“The Most Important Thing is Hope:” One Woman’s Story of Recovering from Bipolar Disorder

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Victim to Victor - Painting by Irene O'Neill
Victim to Victor by Ms. O'Neill

The vitality that got Irene O’Neill voted “most energetic” by her high school graduating class 40 years ago infuses her life today. Five days a week she works as a recovery specialist in the DuPage County Health Department Division of Mental Health in suburban Chicago. Evenings and weekends she devotes to the Awakenings Project, an all-volunteer enterprise initiated by Robert Lundin of the National Alliance on Mental Illness that creates exhibitions, performances and publications showcasing art created by people with mental illness. She is the organization’s President and Co-Founder and with the help of indefatigable volunteers like her husband Sean Lamb, it “just keeps growing and growing,” she says. Prior to this, Irene worked for 19 years with what was known as Bell Laboratories, earning a degree in computer science while she was working and ultimately rising to become a senior technical associate.

Irene also lives with bipolar disorder. She wanted to tell her story to the Foundation’s family of supporters because she feels it’s important to emphasize the possibility for recovery. “I tell my students [at the DuPage County Health Department] that the most important thing is hope,” she says. “My life is so much better than I could ever have imagined in my darkest days.”

Like many people with mental illness, Irene grew up with mental illness in her family. Fortunately for her, she stresses, she also witnessed some of those family members overcome overwhelming odds to live productive lives. Her father’s mother died in a psychiatric hospital; her father lived with schizophrenia. While her father was in and out of mental institutions, he also managed to work for the same company for 40 years to provide for his family. Irene’s eldest sister was hospitalized with bipolar disorder while Irene was in college; that sister eventually became and remained a teacher for more than 20 years, and proved to be essential in Irene’s own recovery.

When Irene’s symptoms began, she recognized that something was going wrong, and while it might have felt like the “family curse” at the time, her family and their experiences also enabled her to get help. Initially the medications she was given exacerbated her symptoms and had distressing side effects, so she refused any further medication for a long time. During that period she cycled in and out of hospitals. Finally, in 1989 she gave in to her sister’s repeated urging and tried lithium, the most commonly successful treatment for bipolar disorder. Luckily, it worked for her, and over the years since then she has been able to build a productive and happy life for herself.

While proper medication was critical to her recovery, Irene also credits the enlightened attitude of her employers at Bell Labs, who, she says, valued her competence and treated her hospitalizations as any other illness, which was, she says, “amazing and wonderful.” She was helped, too, by her discovery of a program for people with mental illness called WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan), and her lifelong love of art and the events that led her to the Awakenings Project. While she now considers herself lucky to be living such a full life, Irene supports the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation because she believes that research will provide the means to understand, treat and ultimately conquer mental illness―so that luck won’t have to be such an important piece of the puzzle.

Article comments

A very inspirational story..thank you for sharing Irene

Irene has meant a great deal to me as I have known her. I am certain that she has touched hundreds of peoples lives in everything she does.

This is truly an amazing and inspiring story for all, for both those with mental illness and without mental illness! Such stories inspire anyone to go on in life, despite their problems/challenges, which well all experience.The simple word hope is very powerful, and I appreciate Irene's emphasis on it. Also, I appreciate Irene sharing her very personal story to help give others hope, and hanging in there despite huge challenges! WOW! I have had the honor and privilege of meeting Irene, and the story is exactly what Irene is about. She is a high energy person, with much passion and compassion for helping others!! I would strongly encourage others to see the Awakening Projects shows. The art work is amazing, as are the wonderful people who made it. I also had the honor and prilvilege of meeting some of the artist, who warmed my heart and inspired me!I t was a wonderful show and experience that everyone enjoyed! You cannot help but be moved in some way by attending one of their art shows. Taking to the artist greatly enhances the experience. I felt different after seeing the art show, inspiredme in a way I had not expected. I did purchase 2 prints from Irene, which I love! However, I loved just as much the experience of attending the art show, I left a different person.

It has been my privilege & pleasure to be around Irene O'Neill for the past 10 years.
(Her smile is ever-present, and she embodies grace & kindness on the job!)
Thanks for sharing, Irene! :-)

This is a very inspiring article, about a very inspiring person! Irene has touched hundreds of people's lives in everything she does! I first met Irene at an exhibit at the Burning Bush Gallery. Her passion and energy for helping others is overwhelming! The hope she provides others by sharing her life story, working with Awakenings Project, and helping others has made a difference in so many people's lives! The world has need of more people like Irene!

HAVE YOU BEEN TESTED FOR TOXOPLASMOSIS
Hemochromatosis and the infections associated with it one of them being toxoplasmosis and both associated with Schizoprenia/bi-polarism

What an amazing story! Irene was/is to have very understanding & compassionate employers.

I've known Irene for several years & am a long distance member via the Awakenings Projects FB page. Irene is such an inspiration & is invaluable to so many. What a fantastic story & woman.

congraulation, for you and i will give this advice to my friend.

Read Irene's story and am sure I am Bi Polar would like to seek help but not sure how to go about it , If you can help email is maxx2164@yahoo.com

I was recently diagnosed bipolar at 36, now i have 3 children, 8 year old showing early signs of the same symptoms i had as a child. Now have 2 precious twins, with ADHD, to say my life is hard is an understatement. Comforting to know that there is hope, sometimes its hard to have any at all. Keep up the good work, theres a lot of us who need it.

I very greatly admire anyone who is doing the job of parenting, especially when dealing with their own illness. I blamed my parents (especially my dad) for "driving" me to hospitals, and for passing this down genetically, until I realized what a great job they did as parents, and what a good role model my father was for me, dealing with his own illness and symptoms and working most of his life. I hope the best for you and your wonderful family. You deserve it.

Irene, I am seeking help please give advices where, how to get help any office in, ca

Kay_4476@yahoo.com

I hope my long-term perspective is helpful.
There is always some kind of hope if you can just find it before the suicidal demons of the Netherworld get you first. Herein lies the problem. Most family and friends have NO CLUE how close you are to dying.
My Dad was Bipolar, I am Bipolar, and my 30-year-old son (and only child) is Bipolar. I lost my job, my friends, my family, my home, and my money. What gives me hope though is sticking around to try and help my son live with it and my grandson deal with it if he has it (we don't know yet).
My father had a distinguished military career, but spent over half of his life as an alcoholic with serious anxiety problems, as well as Bipolar. I have two graduate degrees and have been a lawyer and a professor. My son has a graduate degree in business. He has been successful to date but I am afraid he will sabotage himself like I did on several occasions, to my professional and financial detriment.
Good luck to all of you and be sure to reach out for and take all the help and support you can get. And remember mothers and other caretakers, you have to take care of yourself before you can help your children or others. THAT IS NOT SELFISH.

My boyfriend has bipolar disorder and delusional and paranoia disorder..he refuses to believe it..evey year around November he ends up in the hospital..i don't know how much more I can take..i do love him but he won't help himself...he blames every one else for all his problems..he full of hatred towards everything in life..is there anything I can do to help him....

I am looking to embarch and beable to help others with these issues. I was just diagnosed with bipolar and would like to finish school and possibly do something meaninful with it in mind. email me therenel@yahoo.com

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