Before I went public about the fact that I live with Bipolar Disorder type 1 last year, not many people in my life knew that I had been diagnosed with a mental illness at the age of 27. It wasn’t something that came up in casual conversation. But ever since opening up about how this mental health condition turned my world upside down, I’ve heard these eight words a lot:

“I never expected it would happen to you.”

They must think this will make me feel better. In reality, my heart sinks. The thing is, they need to understand that mental illness can happen to anyone. Sure, certain people may be predisposed to a mental health disorder if it runs in their family, but the fact is, the majority of the time it comes out of nowhere and without much warning.

I was taking names and cashing checks at my job with a creative staffing agency. The top grossing recruiter in the office, I was always up for the challenge of a tough-to-fill position. I worked my tail off, and the money followed. Life was really good. My husband and I had been married for just over two years when my first manic episode rendered me incoherent, rambling on and on about the truths of the world and how people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. He made the call to 911 for help in transporting me to our local hospital. The advice nurse he had called first had instructed him to do so to avoid the risk of me pulling at the wheel if he were to try to drive me himself.

The doctors put me through a battery of tests, but nothing was determined after that initial 3-day stint in the psych ward. I had an appointment with a psychiatrist when I got out, my first ever meeting with a doctor of the mind, and he attributed the entire episode to lack of sleep. I would continue to see a therapist to manage the stress I was under at work, but otherwise, I was off psychiatric meds and it was almost as if it hadn’t happened.

Returning to work two weeks after my hospitalization was such a relief. I threw myself back into job orders and interviews and phone calls. But the return to reality didn’t last long. Only ten days later I landed in the hospital again, suffering from another manic episode, this one even worse than the first.

I was able to get well because I have a tremendous support system. In the beginning it consisted of my husband, my parents, my brother and his wife, my in-laws, and my sister-in-law. All of them were in my corner, advocating for me, encouraging me to keep my head above water during the year it took to find a treatment plan that worked. Over time it grew to include my close friends and colleagues when I returned to work. But only those I trusted intensely, due to what I perceived as the sensitive nature of the subject.

Eventually, after having gone through two more episodes of severe mania and hospitalizations during my postpartum period after my first child was born, and again in early pregnancy with my second child, I began writing a blog about my experiences. Only I kept my true identity hidden for fear of being treated differently if people I knew found out I was a mom of two who had bipolar disorder. But a little over a year ago, I put my real name on my writing after landing my first paid blogging job, so that readers who found my work could see that I am a regular person who just happens to live with a mental illness. Sure, I was nervous to publish that first post without the protection of my pen name. But I knew in my heart I was ready, and I couldn’t wait to field the reactions.

The outpouring of support was overwhelmingly positive. I was thanked over and over again for sharing my story so honestly and bravely. People I didn’t know told me that they were inspired to share their experiences after seeing me take off my mask. My only regret was not having come out earlier.

But I am a firm believer in timing, and things began to fall into place after the whole reveal took place on my little corner of the internet. Last summer I launched a project called This Is My Brave. It’s a theater show centered around individuals from the community standing up on stage to share their personal stories of living with mental illness through essays, songs, and poetry. The stars aligned when I met my Associate Producer, Anne Marie Ames, and together we promoted a Kickstarter campaign which helped us raise over $10,000 in 31 days. Friends and family, co-workers and neighbors, and people who had heard of the project via the power of social media, joined together in droves and contributed to our cause because they believed in what we wanted to do.

And we’re doing it, man, are we doing it. This Sunday, May 18th, This Is My Brave takes the stage in Arlington, Virginia. Our cast is made up of fifteen courageous members of our community who want to inspire change in the way society views people living with mental illness. We’ll be sharing glimpses into our lives which will have you laughing, crying, and smiling in appreciation for the way we were able to open your eyes in a new way.

Life with mental illness is not easy. But it’s our hope that by sharing our stories, people will begin to see that it is possible to embrace the pain and work through the struggle to reach recovery. We have, and we want others to know that they can, too. With the right support, and proper treatment, recovery is possible. And it’s my hope that when a person battling a mental health disorder reaches that right moment when they are ready to open up and talk about their illness, they will, because they’ll remember the impact story sharing had on them. Someday, that person will decide to be brave to inspire change along with us. And we’ll be cheering them on.


Bio: Jennifer Killi Marshall is a former professional recruiter turned writer/mental health advocate via her blog, Bipolar Mom Life. She’s currently producing a live performance theater show on mental health awareness and appreciation which is debuting in Arlington, VA on May 18th, 2014 called This Is My Brave. Tickets and This Is My Brave merchandise {tee-shirts and BRAVE bracelets} are on sale via the show website. Proceeds from tickets and the sale of merchandise will go towards establishing her newly formed 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization with the same name enabling Jenn and her team to continue their mission of ending the stigma surrounding mental illness through community programs which encourage the sharing of personal stories.