One of the best parts of being a mental health advocate is the connections you make to others with a similar passion for life and mental health. I was thrilled when Julie Kraft, author of the incredible book, The Other Side of Me: Memoir Of a Bipolar Mind, agreed to share part of her story with me. She is both beautiful on the outside and on the inside. In this interview, Julie shares her journey with bipolar disorder and opens up about motherhood, love, stigma and how a move from her home in Canada to Germany gave her clarity in a world that made her feel so clouded. Thank you, Julie, for speaking your truth.
When you were first diagnosed in 2010 what was your initial reaction?
My initial reactions to my diagnosis were denial, embarrassment, and shame. And all of those negative feelings were amplified by the fact that I felt forced into seeing a doctor instead of willingly wanting to go. My husband had given me an ultimatum- seek professional help or risk losing my marriage. The fear of losing my family made me finally put aside my pride and agree to go.
My bipolar diagnosis also brought many fears- fears of being restrained, rolled away, and hospitalized against my will. And I knew if that happened, there would be no way to hide it from friends and family. The seemingly perfect image of our ‘Brady Bunch family’ would be shattered, sending shockwaves through our community. I convinced myself that my diagnosis was a death sentence of sorts that would need to be hidden for the rest of my life.
However, I’ll admit that deep deep down I knew I had done the right thing by seeking help. There was no denying I’d lost complete control of my emotions and actions, and my innocent family was taking the brunt and the blame. There was also a part of me that was secretly relieved; I finally had an explanation for the chaos of the previous two decades.
How has stigma affected your life with a mental health condition?
In the years immediately following my diagnosis, stigma played a crippling and all-consuming role in my life. I was well aware of the negative stereotypes of mental illness that existed, whether from offensive memes, over-the-top movie characters, or the media’s exploitation of certain celebrities during their worst moments. And the biggest place those false perceptions manifested themselves was in my very own mind.
To make things worse, I’ve always been a perfectionist. Needless to say, being told I had bipolar disorder threw a serious wrench into my pursuit of being perfect. And so, I only viewed my disorder as a ‘chink in my armor’, a sign of weakness, something that would prevent me from being a good parent having a successful career, or even being respected as a human being.
Looking back, I now realize that my biggest stumbling block was myself. I self-stigmatized and expected the very worst from people. I assumed they would react to my bipolar disorder in the most negative ways. I’m thrilled to report I couldn’t have been more wrong in my assumptions.
I believe we’ve all been created exactly as we should be, our minds included, and that our lives have deep purpose and meaning. There are no mistakes. None.
Why do you think the move from Canada to Germany had such a major impact on your life?
In the months and years leading up to our family’s move to Germany, I was a serial people-pleaser whose vocabulary did not include the word ‘no’. I was overcommitted, resentful of my obligations, and burning out at lightning speed. Moving abroad gave me exactly what I needed- an excuse to step down from all of my responsibilities, without explanation. Germany also gave me the gift of clarity. Moving to the other side of the world allowed me to look back at the life I’d been living with a new perspective and a discerning set of eyes. I realized things were off-balance. An insanely busy schedule had left little time and energy for housework, let alone my own family. The three years I spent in Germany reset my priorities and the course of my life in the best possible ways.
It’s a major risk to come forward about living with a mental health condition, so why did you decide to post the YouTube video about your life with bipolar? What inspired you to do so?
In addition to the ‘gifts’ I mentioned earlier, living abroad afforded me the time to both fully accept my diagnosis (it had come two years earlier) and explore my creative side. And so, while my kids were away at school, I began to fumble around with a camera and film my story. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever have the courage to share it publicly. But then came a humiliating denial of life insurance- “I’m sorry Ma’am, you’re not eligible because folks like you are the ones who drive, at full speed, into brick walls.” I was crushed. To add insult to injury, an insensitive Facebook post by a friend, asking why her moody tween was acting ‘so bipolar’, popped up on my newsfeed. A thread of comments soon followed that all mocked and made light of a disorder that I had, a disorder that had caused immeasurable hurt and heartache in my life. Again, I was crushed.
I wanted to show that bipolar disorder doesn’t have to mean dangerous, reckless, or irrational.
I knew I needed to put another face of bipolar into the world, one that was different and hopefully a lot more positive. The word bipolar is not an adjective to be loosely thrown around when talking about misbehaved children or moody mother in laws. I truly believed that sharing my story could possibly change perceptions and open minds, even in the smallest ways. And so, despite my fear of being judged, it became clear to me that posting my video was a risk worth taking.
