Nancy Rosenfeld is a woman who lives with bi-polar disorder, a devastating and life-threatening illness. I consider her to be an ordinary hero because of the amazing job that she has done in managing this extremely difficult challenge. She has co-authored, with Jan Fawcett M.D., a renowned psychiatrist and co-founder of the National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association, and Bernard Golden, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology Psychologist, a profoundly inspiring book, entitled New Hope for People with Bipolar Disorder. In their book, the authors provide hope and important and compassionate and practical guidance to those who are impacted by this disorder and to their caregivers and families. The authors reference the many people who, just like Nancy, are leading creative and fulfilling lives, and challenge the widely held myth that mental illness inevitably prevents a person from living a meaningful life. In the USA, 26% of the adult population suffers from a mental illness, nearly 3 million of whom have a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder.
The book addresses prejudicial views of psychiatric disorders which which are based upon the idea that mental illness results from a moral or character weakness, rather than a biological condition involving changes in brain chemistry and genetic factors. It also addresses the shameful fact that more people with mental illnesses tend to end up in jails, prisons, or on the street, rather than in treatment facilities, due to these antiquated views that continue to see the mentally ill as criminals. Here is the story of one of the many who struggle with the disorder.
Nancy: “My adult life was typical of an upper-middle-class suburban housewife of the late 1960’s to the early 80’s. I repressed my individuality to raise a family while living in the shadow of my husband’s career. As my two sons entered adolescence and needed me less, I began to feel a gripping, gnawing, growing feeling of emptiness. I needed to develop my own identity. I was in my 40’s when I found a sense of purpose as a political activist, volunteering my time to help Jews in Russia obtain Visas to emigrate and escape the religious repression they suffered. I became obsessively involved in the rescue of one particular person, a former Soviet scientist and political prisoner Yuri Tarnopolsky.
I worked feverishly without letup in an increasingly demanding position. At stake in my work was someone’s life and the stress left me vulnerable to increasingly severe ups and downs during our long campaign. It was mania of my bi-polar disorder that supplied me with fuel, the energy and strength I needed to accomplish things that I might otherwise have dreamed impossible, or off limits. The mania gave me the courage to telephone important political figures. Ultimately, I felt as if I were inside a pressure cooker.”
Once Yuri and his family were liberated and at last permitted to emigrate, Nancy found herself without the cause that she had focused her entire being on for five years. Because of her obsession with her mission, her personal life was in upheaval, and she had grown apart from her husband and sons.
“When Yuri left Russia, my head began to spin as I felt the hours ticking away, and finally something inside me seemed to snap. No longer did I feel like Cinderella dressed for the ball. The bubble had burst, and I was turning into a pumpkin, dressed in emotional rags and surrounded by mice. I plunged into a deep depression. I felt loveless, friendless, and completely lost, without a career or even a job to fall back on.”
“I slipped into a major depression and in 1994 attempted suicide by swallowing a large amount of aspirin. That was a turning point for me, and I turned to therapy for help. The therapist put me at ease right away with her warm, understanding tone. As my words came tumbling out, I felt relieved to be able to confide in another person. She responded with compassion and support. I could trust her. Gratefully, I bared my soul and exposed my problems while she offered me a safe haven. It would take years of very hard work combined with medication, as I struggled to gain my health. The balance of the scale did not tip overnight.”
Although she freely admits that it was a long road back, Nancy did make an excellent recovery. In addition to the successful therapy she engaged in, she joined a support group where she felt free to express her feeling without fear of being judged or rejected. She was able to free herself of old thought patterns that hd been holding her back from feeling healed and whole. Being on the proper medication and the correct dose for her body was an important part of her recovery. She became able to direct more energy toward her family who gratefully welcomed her return.
Nancy credits her writing as being the post cathartic and therapeutic part of her recovery program. In her words, “What ultimately saved me was my ability to write. For me it was better than any form of therapy, either drugs of psychological.”
The work she did in therapy, support group, and in her writing all served to improve her self-awareness. Nancy has since gone on to restore her relationships with her two sons and her husband to health and wholeness. She has established a successful career as a book agent and supported and mentored many writers to bring their books to thousands if readers. Her first book written prior to the publication of her book on bipolar disorder entitled Unfinished Journey: From Tyranny to Freedom details the process of her 5 year experience experiences working to liberate the Soviet Jews from Russia.
Nancy’s story reminds us that even a dreaded psychiatric condition, with loving help and support from medical science and a committed effort to heal, can bring about a genuine recovery. While a full recovery may not possible for everyone who suffers from a psychiatric illness, even cases where patients have been viewed as “lost causes” have been known to experience some improvement in their condition when these elements are in place in their lives. Nancy reports that one of the biggest impediments she had to overcome was the stigma around mental illness in general and bi-polar disorder in particular. So much of the public’s prejudices are influenced by lack of knowledge causing views that those who suffer from mental disorders are deviant and terminally flawed. Nancy has discovered the silver lining in the dark cloud of her condition and is now grateful for her creativity and drive. Her life represents an embodiment of the widely held belief that “your wound can become your greatest gift.” In Nancy’s words, “Nobody on earth escapes life without some form of disability. I clearly see the positive side of bi-polar disorder, for me it no longer carries a stigma. In a very real sense, my life has been enriched as a result of my condition. I prefer to regard my bipolar disorder as a gift.”
If you or someone you know is in need of psychiatric support contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness at nami.org.