Natasha Tracy is an award-winning writer, speaker, and social media consultant who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 20. The author of The Bipolar Burble blog (named a top-10 health blog by Healthista, Health.com, Healthline, and others) and Breaking Bipolar for HealthyPlace.com, she aims to bring quality, insightful, and evidence-based information on bipolar disorder and related illnesses to the public while engaging with the mental health community. She is considered a subject-matter expert in bipolar disorder, and in 2014 was the recipient of the Beatrice Stern Media Award, an #ErasingTheStigma Leadership Award. The following year, she coauthored her first formal academic paper, Results From an Online Survey of Patient and Caregiver Perspectives on Unmet Needs in the Treatment of Bipolar Disorder, published in the Primary Care Companion CNS Disorders Journal. Natasha has also been named one of the top four online influencers in mental health by Sharecare.com. Her work has been featured in the Daily Mail (UK), Huffington Post, Healthline, and PsychCentral, among others. She recently released her book, Lost Marbles: Insights into my Life with Depression & Bipolar. In this interview, Natasha sat down with Lauren at HLTH 2019, where both were in attendance to receive their WEGO Health Awards — Natasha’s for Best Kept Secret.
Key links mentioned in this episode:
Tune in as Natasha shares…
- that she was anti-psychiatry before she experienced a breakdown in college
- that she uses vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) as one of the treatments for her depression
- that she lives with bipolar type 2, which means she experiences hypo-manias, and not manias as in bipolar type 1 (both include depressive episodes, but the severity of the manic episodes distinguishes the two)
- that her first doctor refused to properly diagnose her, telling her she had “minor depression”
- that antidepressants can make bipolar worse, rather than better
- that she was dismissed by a number of therapists through university health services
- that she found community and affirmation through her university’s skydiving club
- that coping skills take work, but become easy reflexes over time
- that there is a difference between the brain and the mind — while we can’t control the brain, we can control our mind
- that she has survived suicide attempts
- that the majority of patients living with bipolar disorder experience tolerance to their treatment at certain stages — this is to be expected, and can be navigated
- myths and realities of bipolar disorder
- why it’s important to seek (good) help from a professional
- that seeing a therapist AND a psychologist statistically leads to better outcomes for patients living with mental illness
- the importance of seeking trusted information, and her recommended resources
This episode is sponsored by Embr Labs, creators of the Embr Wave.
Get $30 off your personal thermostat device by clicking the link above!
Every purchase you make using the above link supports Uninvisible’s ongoing mission, at no additional cost to you.
Lauren: All right guys, thank you so much for joining us. I am actually podcasting today from HLTH 2019, the health event that’s being held in Las Vegas. A lot of you would have seen me posting about it all over social. It’s where I collected my WEGO Health Award, and I’m here with another WEGO Health Award winner, Natasha Tracy, who’s a mental health writer, speaker and author. She runs the blog, Bipolar Burble. So Natasha, thank you so much for joining us.
Natasha: Thank you so much for inviting me.
Lauren: It’s such a pleasure having you here. And it’s been so nice meeting you and getting to know everyone in the Awards categories much better over the last couple of days. So why don’t we start at the very beginning. When and how did you first realize that you had some kind of invisible condition going on?
Natasha: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. Because I think I knew something was wrong when I was about 13. But when you’re 13, you don’t really know what wrong is. You don’t know what that looks like. You don’t know what it might be.
And of course, when you’re 13, everybody blames it on the fact that you’re 13. So nobody really listens to you.
And even the people who did listen to me weren’t helpful. So it wasn’t until I was 19 that I actually got help for myself. In my particular case, I have bipolar disorder. And so the first thing I did, I actually went to a counselor/therapist at university because I was at university at the time. And I basically cried out what had happened, what was happening to me, used up an entire box of tissues. And then the therapist looked at me and he said, “You need to see a doctor.” And I didn’t want to see a doctor because I was actually very anti-psychiatry. But at that point in my life, things were so broken, and I was so broken, that I was willing to try it even though I was psychologically against it.
Lauren: Interesting. So you’ve really sort of experienced a sea change in terms of treatment because of your experiences, which we will get into. And I wanted to mention before we go any further as well, there may be a slight pause at one point in a couple of minutes from now, because you’ve got a situation with a magnet. Can you tell us about that? This is one of the treatments that’s been used for your bipolar disorder, for your depression, correct?
Natasha: That’s correct. Yes. So, one of the treatment options that few people have heard of actually is called vagus nerve stimulation, and it’s just shortened to VNS, and vagus nerve stimulation involves implanting a computer in your chest.
Lauren: It’s amazing to me!
