Episode 45 Transcript

Published: Thursday May 2, 2024

Mental Health Awareness Month | Breaking the Stigma

Living with Bipolar: Managing Mental Well-being


Alycia Anderson: Welcome to Pushing Forward with Alycia, a podcast that gives disability a voice. Each week we will explore topics like confidence, ambition, resilience and finding success against all odds. We are creating a collective community that believes that all things are possible for all people.

Open hearts. Clear paths. Let’s go.

Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I’m Alycia Anderson. It’s May, and it’s Mental Health Awareness Month.

Millions of Americans experience some type of mental health condition each year. The numbers are trending up. One in five of us, 23%. And, this is a very important conversation to create some space and some awareness and to disable some of that ableism that is surrounding it constantly.

I want to first start off with a quote from our guest today.

The mind is a powerful force striving for survival.

My guest is close to my heart. She’s my beautiful sister-in-law, Marty’s sister, Peggy Sellery.

She is an MIT and Columbia graduate. Yep, she is the smarty pants of our family.

She’s an entrepreneur. She’s the founder of No Guesswork SAT Prep & Tutoring courses that she gives.

She’s doing all kinds of advocacy around mental health. She’s here to share her story. She’s chosen to be very vulnerable in this space.

What’s made you want to come on and share your story about all this?

Peggy Sellery: Well, I have to say I’m like #1 fan of Pushing Forward with Alycia. One of my favorite parts of the podcast is the intro, where you say this is a podcast that gives disability a voice, and I think it absolutely does.

I am someone who has lived with a disability for half of my life and before that disability and living with the challenges and victories that come with disability has been a big part of my life. As from the time I can remember, because Marty’s accident was when I was three months old.

So, I’m excited to give my disability a voice here today because that in and of itself has been a journey for me. I haven’t always given my disability a voice and for much of the time when I did, it was a mean and nasty and negative voice.

It took me a very long time to build a voice for my disability and for myself that was powerful and strong and loving and accepting. And, I think that’s something we should all aspire to do.

Alycia Anderson: I think that creates a space and a path for some of our listeners to understand that mental health is a part of this conversation and might bring some awareness and acceptance in their own path with it. So, I appreciate that.

Can You share your journey in the overcoming and acceptance and of your disability and your mental health journey.

Peggy Sellery: Yes, I’d be honored to. I really can’t speak about my mental health journey without speaking about the evolution of my identity.

I would say that I’m an optimistic, hopeful person. That’s just who I am.

And for the first good chunk of my life, I didn’t have any, like, depression or anxiety despite growing up in a family that had its fair share of tragedy and heartache and hardship. I think that probably speaks to the immense amount of love in our family, but I think it also speaks to just kind of my natural predisposition towards life growing up.

I was the youngest of nine kids. My first and foremost identity was youngest of nine. That’s who I thought of myself as all growing up and well, well into my adulthood. I just thought of myself as this kind of like tag along to the rest of my family. More of like an observer watching it.

Growing up my mom was a single mom and she had a lot on her plate beyond just taking care of nine kids by herself. She had two disabled kids who required a lot of time and medical attention. And so, I just kind of got used to just like being quiet and observing. Like I said.

It wasn’t until I started school that I really started to get the light shining on me a little bit in my own right. School was just always very naturally easy to me, and once I started bringing home all of these straight A’s and 99th percentiles on standardized tests.

It was suddenly not just Peggy and youngest of nine. It was Peggy Ann like 4.0 student!

And I think my family pinned a lot of hopes and expectations on me. Because we had hardship and heartache and this was something that was exciting and like, look at Peggy Ann, she’s gonna be such a wild success.

And there is nothing wrong with like wanting great things for me, but I think I internalized a lot of those expectations. And, I unknowingly at first put a lot of pressure on myself.

Long story short, I ended up when I finally went to college… I went to MIT and I kind of had my first shift in everything when I went to study abroad my junior year, second semester, junior year of college.

