Student Unraveled: Bipolar On Campus

I paced frenetically all the while talking raucously into the telephone outside the college newspaper office. What began as a routine phone call to find out some more information for a story winds into a diatribe about how I planned to take over the Massachusetts Democratic Party and enact my politics of the impossible agenda. Thrown into the conversation at random are quick sexual jokes and other random puns leaving the person on the other end of the phone line confused and frightened.

Hanging up the phone, I stride into the Student Center lounge. I interrupt a student studying and begin a conversation. My mind races to my next thought and the next and the next.

Neurotransmitters surge.

Perhaps, you know of someone like me. I was an editor on the college paper, held internships at three major papers, a dean’s list student. I interned at a Massachusetts senator’s re-election campaign, was active in the woman’s center, a member of the campus philosophy society, wrote six to eight stories a week for the campus paper, and worked part-time jobs for extra cash.

A woman about town, I was seen at every political conference or social event. I was the first one at the gym every morning exercising for one hour on the treadmill and awake far into the dawn hours scribbling poetry.

One moment, my friends would be walking with me and I would leap onto the MIT bridge and walk the railing. The next moment, I was ready to jump off into the icy waters of the Charles River.

College life can be a bundle of stress to most students. However, for students like me, who have the biochemical disorder manic depression or bipolar disorder, the pressures of college may become impossible when you are dealing with mood swings, psychotic thoughts, and suicidal ideations. Imagine trying to study for a test in Espanol while three or four distinct lines of thought (all unrelated) race through your mind. Now, imagine more thoughts keep coming and coming until nothing makes sense anymore. Or try reading Shakespeare or sociology texts, when your mind has gone black.

It wasn’t easy for me to recognize that I need help as my mood rose. It was even harder for me to ask for help. No one at the school could offer the proper intervention because no one completely understood my situation. Having gone to one session at the college counseling office intent on discussing these issues, I groped with words for a half-hour and left.

Then, one-day my mind went black in the middle of photography class. The expensive camera I was so thrilled to buy and use suddenly became too complex to operate. I lost all clarity, couldn’t think, write, or concentrate on anything.

I, then, went to the computer lab and posted a suicidal message to an online group. I went back to my single dorm room, locked my door, turned the music up louder, cut my wrists continuously until I fell asleep on the tile floor.

The college RA escorted me to the emergency room after a raucous protest from me. Dressed all in black, like some Goth poster child, alone in a cubicle-sized room, I tried to convince the ER psychiatrists that I was not crazy, not even depressed, that the email I sent the group was a joke. Unfortunately, for me, I was talking millions of miles a minute, and I was not making much sense bringing up a lot of political names and celebrities, all of whom I had worked for or met during the previous semester. Nevertheless, they sent me to Mclean, the esteemed psychiatric hospital in Belmont Massachusetts.

The psychiatrists at Mclean called it an acute manic depressive episode, otherwise called bipolar disorder type 1. The episiodes had been reoccurring in various forms all fall semester—although, they went largely unnoticed by me as my moods fluctuated like the Atlantic off Nantucket. I spent eight days running in dark tunnels with my fellow inmates, watching another college girl break into multiple personalities, listening to tales of electroshock and a woman say she was schizo and manic, which baffled me then, but I later learned was schizoaffective disorder. Although, the hospital recommended I spend the rest of the semester resting at home, I chose to go back to campus under the care of an off-campus therapist and psychopharmacologist. Back on campus, I spent much time recovering from the stigma of hospitalization and mental illness. Rumors abounded.

College students with mental illness must believe in themselves, that they are unique, valuable and worth the effort, they must know their legal rights as stated in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as their school’s policies. They must remain clear, calm, and persistent when advocating for themselves. I wrote my symptoms, goals, dreams down on paper in my journal. In the journal, I taped a mood chart pulled off the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance’s web site. This journal later gave my therapist and I evidence when issues and incidents came up and the deans became involved.

There is a wonderful resource in the organization Active Minds www.activeminds.org which helps students start chapters on their campuses to educate other students about stigma and what mental illness feels like.

Bipolar Disorder & Focussing

I know it’s not the usual symptom of bipolar but I have trouble with focussing my attention. Of course, the manic state leaves one scattered and the depression makes one foggy. However, I am talking about a lack of focus when on my meds. It seems I have trouble sitting down to projects and finishing them. I walk around the house looking at projects, talking about them but can’t seem to get anything done. I have writing projects just waiting for me to get started. Then, there are the times I can hyperfocus on researching or organizing a room or drawer. This lack of focus in the inbetween states when I am not manic or depressed is what I am trying to combat.

