Here you will find audio and show notes for Episode 001 of Illuminated By U. For Episode 001, you can expect us to introduce ourselves and tell you a little bit about our mental health journeys and how we got to where we are in life.
The intro, outro, and transition music used in this and all episodes is Looking Back by Lee Rosevere.
Show notes will not typically be this detailed.
Welcome to Illuminated By U, raising mental health awareness and reducing stigma. We’re your hosts, Catherine Cottam and Joanne Phipps.
This is episode 1 and today we’ll be talking mental health and how it has affected each of our lives.
My name is Catherine Cottam, I’m 27 years old, and you can find me on Instagram and Twitter @CatherineCottam, but I’m most active on Instagram on @RiverTheWonderDale.
My current diagnoses include Bipolar Type I with Mixed Features and Anxious Distress, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and I also have Panic Attacks.
I was born in Dallas, TX and my immediate family consists of me, my older brother, Jac, my mom, and my dad.
My mom suffered from post partum depression when I was little but I don’t remember much about it.
What I do remember is that when I was 7 or 8, my grandfather died and we moved to outside of Asheville, NC the summer between 2nd and 3rd grade. Elementary School wasn’t all that kind to me. I was one of those kids who loved reading and answering the teacher’s questions correctly, which was looked down on by many people.
When I first moved to Asheville, I found a group of girls to be friends with, but eventually they decided I couldn’t be part of their group anymore. I found three new friends who I had much more in common with. We played Harry Potter and Narnia, talked about books, and rode horses together. Two of the friends went to different schools when it was time to go to middle school and I had a falling out with the third friend that was my own fault. The one of those friends that I am still sometimes in contact with is very very funny and I just know I’ll see her on SNL sometime in the not too distant future.
When I was in sixth grade, Joanne moved to my school and we became fast and close friends. We didn’t know it at the time, but someone later told me that the group of girls we hung out with was considered the popular group.
In seventh grade, I started suffering from depression and anxiety and had suicidal thoughts for the first time. I sought help from the 7th grade school counselor, who contacted my mom and referred me to a therapist. At the time, I was furious with her for calling my mom. Now, I know that she likely saved my life and we are still quite close.
Even though I started seeing a therapist in 7th grade, I wasn’t formally diagnosed and put on medication until high school, at which point Joanne and I didn’t really hhang around the same groups of people. I struggled with taking notes in class because I had to take them in pen and any mistake meant the whole page had to be rewritten. I had panic attacks almost every time there was a thunderstorm, I had extreme trouble driving in the rain, and I was depressed a lot. I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Major Depressive Disorder. The medication helped but didn’t make the problems go completely away. The psychiatrist I was seeing had me on Klonopin for 2.5 years when it’s supposed to be for short-term use only. I saw a therapist weekly and took my medications religiously, but the antidepressants always eventually stopped working.
On my second day of college classes, I had to drive back home to put my 14 year old Airedale Terrier, Marble, down. That week or the next, a romantic relationship that had lasted over a year ended. I was incapacitated by grief and horrible inexplicable head pain that doctors initially thought could be a brain tumor but turned out to be the start of migraines. My grief turned into depression and I became suicidal and had to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They and my Mom were able to help me until I could get in to see a therapist on campus.
I tried to discontinue my antidepressants at one point during college because a boyfriend told me I didn’t need them. I got what are known as the brain zaps and they lasted for months. They are hard to describe or explain, but it’s sort of like something is zapping or squishing your brain over and over again and it’s what happens when you discontinue an antidepressant suddenly. Never discontinue medication without first speaking to your doctor as it can be very dangerous. I know I won’t be trying to stop any medication without a doctor’s express orders ever again.
After I got back on meds, I could sometimes physically feel when I would have been depressed even though my mood stayed relatively stable. It was a strange experience and I had never heard anyone else talk about having it until very recently.
