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Bipolar Disorder: A Patient’s Perspective – Podcast

By Darkstar Digital on April 27, 2022

Although there is often a stigma associated with all mental illnesses, Bipolar Disorder can be especially stigmatizing.

LifeStance Health provider Melinda Zappone and her client Christine Torres discuss the course of recovery with Bipolar, and how Christine discovered it would include becoming a social worker herself.

In an effort to destigmatize Bipolar Disorder, Christine shares how she decided to share her face and name on the show. 

Nicholette Leanza (00:07):

Hello, everyone, and welcome to Convos from the Couch by LifeStance Health. I’m Nikki Leanza, and I’m so excited for this episode today because Melinda Zappone, a counselor of from our Cherrytown New York office, will be having a conversation with one of her amazing clients, Christine Torres, who will be sharing her personal account with bipolar disorder. So welcome, Christine. Welcome, Melinda. Great to have you both on.

Melinda Zappone (00:36):

Thank you.

Christine Torres (00:36):

Thank you.

Nicholette Leanza (00:37):

Melinda, let’s start with you. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Melinda Zappone (00:42):

So, I’m a licensed Mental Health Counselor for 17 years. About five years ago, I completed my certification as a Trauma Professional, and I’m finishing up Level II now. And Christine started with me, I’m lucky, to follow me from one clinic to another. She started with me about three, almost four years ago, I would say now. And so, it’s a really unique opportunity for the two of us to be working together this long. And I just thought it would be really important for her to tell her story.

Nicholette Leanza (01:15):

Great. Thank you, Melinda. And what about you, Christine? Tell us a little bit about you.

Christine Torres (01:20):

So yes, I am currently in my last year of my masters at NYU. I’m in Social Work School, so I will be graduating in May, finally. It took me a little while as part-time. I also am the Assistant Studio Manager at an Orangetheory by me, and that’s kind of what I’m right now.

Nicholette Leanza (01:43):

Great. Thank you. And Melinda and Christine, I’d like for you guys to definitely take it from here.

Melinda Zappone (01:50):

So, I have had a little intro, because yes, Christine is very special. But we also kind of have a little bit of a larger purpose, and it’s basically to start off saying, if you’ve met one person with bipolar disorder, you’ve met one person with bipolar disorder. Yet, the disorder has been kind of iconized into one picture, that of an unstable person. Although there’s often stigma associated with all mental illnesses, bipolar disorder can be especially stigmatizing. Individuals with bipolar are often portrayed as crazy in movies and books. And quite often, the characters are the ones shown committing crimes, or somehow not able to live independently. And we want to change that with interviews like this.

Melinda Zappone (02:38):

There is a definite divide in the spectrum of mental illnesses, one side being more normalized and acceptable, and the other. For example, you want your new hire to have a little bit of meticulousness, maybe some OCB, but not so much with bipolar disorder. While the diagnosis can be affirming, I’ve seen relief come over someone’s face when the out-of-control feelings are validated. The flip side is also experienced. You can feel tremendous loss of self. It can be traumatic, and people bottle it up just like a trauma. There’s often painful pasts, even before the diagnosis. And then, when one has an episode, the symptoms may lead to a ruined relationship, a lost job, a risky decision, or definite “I’ve reached my threshold” level of distress in their life.

Melinda Zappone (03:34):

As a therapist, I definitely default to a trauma perspective. This is particularly fitting for bipolar. This condition is happening to them, and while medication, psychoeducation, and emotion regulation, coping skills, Christine will know all about, are part of this, it’s really the wellness model perspective that I think has really become so important. That’s one that states you’ve got to feel in control of your life, like you can capitalize on your strengths and your abilities, and give back to your family and your community.

Melinda Zappone (04:11):

I’ve learned through being a Trauma Therapist that the approach with really anyone, but particularly bipolar, is to be present with the fact that they have painful pasts related to and because of the disorder. It’s not an approach for every clinician, but I’ve used personal experience recovering from trauma to guide the clinical work I do, and indicate to some of my patients I do this because I know it works on a personal level.