Tips to Get You Focussed:

Breakdown each task into smaller tasks. Do the smallest part of a task first, then move to the next part.

Keep a planner. Plan your day the night before or even every Sunday plan your week. Write your appointments, exercise time, projects to be done in this place.

Avoid caffeine. In addition, to making your meds not work effectively, it makes you too jittery and scattered. Try herbal tea or hot water with lemons.

Meditate. Try a mindfulness practice for at least ten minutes a day in the morning or at night. Try meditating before you start a project. Then, just doing it.

Remember what Yoda says, “Do. There is no Try.”

Try working in an environment that is quiet, clean and minimalist such as a library.

Shut off the music. Music and podcasts infuse someone else’s ideas into our work. It’s fine if you are cleaning but for thoughty tasks, leave the radio off.

When you feel your focus slipping, count to ten and get back on track.

Remember the times you hyperfocus and analyze what works in keeping your attention. Do whatever it is to recreate this state.

Ride your period of unfocus like a wave and let it go after 60 seconds. Don’t get into an intricate daydream with it. Move on quickly and get back to task.

R.I.P. Carrie Fisher, a Champion for Mental Health

carrie

 

I’m not a big Star Wars fan but I do have quite a few Yoda quotes pinned to my fridge. I first saw Carrie Fisher live in her one woman show Wishful Drinking at the Hartford Stage. I was well into my journey with bipolar disorder and thrilled to see someone so vocal about her own struggle. When Fisher spoke out about her own struggles she gave permission for someone to seek help for their own mental health problems. Her story said that she had no shame about being sick and then getting well. Wishful Drinking was humorous as well as a powerful educational tool for people to see they are not alone. I just finished binge watching Lady Dynamite with Maria Bamford. Bamford also bipolar uses her tv series in much the same way to educate people about what mental illness is and take back some of the stereotypes with laughter as well. I owe a great deal of thanks to celebrities willing to be vocal about their struggles whatever they are. I know Fisher was featured on the cover of BP Magazine. She spoke about it on 60 Minutes as well. While we all can’t advocate in these ways, we bloggers, writers, and laypeople can use our time and talents to create content that engages people about mental health. Blogs, letters to the editor, lobbying legislatures, speaking out in NAMI and DBSA‘s speaker’s bureaus are all good ways to get the message out. Fisher did her part. Now, it’s time to carry on the good fight.

How Stigma Kills

People ask me why I want to write a column like this. But aren’t you embarrassed of your own story they say. My reply is always No. My story, based in the past, is merely a grounding point, a place to start, a place to show you I have experience with the issues so you can trust me better. In future columns, I’ll be seeking out others to write their stories and even doing some political/advocacy writing. I just haven’t gotton to all the possibilitiies yet. I have to slow down and write each column at a time. Back to story for a moment, the personal story can have power too. Jenn Marshall’s This is My Brave, Inc. uses storytelling and performance to change minds about mental illness. Jenn is bipolar and writes a blog about it at http://www.bipolarmomlife.com. I ask you to go to Youtube and type in This is My Brave for a list of performances of stories they’ve done.

My point is that mental illness is only embarrassing if we let it be. Mental illness is something that happened to us, only a part of us. Used skillfully and as a tool, our stories can educate people to know they are not alone. They serve to show legislators that people with these issues are real and strong and need services not stigma. I only wish our brave veterans would share more about what they go through on the inside so the rest of the country they fought for can really, truly have their back.

In the same way that the GLBT community had to come out in order to raise awareness about who they are and their issues, the community of those with mental illness must do the same. However, we must do it in the most respectful way unlike the pride parades of the GLBT community. We must start blogs, testify in front of legislators, join organizations like This is My Brave and NAMI and share our stories with schools and colleges, tell our stories to law enforcement in order to change the way police treat the mentally ill.

And yes, our stories, parts of them that is, are embarrassing. But we can heal ourselves and just make the embarrassing parts part of what happened. We don’t have to fear the darkness. Chances are someone out there experienced the same thing and lives in the darkness every day.

Nineteenth Year Crack Up

This is a poem I wrote during graduate school for Writing. It is a fictionalized account based on what I went through in college.

Twelve years have passed since my days in Boston

Days when I sat under archways thinking,

scribbling poetry, howling sins;
the moon listened

by fracturing the sky.

I read Shakespeare, Kafka, Plath, Poe, and Woolf.

