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Bipolar disorder can't stop LDS woman from spreading light, joy through The 444 Project

Josie Thompson Solomon’s mission statement is simple: “to be the girl who brings light to others through her own darkness.”

Darkness began to creep into Solomon’s life in 2008, when, as an otherwise healthy college sophomore, she struggled to get out of bed in the morning. Solomon, a former high school student body president, was quick to recognize a difference in her life.

She was soon diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and in the seven years since, she has tried over 40 combinations of antidepressants, counseling, holistic treatments and more. Although she and her family continue to fast and pray for solutions, they have also learned that, as Solomon likes to say, “You don’t have to be healed to help.”

After struggling for three years, Solomon left her home in Mesa, Arizona, after receiving an invitation from her aunt and uncle to live with them on their ranch in Montana. She saw improvements in her health and thought she might even be able to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, something she dreamed of doing. She received a call to serve in the New Mexico Farmington Mission, but weeks before she was assigned to leave, the darkness she recognized all too well began to resurface. Solomon was unable to go on her mission.

“Sometimes we are asked to carry trials that help lift others," Solomon said. "Sometimes I think, ‘Why on earth did I get called to serve a mission and feel prompted when I didn’t end up going? Why did that happen?’ I used to think that all the time."

However, as she has had opportunities to share her experiences with various audiences, she has found that her story resonates, and it helps people with their own challenges and concerns.

This is why Solomon has spent the past four years traveling around the world, sharing a message of joy and light.

In November 2013, Solomon, then an unmarried 25-year-old, was featured in a Deseret News article after completing a trip across the country and asking 444 people one question: “What gets you out of bed each day?” She chose this question because she often struggled to get out of bed and found that pondering her blessings often provided the motivation she needed to begin her day.

Nearly 6,000 miles away from Solomon’s home in Arizona, a man named Gabriele Funaro from Laveno Mombello, Italy, read her story. As a member of the LDS Church, Funaro shared Solomon’s faith, and he felt that the people of Italy could benefit from her message. Funaro extended an invitation to Solomon to repeat The 444 Project in Italy, with a promise that he would provide a phone, transportation and people to interview.

Solomon was initially hesitant, but in the wake of the death of her cousin Season Joy Barnett, Solomon’s mother encouraged her to take the trip.

“She said, ‘Josie, we book on faith,’” Solomon remembered. “I saw the opportunity as being so inopportune, but my mom saw it differently. She saw the timing as perfect. She said, ‘Look around you. (The) timing couldn’t be more perfect. And just think, this time Season can go with you.”

Solomon and her friend Kelly Allen Roberts travelled to Italy in May 2014, relying on faith.

“All of our plans were predicated upon this stranger,” Solomon said. “We really had no idea. We didn’t have any mutual friends either, so it wasn’t even like I had someone vouching for him. It was complete faith, and, honestly, everything about this project has been orchestrated by unseen hands. There have been angels at the head of this from the get-go.”

Funaro followed through on every promise he made and helped the young women interview 444-plus people. This time, in honor of Season Joy, they asked the question, “What brings you joy?”

“The irony of being the girl who talks and lives and breathes joy is, I seldom feel it,” Solomon said. “I’m seldom afforded the privilege of feeling joy. But I have learned that the great thing about joy is you can bring it to others, and you can create it, even when you don’t feel it.”

Upon returning from her two-month stay in Italy, Solomon had new stories and experiences to share. She began to have more public speaking opportunities and found that they filled a void in her life.

“One reason speaking is so important to me is because I … didn’t get to serve a mission, and I wanted to so bad,” Solomon said. “That desire to spread the gospel and something that was so dear to me was never quenched. So I feel like when I am able to speak and address the masses, it feels as though I’m able to quench that thirst a little bit. It gives my trial purpose.”

She also collaborated with Revive Service Tours to take The 444 Project to the Philippines in June 2014. While there, Solomon and 28 volunteers — including a camera crew — made repairs to a school that was damaged by a typhoon, built a new classroom and held education summits to encourage academic pursuits.

Solomon said that while they had a goal to bring joy to the people in the Philippines, they found that they became the students as the people taught them about joy.

“These people aren’t happy or joyful because they have no adversity or because they’re happy-go-lucky,” Solomon said. “They have darkness, and not just because of natural disasters or poverty. They have mental illness over there, and they have grief and sorrow. They struggle, and their trials vary, … but they still have their darkness, and yet they are able to find joy and light.”

As Solomon works to recognize joy and light, she turns to her husband, Brighton, a name his wife says fits him.

“He represents his name perfectly because he really does emit so much light,” Solomon said. “And I couldn’t possibly be married to anyone but him, someone who is so optimistic and who is able to fight the darkness with me without it getting him down.”

The couple was set up on a blind date and began dating in November 2013. Solomon said their courtship revolved around The 444 Project because on the days she felt well enough to do anything, she needed to work on the project. On days when she didn’t feel well, which were more frequent, Solomon laid in her bed while Brighton sat on the floor and did his homework. Brighton traveled with Josie to the Philippines in June 2014 and, while there, he asked her to marry him.

“I love you to heaven and back, and I will go through hell to prove it,” Brighton said. “Josie Thompson, will you marry me?”

Solomon recognizes that living with her is often challenging; after all, as she says, “When some girls get married, they have a dowry, but instead, I had a darkness.”

Still, Brighton only reaffirms his love and commitment.

“Brighton, when he married me, knew that one of his biggest roles as my husband, in addition to the regular set of responsibilities and duties that come with being a husband” was dealing with her illness, Solomon said. “He added to the list that his job throughout our life together would be to help remind me and to point out where joy is. When I don’t feel it he will often tell me, ‘Josie, this is good. This is joy.’”

The two were married Aug. 29, 2014, in the Las Vegas Nevada Temple. They recently moved to Utah, once again “booking on faith.” The Solomons have already begun to find reasons they felt prompted to move to Utah. Josie gave the keynote address at the 2016 Utah AmeriCorps Conference earlier this month and will speak at an Especially For Youth seminar this summer. The couple is also planning a trip to Tanzania with Revive Service Tours in July.

Solomon said that no matter where she goes, the darkness comes with her — but she has found that the darkness that comes from situations in life, rather than sin, refines and purifies. She has also found that others can see the light in her life even when she can’t, and she knows the source of that light.

“Everybody has their darkness, but everybody has light," Solomon said, "and I’ve found that while our darkness varies from person to person, the light that heals and redeems is the same, and that’s the light that comes from the Atonement. … The gospel, and specifically the Savior, is what has carried me through this dark abyss of the past seven years.”