Natasha: Oh, it’s amazing to me! And then wire leads go from that computer, and they wrap around your vagus nerve. So then that computer emits an electrical impulse every so often. For me, it’s every hour. And that electrical impulse stays on for a certain number of seconds. For me, it’s about 28. And it does that every hour, for the rest of your life, basically — until the battery runs out! And that’s how it works. The issue for me is that when it actually does go off, my voice cuts out. And so because of that I carry around a magnet — so that if something goes wrong, or I need my voice, I can put the magnet over the top of the computer, and it instantaneously turns off the electrical impulse.
Lauren: That’s so incredible. The advances in technology for treating something like depression. It’s a very exciting treatment and idea, I really think. We’re going to get into all of this. Tell us what steps you actually took to control your health once you spoke to this first doctor when you were in college who said, “Go see a psychiatrist.” How did it all roll out from there?
Natasha: It’s so complicated, I guess, because at the time I knew nothing about depression or bipolar disorder. I only knew what I had read online. I had done copious amounts of research before seeing a psychiatrist, and that’s how basically I knew I had bipolar disorder.
But the doctor disagreed, of course. The doctor said that I had a case of minor depression.
Lauren: So you had a psychologist at your college say, “Go see a doctor” … who knew what was up … and then you went to see the doctor, and they sort of denied what was going on.
Natasha: That’s pretty much what happened, yeah. I mean, doctors all have their own ways of looking at the situation. In my particular case, I was at university and I was still functioning. So I guess to him, that meant that the depression had to be minor. Also, I have something called bipolar type 2. In bipolar type 2, you experience hypomanias and not manias. Hypomanias are less ‘up’ than manias, they’re harder to spot. And often they are missed — especially at that time. This was 20 years ago; at that time especially, doctors were not screening properly for bipolar 2. And so even though I knew I had it, he just wasn’t interested in my opinion on that.
Lauren: Well, that’s a familiar story, isn’t it.
Natasha: That’s a familiar story, I’m sure, for many. And so even though I knew that he was wrong, I was so tired and I was so worn down from having to try to survive every single day, that I had not one shred of energy left in me to stand up to this authority figure.
So when he said minor depression, I just said, okay.
Lauren: And then what happened after that?
Natasha: Well, initially, he did put me on anti-depressants. And they were horrible. They messed with my stomach and my intestines, and gave me a headache and dry throat … a lot of very similar things that people experience, and certainly were not helpful in any way. We went through several rounds of anti-depressants at that time. And none of them were helpful to me and made me quite physically very sick. And of course, it is the case that we do now understand that anti-depressants tend to make bipolar worse. They don’t tend to make it better. So what ended up happening was, about a year after I started seeing that individual for treatment, he went on vacation. The person who replaced him while he was on vacation re-assessed me, I guess you could say, and he did believe me, that I had bipolar disorder.
Lauren: Oh, that’s wonderful. Was it a younger doctor, too?
Natasha: It was not actually, but it was a doctor who was very familiar with difficult-to-treat cases. And so he was more interested in looking for signs that were harder to spot, which is what you want to do in a harder-to-treat case. Because obviously you’re missing something, and you need to know what you’re missing. And he was willing to basically look at that. So at that point, we started going through the bipolar medications. They also were extremely difficult for me to take.
Lauren: Sure. There are a lot of nasty side-effects with a lot of these medications.
Natasha: A lot of really nasty ones, for sure. It turns out that I’m really sensitive to these types of medications. And so even on a very low dose, I would get a lot of side-effects. I could never get on a dose that was high enough to be effective for me. What ended up happening was, after he had been treating me for about a year, I went in and I spoke to him one day, and he just threw his hands in the air and said, “I can’t help you. You’re no longer my patient.”
Lauren: That’s really helpful!!
Natasha: Yeah, it was super great.
Lauren: I mean, on a certain level, at least he recognized his limits, that he could no longer be of use to you. But on another, as a patient to be left behind by a doctor like that has got to be a blow.
Natasha: It was devastating for me. Now, I had been seeing the same counselor all that time when I had been going through all of that. So I still had that person to continue to see.
But literally, that psychiatrist didn’t even give me a referral. He just said, you’re done. Certainly, that could have cost me my life.
But as happens, I did see that therapist the whole time. And what he saw was when I got off medications, of course, I just got worse and worse. This is to be expected. You’re doing very badly on medication, you’re only going to do worse off of medication. And so basically, over a six-month period, I did just get worse and worse until the point where he said to me, “If you want to survive, you need to go back to your doctor.”
Lauren: So did you go back to the same practice. Or did you find a different doctor at that point?
Natasha: At the time, I was still at university so I was going to university health services. It’s not like there are a lot of options. So he was kind of the guy. Or I could go back to the guy who didn’t think I had bipolar. Those are my great options. So I did go back to see him. And he said something really funny to me, or not funny to me … he said, “Oh I probably shouldn’t have done that. I was kind of spring cleaning my clients, and you just kind of got caught up in that.”
