depression, bipolar and honesty: a candid interview

[If you'd like to hear an audio of this interview, click HERE.] 

Becky McCoy: “I am here with Amanda Phillips, and we met at a writer’s conference last year, right?”

Amanda Phillips: “We did! Last summer; almost exactly a year ago!”

B: I was so overwhelmed. My complete introvertedness was severely challenged that week, because there are, like, thousands of women at this conference, and Amanda comes running over, and was just like, ‘Hi! Hi! I’ve been wanting to meet you!’ and I was trying to go through my Rolodex really fast, but my brain was melting, and then I figured out who you were.”

A: “Yeah, I’m a lot. I used to be an introvert, if you can even believe that.”

B: “No, I cannot! So, let’s talk a little bit! This is the mental illness series of this podcast, so why don’t you explain a little bit about how your symptoms and diagnoses might be different or similar to those with the same diagnosis.”

A: “Totally! I’ll try to make this SparkNotesy, because it can be a long story. I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder when I was a sophomore in college, and the way that happened – it was my first diagnosis – so Major Depressive Disorder just means that you have what are called Major Depressive Episodes. I’m also a counselor now, so I’ve learned more about the science behind it and can actually tell people about it a little better. So, you have a depressive episode, or a persistent depressed mood, or inability to be engaged in life, all these things – for two weeks – it has to last that long; it really has to linger.

So I had all of that, but we all thought it was grief because I had a friend who had passed away tragically at the time – except it wouldn’t go away. I was flunking out of classes and I was a pretty good student. It was all stuff that didn’t make sense. I just didn’t care about school; I couldn’t care. I couldn’t care about the things that I knew that I liked; it was really strange.

Since I was in college at the time, I was living in a community of friends; I was away from my family, so no one really had any context for it. I ended up going to my college’s Health Services center and getting a referral for a Major Depression diagnosis, and was actually struggling at the time with some pretty heavy suicidal ideation – it was a super dark time. I actually ended up taking some time off to go home for counseling and treatment and started meds, but it never really got all the way better with medication. The suicidal stuff, that went away – that was an isolated period for me, but the depressive symptoms, I would have periods, still, even after the diagnosis and medication, where I wouldn’t want to engage or be social. I would be irritable with people, things that weren’t really characteristic of me and it was hard because it was so contrary to who I really knew I was.

So I did different medications for years, and really struggled to find one that took care of it. And I did the rest of college like that, and then I moved to North Carolina to do a Master’s program in School Counseling, and people were like, “Oh, you had depression and decided to be a counselor!”  -- No, I was laying in bed all day and was binge-watching Friday Night Lights and wanted to be Tami Taylor. That’s why I applied to those programs; because I wanted to be Tami Taylor. It was all a big accident. But I went to grad school, was still super depressed, was on a lot of medication, and I was 21 that fall – so early 20’s. And I started seeing new symptoms, like that I wouldn’t need to sleep at night. Or I’d sleep for an hour. I’d have elevated moods with a lot of energy, which was new, and it felt really nice compared to being depressed and wanting to sleep all the time. I’d have these periods where I’d, like, not max out a credit card, but I’d drop a lot of money shopping or one time I drove from Denver to Virginia without sleeping – things that were like, “Hmm…what’s this?”

And I was actually in a class on mental health in schools and we went over the symptoms of this thing called Bipolar Type II, and my roommate and I were like, ‘Huh, these are all really similar to what’s happening right now’ and I actually went to my psychiatrist and was like, ‘I don’t know, man, what about this?’ – because he hadn’t seen the hypomania stuff before. So I’m diagnosed now with Bipolar Type II, so that’s similar to Bipolar Type I – but the manic stuff that you hear about with Bipolar Type I is a lot more subdued, at least it is in my life. So we just added on some medication to cater to that part, and it was like everything clicked again. I could experience a normal range of emotions again, and wasn’t depressed and despondent all the time – it really, really helped. It just took a long time to figure it out. It took a lot of different doctors and a lot of different medications, but then once we got the right name on it and had a little more explanation for things, that’s when I could go from, ‘the meds aren’t working and I’m broken’ to ‘oh, THIS is what it is. THIS is how you treat that,’ and it made everything make a lot more sense.”

