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Let's Detect the Alerts of Our Mental Health

On 2006 Palm Day, the Colombian journalist Catalina Gallo woke up from her bed and thought she was dead.

The Woman Post | Andrea Gutiérrez

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Convinced that her ancestors had come for her in her sleep, she stood up and walked out of the house to a near Avenue, while taking off her clothes as she was sure that her body was still on her bed and she was already a spirit. But when a car dodged her when she was trying to cross the street, she realized that she was absolutely alive. That incident that she now recalls as “the time I went crazy,” was her first and only hypomanic episode, and the reason she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. 

In October 2016 Catalina published her book “Mi bipolaridad y sus maremotos" (My bipolarity and its tidal waves), where she tells her experience of living with this illness. Today on World Bipolar Day, The Woman Post shares with you this interview with the author.

The Woman Post: You say in the book that you were in treatment for another mental disorder when you were diagnosed with bipolarity. What did it mean to your life to know that you had lived so many years with a misdiagnosis?

Catalina Gallo: They told me that I had depression because it all started with panic attacks, which are usually associated with depression. The initial diagnosis was depression with anxiety, and I lived many years with this, without any problem. I was taking antidepressants, they managed my anxiety, and I had no problem. But when hypomania occurred, when I got out of reality, clearly a diagnosis of bipolar disorder does come, and let's say it's an explanation. It is a relief for one to know that there is a deeper diagnosis that allows one to understand one's life over many years, and it is a comfort to know it for me.

TWP: There is also a lot of misinformation about depression. How did you lead your life while you were diagnosed with depressive disorder?

CG: When the depression began, there were a series of circumstances around my life that could allow me to feel wrong, and it was that my parents had died eight months apart. So it was a situation that could allow me to have some supremely odd moods, so in my particular case, it was not a problem. But nowadays, society judges very harshly that there are manifestations of humor that are out of this lying life of total happiness shown in social networks. People do not want to accept that human beings are a little more complex and that we have emotions of all kinds that are a part of life.

Also read: TOWARDS TRUE HAPPINESS

TWP: Although there is a lot of stigma and disbelief about psychiatric medications and their effects, you claim in your book that drug treatment has improved their quality of life. According to a 2018 study published by The Lancet journal, antidepressants do work for treating major depression in adults. How did you experience the stigma of taking medication? How did you feel when you learned that medication does improve your life, contrary to society's imagination?

CG: I think there is too much misinformation about mental illness and part of the main thing I think is to talk about the subject, and the fact of writing the book and making it public is to do my part in getting people to talk about it. Since there is so much ignorance because they don't talk about it, they don't learn about it, it is unknown, then it becomes a circle, and there is a lot of judgment about things that are not real because psychiatric drugs are a blessing in many cases. Of course, there are some patients that have a series of severe side effects, some extreme cases, but to most people, psychiatric medications allow us to lead a perfectly regular and balanced life like any other human being, like people with high blood pressure takes their daily pill or people with diabetes who control their sugar or have to use insulin at certain times of the day. For me, they are a blessing. As I see it, there is too much misinformation, too much stigma about antidepressants, and for me, this study was very encouraging when I read the news. Because I could not believe that they had effects on me just because they were a placebo, it seemed incredible that all these symptoms I had were only due to placebo, did not seem coherent. So, to know that there is a very high percentage of people who benefit from them, well, I think it is more coherent with my situation.

TWP: In the world of media and journalism, there is a very intense rhythm of work. How did you handle your illness when you were working in the press? How did your work-life change when you made your illness public?

CG: The truth is that I worked in several media without people knowing that I had bipolar disorder. When I made public that I had bipolar disorder, I was already working independently as a freelancer, I didn't have a boss to be surprised, so I did my work as I wanted. I never dared to tell any boss, and I don't know what would have happened if I had said it at that time. There was a job where I had to do some weekend shifts, and I was scared because part of what the disease requires is to rest and manage a quiet sleep rhythm, which is called sleep hygiene. So exposing myself to unrest, and working on weekends, could generate a severe anxiety crisis, and I wasn't able to tell my boss that I had bipolar disorder, because, I say, companies do not like to have crazy people on their payroll. So I put up with the shifts, and nothing happened, but I had to live through the scare, and I didn't want to do it (tell him) because I thought it would have consequences such as being fired. I no longer work in the day-to-day news. I work at my own pace on, let's say, long-form articles or articles that take a long time to research, and I'm not subjected to the daily stress of either the .com or digital media that are so demanding. No, I can't work a 7/24 schedule.

TWP: In the book, you say that, in the beginning, you didn't want to put your name and your editor convinced you that putting a face to your story gave it a unique value. However, you are aware of the taboo surrounding this disease. After all these years, how do you feel about having made your story public?

CG: It was very significant to make it public. In the beginning, I wanted to publish the book anonymously for fear of having consequences with the stigma of mental illness because social rejection is very marked. Today I believe that putting my signature and my name on it has been the most important thing I have done in my life after becoming a mother. Because it was putting a face to a disease for which we are not guilty and because we, the mentally ill, have the right to exist, to live, to create, to invent, to work, to be parents, to be happy, and those rights are only won when we talk about the subject, when we put our face and when we say that we can lead lives like any other human being because we not only deserve it and we can, but also because medicine has advanced considerably. So, to have put my face has been very important, and being a journalist is like a contribution to the public debate, and that from my profession is extremely important. It has also been important for my family to know that we can be brave and put a face to mental illness. And on a personal level, it has been very liberating because having hidden it for so long has generated a feeling of guilt that one thinks is not there and it is, so it's acknowledging that there is no longer that guilt, I am not guilty of this illness, I am responsible for managing it which is a different thing and freeing myself from that feeling of guilt that remained has been marvelous.

TWP: According to the World Health Organization, bipolar disorder affects about 45 million people worldwide. Publishing this book can be thought of as a tool for bipolar people who don't understand or talk about their illness. How has it helped readers with bipolar disorder?

CG: That was part of the beauty of the book. I had many people looking for me online, through social media, at events that I have had, presentations of the book, I have also attended to give talks in various place, and it has been valuable for people to find the book because they have said to me "I do not feel alone I found someone else who understands my situation, and it has been wonderful to know that this happens to other people because I have been able to understand myself," or "I have been able to understand that I have an uncle, a cousin, a daughter a sister in this situation" precisely because they have spoken and that has seemed very gratifying to me, to know that this book has been able to accompany certain people in those lonely moments and it has also given rise to talk about the issues in families. Then people are not so alone when they find a space and a book from which they can talk and put the subject on the table.

TWP: And now that several years have passed since the diagnosis, how does it feel to live with the disease?

CG: I think that what these diseases allow when one analyzes and lives through them, I have discovered, are inner journeys, and in those moments one finds strengths that one has in the soul, and those strengths allow one to go on with life and in those processes, one discovers that wellbeing is something that has to do a lot with inner strength and that is genuine wellbeing. I believe that what society tells us, that you have to be smiling all the time and be happy and your life is all beautiful, is a lie. I believe that wellness has to come from the soul, it cannot be something imposed from the outside, and that we are in a time when we are frightened of pain, and I believe that we have to accept pain because if we do not overcome it if we do not transcend it, we cannot find ourselves.

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