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Millions of Americans Have Bipolar Disorder, One Woman Reveals What Living with the Illness Is Like

When Aubrey Good was 12 years old, she was a typical pre-teen, scoring good grades in school that placed her at the top of her class. But just days after turning 13, her father was arrested and later sent to prison, and for Good, the experience was traumatic.

“I went from being a very straight A student and being very, very well-behaved, to starting to use drugs,” Good, 26, tells PEOPLE. “I started to abuse alcohol and prescription painkillers. I started to get into trouble at school. I was rebelling against authority. I became extremely hypersexual, and that probably became one of the worst symptoms.”

Around this time, Good was misdiagnosed with depression and placed on an antidepressant for the following three years. She also developed insomnia, which caused her to stay awake until the early morning and receive just three hours of sleep a night.

“My behavior was all over the place, and I was also going through certain periods of apathy and hopelessness,” she recalls.

It wasn’t until she was 18 and enlisted in the Army National Guard — an impulsive decision since she had no interest in the military — that a psychiatrist evaluated her and diagnosed her with bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder is a manic-depressive illness of the brain that causes extreme changes in mood and energy levels, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. There are four basic types of the disorder, which are characterized by periods of elation and hyper-activity known as manic episodes, which are then followed by depressive stages where the patient experiences feelings of sadness and depression. (When a manic episode is less severe, it’s known as a hypomanic phase, which is found in bipolar disorder type II).

Patients will often experience intense emotions as well as disruption to sleep patterns and their ability to think clearly. These periods can last for an extended time — days or even weeks — with no clear way of predicting when one period will end and another will begin. This can cause patients to have difficulty at work, school or in maintaining their relationships.

It’s estimated that nearly 6 million Americans have some form of the disorder, including celebrities such as Kanye West and Mariah Carey, who have previously opened up about their experience.

RELATED: Mariah Carey: My Battle with Bipolar Disorder

Little is known about what happens genetically in relation to bipolar disorder, according to the National Library of Medicine, but it is thought that the risk of someone developing it increases if a relative was previously diagnosed.

Environmental factors also seem to contribute to the onset of the disease, since stressful events such as the death of a loved one, can often trigger symptoms. Looking back, Good says her father’s arrest was likely what incited her illness.

Good says she initially struggled with the acceptance of her diagnosis and the unfair stigma that came with it.

“I was angry. It didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t think that I could be like this because the only thing I knew about bipolar disorder was that it was crazy people in straight jackets they make movies about,” she says.

“From the ages of 18 to 21, I completely ignored the disorder, and I refused to stay on medication for it and turned to alcohol to self-medicate and get through life. I just didn’t believe that it was possible I was disabled.”

For several years, Good had trouble dating, as she focused on herself and having fun more than the needs of those around her, she says. Because of her sometimes erratic behavior, many of her friends simply labeled Good a “wild child,” and didn’t connect that something more was going on. “They were looking at the individual pieces and not the whole picture,” Good explains.

But when she was 24 and living in San Diego with her husband, Good recognized that her disorder was causing problems in her marriage, and she decided to finally face the disorder head-on.

“I was drinking heavily again just to stay calm. I get very high anxiety, so I was drinking a lot to squash the anxiety, to try to stay calm, to try to go to sleep,” she says. “I was getting really irritable and impulsive all the time. I had to drop out of college multiple times because I’d be doing so well, and then hit a wall with a period of depression, and just drop everything, and just stay in bed for a long time.”

RELATED VIDEO: Demi Lovato Opens Up About Her Bipolar Disorder

Good went back on medication and volunteered at the International Bipolar Foundation, and though she had kept her diagnosis to herself for so long, she was inspired to share her story after meeting so many other people from different walks of life who share the disorder. Today she is now a program coordinator with the foundation and says she is now the most stable she has been in years. She wants to inspire others with the disorder to hold on to hope.

“Bipolar disorder might be the diagnosis, but it’s as diverse as is our personality, as is our genetic makeup, our nationalities. It can affect anybody,” Good says.

“People need to be supported, and treated, and pushed to love themselves and work with their own illness. When I started to look at myself and say, ‘All right. Stop fighting who you are. Stop fighting what you have and just work with it,’ that really changed how I thought about myself.”

March 10 is World Mental Health Day and this year the theme of the important awareness event is “Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World.”

Many of those affected by mental health issues, as well as those who know people that are, have shared their stories on social media using the hashtag #worldmentalhealthday.

For support concerning bipolar disorder, contact the International Bipolar Foundation at ibpf.org.

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