Rochelle Johnson, 22, has been struggling with bipolar disorder for four years. Johnson, along with the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, is starting a support group for those suffering from bipolar.

Photo by Hans Hallgren

Rochelle Johnson, 22, has been struggling with bipolar disorder for four years. Johnson, along with the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, is starting a support group for those suffering from bipolar.

Local woman wants to help others who struggle with bipolar


Johnson describes life with bipolar disorder

I know from experience that bipolar is genetic in origin.

Because I was adopted, there were no genetic markers to be aware of what was going on.

From the age of 4 1/2, I saw many doctors. No one was able to identify my illness until my parents took me to see Dr. Kathy Gibbs at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

Before that, it was a huge guessing game of just what was going on.

On reflection of my past, it would seem that my family support, many of my teachers and my gymnastics saved me.

The question I have is, why can't bipolar be identified much earlier and treated with respect like my mother's cancer?

It would seem that many people need support and proper care.

For many, a good, proper diagnosis is not given for years.

After a lifetime of struggle, only now am I understanding myself.

It seems simple now. If my meds are balanced and I seek encouraging counseling, my life will be good.

I want to start a group here in Craig.

I want a deeper respect for bipolar people.

My parents never gave up, and they would not allow me to give up or define who I was by my illness. Rather, by the goodness of me and the gifts that are mine.

I cannot speak of bipolar for another person - I can only give support, and that is what I'll do.

It would seem many people even withdraw from mental illness because of their own battles and their lack of understanding of mental illness.

I do not know one person in this world who has not had a battle with the emotions of their brains.

It is time to be a people of support and not a people of judgment, and I want to help with this goal, along with my parents and others in the profession.

- Rochelle Johnson

For more

For more information, call Barb Parnell, at the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, at 824-8233.

— Things were looking up for Rochelle Johnson in summer 2007.

She was about to take a trip to a national gymnastics competition and would start college at Mesa State in the fall.

A week before nationals, she sprained her ankle and was unable to go.

But the worst pain was yet to come.

"I could tell something was going downhill," she said about her first semester in college. "It felt like my brain was slipping."

Rochelle, now 22, told her mother, Ellen, she couldn't go back to school, and it was then that the family's search for answers began.

Rochelle has bipolar disorder, a psychological illness characterized by cycles of manic and depressive behavior.

After finding relief after years of battling her illness, she has decided to start a support group through the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association so she can help others struggling with the disorder.

Details of the support group have not been worked out, but the VNA said it fully supports a weekly group for people with bipolar.

"I want to teach people and be there for them when they feel like they have no one to turn to and they feel like no one understands what they are going through," Rochelle said.

Although now she is enthusiastic about her college studies and passionate for gymnastics, Rochelle knows what it feels like to not be able to see her dreams and goals through the dark haze of mental illness.

She said there were days and weeks when she was in a state of severe depression.

She felt down, confused and helpless, without any reasoning to fall back on.

"It's like a black hole," she said. "There's just nothing there. And you don't see any way out. I know what it feels like to be completely helpless and hopeless."

She has scars on her arms from the moments she needed to release the pain physically.

On the other end of things, the extreme highs of bipolar can be just as difficult.

"She would just not listen to anybody," Ellen said. "And she would shoplift. But there was a deep pain there that no one could touch."

Rochelle said that mania was often a "good feeling," like she was on top of the world. But the moments were fleeting.

"It felt like the energizer bunny," she said. "But I couldn't think a day ahead. If someone asked me where I saw myself in five years, I couldn't answer. I just wasn't able to picture myself anywhere else."

For the past four years, Johnson's symptoms have been serious enough that her and her family became frustrated with the kind of care they received.

She said few doctors listened to her and that some put her on different medications that didn't agree with her stomach or mind.

She was hospitalized four times for suicidal tendencies - one stay lasted as long as a month - and each time she was released without an answer.

Bipolar disorder has a strong relationship with substance abuse, and Rochelle was no different.

She self-medicated with marijuana during her depressive episodes to even out her emotions.

But sometimes it would only take her deeper.

"I was so worried about addiction," Ellen said. "But nobody knew how to diagnose her problem. They thought it was learning disabilities, or because she was adopted, some thought it was adjustment from the orphanage. But it really takes doctors that care enough to listen."

And listen is what Dr. Kathy Gibbs in Steamboat Springs did.

She put Johnson through a series of tests and came up with the diagnosis of bipolar.

"At first I was just like, 'Oh there's another diagnosis,'" Rochelle said. "But after a while, it started to sound more and more like me."

She was sent to Dr. Robert Chalfant in Grand Junction, who discovered her stomach could not digest oral pills. She is now given a shot once every two weeks of a mood-stabilizer that has made her feel "herself."

She's also found ways to cognitively deal with the occasional emotional breakdown, using her "wise mind," as her therapist directed.

A healthy mind cycles between "rational" and emotional," she said. But the bipolar mind can spike to levels well beyond either end of the spectrum.

The centered, wise mind finds ways to deal with those variations.

Now, when asked where she sees herself in five years, Rochelle has a prompt answer, accompanied by a shy smile.

"I'll be in Castle Rock designing video games," she said. "I like it because it's a small town, but it's still pretty close to Denver."

She wants to finish her studies and get back into gymnastics and someday finally make her way to nationals.

First and foremost, however, she wants the support group to be a success.

"I really want to do a good job," she said. "I want to be informative and be there for people. But most importantly, I have to just listen."


daybyday 7 years, 6 months ago

Rochelle, this was really a wonderful and inspiring article, and your description of your life with bipolar disorder was straight from the heart. I believe you're right that a lack of understanding is at the core. A person with mental illness such as bipolar cannot begin to understand their illness, much less function in society, unless they get the help they need. How do you fix something when you can't comprehend the root of the problem. Your success story will bring hope to many. The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) offers a wealth of information on mental illness, services and support. You go, girl!


slipknot 7 years, 6 months ago

Rochelle: I wish you well in all you do and I hope you're able to continue to find the support you need and deserve. I'm 60 years old and have lived my life with bipolar disorder and was not diagnosed until 2003. With the 'proper' prescribed medications my life is much, much different now than it was 10 years ago. Unless you know what it's like to think you're 'crazy' you can't understand what it feels like to be 'normal'.


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