What do you love about your bipolar mind?
Where do I begin? First off, I believe we’ve all been created exactly as we should be, our minds included, and that our lives have deep purpose and meaning. There are no mistakes. None.
There are so many things about my bipolar mind that I love and would never trade in. Now, I won’t deny that my brain has also brought challenges to overcome and thoughts to tame, but the benefits far outnumber the drawbacks. We all have something, something to manage, something that has the ability to break us but also rebuild us into more beautiful and resilient versions of ourselves.
My mind is an explosive combination of creativity and quirkiness with a little bit of rocket fuel mixed in. It thinks far outside the box and knows no limits when it comes to dreaming, creating, painting, and writing. It also allows me to feel emotions deeply. And although my feelings can be a rollercoaster ride at times, I’m grateful. I truly believe that one cannot fully experience or appreciate one extreme without the other- the sun always seems to shine ten times brighter after a string of cloudy days. To feel on such an intense level is undeniable proof that I’m living life to the fullest. And I wouldn’t have it any other way- it’s not an option for me to live halfway or half-hearted. I’m all passion and I’m all in.
The obstacles put in my path because of my bipolar mind have helped me to discover my true strength.
Knowing what I’ve come through, and survived, helps me to face the future with confidence, ready to tackle whatever might come my way. My journey has also given me an understanding and empathy for others traveling a similar road. To be able to connect with others in such a real and authentic way, and even offer help and hope, is truly humbling.
For all of these reasons and many more, I love my bipolar mind. And I will always choose to view it as a powerful tool, uniquely wired, with the potential to accomplish whatever I set out to do.
As a single woman with bipolar disorder I face severe stigma. It is difficult to be hopeful about love for many of us, but you have been married for 22 years. Can you share with me part of your love story?
My husband and I met through a mutual friend who introduced us as each others’ soul mates. Our friend was right- sparks flew and we found ourselves at the altar, saying “I do”, after only seven months! We were young, still in school, up to our eyeballs in student loans but didn’t see any reason to wait. When you know, you know, and we definitely knew. Since then, we’ve moved around the globe, become parents to three daughters, and overcome many obstacles. The last 22 years haven’t been without hardship but through it all, our faith in God and our deep commitment to each other has kept us together. I’m humbled by the grace and forgiveness that my husband has given me throughout our marriage.
Have you faced stigma in your relationship?
My husband has always loved me unconditionally and been a very open-minded man. Although difficult for me to believe in my darkest moments, I know in my heart that my bipolar diagnosis did not lessen his love for me. It also didn’t diminish how much he valued and needed me, not only as a life partner, but also as a mother to our children. And as far as any judgments of our marriage by others? Well, although one can never really know what is being said from a distance, my husband hasn’t received any pity or sympathy cards, yet. I’ll take that as a very positive sign. What I do know is that putting all of your skeletons out in the open, in a tell-all video and book, leaves little to the imagination and gives no fuel for the rumor mill!
Any stigma in my relationship has, once again, come from myself. In the early years of my marriage I often felt like the broken and unstable one. My husband has always been tidy, a great cook, an amazing parallel-parker, and most important of all, emotionally stable, He’s not perfect, but because of my severe insecurities and perceived short-comings I often felt as if we weren’t ‘equals’. In my lowest moments, I even begged him to leave me, to take our children and walk away from the life we had built. I honestly believed that cutting me loose was his only chance of finding the love and happiness he deserved. He stayed. Thank goodness.
What did he think about you coming forward publicly?
My husband has always been my biggest fan. He has supported me in everything I’ve endeavored to do. Coming forward with my bipolar journey has been no different. I was instantly given his blessing to post my video and write my memoir (and yes, I absolutely needed to ask for it.) My story is just as much his story and I needed to be sensitive to the effects that exposing the inner-workings of our relationship might have on him. But not once has he ever asked me to tone down, hide or filter parts of myself. In doing so, he’s shown to me that I’m worthy of unconditional love and acceptance from him and the entire world. I must admit, at times, it’s still a struggle for me to believe it.
What would you say to single women who live with a mental health condition that are beginning to lose hope in ever finding love?
I’m a hopeless romantic who soaks up sappy movies and believes in happily-ever-after endings. Always. My first piece of advice to any single woman (or man) would be to throw out any self or society-imposed deadlines of when they should find love, get married, or become a parent. Life is not linear and it’s not a race. I strongly believe that everything happens exactly when, how, and with whom it’s supposed to. I also firmly believe that anyone coming into a dating scenario, aware of their diagnosis, willing to share and show that they’re taking responsibility for their mental health, is someone to be held in the highest regard and absolutely taken out on a second date! To me, being open and honest is the best (and perhaps only) way of finding an unconditional, true, and lasting love. Everyone has something, and I wish that having a mental health condition didn’t carry the terrifying fear of it being a deal-breaker.
