Written by Catherine Ponty, as told by Stephanie Watson
I had a normal and happy childhood. I have always been ambitious, although somewhat insecure. My parents immigrated from Portugal to Toronto, Canada. Neither of them finished high school. I was very keen to please them because I am the first person in my family to go to university. So I always felt pressure to do well.
She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Politics and a Law degree. After working in Brazil for a few years, I moved to the United States and started an MBA program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. Not only did I feel insecure because I wasn’t performing at the same level as my classmates, but I was also on my own for the first time in my life. My parents were in Canada and my future husband worked in New York.
Academic and professional stress, along with feelings of loneliness, caused me to withdraw and isolate myself. In 2000, I was diagnosed with major depression. I thought it was just a phase it would pass. I went to a psychiatrist and tried the treatment, but after two weeks with no improvement, I stopped taking it.
Around the same time, my father lost his job as he had been working for 30 years. I was sexually assaulted by a classmate. All of these stresses came together, and I started to act choppy and out of my personality. I sent a long, rambling email to my classmates – all 800.
“Something’s not right,” said the deputy dean at Wharton. “We have to take you to the counseling office.” Within 5 minutes, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
I refused to accept my diagnosis. I felt sick because of everything I was going through.
I tried a new drug, but didn’t like the idea of taking it. For me, it was an admission that something was wrong with me, and I was really having a hard time accepting that I had bipolar disorder.
I managed to graduate from Wharton, but fell into a deep depression shortly thereafter and became completely unmotivated. Even when I moved to New York and met my future husband, it was a very difficult time. Sometimes I felt so depressed that I couldn’t get out of bed.
For 6 years, I have not been treated. Then in 2006, I had a major crisis. I thought the world was coming to an end and I was the messenger who would save it. When my husband came home one day, the apartment was a disaster. I tore it up. My mania and psychosis became so severe that I had to call 911.
Three police officers and two paramedics arrived at my apartment. It looked more like a criminal arrest than a medical emergency. They tied me to a wheelchair and took me in an ambulance to the hospital.
I landed in a psychiatric emergency room. The doctor who accepted me opened up the American Psychiatric Association’s (DSM) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Bipolar Disorder. He asked, “Do you have any of these symptoms?” He pointed to the page. I said: No, no, no. But he said, “Yes, yes, yes.”
For two days, I lay on a stretcher in the entrance to the psychiatric emergency room because the hospital did not have any open rooms. They severely drugged me to get me out of a manic episode. I woke up wearing leather handcuffs in a locking unit. It was annoying.
Before I was discharged from the hospital, I had to arrange to meet with a psychiatrist for treatment. Within weeks of starting the treatment, I felt cured and no longer needed it. So I got off medication, got sick, and was hospitalized again. I was hospitalized three times – in 2006, 2010 and 2014. A separate episode of insanity led to my arrest for breaking into a house of worship, because again I thought the world was ending.
The turning point for me came during my last hospital stay in 2014, when I saw a video of a woman she was living with Schizophrenia. I couldn’t believe she was living a full life. She was running her own company. It seemed 100% stable. She looked happy.
I’m starting to think I can be happy too.
I have been involved in peer support, meeting and talking to other people with mental illness. You really helped. In fact, it was extremely important in my recovery. They understand what it means to live with mental illness. This gave me hope, which led me to action.
I had to find the right medication and the right psychiatrist. I’ve been with 2 psychiatrists for 5 years each, and I felt like they were keeping me alive. They were trying to treat my symptoms and protect me from hospitalization, but my condition did not improve.
I was on a regimen that put me to sleep 14 hours a day and gained 60 pounds. My condition was getting worse. I had to find a new doctor.
The bipolar clinic I called in California referred me to a local psychiatrist—a doctor who specializes in using medications to treat mental disorders. I felt, I’m either going to try this or I’m just going to be unhappy.
When I met the doctor, I told him, “I want to stop taking this drug that makes me sleep. I don’t want to be obese anymore. I want to be able to work and do something in my life, not live this restless life that I’m living.”
My doctor gave me medication options and then asked about my preferences. It was a completely different approach to treatment than I had ever tried, called joint decision making. I was shocked because he was actually asking me which drug I would prefer. For me this was a sign that he respected my opinion.
My new doctor didn’t just treat me to treat symptoms, side effects, and avoid risks. He has treated me to achieve my life goals.
He took me off medication that was making me sleep 14 hours a day which made losing weight almost impossible. Then he put me on six medications, including mood stabilizers for mania and depression. Within two days, I slept 10 hours a day. Within 6 months, I lost 50 lbs.
I don’t like taking medications, but once I saw that the medications allowed me to live a more full and meaningful life, I accepted to take them. I have been stable since 2016.
My wife also played a very important role in my recovery. Families can play an important role in the recovery of their loved ones.
My mother recently sent a card to my doctor. In it, she wrote, “Thank you for bringing us Kathy back.” He said that made him tear up.
push it forward
When you are in psychic loneliness, there are no wishes or flowers to recover. There is very little hope that you will get better. Once I started getting better my mum started sending me cards once a week and they really made me feel better. I wanted to do the same for other people.
I started this program twice a month visiting psychiatric units at two hospitals in New York. I get people to donate greeting cards to me, which I distribute to patients. Patients also decorate and leave their own messages on cards for other patients. During these visits, I talk to patients and share my living experience with them. This makes them active. They say, “Oh, you’re one of us. You understand where we are and how we feel.”
I’ve also created an online peer support community for people with mental illness, substance abuse, and stressful life events, called ForLikeMinds. We have more than 10,000 members. It is a place where people meet and share their experiences. Peer support was really important to me during my recovery.
Additionally, I recently created a training service called Peersights. I help people and families with mental illness pursue recovery. The goal is to inspire hope, help them find the resources they need to improve, and improve communication among themselves and with clinicians so that they can better advocate for their own needs.