By Emalee Gillis, NAMI Spokane Blog Editor.

Kristin Bonser’s journey to live well with bipolar disorder has spanned a decade, but she is now stable enough to relaunch her career as a teacher in Spokane.

Kristin can trace the beginnings of her illness to when she was 15. She struggled with depression which affected her mood and her interest in eating. However, she managed well enough to make it through high school, and at 18, she started college at Eastern Washington University where she was studying to be a teacher.

“I had a passion for teaching that goes back as far as I can remember,” she said. “I loved school, I loved learning, and I knew I wanted to become a teacher one day.”

In 2012, while she was attending EWU, her emotions started amping up. For three weeks she went on as little as two or three hours of sleep.

“I was euphoric,“ Kristin said. “I thought I could do anything. I wanted to sing at my brother’s wedding even though I couldn’t sing. I was talking about running outside naked.”

Kristin became delusional and paranoid. Her boyfriend at the time called an ambulance because she was not coherent enough to go to the hospital on her own. She was admitted to Sacred Heart Hospital’s psychiatric ward and stayed there for 30 days. Kristin’s Mom, Lauri Bonser, found this period in her daughter’s journey particularly challenging. Lauri had difficulty getting any information from the doctors since her daughter was an adult and her stay was involuntary.

“I felt helpless,” Lauri said.

After 30 days, Kristin was still somewhat delusional, so the doctor recommended a transfer to Eastern State Hospital, a large psychiatric hospital near Spokane.

Lauri remembers telling the doctor, “That’s not going to happen.”

Instead, Lauri convinced the doctors that she could take care of Kristin at their home in Lacey, Washington. Lauri immediately got busy and found a psychiatrist and counselor in the Lacey area who could care for Kristin. Kristin left Sacred Heart Hospital with two possible diagnoses: bipolar I or schizophrenia.

Kristin took off time from school and focused on her healing in Lacey for six months. While living in Lacey, Kristin’s diagnosis became firm. She was diagnosed with Bipolar I. Her parents, grandparents, siblings, and childhood friends all stepped up to try and support Kristin.

The medications caused challenges for Kristin. She gained a great deal of weight. Kristin said she tried to offset the weight gain by watching her diet closely. She was not supposed to drink alcohol while on the medications, so she tried to stop drinking. She didn’t like the side effects of the medications including how they made her feel, so she had a hard time staying on them. She switched medications several times.

After six months of hard work, in January of 2013, Kristin returned to school to continue her studies to become a teacher.

“My passion for wanting to teach pushed me to finish my degree no matter what got in my way,” she said.

However, at college, Kristin struggled with taking meds and not drinking. A year later, she was in trouble with drinking and had to take another break from college.

She enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous and became sober. During this period, she was more able to take her medications regularly.

“I was really working on myself,” she said.

Kristin returned to school in 2014 and found it much more difficult. She was diagnosed with ADHD. It took her nine months to pass the teacher certification exams.

In 2015, she started student teaching and got a full-time position as a fourth-grade teacher with the Spokane Public School District. Since then, she has taught a variety of grade levels.

After college, Kristin’s life went very well. She managed her illness. She met the love of her life, CJ McGreevy, and they had their first child. Her teaching career was very rewarding.

“Teaching always gave me purpose,” Kristin said. “It was and is a tough job but it always felt like what I was meant to do.”

After the birth of their second child, things fell apart again. With the new baby, Kristin wasn’t getting enough sleep. Her body chemistry changed and her medications no longer worked. She missed the signs of another bipolar episode because she attributed her symptoms to the challenges of having a new baby and postpartum depression.

A decade after her first psychotic break, Kristin had a second psychotic episode and was hospitalized in Spokane in September of 2022. She went into a paranoid delusional state.

“I thought someone was trying to break into our house and hurt my children,” she said.

After a two-week hospitalization, she got better very quickly. She started new medications which helped.

“I wanted to go home and be with my baby and my family,” said Kristin. “I did everything I could do to get out. However, the moment I walked out the hospital doors, the depression came back.”

Her parents helped with the children while Kristin focused on her health. Her loving partner, CJ,  took the lead and became her new primary support person. According to Kristin, he has always been very supportive and tried to be there for her in any way he could. He read Bipolar for Dummies cover to cover.

“I am here,”  CJ said. “I try my best every day to just be her biggest supporter and her loving partner. Sometimes I don’t always know if what I am doing is actually making a difference for her but I just make sure to show up for her whenever she needs me as best I can. “

As her health improved, Kristin again took full-time care of her children. A turning point happened in July of 2023 when her youngest daughter turned a year old. Kristin became involved with NAMI first as a participant in a support group, and then as a trained facilitator.

“I really got into writing,” said Kristin. “I love poetry and journaling. I started sharing my struggles with anyone who cared.”

Kristin does not believe bipolar defines her, but it is a part of who she is.

“To have to hide it doesn’t seem fair to me or anyone else,” said Kristin. “Society has painted a very negative picture of what mental illness looks like. I want to paint the picture of the beauty that can come from a mentally ill person. NAMI helped me share a new idea of what this illness looks like.”

Kristin has been off work for a year and is preparing to relaunch her teaching career.

“I have fear of returning to the classroom after having been out for over a year now,” said Kristin, “but I crave that purpose and I miss feeling like I was making a difference in these young lives.”

To offset her concerns with the stress of teaching, she is working with her psychiatrist and counselor to come up with accommodations that will increase her chance of success. She is also open to exploring other areas for employment.

“Keys to my success include support from family and friends, support groups, medication, therapy, exercise, and sleep,” Kristin said.

In 2022, Kristin decided to stop hiding her illness. She felt that if people in her life couldn’t accept her illness, she didn’t want them to be part of her life. She discovered that she didn’t have to kick any out of her circle. The people she told accepted her for who she is.

“I used to have a heaviness that I had to save face all the time,” said Kristin. “I have a different perspective now. It helps me accept my own illness if I can share it and be supported by others.”