B: “So, how would you say, because I think especially with depression and bipolar, people automatically have a thought in their head that they think they understand what that means. So, why don’t you explain what major depressive disorder and bipolar look like for YOU?”

Amanda: Yeah, so the thing with Major Depressive Disorder is that you’re diagnosed with that only if you’ve never had a manic or hypomanic episode. Like, if it’s just depression, you have MDD. But then when you add in mania or hypomania to that, that’s when you go over to Bipolar Type I or II. That to say, with Bipolar Type II, which is my current deal, you still experience bouts of depression, but you have the ‘up’ moments, too.

In my life, it’s kind of like when I wasn’t medicated, it was a lot of numbness. I think people think that depression means that you’re really sad; it’s not quite that, it’s more that you just can’t feel anything. And this is really hard to explain, but I’ll try. Even though I’m on a medication paradigm and I have a regular therapist, and I have friends who know about this and I have a great support system, and I have a really intense wellness plan that involves nutrition and sleep and fitness and self-care and centering activities – sometimes I still get depressed. Like, still. And I think that is so hard for people to understand, because normally I’m so lively and vivacious and doing things.”

B: “Right, like ‘Aren’t you fixed, Amanda? You’re taking meds!’”

A: Right! Like, ‘aren’t you better now?’ – and no; it’s a lifelong management thing. I still have depressive episodes, even with all of those things I do to try and NOT, and I think it’s been interesting for people to see that. I actually just had one; it lasted about two weeks, and I more or less disappeared from social media, I wasn’t really out and about, I didn’t really have the emotional energy to do my regular coffee dates with friends, all the things -- like I just couldn’t function. I just wanted to be in the bed ALL the time, and people were like, ‘…YOU?’ and I’d be like, ‘YES’ – it’s like if you got a physical diagnosis; and I don’t like to compare two things like this, but if you got a diagnosis for cancer or something, you’d have to reevaluate the way that you take care of yourself. It’s kind of the same thing here. You have to reevaluate.

And so people were used to seeing me on Instagram stories or whatever, like, ‘Oh, Amanda, she’s running around with all the energy, doing all the things!’ and when I slipped into my recent depressed mood, people didn’t get [the shift]. The best way I can explain it is from a comic called Hyperbole and a Half. It’s an excellent resource from this girl Allie, she’s a blogger, and she has this cartoon where it compares depression to having goldfish – so people are watching me on Instagram, and they’re used to seeing me and my goldfish, how much fun me and my goldfish have – and then one day I was just like ‘my goldfish are dead’ – it’s almost like people would go, ‘oh…well, have you looked for them? Are they over there?’ and I’d say, ‘No, no, they’re dead’ – and then they’ll say things like, ‘oh, well goldfish are always the deadest before the dawn!’ or ‘well let’s make finger puppets out of them!’ or ‘well what about bees? Have you tried liking bees?’

And I’d be like, ‘why can’t anyone just acknowledge that my goldfish are dead?’

And that’s how I’ll explain it to people. I’ll say, “I don’t need you to try and make finger puppets; I just need to let you know that I’m struggling right now, and the best thing you can even say is just, ‘Man, let me know what you need.’”

B: “So, to everyone listening, if Amanda and I ever post a picture of a dead goldfish on social media, you know what’s up.”

A: “Well, I actually am afraid of goldfish. I just hate looking at them. I think they’re creepy. I don’t know, I’m a weirdo.”

B: “So at what point did you realize – you said with the bipolar part, you were in class and thought those symptoms sounded familiar, so with depression, how did you figure out that you weren’t just tired or sad or low? That this wasn’t just severe emotion? That this was actually something that needed help?”

