Heart of Treasure Valley

Meridian woman brings hope to mental illness

Lisa Underwood is a wife and mother — and a person living with bipolar disorder. She was diagnosed after her third child, after struggling through dark times that she thought was postpartum. “People really need to know it’s OK to have a mental illness, to live happily with it, to have families, to have jobs,” she says. “And that there’s just a lot of hope for us.” Every weekend, her family goes on outings together.
Lisa Underwood is a wife and mother — and a person living with bipolar disorder. She was diagnosed after her third child, after struggling through dark times that she thought was postpartum. “People really need to know it’s OK to have a mental illness, to live happily with it, to have families, to have jobs,” she says. “And that there’s just a lot of hope for us.” Every weekend, her family goes on outings together. kjones@idahostatesman.com

At first, she thought she was just an exhausted new mother. Or maybe she had postpartum depression. But the voices in her head were persistent.

She says: “I had voices telling me to kill myself, that the devil wanted to attack me and that he was going to take my soul. It was pretty intense.”

The baby wasn’t nursing well. She was working and going to school and her husband was doing the same. They were beyond overwhelmed.

“(I thought) maybe I am a bad person. … (Maybe) it was the devil working really hard on me and telling me I couldn’t succeed in life. … (Maybe) it was a fight between good and evil that I was experiencing. …

“The voices (were) incessant. They were so hurtful and so berating that it just hurts. …”

Before her fourth child, Lisa Underwood, 36, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. With a profound sense of relief, she now knows the voices are that of psychosis.

“I used to have a lot of guilt because of the thoughts. I thought, here I have this pretty decent life, and I’m letting the devil get to me.

“Now I can say: The devil’s not getting to me. These are just symptoms of my illness. It’s a sign that I’m getting sick, and I need to do something about it.”

• • • 

Because Lisa assumed her difficulties were related to postpartum depression, doctors prescribed counseling and anti-depressants, neither of which helped. (Oftentimes, anti-depressants are counter-productive in people with bipolar.) The biggest breakthrough came when a friend suggested Lisa see a psychiatrist, who sent her six pages of paperwork. Lisa was brutally honest in her answers, or so she thought, until she showed them to her husband.

“He (said) things are much worse than that. You’re glossing things over because you want to make things seem happy and better than they really are. …

“I found out I was a lot worse off than I thought I was, just how really sick I was and how hard my life was. I was pushing so much through it that I didn’t realize some things were not normal (anymore).”

Four years later, every night, Lisa takes three medications: an anti-psychotic, a mood stabilizer and one to help her focus.

“Some nights, I look at my pills and cry. Who likes to take medication for the rest of their life? No one does.”

Lisa is a part-time massage therapist in Meridian. She puts a great deal of faith in natural healing, which is one of the reasons taking medication is a big challenge to her.

“I do have lots of things that I do that help me: I pray. I read my scriptures. I meditate for a half-hour every day. I don’t eat a lot of sugar. I exercise. I journal.

“I know there are lots of studies that say if you journal a certain amount of time, it’s better than taking medication. Or if you exercise. … ”

But that didn’t work. It might for others, Lisa says, but that’s one of the reasons she takes medication.

“All the other things, I do every day. They’re autopilot. If I don’t do those, then (I) know I’m getting sick. …They help me maintain my health, but none of them helps me as much as medication …

“I never saw myself telling people: Get on medication. But I’m telling you: Get on medication. (And then realize it takes time for different medications to work.)”

Lisa has a friend with epilepsy, who will also be taking medication for the rest of her life, so sometimes Lisa looks there for perspective.

“She has a neurological disorder; I have a brain disorder. She takes her medication, and has, since she was very young; I’m going to take my medications — and stay healthy and stay stable for myself, for my husband, for my children.”

• • • 

During the darkest of times, when the voices were strongest and most insidious, there was always a ray of light that Lisa would cling to. It is her faith. Lisa is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I learned very early to trust in God and that I was his child, and that no matter what happened to me, he had a mission for me and it was important for me to live.

