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

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.”

‘I Believe in Christ’

The topic of mental illness was addressed in the most recent LDS general conference by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, who asked: "How do you best respond when mental or emotional challenges confront you or those you love?

"Above all, never lose faith in your Father in Heaven, who loves you more than you can comprehend," Elder Holland said. "... Faithfully pursue the time-tested devotional practices that bring the Spirit of the Lord into your life. Seek the counsel of those who hold keys for your spiritual well-being. Ask for and cherish priesthood blessings. Take the sacrament every week, and hold fast to the perfecting promises of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

"Believe in miracles. I have seen so many of them come when every other indication would say that hope was lost. Hope is never lost. If those miracles do not come soon or fully or seemingly at all, remember the Savior’s own anguished example: if the bitter cup does not pass, drink it and be strong, trusting in happier days ahead."

During one particularly challenging day in November 2009, Thompson could feel an episode of depression and suicidal thoughts coming on. She began listening to a rendition of “I Believe in Christ” by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

As she struggled with her thoughts and feelings, the music sounded faint — until the fourth verse.

And while I strive through grief and pain, his voice is heard: Ye shall obtain. I believe in Christ, so come what may...

“When those words echoed, I felt this literal lift of burden,” she said. “It was absolutely, hands down, the hardest, darkest, most difficult experience I’ve ever had, but at the same time it was also the most enlightening, most fortifying experience. ... It’s a fundamental part of why I believe what I believe and why I’ve endured the way I’ve endured."

The verse can now be read in vinyl letters on a wall in her room.

Reprieve through Montana

After nearly three years of battling depression, Thompson received a voice mail on Mother’s Day 2011 from her mother’s cousin, Wendy Allen. Though the two didn’t know each other well, Allen suggested Thompson visit her in Lewistown, Mont.

Getting on the plane was a challenge, but the first four days in the new location were even tougher. Thompson asked her parents to get her a return ticket home.

The next day, “Aunt Wendy” (as Thompson calls her now) told her she didn’t know why she was prompted to invite her young relative to Montana, but she was committed to finding out.

Thompson decided to stay. Over the next year, Allen taught her ways to cope with her problems. Thompson grew to love Montana and found a job at the local Boys and Girls Club teaching piano and physical education, two things she loves.

But greater challenges were ahead.

Thompson applied for full-time missionary service and in December 2011 was called to serve in the New Mexico Farmington Mission. She was to report to the Missionary Training Center on March 28, 2012.

But just weeks before she was set to leave, a major bout of depression came.

After counseling one night with her parents, bishop and stake president, the group determined Thompson should not go and her stake president effectively released her. In that meeting, Thompson recognized that although she wanted badly to serve a “conventional” mission, the Lord had a different plan for her.

A short time later, Thompson began dating a young man. By summertime, the two were engaged to be married, but disappointment struck again as the engagement fell through. Thompson said she holds no ill feelings about the situation, but it was discouraging. She felt she had done all she could to be a worthy spouse and mother, but it didn't happen.

"Nothing worked out," she said of having to quit school, not being able to serve a full-time mission and not getting married. "I was doing my best to do the will of the Lord and everything kept failing. It was so frustrating."

Feeling as though she were back at square one, Thompson decided to take a road trip. She enjoys driving and was only planning on being gone a short time. But a few days into her journey, her mother felt impressed to suggest that she continue her trip. Lisa Thompson said she felt an assurance that her daughter would be watched over and protected.

Over the next two months, Josie Thompson drove around the western United States, visited family and enjoyed her surroundings. While traveling, she decided it was time to write about her experiences dealing with mental illness. As a blogger, she had alluded to her challenges before but had been embarrassed to write about them in depth.

She wrote a blog post in which she was blunt about her condition. Thompson read it to her mother before making it public. Realizing that the honest nature of the post didn't put her in the most positive light, the two discussed whether Thompson should publish it.

Ultimately, she made the decision to do so, and the response was huge. Thompson received hundreds of emails, from people she knew and from strangers. Many shared struggles of their own or challenges of people close to them.

