Former Florence resident Amy Duell was diagnosed with bipolar 1 and bulimia in 2004 at age 21.
Bipolar 1 disorder causes severe mood swings ranging from manic states to severe depression.
Bulimia is an eating disorder characterized by eating large amounts of food and then purging, often by self-induced vomiting or misuse of laxatives.
Bulimia doesn’t always cause weight loss. Often, the person actually gains weight, which inspires the sufferer to increase binging and purging.
She was enrolled at Emporia State University in 2004 when her roommate became worried because Duell could not sleep. Duell consulted a psychologist and was diagnosed with bipolar 1 and bulimia.
Her psychiatrist prescribed lithium, but it caused weight gain. She took the medication only three months.
“I was in a place where I was in strong denial of where I was,” she said.
In 2009, she moved to California to work at a rescue mission.
As a way of coping, she threw herself into work.
“A lot of it was distraction, and a lot of it fed into my denial, because if I’m working, I’m not sick.”
In 2010, she returned to outpatient care. Other psychiatric problems began to arise in 2014.
“I got a huge promotion at work and became a director,” she said.
The stress of that position got to her. She lost her job in 2014.
“I was let go by my employer,” she said. “It was understood that I was let go because I was sick, so I went into the hospital.”
She moved back to Kansas to be closer to relatives and have more support.
At that time she was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, and panic disorder.
Eventually her condition qualified her for disability.
Now at 40 and living in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania she is sufficiently better that she is looking for work to get off disability.
The gaps in her employment history present a challenge. Prospective employers question her about those gaps.
“A lot of times, people get uncomfortable because they think if you got sick, they could get sick,” she said. “A lot of times it’s easier to push away than to lean into the discomfort. You have to learn not to take it personally. You have to realize they are where they are.”
She remains in outpatient treatment for her disorders. It helps that she has a good treatment team in Pennsylvania, just as it helped to have good treatment and support in Kansas.
“When I was in Kansas, I was at Prairie View a lot, and they did a lot to put me back together,” Duell said. “I’m really fortunate in that when I came back to Kansas, I had a lot of people around me who loved me no matter what. That was the biggest thing in the world. My support system is what has gotten me through.”
Some people’s reactions to mental illness were the last thing she needed.
“I went to one of my employers, saying, ‘Hey, I need help,’” she said. “He was so uncomfortable, but he said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you.’
“It makes me feel ashamed of being sick, and that’s the worst thing because shame keeps you in the dark and it keeps you from getting help.”
She wishes people would look at mental illness realistically and accept that the problem is common.
“With the statistics being that one in four struggle with a mental health issue at some time, it’s going to be you or someone you know,” she said. “Shame and silence are killers.”
One thing she learned along the way was that if people knew she fought a mental illness, they often withdrew.
“There was a lot of distancing,” she said. “A lot of people who had been friends suddenly didn’t want anything to do with me.”
Her family didn’t withdraw, though.
“I was fortunate because my family had already been through it with my mom. They were incredibly supportive,” she said. “It got pretty dark because of the fact I’d seen my mom going through it. There was a lot of shame for me in feeling like I had somehow failed.”
She still struggles with agoraphobia.
“It’s really hard to leave my house some days, but I have more good days than bad days,” she said.
What she’d like people who live with mental illness to know is that hope is out there.
“It can seem really scary if you don’t know what’s going on, but they’re people just like you,” she said. “There’s always hope. Things can and do get better. Sometimes it takes a while, but they do get better. Don’t be afraid to get help.”