The Bipolar Experience – Author Interview with LeeAnn Jefferies

Adopted at nine months, married off at seventeen, a mother by nineteen, and diagnosed with the severest form of bipolar disorder at twenty-three, LeeAnn Jefferies believed her dream of being a top model—of traveling the globe for fashion and its industries biggest names—was sealed behind the heavy doors of a fourth floor psychiatric ward. While her husband managed two small children and a full time job at home, LeeAnn underwent the brutality of electroconvulsive therapy, commonly known as shock treatments. And although many of her memories were stripped away, her dream remained.

Then one day, a light shone into the darkest places of her life and LeeAnn knew one thing for certain—she would see her dreams fulfilled. Soon thereafter, she ventured into the world of fashion modeling, eventually landing a contract with the world-famous Ford Modeling Agency.

For those of you dealing with mental illness in your family . . . or even if you simply have acquaintances with this disease, LeeAnn’s story will enlighten you about the possibilities God can use for good.

Linda: Your story is riveting and shows what a person can do in spite of a diagnosis of mental illness. Tell me. When a person is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, what would you say to them to give them hope that this doesn’t mean the end of the world?  

LeeAnn: When I was diagnosed, I didn’t know anything about anything … so for me, there was nothing to tell me how I was going to get through it. The doctors’ work was to get me back to home plate. The hard part was later … dealing with what I had done in the beginning. Remember, in the beginning, you are so sick, you can’t see the writing on the wall. It’s not until later that you really have to deal with it.

You have one of two ways out: deal with it … or die. That temptation is always looming for the bipolar to just go with the second option. Not initially … but once it hits home. What you have to remember is that life will go on. You can and you will learn how to set boundaries. Once you get to know the illness and it gets to know you, you can become partners in survival. You have to keep saying to yourself, “I have bipolar. Bipolar does not have me.”

Linda: In the book you talk about the day you were in the hospital—a gray day outside and inside, you call it—and a shaft of light broke through the clouds, which let you know that you were going to live your dreams. Talk about that. What about that light made you know this?

LeeAnn: Things were looking grim. The prognosis was bleak. The next step was that I was about to be institutionalized. I absolutely could not see the forest for the trees. That day … I just happened to look out the window … and there was that shaft of light. You know … God has a way of showing us things. And when He does, that’s that. Somehow, that light was God letting me know … that was the ray of hope I needed to persevere. This was what I needed to get better. I don’t remember that I had enough energy to do anything about it … but I couldn’t stand the thought that I was going to live the rest of my life in a hospital gown … behind bars … living with other hospital patients. Now, understand that this wasn’t my last visit to a hospital or doctor’s office. This didn’t mean my days with bipolar disorder were over. But I knew something from that day forward would change.

Linda: How did you find hope for dealing with your illness? 

LeeAnn: You have to stay up on things. Educate yourself. This is what I did. Who would have ever thought I’d have to get to know my own mind better, but getting to know it better led to my success as a model. Mania helped land me in places no one ever expected me to go. Remember that most people with grandiose dreams can talk themselves out of the dream … but my mind wouldn’t allow that. Now … that said, you have to know your limitations and where the dangers come in. Mania can land the dream or it can get you in big trouble. This is where a good support system comes in. Whether that is one family member or ten. Whether that is one friend or ten. You have to have people you trust to keep you in those boundaries.

Linda: How did being bipolar affect your marriage? 

LeeAnn: In the beginning–well, I was so sick–but I’m sure Kenneth drew back from me. I am also fairly sure Kenneth bought into the explanation of what happened with me, and even though he bought it, with God’s help, Kenneth had to learn to deal with that. God had to heal his heart. I think that when he saw me — really saw the psychotic part of it when I was in the hospital — it made more sense to him that my mind was disabled enough to “go there.” Those huge sores I’d rubbed on my body had to be covered up before I could even have shock treatment. When he realized that … I think God just showed him through my behavior and my treatment so that he learned to accept that I had an illness and that I hadn’t consciously done anything against him or our marriage.

Over the years, we had some really funny stories when we look back on them, but there were times that were not so funny. My spending habits when I was manic left us often without any money to cover our mortgage payments. There were times when he would tell me not to do something and I’d do it anyway (like the time he told me not to buy a dog and I came home with the dog anyway…). And then, of course, the depression. It’s hard to live with someone who is depressed a lot and when they aren’t, he has to hold me down.

Now, he is my chief supporter. Trust is so easily lost and so difficult to get back. But we were able to do it because we put our minds to it. Christ is the center of our marriage. He holds all things together. So, even though much of our marriage was highly strained, God kept everything together.

