LDS blogger battles bipolar disorder by traveling the country, befriending strangers

By Ryan McDonald

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 27 2013 1:00 p.m. MST

Josie Thompson in Boise, Idaho.

Provided by Lisa Thompson

Times Square, Graceland and New Orleans are popular tourist destinations for many in their mid-20s, but as Josie Thompson drove around the U.S. earlier this year and stopped at those locations, seeing the sights was not her goal.

Instead, she was out to prove that there’s still good in the world and to show that everyone has a story.

Thompson, 25, spent 100 days from March to July getting to know complete strangers. Her journey became known as "The 444 Project." Though each encounter with individuals from a large cross section of the population was different, she ended every one by asking the same question:

“What gets you out of bed each day?”

It’s a question Thompson has struggled to answer in her own life for the better part of five years.

The beginning of a long battle

The fall of 2008 was a tumultuous season for Thompson. A sophomore at Mesa Community College and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she was still fresh off her years at Mesa High School, where she was a straight-A student and homecoming queen, played three varsity sports and served as student-body president.

Suddenly, as she began her second semester of her sophomore year, going to class became a miserable task. Getting out of bed became difficult, and the inability to pinpoint a reason for her struggle left her confused. She told a friend she had “no idea what’s happening."

Soon, she withdrew from school and started treatment for depression, but she began spending the majority of her time in bed. She didn't even make it there during times she calls “floor days."

“I would lay there and it was as though my mind did not work,” she said.

Eventually, the motivation to shower, brush her teeth and eat breakfast left her. Counting to three became necessary preparation for tasks such as swinging her legs over her bed and standing up.

“I would lay there absolutely wanting nothing more than death," she said. "I don’t mean to sound cynical or dark or anything, but that was the reality of how I felt."

Her mother, Lisa Thompson, has a difficult time describing how she felt observing her daughter struggle so intensely.

“It was just indescribable pain to see one of your children suffer like that, and especially Josie, who had always been so outgoing and so friendly,” Lisa Thompson said. “To just all of a sudden see that quality of life turn into this quality of life where she’s just doing nothing but staying up in her room and hardly coming downstairs was hard. It was really hard.”

The fact that treatments weren’t working increased frustration. Josie Thompson said she also felt guilt, which in turn caused her to feel estranged from the Holy Ghost.

In an effort to do what she could to invite the Spirit, Thompson would turn on gospel-centered music even though she hated sound. Light was bad, too, but she always made sure there was at least some in her room.

“It was like something of a personal plea to my Heavenly Father that I was going to do everything in my power to invite the Spirit,” she said.

Remembering moments throughout her life when she had felt the Spirit — what she calls her “spiritual food storage” — helped carry Thompson through the darkest of days, she said.

“The name of the game was endurance,” Thompson said. “It just came to the point where it was just a waiting game. I just thought, ‘I just have to hold on for dear life.’ At that point, that was my only option.”

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