Anna Hawkins, then 29, was “really not in a great spot” after her 2012 divorce.
Most days, “I was paralyzed by depression,” Hawkins, from Minnedosa, Manitoba, in Canada tells The Post. “I would get really stressed out [and didn’t] want to talk to people.”
Occasionally, she was released from those lows — but even in those moments, she found herself acting strangely. “I bought a condo after thinking about it for two days. I ended up buying two horses,” she says.
Hawkins, it turns out, was suffering from bipolar disorder, a mental illness that causes mood swings between mania and depression. The disease affects at least 4.4 percent of Americans, and symptoms range in severity: Bipolar I patients may suffer from hallucinations and delusions, while bipolar II patients, such as Hawkins, mainly experience milder mood shifts called hypomanic episodes.
You can be genetically predisposed to the illness, which usually manifests between ages 18 to 25. But some adults — including Hawkins, who was officially diagnosed at 32 — develop the disorder later in life instead. She’s joined by singer Mariah Carey, who recently revealed that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 31, and rapper Kanye West, who was diagnosed at 39 and made his mental illness a centerpiece of his latest album, “Ye.” Designer Kate Spade, who committed suicide last week, may have also struggled with the illness, according to claims made by her estranged sister.
The manic episodes that define bipolar disorder are often triggered by “disruptive life stresses,” Dr. Lloyd Sederer, chief medical officer at the New York State Office of Mental Health and an adjunct professor at the Columbia/Mailman School of Public Health, tells The Post. A few common sparks include drug or alcohol use, lack of sleep, breakups, career shifts and the death of a loved one.
Manic moods lead to erratic behavior — anything from “jumping from one idea to another,” to “irritability,” to spending sprees (like Hawkins’) to “sexual liaisons,” Sederer says. Whatever form the mania takes, one thing remains true: Every episode raises the patient’s odds of having another. “It’s the kindling theory,” Sederer explains. “There’s been more wood added to the fire, so it’s easier for the fire to be ignited.”
Only one manic spell is needed to diagnose bipolar disorder, but it can still be tough to catch, Matthew Shapiro, associate director of public affairs at the New York State National Alliance on Mental Illness, tells The Post. That’s because patients’ realities are “so distorted” that they don’t recognize their symptoms or communicate them “honestly,” he says. “It becomes such a part of you that you don’t know that something is wrong.”
That was true for Hawkins, who thought she was just depressed until a counselor pointed out her bursts of hypomania. She describes the diagnosis as “hard to absorb,” adding, “I never thought of myself as someone who had mental health issues.” Still, she accepted it and began treatment with medication and therapy.
Committing to those steps makes all the difference, Sederer says. “We have reason to believe that people can make really good lives with [mental health] conditions, particularly bipolar disorder,” he says, citing bipolar patients’ “recognized creative” streak. “You can benefit from treatment and you can have a big life.”
Three years later, that’s proved true for Hawkins. “[With bipolar disorder,] there’s increased self-confidence and an increased ability to take risks. And sometimes that’s not bad,” she says. One such risk she’s taken lately? Enrolling in school to study psychology — a decision inspired by her diagnosis.
Bipolar disorder, Hawkins says, “is definitely something you can live with. And not just something you can live with, but something you can strive with.”
If you or a loved one is struggling with bipolar disorder or another mental illness, call the NAMI Help line at 1-800-950-NAMI or text “NAMI” to 741741.
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