Former Olympian publishes book on bipolar disorder
WHEELING — After spending most of her adult life hiding her mental illness from everyone, including herself, Amy Gamble of Sherrard is bravely telling the world about her battle with bipolar disorder.
In her book “Bipolar Disorder: My Biggest Competitor,” Gamble — an Olympic athlete and John Marshall High School basketball All-American who played on scholarship for the late Pat Summitt’s Tennessee Volunteers — describes her descent into mental illness, which began during her freshman year of college.
The self-published book was released last week and by Thursday had hit No. 1 in Amazon’s bipolar disorder category.
Gamble tells how the illness, which also affects her mother, pitched her head first into a nightmare of highs and lows. While it robbed her of her dreams of playing Division 1 ball, it also helped vault her to the U.S. Olympic handball team, which led to traveling the world and competing at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
She was a top performer in sales for Merck, the pharmaceutical giant, but ironically her untreated illness plunged her to the bottom rungs of society. She became stuck in a revolving door of mental hospitals, doctors’ offices and even jails across the U.S., discovering deep-rooted deficiencies in the systems that are supposed to help the country’s most vulnerable citizens.
At the scariest point, she found herself wandering aimlessly at night in a snow-covered mountain forest on the Montana/Idaho border with only moccasins on her feet and a sweatshirt to keep her warm. She was hopelessly lost, freezing and not in her right mind.
“I am blessed to have survived,” said Gamble in her Wheeling office located in the Youth Services Systems building. After moving home and finally receiving the proper care, she is now the part-time executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Wheeling chapter.
She is a mental health advocate, speaking to more than 4,000 people in the past two years to raise awareness and provide skills to link people to resources. Most of all, she wants to give people hope that recovery is possible. She hasn’t had an episode of psychosis in five years.
“I think it was a miracle, quite honestly. I’m supposed to be here. I’m supposed to help people,” Gamble said.
“I don’t love anything about bipolar disorder” is how she opens her book’s second chapter. Some people, she notes, say the manic stage of bipolar helps them achieve more than they ever could while stable. Others say they do their best creative writing during their depressive episodes.
Later in the book she acknowledges she benefited at times from her hypermanic episodes, but the severe depression she experienced was horrific.
“I would trade all my athletic achievements and experiences for the chance to have had a life without the hardships caused by bipolar disorder,” she writes.
The hardest times usually came during and after what she describes as a psychotic episode. For her, the episodes occurred during a period of severe depression or mania. These were the times she was out of control, experiencing delusions and hallucinations. This is when her run-ins with the law occurred and when she truly was a danger to herself and others.
While these experiences stand out because of their severity, the daily havoc wreaked by her untreated illness took its toll in many ways — on her relationships, family, career, physical health and bank account, for instance. She has dedicated the book to her mother, her biggest fan, who always supported her. In the book, she also extols the virtues of her four-legged friends who always loved her unconditionally and stayed by her side.
“I cannot say enough good things about pets,” she writes. She currently shares her childhood home in Sherrard with her mother, her dog, Brownie, and her cat, Mr. Kitty.
Once she acknowledged she needed help, Gamble unfortunately was put on an inadequate treatment plan by a Pittsburgh psychiatrist whose name she changed in the book (although many other names she retains, including her siblings and friends, such as Libby Cosmides of Wheeling and pastors Tim and Linda Seidler of The Experience Church). She writes that she received therapy from 2005 to 2011 but only got worse during that time.
It wasn’t until after she was lost in the mountains in December 2012 that she received the help she needed at a hospital in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, the hometown of Patty Duke, who also had bipolar disorder and was outspoken about it. Once she returned from there, she began seeing her mother’s psychiatrist, who only made slight changes to the medications prescribed in Idaho because Gamble complained of sluggishness.
On her path to recovery, Gamble found education and peer support to be key components to success. She read everything she could about the disease. Until a nurse in Coeur d’Alene compassionately explained bipolar to her in detail, Gamble said she never understood what was wrong with her.
Now she hopes to help others understand. Her goal is to remove the stigma of mental illness, and further, to eradicate what she calls the “super-stigma” of psychosis. She is a trainer in Mental Health First Aid and speaks to people of all ages — she especially enjoys talking to teens and is dedicated to reaching college students because that’s the age mental illness is more likely to present itself.
After wrestling with guilt over her past actions while ill, she has accepted it as part of her journey.
Able to safely dream again, her goal is to become a national speaker.
Gamble cites her faith in God as giving her hope against the odds, and says her upbringing on her family’s Sherrard farm gave her an uncompromising work ethic and never-give-up attitude. She said at heart, she’s a small-town farm girl, and she’s comfortable living back in the Ohio Valley.
Toward the end of the book, she writes: “My journey had been about extreme highs and lows, with bipolar disorder running the show. Now it’s about living a peaceful existence and making a difference one person at a time, especially the person looking back at me in the mirror.”
She said it was hard to write about her darkest times, but her story is easier to share than some, because it has a happy ending.
“And really, the ending is just the beginning. I think this book will open a lot of doors.”