Deanna Green hit rock bottom 10 years ago, though she wasn't wallowing in the depths of despair at the time.
Instead, she had launched into a full-blown episode of mania, which is the opposite of depression, and appeared to casual observers to be at the height of happiness.
"I talked incessantly and waved my arms out the open car window, screaming wildly," she recalled. But her then-boyfriend, Alex Green, viewed her exuberance differently and took a detour to the hospital emergency room.
That first manic episode was followed by more painful ups and downs during which she heard imagined voices, spent extravagant sums of money and was arrested for disrobing on the median of the Baltimore Beltway. There were several more hospitalizations before Green ultimately got the diagnosis that would change her life: She had a mental illness called bipolar disorder.
"I had spent 20 years feeling unacceptable and unloved until I learned I had an actual illness that could be treated," she said.
She credits the "phenomenal love" of her now-husband, Alex, and five children with keeping her grounded.
Green, consumer program coordinator for the Howard County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), will retell her story from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center.
Her personal testimony, part of a series by trained presenters called "In Our Own Voice: Living with Mental Illness," is timed to take place during Mental Illness Awareness Week, Sunday through Oct. 13, and the educational talk is open to the public. Marcia Kearly, a licensed clinical social worker, also will share her story.
"In bipolar disorder, there are two poles, depression and mania, and the brain cycles between these opposite states," said Green, who lives in Columbia. "When a person with this condition is depressed, there is a lack of a chemical called serotonin. When someone's in a manic state there is an excess of dopamine. The key is finding the right combination of medicines" to manage the extreme moods.
Green, 39, said she had known since age 8 that "something wasn't quite right" with her life. Her mother also sensed that her middle child needed extra help coping with day-to-day living and arranged for a Big Sister to visit their home, Green recalled, though she said the visits had no real impact on her.
"I knew I wasn't mean, yet I didn't feel like I was good," Green said. "My parents thought I was difficult and rebellious and that I had personal demons."
What they didn't know -- because she didn't tell anyone until she was 17 -- was that she had been sexually abused from a preschool age.
"It was so much a part of my life that I didn't know anything different," she said, explaining the delay. "I had very low self-esteem and felt unloved and dirty growing up."
After years of trying different therapists and resisting her diagnosis, Green had a second episode that served as a wake-up call.
In 2004, she was on a business flight to Texas working as a paralegal for a Fortune 500 company when she suddenly started shaking. "It felt like 1997 all over again," she said.
"I felt a panic attack coming on, so I got off that flight and took myself to the hospital," she said. "That was a pretty big deal for me, because I had been a totally uncooperative patient until then."
Green's life finally started to turn around after that. She began taking her prescriptions regularly and quit her stressful job. Shortly thereafter, she began working part time for NAMI.
That is not to imply that Green was cured, because brain disorders can only be managed, according to a NAMI pamphlet. In fact, Green said she admitted herself to the hospital last year with severe depression, proving that living with mental illness is a continuing test of will and requires constant self-awareness.
"There are three major strategies to fighting mental illness: finding the right combination of medicines, getting yourself stabilized and seeing a therapist," she said.
This process can take years, she noted, as each person responds to medicine and therapy differently, and adjustments must continually be made. Green takes three medications and is preparing to start light therapy because the seasonal decrease in daylight hours also affects her mood.
"I feel so lucky to be where I am today and so honored to be able to do such purposeful and fulfilling work," said Green. "I see the big difference I am making in people's lives, and it is a blessing."
Susan Helsel, executive director of the Howard County chapter, said, "Deanna is obviously intelligent and articulate, so her personal testimony makes people realize that mental illness can strike anyone and yet they can live normal lives."
Aside from the "In Our Own Voice" lectures she gives, Green also teaches a nine-week peer-to-peer education course for people with mental illness and monitors a support group twice a month.
"Mental illness is like any other illness," Helsel said. "We often compare it to diabetes, which involves a chemical imbalance in the pancreas instead of the brain. Education reduces the stigma attached to mental illness, so that people can learn to reach out."
For more information on NAMI's programs and services, call the local chapter at 410-772-9300 or visit the Web site at www.namihcmd.org.
Is someone in your neighborhood worth writing about? Is there an event that everyone in Howard County should be aware of? Neighbors columnist Janene Holzberg wants to know about it. E-mail Janene at email@example.com, or call 410-461-4150.