I graduated Magna Cum Laude from the Honors College at my school with my Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology a semester early in December 2010. I had already decided to apply for graduate school at my Alma Mater and I loved the apartment where I lived, so I got a job cleaning hotel rooms at a casino that was about thirty minutes away from where I lived. I hated the job. It was physically demanding and had absolutely nothing to do with the degree I earned. I was only there for a month before I found out my Mom had breast cancer.
Mom has been cancer free for a few years now, but at the time I quit my job, ended an incredibly unhealthy relationship, and moved back home, where I got a full time job I loved with people who were amazing at Books A Million. I worked at Books A Million for part of the spring, the whole summer, and into the fall. The morning they made me the Children’s Specialist was the afternoon we found out the store would be closing down.
I started graduate school to earn my Master’s degree in School Counseling while Books A Million was still open and for a little while I worked at Books A Million, was a full time graduate student, and worked a part time graduate assistantship.
I met amazing people in my cohort and enjoyed most of the course work, but I was really struggling to keep my head above water and there were a few times when it seemed like I would drown. I had really terrible depressive episodes during both fall semesters when I was in school and a few still awful but less terrible depressive episodes during the spring semesters. I remember sitting in class one day learning about diagnosing people and having intrusive thoughts about eyeballs and razor blades.
The summer in between my two years of graduate school, I decided to go volunteer at an orphanage in Kenya as a sort of test run before applying for the Peace Corps. I traveled to Kenya via London and I fell in love with the city instantly. I’ve been back once, but I really wish I could live there. Within the first few days of staying at the orphanage in Kenya, I knew I wanted to join to Peace Corps and I started my application immediately after I returned home. I had wanted to join the Peace Corps following my undergraduate course work, but the same boyfriend that told me I had gained too much weight and he no longer found me attractive told me that we would have to break up if I moved far away, which at the time wasn’t something I was ready for.
I applied to the Peace Corps, worked on becoming a school counselor via my Master’s program, and was accepted to the Peace Corps in a Community setting working for children. I was later asked to leave early as an Education volunteer and I was told I may not get another invitation if I refused to leave early.
I accepted the Peace Corps’ invitation to serve in South Africa as an English Teacher and left a mere two weeks after completing my graduate school course work.
I would describe how I felt after arriving in South Africa as furiously happy. I felt more alive than I had maybe ever and I loved getting to walk the streets of my village, greet people, and talk with the kids who lived there. One of my very favorite memories, not just of Peace Corps but of my life in general, happened one day when I decided to go for a walk. I ran into some of the neighborhood kids playing in the streets and they decided to walk with me. At first there were only two children but more and more joined us until there were 10-12 kids walking through the village, singing, and dancing with me. We were doing the Sepedi version of “Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” and it melted my heart and filled me with such joy.
My happiness was short lived and I became very depressed very quickly. A close friend tried to get me to call the Peace Corps Medical Staff at that point as I had expressed some suicidal feelings, but I refused. She told me that if I ever said anything like what I had said to her again, she would call them whether I wanted her to or not. She was being a very good friend to me, but at the time it made me angry. I suffered for over a month before the same friend finally convinced me to call the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps Medical Officer, or PCMO, told me to pack a bag and come into Pretoria immediately.
The experience of actually getting to the Peace Corps headquarters was horrible because I couldn’t get one of the taxis I took to drive close enough for me to safely walk there by myself. If I remember correctly, I ended up having to switch taxis even though I had already paid to be taken to PC Headquarters. The next day, I saw a therapist, and it was decided that I would stay in Pretoria for a little while and continue seeing the therapist every couple of days. I eventually saw a psychiatrist and he decided to switch me from Celexa to Cymbalta.
Shortly after, I became irritable and agitated. I wanted everyone to leave me alone so that I could just consume books as quickly as possible. I didn’t really know what was going on, but I knew I wanted to be left alone. It was really unfortunate because I was staying at a hostel with many other Peace Corps Volunteers who were all being very nice to me and inviting me to go do things with them even though I was being a jerk and would get mad every time someone interrupted my reading to ask me a question. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was hypomanic.