Melinda Zappone (04:41):

My client, Christine Torez, is working with me for three years, as I mentioned. And in the course of her recovery with bipolar, she started to discover it would include becoming a helping professional. It was at this turning point where we connected in new ways, and she began the part of recovery that I invited her to talk about today.

Melinda Zappone (05:04):

In my opinion, we, as clinicians, we bear witness to recovery like this. We do not extract infected parts of people. We watch and facilitate people integrate themselves again, or maybe for the first time. My hope is that individuals with bipolar will become maybe stigmatized in a new way, a way as a challenge for professional helping, to demand, authentic caring sometimes when it’s appropriate, so that better is more than symptom-free.

Melinda Zappone (05:40):

Christine will give us a glimpse of her personal experience with becoming more than symptom-free in her interview. So we’re going to start off with some questions, although I invite Christine to free flow if she wants to. So the first question we for Christine, you have been in uninterrupted therapy with me for three years. I think your journey has been longer than that. What do you think the biggest change is for you, and how you approach your recovery now as opposed to when we started?

Christine Torres (06:15):

So, my recovery now is a lot more… What would I say? I’m more intentional about it. I think in the beginning, I didn’t know anything. I didn’t even know… I didn’t have a diagnosis. I was going through a lot. I was in college. It was my third year. And so, when I first started, all I knew about therapy was that I was talking to someone, and that’s pretty much all that I got out of it.

Christine Torres (06:52):

It wasn’t until I started working with Melinda that I actually felt like I was making… I mean, I made progress. I’m not going to say that I was completely stagnant for years, but I think that point in my life kind of catapulted me forward, and gave me the opportunity to use a lot more of my skills, because now I have skills. I didn’t have as many skills before. So, developing those over the years is also something that is very different, because now if I am starting to recognize that some symptoms are coming up that are reminiscent of either depression or hypomania, I’m able to kind of nip it in bud before it gets too intense and too unbearable.

Melinda Zappone (07:44):

Yeah. She’s got a crystal ball for that stuff now. So, I think this kind of segues pretty nicely. When we’ve started talking about symptom management in your sessions, it’s often led to a conversation about relationships. Can you tell us about how, for you, symptom management becomes about maintaining healthy relationships now?

Christine Torres (08:05):

Yeah. So when it comes to relationships, I think we put importance on it, but I think it’s a little underrated how impactful they are in our lives. And I think we try to make it seem like it doesn’t really matter as much, because we’re so individualized, and all that matters is me and how I go about life. However, these people are in your life, and they’re going to affect you one way or another. And I think that I’m just a very emotional and passionate person, and forme, my relationships are very meaningful for me. And so, I have a lot of emotions tied to them. And so, with someone that feels so much, I feel a lot in my relationships. And I think I’ve recognized a lot of unhealthy patterns in myself, as well as the people that I’ve had around me.

Christine Torres (09:10):

And one thing that you have to remember is that even though you’re going into recovery, not everybody else in your life is. And so, you really have to be able to contend with the fact that even though you’re changing, growing, and developing, they might still be where they are. And so, how do you keep getting better and progressing and growing if the people around you really aren’t? And I think honestly, for the people that have… I’ve been in therapy for a while, so there’s people that are now out of my life. And the people that have stayed in my life are people that have been able to grow with me. Is that many people? No. But that’s okay, and I’ve come to a place where I’m much more okay with endings of relationships. Obviously, I’m going to be upset, but I don’t stay in that place for as long, and the feeling isn’t as intense. So, yeah. I think that answers your question.

Melinda Zappone (10:12):

Definitely. And I just wanted to add, I think for Christine, it’s just very, very hard to kind of be in a inflamed relationship, but also having some episodes within that. And really, people who get out of that are superstars, from being able to manage a relationship and the symptoms at the same time. I just think that’s a tool that individuals really need actually earlier in treatment. So I’m really glad that Christine is proud of her own self. Christine, when did you decide your treatment might have a purpose beyond just your own mental health?