It was the first time I didn’t really have any pressure to perform. There were no expectations of me. I just kind of traveled around Europe on my euro pass, and took sculpture classes and wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote.

I’ve always been a writer and it was the first time I could really tap into that side, that creative side of myself. So, I came home from Italy and started senior year and that is when I would say the real change started to happen in me. I was watching all of my friends line up these very fancy jobs and I started to get this sort of anxiety and fear that I had never experienced before.

That, oh my gosh, I’m not going to get into med school.

Looking back, it was not a very rational fear because I had great grades and great test scores and I would have gotten into med school, but in my mind, I was like, I can’t live up to these… live up to these expectations.

And I moved home, within a couple of days I broke out in full body hives. Just the pressure that I was putting on myself and this crisis of identity that this person I was expecting myself to be, I can’t be that person. And what do I do?

And so, I spiraled down a little bit at that point until I grasped onto this idea, I’ve always wanted to write a book about my family. I’m going to apply to writing school. And I got into Columbia, the MFA program for nonfiction creative writing, and I went to New York in 2000. Basically, planning on writing a New York best… New York Times bestseller, making my family famous, making like our story validated in the world.

And that was just another form of pressure that I put upon myself. And it was another set of expectations that I eventually came to find out. I couldn’t really realize in that space and time.

That time period, after I left New York and was working on my thesis. This… that’s when I started tutoring just as kind of a side gig, but that span of about 10 years, I really suffered greatly with depression and eventually the mania started.

The mind is a powerful force that’s striving for survival.

We said, right, I think that my mind was dealing with the pressure and the anxiety and this sense of danger to myself that I couldn’t live up, and my mind just sort of immobilized. That’s actually a psychology theory called the polyvagal theory. That depression isn’t actually like a failure of normal functioning. It’s actually like a very important defense mechanism for the mind to deal with this perceived danger by just sort of immobilizing.

And I immobilized for a very long time and the mania, I think, was also a defense mechanism for me because the depression was this period of extreme hopelessness and worthlessness and mania is the opposite of that, exact opposite.

It’s like hyper hopefulness and hyper excitement and feeling invincible like you can do anything. And, I think my mind needed to overcorrect from this deep depression that I was in for years and years, and once that door opened with the mania, it’s sort of like kept opening.

Alycia Anderson: How does that show up?

Peggy Sellery: It just showed up at first in strange ways. I ran for president against Barack Obama in 2008. I believed that I was going to, like, help the world.

And it was looking back like an odd, weird thing. Everybody around me knew it was an odd, weird thing, but when you’re manic, it’s like that it makes complete sense. It’s when you come down from the mania that you start to deal with the ramifications of your behavior and your like relationships with people.

It’s a strange thing to live the rest of your life knowing that these moments of hypomania and mania can pop up, and this is actually one of the misconceptions I’d like to address… with… the difference between hypomania and mania.

So, if we think about the human experience as a pendulum swinging, we all have highs, happy times, we all have lows, sad times. That’s not unusual to be a.. that’s like what happens when you’re a human, right?

When you have bipolar disorder, though, that swinging pendulum going back and forth between happy and sad, it has a wider swing. So, your sad times are clinically depressive times and your happy times are clinically manic times. But there’s a… there’s a time before you get to that clinically manic time, when you’re going past the normal range of happy into what’s called hypomania, it’s like a baby mania.

It’s not like you’re off the rails. It’s not like you’re running for president. It’s not like you’re crazy.

It’s a time when you’re just needing less sleep, you’re feeling more naturally energized. You’re feeling naturally hopeful and creative. And for me, those times when I’m hypomanic are really the times when I actually feel like myself. I’m kind of in a sweet spot where I feel great and I feel productive and I feel powerful.

And in my life, I’ve had people think that I’m manic because I’m hypomanic and it really… it’s an unhelpful, unproductive interpretation of the state that I’m in.

When people look at me that way.

Alycia Anderson: You’re listening to Pushing Forward with Alycia. We will be right back.