One day, I found out that something like 55 kids would be moving into the hostel for the weekend. I knew that there was no way I could handle that, so I asked Peace Corps to move me to one of the bed and breakfasts they use for Peace Corps Volunteers. I ate and swam and chatted with the owners for a long time and was generally friendly and happy. That night, I didn’t sleep. Instead, I took a shower, started three new workout regimens, and danced around my room singing. The not sleeping, working out, dancing, and singing were all red flags. I took a one hour nap the next morning before Peace Corps picked me up to go to my appointment with the PCMO.
At the Peace Corps South Africa headquarters, I found out my appointment had been bumped back to that afternoon. I couldn’t stop moving or talking. I took Ativan, but it couldn’t touch what was going on with me. I was having my first manic episode, which changed my diagnosis from Major Depressive Disorder to Bipolar Disorder. A Peace Corps Volunteer friend who lived nearest to my site was sent to pack up my belongings and a couple of days later, I was flown back home with a Peace Corps Staff escort. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to either of my host families.
My parents met the escort and me at the airport and got me to my primary care physician, who knew of an intensive outpatient program (IOP) at a local hospital. We will talk about IOPs in greater detail at a later date, but I spent three hours a day for three days a week for over four months in group therapy at the IOP. That was in November 2013.
The psychiatrist and the therapists at the IOP suggested that I get a dog for emotional support and structure, so around Christmas, I looked on the internet and found a breeder about four hours away from home that had Airedale Terrier puppies that would be ready in January. One of the puppies couldn’t be a show dog because she had a small bald spot on her tail from a skin infection when she was little. She was half priced because of this imperfection. She is now River the Wonderdale, my service dog, and she is perfect to me.
If I hadn’t had River those first several months, I know I wouldn’t have made it through the depression, the mania, and the mixed episodes. We’ll have episodes later on all of those terms.
For 2.5 years, I cycled often and viciously. I had short windows of stability, but I wondered if I would ever see any type of consistent stability. My answer came when I returned to London to spend two and a half weeks in the UK with one of my closest friends, Tiffany. The first morning I woke up in London, I felt like myself again- stable and content.
This stability lasted 8 months, which turned out to be a very good thing because after we returned home, I had a small pulmonary embolism and the ER found a large blood clot in my leg, also known as a DVT. I was on Coumadin for four months and stayed in bed for most of the next six and a half months because my leg was so painful when I stood or walked for too long.
When my leg finally started to feel better, I used a groupon to join a cross fit style gym in my area. I was working out 5 days a week, eating healthier, going to therapy every week, and seeing a psychiatric nurse practitioner. Things seemed to be going well when I started feeling as though there were bugs crawling all over me. I thought it was psychosis, but my psychiatric nurse practitioner insisted it was anxiety related and gave me Propranolol for the anxiety. When the symptom didn’t go away and I started seeing bugs and shadows out of the corners of my eyes, I called her office several times. In spite of being the doctor on call the day I called, she refused to answer any of my calls.
I ended up going to the very newly opened mental health urgent care in our area. They were so new that they didn’t even have a doctor on staff yet and could therefore do little for me aside from calling and leaving a message at my psychiatric nurse practitioner’s office that I needed to be called immediately. The following Monday, I still hadn’t heard from her, so I called and made an appointment to see her that week. She continued to insist that my symptoms were just anxiety related, changed one of my medications, and dismissed my certainty that I was becoming manic.
A week later, I ended up in the ER after she refused to call me back yet again despite the fact that I had now had auditory hallucinations twice- once of a man saying “no” repeatedly when I was on my back deck cooking chicken and another time that I don’t remember the specifics of anymore.
The doctors and nurses at the ER were very nice to me. A nurse from the women’s psych unit came down to assess me and told me that I could either stay and go straight up to the inpatient unit or wait until the morning and call the nurse in charge of the IOP at their hospital. I elected to go home for the evening and see what we could do the next day.
When I called to talk to the nurse about the IOP, she explained that I had to make a 4-6 week commitment, which really wouldn’t work for me since I was supposed to go on our big annual family vacation to the beach with fifty of my relatives a week and a day later. She suggested that I check myself into the inpatient unit, see if they could get my meds worked out, go to the beach with my family, then come back and start the IOP, which is exactly what I did.
