Nancy McCurdy Montagna used to think about suicide so much, meticulously “planning” her own funeral, that at one point she felt like she actually died.
“It was the only thing that made me feel better,” said Montagna, who uses her experience with severe bipolar disorder to help others facing mental illness.
Montagna was a happy teen, who always knew how to make people laugh, but her diagnosis interrupted this life in a number of ways. “Being diagnosed with mental illness can be really heartbreaking, especially if you’re only 18 years old like I was,” she said. “I was looking forward to my life.”
One of her lowest points was in 1988. “I became homeless in Denver and I had such a low self esteem and such a negative thought about the fact that I was mentally ill and (I thought) that I belonged living on the streets.”
She made a last ditch effort by walking into a local mental health center. As she sat in the waiting room, a “beautiful woman” asked her “What is wrong with you?” And Montagna says that simple question and gesture spoke to her in a powerful manner. She then moved into a halfway house in Littleton, Colo., while still dealing with her suicidal thoughts.
She eventually came back to Ohio and, through her job with the Help Hotline Crisis Center, and the outreach classes she teaches, Montagna is able to help those who face similar challenges.
“Once I accepted the fact that I had this illness and was going to live with this the best that I could, that’s when everything started to get better.”
She believes that a number of comedians and actors are often the “life of the party” due to mania associated with mental illness. She’s experienced this “double life” firsthand.
“I just always wanted to have fun,” she said. “That was my life. I used to say fun was my middle name.” As part of her disorder, she would have friends she would only talk to when she was manic, and friends she would only speak with when she was at a low point. “These people knew me as two different people.”
Faith helped renew her spirit and put things in perspective. “If God made my brain, and he never makes mistakes, then there’s got to be a reason why I’m suffering with all this. If I’m going to be mentally ill, I’m going to be the best mentally ill person I could possibly be,” she reasoned.
She also credits her family with being the main reason she’s alive today. Their support has lifted her up through dark times. “They begged me never to commit suicide, and that was the only reason why I didn’t.”
Getting the long-term help she needs isn’t without its difficulties. For example, prolonged use of lithium (used to treat bipolar disorder) has given Montagna chronic kidney disease, because lithium is a salt.
Montagna also works to help reduce the negative stigma society places upon those battling mental illness. “Most people with mental illness are more apt to be victimized by other people than to be criminals,” she said.
Mental illness can affect anybody, she adds. “It’s not something that’s just for a certain class or certain kind of people. I’m not ashamed to say I have an illness that I’ve dealt with. Because of this illness I’ve had the ability to help so many other people.”
Another misconception about mental illness, she says, is that people with mental illness are sometimes perceived as being crazy all the time. “That’s not true either. The truth is, you might go through an episode and have a long period of normalcy.”
She also authored a book about her experience, called “What’s Behind the Smile? My Journey with Bipolar Disorder.” Writing that book was difficult, she admits, because she had to reveal sensitive, personal information and relive some traumatizing memories.