From A Nightmare Childhood, a Happy Path Forward

Maureen Gillespie - Recovery from mental illness and bipolar disorder
Maureen Gillespie

After reclaiming her life from bipolar disorder, a volunteer gives back

It was in eighth grade that Maureen Gillespie began feeling like she was no longer herself.

She experienced hallucinations and unexplained bursts of anger. She started acting out. One time she saw John and Bobby Kennedy in her bedroom. Another time, she wandered out of school for recess and didn’t come back.

“I was turning into another person,” she recalls.

In 1964, she had a visit with psychiatrist Dr. Raul Zaldivar in her hometown of Chicago. She remained under his care for 20 years, until his death. “Dr. Zaldivar became my savior,” who was as diligent as he was compassionate, Maureen says. Despite all his efforts, Maureen’s symptoms continued throughout her teens. At 16, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

During her junior year of high school, her parents reluctantly gave her permission to go on a class trip to visit New York and Washington, D.C. Maureen did not any have close friends; no one wanted to be her roommate. During the trip she was in an acute state of mania—not sleeping, talking constantly.

“It was a nightmare,” she put it simply.

She found herself in Washington University Hospital, where she remembers being on a gurney in the hallway of a crowded emergency room. Then she was in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital—heavily medicated, lying on a mat, in a padded cell; people drifting in and out, holding her down, giving her a shot. She would repeatedly ask if her parents knew where she was and if she could go home; she would never get a straight answer. Scared, alone, weaving in and out of consciousness, Maureen has no idea how long she was in that room.

She missed most of her junior year of high school, returning on the last day to say goodbye to the seniors that she knew. It was a wonderful day, but the warm feeling soon dissipated. In a fog of depression, she spent hours in the basement watching TV, rarely stepping outside. Her depression was punctuated by fits of rage; she threw her dad against the wall; she smashed her fist through the glass coffee table.

In her parents’ eyes, she could see their pain, their helplessness. It haunts her to this day.

Dr. Zaldivar got Maureen to join a test group of patients who would be put on lithium—a year before the drug was available in pharmacies. “I was lucky to be under the care of a doctor who was on the cutting edge, and parents who believed in him,” she says.

The lithium enabled Maureen to reclaim her life. Returning to school for her senior year, she went to her prom, homecoming and graduation. After college, she went into a career in management and customer service. She was never hospitalized again.

“I have never let my mental illness define me,” Maureen says. “It’s just like having an illness, like diabetes.” She has never viewed her mental illness as a stigma.

After 44 years of taking lithium, Maureen changed her medication due to its side effects. In early 2010, she was prescribed Lamictal (lamotrigine), which worked well, but gave her a rash. In April, Dr. Steven Resis in Schaumburg, Illinois changed medications and prescribed her divalproex sodium. It took her a little time to adjust to this medication and her mania returned.

Maureen left work in April 2010 for 12 weeks, and started therapy. She met with “an extraordinarily gifted psychologist,” Dr. Kimberly Kerley, also in Schaumburg, who to this day continues to give Maureen the tools to help her manage her life.

Dr. Kerley would say to her, “Your medication controls the big swings. I’m here to help you with the small bumps on the road.” After a tough year, she was able to come through to a life “now filled with much promise and happiness,” she says.

Maureen is a supporter of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation because she strongly believes that “there is hope through brain research above all else because the brain is the control center for so many bodily functions,” she says. “The more we unlock the mystery of the brain, the more we will know about humankind.”

Maureen has joined her local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and serves as a volunteer board member. In early 2013, she shifted to a career in health care, working with patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders. She believes her illness has made her a perfect fit for this type of work, gifting her with tremendous patience and empathy.

“I can identify with mentally ill people with chemical imbalance issues because I have been there,” she says. “I understand their feelings, struggles, disconnection, and overall disorientation.”

Today, 64-year-old Maureen is living a very happy life in the suburbs of Chicago with her two little dogs. “I believe I am the best I have ever been in my life—right now,” she says. She retired in 2015, but continues to volunteer with older adults. “My life was built to end up doing this,” she says.