A: “So for me, and I’m super open about this, because I think that’s important. So, I was in college, and I had struggled with stuff before – with difficult things before – but that semester, fall of my sophomore year, I had a friend from back home pass away very tragically, and I felt that grief and bereavement and all of that was there in August, but then we hit Halloween, and the other people who knew her had been able to, not go back to normal exactly, but they were going to class and watching them got my wheels turning. Also, it was such a deviation from my normal functioning in a way that made me very scared because I was basically a triple major – Biology and Spanish with a Neuroscience concentration – like, school was tough, but I could do it prior to then. But then that semester, I just could not handle things that I could normally handle, and it wasn’t just academics – it bled into my social life. I was a Young Life leader, and I knew that I loved that, I knew that I loved the high school kids that I got to mentor – but I just couldn’t, if that makes sense. I knew it was a thing that I was passionate about, but I just couldn’t feel that passion, and I couldn’t feel that passion for anything, and so I just stayed in my room and I slept all the time.

And I was sitting on my bed with my friend Kaitlin one time, and I was like, ‘Kait, don’t you go through Tuesday, and you just do the things you know you have to do to get through Tuesday so that you can get to Wednesday, and then you just do that again, you know what I mean?’ – and she said, ‘No, I don’t know what you mean.’ So it was kind of like knowing myself, and also getting some context from other people – like, ‘hey, is this just me?’. I’ve always been an open book person, so I’d check in, and even my suitemates would ask me if I’d thought about taking some time off, and luckily I was in a community that had even a little bit of context for how the things I was experiencing were not baseline for me, and the same thing happened when I got diagnosed with Bipolar Type II. And with that second diagnosis, I was much more excited about it, because I was like, ‘Hey, this finally explains it! This finally makes everything make sense!’  and I was super stoked about it.

But then I came down from that, and realized that when you tell someone that you have Bipolar Disorder, whether it’s Type I or II, that puts a bubble in their head, like, it’s just part of our society – they make an assumption, whether you like it or not, because we make those assumptions about everything, and I got a lot of strange reactions. I came back to school – I got diagnosed on spring break, and I was like, ‘hey, y’all! I have bipolar disorder’ – I was excited, and I know that sounds so strange, but after four years of med trials and and antidepressants not working, you start to develop some feelings of self-inadequacy, but this and the med changes that we made – oh my gosh, it’s like I could access my feelings in a healthy way again and I was so thankful for that. It was like being able to see again; it was like I was underwater and could come up for air again – I can’t tell you what a relief it was.

B: “And that’s what I always tell people. Like, ‘I know you don’t want to go on meds…’ but as soon as the meds got in my system, I felt like myself for the first time in a really long time, and I didn’t even realize that I hadn’t felt like myself, and was just a cloudy version of it.”

A: “Exactly. And I think I had been on…I can’t even tell you how many combinations of things before I found a thing that worked, and even when I found a thing that worked, I still had to make adjustments to it. It’s very high maintenance, but it had come to a point where I was like, ‘Well, I guess I’m just going to be tranqued out on these forever.’ But I was working at a camp one summer, and my bosses were like, ‘Hey, you don’t have to do this. You can go back to the doctor and tell them that this isn’t working. You have every right to say, ‘No, I think I can have a better quality of life than this.’ I think people, when they find out they might need medication [get scared], and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, the first one might be perfect, but it might take until the 10th one, and you have every right to have that process to find the thing that works just right. You don’t have to settle for whatever. You are worth that journey, that investment in yourself.”

B: “So for you, getting help looked like going to counseling, trying meds, and then you said figuring out all the different lifestyle changes that you could make?”

Amanda: “Yeah, just being honest with yourself. A lot of it, with medications especially, you just have to be super vigilant about your life. Like I know that when I am in a season that’s more hectic, and if there are more stressors that are going to be present, I have to make an effort to have more downtime. I can’t just go-go-go-go go. I preach self-care as gospel to people even if their lives are the easiest things in the world, but you just have to figure out what you need and learn how to ask for it from yourself and from the people around you. I think that’s what it comes down to. So with my most recent depressive episode, all my friends were out at a bar on a Friday night, and I was like, ‘You know what, I don’t like to drink when I feel down, because it just doesn’t lead to anything good for me,’ and so I stayed in, and a couple of them came over to my house and we watched a movie. Part of my job right now is being at a lot of social stuff, and being around a lot of alcohol, but I know – like I know – that when I’m down, when I’m feeling depressed, I just shouldn’t touch it because it just doesn’t help. So you know, to an extent what makes you feel better and what makes you feel worse, and it can kind of suck, but it’s important. Imagine – and this is not hard for me, because I just did it – but imagine that you broke your arm, and it was just you – the people around you didn’t break their arms. But you’re in a cast, and you’re having to learn to write again with your other hand, and it’s painful, and the other people around you can write with whatever hand they want to, and so it’s really frustrating, but it’s like – hey, your arm is broken, and you have care for it. You don’t have to treat it like a handicap, and I absolutely don’t think my illness is a handicap. I think it’s my greatest superpower. All that to say, I know that when I was taking a certain kind of medication, I couldn’t touch alcohol at all, even if I was feeling alright, because it would counteract the medication. And I knew that if I skipped the gym that it would affect my mood – I knew that. It’s a lot of preventative care, but it’s also a matter of vigilance. When I was in that depressed mood, I had to remember that I don’t do well struggling in a vacuum, and that I had to tell my people.

