By Emalee Gillis, NAMI Spokane Blog Editor.
Ten years ago, Scott Bowmer, currently from Spokane, faced a key moment in his journey with a mental health condition. He was on a merchant ship that was sailing near Korea. His job was to help drive the ship. He wasn’t sleeping much and was full of energy. At the same time, he was suffering from bouts of depression. When he started having suicidal ideations on board the ship, Bowmer knew he had to tell his captain. Bowmer and the captain skyped with a contracted doctor who said it sounded like a manic episode. Bowmer was told that he had to leave the ship.
The shipping company flew a couple of paramedics to Korea and they concluded that Bowmer needed to go to a behavioral health hospital. Bowmer flew to Seattle where he was admitted to Fairfax Behavior Health Hospital for ten days. That was where Bowmer heard the word bipolar for the first time. He had never heard of it before.
Bowmer did not fight the diagnosis. Instead, he accepted it and worked with the staff to learn how to cope with his illness. At the hospital, he was given medication that he took without dispute. He went to individual therapy and group therapy and found it helpful. He exercised every day and went to meetings where speakers presented important information like how to effectively communicate. He liked the staff and found them very helpful.
Bipolar was not the first mental health diagnosis Bowmer had received. Seven years before the incident on the ship, he was diagnosed with depression. His depression was kicked off by a rough situation Bowmer was in after his daughter was born. The child’s mother didn’t want to let Bowmer be a part of his daughter’s life. At that time, he began taking medications for depression and saw a therapist.
In retrospect, Bowmer can see that the first time he was manic was about two years before the ship incident, right after his Dad passed away. He wasn’t sleeping much and was being reckless including with his driving. The episode died down on its own but started again two years later when he was in between shifts at the merchant ship. He worked four months on, two months off. When he was on land he found himself getting very little sleep, walking most of the night, and feeling very restless. At the time, he didn’t realize that he was manic, so he reported to work at the ship. When he left the ship just a short time later it would be the last time Bowmer set foot on a merchant marine vessel. His medication precluded him from going back to work in the merchant marine.
The period after his discharge was very rocky. He didn’t have income and didn’t have a place to live. He stayed with his brother for a few months only to be homeless again after his brother moved to Spokane and began living with his mother and there was no room for him. Bowmer approached the Union Gospel Mission in Spokane and was able to live there for a while. While he was living with the Union Gospel Mission, he had another bout with mania even though he was taking his medications regularly. The doctors hadn’t found the right mix, yet.
Bowmer was admitted to the psychiatric ward of the VA hospital. After his discharge, he was able to get a space in a group veteran’s home run by Pioneer Services. While he was at the group home, he went to therapy every week and followed all doctors’ orders. Pioneer Services helped fill out the necessary paperwork for disability although it was going to take a while. After six months, even though he was trying so hard to stay stable, Bowmer had another manic episode. This one turned into full-blown psychosis and he doesn’t remember a day and a half of that incident. He was told later that he was being very unruly and wouldn’t follow instructions. He remembers waking up in an ambulance and being told that he was going back to the Fairfax Hospital in Seattle.
When he checked out of the Fairfax Hospital, he was given a bus ticket back to Spokane and went back to the Union Gospel Mission. He was fortunate that his disability application had been approved so he had income again. He started looking for a more permanent place to live. With his disability income, he made too much money to qualify for subsidized housing. At first, he lived in a long-stay hotel and eventually found an apartment to live in where he continues to live at this time.
Bowmer continued to work hard to stay healthy. He took his medications and went to therapy. He exercised regularly. The mix of all he was doing to stay healthy worked and Bowmer hasn’t had another bout with mania in the past five years. But Bowmer said that the real break with his journey to live with a mental health condition occurred when he discovered NAMI Spokane. At NAMI, Bowmer found others who live with mental health conditions and learned from them. His mother and brother also went to the family support group that NAMI organizes and they learned how to work together to help him live with his illness.
In NAMI, Bowmer also found purpose. He began volunteering and deepened his role with NAMI over time. He eventually went to training to learn how to lead the support groups for people living with a mental health condition. He also trained to learn how to teach the eight week peer-to-peer training program and co-leads that effort twice a year. In addition, he still leads two peer support groups a month and is a speaker for NAMI In Our Own Voice program. He has also volunteered at the VA.
Bowmer still has lingering depression, but his medication helps him. He has tried to find part-time work, but found it too overwhelming. He is not able to go back to the merchant marine. He hopes that someday he might be able to work at least part-time again, but for now feels good that he is making a contribution to others through his volunteer work.
One of the challenges that Bowmer thinks veterans have when dealing with a mental health condition is the military provides a very structured daily schedule as well as a built-in social life. It is hard to go from that much structure to regular life.
Bowmer feels like one of the reasons he was able to accept his illness and treatment so readily is he had an uncle who lived with a mental illness and he saw how he was helped by medications and treatment. For years, his uncle suffered and was repeatedly hospitalized until he found the right recipe for wellness and hasn’t been in a hospital for twenty years. Bowmer hopes that he can serve as a role model for others like his uncle did before him.
Scott Bowmer is a former Merchant Marine. His volunteer work with NAMI includes co-leading peer support groups, co-leading eight week education programs for those who live with a mental health condition, and giving presentations as part of NAMI’s In Our Own Voice program.
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.