Lauren: Oh, wow. That’s really negligent. Thank you. That’s fantastic.
Natasha: Yeah, I’m so glad. Thanks for telling me.
Lauren: And thanks for the honesty. It’s really great to know I’m just a number and not a whole person to you. Thank you. Wow. So did you have to continue to see this guy then, even after he made the spring cleaning comment?
Natasha: I did. I did continue to see him and honestly, he was a really nice guy. He just had a few issues, let’s say.
Lauren: Perhaps his own mental health issues!
Natasha: What I will say about this particular individual is that he did then find the treatment that worked. What basically happened was, I’d gone through all of the bipolar medications. So, what he said was, “There’s a medication over here that’s not being used to treat bipolar disorder, but that we think might be effective. So why don’t you just take that?”
And so it was basically a shot in the dark. It was a total guess on his part. And it was because he was up-to-date with the research that he even knew that. And magically, that was the medication that actually started to give me my life back.
Lauren: That’s amazing. So what was the experience like? How did it feel when you got on this medication, and you knew it was working?
Natasha: It’s really funny. When your brain starts to change from its really dysfunctional state of severe depression, moving on to something that’s healthier, you don’t actually notice it, necessarily, at the beginning. Because the changes are so small, the things are so slight. You might smile, or you might think a more positive thought, or something like that. But they’re such tiny gradual things that you don’t put it together for a while. So for me, what happened was actually a big deal … I was walking through the Student Union Building, when this was happening to me … just as I was starting to feel better, but not recognizing that’s what was happening yet. And the skydiving club was there. And I said, I’ve always wanted to do one. I need to go do a skydive.
Lauren: I love that your university had a skydiving club.
Natasha: It’s the best. So I went up, and I stood in front of the guy, and he said, “Don’t you have any questions?” And I said, “Do I get to jump out of a plane?” He said yes; I said, “That’s all I need to know.”
Lauren: So that’s when you knew that things were on the up and up because you were willing to say yes to new experiences. And to open your mind to things.
Natasha: Yeah. Because what ended up happening is, not only did I do a skydive, but I actually became a skydiver. I did 150.
Lauren: That’s amazing. Wow! Especially for someone who’s been to the low lows that you’ve been through. To have that real high of jumping out of a plane and to have that be really a part of who you are now. It’s a really nice contrast, isn’t it.
Natasha: It’s a really life-affirming thing. A skydiver might say to you, for example, “You jump out of the plane, you have now killed yourself — unless you take evasive action.”
Which means that every single time you jump out of a plane and you survive, you have reaffirmed your life.
Lauren: I think that’s really lovely. So it sounds like you were really acting as your own advocate along the way. And that maybe the school psychologist helped you a little bit here and there. But did you discover that you needed a personal advocate at any point in this journey to health – and who is that, if so?
Natasha: I think the answer to your question is yes, I needed one … and no, I didn’t have one.
Lauren: Also a familiar story.
Natasha: When I fundamentally disagreed with my diagnosis, I needed an advocate — but didn’t have one.
When my doctor left me, I needed an advocate — but didn’t have one.
When you’re so sick, you’re not capable of taking the actions that you really should be taking in those scenarios — finding alternatives, finding a different doctor, taking the steps forward that you need to get better … but you’re so sick that you can’t. And so that’s where an advocate would have come in, but I didn’t have anyone.
Lauren: So you’ve become your own advocate over the years. What does that look like for you? And has it changed your relationship to yourself, in terms of a sense of empowerment, or control that you’ve regained —particularly since you’ve found yourself on the right medications that have improved your health?
Natasha: I think what’s happened for me is I’ve spent so much time researching bipolar disorder and wrote a book about bipolar disorder and depression …
Lauren: Tell us the name of the book.
Natasha: It’s called LOST MARBLES, Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar.
Lauren: And we will link to it on the episode page. So there you go.
Natasha: Thank you very much.
Lauren: Of course!
Natasha: I put all this effort into learning about bipolar disorder and depression. And in fact, in that book, there’s even an algorithm for treatment. So, how to treat your bipolar when you don’t know what to do … you flip to the algorithm and say, okay, I did this and this … this is the next thing to try.
Lauren: Oh, that’s so useful for patients.
Natasha: It’s so empowering for people, because then they can walk into their doctor’s office and say, “What do you think about this?” Because they actually have a “this” to suggest, right? Because that is one of the problems; maybe you want to advocate for yourself, but you don’t know how to do that. That’s a skill and nobody … very few people in the world … have 10 years to learn about bipolar disorder, like I did. So you need to find these tools that can help you move forward. So what I’ve done is use the research and use my knowledge to become more of a peer with my doctors. I don’t know how they feel about that. But I will tell you that I feel really good about it.
I feel really good about walking into my doctor’s office and knowing what he knows.
