Kealani Yamamoto grew up in Cashmere, Washington, a little town nestled in the Cascades between Wenatchee and Leavenworth. She describes herself as a tough kid. As a three year old, she used to quote the movie Tommy Boy, saying “Dope, that’s gonna leave a mark!” when she fell and scraped her knee.
Growing up, Kea was really into sports and loved hanging out with her friends and being social. She was a straight A student and a very successful athlete. As a freshman in high school, she qualified in track for the Junior National Olympics in Reno, Nevada. She described her childhood as smooth sailing, until her freshman year of highschool, when she felt a shift in her mood. She said she just felt “off.” Toward the end of her freshman year, she saw the school counselor and remembers being given a feelings wheel. “I threw it away. I was like ‘this is garbage.’ I was the tough kid; why would I talk about my feelings?”
That summer, Kea managed her emotions by burying them in water skiing and running and mountain biking, working through her feelings alone. “I think if I even would’ve circled three feelings, I might have felt better, but probably just crumpling it up and throwing it in the garbage was not the best way to navigate that.” At the start of her sophomore year, her best friend approached her and said:
“Kea, I think you’ve kind of changed. Something’s different about you.”
After this conversation, Kea distanced herself from this friend and friend group, thinking they were trying to attack her instead of help her. She became a bit of a lone wolf, jumping between serious boyfriends and a few friends. She also began experiencing intrusive negative thoughts.
Kea describes her story as one of peaks and valleys. “My freshman year, I started in the valley of the hill. And then as I got to my senior year, I just kept climbing up and up and up in my mood as well. The summer between my junior and senior year is when I had my break and my break was a manic episode.”
As her moods began to climb, Kea began to feel that things were not okay. She spent four days and four nights awake, writing random quotes on her wall with a Sharpie. “I was obsessed with the movie Zoolander. And I wrote Zoolander quotes on my wall, because those were very poetic at the time,” she said with a chuckle.
With no family history of mental health challenges, her parents were at a loss at how to help her or what to do. They decided to take her to her family’s cabin at Lake Wenatchee, because they knew this was Kea’s happy place. That night, she slept on the couch and woke up at five in the morning hallucinating. She left the cabin, believing that her boyfriend at that time had set up a scavenger hunt to ask her to homecoming.
Kea set off on foot, following signs of what she thought was the scavenger hunt, including PUD spray marks on the ground, sticks and stones. After hours of her entire family looking for her, she walked up towards the road, where her brother found her and brought her back to the cabin. Immediately, her parents took her to the hospital.
“I remember my mom was convinced that I was on drugs and I kept saying, ‘Mom, I wouldn’t do that. I’m a runner. I wouldn’t do that.’” Even on the ride to the hospital, Kea was still hallucinating, believing that things she saw along the highway were part of the scavenger hunt. When they got to the hospital, the doctors did a variety of tests, including drug tests at the insistence of Kea’s mom.
“The doctor came back and he said, well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is: Kea is telling the truth. She’s not on drugs. Kea actually has bipolar disorder one, and right now she’s experiencing a manic episode; that’s why it seems like she’s on drugs.”
The manic episode Kea was experiencing was a euphoric state. “It’s very similar to what they say an LSD trip is, so my mom thinking that I was on drugs was pretty accurate.” The doctor prescribed a medication to bring Kea out of her hallucination.
“My doctor describes [these euphoric states] as having all of the superpowers in the world for that period of time…you really think that you’re in this magical place…” Kea explained that this is challenging for some individuals experiencing bipolar disorder, because sometimes they want that excitement back.
“Everything is brighter and faster and more fun and more exciting.”
After she was released from the hospital, her family took some time off in Hood River, Oregon. “I think their thought was, ‘If we can get out of town and regroup, then we can kind of make a game plan,” Kea said. When her family came back from Oregon, her dad took her to her first psychiatric appointment. The psychiatrist gave her two options: either spend the next six months in Wenatchee Valley trying to regulate her medications; or go to Fairfax, a mental institution in Kirkland, Washington, where she would be monitored 24/7 and likely have her medications regulated in two weeks.
“I, at least, could do the math at that time,” Kea said. It was either six months or two weeks. And with her senior year coming up, she wanted to regulate her medications as quickly as possible and return to school.
Kea’s mom was out-of-town on a business trip, so her dad drove her over to the facility in Kirkland where she signed herself into the facility.
“My dad said that after I signed myself in, there were two nurses that came and grabbed both sides of me and walked me through these two giant double doors. It’s like what you see in a movie. My dad said the door just clicked and locked behind me. He said it was the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life.”
