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Erin Callinan

Flagstaff native Erin Callinan, author of “Beautifully Bipolar,” returns to Flagstaff Friday for a panel discussion at FMC. (Courtesy photo)

Her book describes bipolar disorder as a strange place full of darkness and odd behaviors.

Of trips to psychiatric wards.

Of incredible highs and deep lows.

But she is not her disorder. And, what’s more, people suffering from it can thrive and live fulfilling lives.

That’s the message of Erin Callinan, born and raised in Flagstaff, who returns to her hometown Friday night to talk about her book, “Beautifully Bipolar: An Inspiring Look into Mental Illness,” and give a presentation with her family. Her purpose: to challenge people to address and remove the stigma associated with mental illness.

“There is so much negativity about mental illness in the media,” Callinan said. “And we need to come together and shed some light that having this disorder is not a death sentence.”

Callinan was diagnosed bipolar when she was a teenager attending Sinagua High School (since closed). She credits her family support and the mental health community in Flagstaff for her emergence from bipolar disorder. It was an “awful” journey that took her 13 years, she said.

Friday’s talk will center on her book.

“It’s unfiltered, it’s raw, it’s emotional and it’s encouraging,” Callinan said.

She will talk about the hospitalizations, the struggles, how her support system came about, and — most importantly — she will talk about how she “bought in” that her mental illness was OK.

SHARING STAGE WITH FAMILY

She will share the stage with her mom, dad and psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Caspian, of Flagstaff. They will all answer questions from the audience. They will share how they looked at bipolar disorder as “treatable” and how, through treatment, managing medications and being involved with therapy, people suffering from mental illness can get back to a place where they feel like themselves again.

Although the book started out as a personal journey to reconcile her experiences, she eventually realized that her experiences might benefit others.

“I was initially a little nervous how the response would be, but it was something I needed to do for my own healing,” she said.

Callinan, who spoke in Flagstaff last year, gives the talks for the same reason she wrote the book.

“I’m like any other person — I just have a medical condition that I need to keep an eye on,” she said.

Nobody with a mental illness should have to suffer in silence, she added. So it’s her hope by speaking out about it, and sharing her ups and down, others will share. She wants to create unity and eradicate the stigma that mental illness defines you.

“It doesn’t define you at all,” Callinan said. “It doesn’t create your identity or define what you are capable of.”

POSITIVE RECEPTION

Callinan, who previously worked as a shelter manager for Northland Family Help Center in Flagstaff, continues advocacy work with the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence. She also is a volunteer community ambassador and board member of Unchained, which fights to end domestic minor sex trafficking. She is also involved with New Pathways for Youth, and mentors an 8-year-old girl who previously lived in a homeless shelter.

The reception to her book and her talks has been more positive than she could have imagined.

“People are just so hopeful that I’m not embarrassed or ashamed about my bipolar,” Callinan said. “And they are encouraged that this doesn’t have to define them and they can live a fully functional life.”

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Also surprising is the gratitude her family has received because they’ve been by her side through the whole process. 

“That is not always the case, and people come up to them and hug them and say, ‘I wish I had parents that had responded like yours,’” Callinan said.

She added, “People would ask, ‘How do you do that?’ And my parents would say, ‘How do you not?’”

Callinan has sold hundreds of copies of her book, and it has sold all over this country and in other countries.

“My hope is to keep spreading the word and sharing our stories,” she said.

Callinan has another speaking engagement in Apache Junction in October. She will also be speaking and doing book signing at the “Walk Your Socks Off” event to help the National Alliance for Mental Illness in Flagstaff in October. A company in California will be converting “Beautifully Bipolar” into an audio book that will be for sale.

SECOND BOOK COMING

She’s in the process of writing her second book, which will focus on her family’s experiences, because her disorder didn’t just affect her.

How long will she keep sharing her message?

“’Til I can no longer speak,” she said. “As long as my body and mind allow me to. I will continue speaking out.”

The talk is sponsored by the Northern Arizona Regional Behavioral Health Authority and Flagstaff Medical Center as part of National Recovery Month.

Larry Hendricks can be reached at 556-2262 or lhendricks@azdailysun.com.

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