I was talking to my sister Pauly on the phone about what I’d been doing lately. I’d recently retired from a career in Physical Therapy, and she was curious about how I was spending my time. I explained to her that I was in transition. I had moved from being a health care provider to an advocate supporting and promoting the stories and bold ventures of active women over 50. I was meeting amazing women, collecting and sharing their stories through our company, Sistership. The narratives mostly centered around those who bucked the gender and age stereotype through physically daring adventures and inspirational challenges. I believed that by spreading these tales of women who chose to live life boldly, it could help inspire others to do the same. After all, it was pretty much the same thing I had been doing as a PT, but using stories to build connections to change behavior.
My sister listened to me intently. She seemed excited as I shared my enthusiasm for this new phase of my life. I rambled on for several minutes before finally coming up for air. In the brief pause, I offered, there was a short silence. Then she asked, almost timidly, “Jo, do you think my story is bold enough? I mean, do you think someone would connect with my life story?”
I gasped. Tears began to well up in my throat. Unlike other heroines I had written about, here was my sister’s untold story, so deeply woven into the fabric of our family, it almost seemed too ordinary. But it was far from that.
I was 14. I remember when my parents got the call from Harbor General Hospital. She was in their mental health ward, admitted with a diagnosis of “bipolar personality.” Unlike today, this disorder was virtually unheard-of in the ’70s. The hospital explained that Pauly had been picked up by the Los Angeles police for making a public disturbance at the LA Airport during a manic episode. She was impersonating Angela Davis, a controversial African-American political activist, and was protesting loudly in the terminal. This first incident turned out to be the beginning of decades of cyclic states of mania and depression.
Yet, today, against so many odds, she was celebrating. After a lifetime of heartaches, disappointments, spiritual renewal, self-acceptance, and love, Pauly had now come full circle. At 65, my sister had a bold story, and for the first time in her life, she found the strength and worthiness to want to share it.
Greetings from American Samoa. Enclosed is my legacy for your files. If my story can help one person, it would have been well worth it. When I came to live with you in 2001, you, little sister, were the wind beneath my wings. I never dreamed I could soar as high as I am now. Thank you for your encouragement in my life and all the support and love to this day. I love you always, Pauly
Testimony of Pauline Ann Gabbard
I was born in October 1954, in Japan, the daughter of a navy man. At the age of 21 in Oxnard, California, I was diagnosed with “bipolar illness,” otherwise known as “manic depression.” I was placed on lithium, considered the “miracle drug” for this diagnosis. I took seven pills a day for 30 years, was under the care of many psychiatrists, and was in and out of mental institutions. I had recurring mania attacks often.
Despite these events, I was able to have a 20-year career with the federal government. However, my federal career abruptly came to an end when I suffered a manic episode on the job. Fortunately for me and my health, I was immediately retired onto disability. At about the same time, I was also baptized in a Baptist Church at the age of 20. I became a Born-Again Christian.
My ethnic heritage is Samoan. My parents, both born and raised in American Samoa, had returned to their homeland in 1982 after raising their six children in Southern California. I joined them there in the late ’90s for a short time. I did not work, was very unhappy, and gradually gained over 300 pounds. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I moved back to California in 2001. I lived with my brother and sister in the Bay Area for a while until I finally got my own studio apartment in Fairfield, California. My surroundings were concrete with very little greenery, unlike the beautiful island I had just come from. I lived on my disability check with very little income for rent, food, and utilities. I ate one meal a day and at one point, had to go to the Salvation Army for food.
One day, I opened my front door, and there was a flyer inviting me to a local church. They provided transportation on Sundays, and so I called and started attending Christian Fellowship. I felt a sense of peace and found a few good Christian friends.
I lived in Fairfield, California, for two years and gradually missed my family in Samoa. I longed to go back to the islands. I was seeing psychiatrists and taking five different medications, ranging from anti-anxiety to sleeping pills. Once again, I became depressed, and this time contemplated suicide. But in February 2003, I received a phone call that my mother had died of congestive heart failure. My father sent me a plane ticket for the funeral. I knew I did not want to return to Fairfield, so my sister helped me move out of my apartment in one day. A few days later, I was on a plane to American Samoa.
I attended my mom’s funeral in March 2003 and never returned to the States. My parents owned a six-unit apartment building, and following my mom’s death, I moved into her room. During this time, I felt the need for God again in my life. I soon discovered an English-speaking church right down the street. The name of the church was Word of Life Christian Fellowship, and I have been attending this church for over 15 years now.
During my stay in the apartment, my sister, who lived next door, hired a Fijian woman, named Sala to do household chores and errands. Sala and I soon became best friends. She stopped attending her church and started going to mine with me. We both continue to go there today. It’s been 15 years.
Not only did Sala become my best friend, but she became my mentor and spiritual counselor. She prayed for me to get off my medications. I was under a doctor’s care, and over time, he cut my medications down to one small pill a night. This drug is Risperdal. I was no longer taking lithium.
When I joined the Word of Life Church in 2003, I begged God for healing from my bipolar illness and depression. I repented of my sins and rededicated my life to Jesus. He delivered me. I now go to my psychiatrist once a year to refill my Risperdal. Since the age of 17, I smoked cigarettes—one to two packs a day. Sala prayed for my deliverance from my long-time addiction. I also suffered from gout. This affected my ability to walk. Sala patiently helped me over the years to improve my diet, and I do not suffer from gout anymore. It’s been 10 years since I’ve had an attack. I gave up pork and fatty foods. In addition to my other ailments, I also suffered from sleep apnea and wore a mask to sleep for almost 20 years. I was very overweight, so this was no surprise. In January 2019, I was in the hospital for a leg injury for two weeks. I had left my mask at home. The incident caused me to lose a considerable amount of weight, and when I returned home, I didn’t use my mask anymore. I didn’t need it!
In October 2014, I became very sick. The “miracle drug” lithium that stabilized my moods for the past 30 years had damaged both of my kidneys. I was placed on dialysis. Immediately, after 43 years of smoking one to two packs a day, I quit – cold turkey. I was 60 years old.
It will be five years this October that I’ve been on dialysis. I go three times a week to the local hospital, and each treatment lasts four hours. Both my parents have died, and I’ve moved out of their apartment complex. I now live in a beautiful three-bedroom house with my caregiver and best friend, Sala.
When I started dialysis in 2014, I weighed 285 pounds. Today, I weigh 204 pounds and can’t wait to get under 200 pounds for the first time in over 20 years. Sala cooks for me, and we have a strict food routine. Since being on dialysis and with the help of Sala, I’ve gotten control of my health. I no longer suffer from depression and am on a healthy routine. I now wake up at 5:00 am, shower, get dressed each morning, and give thanks to our Heavenly Father for another day. Being on dialysis and seeing the same people three times a week has brought me out of my shell. I now look forward to seeing what has become my “dialysis family” every week. When I first moved here, I couldn’t get out of bed until noon. I always wanted to lose weight and stop smoking, but now that has become a reality.
Last year I embarked on a short exercise program while my sister, Johanna, was here. We went to the local swimming pool, and I started using a stationary bike at home. This has helped me lose some of my weight. I continue to use the bike and look forward to achieving my weight goal of 180 pounds.
This is my life story, and these are just some of the obstacles I’ve overcome. By the Grace of God, I will be 65 years old this year, and I have never been happier in my life!
** Pauly’s return to the water inspired her and Sala towards a healthier lifestyle over the next two years. Although she finally met her goal of getting below 200 pounds, the sequelae of medical problems associated with her bipolar illness took their final toll. On October 14th, eleven days after her 66th birthday, Pauly passed away peacefully in her sleep.