* Trigger Warning- Suicide*
As Michele “ Chele” Stieve crossed the finish line of her first 10K through the Starting Line Scholarship, she was overwhelmed with emotion. Having walked through several dark years of loss and grief, Chele never imagined that there would be light at the end of the tunnel, and that the light would change her life.
Battling the Stigma Surrounding Bipolar Disorder:
As a child, Chele witnessed firsthand the effects of mental illness through her mother’s struggles. She recalls staying with her aunt for a few months at a time, and when she came back, her family never spoke of it. The stigma was real.
As Chele got older, she never understood why life was so hard for her. One moment she would feel happy and energetic and the next she’d be as low as low can be. She struggled with her studies and wasn’t able to focus. In her 20s, Chele was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
After her son was born, Chele struggled with her mental health and was hospitalized in an extremely traumatic experience. Later in life, she experienced trauma yet again as her iron levels plummeted so low that she feared she’d never walk again.
At her lowest point, Chele didn’t have the energy for much, let alone exercise. Her doctor suggested running, advising that it would help her serotonin levels. But her low energy left her feeling hopeless.
When it Rains, it Pours:
Chele’s mom continued to struggle throughout her life and several times attempted suicide. Chele was always there to pick up the pieces, the ultimate daughter and caretaker.
When the pandemic hit, Chele and her mom both found themselves with COVID at the same time. When her mom went into the hospital, Chele was able to visit her mom just once in the hospital before she passed, letting her know that she loved her and she would see her in heaven someday.
A few short years later, Chele’s father passed away suddenly. Chele and her dad shared a close bond, and this devastating loss coupled with the loss of her mother just a year prior, felt unbearable.
Trauma is a significant trigger for bipolar episodes. “People don’t get it, they think it’s self-inflicted, they think you can control it but you can’t. It’s a disease that people unfortunately don’t understand”, Chele shares about living with bipolar.
Finding Calm in the Storm:
After losing her dad, Chele was desperate to find an outlet to help cope with the stress and grief, so she started running. She found that running was the one thing that seemed to calm her brain.
When her counselor said she should do something to honor her dad and help her wellbeing, Chele decided to sign up for her first 5K. She proudly completed that 5K on September 3rd, her dad’s birthday, and as a special gift to him, she came in with a 2nd place finish!
A Life Changing Surprise:
Heading into winter, Chele knew she needed to do something to make it through the long, dark days. Her best friend shared “Still I Run” with her and told her about the Starting Line Scholarship.
Chele was a little hesitant and went into it saying “this would be nice but I probably won’t get picked”. But as a woman of faith, Chele prayed to God, “if you want me to get the scholarship that’s great but if not, give it to someone who needs it.”
When Chele was selected, she felt like her prayers had been answered, and she had a light to focus on during the dark months ahead.
She chose the “Freeze for Food” 10K in Madison, Wisconsin, because it held a special meaning – the day of the run was her daughter's birthday and the course was near the zoo where she took her children growing up.
Finding Support in Community:
Chele knew this challenge would be physically transformative, but she had no idea how emotionally transformative it would be, too. She formed connections with others who faced similar struggles in the Still I Run Facebook group. The power of community was healing. She felt so supported throughout the process, and her coach was amazing every step of the way.
Forward is a Pace:
When Chele started the race, there were people on both sides of her and she was feeling so good as she passed them. Later, when they passed her she felt that competitive pang, but she reminded herself to run her race the way she needed to in order to finish.
Her only goals were to finish and for the clock to not be put away when she crossed the finish line. And even though they put the water station away toward the end, Chele kept going and she proudly finished faster than her goal time.
Finding Balance Through Running:
Living with the highs and lows of bipolar disorder can feel like a rollercoaster, and prior to running it was a ride that brought patterns of anger and self destruction.
Chele still experiences the highs and lows that bipolar disorder brings, but with running the highs aren’t as high and the lows aren’t as low. Long runs calm her racing brain and have helped her build healthy habits. When her doctor asked what she’s been doing that's caused such a positive change she proudly told him, “running!’
She is a firm believer that God brings help when she needs it most, and that help came in the form of the Starting Line Scholarship. This program and the encouragement she has received have given her faith that she can make positive changes in her life.
With the support of her coach, Chele is now incorporating strength training into her routine as she gears up for her next big goal, completing a half marathon before she turns 60!
Michele encourages others who are struggling to check out the Starting Line Scholarship. Applications are selected on a rolling basis, and it might just be the light you need to help you through the dark.
If you are having thoughts of suicide or in a state of distress, the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline provides 24/7 free and confidential support. To find out more about go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org or dial 988.