"That's when I really began to understand how prevalent mental illness was," Thompson said.

Thompson decided she wanted to use her experiences to help others. In addition to driving and traveling, she also enjoys talking to people and writing. Soon, an idea was born.

The 444 Project

The 444 Project was created in reference to Thompson's family scripture, Alma 44:4, which had become a source of strength to her during her trials.

Now ye see that this is the true faith of God; yea, ye see that God will support, and keep, and preserve us, so long as we are faithful unto him, and unto our faith, and our religion; and never will the Lord suffer that we shall be destroyed except we should fall into transgression and deny our faith.

Thompson decided she would travel around the country seeking 444 responses to the question "What gets you out of bed each day?"

In the midst of preparations that summer, Thompson began to see a different doctor, who immediately diagnosed her with bipolar disorder. Thompson calls the diagnosis a "game-changer," because it provided an explanation for why none of the treatments she had received for depression had been effective.

Desiring to leave in late March 2013, Thompson hit the road March 28. She hadn't meant to leave on that date for any particular reason, but it was the one-year anniversary of when she would have entered the MTC.

For more than three months, Thompson lived out of her 1998 Saturn. She initially headed to the Southeast because she wanted to go to a place where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn’t have as much of a presence as it does in the West.

Discouragement came as she traveled through more than 30 states. Her condition followed her “like a bad cold," and there were days when she couldn’t even get out of her car. But good times compensated for the lingering challenges.

“After doing (the project), I can do anything,” she said. “If I have to face another demonizing day, it would be equally difficult, but I would have a little bit more of an upper hand. I’d be a little bit stronger because I did something hard.”

Her mother recalled times when Thompson would call and cry to her while she was gone, but she admired how her daughter wanted to help others.

“She was determined to turn this trial into a positive and to help others through her suffering and to prove that if she can do it, as hard as it is, anyone can do it," Lisa Thompson said. "Anyone can get out of bed and count their blessings.”

Along the way, Josie Thompson kept a blog and created videos documenting her journey. As she traveled, and in the time since, she has received messages from strangers who commented that she was able to convey what they’ve long felt about dealing with trials but were unable to articulate.

Thompson wound up recording more than 500 answers from a wide range of people throughout the country. She is in the process of writing a book about her experiences.

Continuing the fight

Thompson still has aspirations of finishing school and getting married one day. She recognizes her challenges are ever-present and won’t go away in this life, even though she is better able to control what she can and work around what she can’t.

“These storms are going to storm into our lives with or without our consent,” she said. “We can certainly introduce them ourselves when we make bad choices, but even when we are doing everything we can to walk the straight and narrow path, these storms will still come.

“I’m still stuck in the middle of this. I’m still struggling every day, but with each new day I have a little bit more strength because I keep going,” she said. “I am learning and obtaining wonderful lessons that I would have never (otherwise) been blessed with. ... I’ve got to learn to still do everything I can to learn to be happy and still cope with this.”

Elder Holland's conference talk addressed perspective when dealing with mental illness.

"Also let us remember that through any illness or difficult challenge, there is still much in life to be hopeful about and grateful for," he said. "We are infinitely more than our limitations or our afflictions!"

Thompson's mother has seen her daughter cling to the Atonement during this process.

“I have seen her grow in her testimony and turn to the Savior and literally grasp hold of the Atonement and the Savior,” Lisa Thompson said. “There are times when she feels like that’s all that’s going to get her through and she has become a different person through all of this.”

Through her learning and doing, Thompson hopes to help others recognize the power of the Atonement so their burdens might be eased.

“I want to be the girl that brings light to others through my own darkness,” she said. “I want to help people. ... Hard things happen and you might have them for the rest of your life, but that doesn’t mean you can’t live a life and that you can’t somehow adapt to those situations.”

Ryan McDonald is studying communication at the University of Utah, where he works as the sports editor of the campus newspaper, The Daily Utah Chronicle.