To meet Julia Haptonstahl, 26, is to begin to understand what makes this petite and resilient, self-advocating and artistic, athletic redhead tick.
In her mid teens, the young woman who fell in love with the art form of dance at age 2, says her life was interrupted by a diagnosis of depression, although she said there were signs in play prior to that.
Now, more than a decade in, the professional modern ballet dancer turned certified Pilates instructor is healthy and here, thanks in part to the love and support she has from her parents, Michele and Jim Haptonstahl, and sister Elizabeth.
“I guess when you are a teenager, all these hormones are changing and I didn’t really know what was going on,” says Julia.
Between the ages of 15 to nearly 20, Julia’s depression was mis-diagnosed and mis-medicated.
From its onset, Julia’s mom, Michele, a clinical social worker who does psychotherapy with adults, says that she suspected that Julia was dealing with bipolar disorder, not unipolar depression, and questioned Julia’s psychiatrist about prescribing SSRIs [Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors] to treat her.
Even so, early on, at age 15, Julia did experience one of the side effects of an SSRI medication in teenagers. She attempted suicide.
Four years later, says Michele, while still taking SSRI’s it happened again after Julia’s psychiatrist told Michele, “bi-polar is the diagnosis of the decade and a trendy diagnosis for a kid.'”
“The psychiatrist increased a different medication (another SSRI), believing that the dosage she was on was inadequate in treating what he thought was a unipolar depression [and] the increase, unfortunately, resulted in kindling stronger suicidal thoughts and a suicidal attempt,” Michele says.
That hospitalization, though, resulted in a new psychiatrist, one that made the correct diagnosis, Type II bipolar disorder and put her on mood stabilizers, which are the correct meds for now, Julia says.
However, often life just happens, and again, Julia says hers took a turn for the worse when at age 23 she developed Conversion Disorder, a rare and debilitating psycho-neurological illness.
She now manages and lives with that, as well.
“Stress can really mess up your body, especially if you are hiding in your head, and you don’t realize it,” says Julia, who also enjoys playing and performing music. “I am still struggling now because there is always an up and down to this, and now I am sort of in the middle.”
On a Sunday afternoon, in their Oak Park living room, Michele and Jim are sharing how they had dreams about all the clean and clear, unchallenging normal things they would face raising two girls.
“Obviously, with both of us working in our careers with people who need support, my wife in the mental health profession, and myself with people with developmental disabilities, some of whom have mental health challenges, if this could happen to anybody, I guess you could say that we are equipped for this,” says Jim, an executive VP at United Cerebral Palsy Seguinof GreaterChicago. “But, when it is your own child, it’s a whole different ballgame, and we were devastated at first, and had to really pick up the pieces and be strong together as a nuclear family, because if nothing else, having a good, strong and healthy, loving relationship with each other made all the difference.”
Their family life took on a life of its own, and because of the intensity of Julia’s journey with depression, as a family unit, they have become insular and isolated from friends, in part related to the misinformation and stigma surrounding mental illness, and the people who are living with it.
“I think part of it is that we don’t want to be burdening other people with the depth of the challenges that we face – believe me Julia is brave. She has worked hard, harder than I could ever imagine, given the challenges in her life that she is facing and she is doing it,” says Jim, likening mental illness to an invisible disability that people still don’t see or understand.
And, still, Michele emphasizes, they have another daughter, Elizabeth, who has not been forgotten, but because of the severity of the situation has become a “silent sufferer,” in regards to her needs.
“I don’t even quite understand it yet what has been happening…but I think in terms of how she has affected me, if anything, it is the absence of having a sister at times, because I feel like she has had her own struggles, and I have my own struggles, and what was going on with each of us was independent from the other for a lot of our adolescence, the period when we were teens,” says Elizabeth, 23, a recent University of Illinois at Chicago grad, who now works at PAWS Chicago, a nonprofit animal rescue organization.
Now that she is moving forward and working again, and on the proper meds, Julia says that teaching Pilates makes her body and mind feel much healthier and stable. She owns a dog, rents an apartment in Oak Park, has a great job, and is willing to walk through her life, as is.
“Sometimes when I think I just can’t do it anymore, I remember that I have really great parents, and a sister, a best girlfriend, and this amazing boyfriend who has come into my life, and is staying around,” says Julia. “Thinking about the people who love me, helps me get out of my head a little bit, and keep moving on.”