More than two decades ago, my life was a rollercoaster of manic moods, forced hospitalizations, and medication that nearly cost me my marriage, my children, and my career as a primary school and special education teacher. The last time was the worst. In 1997, I was in the street, on the hood of our car, trying to stop my husband from leaving the house with our twin girls. I knew I couldn’t go on like this.
When I was hospitalized, usually staying for fewer than two weeks at a time, I was offered little but a diagnosis and a prescription for medication. My prognosis appeared bleak. That all changed the day I found The Depression Workbook: A Guide to Living with Depression and Manic Depression by Mary Ellen Copeland. A lightbulb turned on in my head.
I learned there was more to living life with a mental health diagnosis than meekly accepting my fate. I learned that I didn’t have to wait for someone to fix me. I learned that my moods were within my power to control. I learned that I could have hope. No one had ever told me this before.
The workbook became my go-to resource, and its guidance my North Star. I was living in London at the time and was seeing a different medical provider at each visit. Understanding the importance of establishing a long-term relationship with a single provider, I insisted on seeing the same consultant at each visit. I started playing the piano. As I began to log my moods, I developed the ability to recognize when I was becoming unwell and how to challenge my thoughts. Perhaps most important, I was learning about myself.
Embracing All of WRAP
When I heard about the First International WRAP Around the World Conference, held in Philadelphia in 2011, I knew I had to attend to say “thank you” to Mary Ellen. I was in a queue of people snaking out the door waiting to speak to her, my workbook in hand. When I showed it to Mary Ellen, she became quite excited, indicating that this was how the workbook was intended to be used. WRAP grew out of people wanting a way to put the workbook into practice, which is what I had been doing for years. I keep annotating it as I live and grow in my recovery.
I returned to the United States to train to be a WRAP Facilitator, so I could share my experiences with others. I taught WRAP for the National Health Service and for several charities, but it wasn’t being facilitated the way Mary Ellen intended—often, it was directed by professionals rather than peers, and pieces of the whole were missing. You have to teach all of WRAP because you never know what part of it will resonate with someone and because the pieces lead into one another. So, I started my own charity to offer WRAP as a peer-to-peer program focusing on the five key principles: hope, personal responsibility, education, self-advocacy, and support.
Before I gained the tools to care for myself, I didn’t have hope. All I was told was “you are this” and “you can’t do that.” I didn’t even realize until I attended the WRAP Facilitator training that I was extremely ashamed to have bipolar disorder. Even with all the work I’d done, I fell victim to self-stigmatizing, which can be the most damaging part of having a mental health diagnosis. What a relief it was to decide I didn’t have to carry that anymore.
Mary Ellen’s work helped me understand that I’m personally responsible for my wellness. I’m responsible for educating myself about my health and what helps me stay well. I’m responsible for learning to advocate for myself and surrounding myself with others with whom I can give and receive support.
My doctors were concerned when I started leading support groups, fearing that helping others would be a drain on me. But that’s the thing about mutual support—you get as much as you give, and you are always free to choose when and how to help. Support is a two-way street. The people in my WRAP groups were often isolated and had low self-esteem. As the weeks progressed, they found their voices and began to realize that they could help themselves.
Moving from Illness to Wellness with WRAP
Before I found and began using the Depression Workbook, the focus of my life was about illness. I was seesawing between feeling well and having manic moods that threatened my life and my family. Each time I was hospitalized and slept, I recovered. For me, long-term medication has never been the answer; I use it for short periods of time, much as I did when I was hospitalized, until I feel well again. What works for me may or may not work for others. The important thing is that everyone gets to make those decisions for themselves.
In the classes I taught, I saw the damage caused as participants handed their lives over to mental health professionals. They remained victims and were desperately unhappy and unfulfilled. Once they started to develop self-awareness, they were able to retake control of their lives.
Today, my life is about wellness. It’s about nurturing my relationship with my husband—who stood by me through thick and thin—and our daughters. It’s about enjoying the good things in life and using WRAP to deal with the challenges that come my way, including breast cancer and the aftermath of treatment.
I can honestly say I don’t know where I would be today without Mary Ellen and this powerful grassroots movement. I owe her an enormous debt of gratitude for helping me save my marriage, my family, and my career. WRAP is a simple process with powerful results. It’s my prescription for success. I hope it can be yours, too.
Dawn Hefferman is a former Certified Advanced Level WRAP Facilitator.