To anyone listening, if you’re having a hard time, whether or not you have a diagnosis, PLEASE – FOR THE LOVE – tell your people. Even just that you’re having a hard time. And as they are able to, they’ll swoop in if you let them know what you need. I think the greatest thing for me is when people give me options, like, ‘hey, if you want me to come sit with you, I’ll come sit with you. If you want to come sit here, you can do that. If you don’t want any of that, let me know.

The hardest thing for me is when I’m feeling depressed and people are like, “well just come to this thing” – I want to be like, “hah, I would, but I don’t want to, because I’m tired” and that makes me feel awful, and like I’m disappointing people. I have really bad FOMO. I just love being around people, and that is so hard for me, because I just do not have it in me. I call it functional v. relational energy. When I’m depressed, I can get up and I can pull stuff off if I have to, but it is the bare minimum. And if you want to talk to me about anything else, even for 30 minutes, I just can’t; I just can’t be present for that. And it’s not anybody’s fault, it’s just because I am operating at a deficit. And it’s not because I don’t love the other person, or don’t want to do whatever the thing is, it is just truly that even with all the self-care I do, I’m just in a depressive swing. In this recent one, I had some stressful stuff at work, and really just minor stressors, and I truly believe that if I hadn’t been in a depressive swing, I would have been able to handle all of that just fine. But since it was phasing that way, I was running on fumes. And I just didn’t have the energy to be my relational self – the hardest part of depression for me is that I have to turn that off to just exist – and that sounds really morbid, it wasn’t a suicidal moment by any means – but I had to preserve every ounce of energy I could just to function, and that is terrifying when you thrive on extroversion.

B: So do you feel like you understand what triggers The Dark Place? When you feel like you’re at your worst?

A: It’s kind of a mixed bag for me. So I don’t know if my dark place is typical. So with the one I just had, nothing bad had happened. Nothing really triggered it. Sometimes, for me at least, it can just happen out of nowhere and I think that is the nature of bipolar type II; I think that Major Depressive Episodes can definitely happen from triggers – my first one did. This past summer was the three-year anniversary of my best friend’s murder, and I knew that was coming. I knew that day was coming, and that it was going to be a hard day, so I did a lot of preventative stuff and I shared that with people and made a list of her favorite stuff so we could do Maggie’s Favorite Things all day. And people were responsive to that – I talk about her all the time, so people knew all her favorite things anyway, so people said, “Sure, let’s go on a walk and do stuff you guys loved.” – So instead of that day being really hard and dark like it had been previously, instead of it sending me into the dark place, it ended up being a day where we celebrated her spirit.

So you do have to think ahead. People tell me all the time to watch Game of Thrones, but I’m a sexual assault survivor, so I really don’t want my leisure time to be watching a show that has a lot of that in it, you know? Like, I’m good. It’s about knowing yourself. I can go to dark places all by myself-- some people can handle stuff like that, and that’s fine, but I can’t, and that’s okay. There are just things that I have to stay away from, and that’s okay. I wouldn’t change all of this stuff because it’s allowed me to be a better understander of hardship for people, so it’s truly about being honest with myself. Do I need to take a nap right now, or do I need to go be around people? Do I need a distraction, or do I need a self-searching moment? I’ve learned a lot about how self-care and self-masking can look a lot alike but they’re different, and every person has a different relationship with them and way that they deal with things.