“That was his huge moment of feeling lonely. Still to this day, that breaks my heart, because I could not imagine doing that myself.”
Inside the institution, Kea stayed in a room with two other roommates. “Think of a college dorm room, but there’s nothing in the room besides three beds. There’s a chalkboard behind each headboard and a piece of chalk. I literally tallied my days when I was in there. Each room had three beds and so I was put in the middle bed and then I had two roommates.”
One of Kea’s roommates was just finishing up her stay there and had the same diagnosis Kea had. “I wish we would’ve had a little bit more time while we were there. I remember her saying, ‘you’ll get through this, like you’ll, you’ll be okay.’”
Kea’s other roommate was diagnosed with split personality disorder.
“I remember I would fall asleep, talking to the other roommate. And then I’d roll over, and my second roommate would just be blank staring at me, like without blinking. I’d just be like, ‘Oh…have a good night!’ and turn over and go to sleep.”
“Looking back on that, it’s kind of creepy, but it was a safe facility, so there were cameras everywhere.”
Kea was in the facility for almost exactly two weeks. After being released from the facility, her mom, who was very black-and-white about things, told Kea that she’d been doing a lot of research while Kea was in the facility.
She said, “I don’t know a ton about bipolar disorder, but what I do know is, you didn’t cause it. There’s different things that happen in people’s lives. You know, whether they’re alcohol abusers or drug abusers and, that’s different. You were born with this.”
As her family adjusted to this new diagnosis, Kea began rebuilding the other relationships in her life that had fallen apart due to her mental health challenges. “The first person I talked to was my best friend. We’d been best friends since 8th grade. That was the friend that I’d cut out of my life. I thought ‘if I’m going to get through my senior year, I need her.’ I went to her house and said ‘I really need to talk to you about something. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I’m here to, first of all, say I’m sorry.’ She said ‘I just want my friend back and I’m here for you.’”
“That was my first feeling outside of my family of acceptance and of ‘I’m here for you and we’re going to get through this together.’” Kea says sharing her story with her best friend allowed her to share her story with other people in her life. A few years ago, Kea and her best friend were the maid of honor in each other’s weddings. “It was a hard decision but it only took me seven seconds to really decide to talk to my best friend, open that door, and try to mend that bridge…. That grew to sharing my story today.”
As Kea rebuilt the relationships in her life, she started to thrive again. “It was a really great experience to be able to come out of what happened in high school and be successful in college.” In college, she continued to run, making it to nationals in track twice for the steeplechase. As a sophomore, she was an all-American athlete. In cross-country, she made the nationals team two times.
“College had its own challenges just as high school did. I had to rewrite my narrative because my narrative used to be ‘I’m the tough kid that doesn’t cry. I’m the girl that doesn’t cry. I’m tougher than all the boys.’” Now Kea reminds herself that it’s okay to feel fragile. “I’m fragile sometimes, but I have to tell myself, ‘I’m way tougher than I give myself credit for.’ Even when I have days where I’m crying, it’s like I’m crying because I have to get through this to be tough again. It’s okay to cry if I can pick myself back up and regroup.”
As Kea rewrote her narrative, she learned to give people the space to have their own reactions. “I would play out how somebody would react and I would assume how they would react. My brain would put words into people’s mouths that hadn’t even come out. I really had to work on that. It’s like, okay, before I jump to conclusions on what you’re gonna think, I should give you a chance. And I realized when I gave people chances that 99% of the time, they would surprise me.”
For those who are struggling to relate to a friend or family member with a mental challenge, she asks, “have you humanized yourself to them?” Recently, someone asked Kea how to relate to their friend with bipolar disorder. “Think of it this way,” she advised. “He is feeling like he is the weakest link. You know, he’s the one that is having manic episodes and can’t get through them. He is the one that has to be hospitalized. Have you ever gone through anything hard yourself?”
“He started telling me this story about the year before, when he and his family had to move. And he said, ‘It was hard to get outta bed and I was feeling depressed.’
I said, ’I’m gonna stop you there. You weren’t feeling depressed. You were depressed. That’s okay and that’s what you need to tell your friend. He needs to hear that from you, that you’ve realized that you have challenges as well. Everyone does; he’s not the only one.’”
Her other advice: it’s never too late to reach out. It’s been ten years since Kea’s bipolar diagnosis and she’s finding purpose in sharing her story. “For so long, I just kept saying ‘no one understands what I’ve been through.’ But that was also my downfall because I wasn’t giving people an opportunity [to understand].” Kea shares about the first time she heard a podcast episode of a girl who’s story significantly aligned with her own story. “I remember driving home and I was crying. It was the first time I’d felt like somebody had gone through basically the exact same thing as me…”