By Emalee Gillis, NAMI Spokane Blog Editor.
Shamra Andrews of Spokane, now 47, has faced mental health challenges since she was a teenager. As a teenager, she stated that she wanted to die in the form of letters. Into her early twenties, she had constant thoughts of dying and was filled with sadness, depression, and darkness. For years she tried to push her way through these feelings. She also had some audio hallucinations and would sometimes hear voices. She became a Christian at age 20 and was taught that her faith should be the ultimate cure, but it wasn’t and she continued to struggle.
As she moved into her 20’s and 30’s, she had episodes of mania where she would feel invincible and do risky things. She would speed down roads or jump off cliffs and bridges into water. At one point, when she was living with her sister in North Carolina, she cackled and laughed for days. She would go into stores and crawl around on the floors and act like animals, and at the time she thought she was being very funny. She had grandiose notions. She thought she would be the next rising movie star and rushed between one activity and another. At night, she would have vivid dreams and couldn’t tell the difference between the dream and reality. She also moved constantly. By the age of 41, she moved 32 times and lived in five different states.
Her manic episodes would be followed by horrible episodes of depression. For a while, she became a cutter. She thought about going down a dangerous alley in hopes that someone would murder her. She wished that someone would run her over when she walked out onto a street. Once after a release from a voluntary commitment where she received brief inpatient care for starving herself and wanting to die, she curled up in a ball and wailed for days and thought of nothing but dying.
Mrs. Andrews first went to seek medical help for her condition when she was 25 and the psychiatrist she saw gave her multiple diagnoses including generalized anxiety with panic attacks, major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, PTSD, and anorexia. The psychiatrist prescribed antidepressants, but she had fears of taking medication because of addictive behaviors when she was a teen. Her symptoms including cycles of mania and depression continued as she went on and off her medication for the next 6 years.
At 31, she was diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder and an antidepressant and a mood stabilizer began to give her some relief. She has stayed committed to those medications. She came to understand that her body has a chemical imbalance and she needs medications to help her brain work properly.
NAMI Spokane played a critical role in Mrs. Andrews’ recovery. She went through what was at that time a 12-week course designed for people with mental health conditions to learn about their brains and conditions. As part of the course, other people with mental health conditions talked about their conditions openly. That was the first time Mrs. Andrews had experienced that kind of openness and she found it eye-opening and inspiring. It helped her realize that she didn’t have to hide her illness either, but could talk about it without shame. She also learned more about how the brain works and that helped her accept herself as she is, including the realization that she needed to take her medication regularly.
Mrs. Andrews still experiences smaller waves of bipolar symptoms as well as related symptoms like anxiety. The difference now is she knows how to manage her waves and she works hard at keeping them relatively small. She sees a medication manager regularly and a therapist. She deals with physical chronic illnesses as well and her symptoms combined are not reduced to the level where she can hold a job. She applied for and qualified for disability in 2010. However, Mrs. Andrews does see herself as a success story. She no longer has the huge waves that once dominated her life and led her to undertake risky behaviors, which also put other people at risk. In addition, she is able to make a contribution to society. She went through training to be a teacher of what is now NAMI’s 8-week education course for people who live with mental health conditions and feels she is helping those people lead improved lives. Every time she teaches that class, she learns something new about her illness or her brain. She is also trained as a facilitator for an ongoing support group for people with mental health conditions. When she facilitates that group she feels good about herself because she is able to support others as a peer.
Another way Mrs. Andrews feels that her life is a success is because she married in 2016 and her husband is very supportive of her. She didn’t think she would be able to make it to that stage in her life. They see a marriage therapist regularly so they can improve communication and support each other well.
Mrs. Andrews also feels lucky that she has had supportive people throughout her journey with her mental condition. She lived with her sister and other family for a while who did all they could to support her. While she was living with her sister, she had a friend who would spend hours a day talking with her and helping her sort out her chaotic mind. This friend was a peer and an advocate for her. Currently, she has individual therapy and a network of friends that she can lean on when she needs extra help.
Overall, Mrs. Andrews feels that her continued journey of success is the result of key support people, NAMI Spokane, and a commitment to her medications.
Shamra Andrews is currently a volunteer with NAMI Spokane. She teaches peer-to-peer classes that provide education for people with mental health conditions and helps facilitate the monthly support group for people who have mental health conditions.
Emalee Gillis is a writer and blog editor. She is the author of the memoir Adventures on the Path to Living Well with a Mental Illness and has a related TEDx Talk.