Sister Carole M. Stephens, First Counselor in the General Relief Society Presidency, referenced a woman named Josie who has bipolar disorder when speaking in the October 2016 General Women’s Conference for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She referenced Josie Thompson Solomon, currently a Springville, Utah resident, as an example of someone who has been comforted and sustained by Christ.
For Solomon, this wasn’t simply a story being told over the pulpit. It was an example of her real-life struggles with mental illness and the all-too-familiar darkness she had grown accustomed to over the past eight years.
The 27-year-old considered herself a perfectionist while growing up. She was a competitive student, athlete and musician. She was her high school’s student body president and homecoming queen.
However, Solomon became overcome with what she calls “the darkness,” a symptom of her bipolar disorder, and said she had a difficult time getting out of bed at age 19. She was initially diagnosed with major depression in 2008, and was consequently diagnosed with Bipolar II five years later.
“From the little I knew about bipolar, I just knew it to be very polarizing,” Solomon said. “I knew that people had their manic highs and manic lows and I had no such correlation. My life was constantly low and then lower.”
This overwhelming darkness and the weight of it kept Josie almost completely bedridden for three years. She was eventually invited by her aunt to stay on their family’s ranch in Montana, where she experienced a relief from the darkness for about nine months.
The relief led Solomon to submit her mission papers and receive a call to Farmington, New Mexico. However, as her date of departure approached, Josie once again experienced the presence of the darkness and was unable to leave on her mission.
Solomon did not abandon the idea of serving completely, even though the opportunity to fulfill this specific mission call was lost. Through what she describes as inspiration, she packed up her car exactly one year later and set out to complete what would be the first of many journeys, entitled “The 444 Project.”
The 444 Project was named after the Thompsons’ favorite verse of scripture — Alma 44:4. In this verse, God promises to “support, and keep, and preserve us, so long as we are faithful unto him.”
Josie was inspired by this scripture and decided to drive across the country asking 444 complete strangers what gets them out of bed every morning.
She traveled to more than 30 states over the course of three months, alternating between sleeping in the trunk of her car and relying on the kindness of strangers.
Solomon blogged to describe what she saw, people she met and experiences she had.
She published a post while she was on the journey, explaining her story and struggle with mental illness; previously, she had chosen to be discreet about her mental illness. The response to this post taught her “darkness is prevalent and everyone struggles to one degree or another.”
A member of the LDS Church living in Italy reached out to Solomon and asked if she would perform an extension of the project in Italy after Josie returned from her road trip across the U.S.
Josie accepted, but decided to ask “What brings you joy?” to the individuals she encountered.
Solomon received an increase in speaking requests after she returned from Italy. She shared her story, struggles and experiences with a variety of audiences through religious firesides and corporate functions.
“Speaking is very important to me because I wasn’t able to serve a mission,” Solomon said. “I feel like when I’m given the opportunity to be able to present and to testify of Christ, especially amidst the darkness that is so prevalent in our world today, and it’s not being talked about as often as it should be. It feels as though my trial is not in vain if I’m able to utilize it as a means to bless another.”
In Oct. 2014, Josie met Brighton Solomon. Josie was convinced she would not get married and attempted to deter Brighton from pursuing her.
“Some girls come with a dowry, I come with a darkness,” Josie said. “I thought it would be selfish to marry.”
Despite her efforts, Brighton said he “instantly fell in love with her” once he heard her story. The two spent their courtship planning the next 444 project, along with Josie’s best friend Olivia Evans.
Evans said even though each project takes a toll, Josie gathered Evans and Brighton together to discuss the idea of another project with humanitarian group Revive Service Tours.
“It was just me, Brighton and (Josie) in her room and she was like, ‘I feel like this is going to start growing. It feels like it’s going to get bigger,'” Evans said.
Evans and Brighton joined as an official part of the third project, which took place in 2015. They planned the trip and prepared to take 27 volunteers to the Philippines for two weeks. Instead of solely asking questions, they aimed to bring joy to the Filipino people.
“We were able to work in orphanages and work in schools and just really become part of the community that we were able to stay with,” Brighton said.
Brighton proposed to Josie and she accepted his marriage proposal during their time in the Philippines. They were married in the Las Vegas LDS temple in August 2015. The couple said they strive to keep their relationship as a “source of light” for other couples who may both or partially struggle with darkness.
“We get almost daily emails from people saying ‘I know that darkness, I know what you’re going through,'” Brighton said. “What we’re beginning to see is that everybody has something. If you don’t struggle with mental illness yourself then you know someone who does, who’s close to you and that you love them and you want to help them. It’s odd that it’s not talked about more because it is so prevalent.”
The executive board of The 444 Project (comprised of Brighton, Josie and Evans), departed in July 2016 with Revive Service Tours and 60 volunteers to serve in an orphanage in Tanzania to spread joy and service.
Josie and Brighton started planning for their next journey shortly after they returned from Tanzania. The executive board of The 444 Project hopes to take volunteers on its first South American service tour in Peru next year.