Lauren: Yeah, you’ve really taken control of your care in that way. So can you tell us what a typical day looks like for you as you’re managing symptoms? Because surely you’re still coming across things where you have to use, perhaps CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) techniques or something, to sort of stop and re-realign your thoughts. How does that look on a day-to-day basis for you?
Natasha: Because I’ve been doing this for so long, more than two decades, it’s like breathing to me. It’s like blinking; you just do it. You don’t think about it.
Lauren: Did you hear that, guys? It can be like breathing; it can be easy, and that’s really important for people to hear.
Natasha: Absolutely. When you learn a skill in CBT, or DBT (dialectic behavior therapy), however you learn your skills, it takes so much effort and time to stop and think and apply a skill. And then you think, I’m not going to have that effort in me every minute of every day for the rest of my life. But you will; you’ll find that it becomes much easier. So there are certain skills that I personally rely on that I find particularly useful. Like,
reframing is really important. The ability to reframe something. So something bad happens to you, and you can take a look at it and just say … for example, for me, my depression tends to look at the worst case scenario. So, you missed the bus, let’s just say. My depression says to me, ‘Oh, my God, I’m such a loser. I can’t believe I was late out of my apartment this morning that I could have missed the bus. And obviously, the bus driver hates me and the rest of the people are mad at me.’ I could do that because depression wants me to think that. I don’t want to think that. So it’s really important to take a step back and say, ‘I missed the bus.’ There’s not actually a value judgment there. It’s just that I missed the bus. Period. So instead of looking at it in this raincloud sort of fashion, I’ve tried to apply logic — which is something that I do all the time. I’ve written about it as well, which is, applying logic to a situation because depression and illness, in general, by its nature, is illogical.
Lauren: It’s interesting, too, because the way that you’re talking about depression, what I really like, is that you’re talking about it as something separate from you. That it’s not who you are, but it’s perhaps this dark rain cloud, right? That’s over your head, and you can sort of put up your umbrella. And I really like the idea that it is something that you can control because it’s something that’s outside of your body in that sense. And that could be a very useful technique for other people who are listening, I’m sure.
Natasha: What I tell people and what I’ve written about is …
There’s a separation between the brain and the mind. And the brain has the illness and is sick. It is an organ; it functions like your liver or anything else. You don’t have control over your liver, and you don’t have control over your brain. Period. But you, yourself, your personality and who you are, you live in your mind, and you are not sick. You are a beautiful creature, living and existing on this planet. So what you do as a separate individual is, you fight the brain, which is ill. That’s what you do.
And that’s, for me, how I delineate things.
Lauren: I really like that. And I think it’s a really clear way of visualizing, again, that separation from self. That these experiences, these negative experiences, these negative feelings and thoughts, do not make who you are; that your value judgment is actually so much greater than that, isn’t it.
Lauren: So aside from the experiences early on with that doctor who “spring-cleaned” you and initially wanted to deny the existence of your illness in the first place, have you been confronted and forced to justify the fact that you did have an illness that other people couldn’t see in other situations?
Natasha: Actually, yes. I’ve had a number of doctors, and some of them have been great. I don’t want to suggest that there aren’t great doctors, because certainly there are.
Lauren: The really good ones … I mean, most doctors care.
Natasha: They do. They care, and they want you to get better. That’s absolutely the case. I think it’s important to remember that.
The issue is that bad doctors are so bad.
In my case, I was living in the States for a period of time, and then I moved back to Canada.
Lauren: If you haven’t been able to tell yet, Natasha is Canadian!
Natasha: Well, I haven’t said a-boot! (laughs)
Lauren: Not quite!
Natasha: So I moved back to Canada, and I had to go through a process to get a psychiatrist at that time. Part of that is an in-person evaluation to ensure that a psychiatrist is the right method of help for you. So a psychiatrist did an in-person evaluation with me. At this point I had been in treatment for about 15 years, I guess. And so I had had virtually every treatment you can possibly think of, and was extremely, extremely sick. I was extremely, extremely depressed, suicidal. I was nothing. I was slogging through life, barely able to make it to the appointment.
Lauren: Well, and this is also an important point, right. Yes, you found the drugs that were working for you years and years prior to this, but there can still be dips, and that you have to keep that eye out and make sure that you’re staying on top of your symptoms, and working with your team to make sure you can get better.
Natasha: 100%. It’s very common in bipolar disorder for medications to just stop working; it’s called tolerance. We don’t know why it happens, but we know that it does. It will happen for the majority of people with bipolar disorder, although not everyone. That’s what had happened to me, and I had already gone through every medication, every combination. I had been through electroconvulsive therapy, I had had vagus nerve stimulation therapy, I’d had every kind of psychotherapy, and I was still in this place. So basically, this really horrible doctor asked me these questions with her head down, not looking at me, writing longhand on a piece of paper.