Alycia Anderson: Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I’m Alycia Anderson. It’s Mental Health Awareness Month. My guest is Peggy Sellery.

You said the word bipolar and you said you were talking about your identity.

I don’t believe at the beginning that we said that is the diagnosis. And, you speaking to the layers of what the lived experience looks like is so important.

So, can you speak to like how you kind of overcome some of these things?

Peggy Sellery: I think that when it first started happening, I was not aware what was happening. I didn’t know anybody that had bipolar disorder. I had a sense that something was off. Even in those moments when I felt invincible and felt like I could conquer the world.

It was still like a… like, I was kind of seeing myself from the outside in flashes and recognizing this feels a little bit weird, and it was always me who brought myself to the hospital. And, it’s a strange thing because I think the system as it is… is not geared towards helping people with mental health problems and especially people in a mental health crisis.

Really, the people who are in a mental health crisis can either go to jail or they can go to the hospital.

That’s the option, and I’ve always had to talk myself into the hospital, which is not the experience most people have. But, I’m grateful for that experience and for the awareness that I’ve had throughout the course of my bipolar disorder, because I don’t think I…, I don’t think most people are as lucky to have that awareness.

Alycia Anderson: And that is one of the most powerful things that I’ve ever seen anyone in my entire life that I know take ownership and control of, and make decisions where you’re like caring for yourself.

And you’re like, no, I’m here. I need help.

You know, there needs to be some reeducation and realignment on the entire diagnosis probably, and not even the diagnosis… like the care of it. The system, right?

Peggy Sellery: Yeah. And I don’t think it applies only to people with bipolar disorder.

Alycia Anderson: 100%.

Peggy Sellery: For sure. Also, I think part of the way that I’ve managed my bipolar disorder is doing a lot of work.

When I initially went into the hospital the first time was in 2008. A year later, I went into the hospital again. Six months later, I went into the hospital again. Then three months later, then a month and a half later, then three weeks later, then a week and a half later… then four days later.

I’ve been to the hospital a total of eight times in a manic state, and as a scientist watching that timeline progress, it was extremely scary for me. Feeling like this is the definition of a half-life and it was scary. It was so scary.

And when I got out, my husband Justin. At that time, he recognized that I needed help more than I could give myself. He completely dropped his life down in California. I was living in Washington at the time. He packed his albums into his car and he packed up his car and he came up and never really left me again.

And I, took it upon myself to sign myself into an outpatient treatment where I learned a lot of tools like CBT and DBT.

Then it was sort of kismet, but I ended up getting pregnant with our daughter and that really…, like Justin saved my life by coming to me honestly, and then my daughter saved my life by giving me a purpose that was outside of myself.

I couldn’t stay in bed endlessly when I was depressed, I had to get out of bed.

I basically chose to use the tools, day-to-day, use medicine… use the things that were like…, available to me and make the choice to get better and it took a long time.

I think…, I think calm begets calm, and chaos begets chaos.

When I was in those really unstable times, going in and out of the hospital. All the time it was chaos in my life, and it only produced more chaos. But the more time I could get under my belt, that was calm and I was taking care of myself. I got more and more calm in my life.

I still struggle with the ups and downs and the swing of the pendulum. I have been managing my bipolar disorder for 23 years, and I’m 47 now.

So, I have gotten pretty good at it. I can recognize when I’m getting depressed and I force myself to do things that will make me feel better.

Alycia Anderson: These are the stories that we need to be sharing on podcasts like this and louder and louder because it’s the story of overcoming adversity, but getting to the other side of it and like having just triumph.

Peggy Sellery: I agree.

Another thing, just a quick, quick, brief thing I’d like to mention, is that we don’t hear enough stories of triumph. You’re right.

And what we… what we generally hear is just the stigma.

We hear and we see people who are struggling with mental health, and I think it’s hard for people to see other people struggling in their in their minds.

And while I want to be acknowledged for doing the work.

I also want to be acknowledged for the challenges that I continually deal with.