It’s a lot of work, and I’m super extra all by myself, especially when it comes to self-care and tyring to stay out of depression, but sometimes it just happens and it’s not your fault, and for me it came down to respecting myself enough to know that I needed to slow down and take care of the depressed moments when they do happen instead of just trying to run through them.”

Becky: “To what extent do you feel like dealing with a depressive disorder and bipolar has impacted your life in general, but also on a daily basis?”

Amanda: “I guess before I really had a handle on both of them, I felt like they made everything harder. But now that I have learned more about them, I don’t really see them as deficits. I see them as platforms to be open and share with people. I’ve spoken about it at medical schools, about my experience with the diagnostic process and timeline I had. I’ve spoken at my alma mater, and I write about it super openly. Maybe there’s criticism out there – when I worked for the public school system, there certainly was, so I left the public school system. I think that God picked this life out for me specifically, and that all of these things – depression included, but all of my difficult things, I don’t think any of them are accidents. And I think that part of reclaiming things that should maybe be dark and scary is remaining open about them, and the important thing for me there is having that openness after I have processed things, instead of going to the internet for therapy.

I’ll just say, ‘Hey, I’m struggling’ – but I won’t really say more than that until I’ve sat with that moment and gone through it and picked out what I need to learn from it. As far as daily life, I think it’s just made me be a more present presence for people. When I say, ‘How are you doing?’, I mean it. I want a whole essay. I don’t mean it the cute Southern way – how you’re doing really. I want to be like, ‘....are you fine? It’s okay if you’re not.’ So daily and in general, I think it’s made me focus on being an open person, because I think that invites other people who are struggling to be like, ‘oh my gosh, me too, I could use some help.’ And if I can’t help them, I try to connect them with someone who can, whether that’s a friend to have coffee with, or like, let’s go see a therapist, or go to this meeting.

I think it’s been a really cool avenue. You know those shows about mediums? I don’t even know if this works as an analogy, but I read this book by Brennan Manning – there was this play he referenced where this guy goes to a well to find a healer, because he wanted to be rid of this darkness and the healer said, ‘No, healing is not for you.’ And I’m a very spiritual person, and for years, I prayed and prayed and prayed, like, “God, why is this my life? Please, I don’t want to be depressed anymore. This is awful, this is painful, I hate it, it’s exhausting, it’s miserable; why would anyone want this?” And I prayed and prayed and prayed, and it stayed with me, and later in the play the guy is walking home and this dude tracks him down and says, “Hey, I need you to come with me. My daughter is in this cloud of darkness, and she will not listen to anyone, but she will listen to you.’ And so it talks about how that experience with darkness is truly a gift and I try to look at it that way or else it’s just too awful.

You could just dwell and ruminate on it if you want to, or you could find ways to turn it into a superpower. They’re both a lot of work. You just have to pick which one you want to do. That to say, sometimes, like in this recent funk, I went from doing great to just being in the bed. But that’s okay, and my job now is to look at that period, pull what I need to glean from it, and try to use it to help people – however that is going to look.

B: When you’re in the dark place, what encourages you most to get through that moment? What do you need?

A: I guess I need the freedom to say, ‘Hey, I’m in the dark place.’ And I just kind of do that, whether or not I have the freedom to. I just have to let people know. Hannah Brencher, she’s an author and a friend of mine, she writes about this and says that if you tell people that you are out sunbathing on the dock, but really you are suffering in the swamp, but they don’t know to look for you there…it’s about letting people know, ‘This is where I am. I don’t know how long it’ll last, but there you go.’ If people don’t know you’re struggling…how are they supposed to know? People might pick up on stuff, but they’re not mind-readers. That’s my first step.

The options are what’s most helpful, instead of pressure. And I tell people, ‘you don’t have to fix this. In fact, you can’t fix it. You don’t need to try and make it better, you just need to let me know that it’s okay that that’s where I am right now.’ I think people just don’t know what to say, or how to approach it.