And at the end of that, she looked at me and she said, “We can’t help you. You’re not going to be a patient here.”
Lauren: Gosh, you’ve had that said to you by doctors two times too many, if not more.
Natasha: Yeah. She said to me, “You’ve had every treatment and they’ve all failed. What’s the point in you having a doctor?”
Lauren: Literally, that’s your job!
Natasha: That’s the most horrific thing I think you can say to a person, which is … give up hope now. That’s what she said to me. And so that was it. I actually had to beg her to fill 14 days’ worth of prescriptions for me because she wasn’t even willing to do that; I had to basically beg her to do that. I left her office with 14 days’ worth of medication, and nothing else. I was bawling my eyes out when I left. And I saw a different psychiatrist that I used to see, in the hallway, on the way out, and I literally was crying … I took him by the arm and I said, “Please help me.”
Lauren: Good for you. That’s a brave thing to do.
Natasha: And I then went home. And eventually, a couple of weeks later, I did attempt suicide — because there was absolutely no reason for me to keep going if I couldn’t get help.
Lauren: So there’s a great example of a clinician denying the existence of an illness, which actually led you to such a dark place that you might not even have been here. So how did you come back out of that?
Natasha: Suicide is such a toughie. I’m underplaying this!
Lauren: This has also come up throughout the course of the conference. I mean, you even mentioned yesterday when we were in a panel discussion … even uses of the word ‘suicide’, and things like that. So, it is such a delicate subject. But obviously a very big one, because a huge percentage of the population of people with bipolar disorder and depression do end up taking their own lives.
Natasha: Exactly. And I very easily could have that day. I won’t get into specifics, but what I will say is, it was basically luck that I didn’t die that day.
I ended up waking up on my kitchen floor.
Lauren: So no one found you?
Natasha: No, no one found me. Like I said, it was luck that I survived. And I realized, literally as I was lying there … that doctor was wrong. I had a light bulb moment, that should have really been obvious to anyone, but wasn’t obvious to me because I was so sick.
Lauren: But again, not only did we downplay suicide before, right, but you’re downplaying your own strength in this, too. Because I think to have that light bulb moment … not everyone is lucky enough to have that, too, right? And the fact that whatever it was — whether it was just your inner strength, or whether it was because of your experience with therapy in the past, and the way that you’ve been able to readjust your thinking — you were able to realize that the value judgment was not on you, in this case.
Natasha: That’s right, exactly. It wasn’t. She was wrong, and that was the important thing to remember. She was wrong. I needed help. That’s what I needed to get better. And the way I got it was to work around her. And of course, if I’d had an advocate, hopefully that advocate would have done that exact thing — which is work around the woman who is crazy and wrong.
Lauren: And who is literally blocking the way for you.
Natasha: Literally blocking the way of my survival. She’s theoretically going to cost me my life. You work around that person.That is what you do. And that is what I did. I went around her through my family doctor, and my family doctor made a personal phone call. She actually personally made a phone call to the man whose arm that I touched when I was leaving the hospital that day, and asked if he would take me on as a patient. The fact of the matter is, he wasn’t taking on patients. He didn’t have to take me on; the system said I was broken. And the system said I couldn’t be fixed. But he agreed to take me on as a patient anyway.
And I have never been more thankful for a kindness in my life.
Lauren: Well, and in your life, literally, because this has saved your life. And we’d also talked a little bit before we started recording about the fact that you’ve now been a patient within the US and Canadian health systems. So do you think that this experience in the system back in Canada at this point was different to an experience that you might have had in the US health care system? How do you think they would have compared?
Natasha: It’s so hard to say. Doctors in Canada and doctors in the United States are under extreme pressure to get patients in and out. When I lived in the United States, I worked for a very big tech company. And so I had the best insurance that money could buy. When I saw a doctor, time was made for me. When I needed to see a doctor, a doctor was available to me. And even when I had to go and get a third party approval and I had to pay money, because I worked at this high tech company, I had the money to pay.
Lauren: So there was a privilege at play there for sure.
Natasha: Extreme privilege. It’s a tiny, tiny fraction of Americans that would be able to access the kind of care that I had when I was in the United States. So I think what happened to me in Canada could happen to the average person in the United States very easily. Now, maybe not privileged people in the United States. But the average person in the United States … I absolutely believe it could be the case. And in Canada, as I said, many doctors are good, but you’re going to run into bad ones. And in my opinion, she was just a terrible, terrible doctor. Maybe a bad human being.
Lauren: I would go as far to say that. So I think it’s fair for us to judge her here.
Natasha: Okay! And so in that case, that was like a red stop sign in my life. So, can it happen there? It can happen there. It can happen here. I think it can happen anywhere.