“That’s what gets me through. Even when I had voices and I couldn’t distinguish them, I would still say that to myself: ‘I’m a child of God; I’m a child of God,’ over and over and over.”

From the dark and difficult times, she learned she is able to see joy better; joy that comes in little moments like when her son gives her a hug, or a bird soars overhead, or someone smiles.

“A big part of this life is opposition and is adversity — we know the bitter to know the joy. And knowing the bitter makes the joy that much more pure.”

But the joy doesn’t come without a little bit of grieving.

“You think you might know how your life might turn out, or you have an idea of how you want your life to turn out. And it just doesn’t; that’s all across the board — people with mental illness, people without.

“You just have to kind of go with the flow and say, well, my life is different now. I have an illness, so this is the way we’re going to live for now. You have to adjust.”

After her initial acceptance of the bipolar diagnosis, Lisa found herself hoping for a “cure.” That was fraught with disappointment and disillusion. But her attitude changed when she heard a talk by Elder David Bednar, from the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church, who was talking to a couple about cancer.

“He had a feeling to ask them, ‘Do you have the faith not to be healed?’

“When I heard that, I thought, that’s my answer. … I will probably be sick for my entire life; I will probably be medicated for most of my life. And that’s OK. This is me now.

“Sometimes I do go out of that, unfortunately, and I think, oh, if only I could get rid of these medications and live normally again — whatever normal is. Without medications, I guess, for me, seems normal.

“(But) I can just be at peace now. I know that’s God’s plan for me.”

• • • 

These days, Lisa is doing well. “Doing well” is not a place at which she arrives and never leaves, but a place that requires constant awareness and monitoring.

She made a list of her symptoms, what they mean and what helps, and gave them to her husband so he can help her see symptoms more clearly.

“It’s a big learning curve and everyone has to do it.”

Just after the summer solstice in June, for instance, Lisa found that she was having a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. And, because she’s learning, she knew to mention that to her doctor. Together, they adjusted her medication and Lisa turned on a sunlight in her kitchen.

“I came home and cried a little bit because I don’t want to be going into a depression so soon, but I guess we’ll live with that if that’s what’s happening. … We’ll see if that helps and move forward from there.”

She and her husband each attend support groups and have taken classes, which gives them perspective, tools and an anchor.

“When you’re living in something, you don’t know how horrible it is or how intense it is until you get out of it; then you can look back and go, whoa. Because … that’s what you think life is.”

Her husband, Jamen: “For a long time it was a struggle. I didn’t realize how much bipolar was affecting Lisa — and especially our relationship. ... It was really after I took a NAMI Family-to-Family class and understood the scope and symptoms of bipolar that our relationship improved.”

Such support groups as the National Alliance on Mental Illness have also helped Lisa see that mental illness is something she can — and will — live with. That she can be — and is — a loving mother and wife.

“I believe perfection means ‘whole,’ and part of what makes you whole is who you are and who God intends you to be. … You can be whole while having an illness, and that’s part of your perfection, is having an illness. …

“And sometimes God intends you to have an illness so that you can help other people and so you can learn things. You can be perfect at the same time. …

“Be gentle with us. Be compassionate and patient. See us as people and not the illness.”

Lisa’s favorite resources

• Treasure Valley Mental Health Support Group. This peer-led group meets every Monday at Intermountain Hospital. For more information, call Michelle at 208-284-4424.

PEER Wellness Center, peerwellnesscenter.org

National Alliance on Mental Illness in Boise, namiboise.org

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ mental health resources, lds.org/mentalhealth

Hearing Voices Network, hearingvoicesusa.org

Lisa’s favorite books

Taking Charge of Bipolar” and “Bipolar Happens” by Julie Fast

Want to get involved?

Third annual March for Mental Health Awareness

9 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 15, at Julia Davis Park in Boise

Register your team or donate: