This story is part of Health’s #RealLifeStrong series, where we are celebrating women who represent strength, resilience, and grace.
Doctors told Kate Speer, 31, she’d spend the rest of her life in a psych ward. Today the newlywed and CEO of The Dogist is crusading to spread a message of hope to anyone grappling with mental health issues: “There is a way out of darkness.”
I was born and raised in Norwich, Vermont. I’m the middle of three girls, and I felt like I was blessed and privileged to have a family who loved each other and was, for all intents and purposes, “normal.”
That doesn’t mean everything was always easy, though. From a young age we discovered that I had a learning disability—I was really smart, and sometimes over-the-top creative, but certain things, like focusing and staying on track, were hard for me. I played a lot of sports to run off my energy.
When I was in high school, I was on the varsity hockey and varsity lacrosse teams, and I kind of started to thrive. But as time passed, things got worse. Junior year, I began crying all the time. I couldn’t tell if it was the pressure of college looming or what, but my insecurities started taking over. I was diagnosed with ADHD and depression, and I remember thinking to myself, “What a relief that there are words for this.” I felt like if it was identifiable, then it would be a more bearable load to carry.
My grandmother had grown up with bipolar disorder, and in light of my family history, I decided I was going to own what I was going through. I started being really, really honest about how I was feeling—with everyone. I would walk right up to my teachers and say, “Hi, I want to get an education, but I can’t stop crying, so I’d love to sit in the back of your class and just sob while learning.” I was determined to not let this diagnosis limit my life.
At that point, I had also been diagnosed with a mood disorder. So instead of just crying, I was also loud and in your face, and all over the map. I was angry and moody and everything under the sun. The therapist I had been seeing put me on a small dose of lithium.
I threw myself into school, and pushed myself really hard. So hard, in fact, that I once stayed up for an entire week. I was then given the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. That was the beginning of the medication treadmill. I was doped up with more lithium, more mood stabilizers, to try to chase the feelings I was having into submission. I had friends who championed me, and professors who supported me, but nothing really helped.
Halfway through sophomore year of college, my doctor kept adding pill after pill to try to help me deal with my symptoms. The medicine was making me super sick—I was throwing up, and getting major headaches. I didn’t recognize myself, either. I’d always been a lifelong athlete, but suddenly I could barely go for a run because my medication just had me in a fog at all times.
By the time I turned 20, I had written my first suicide note. I was planning to jump off a bridge. On the way there, though, I got myself to my therapist’s office, where we decided I would check into a psychiatric hospital.
In the position I was in, beaten down by all this medication and what I was dealing with every day, I opted into electric shock therapy. The treatment had been really effective for my grandmother, and I was hopeful it would have the same effect on me.
Before I went into the therapy, I wrote myself a note on a Post-It. It said, “Your name is Kate and your favorite color is turquoise. Your best friend is RD, and your therapist knows everything.”
Afterwards, I had a hard time remembering anything from the last two years, and doctors determined that I was in the small percentage of patients who lose their short-term memory after treatment. That Post-It note became my bible. I had no choice but to try to resume my life as well as I could.
I went back to school, but I couldn’t remember any of my history classes or my econ classes, so I started taking art classes. Photography became my preferred method of capturing memories, so I took pictures fervently, and I’d write about them at night to make sure I didn’t lose anything during the day.
I adopted rituals as reminders—like moving my toothbrush from the left side of the sink to the right, to make sure that I remembered I had brushed my teeth—which led to my diagnosis with obsessive compulsive disorder. Even the way I was coping with how I was feeling turned out to be a mental hurdle to overcome.
In college, I also had these niggling feelings, wondering if what I was feeling actually was bipolar disorder. I knew I felt intense, but I never felt elevated. I never experienced the joy that supposedly comes with that disease. I shook my suspicions off, but they were always in the back of my mind.
Things didn’t get much easier after that. I spent a lot of my college years struggling—through depression, sedation, nearly 20 more hospitalizations, self-harming, and doing everything I could to survive. By the time I graduated college, I was on 13 medications, hallucinating daily, and cutting and bingeing and purging, trying to stir my body into some sort of a feeling response.
I realized—after almost a decade of treatment—that things had only gotten progressively worse. I had added a myriad of new symptoms to what had originally been crying uncontrollably or having boundless energy, all because we were trying to “help.” And it wasn’t. So I told my doctors that I wanted to get off the medicines, and meet myself again after so much time.
I moved home to Vermont with my parents, and I weaned off the medicines one by one, with the hope that suddenly the sun would come out and we would learn that everything thus far was a joke. I really thought that without my medicines, I might be “fixed.” But instead, I became more depressed.
I got really, really good at telling people the things I thought they wanted to hear: that going off medicines was working for me, and that I was doing well. In reality, though, I was sleeping for at least 14 hours a day, writing suicide notes every morning when I woke up, and doing my rituals from sundown until sunset. I would watch trashy television, and if I went out at all, I would go out at night. I went on like this for three years, and I felt, at that time, like I wanted to die.
Then something shocking happened: my therapist of eight years was diagnosed with colon cancer, and we started having to talk about me finding a new therapist when he passed away.
That search was harrowing—I met people who diagnosed me as too sick, and recommended I spend the rest of my life in in-patient psychiatric hospitals. I began to feel like that was my fate.
Finally, as a last ditch effort, my parents got me an appointment with the only doctor who was willing to see me, and when I met him, it was like a window opened in my brain. He worked with me on exposure therapy—which was all about making myself deal with the things I felt threatened by. And in my state, that included just about everything, so I began by working on stuff like going to the store, and sitting outside in public.
My doctor taught me skills to grow, and feel, and be present, and face my fear. Suddenly, I began my re-entry into the world. I was reborn when I was diagnosed correctly with an extreme anxiety disorder.
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I had a tough day at work. Everything that could get more complicated, became more complicated. Everything that could cost more money, cost more money. . But then, my husband sent me this photo and I snapped back to reality, back to where I remember where I came from, back to where I remember that growth is always possible and success is the act of showing up – even and maybe especially when the world says it’s impossible to do so. . I’m no longer in a psychiatric ward. I’m no longer on suicide watch. I’m no longer sleeping 18 hours a day. ? I’m no longer so terrified I’m scared shitless and require adult diapers. I’m no longer so paranoid about what people think of me that I don’t leave the house. I’m no longer destined to a ward. I’m no longer destined to a ward. I’m no longer destined to a ward. . Sure, the dog cookies might be more expensive than the projections. . Sure, trademark law is complicated. . Sure, e-commerce is hard and running a business is tricky. . But it’s not impossible. . No, it’s not impossible. . Because I am free. . Yes, I am free and I have the power to grow. . So tonight, I’m jamming on spreadsheets and turning my tenacity into possibility. . And tomorrow, I grow again.
Three months into my emotional bootcamp, I walked into my doctor’s office and said, “Guess what? I’m not going to die by suicide.” It was one of the greatest learnings of my life, that I was worthy of this world.
Today, I am rallied by the people around me. I have a business partner who champions me at The Dogist. I have a husband who supports me at home, and of course, I’ve always had my army of family and friends behind me.
I’ve been working hard on transparent vulnerability. I am open on social media and online about what I’ve gone through. And I’m building a community of people who can use me and my experience as a way to relate to their own lives, and know that hope isn’t lost.
I’m full of hope, because I know there is a way out of darkness. I believe that when we lean into our fears, we grow. I can’t say that every day is easy, or that I have all the answers—I don’t. But I do know that we’re all worthy of this world, and it’s a beautiful place to be.
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