Lauren: And also, I guess some of those roadblocks that you come across … we were talking earlier again about the Canadian health system being a system that’s subsidized by the government. You have the right to health care if you are living in Canada and are a Canadian citizen, right?
Natasha: That’s correct.
Lauren: And there is a difference, isn’t there, between that and needing to have the best health care that you’re paying thousands and thousands of dollars into in the US, for example. So while you were able to access care in the US because you had great connections, and you had the money and the privilege, in Canada, no matter who you are, you might still come across that bad doctor and still have to circumvent them, it sounds like. Just because that’s how the system works. But there are ways to do it.
Natasha: There are ways to do it, for sure.
I think anytime someone puts up a roadblock medically, there’s always a way to go around it — even when they tell you there isn’t.
That woman, that doctor, she was the gatekeeper. She was the one who said, “No, you’re not doing this. Period. End of story. Leave my life.”
Lauren: She was the Cerberus of the situation, wasn’t she!?
Natasha: But I did work around her. And I do believe you can do it. But they’ll tell you that you can’t. So you can’t listen.
Lauren: Also, because they don’t want to have to deal with extra paperwork, or deal with their egos being damaged perhaps.
Lauren: So you’re an advocate; your work has made you an advocate. Your experience has made you an advocate. Can you tell us about your advocacy work? We know you’ve written a book, but tell us about all the work that you’re doing to raise awareness of bipolar?
Natasha: So, I think my biggest role in bipolar advocacy is to speak the truth. When we hear about bipolar disorder, we tend to hear one of two things … either, bipolar disorder is so bad that your life will end, you’ll end up under a bridge. Or, bipolar is just another mental illness, and you can live a happy life. Those are the two things that you hear about mental illness, and neither one of them are particularly true. Now, some people are going to fall into Category A, and some people are going to fall into Category B. But the vast majority of people are going to end up somewhere in between. So my job is to show reality; it’s to show the spectrum of things that happen. I don’t want to ignore the person who ends up homeless, I don’t want to ignore that person. Glossy campaigns do. But I don’t want to.
And I don’t want to ignore my own story, which is that of constant struggle and strife.
I don’t want to ignore that.
Lauren: And not just personal struggle, but struggle with the system.
Natasha: Right. There’s a whole series of things to struggle with … and I don’t want to say it’s, again, a glossy photo of this person who’s just happy and they went on to get a degree and now they’re … whatever.
Lauren: Because it’s not that simple or straightforward for anyone, I think.
Natasha: That’s right. It isn’t. My job is to be in the middle. And to be brutally honest. Because that is what people don’t do. That is what they don’t want to do. And that’s what people don’t want to hear, too. Which is why they need to hear it.
Lauren: And it seems like people really turn to you because they know that you’re going to speak truth to a lot of the bullshit that’s out there about bipolar disorder, and these kinds of spectrum disorders with mental health issues. We need more people like you who are standing up and saying, “Most people are in the middle.” Or, “What about the people who are dying?” And not a lot of people are saying that, as you say, particularly in these glossy campaigns,
Natasha: That’s absolutely true. It’s very hard to stand up and say, “Look at all my flaws.” That’s a really tough thing to do. And quite frankly, I don’t blame super-famous people for not wanting to do that. But it is an important thing. It is important to stand up and say look at my flaws, because that’s actually what makes you human. And that’s what makes everybody human. People really align with what I say because they have that experience that I have. I’m just like them. There’s nothing special about me.
Lauren: I think you’re definitely pretty special!
Natasha: Oh, thank you! The only difference is that I say it out loud. And what people say to me all the time is: “You reached inside my brain.” People say this to me all the time. And I always say, “Yes.”
Lauren: And you’re welcome!
Natasha: That’s my special skill! But we are all having these thoughts and these feelings, and we always think that it’s just us.
One of the things that I tell people … when people are first dealing with serious mental illness, they tend to think they’re the craziest person in the room.
They always think that.
Lauren: And it’s always an inner dialogue.
Natasha: It’s always an inner dialogue, going, ‘I’m crazy. I’m crazy.’
Lauren: ‘It’s my fault.’
Natasha: And everyone else doesn’t understand because nobody else has this experience. I’m the only one. When, of course, they are not the only one.
Lauren: Which, by the way, is not an ego thing, at that point, in case anyone’s wondering!
Natasha: No, definitely not an ego thing. But it’s one of those things where you need someone to say to you, and hold your hand, and go, “Yeah, I know. I’ve kind of done that, too. Oh, you mean you’ve been two months without showering? Yeah, I’ve done that too. Oh, you haven’t changed your sheets. Yeah, I’ve done that too.” Just whatever it is that’s going on, there’s just a whole whack of people that ‘have done that, too.’ It’s just that you don’t know it initially. And so you need to see those other people, virtually or otherwise. And just say … yeah, those are my people.