I was inpatient for mania for about a week and I don’t remember much about it aside from the fact that I felt really safe and the food was delicious. Mania, depression, mixed episodes, having bipolar disorder, and the meds for bipolar disorder can all affect your memory, so mine is pretty terrible. I kept a journal while I was in the hospital, so I know what it was like and what happened, but I need it to jog my memory.
After I got out, I went to the beach with my family, came home, and immediately started an Intensive Outpatient Program at the hospital where I had been treated. I’m not really sure how long I was in the IOP, but I know that my coverage allowed me to be there for longer than the typical patient. While I was still in the IOP, I talked with my doctors and therapist and decided to train River as a psychiatric service dog. She began her training in July and the trainer says she is already done, but I don’t feel all that confident, so we are continuing to have training sessions.
Since I got out of the hospital, I’ve been working on two books. One is a children’s book about River becoming a service dog that is meant to educate young people about service dogs and service dog etiquette. The other book is a memoir about living with Bipolar Disorder. It starts shortly after receiving my diagnosis and covers my first IOP experience, entries from a super secret blog I kept at the time, my feelings about being diagnosed and separated from the Peace Corps, a portion of my stability as chronicled by my travel blog, my inpatient hospitalization, my second IOP experience, and most of what has happened since.
Now that you’ve heard possibly more than you wanted to know about me, I’m going to turn it over to Joanne so she can introduce herself.
My name is Joanne Phipps, I am 28 years old, and I currently live just outside of Asheville, North Carolina.
I was born just outside of Philadephia and lived in the area until late 2000 when my mother, father, old brother, and younger sister moved to the Asheville area when my dad began working for what was then Progress Energy.
Growing up I was always a pretty normal child. I was a tom boy and spent most of my time out in the woods with the boys who lived next door, racing bikes, and building forts. I never felt out of place or like I didn’t belong, despite not being considered popular, because I had friendships with the kids that lived nearby that I had had all my life. It wasn’t under my family moved to North Carolina where I knew no one and had no friends, that I started to feel the effects of being different and not having a place where I fit.
Growing up, I had no idea that an abusive relationship could occur simply only with the use of one’s words. People simply didn’t talk about verbal and emotional abuse like they do now. So when my relationship took an unhealthy turn, for a long time, I was unaware that it wasn’t just disheartening but it was also detrimental to my mental wellbeing.
At first things were just verbal. I was put down, made to feel bad about myself as a person. My looks, my choices, my body. Then I was pushed to the side for other women. I would hear him tell stories about other women he had slept with and how he’d make them sleep on the floor afterwards and I felt so sorry for them, such compassion for them. When I realized, I felt such sorrow for the other women, most of whom even knew me, and that I didn’t feel that same sadness and compassion for myself, was the first time I realized that he had not only broken my spirit but stolen my sense of self-worth.
I spent a very long time trapped in this relationship. By the time I started to really see and feel the effects it was having on me, I felt so worthless, so lost, so out of place I was afraid to let go. I had lost most of my friends, I had gone off to college and because I studied a most male field, I wasn’t allowed to make friends with those in my classes. Though I was the one being cheated on, I was always the one accused of being a whore, and when I would claim my faithfulness, he would tell his friends and roommates I was fair game to sleep with.
Eventually, that relationship came to an end, and with that end I thought this horrible chapter of my life was also ending. I thought I was free, that I would once again be care free and hopeful of the future, but I was very wrong.
I spent the next several months living on a friend’s couch so I wouldn’t have to face reality. I turned to drinking and drugs because I wanted the numbness I felt in my heart to also be the numbness I felt in my mind. I wanted to wash away the memories of the yelling, the threatening, the horrible names. I wanted to forget the time that he threatened to run us off the road because a guy talked to me while he was inside voting, or the times that I felt so broken and lost that I said hurtful things just to hear a break in his yelling. I wanted to forget that I was no saint either. That I said things I shouldn’t have said and that I didn’t say things I should have.
