For years Gabe Howard teetered between a mania that made him “wild” and a depression that made him suicidal. When he was manic, he’d stay awake for days. He’d drink and use drugs. He’d take unnecessary risks. He felt invincible.

When he was depressed, he felt utterly worthless and alone. He constantly thought about suicide and even had a plan. “I wanted to die and believed that no one would miss me,” said Howard.

He was struggling with bipolar disorder and severe anxiety. Which he and his loved ones didn’t know. Instead, from childhood, everyone assumed that he had a behavioral issue, or a personality flaw—sadly, a common assumption with undiagnosed mental illness.

“During either stage [mania or depression], I wasn’t a good friend, husband, or family member. I was unreliable, dismissive, even mean. I just wasn’t someone I would want to be around—and no one else wanted to be around me, either.”

Things were all the more confusing because sometimes life was perfectly normal. For instance, Howard had a great job, was married and bought his own home at 20 years old. “I really felt like a rock star who had it all figured out.”

But a lot of the time “life was a nightmare,” he said.

At 25 Howard was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for suicidal ideation, depression and delusions. “My mind was, frankly, just shot. I had a suicide plan and I didn’t really know up from down.”

After his hospitalization, Howard turned to effective treatments and tools—including medication, therapy and support groups. It took four years to reach recovery, which he defines as “spending more time living my life than managing bipolar disorder.” “[I]t took a long time—but it was worth it.”

Today, Howard is an award-winning advocate, blogger at Psych Central, and producer and host of our podcast The Psych Central Show. Recently, he was honored by his local newspaper for being an “Everyday Hero,” a person who works to heal, unite and improve their community. In addition to his work at Psych Central, Howard works for The PEER Center, a nonprofit organization that helps people with mental illness, addiction and trauma. He also volunteers for the Crisis Intervention Team, training police officers on how to respond to people experiencing mental health crises.

“When I advocate for others, it helps me,” Howard said. “And when I help myself, it helps others.”

“[Psych Central CEO and founder] Dr. Grohol once said, ‘A rising tide raises all ships,’” Howard said. “I realize he didn’t invent the saying, but when I heard it for the first time, I realized that this is the amazing part of advocating for myself and others. We all benefit.”

Howard also is a sought-after speaker—a career that started off accidentally. “When I was volunteering at a local mental health charity, the executive director asked me to give a speech at a luncheon meeting. She said, ‘Just tell your story and it will inspire people.’ So, I did. I look back and I was so terrible, but I was sincere. I meant what I said and I was able to connect with the audience” (so much so that he received a standing ovation).

And he’s happily married to his wife Kendall. “By getting well I was able to meet and marry her. We wouldn’t have worked if I were sick. By being well I can be the kind of quality person a quality person wants to marry.”

Howard underscored that anyone can be an advocate. “The world needs more people educating others about mental illness. Write a blog, post a note, talk to someone.” “If misinformation about people living with mental illness is darkness, then be a lightbulb.”

He also stressed the importance of having a basic understanding of mental illness and mental health. Because understanding prevents needless suffering. Howard’s family made many (well-intentioned) mistakes. If his family knew what was going on, he could’ve received help sooner. Because understanding saves lives. Howard’s friend was the one who took him to the emergency psychiatric ward when she learned that he planned on committing suicide (which she learned by directly asking him).

Like all mental illness, bipolar disorder is a complex disease and “different people need different things,” Howard said. However, in addition to getting educated, what helps everyone is offering to listen, becoming part of their support system and forgiving them.

“When I was sick, I made a lot of mistakes,” Howard said. “It took time to realize them and make amends. I’m glad my mom didn’t stop loving me until I apologized. Because I needed her in my corner even if I didn’t know it at the time.”

When Howard was initially diagnosed, he didn’t know anyone living well with mental illness, which led him to conclude that no one did. Throughout the years, he’s realized that’s simply not true.

“People do get well and go on to live amazing lives. I believe that. I’m proof that it is possible and I’ve met lots and lots of people like me.”