that there is still a gargantuan lack of understanding and stigma associated with bipolar disorder, and there is no cure. Living with BP-II, there will be times when I will need to fine-tune my medication, but through this journey I have forged tools that helped me face my diagnosis — and 2020 —with a bit more ease. Most importantly, I have learned to accept myself. I have learned self-care in its truest sense. Let us take the opportunity in 2021 to educate ourselves, extinguishing any residual stigma clinging to mental health issues, and let’s redefine “self-care” from a modified perspective: that of a community encouraging compassion not only for others, but for ourselves.

*ND Women Connect does not endorse or take responsibility for any of the content contained in these resources, but merely provides the links for the convenience of our audience.

Other news