Lauren: Absolutely. Well, we were all saying that yesterday, when all of the winners for the WEGO Health Awards got together … we were, like, “Oh, look, it’s our people at the conference. It’s all our invisible/chronic illness buddies!” So, do you have any tips, a Top Three List for someone who suspects they might have something off? Maybe it’s the onset of some negative thinking, or someone who’s further along in the process and is having a dip with their medication? What would you offer as advice to people who are living experiences that you’ve lived yourself?
Natasha: The first tip that’s incredibly important is to see someone that you trust for a thorough and medical evaluation of whatever you’re experiencing. That may or may not lead to what you’re looking for. But it’s absolutely the first step.
If you sit alone in your head and you’re trying to self-diagnose, you will be wrong.
And even if you were, let’s say, right, you would have no way to help yourself. Being right about something doesn’t help you, but helps you as a treatment plan. It’s a professional who’s going to be able to get you that treatment plan. So you absolutely need to see someone. If you happen to be unlucky, and I have been unlucky from time to time, you get yourself a referral, and you go to doctor number two, and you say, “You need to listen to me. This is what we’re doing.”
Lauren: Where did you learn to do that, this is what I want to know. How did Natasha figure out that you had to show up and be the squeaky wheel? How did you figure that out? Trial and error?
Natasha: Yeah, trial and error. I think it’s a choice that you make, that you want to live or you want to die, Because if you want to live, then you have to take control and take responsibility for your life and say, ‘This is what I need to do. Let’s go get this done.’ That’s what it is. It’s live or die. I decided not to die. So in order to make that happen, I had to stand in front of these guys and start saying, “Listen to me.” So that’s the first tip — to see someone you trust. And when I say a doctor, I also mean a therapist. A therapist is also capable, if they’re a psychologist, of doing a thorough evaluation for you, and seeing what they see. And what we do know is that if you do have a mental illness, seeing those two types of help in conjunction actually leads to better outcomes than seeing either one independently. So please understand that.
Lauren: And seek that out. If you’re only being offered one kind, seek both.
Natasha: Exactly. That’s important. The second thing is education. Now I’ve spent, a couple of decades on education. And I continually, every single day, reading about bipolar disorder. I read about new studies. In fact, I’m authoring a paper that I’m trying to get published in a scientific journal.
Lauren: How exciting.
Natasha: Yeah, so this is number two actually; I’ve already done one.
Lauren: Wow. We’ll have to link to that first one on the episode page as well.
So I’ve spent all this time really upping what I understand about the illness, and also keeping abreast of exactly what’s happening today.
Not everyone can do that. But what everyone can do is, they can go to a site that breaks down the information in a way that makes sense to them.
Lauren: Oh, you mean like your website? (laughs)
Natasha: My website? My website is great. I love it.
Lauren: Where would listeners go and find your website if they needed to?
Natasha: That would be NatashaTracy.com.
Lauren: Excellent! And we’ll, of course, link to all of this on the website page, too, and we’ll be tagging Natasha on our social feed. But go on please …
Natasha: My information is not necessarily going to be organized in a fashion that’s going to help you the most. So let’s say you want to learn about mixed episodes, let’s just say that’s what you need to know. So a website that might give you that information would be a website like A Healthy Place, or a website like the Mayo Clinic; those type of sites are going to give you quality information in a way you can digest. And they’ll be able to give you information that’s quality information. And just as a bit of disclosure, I write for Healthy Place. So when I say it’s quality information, I mean I wrote it! (laughs)
Lauren: But also that you know the people who work there, and that the quality of the writing and the information there is of a certain standard.
Natasha: Well, what I can say is that a medical doctor reviews everything that we write. So it’s not just that I wrote it, but that a medical doctor actually has reviewed it. And obviously at Mayo Clinic, you’re going to have the same thing. So that’s the reason why those two sites come to mind for me. And if you happen to be a more research-minded individual, then Medscape is really good. Now that particular resource is a resource written for doctors by doctors. So that’s not necessarily going to be your first stop.
Lauren: Unless you’re a doctor and you think that way.
Natasha: Exactly, unless you think that way — and then go right ahead. But it’s quality information that is all referenced by study. So anything that you need to know you can look up, and it’s incredible; I actually use it all the time.
Lauren: Oh, that’s wonderful. Okay, so we’ve got: Find a good doctor, and make sure you get seen. We’ve got: Find good resources and websites. Do you have a third tip for anyone listening?
Natasha: Oh, yeah, actually, those are the two I talk about. The third one might be to find your community. Because even if, let’s say, you rationally understand that 1% of the population has bipolar type 1, you rationally understand that; you read it somewhere and it makes sense to you.
Lauren: And bipolar type 1, that’s the one that we see on Girl, Interrupted; that’s the very up-and-down, very manic version of bipolar disorder, correct?
