"You can’t coach yourself out of mental illness. All you can do is get the help and support that you need."
Lyndsey Fennelly told her mental health story at the 2019 Annual Conference on May 14 in Ames. This post has been edited for length and clarity:
What I want to do is change the face of mental health. I want to change the face of mental illness. This is mental illness. This is mental sickness. This is a disease that affects my family and had me in a hospital for 21 days just over a year ago. This is a disease that had me in a hospital five years ago for 16 days.
I spent time in a mental ward, in what one of my closest friends likes to call the “looney bin,” but I have spent time in these mental wards over the last five years because I wasn’t willing to accept that I had a mental illness. I wasn’t willing to accept the fact that me — an owner, a businesswoman, an entrepreneur, a volunteer, a mom — had a mental illness.
We all have these capes that we’re supposed to be these perfect, idyllic just perfect, perfect, perfect people that do everything for our families. And on top of that I am a former college athlete so I am taught to push through things and I have a quote for everything to fix anything. So how in the world could I — how in the world could this smile, with these two beautiful children and this hot-as-hell husband —how could I have mental illness?
I'm not sad. I'm not disappointed about anything. I drive a 2016 Chevrolet Tahoe — isn’t that pretty good? I live in a nice house. I do nice things. I just got back from a week in Hilton Head. So when I started talking about mental illness, people didn’t get it. How does Lyndsey Fennelly — this person who does all these things in Ames, who posts on social media quote after quote after quote — how is she sick? Well, I am sick, folks. I’m really sick.
I have an illness that targets my brain every single day. For every one thought that you have, I have about 100. I practice yoga and the teacher, she says “Be present,” and I look at her like “You’re crazy! I can’t be present. I don’t know how to do that.” So it wasn’t until I got out of a hospital last spring that I finally came to grips with the fact that I do have bipolar disorder.
I do have an illness that targets my brain. And in one sense, it has been joyful. The manic side of bipolar has been unbelievable. It has started businesses, it has created ideas, it has moved different initiatives in this community. I sit in meetings and I can fire off ideas left and right and it's almost to the point where it annoys me that my brain just doesn’t stop moving. And I never slept! I never slept before because I grew up listening to P. Diddy’s lyrics and if you work 9-to-5, you’re not going to be successful. And again, I am a former college athlete who played in the WNBA and you’re not supposed to sleep. “I’ll sleep when I die,” I used to tell people. How stupid was that?
RELATED: Read Steve Karlin's mental illness story
I am a mom and an entrepreneur. So I would do all my work late at night. My poor business partner and best friend — every email she’s ever gotten from me before I accepted that I had bipolar came between the hours of midnight and 2 a.m. and she’d say “You were working again, huh?” And I didn’t realize how damaging it was until I realized that I had no presence with the two most beautiful people I ever created. Until I realized that I had this illness and that as kind of fun as the manic side was, I didn’t really have to deal with the depressive side as much.
Although I’ll tell you a quick story: I went to a Justin Timberlake concert last October. I went to this concert and there is nothing depressive about a Justin Timberlake concert, can I get an amen? There’s nothing. And I am there with my husband and I am about six months out of recovery and I am doing well. I am taking my medication. I’m going to therapy. I’m posting about it on social media. It’s been really exhilarating and been really fulfilling to know that just a couple words on social media can impact and trigger and change some people’s lives.
But for an entire 24 hours before, during and after the concert, I thought my husband was going to leave me. And that’s all that I could think about for 24 straight hours. This is a man who has never cheated on me, is hot-as-hell, and he has been my rock through all of this. To love someone with a mental illness means you have to love them hard. Because there are moments when we don’t love ourselves.
And so as I am sitting at this concert, I literally thought he was going to leave me. So if you know anything about us or our marriage, we just celebrated 10 years. But there are insecurities I have about myself. And there are things I could not let my brain erase. Justin Timberlake started playing the song “Cry Me a River.” And I thought this is it. This is the part he walks away from me at the concert. I had never felt a depressive episode before. So we got in the car (the concert was in Minneapolis) and as we drove back home I called my therapist.
I said: “Lisa, you gotta talk me out of this. You gotta tell me what’s going on.”
And she said: “What do you mean, what’s going on?”
“I think Billy is gonna leave me.”
“Let’s talk through this. Do you have your wedding ring on?”
I am fidgeting with it, “Yeah.”
“Is he in the car with you?”
“Yeah, he’s driving me.”
“Put the speaker phone on.” She said: “Billy, do you plan on leaving Lyndsey?”
And he said: “Hell no. I don’t know what she’s talking about.” But for another week, I still convinced that Billy was going to leave me. This was it.
And that’s depression. But I didn’t realize it in the moment. And I’d never realized it because I’d never felt depression. Because my mania has been so strong, has been so powerful, has been so crazy all the time my whole life, it's allowed me to do so many things, that the mania had never allowed the depression to really come up.
And it was in that moment that I realized that maybe I do have this. Because I used to tell people “I have bipolar but I only have the manic side.” Yeah, what? I thought I had this cool superpower that I don’t have the bad side of it, but I do. And that’s mental illness. It’s something I cannot control.
Steve Karlin (left) and Lyndsey Fennelly (right) pose with Healthiest State Initiative Executive Director Jami Haberl. Steve and Lyndsey both shared personal stories at the 2019 Annual Conference.
There’s no Twitter quote, there’s no post on social media. There’s no drill I can put myself through. There’s nothing my father-in-law (Iowa State University women's basketball coach Bill Fennelly) could tell me. And I remember going for a walk with him around my neighborhood, and he said “You know Billy loves you to death.” This is my father-in-law trying to coach me out of depression. You can’t coach yourself out of mental illness. All you can do is get the help and support that you need.
MAKE IT OK: End mental illness stigma
We do need help. We do need more beds in this state. We do need more funding. And more importantly we need more people talking about it because its OK to not be OK. This is sickness. This is also a hell of a lot of happiness.
No one stands on top of a mountain and says “Hell yeah, I’m fighting mental illness.” But I want to become that person. I want to give others someone to look to, someone to talk to, somebody to reason with, someone to battle this thing through.
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I go to therapy every week. It’s OK. And I take medication. Just in the same way someone takes medication for cancer, somebody takes medication for mental illness. But we don’t talk about this. No, instead we look at mental illness every time a deranged shooter walks into a building and kills someone. And then we blame mental illness.
No, we should be blaming ourselves because we should have lifted that person up. We should have gotten therapy to them. We should have helped them in some way. Not just say “That’s their fault. They were born that way.” Because I was born this way and I am damn proud.
Lyndsey (Medders) Fennelly is a sports enthusiast, entrepreneur, and former Iowa State women’s basketball player. She is the co-owner of CampusCycle and serves as a color analyst for the ISU women’s basketball team. Lyndsey is married to ISU women’s basketball assistant coach, Billy Fennelly, and they have two children. Lyndsey is a motivational speaker who can tailor events to meet each individual company's need. Check out her website here or contact her by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.