Suzie Milkowich says “Bye, Polar Coaster”

Suzie Milkowich cutting up clothing

Suzie Milkowich is building a business that breathes new life into discarded clothing and various fashion accessories — shoes, belts, purses, etc. The company is called Let’s Go Bagz. Items are taken apart and turned into “one of a kind designer bagz, totez, pursez, backpackz, and wearable functional art”.

Suzie has set two goals for the company:

  1. Create jobs for disabled and disadvantaged Mainers
  2. Help combat a major pollution problem in the world — textile waste.

As Let’s Go Bagz grows, so does Suzie. In a way, she is like the many pieces of fabric and materials that are being cut up and pieced together to form something different and beautiful and useful. It has helped her get her life back.

Back to the beginning

Suzie Milkowich in her 30s

Twenty-six years ago, at the age of 31, Suzie was diagnosed with bipolar disease. In and out of psychiatric hospitals, on psychiatric medications, unable to maintain a steady job as a hospice and oncology nurse, and on disability for 11 years, her life was like a roller coaster.

If you had told me that I was going to be resurrected from the dead and go back to the RN workforce and go back to college and then start a business I would have thought I was out of my bipolar mind. I had no drive and I was just so sad. I didn’t have a purpose and I didn’t fit in. The business has helped build the courage and self- confidence I felt I had lost.

To help explain how Suzie got to this point, let’s go back to when her nightmare began to unfold 26 years ago. It was a Monday and she was driving her new Ford Explorer on the Atlantic City Expressway to a Red Cross bloodmobile that she was overseeing. Suddenly the SUV skidded on black ice. It went airborne and slammed back down into the median strip. Her Explorer was totaled but she was basically ok.

Or so she thought. Suzie believes that in the moment of impact, her body released what she refers to as Kundalini energy. It didn’t manifest itself until the following weekend when she was attending a four-day self-improvement seminar that she had signed up for months earlier. She says that during a meditation on fear, memories of sexual abuse that she had experienced as a child rose to the surface of her consciousness.

Everything came to my consciousness all at once, all these horrific things that I had worked so hard to suppress as a kid. I hadn’t felt like any of that ever affected me, but it was stored inside and it came out all at once. It was too much and I feel that when someone has a psychiatric break like that, it’s a safety mechanism that our mind goes out in order to protect us, probably from killing ourselves with an overload of memories.

Suzie became so agitated she couldn’t sleep and never made it to the last day of the seminar.

I didn’t eat or drink for four days and I started to hallucinate. After the seminar I went to the bloodmobile and I could see the blood pulsing through one of the nurses. It was coming out of her ventricle and going into her veins and I hadn’t done any psychedelics. Oh my God, I hadn’t done any psychedelic drugs since I was 16 and I knew something was wrong.

The roller coaster

She’d been seeing a therapist for “everyday stuff” but had never discussed her deeply buried trauma. When she called her and described what was happening, the therapist recommended that she check herself into a local psychiatric hospital. Suzie says she thinks what she needed most during her stay was to be able to sleep and be held. It didn’t happen.

If I could have had that sort of treatment, to process all of it at that moment and just let it out, I think I would have been fine. But I was meant to have this 26 year journey to healing.

She left the hospital with prescriptions for Lithium carbonate, Ativan, and something to help her sleep. Over the next 26 years, she would be hospitalized at least three more times. In the beginning, she mostly experienced mania, but then started having bouts of depression. She tried to continue working but by 2006 had to go out on full disability because she would get overloaded and have a meltdown.

In 2009, she hit rock bottom.

I was being held at gunpoint and I was the one holding the gun. It was January 18, 2009. I was being held at gunpoint and I was going to kill myself that day. I had a brand new Smith and Wesson and I was a great shot. I couldn’t run very far from my arm and I was sure to hit my target. My head.

Instead, she ran for help.