Natasha: Right. So bipolar disorder type 1 has manic episodes and depressive episodes primarily. And a manic episode is going to be a very extreme high, like you said. And bipolar 2 has hypomanic episodes and depressive episodes. The depressive episodes are actually the same, but the hypomanic episodes are less severe than the manic episodes. So that’s actually what differentiates bipolar 1 and 2, the severity of that higher episode. My apologies for using terminology.
Lauren: Oh, no, I think it’s great. And I appreciate you using the terminology, because I think it’s important we understand the terminology. And I think it’s important that people are hearing terminology that perhaps they haven’t heard before, too. So you’re saying: Find your community. If you are someone who has bipolar type 1, or you know about the 1% of people who have that.
Natasha: Yeah, if you do, I think it’s really great for you to reach out, however you feel comfortable. It might be an online community, it might be finding a blog that you think is really great.
What talks to you?
Do you like to watch videos? Is there a YouTuber that has bipolar 1 where you can watch their videos and say, oh my goodness, I’ve had so many of those experiences. And then of course, there are always books; books are great. But there’s a whole spectrum, there’s a ton of ways to find people just like you. And it’s actually really critical that you do at least some of this, because you will feel less alone and that’s going to help you fight the disease.
Lauren: Do you think, in a way, that this is sort of the best time to be sick —because we have the Internet, and we have communities at our fingertips if if we want to reach out to people who are like us?
Natasha: I think it’s the best time to be sick because we do have access to people, for sure. Also, we have access to better treatments than we ever had before. Even 20 years ago, when I was diagnosed, we had maybe half the number of treatments that we actually do today. So it is the best time to be bipolar!!
Lauren: I mean, take it with a grain of salt, guys. It’s never great … but what is great is finding your way through it. And that’s what we’re here to celebrate. So the last Top Three list that I like to cover on the show … top three things that give you unbridled joy; you’re unwilling to compromise on, no matter the lifestyle changes that you’ve made to accommodate the symptoms of your illness. What are your top three? It could be guilty pleasures, it could be comfort activities, secret indulgences. What are your top three favorite things that you turn to, maybe when you’re having an episode or feeling a little down? What do you do to feel better?
Natasha: So, the first one that comes to mind is ice cream. I’m like, insanely addicted to it. I don’t know what to tell you.
Lauren: You need to tell me!
Natasha: Yeah. Ben & Jerry live in my freezer. For whatever reason, that just touches my soul; I love the stuff. The second one is my friends, my people. My IRL people. They’re wonderful and amazing. And I love going out to brunch.
This is like a thing that also feeds my soul. It’s one of my favorite things to do.
And in fact, I have a friend, we go to brunch or breakfast every single weekend.
Lauren: That’s so nice.
Natasha: For me, it’s like a connection tangible with the world that is just critical to me.
Lauren: And it’s regular. So it’s something that you guys have set up where there’s a structure about it. So it gives you something to look forward to every week, too.
Natasha: Absolutely and I actually think that’s really critical. And the third …orgasms.
Lauren: I love it! You’re the first person who’s said that on the show, and I bow down! Even our sound engineer over there is having a little dance! I couldn’t agree with you more.
Natasha: They are, I think, underrated.
Lauren: Extremely. Especially for women.
It’s really funny because I’ll have an orgasm, and then I’ll think to myself, why do I ever do anything else?
Lauren: I’ve been there!
Natasha: But one of the reasons that’s important is because so much medication actually impacts your ability to have an orgasm. That if you feel that orgasms are really important to you, which I do, I literally will not take a medication that will destroy that for me. Because that is one of my top three. You can’t take away one of my top three. I won’t let you.
Lauren: Good for you. That’s an empowered woman right there! I really appreciate it. Natasha, is there anything else that you would like to share with our listeners before we let you go, and we walk back into the wide world of the conference?
Natasha: I just want to say thank you so much for having me on your podcast.
Lauren: It was such a pleasure.
Natasha: I think you had some really great questions, and we had a really good conversation, and it’s been a pleasure meeting you and the other winners at this conference. And I guess I want to say something to everyone who’s listening who has a mental illness, or who knows someone who has a mental illness. And that is something that I said last night, which is: I see you. You matter. Your illness matters. Your pain matters. You are not screaming into the void. You are not alone. I am holding your hand. See it or not.
Lauren: That’s really beautiful. I think that’s a perfect place to end for today. And remind listeners where they can find you and your work.
Natasha: So you can find me at NatashaTracy.com, and there are links there to all of the places where I exist. Which is everywhere. (laughs)
Lauren: So you can join Natasha’s community and find out more about mental illness and really find a home if you need to. Natasha, thank you so much. It’s been such a pleasure having you on the show today, and I’m thrilled we got to do this here at HLTH.
Natasha: Thank you.