Alycia Anderson: Absolutely.

Peggy Sellery: It’s a weird thing that I would say I experience a sense of loss not being able to experience mania anymore. But it’s true, like I… maybe it can really kind of burn your life down. If you get legal troubles, you deal with those for months and months and months.

If you get in… like I’ve given all my money away when I was in a manic state.

I can’t be giving all my money away my husband would lose his mind, you know. I can’t be risking my family and my… the stability and wellness of my family for the full experience of my bipolar disorder.

But it’s a weird thing to almost want to experience the full range of who I am.

When I listen to yours and Marty’s podcast on disability pride… if you haven’t heard this one, go look it up July 2023.

I literally bawled because I heard something for the very first time that made me feel like it’s OK, and actually wonderful for me to be who I am.

And who I am as a person with my bipolar disorder, who I am, is a person with this very, very wide swing on my pendulum. I just feel sometimes like there’s a loss in not being able to have my full creativity. When I believe that my creativity is very entwined in my… in quotes, disability.

I read recently that Beethoven was suspected to have bipolar disorder because he would go through periods where he couldn’t write anything at all, and then he would write maniacally. Literally, running out of paper and writing all over the walls, he was writing so much.

Imagine if we had told Beethoven, “Take your medicine. You’re getting a little bit out of control.”

We wouldn’t have the Fifth Symphony, if that makes sense.

Alycia Anderson: It absolutely makes sense, and I think that it’s really beautiful that you’re claiming all of those layers of identity and lifting them up into a powerful place that literally is not… is not built for us.

And, I think that you’ve done a really, really, really good job of managing the pendulum on both ends, and you are creative.

And, speaking of creativity. I want to end this podcast with your program that you are implementing in May…, now…, called, Let’s See Love Today.

Peggy Sellery: I came up with the idea for this initiative, Let’s See Love Today, this fall.

I live in Boise, Idaho and we in our community here tragically saw a dramatic increase in the number of youth suicides. And it’s really kind of rocked everybody. I have felt it very… like… hit home very hard in my own life. And, during the process of dealing with this epidemic of sorts of suicides amongst youth.

Boise…, the City of Boise brought in an organization called Communities for Youth, and they did some surveys with the youth and found that the two driving factors of depression and suicidality are: too much stress and not enough authentic social connection.

I came up with this idea for, Let’s See Love Today.

There’s a movement where people will paint rocks with joyful little designs and hide them around town. If you find it, it just kind of makes your day a little bit, right?

So, I thought about these painted rocks and thought let’s make some decorated toy sunglasses, and the idea is you’d find the glasses and it would be a little reminder that we all need to look at ourselves and each other through a lens of love.

And so, I’m working with a club called Sources of Strength at North Junior High in Boise.

North lost a few kids to suicide this year, and so it’s very close to their hearts that we’re spreading this message, and I’m hoping that it doesn’t just stay in Boise, that it spreads out anywhere and everywhere.

Alycia Anderson: I’m so proud of you. Are you ready to move to your pushing forward moment?

Peggy Sellery: I’m a big fan of the podcast, as I’ve said, I’ve been thinking about my pushing forward moment for a while.

Alycia Anderson: Let’s hear it.

Peggy Sellery: If there’s anything I can impart to all of you out there, it’s that your self-talk, if it’s not making you feel empowered and amazing, then it’s just noise and we can’t listen to the noise.

Alycia Anderson: This was such a powerful conversation Peggy.

Like, I love you so much. I’m so proud of your journey. It’s so powerful.

You’re amazing. You are beautiful.

And I just really appreciate you being as vulnerable as you were and sharing your story today.

Thank you for wanting to do this.

Peggy Sellery: I am so happy. I love you so much. I’m so proud of you and Marty and all of the work that you are doing.

Alycia Anderson: Your first episode is done! You did it. Congratulations.

Thank you for being here and thank you to our listeners for joining this conversation.

This has been Pushing Forward with Alycia and that is how we roll on this podcast.