During this time of desperately trying to avoid reality, reality once again reminded me of how cruel it can be. I was sexually assaulted by a co-worker and it was later covered up because of the age old “having your buddies back”. He was married and had children, and I was young and dumb and should have known better than to put myself into a male-dominated field. To be honest, I think that this moment hurt me the most, because it happened at a point where already I felt so worthless, that it just reiterated in my mind that I was nothing more than a body, and that my body was made for nothing more than what whatever man decided that he wanted it to be.
Over the past several years I have been plagued with night terrors. Even now, over half a decade later, I am still constantly paranoid of places I’m unfamiliar with, being out after dark, or even answering my phone when it rings and I don’t recognize the number or the number is blocked. I have developed generalize anxiety and at one point my panic attacks became so severe that I was completely bound to my home for weeks.
As my mind tries to cope, my memory has become basically nonexistent. I have over 70 notes in my phone so I wont forget even the most simple of things like my class is on Wednesday evenings at 6:30 and to wrap my son’s birthday presents before the end of next month. I make lists for everything. I have multiple to-do lists, including a to-do lists of other lists I need to make. And I hoard things. Any and everything. I have boxes in a storage unit filled with hygiene products that have roughly one use left of shampoo or toothpaste because I have a hard time ending things or finishing the last of something, and an even harder time letting go. I hoard clothes, yarn, food, old cards from friends I haven’t spoke to in years.
Some days, I feel pretty close to fine. I’m happy, I don’t think about past things, and I am productive. And a lot of other days I have a hard time willing myself out of bed in the morning. I binge eat at night to keep my mind pre occupied and I’m just kind of “there” during the day but not actually living in the present moment. It’s like the movie Tuck Everlasting, I feel like a rock, just stuck there, never changing.
Since my own abusive relationship ended I lost a close friend of mine to the abuse of a significant other in her life which has almost create a sense of survivor’s guilt. I lived with my relationship tearing me apart of years and yet here I am, while my friend lost her life after only a few short months. Since then, I have lost several friendships because I was honest about the relationships they were in being unhealthy, because I knew their boyfriends were cheating on them or were cruel to them. I was honest because no one was there for me when I needed someone, and I didn’t want my friends to feel alone, I wanted them to know that what they were going through was not acceptable or the way things are. I wanted to be the hand to hold, the shoulder to cry on, the ear to listen that I so desperately wanted and needed all those years ago that I never found.
Nearly 3 years ago I decided to start practicing yoga as a way to create some me time in my day, get into shape, and clear my mind. To be honest, up until then, with such a lack of motivation, I never really stuck with my of anything more than a week or two. But I’ve been practicing almost daily since then, with the exception of some periods of time where I couldn’t bring myself to do much of anything. In those three years, I’ve found a renewed sense of self. Of my capabilities, my strength, even joy in my imperfections. The small amount of post partum depression I felt was erased from my mind by focusing on mindfulness and gratitude, and the time I was bound to my home was eventually also overcome in large thanks to my meditation ritual.
Fast forward to now and I am happily married to an amazing guy and am the very proud mama to a four year old handful of a wild child southern boy. I still struggle with my mental wellbeing daily, and no days are ever really easy or carefree for me, but it’s nice to have someone remind you that not all love is tainted, not all worth comes from physical acts, that not everyone will tear me down. I am currently studying engineering through a distance education program at the university of north Carolina at charlotte, and am a social media influence through my Instagram page where I promote positive body image messages as well as bits and pieces of my own journey with mental health and abuse to remind people that they are not alone.
I have always been extraordinarily grateful to have Catherine in my life. She is a constant source of comfort, always there when I need her, and can listen without judging. So when she called me up and asked me my thoughts on doing a podcast together about mental health awareness and reducing the stigma I literally could not tell her yes enough. She has been one of my very best friends for many years now, and we have found a bond that continues to strength us through being able to relate with one another when it comes to our mental well being and I’m absolutely thrilled to be on this journey with her.