WRAP is about so much more than mental health. Learning that I can take care of myself, rather than expecting doctors to “fix me,” has changed my life as a person with bipolar disorder. Learning that everyone is struggling with something and that WRAP can help them, too, has changed my life as a spouse, coworker, and friend. For me, WRAP is an approach to life.
What I Needed to Hear
I first learned the self-care tools that would become the basis for WRAP in the mid-1990s, not long after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I accompanied a friend to a seminar in Newport, Rhode Island, where Mary Ellen Copeland was speaking for Mental Health Month. My doctors told me to prepare for a life on disability. In that one hour listening to Mary Ellen, my hope for my own future was restored. Here was a person “like me,” talking about lived experience I could relate to in a way that made me feel like a person, not a patient. It was exactly what I needed to hear, and I wanted to hear more.
Mary Ellen spoke two more times that week, once for three hours and then for a full day. After the second workshop, I was even more certain that I wanted to know more and asked my husband to join me at the daylong event. I’m the type of person who likes to sit near the front of the room and take notes. By the third day, it was obvious to Mary Ellen that I was the one she saw in the front row at each event. In speaking with her during a break, I learned that she was planning a weeklong workshop at Trinity College in Vermont the following summer. I knew I wanted to attend.
I was a mess when I got there. But as the week progressed, I learned that I had the ability to take care of myself. I needed to make some serious lifestyle changes and learn to trust more people in my life. My stubborn independence and fear of letting other people see the real “me” was seriously affecting my mental and physical health. I was working as an engineer for a defense contractor, a job I still hold. Sometimes I would get all of 45 minutes’ sleep between working the night shift one day and the day shift the next. That had to stop. I needed to go to bed and get up at the same time each day. I needed to exercise and eat well. I needed to reduce the stress in my life. I had never had anyone tell me these things in a way that made sense.
At one of the early workshops I attended in Vermont, with Mary Ellen’s permission and encouragement, I established the first mental health recovery email discussion group. We developed a wonderful community with some thoughtful and engaging conversations. I found it easier to communicate online, especially when I was feeling depressed. My recovery was underway.
Putting the Pieces Together
Still, it took about four or five years before I felt like myself again. I missed nearly a full year of work. But during this time, WRAP itself was born. I had the good fortune of living close to Vermont and being able to attend multiple WRAP trainings over several years. I know it was easier for me than it is for many people to attend the workshops. I’m so impressed by the spread of WRAP and the facilitators who work to make workshops available to as many people as possible.
Why attend WRAP trainings when I was already using wellness tools? Because with WRAP, now I had a system for putting the pieces together. Now I could organize my plan. Now I knew what to do and how to do it. I saw others finding success, and that kept me coming back. I started out with one person I could count as a supporter, my husband, and learned how to create a support network, something I couldn’t even envision for myself before WRAP. I’ve met so many amazing people through WRAP, and I hope all of you know how much you mean to me.
In particular, my WRAP helps me recognize when I’m going downhill and gives me a concrete list of what I need to do to get back on track. I read my plan and choose one of my wellness tools. I can take a mental health day from work. I can walk on the beach with a friend or just sit and listen to the waves crashing. I can spend some quiet time with my cats. I can knit or do needlepoint. When I’m having a hectic day, it doesn’t always cross my mind that there is another possibility. But my WRAP is always available to me so that I can easily pick myself up and move on. Supporters are there for me, and I do my best to be there for them.
“I’ve Got Your Back”
I can also help others find WRAP. No matter where you work, or where you are in life, someone is struggling. Everyone has challenges. And everyone is a potential supporter. At work, I focus on team building and letting the young engineers know, “I’ve got your back.” I love the WRAP red book, but can’t seem to keep one in the house because I give them all away. I think it’s important for people to see that I can have a successful career—I’ve been with the same firm for 33 years—and still deal with challenges and setbacks. But thanks to WRAP, I have far fewer setbacks, and they don’t last as long as they once did.
I smile a bit when I think about Mary Ellen retiring because I know you don’t instantly turn off all those years of living and breathing WRAP. I can honestly say my life would be very different from what it is today if Mary Ellen and WRAP had not been a part of it.
Thank you, Mary Ellen!