Julie Hardle
Julie Hardle, shown here with her husband, Jim, and her beagles, Cooey and Tariq, spent years suffering from mental illness but now helps others who are on their own journeys to wellness.

SALT LAKE CITY — She never really wanted to die. She only wanted to make the pain go away.

That is what the 11-year-old told herself when the house was quiet and she could sneak upstairs to peek inside her father’s sock drawer. There it was, beneath the crisp handkerchiefs and navy wool socks: the chrome revolver that her dad thought he’d hidden from the family.

Julie Hardle lifted the gun from the drawer and held it for a few minutes, admiring its weight and the feel of the cool metal on her hands. “I would sit there and hold it,” she says, “and I would just think about going away. I was so sad and in so much pain that I didn’t know how to verbalize it. It was my secret and I was ashamed.”

She was in the fifth grade then, the first time she contemplated taking her own life. It was the beginning of a 30-year battle with severe depression and erratic mood swings that would lead to numerous hospital stays.

If you had told Hardle then that she would one day recover from her mental illness and take a job helping others cope with similar challenges, “I wouldn’t have thought it possible,” she says. “I wouldn’t have recognized the person that I am today. It was a long and hard process, but I truly feel now that everything I went through was an incredible blessing. It’s helped me to be more compassionate and listen with an open heart.”

Hardle, 48, works as a manager of recovery and resiliency at OptumHealth, a support network for people with mental illness. She wanted to share her story over a Free Lunch of shrimp scampi and spinach salad at Salt Lake City’s Citris Grill, hoping to shine a light on an issue that is full of fear and stereotypes.

“Too many times, people hear about a person with mental illness and think of a person who is dangerous,” she says, “even though that person is more likely to be a victim of a violent crime, not the perpetrator. The truth is, people with mental illness have the same hopes and dreams – they just need a little help. They’re people like me.”

Hardle’s own mental health began declining in grade school after an older cousin sexually abused her for more than a year. Afraid to tell her parents, she kept her despair inside, plotting ways to take her life so she wouldn’t be a burden to anyone.

“I thought about suicide all the time,” she says, “and as I grew older, I tried to overdose several times. It’s hard to explain, but I never really wanted to die. I just wanted out.” A friend who found Hardle nearly unconscious from an overdose of Valium pills, rushed her to the hospital, saving her life in more ways than one.

“I ended up in the neuropsychiatric unit, where they diagnosed me with bipolar disorder,” she says. “Finally, I had a reason for why I was so depressed.”

Although Hardle was able to control some of her mood swings through medication and counseling, there were times when nothing helped. During one manic episode, she became convinced that people were watching her at home, so she slept for a week in her car rather than enter her condo.

But with a determination to get better, she kept seeking treatment and started to see some positive results. At age 40, after years of thinking she’d never be worthy of a romantic relationship, she met her future husband, Jim Hardle, an auto technician with the patience and compassion she so needed.

When they were dating and Julie was hospitalized again, Jim sent flowers every day, “not realizing that the glass vases weren’t allowed in the neuropsychiatric unit,” she recalls with a smile. “The nurse’s station was awash in floral arrangements and I knew that he was the man for me.”

Today, Hardle shares her story at health conferences, colleges and prison units, hoping to inspire others to seek the help she ignored during her younger years.

“Nobody should have to go down this road alone,” she says. “Sharing my recovery story is the most important thing I do. Giving people hope makes what I went through worthwhile.”

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Cathy Free has written her "Free Lunch" column since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime western correspondent for People Magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.