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

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.