Natalie Jeanne Champagne’s Story
Learning How to Live
Before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, at the age of 12, I spent weekends playing baseball and weeknights playing soccer. I ate dinner with my family at a nice round table; my mother made homemade pierogies and we would share a mango for dessert. I had two siblings, both of them younger than me, and both of them much different than me. When I was 10 years old I would stay up all night, waiting for the sun to rise, agitated for a reason I could not explain. They would sleep quietly and I envied their ability to conquer what was so difficult for me to find: peace.
I was consistently on autopilot, running up and down the stairs, crying and then laughing, tearing my room apart, and then meticulously putting it back together. My parents had no idea what might be wrong with me but something, they were certain, was certainly off. It’s difficult for a parent to understand, or even entertain the idea, that their child might be mentally ill. It shatters the dream all parents share: a happy and healthy child who they can guide through life effectively.
They brought me to my first psychiatrist at the age of 11. He told me I had ADHD and prescribed Ritalin, my generation’s cure for any hyperactive child. Within 2 weeks I was floridly manic, definitively insane, and in and out of the children’s psychiatric hospital. I took many medications in the years which followed and none of them worked for long. I would start to stabilize, go back to school, and quickly fall apart. It was a frightening cycle for all of us.
Because my parents and the team of health professionals assigned to my case couldn’t seem to find a cocktail of medications which worked, I decided that alcohol worked better than anything else. It numbed my mind and relaxed my body.
Naturally, my life became worse and I had lost interest in living it. Drugs and alcohol had slowly replaced the mood stabilizers which sometimes worked, and at the age of 19 I was cross-addicted to any drug I could find. I refused to believe I was an addict. I thought I just had a small habit, something I could rid myself of at any time.
But it doesn’t work that way, not for long, and certainly when you are desperately trying to forget that you have been diagnosed with a mental illness which will not go away. At a young age that was the hardest part for me—acceptance.
I spent 5 years using and lost the only thing I had ever really had: my family. Later in my addiction, when I realized I really couldn’t stop, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could stop using. I needed to learn how to love myself, to get to know myself, because I had somehow lost myself along the way. But my family, they never really left me. They waited to see if I would find my way home to them.
Somehow, albeit without grace, I did. I’ve been sober for nearly 2 years now and while it hasn’t been easy, not in the slightest, I finally understand that there is more to life than disease and addiction, than medication and alienation. I stopped using with the support of my family and my partner and now find peace in things I had dismissed when using: time spent with family, the ability to sleep through the night, the stability I have found despite and largely because of the medication I take, and a world which has become new to me. I created a world with a lot of help from the people who mean the most to me: family. I started writing a book about my life, my experience living with bipolar disorder and addiction, and it has helped me heal.
Life isn’t a scary place anymore: it’s slowly becoming home to me.
Postscript from the author: Natalie Jeanne Champagne has published poetry in various anthologies and contributes to mental health and addiction publications. At the age of 26, after many years struggling with a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder at the age of 12, and various addictions later in life, she walked the road less travelled and somehow found her way home.