I definitely did things in reverse- I dated and got married as an undiagnosed self-described train wreck. At the time, I was completely unaware of the extent of my mental health struggles and my husband was blinded by love. That made for a lot of hurt, confusion, and heartache during the first fifteen years of our relationship. There’s no doubt in my mind, if I’d come into our partnership with a diagnosis then the road we’ve travelled would have been a much smoother one.
Any advice to give to newlyweds in which one partner lives with a mental health condition?
My best advice to newlyweds is to be as open, honest, patient, and kind as possible. It’s not easy, but it’s always possible. And that goes both ways, in all circumstances, and without keeping score.
I now realize just how helpless and hopeless my husband must have felt in the early years of our marriage. It hasn’t been an easy road, but where there is deep commitment, there is also the ability to overcome the challenges that a mental health condition can bring. I’m determined to do whatever it takes to manage my bipolar and stay well. That’s my part of the bargain, my part of “in sickness and in health, ’til death do us part”.
My husband deserves nothing less.
How has motherhood changed your life in general?
Being a mother has brought me great joy as well its share of challenges. Becoming a parent instantly shifts your priorities in a new direction. You quickly realize that being selfish, even getting a full night’s sleep or taking a candle-lit bubble bath, are things of the past. Even so, despite feeling exhausted at times or longing for uninterrupted moments of ‘me time’, I love my three kids beyond words and am so grateful for the changes they’ve brought. My kids are one of the main reasons why I finally got over myself and sought professional help.
Children have an incredible way of making us face our issues head-on and take steps to become the most stable, responsible, loving parents that we can.
What are the challenges you face?
As a parent, having bipolar disorder has brought its own set of challenges. Before my diagnosis, I tried to keep my struggles hidden behind a mask and a fake smile. Even so, my children paid the price of having a mom who refused to acknowledge she needed help. Engaging in normal mom activities, hosting play dates, handing Halloween candy, even allowing my kids to participate in sports was hard for me. My anxiety over making small talk with trick-or-treaters or on the sidelines of soccer fields was paralyzing. It was all challenging and overwhelming. I still struggle with feelings of embarrassment and shame over the ways my kids have been affected by my mental health struggles. Thankfully, I’m in a much better place now.
Your children must love you because you are so vibrant, creative and energetic. What do they think about your advocacy? And do you think it will help them as they get older?
Most days, my daughters are my biggest cheerleaders. Just like their dad, they also gave me the green light to write and publish my memoir and are just as supportive as I step forward as an advocate. We’ve made a conscious choice to be very open in our home about every aspect of my bipolar disorder. I thinking talking about mental health, in any setting, takes away the mystery, normalizes it, and calms fears. I think my kids now have a deep sense of understanding and empathy towards not only my mental health struggles, but also those of others. Because of their support of me, even shout-outs and ‘shares’ on social media, I view them as mental health advocates too!
People say things like, “Bipolar women should not be mothers.” Have you faced stigma as a mother?
Ironically, any stigma I’ve faced as a mother has, once again, come from myself. In the past, I would constantly beat myself up over my inability to do ‘normal’ mom activities- drive for field trips, throw birthday parties, even head to the local park. Once again, I was my own worst enemy. All of those irrational thoughts and lies swirled in my own head and held power over me, and I was the one to blame.
What advice would you share with mothers that are struggling to accept their diagnosis, treat it properly and find some type of silver lining?
Without a doubt, mental health struggles or not, being a parent is one of the toughest jobs on the planet- it stretches us further than we ever thought imaginable. But, I want every newly-diagnosed parent to know that it’s absolutely possible to have bipolar disorder and be an amazing mom or dad. Yes, of course there will be times when our anxieties and darker days prevent us being perfect parents, but they will never stop us from loving our kids with all our hearts. And thank goodness, despite our shortcomings, children have the ability to love us with all their hearts too. Kids are incredibly understanding and more resilient than we might ever think.
All we need to do is our best. We all have our ‘moments’ and that’s okay- but when we know better, we must try to do better. If we’re willing to take responsibility for our mental health, stick with a treatment plan, stay self-aware, and make apologies when need be, then I think we’re on the right track.
