Written by Stephen Nawotniak, OTR/L (2014)
Twelve years ago I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a weeklong hospitalization for a severe case of depression and have been coping with the symptoms and in the process of recovery ever since. Today, and forever forward, I fully embrace that I live with a bipolar condition. I am an Occupational Therapist, have been so successfully for 3 years, and have developed skills and systems to address my needs and successfully live a desired quality of life! Do I experience the volatility of emotions consistent with the diagnosis? Absolutely. Does this emotional volatility and intensity cause me to experience emotional discomfort? Without question. Do I have times I feel that it is a curse and am angry at GOD for having this condition? With great intensity…but I AM NOT ILL.
I am simply human…an imperfect being requiring skills and systems to accommodate needs and enjoy a desired quality of life.
My story is a story of PASSION, that is, the fire within pride, purpose and emotion. In May 2000, I set out upon a planned 27 month non-motorized trek of service, called Generation TreX, around the United States. I was developed as part of a self designed Masters Degree program through Buffalo State College and partially funded as an Americorps project. I shared my message (values of service, and education, and the positive actions of youth and young adults) to over 1000 youth and performed over 230 hours of direct community service along the way. I completed an 8 month trek from Buffalo, NY to Key West, FL where I canoed across New Your State on the Erie Canal, sailed the Hudson River to New York City on the Clearwater (a traditional wooden Hudson River sloop) http://www.clearwater.org, backpacked to Roanoke, VA via the Appalachian Trail, and then biked from Roanoke to Key West, FL.
In January, 2001, my grandmother passed away and I returned home from the trek for the funeral. This was not to be the end. My new plan was do it in sections, returning home to update the website and presentations after each new leg. I would use the time to secure some speaking engagements, develop a non-profit organization and to raise money to support the project.
In September, 2001 (the month I was supposed to start the next leg), the 9-11 terrorist attack on the United States occurred. My focus then shifted from a trek of service to supporting violence prevention programs in the Buffalo, New York area. I became an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer and established the non-profit entity “ACT on Violence Prevention”, to provide self-defense based violence prevention programming. The board was strong, the programs were loved and the organization was gathering momentum. However, in August, 2002, I was hospitalized for acute depression and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This was the beginning of a journey I did NOT expect.
I spent the next five years learning about the nature of my condition, its triggers and how it showed itself in my life. I felt broken and defeated, ashamed that I had a mental illness. I had forgotten my past accomplishments. It was as though I was leading a completely separate life, now second guessing my abilities, questioning my goals and struggling to develop a sense of control while addressing the self stigma associated with a mental illness.
In an attempt to maintain a life of service, I entered the employment of the Boy Scouts of America, Finger Lakes Council in New York State, thinking I could control my bipolar condition. I lived a high-stress lifestyle that lacked routine. Within a year, a slow, steady mania surfaced, resulting positively in a nomination for "Best District Executive" in the Northeast Region. But with every up comes a down. We were short-staffed and the added responsibilities of my position put me in overdrive. A mania surfaced as I attempted to meet and address the increasing demands. I was hit, once again, with the disarming depression that always follows my manic moments. This forced me to make one of the toughest concessions of my life. I had to admit that I could not beat my bipolar condition. I would have to adapt my life to it. I learned that hardest part of living with a bipolar condition is that the only way to understand how it affects you is through experiencing it. There is no magic pill or book that provides answers; just resources to be used as I attempted to put my life back together.
Refusing to give up in my fight against my bipolar condition, I enrolled in New York State's VESID program (Vocational and Educational Support for Individuals with Disabilities). My counselor became the single most influential individual in my new, post-hospitalization life. He helped me look at the condition as a teacher instead of as an illness. He helped me forgive myself for having a weakness. He helped me search my soul for a new and guided me to the vocation I now enjoy: Occupational Therapy (OT).
