When she tells people she has bipolar disorder, Sarah Martin prepares for the worst.
"Sometimes people are just silent," said Martin, a 28-year-old Tucson resident. "But I deal with things head on now. It's hard, but life is hard."
Sharing her condition with others is relatively new for Martin, who had her first panic attack at the age of 10 and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder six years later. Getting over societal perceptions of mental illness is all part of managing a disease that requires far more than taking medication, she said.
"It's not crazy or weird to have mental illness," she said. "I still get nervous when I tell people, but I think education is important."
On Friday, Martin will be honored with the recovery award at the annual Daniel Moreno Awards Dinner, a Tucson event that recognizes people who contribute to increasing local awareness about mental health. The awards are named for a young Tucson resident who committed suicide at the age of 23 after he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Though she's receiving an award for recovery, Martin stresses that her illness will never go away. She's even developing a "relapse plan" in case she takes a step backward.
"There's never a point where you say, 'I'm over it,' " she said. "It's mostly management. I still have days when I don't want to get out of bed. But the more I put myself out there, and out of my comfort zone, the better I feel."
Martin was selected for the award because of her treatment success and because she's such a good advocate for herself, said Susan A. Moreno, who is Daniel Moreno's mother and is also part of the newly formed Southern Arizona Suicide Prevention Coalition.
"So many of the struggles that she went through are the same kinds of challenges many people with mental illness go through while trying to find the right treatment," Moreno said. "She'll never be cured, but recovery is kind of the buzzword we use now for someone who is being successfully treated."
Indeed, Martin acknowledges that she's come a long way since the age of 10, when she began to feel a debilitating sense of doom and anxiety. It was like being in a tunnel, and she couldn't get out. It was so bad that she ended up in the hospital.
Her problems progressed through high school when she developed a raging temper, with her anger boiling over small things like not liking what her mother had prepared for dinner.
Her self-esteem plummeted, and she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Ashamed and embarrassed, she did not tell anyone.
Like many young people with mental illness, Martin took a downturn as a young adult, shortly after she graduated from Santa Rita High School. Living away from her family, and not always following a treatment protocol, she developed addictions to alcohol, drugs and sex.
She had periods when she gave up her addictions, moved home and tried to get well. But when she was laid off from a job she'd held for two years, she once again tumbled into despair and substance abuse. She describes her substance abuse as self-medication.
In her early 20s, she also received a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder and found out she had symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), too. She got frustrated easily when things didn't go as planned. She had manic phases when she'd max out her credit cards, and depressive cycles when she could barely function. She had trouble letting things go, instead obsessing about them over and over in her mind.
Around that time, she reconnected with Daniel Martin, a classmate from Santa Rita High School who works at Fry's.
After she disclosed her illness to him, Daniel bought a book about loving a person with bipolar disorder, learned it could be managed and said he knew Sarah would succeed. The couple married last year.
With love and support from her husband, Sarah began to get her life together.
"She's come a long way since we first started dating," Daniel Martin said.
Sarah Martin completed a seven-month dental assistant program at Pima Medical Institute, graduated with honors and won a special achievement award. She is working part time as a dental assistant and hopes to start full-time work this fall.
She's also become disciplined in her approach to managing her mental health. Her treatment success is due to a combination of the right medications, exercise, attitude and support from others, she says.
Getting just the right balance of medication has been its own challenge. Martin takes minimal doses because she hates feeling like a "zombie," which has happened in the past.
She takes lithium and Klonopin, and does 45 minutes of walking every day. Along with her husband, she also walks in Sabino Canyon each Friday night. She also gets support from mental-health professionals, including a psychiatrist and recovery coach.
Moreno said she was impressed by Martin's willingness to take action. When Martin lost her Medicaid coverage through the state's Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, she wrote a newspaper opinion piece and contacted people who could help her. She eventually found supplemental coverage through a state program for people with serious mental illness.
Though she acknowledges that it's difficult to tell people she has bipolar disorder, Martin does it anyway because she knows it will help people to put a face on mental illness.
"The stigma is awful, and she is willing to talk about her recovery," Moreno said. "Part of the reason we chose her for the award is that she's willing to talk about her recovery."
Moreno said one in eight teenagers has clinical depression and only 20 percent are diagnosed or treated - an unfortunate statistic because the treatment success rates for depression are 80 to 90 percent, she said. For bipolar disorder it's 80 percent.
"So treatment works. It's just that people aren't getting treatment," she said. "People just don't understand the seriousness of the illness and that treatment works. They just don't know."
Did you know?
An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans age 18 and older - about one in four adults - suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.
Even though mental disorders are widespread in the population, the main burden of illness is concentrated in a much smaller proportion - about 6 percent, or 1 in 17 - who suffer from a serious mental illness.
Source: National Institute of Mental Health
About the Awards
The Daniel Moreno Awards were founded in 2007 in an effort by the Daniel Moreno family to increase awareness about mental health recovery and reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Sarah Martin will receive the 2012 Recovery Award. The Advocate Award will be presented to Neal Cash, chief executive officer and president of the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona. Peter Likins, president emeritus of the University of Arizona, will receive the educator award, and Adrienne Sainz, a clinician at La Frontera, will be recognized for her work as a direct service provider.
This year's event will be Friday night at Skyline Country Club and hosted by the Southern Arizona Suicide Prevention Coalition and the Aurora Foundation, which is a local non-profit dedicated to advancing disability justice. The awards event will include a speech by Dr. José Apud, clinical director of the Schizophrenia Research Program at the National Institute of Mental Health.
Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at email@example.com or 573-4134.