At HBFIT we are always trying to shed light on topics that might seem intimidating. One particularly close to our hearts is mental health. There’s a taboo surrounding mental illness, which saddens us, because mental health affects us all, but we are attempting to chip away at that with stories and conversations that reveal what it’s like to struggle with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and more. We hope you enjoy our new series where we share our experiences to help educate and create a safe community. Today, one brave member of the HBFIT community, who wishes to remain anonymous, shares her journey with bipolar disorder.
How did you discover you were dealing with? Did it come as a shock?
The summer I was diagnosed I was basically manic on and off the entire time. One moment I was completely “fine” hanging around with my mom doing errands, and the next minute I would be calling my dad asking what time we were going to the Red Sox. There was no Red Sox game that night. I recall reading Twilight at one point and being up at 3 am unable to fall asleep. My mind was racing about the book and I was having delusions. I woke my dad up, and to this day, his face is engrained in my mind. He had a complete and utter look of “This is out of my hands. I can’t do anything to help fix this.” It was awful. My entire family was paralyzed with fear about whether or not I would ever overcome this manic episode. I was completely shocked (when I was feeling normal) to know that a lot of what I was dealing with was going on inside my head. I considered myself to be a very “normal” level-headed, high functioning individual prior to having a manic episode. To this day I feel as though I am still processing the fact that I have a mental health issue.
Were you scared/sad/relieved to know there was a concrete answer to what was going on?
The scariest part of being bipolar was my path to wellness. To be honest, I was pretty out of it when the “bipolar” diagnosis was received. As I was severely manic all summer and my medications weren’t seeming to have a big enough affect, my psychiatrist suggested ECT or electroconvulsive therapy. He was confident it was what I needed to fully heal. So, for 10 weeks I received treatment at the infamous McLean Hospital (of James Taylor and A Beautiful Mind fame). For the first 6 times, I was out of it. But once it started working, and I was getting back to my normal self, I felt really terrified of this process. I started getting freaked out by them putting me under, and inducing mini seizures into my brain. The day I asked my doctor if I could stop receiving the treatment (he said yes) was the day he realized I was truly getting better.
Once we established my diagnosis and treatment, I felt very comforted once I realized that I was seeing one of the best psychiatrists in the country, at one of the best hospitals in the country. He had seen cases like mine and told me he was going to help me get the treatment I needed. I think my parents felt relieved that I wasn’t the only person dealing with this.
What has your journey been like since you’ve been diagnosed?
My journey has been stops and starts, with a lot of diagonal movement. One example of a “stop” was taking a semester off from college to get better – take my medicine, protect my sleep, and make healthy living choices. I had gained a ton of weight from my mood stabilizer, so I focused on working out with a trainer and volunteering – just trying to keep busy and maintain a somewhat normal schedule. A “start” would be getting back to school to finish college with my roommates. They were probably terrified of me, and I was scared to be back at school, but everyone helped me take it in stride. I learned the value of a support system very quickly. My friends and family treated me like the person I was before any of it happened, and it helped me remember who I was before I became ill.
My friends and family treated me like the person I was before any of it happened, and it helped me remember who I was before I became ill.
What have been the most important things when it comes to your health and happiness?
The number one thing I do to ensure I stay healthy is protect my sleep and I try to limit the number of late nights out. If I stay out late, I definitely pay for it with heightened levels of stress and anxiety the next day. I try not to overdo it with alcohol, especially because I take a medication that enhances the effects, which can make for a messy situation very quickly. Exercise helps me regulate the sleeping and feel better overall.
Do you share your experience and diagnosis with people?
I share my experience and diagnosis with people who I feel close to but who I also feel as though they have the emotional/mental capacity to process my issue. Most people are amazed that it does not affect me much today, and that I am able to be back to my normal self, working, socializing, holding relationships with many friends and family members as well as my husband. I told my husband that I was bipolar when we had been dating for about 8 months. I completely hemmed and hawed about it, but ultimately knew this was a big deciding factor in where our relationship was going. This was definitely a moment where I realized I wanted him in it for the long haul. He basically shrugged, said “That’s really sucky, but you’ll be fine right?” and went on his way. Sure, there were questions of how it affects me daily and what happens if we have kids, but the answer to both was “We’ll manage” and that was good enough. Perhaps people judge it in the silence of their own heads, but I have yet to receive criticism or feel embarrassed for explaining the challenge I have gone through and continue to deal with.
Sure, there were questions of how it affects me daily and what happens if we have kids, but the answer to both was “We’ll manage” and that was good enough.
Are you scared of anything?
Sometimes I am afraid that I will become manic again, however, I know my brain so well at this point, that I know if my internal scale is tipping. I am hyper aware of emotions and feelings and know when to ask for help if I am feeling off balance. Mental health issues run in families, and I know I have aunts or uncles who struggle with depression/anxiety. I am not fearful for my children, especially now that I know how manageable a mental health diagnosis can be. Although I like to minimize the issue (coping mechanism), I think it is difficult to be bipolar and to be 28 with a thriving social life and job as I mentioned before. I have to think twice about choices and I can’t just throw caution to the wind (or at least all the time) the way my instincts might have it.
Mental illness comes with this bizarre stigma that people who take care of their mental well-being are weak. How do you feel about this? What would you say to someone struggling with what you’ve dealt with or a similar situation?
My psychiatrist put it perfectly. Everyone should be paying attention to their mental health. If you had heart disease, wouldn’t you take medicine for it? There is no difference with psychiatric medication. If there is a chemical imbalance in your brain that can be fixed, I am definitely a proponent of fixing it through medicine.
Everyone should be paying attention to their mental health. If you had heart disease, wouldn’t you take medicine for it?
Mental illness is really common, do you know anyone in the same boat?
This is funny. I would say, 8 times out of 10 that I explain that I am “bipolar – whatever that means” and my situation to people, they know someone close to them that has experienced a similar struggle.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to support a friend going through something?
If you have a friend that is going through something, offer to do something with them that might help them escape what is going on in their own head. Pick a constructive activity to do and see if they want to join. You might be reminding them of who they are, aside from the mental health issue. Talk to your friend and just have empathy for a struggle that you might not be able to understand. Encourage them to talk to a professional because sometimes as a friend you don’t have all the answers.
What advice would you give to someone going through their early steps of diagnosis, even if it’s a different mental health issue?
I would tell people to not live in fear. Don’t be afraid of what someone else is going to think. The only person you lie down at night with (ultimately) is yourself. If that person isn’t happy, healthy, and whole, then I suggest you do everything in your power to get closer to that place. If you don’t want to tell people, don’t. If you want to blog about it, do! Ask for support from people you trust and realize it’s okay if your path feels very non-linear.
Ask for support from people you trust and realize it’s okay if your path feels very non-linear.
What are your thoughts on how our generation perceives mental health? Do you wish you knew more about what you were going through before you were diagnosed, like learning about it more in high school for example?
Definitely. I wish I had a simple class about mental health in health class. If someone had told me, or any of my 30 study abroad friends, the symptoms of a manic episode, it wouldn’t have taken so long for me to recover from that prolonged state of illness.
Thank you so much for sharing with us. If you or anyone you know is struggling with Bipolar Disorder here are some resources that can help: The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, NYC Health, and the National Institute of Mental Health.