Christine Torres (10:53):

So, this is kind of how I kind of got here. So, I started college, and I started in music therapy, so that was my major. And so, all I really knew was that in some capacity I wanted to help people. And I love music, so I was like, “Okay. Why don’t we blend the two?” And I still think that it’s a beautiful and amazing field. However, it just wasn’t for me. I’m too much of a perfectionist, so when it comes to music, I need to be on point, and that’s not really what music therapy is for. It’s for the other person. So the connection of the two of them wasn’t as smooth as I wanted it to be. It was a little idealistic of me to think so, but I didn’t really know any different. So from there, I transferred, change majors, transferred schools, and I got into Human Development and Family Studies.

Christine Torres (11:47):

And my advisor at the time, I was just going to end it there. I was going to get my degree, and then I don’t know what I was going to do. I was just like, “Okay. I’ll work with people.” And I think I wanted to work in current education, which would have been okay, because I had a Family Life Education credential or whatever.

Christine Torres (12:07):

So she convinced me that I should go my masters, and I eventually conceded. And she had very good reason for it. And obviously, I’m happy where I am, so I’m glad that she gave me that push. I just kind of wanted to be done in school, and I still want to be done with school. But all is fair. So, as I went through that, I had to figure out like what I wanted to major in. I knew I needed to have some kind of major that would give me a license at the end of it, so social work seemed to me what I needed. I still didn’t really know a hundred percent where I wanted to take that. And I was still in that parent education type.

Christine Torres (13:06):

Once I kind of was going through that and I got accepted to NYU, my first year, I was simultaneously working full-time as a Case Manager at a family homeless shelter. So that was when I was going to school and managing a very toxic relationship. So I wasn’t able to finish out my first year. I ended up going into a partial hospitalization, and subsequently, an intensive outpatient program. And during that time, I remember feeling a lot of shame for being in treatment, being in recovery, and also, “How am I supposed to help people if I’m messed up myself?” You know what I mean? That was what I was thinking. And I’m like, “Well, I’m in no place to help anybody if I’m…”

Christine Torres (14:03):

And in some ways, that is true. I needed to get through what I was getting through in order to be a clinician. However, I just kind of felt like, “Because I’m going through this, I can never do that.” And that’s obviously not the case, and it was through that and through working with Melinda that I really understood how my treatment was influencing my work as a social worker. And so, that’s when I kind of started to be okay with it. Because I remember bringing that up in my IOP, and the group facilitator would… I don’t remember how she did it, but she just reminded me that we’re all wounded warriors in some way or another. And the fact that not everybody talks about it is unfortunate. So I’m glad we’re doing something like this.

Christine Torres (15:04):

But yeah, I’ve really noticed how much my own treatment informs my practice. Similar to how Melinda says that she uses self-disclosure as a tool in therapy, I do as well. So I have done some counseling with middle school students, and I definitely… Obviously, I’m not going to disclose my entire life and my diagnosis, and all this stuff. And also, I do connect with them and relate with them on a deeper level. And I think they definitely pick up on that, and I become relatable very quickly, and they’re able to disclose a lot about themselves very quickly. So I think it’s been a useful tool for me.

Melinda Zappone (15:59):

Mm-hmm (affirmative). So, Christine said wounded warrior. I think we both kind of connected on that aspect, that we kind of would see the spark in each other’s eyes during sessions, like we know stuff that other people don’t, that academic training can’t get you. So Christina, I wanted to ask you, what is your relationship with asking for help now that you’ve been both a patient and a therapist, a mini therapist, as you await your placement.

Christine Torres (16:33):

Yeah. I’m a budding therapist. No. But asking for help was something I would never do. I would suffer through it as much as possible to the very last moment until someone was like, “Do you need help?” And even then, I was like, “No. I don’t need any help. I can do it by myself. I don’t need anybody.” And I would say over the past year or so, maybe a little longer, I’ve become very skilled at asking for help. I notice that when you ask for things, you actually get them. And it’s a weight off my shoulders when I’m able to ask for help or some kind of accommodation, and not feel bad about myself for that, like not good enough. Because that’s really where it came from before is I just felt like, “If I can’t do this on my own, then I’m not good enough.”

