Into the Light: Chelsie Holmes
Each day, Chelsie Holmes consciously makes choices based on what will help her stay mentally stable — eating regular meals, going to sleep at a certain time, accepting or declining a social invitation or following a strict skin care regimen.
The 29-year-old Steamboat Springs woman is bipolar, which she says makes her moods unpredictable. She can cycle in and out of manic episodes and depressive states, and if she doesn’t take care of herself, things can spiral out of control.
“Everything I do is about maintaining my illness,” Chelsie said. “And frankly, I feel like I’m responsible for that, because it affects not only myself when I’m not stable but also the people around me.”
Chelsie, who grew up in a rural town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar disorder until she was a student at Michigan State University.
She first realized she might be experiencing mental illness when a professor pulled her aside and spoke to her about her sporadic behavior. Chelsie would thrive for part of the semester – doing graduate-level work — and then, during another portion of the semester, sleep in class or not show up at all.
Then during a university event, Chelsie randomly took a mental health screening quiz to get a free Jimmy John’s sandwich.
“They read my survey and pulled me into a crisis room, and basically said, ‘We’re really concerned about you,’” Chelsie said.
From there, Chelsie saw a psychiatrist at the university’s counseling center and was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 20.
Earlier that same year, Chelsie had been sexually assaulted, and she believes that incident triggered her first manic episode.
“That made things a lot worse, and leading up to the survey, I had crashed pretty badly and was very depressed,” Chelsie said.
Seeking treatment was like a science experiment, Chelsie said.
“They don’t always know what to give you, so it’s kind of trial and error. And sometimes, by some miracle, they get it right, and it works out perfectly. But a lot of times, it gets worse before it gets better.”
After graduating from college, Chelsie was still struggling to find the right medication, and her mental health began deteriorating again. She moved to metro Detroit and began working with survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence in a position similar to the one she holds now with Advocates of Routt County.
“With bipolar disorder, there are ups and downs, so there were times when I was doing amazing and thriving at work, having fun with my friends and being really social and everything seemed to be great,” Chelsie said. “And then there were periods of time when I was just totally in seclusion and had no interest in anything I was doing and sleeping a lot.”
Chelsie found her depression deepening until eventually she became suicidal, leading to her first and only hospitalization.
“I definitely hit an all-time low,” she said. “But I always want to let people know that if you are feeling suicidal or you’re having severe depression, going to the hospital seems like the end of the world, it seems like the worst-case scenario, but actually, dying is the worst-case scenario.”
Chelsie said being hospitalized was the best thing that ever happened to her, and it helped her learn to navigate her illness.
She lived and worked in Detroit for a few more years and then moved to Chile, where she improved her Spanish, and then to Costa Rica, where she was living when the pandemic started. She returned to the U.S. and decided to hike the Colorado Trail with an uncle who lived in Denver. He suffered a knee injury, so they were not able to finish the trek, but Chelsie wasn’t done living in Colorado. So she found a job as confidential advocate at Advocates of Routt County and moved to Steamboat last August.
Chelsie chooses to speak openly about being bipolar to break down stigma and let people know that someone can have a mental illness and still be a professional and a contributing member of the community.
In addition to her job, Chelsie, who is bisexual, helped organize Yampa Valley Pride, and she’s also in the process of becoming a mentor with Partners of Routt County. She participated in this year’s SPEAK event and is a songwriter who just released another album on Spotify, “Mad Creek,” under the name of Chelsie Malynn.
“It’s been a year now (since she moved to Steamboat), and hopefully, people know that I’m pretty good at what I do,” Chelsie said.
She also acknowledges she considers herself privileged to have gone to college and had access to health care for much of her life.
“It is among the reasons I’m stable enough to do a lot of the things I do,” she said. “Not everyone has those privileges, and it isn’t a matter of virtue that I’m able to pull through in ways that others cannot.“
She believes her lived experience is a benefit when it comes to working with survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.
“When I have a client come to me with a concern about their mental health, sometimes, I disclose my own struggles because it makes them see that somebody who seemingly has it together and is helping them now has been through the same thing that they have, and they’ve made it through,” Chelsie said. “I also think I know how to talk to people who are experiencing suicidal thoughts, because I know exactly what it feels like to have them. And also having survived sexual assault has helped me work with survivors, because I can relate to what they’re going through.”
Chelsie finds support in her relationships with her sister and her friends, and she practices self-care by writing music, doing yoga, going on hikes and backpacking trips and spending time with her cat and her dog.
The song Chelsie wrote and performed for SPEAK is titled “Pendulum,” and it speaks to her experience as someone with bipolar disorder.
“The song is about how, if somebody can appreciate the darker side of you, they can appreciate the full spectrum of you as a person,” Chelsie said. “I feel like the benefit of bipolar disorder is that I have perhaps lived a more extreme lived experience. Because I have bipolar disorder, life is a little bit more dramatic; it’s a little bit more exciting. And even though there’s a negative to that, I just feel like I’m living life to the fullest in a lot of ways.
“I also want people who are struggling to know that this is a lifelong journey, but it does get better.”
To reach Lisa Schlichtman, call 970-871-4221, email lschlichtman@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @lschlichtman.
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Emma Harmon, of Durango, is pictured with journals she has kept about her mental health challenges. She said Axis Health System would not help her when in crisis. “The way things seem to work there, you’d actually have to have killed yourself before they’d meet with you.” | Jerry McBride/Durango Herald