Also, I go back to thinking, ‘Okay, I’ve been here before. I’ve gone through this before,’ and something that helps me is remembering that it’s the nature of my illness that the dark place is going to happen, but it’s also the nature of my illness that it cycles back out. When I was suicidal, I didn’t really have that notion that things would cycle back out. So things that were helpful there were knowing that there were resources, and knowing that there were people who were willing to help me do the work it took to get out of it. It’s always a learning experience, and it is always helpful to have people who are like, ‘Oh, you know what, we’re going to skip the bars and come watch a movie with you, and we don’t even have to talk.’

Thankfully, my tribe of people and my social supports are incredible, and I say all the time that the algorithm is off somewhere, but no one can tell God. I live three hours away from any family, and so I think my friends in South Carolina know that and so they swoop in, but I know that it is not like that for everybody. And I’m always thinking about that – like I have this crap diagnosis that was supposed to sideline me and didn’t, but not everyone has the resources that I do, and not everybody has these social supports, and not everybody has a job where they can just take time off if they need to. I’m always thinking bigger. I’m always thinking about how it’s not like this for everyone, and that’s what moves me into these advocacy platforms. Like, ‘let’s think about how to raise money for these groups that support people who don’t have organic supports, and let’s start a foundation, and let’s change the whole world, because why not? What else am I gonna do?

If you were talking to someone who was struggling with any mental illness, how would you want to encourage them through that?

A: I would just say, ‘I believe you. I believe that is a real thing for you. And it sucks, but it’s okay. It’s okay to struggle. Oh my goodness, it is okay to struggle. You don’t have to pretend like it’s not there, and you don’t have to put a bow on it. Some people aren’t going to understand it, and that’s okay, too. They just can’t. I didn’t understand it until I went through it. So do your best to try to find people who can, and let them know. Please don’t do it in a vacuum. People will do the best they can, and they may say some things that are unhelpful, and you can just say, ‘thank you for sharing’ – but just don’t listen to the voices that tell you to stop it or stuff it or white-knuckle it or just get over it – let me tell ya, ‘white-knuckle it’ was not a thing that either of my counseling Master’s degrees went over. It’s total crap, and it’s actually part of the problem. So stop white-knuckling it. Wave the white flag. I have so much urgency on this. I have so much urgency to find out a way where supports are easier to access, and especially more socially acceptable to access. That’s why I’ll make my Facebook status, ‘hey, I’m going to therapy today!’ or ‘hey, I’m depressed right now’ alongside all of the fun stuff, because you can actually have both and do both. You can have a full life, and struggle with depression. You can do both, and still thrive. You’re not gonna thrive all the time, I don’t. And people are like, ‘whoa, that’s interesting’ – because if I just showed that I get to go to restaurant openings and do all these fun things, that’s a lie, because I also get depressed. It’s both, and it’s okay.

I know that there are certain jobs and situations where it’s so taboo still, and not safe to talk about, so I’m over here like, ‘let’s find a way to bust up on all that.’ I call myself a troublemaker for that. I want to figure out how to change the world so that anybody struggling with anything feels safer to struggle out loud, because I think that’s what’s going to save and change lives. And that’s a very big mission statement. It’s actually a bad mission statement, because mission statements are supposed to be geared toward some target population, but no, my target population is every human being on the planet. So, take that. Who am I not to try and be the one to try and pull all of this off? And I’m not the only one working on it, but I’m very loud and for some reason, people listen to me, so I’m just gonna go with it. Why not? It sounds like fun, and it’s going well so far. I’m seeing my own openness and bravery being respected by other people, and I’m seeing things happen at age 26 that I never thought I’d pull off in my life.”

Becky: “A couple of fun questions for you before we go – what are you loving right now?”

A: “Definitely Diet Coke. I was off of it for a while, but I am back on so hard. Also blasting bluegrass music through my house – especially the old Avett Brothers albums.”

B: “Next question – what’s your favorite food?”

A: “Not even a maybe – chicken burrito, no pico, all rice on the side instead of the cute little lettuce deal. I can finish it all in one sitting and be so happy; I am not sure why anyone let me be a fitness professional.”

B: “What are you doing to take care of yourself?

Working a little less, and being more intentional with my downtime. Making sure that my leisure activities are refueling and not draining me. I won’t give out of a defecit.