I feel that there’s a higher power whether you call it God, Buddha, the green frog — I don’t care what you call it. I believe that there is a divine force that works in me and through me. And it said you don’t really want to kill yourself Suzie. Call the number on the back of your insurance card and that’s what I did.

She went back into yet another hospital. This time, it was decided that she had a dual diagnosis.

So instead of putting me in a unit where I’m depressed and suicidal, they put me in a locked unit with people who have a dual diagnosis. So I’m in a unit with my peers. I’m with the addicts. And it was hell. It was really hell.

As soon as she was released from the hospital, she went off the Lithium.

When I left, I was motivated partly by anger because I felt that it was one thing to be labeled mentally ill, but to also be labeled addicted, prevented me from getting the treatment I really needed. I said that’s it. I thought if I was going to kill myself on all the psychiatric medicine, what’s the difference? If I’m off it, I could just be who I am — the happy go lucky Suzie Milkowich. And that’s what I did.

Only when she decided to wean herself off the medications, it wasn’t in a good way, and seven months later was back in another hospital. She’d been off the meds for seven months. She was offered an opportunity to enroll in a 30-day program but only if she went back on Lithium. She left.

I got on a plane and headed home, which was in Pennsylvania at the time. Ever since then I’ve been working on ways to balance my system and release myself with diet, exercise, and therapy. No sugar, no gluten, lots of protein, vegetables, and fruit. When I eat junk, I feel like junk. I can instantly feel the inflammation in my bones and my muscles, and I’m in pain and then that absolutely directly affects my mind.

Discovering what works

In early 2016, after enjoying a summer vacation in Maine, Suzie and her wife decided to move to the Bar Harbor area. In 2017, she started seeing a naturopathic physician.

I take a ton of vitamins every day, as well as magnesium, which is good for my neurological system. It helps my depression, relaxes my muscles. It’s made a difference.

She also saw an EMDR therapist for eight months, who helped her process the abuse she suffered as a child.

I’ve had a lot of abuse, not only abuse from others, but a lot of self abuse as well. Working with the therapist, we were able to release the shame and guilt that I felt for years. EMDR has been beyond helpful. It was like the missing piece because I tried everything else.

She then added an energy healer to her treatment team. But one of the most important things she has done for herself is to develop a plan.

If I feel like I’m off or I feel a little racy or not sleeping well or something’s not right, I check in with my team. I immediately contact all my resources and say, hey, I’m not feeling well or something’s off and I make appointments to go see them. As for medications, I have fresh prescriptions if I need them. If for instance, I can’t sleep for 48-72 hours. I also use cannabis to help me sleep or with any pain I might have.

Suzie Milkowich headshot

It hasn’t been easy, and she still faces challenges, but Suzie Milkowich has managed to take the torn and discarded pieces of her life and piece them together to form something that is different and beautiful and useful.

She’s now a student at the University of Maine, working toward a bachelor’s degree in University Studies with a minor in Innovation Engineering and a minor in New Media Design. She’s doing a bit of oncology/hospice nursing and she’s writing a book about her long journey: Bye, Polar Coaster.

And then there’s her business Let’s Go Bagz, which continues to grow. It all started with a simple idea.

Back in January I had an idea for a tote bag to carry a water bottle, keys, and bug spray. I asked a friend to make a bag as a gift for my wife. She made two and I was wearing one when another friend said hey, I want one. I sold it for $20 and that’s how it started. From April to August I took bags to farmers markets and sold over 200.

One of her goals is to employ Mainers with disabilities such as her own or who have low-level felony records.

They may have had a weed pipe when they were 18 or a drunk driving conviction and can’t get a decent job or go to college because they have a felony. I think it’s unfair and I want to be able to develop a solid organization that will bring in people who want to work and have a purpose in life.

Above all, she wants to motivate people to believe in themselves and to not lose hope.

I’m blessed to be alive and whatever I can do to guide somebody, to inspire them and let them know that just because you’re down doesn’t mean you’re out. Right? Keep crawling. Look for the light and keep crawling toward it.

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Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.