This piece is part of Health’s #RealLifeStrong series, where we are celebrating women who represent strength, resilience, and grace.
Doctors told Kate Speer, 31, she'd spend the rest of her life in a psych ward. She is proving them wrong. In an interview with Health, Speer shared her story.
I was born and raised in Norwich, Vermont, the middle of three girls, and the daughter of two doctors. I grew up incredibly blessed and privileged. I was raised by a family who loved and supported me unconditionally.
Privilege doesn’t mean everything was always easy, though. At age 7 we discovered that I had a learning disability and a processing disorder, and I was placed in special education. I had a high IQ, but focusing and staying on track were hard for me. I played a lot of sports to run off my energy. The only place I felt accepted and okay was when I was playing sports.
In high school, my athleticism became the focal point of my identity. My freshman year I made both the varsity hockey and lacrosse teams. I was thriving on the ice and the field, but struggling more and more in the classroom. By junior year I was crying all the time, and my parents sought help.
With the certainty of a diagnosis, I felt empowered to advocate for myself. And fortunately my family supported me in that. My grandmother had grown up with bipolar disorder, and suffered so much stigma—so I decided I was going to be the family member who fought to change the stigma, by owning what I was going through.
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I started being really, really honest about how I was feeling, with everyone. My senior year, I would walk right up to my teachers on the first day of class and say, “Hi, I want to get an education, but I can’t stop crying, so you can either send me to the counselor's office—you should know she's my best friend—or you can let me sit in the back of your class and sob while learning." I was determined to not let the diagnoses limit my life, and in high school, they didn't.
By the time I got to college though, the symptoms had changed. Instead of just crying, I also had moments of extreme anger, loudness, and hyper-creativity. At that point, my diagnosis shifted to a mood disorder.
Still determined to not be limited by my illness, I threw myself into school. I worked incredibly hard, but no amount of hustle or studying took the symptoms away. My mood swings grew worse. My outbursts became more severe. I stopped sleeping for weeks at a time, and by the end of that year, after a sleepless week and a 30-mile run in the middle of the night, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
That diagnosis marked the beginning of a very dark time in my life, and also the beginning of what is often called the medication treadmill. My doctors, who wanted to help me stay enrolled at Middlebury college, threw medication after medication into my treatment regimen to manage my symptoms. But even with friends who supported me and professors who accepted my transparency and need for accommodation, no medication seemed to help. They only seemed to make me physically sicker.
Halfway through sophomore year, I was on eight different drugs. I was a shell of the human and athlete I once was. I didn't recognize myself. Vomiting, migraines, incontinence—I could barely go for a run, or walk in a straight line. Losing not only access to a stable mind but also a reliable body made me feel hopeless.
When I was 20, I wrote my first suicide note. I was planning to jump off a bridge. But once I realized nobody could use my organs if I died that way, I drove myself to my therapist's office.
I was then placed in a psychiatric ward. So defeated by my illness, and wanting to at least get back the physicality of my athleticism, I opted into electric shock therapy instead of changing my medication. The treatment had been really effective for my grandmother, and I was hopeful it would have the same effect on me.
Before I went in for the procedure, I wrote myself a note on a Post-It. It said, “Your name is Kate and your favorite color is turquoise. Your best friend is RD, and your therapist knows everything.”
When I woke up, I discovered that, due to a very rare complication, I had lost the two prior years from my memory. That Post-It note became my bible, and I relied on RD and my therapist to help me move forward.
Back at school, I couldn't remember my friends or my classes. So I had to entirely recreate myself and my academic focus. Instead of upper-level economic classes, which involved information I no longer knew, I started taking art classes.
Photography quickly became a passion—as an art form, and also as a way to help me retain memories. I didn't want to lose another memory ever again. I tried to capture my entire life in images. But it eventually became an obsession.
I developed rituals in other parts of my life, as well, and within a few months, in addition to everything else, I was struggling with a full-blown case of obsessive compulsive disorder.
That summer, my parents got me into the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Institute at McLean Psychiatric, and for the first time in my life, surrounded by only anxious people, I felt like I belonged. It was at this moment that I started doubting my bipolar diagnosis, and confronting my therapist about it.
I kept saying, "I think I might just be scared," and he would say, “No no, Kate. You don’t remember before. You have bipolar disorder. Remember the Post-it." And I would remember it and pull it out of my wallet and read the words, “Your therapist knows everything.”
I would have those doubts for the next six years.
By the time I graduated college, I was on 13 meds, hallucinating daily, and cutting, bingeing and purging regularly just to feel something real. (I didn't know it then but the hallucinations were the result of the high medication load.) My world grew small and smaller after that.
On Instagram I was presenting a fictional story of wellness. My parents and peers—who believed at least some of the stories—thought I was mostly okay except for episodes of exacerbated hallucinations, when I would hospitalize myself. The truth, however, was that everything was growing progressively worse. I was sleeping at least 14 hours a day, writing suicide notes every morning when I woke up, and doing my rituals from sunrise until sunset.
This went on for three years and during that time, I got really, really good at telling people the things I thought they wanted to hear: that I was well and happy, and learning to live independently with mental illness.
Then something shocking happened. My therapist was diagnosed with colon cancer, and we started having to talk about me finding a new therapist when he passed away.
That search was soul sucking, and also terrifying. Practitioner after practitioner told me I needed to live in a ward. I started to think this really might be my fate. Finally, in a last ditch effort, my parents got me an appointment with the only doctor who was willing to see me, a renowned cognitive behavioral therapist.
When I met him, it was like he opened a window into my mind and could see it perfectly. Within three appointments, he revealed that I did not, in fact, have bipolar disorder—I had an extreme anxiety disorder. And he put me on an entirely new care regimen, decreasing my medication while also introducing exposure therapy.
Exposure therapy is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that teaches you to actively do that which scares you. For me, in my state back then, that meant just about everything, so we started with the simple task of leaving the house in daylight.
Three months into this treatment, I walked into my doctor’s office and said, “Guess what? For the first time in my life, I know this: I have the power to grow, so I am not going to die by suicide.” Learning to face my fear will always be one of my greatest lessons. It taught me that I am worthy of this world, exactly as I am.
Today, my life looks nothing like it did six years ago, before I met that doctor. I am married, a homeowner, and the CEO of The Dogist. I also have a slew of friends. I spend a lot of time with them outdoors, moving my body now that I've finally reconnected with it.
A lot of people ask me how I went from psychiatric disability to being the CEO of a company. The truth is, privilege afforded me healthcare that most Americans don't have. And I refused to give in to the shame that societal stigma breeds. If I put it simply, I showed up as I was, truly ill, and asked for help.
This is how I live now, with a radical transparency about everything. My days are obviously far better than they were, but they are not perfect. And what I finally know is, that's okay. Sharing makes me feel less alone, and I make others feel less alone too.
If this wild ride through the mental health care system taught me anything, it's that we need more honesty about mental illness and pain and imperfection, in general.
This world is and will always be full of hardship. I’m proof of that, but I’m also proof of hope and growth. I’m proof that when we show up in our pain, there is a chance it can get better. My hope is that we all learn to show up more transparently. It is time that all humans know they belong, and are worthy of this world.
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