Christine Torres (17:29):

And removing that from the equation is really what… Once I did it a couple times, and I’m like, “Every single I ask for help, I’m getting results. So why would I not, and then just sit there and suffer, and not be able to get these things done.” So I think through therapy, that’s really what has brought me to this point of being able to ask for those things. And I do them in multiple different spaces: in school, at my internship at work, and things like that. And those were spaces I would never ask for help, because I didn’t want to be seen as incompetent.

Christine Torres (18:08):

And so, now that I’ve been asking for those things, I think… I haven’t sensed that anybody feels differently about me because I ask for those things. I think, in most cases, it brings me and the person a little bit closer to some sense of me get… I’m being a little vulnerable, right? Because I’m not telling them everything that’s going on in my life, and why it is that I need help. And depending on the person that I’m involved with, when it comes to academia or my profession, I’m not going to disclose everything. But I definitely that am more adept to asking people and receiving that. So that’s been definitely a positive change that I’ve seen within myself.

Melinda Zappone (19:01):

One thing too, that I just want to applaud Christine, she’s also learned the more subtle form of asking for help, which kind of requires everybody level-up a little bit, which is kind of saying to people, “I feel a vibe in this meeting right now, that there’s a lot of talking one way, and there might be doing another way.” And learning to kind of ask the people, “I feel something. Can we deal with that? Because I trust the way I feel.” That’s a more subtle way of asking for help, but it’s really important for somebody who has sometimes mood swings that they can’t trust, be able to do that. And Christina’s definitely, she’s nailed that, especially at her Orangetheory job.

Melinda Zappone (19:47):

So let’s see. So Christine and I have this thing that sometimes, but she still needs to work on, but she’s getting better, she will drop a bomb on me the last five minutes of session, which is a phenomenon across all therapy sessions, not just Christine does that. So it’s not really a bomb, but it is a big question. We know it’s not going to be answered with finality, so I just want to give you that space. But I did want to ask you, do you think that it was important to get the diagnosis, and if it helped more than it hurt?

Christine Torres (20:26):

Yeah. Definitely a loaded question. I remember very clearly when I got the diagnosis. So, I was misdiagnosed, which is also really common with people with bipolar disorder. But I was diagnosed with clinical depression. And at the time I was depressed, so it made sense. And my therapist at the time had introduced if I wanted to go on medication and try it, because I really wasn’t moving from where I was, no matter what we were really doing in therapy or talking about. So she thought it would be good. And so I went on an antidepressant. I don’t remember which one it was, to be quite honest, and just shot through the roof with mania. So at that point, I was… Because I’ve always had some kind of knowledge about mental health and disorders and stuff like that. I wasn’t trained at that point, I was 19.

Christine Torres (21:35):

But yeah. I do remember my therapist sitting with the DSM out in front of her, asking me these questions, “Do you experience this? This, that, and the other thing?” And I was so uncomfortable. I didn’t want that to… I knew that that was the diagnosis that she was coming to, and I just didn’t want it to be true, because of everything that Melinda said in the beginning of this. It’s very stigmatized. I didn’t want to come off as crazy. And so, for me, it was like, “If I have this diagnosis, I must be crazy.” And it’s anything but that. But I think that going through that process was important too, because I’ve had to validate myself, and show myself that that’s not the case, and really understand my emotions and where they come from, and that I’m not just some crazy reactive person. It’s coming from somewhere, and I need to manage my reaction when I do have those kinds of feelings.