There is definitely a silver lining to be found. Having bipolar disorder has allowed me to teach my children invaluable lessons- the importance of authenticity, vulnerability, and perseverance in the face of adversity. I’m hopeful that by trying to be a living example of those traits, I will help to mold my daughters into women of great integrity and character.
Lets talk about your amazing book-“The Other Side of Me: Memoir of a Bipolar Mind”- What inspired you to write a memoir?
Growing up, I never dreamed of writing a book, let alone becoming a published author. It wasn’t until my diagnosis and my exposure to the stigma surrounding mental illness that I felt passionate enough about an issue to want to bring about change. Writing a book seemed like a natural, therapeutic, effective and fun way to do it.
A book lives on for generations and so the thought of my story reaching others long after I’m gone, was an exciting and motivating one!
And so, having something meaningful to share and having been given the gift of time in Germany to do it, I spent my days guzzling lattes and pouring my soul onto paper. My book-writing process was haphazard and took three long years, but I finally finished. My teeth are now a vibrant shade of orange but I’m an author.
To explore more of The Other Side of Me-Memoir of a Bipolar Mind, watch the official book trailer or view click-through preview. There are several book editions available-including b&w and color Find them all here!
Who do you think will really benefit from your book?
I think people of all ages and walks of life can benefit from my book. I wanted to write a ‘tell-all’ that would not only offer hope to those struggling, but also give insight to all those living alongside- parents, spouses, children, friends, co-workers, even strangers. My memoir touches on so many aspects of my journey- from childhood, through my awkward teen years, marriage, motherhood, to the process of seeking help and healing. It is my greatest desire that my story resonates with many, in the most unique and unexpected ways.
My book is an intentionally easy-read that balances the heartbreaking with the heartwarming. As someone who’s easily-distracted, my goal was to create a memoir that even I would be capable of reading. And so I’ve included quotes, some (incredibly embarrassing) photos, and my fair share of cringe-worthy moments to keep it interesting. I really do believe that a broad audience will not only be entertained, but also benefit from my memoir!
What are your future goals pertaining to your career in advocacy?
Looking ahead to the future, I’m open to, and excited for, whatever advocacy opportunities come my way. I’m willing to use whatever platform I’m given to bring awareness to mental health and help others- whether it’s standing on a stage or wearing a conversation-starting t-shirt! I’m so grateful for the people I’ve had the privilege of connecting and collaborating with over the past few years. Joining forces with such passionate and inspiring souls makes me look to the future with an incredible sense of optimism. I really do believe the best is yet to come.
What are some of your own coping skills for the bad days?
As simple as this may sound, some of my best coping skills for bad days are to just take a few deep breaths or guilt-free naps and be gentle with myself. I think we’re often hardest and least forgiving with ourselves. I’m easily tempted to play the comparison game and put pressure on myself to keep up with the other wives and mothers around me. I need to constantly remind myself that cooking a five-course meal while simultaneously doing five loads of laundry is overrated. I’m wired differently, and that’s more than okay. On darker days, I also need to remind myself that my feelings are temporary. Surrounding myself with friends and family who are quick to do the same, also helps me through those tougher times.
Do I dare admit this? I’m actually not a reader (cringe). It’s crazy, I know, considering I’m an author. I’m definitely more of a picture person. Cozying up with a giant mug of coffee and a photo-filled home decor magazine equates to a mini-holiday for me.
She could never go back and make some of the details pretty. All she could do was only move forward and make the whole beautiful.
-Terri St. Cloud
This quote, which I’ve also included in my book, gives me an overwhelming sense of peace. It helps me accept the past, embrace the present, and have hope for the future. We are not the sum of our darkest moments and mistakes- they don’t define us or set the course of where we’re going. Believing that the whole of my life will ultimately create a beautiful picture takes away the pressure to be perfect (perfectionist here, remember?), and offers incredible relief.
A couple mental health resources that you think are helpful?
I cannot express how important it has been for me to read, research, and connect with others walking similar paths. Knowledge really is power. So many amazing resources exist, spanning all social media platforms, with even more blogs, FB pages, Instagram accounts and mental health initiatives popping up by the minute.
I often turn to therapist Kati Morton and her videos for the nitty-gritty breakdown of all things ‘mental health’. She gives easy-to-understand definitions of disorders, outlines signs and symptoms, offers coping strategies, and so much more.
The Mighty is another great resource that is bursting with firsthand accounts and real-life stories from people living with of multitude of mental health struggles, all sharing their experiences, wisdom, and advice. I’ve learned so much from The Mighty and its contributors, most important of all, that I’m not alone.
For more mental health content follow me @halfway2hannah