Twenty years ago, a plunge into major depression led to the loss of my successful engineering career, home, and partner. I was 34 years old and didn’t know how I would go on. I frantically tried to regain my health, desperately following any advice given. Nothing worked. I lived in the Maine woods for a year, moved to Peaks Island, and eventually landed at McGeachey Hall.

There I began working with psychiatrist George McNeil.

Dr. McNeil gave me what I needed most – the sense of being heard.

Our appointments always felt more like a social visit than a therapy session. I began weaving together wisps of life in this magical place – photography, writing, becoming active in the community. I would arrive all bent out of shape and in fighting mode; 45 minutes later I was a lamb and feeling better.

Of course, it would never last because the illness always crept back in. I couldn’t figure out what Dr. McNeil had done, but it didn’t matter. I kept coming back. I was drawn to something of normalcy, kindness. I felt valued, worthy, honored. He never made me feel less than.

The simple act of taking my coat at the beginning of each and every visit was unnoticeable at first. I was unaware of the effect, but there was care, worthiness and chivalry.

Somehow, I learned to be human again. Somehow I began to create habits for myself and grew a life I wanted. As my self-worth got woven together, I began to care.

I learned there are things I have control over and things I don’t. Wisdom is finding that edge, and allowing others to help you stabilize and manage as best you can while the illness takes you up, down and all around.

It’s like sailing on the ocean. It is about weathering whatever the storm brings and believing you can make it, because someone believes in you.

With Dr. McNeil’s help, I got better. I am not cured. My moods still swing. My symptoms still flare. But I now know how to surround myself with good souls who hold my hand while I try to balance on the seesaw of bipolar disorder. And I have tools in my wellness toolbox.

One of these tools is the solid friendships I have gathered around me. They are as important to me as the meds and strategies I use to stay as well as possible. Despite living 3,000 miles away in England, my friend, Marty, has become the dearest of all. We talk by phone or through Skype every day; if not for Marty, I am certain I would not be alive. Deep depression would have swallowed me whole. (A plus for me is that Marty has since been trained in Mental Health First Aid and suicide intervention.)

Because of the geographic distance between us, Marty and I use technology and social media to stay in touch and build a supportive relationship. One day early in our friendship, Marty told me I was stuck with him. I replied, “like gum on my shoe?” In time, we created an online project, “Gum on my Shoe,” to share our unique approaches and practical tips to support and encourage a friend living with mental illness and promote self-care, kindness and compassion. In addition to a website, blog and social media sites, we are also writing a book about our experience with the intent of helping others with mental illness – and those who care about them.

Dr. McNeil retired this year. I have a new psychiatrist on the team, together with Marty and those other friends and professionals who provide me with what I need to stay whole. They believe in me. They hold my hand and help me through the tough spots.

With friends who care, I have enough to handle the highs and lows. Despite having serious mental illness, I have a life that works.

Mental Illness Awareness Week is Oct. 5 – 11. There are more than 50,000 adults and 13,000 children in Maine who are living with serious mental illness (NAMI, 2010). Reach out and show you care. Friendship is good medicine and being present is the greatest gift of all.