Driving to Wilson Morgan Park, Jessica Letson’s nerves began to build. She feared people would judge her or make her talk about experiences she didn’t want to share. Those fears quickly quelled as the Mental Health Association in Morgan County’s depression and bipolar support group welcomed Letson with open arms.
“They said, ‘You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to’ and ‘We’re not here to judge you.’ From that moment I knew this was something I wanted and needed to do. They were so warm and honest. Plus, one of the people had a dog, so I had to go back for the dog,” the 25-year-old Decatur woman said with a laugh.
The Mental Health Association in Morgan County, a Decatur-based nonprofit organization and partner agency of United Way of Morgan County, offers support groups for individuals living with mental illnesses.
Surrounded by others living with bipolar disorder and depression, Letson found acceptance and camaraderie.
“Before I went to support group, I really had no friends in Decatur. My therapist told me I needed to find someone who understood what I was dealing with. And I have. The support group has been a blessing,” Letson said. “We had an immediate connection. It was almost like in the movies, when two characters’ eyes meet and you know they are going to end up together. It was like that, but with friends.”
With those friends, Letson has shared her journey with bipolar I.
That journey, she said, began as a child.
“I think I’ve been bipolar my whole life. When I was little, I remember having these intense feelings of anger. I would tell my mom I hated her every day. And, in 11th grade, I threw a pencil across the room because someone called me a liar,” Letson said.
Her official diagnosis came at the age of 19 due to a surprise reaction to a celebrity’s death.
“This was a celebrity I didn’t really care about and I cried for a week. I was crying about something I shouldn’t be crying about. My mom suggested I see a therapist,” Letson said.
After experiencing Letson’s roller-coaster of emotions over three sessions, the therapist referred her to a doctor, who diagnosed her with bipolar 1.
“I have Bipolar 1. It’s part of me. It’s not something I hide, but I am careful with who I tell because there still is a negative stigma attached to it,” Letson said. “When I do tell people, they’re like, ‘Well, you don’t look bipolar.’ Being bipolar is not like having a broken leg, which you can see. It is a chemical imbalance inside your brain.”
Bipolar is characterized by a series of lows, called depression, and highs, called mania.
For Letson, the down periods come with feelings of despair, tiredness and worthlessness. Her manic phase takes the form of anger and creativity.
“I have been told by people who are bipolar and who have done drugs that the mania phase is like being on drugs,” Letson said. “When I am manic, I can sit and write for 10 hours straight in the middle of the night. Or I become very angry, like when I threw the pencil in class.”
The intensity of Letson’s disorder flared up in December 2019 when her family’s home burned to the ground.
“It was the night of the tornadoes. My mother was cooking chicken nuggets when we had to run to the safe room. By the time we got out of the safe room, there was smoke everywhere,” Letson said. “I was already terrified of fire, but I became even more scarred. I would not cook anything, not even microwave popcorn.”
That’s when Letson sought out a depression and bipolar support group in north Alabama and became connected with the Mental Health Association.
“We just get each other. One girl asked me once, ‘Do you ever feel angry at nothing?’ Yes. I feel that. I know that. When I was diagnosed, my mom bought books about Bipolar. She wanted to learn all about it. That is very sweet, but as much as she wants to understand, no one else, except another person with Bipolar, really knows what you are going through,” Letson said.
While Bipolar 1 is part of her life, Letson wants people to know she is so much more than that disorder. She enjoys playing Minecraft, learning about different cultures, teaching children and served on a mission team to Haiti.
“I wish people didn’t judge others based on a diagnosis. We are so much more than that one thing,” Letson said. “I don’t expect to be healed from bipolar. It’s part of who I am. My family and friends know that and are accepting. And they treat me with respect and dignity, probably because I demand it.”
United Way, along with our 30 partners, fights for the health, education, and financial stability of every person right here in Morgan County.
When you support United Way of Morgan County through your workplace campaign or through a corporate or individual gift, you are helping the most vulnerable among us…the young, the old, the sick, and the poor as well as those affected by both man-made and natural disasters. Those people are your neighbors, your co-workers, your family members, and your friends.
United, we can win the fight! Won’t you join us?! www.uwmcal.org