Franklin Johnson jokes he has almost 50 years of experience in the mental health industry — not in any professional capacity, but as a survivor.
Johnson grew up in the 1960s, when mental illness went largely undiagnosed and untreated. His father didn’t like to stay in one place very long so Johnson attended eight different schools in Iowa and Missouri in a 12-year span. That wasn’t conducive to making friends so Johnson didn’t have very many.
By the age of 7 or 8, Johnson could tell something was off: He’d go weeks, sometimes months, laughing at almost everything, followed by periods of major depression. His wild mood swings made it even harder to create lasting relationships. His parents were concerned enough to take him to Iowa City to be evaluated by a physician.
“They said it was just a phase. I’ll get over it,” Johnson said. “They didn’t know a lot about it back then. Now we know a lot about it, but the stigma is still out there.”
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Johnson entered the military when he was 18, married at 23 and had two children shortly after. It was a lot to deal with for a young man. His mood swings became more dramatic. He’d have sudden outbursts of anger.
“I thank God my wife put up with a lot of this stuff,” Johnson said. “My anger would get the best of me, and I would go off on tangents and destroy things in the house. Not being able to control it was the toughest part. I would be fine and then one split second later I was mad about something.”
In the late 1980s, Johnson had a series of what he thought were heart attacks. His chest tightened, heart raced and breathing became erratic. He was hospitalized, and after a barrage of tests, doctors brought in a psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with bipolar II disorder.
“Mental health is a big part of my life ... And it’s not a shameful thing. Just like any other disease, you take medication to make you feel better.”
Johnson spent the next few decades finding the right mixture of medications to control his moods. He’d find something that would work, only for them to become ineffective over time.
By 2008, Johnson was taking medication prescribed by a primary care physician, who wasn’t an expert in psychiatric drugs. Johnson had countless panic attacks and ended up in the hospital. He woke up with his family and six cops beside him. While he was out of consciousness, Johnson had threatened to hurt the nurses and doctors.
“I’ve told psychiatrists and therapists what I took, and they’re surprised [the medication] didn’t kill me,” Johnson said. “I remember bits and pieces of it. [My actions] really, really bothered me. I broke down. I was a mess for weeks.”
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Johnson calls that episode his low point. He made it a focus to turn his life around. He saw a regular psychiatrist on a weekly basis and found a better mixture of medication. His mental illness is under control now, but he still finds himself going through mood swings a few times a year.
Johnson, now 57, is passionate about sharing his story. He wants to put a face to mental illness. As an electrician by trade and guitarist at his local Indianola church, he wants to show that anyone can suffer from mental illness.
“Mental health is a big part of my life,” Johnson said. “And it’s not a shameful thing. Just like any other disease, you take medication to make you feel better.”
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Make It OK is community campaign to reduce stigma by starting conversations and increasing understanding about mental illness. Start by learning what a mental illness really is. Then, find out what to say and not to say when someone opens up to you. You can also help others by sharing your own story to help people know they aren’t alone. Learn more about how you can get involved at MakeItOK.org/Iowa.