OT is a very diverse profession. It focuses on helping individuals achieve their desired quality of life and attain their goals -- regardless of medical condition. It's a profession that treats illness and injury as conditions to accommodate instead of problems to fix. Had I known about the profession earlier, I would have pursued it right out of high school. Instead, I was brought to OT by a more circuitous journey. I enrolled in Genesee Community College’s Occupational Therapy Assistant program and began rebuilding my life anew as a student. As I began to reassemble the pieces, my pre and post diagnosis lives began to merge. I began to revisit my projects and positively notice what I had accomplished. Until now, they were but the failures of a guy incapable of reaching his goals. With new hope, I went on to complete my license in Occupational Therapy degree at Utica College where my struggles became an asset.
With every end comes a new beginning. I set off once again on a journey but with a greater understanding of myself. I realized that we all carry challenges of some form or another. It is in accepting, understanding and embracing my struggle that I am able to live fully. I must understand the nature of my condition, taking into account its needs as I plan out my life. It is only in satisfying my responsibilities that I have access to the pursuit of my dreams.
Forgiveness, love, listening and communication are the keys to success. I have learned to forgive myself for not being perfect, for not being invincible and for having a condition that makes me feel broken. Forgiveness allows me to see through the haze of shame and guilt revealing the opportunities and resources that abound around me.
I’ve learned the value of love. Love is acceptance of an individual’s strengths and imperfections. In the same way, I have learned how to love myself. I now have a relationship with my condition, embracing all the give-and-take that's involved. I must continuously recognize how it shows up in my life. I must “hear” the revving inside me when I'm approaching mania and address it early. I must listen to its needs so I can adjust my approach accordingly...working with it instead of fighting against it.
I hope that this handbook can offer you the same support it provided me in building a RELATIONSHIP with myself and others. To begin, I share with you my blog posting:
“Why people may not get you”.
Today I share an awakening, a context for me to live a successful, meaningful, and desired quality of life while accommodating the needs associated with the volatile and intense emotional experiences (PASSION) of a bipolar condition. That is Albert Mehrabian’s 7%-38%-55% rule. Now in the fairness of science, there exist challenges to the exact validity of this rule but for my personal experience, it has made all the difference I need.
He states that there are 3 elements in face to face communication and they are: words (7%), tone of voice (38%), and body language (55%). I then applied my personal experience to this model in the following way: The 7% words include data, information and “being right”. The 38% tone of voice includes emotion, passion, and feelings. The 55% body language includes action.
The American society is extremely data driven, focusing on “information” and “specificity”. This means that the appropriate words and actions become more specific and the repercussions of the wrong words and actions become greater. This "tightening" of appropriate words and actions (7% data) affects the expression of my PASSION (38% emotion) because as the “right way” becomes more specific, there becomes more "wrong ways" to sort through. This leaves me not only stuck with the inability to appropriately share my passion with others, but the guilt of being “wrong” about the way I tried. In addition, my actions (55% body language) weren’t “right” and thus abnormal. So what I realized was that it wasn’t necessarily that I had moments of intense passion that was the problem, but that it wasn’t channeled in a healthy, socially acceptable way when I had it.
I’m NOT stating that the PASSION is always pleasurable or easy, because it’s not. What I AM saying is that the inability to channel that PASSION in the “right way” is a significant source of stress and intensifies the distress of the experience. Developing both a team of people AND a set of activities that can respect and accommodate the intensity of my PASSION has proven to be a life changer because I no longer need to feel guilty about the swings. I can simply channel them into the appropriate activities to accommodate the needs of the PASSION while pursuing a desired quality of life.
Dreams are never destroyed by circumstances. They are born of the heart and of the mind and only there can they ever die. Because while the difficult takes time, the impossible just takes a little longer.
- Art E. Berg from the Third serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul
Living a dream is a dance between the personal growth of an individual and the evolution of an idea.
You’re going to feel lost, alone, overwhelmed, hollow, nervous, sad, worthless, doubtful, vulnerable, intimidated, lethargic, mentally foggy, and uncomfortable and going to die ANYWAY, regardless of what you do.
Because you are human…an imperfect being requiring skills and tools to accommodate needs and enjoy a desired quality of life.
- Stephen Nawotniak, OTR/L