Let me tell you. God has a plan. God’s plan was to bring Kenneth and me together at Shoney’s that night we first met. God was in control all along. He knew exactly who I needed beside me because He knew bipolar disorder would become a central focus in our lives and that Kenneth was the man who would get me through it.

Linda: You apparently have a very understanding husband. But some people aren’t so lucky. I have received emails from people in failing marriages who blame the failure of their marriage on their spouse being bipolar or having some other mental illness.  If a couple is having trouble in their marriage, and one of them is bipolar, what would you like the spouse of the bipolar partner to understand?  What should they do?

LeeAnn: They have to decide first and foremost that they want to stay in the marriage. They do have an option to walk away. The illness won’t. It can’t. It’s always going to be there. The question you have to ask is: Is the love strong enough? When Kenneth was interviewed by the case worker/psychologist in Raleigh after my illness had hit its pinnacle in Scotland and I’d been forced to stop modeling, he was asked, pointedly, “Why did you stay?” And Kenneth answered, “Because I love her.”

That was some kind of day. Here I was crying my head off … literally crumbling in front of this doctor … and after seeing this and hearing what all we had been through, that’s when he asked Kenneth and Kenneth said, “Because I love her.” That’s the bottom line. That and his faith in God. Kenneth believed this was his place to be and that it would all work out okay. Now, we are looking at 50 years of marriage next year. That’s something in anyone’s book. Bipolar or not.

Support groups can be an option, but I think gender would matter here. Men are not as apt to reach out and share this kind of stuff. So, if you are thinking about a support group, be sure that where ever you go, you get support, not condemnation. Look into local NAMI affiliations. And your spouse’s doctor should be able to point you in the right direction, too.

Linda: You are open about your first obvious symptom of bipolar disorder, which was hyper-sexuality. You say in the book that this is an often-non-discussed topic and yet it is one of the most common for women patients. Why did you decide to talk about it so openly?

LeeAnn: Because there doesn’t need to be areas within the church and within society where things like that are swept under the carpet. People are dead now because people don’t want to talk about it. We must talk about this. Be honest about this. That way, when this happens to others, they are more willing to talk about it. For too long, I was ashamed of it. But not now. No more stigma! No more being ashamed of something you cannot control. We need to stop saying, “We cannot discuss this.” We have to discuss this. Is it easy to tiptoe through the tulips on this? Yes. But it’s time to take the risks. It’s time to talk about it. That’s why I took all the steps I needed to take to tell my story.

Linda: How important is your Christian faith to your overall health and the care of your illness?

LeeAnn: It is the most. I cannot imagine doing this without God because I never have done it without Him.

Linda: Why do you think you were able to hide your illness for so long while living in NYC and working for the Ford Agency?

LeeAnn: Because I was in an industry where you’d see all these creative minds … which equals eccentric behavior. So let me tell you … I blended. We were a weird group of people (laughing here!)!

Linda; Do you regret the way things played out? Do you regret not being a model anymore?

LeeAnn: No … as wonderful as it was being a FORD model, I now have bigger fish to fry. Who would have ever thought I would have something more important to do than being a FORD model?? But stopping the stigma—whether through my Facebook page (LeeAnn Jefferies The Bipolar Experience) or speaking in front of audiences or talking to others one-on-one (whether that’s family members of bipolar patients or those diagnosed with bipolar disorder), that’s the most important thing. As wonderful as it was working for Eileen, and I’ll never ever forget it, this is the most important.

Linda: Your husband Kenneth is, as you state, a saint. How are the two of you doing today?

LeeAnn: Absolutely fabulous!

Linda: How are your children doing?

LeeAnn: Just marvelous! Thriving. Successful … happy adults.

Linda: Talk about your working relationship with Eva Marie Everson who wrote the book for you. From the book, it sounds as if the two of you knew immediately that your relationship was a “God Thing.”

LeeAnn: My relationship with Eva Marie is so open and so beautiful and so real … there is no pretense with Eva Marie. We speak openly with each other about any subject matter. And there is always understanding between the two of us … there is an underlying love between the two of us. That’s the most important thing.

Linda: How can people find out more about you, your work as a model, and your current work to stop the stigma of mental illness?

LeeAnn: My website https://leeannjefferies.wordpress.com/

Subscribe

Comments

  1. Thank you, Linda, for posting LeeAnn’s story.

    • Linda Rooks says:

      I think it can be a real help to those who are hiding in the shadows. It’s wonderful to see LeeAnn’s courage in sharing her story.

Speak Your Mind