Christine Torres (22:48):

So I think in beginning, it gave me a lot of anxiety, but coming to terms with it really helped me. And now, I really have no problem. Even something like this, I know that we had all talked about how much confidentiality I wanted to have. And I had mentioned to Nikki, and I mentioned this previously too, because we had spoken about it before coming on today, about how much I wanted to be on here. Did I want my video on? Did I want just audio, or whatever it may be? And my response to that was, “Well, yeah. I understand someone’s inclination to not want to do that, especially with something like bipolar disorder. I am in the field. What if a future employer sees it or something like that, and now they don’t want to work with me?” Well, now I don’t want to work with you if you don’t want to work with me because of that.

Christine Torres (23:43):

But I just think that, for me, it just feels like hiding. You know what I mean? I would rather put a face to it, because I don’t have anything to be ashamed about. I now use this as a strength, and I’m able to see… I’m able to feel a lot, so I feel a lot from other people, too. I’m very empathetic. So I think, at this point, it’s more of a tool for me than a hindrance.

Melinda Zappone (24:18):

Yeah.

Nicholette Leanza (24:18):

And Christine, I would like to ask a question.

Christine Torres (24:22):

Okay.

Nicholette Leanza (24:22):

If you would have any advice for someone newly diagnosed with bipolar disorder, what advice or guidance would you share with them?

Christine Torres (24:33):

Breathe.

Melinda Zappone (24:39):

Hang on.

Christine Torres (24:39):

What was that, Melinda?

Melinda Zappone (24:39):

I was saying, “Hang on.”

Christine Torres (24:40):

Yeah. I think this is where it begins. Right? You have a diagnosis. Now you have an answer to why you were feeling the way you were feeling. So now it’s time for, “And what can we do about that?” It’s not a death sentence. It’s nothing bad. Right? Because we always talk about good and bad, and nothing is ever that, it just is. Right? So it just is what it is. And so, what can we do moving forward?

Christine Torres (25:12):

And there’s a lot we can do. We’re not doomed to suffer for the rest of our lives. So, just building on those skills, because there are skills that you can build that will help you manage all of that. And it’s easy to sit here and be like, “Oh, just be mindful, be grateful, things like that.” And that’s not something that someone needs to hear in the very beginning. So just kind of working through what they are feeling, and just feel what you feel, and let it be, and everything will okay.

Nicholette Leanza (25:49):

Great. Great.

Melinda Zappone (25:50):

I wanted to chime in, Nikki.

Nicholette Leanza (25:51):

Yeah.

Melinda Zappone (25:52):

On that also, because I feel like… Not that I would say, “Follow my advice.” But when a person doesn’t come to me with already the diagnosis, I would say to them, I’m going to tell you something that you already know. I’m just going to give it a name.” Because they do, they do know. But they’re coming to me at their lowest point of being like, “Look what this disorder just did to me,” kind of thing. So I always want to capitalize on, “You know this. All I’m doing is putting a name on it.”

Nicholette Leanza (26:22):

Exactly, Melinda, exactly. And sometimes, with that name, too, it can bring a sense of relief, of, “Yes, I’ve known this, but now there’s a name to it.” And that helps with the roadmap of then healing from there.

Nicholette Leanza (26:37):

And I want to thank you both. Christine, Melinda, thank you. I think you guys are doing an amazing job helping others take away that stigma from bipolar disorder. And I really appreciate you both just sharing your time with us, and I can see the wonderful therapeutic rapport you both have. I very much appreciate it.

Melinda Zappone (26:56):

We’re going to have a session after this.

Christine Torres (26:58):

Yeah.

Melinda Zappone (26:58):

We’re going to process all of it.

Nicholette Leanza (27:02):

So Christine, thank you. I wish you the best of luck. And Melinda, thank you again for bringing Christine to this episode for her to share her story.

Christine Torres (27:11):

Thank you. Thank you for inviting us, Nikki.

Nicholette Leanza (27:13):

Yep.

Christine Torres (27:14):

Yeah. Thank you so much, Nikki. This is a great container, and I know it’s going to help a lot of people for other topics as well. So thank you. We appreciate you.

Nicholette Leanza (27:23):

Thank you.