Experiencing their peaks and valleys,

in unfinished homework, lost loves,

the pressures
 building insanity in my own mind,

caused by my genetics unraveling.

There were the weeks spent without a winks sleep,

the lost time (I still cannot remember).

I would pick fights randomly. Then, it begun.

My words raced spoke miles for every minute,

(I had conspiracy theories that the 
other girls

were plotting to give my name 
to the F.B.I.

There was the Camera who only I 
heard talking.

There was anonymous sex 
in a phone booth,

the 2 o’clock phone calls, 
the midnight rollarblade races

around 
campus by myself, shopping sprees

where I 
bought things—such as One Hundred dollars in 
journals from Borders

—all things I later 
gave away, and oh the angry emails.

There came the waking dreams, 
the crying for days on end in my dorm.

The words: I hate myself and want to die

written in a cheap scrawl in my journal.

And, at my worst, the caving walls began.

My friends feared. The tears came and came and came.

They would not stop the day I decided
to die,

to slowly Out, Out of my life.

There was the note, then the pills, then the booze.

Then, there was the trip to the big, big place 
on the hill

where writers have been before,
 a place of labels and electroshocks.

The doctors fed me Prozac and Zoloft

though I asked for a Long Island Iced Tea.

The pills made my wings take flight and objects

appear out of nowhere, in which the nurses

threatening me with leather restraints.

The doctors switched me to Lithium

calming me in days.
 And, I curled in a ball and slept,

dreaming
 about what I would tell the others at school.

The Secret Sauce to Self-Reliance when You have Bipolar Disorder or any mental illness

Living with bipolar disorder type 1 for twenty years has not always been easy but I have developed a secret sauce to survival. The following suggestions will help you form a guidepost for living your best life. Disclaimer: In addition to these suggestions, I also take a cocktail of medications and have done so for over ten years.

Love. I wasn’t always married but having the love and support of my husband allows me to heal from episodes faster. The support and understanding of my father and stepmother is also critical to me. I know many of you have hurt family and friends during your episodes. Rebuilding these relationships is critical to establishing your support system.
Meditation. I try to meditate for 20 minutes each day, sometimes when I wake in the morning or right before I go to sleep at night. This helps clear my mind of the day and any intrusive thoughts I have been having.
Exercise. I love running but I’m not super-disciplined about getting out there. I go to the gym three times a week at my best. At the gym, I run on the treadmill for 30 minutes and do strength exercises and work on my core. Right now, I don’t do classes as I prefer to workout alone. Find some form of movement you love doing and do it, even if it is just walking or dog walking.
Journaling. I journal every day in a plain Moleskine. You can use any notebook or piece of paper though. This helps me organize my day and plan my work life. I also get to see where my head is at and where I’m going toward. Mood charting is good too. There are lots of sites on the internet where you can print out mood charts. Try DBSA to start.
Yoga. Again, like running, I’m not totally disciplined about doing a yoga practice. I go once a month, sometime twice, to a yoga class either at my gym or at a private studio. I always feel stretched and calm afterward. I am currently developing my own yoga practice for home use.
Eating Healthy Foods. I don’t mean always shopping at Whole Foods either. I try to eat a diet balanced with vegetables and fruits and lean protein, very little red meat. I try to snack on almonds and seeds of various types. I drink green smoothies once a week from the juice bar.
Water. I try to drink a lot of water during the day. I carry water bottles around with me which I constantly refill. This helps to flush out germs and bad bacteria and keep my vocal chords hydrated.
Therapy. While I don’t go to therapy weekly anymore, I see my psychiatrist every three months unless something comes up. I also keep my old therapist on speed dial in my cell phone in case I need to talk out an issue.
Herbal tea. I drink a mug of herbal tea every day, mostly green tea. Sometimes I drink hot water with lemons in it. I rarely drink coffee or caffeinated beverages unless I am out for coffee with a friend.
Limit Sugar. I try to limit sweets and sugars from my life. I use honey or agave if I want to sweeten tea or something. I avoid baked goods and candy, but sometimes I treat myself to something.
Blogging. Regularly blogging here and for the International Bipolar Foundation helps me stay commited to these practices and develops an authentic writing voice. You don’t want to share everything but thinking of your blog as a magazine and writing in journalist’s style is helpful in giving your blog direction.
Keeping an eye on my finances. Fortunately, my episodes through the years have not incurred a lot of debt and within a few months I was able to pay everything off. When I have periods where I can’t work a regular job, I’m careful to live on a budget. I know my income and what I spend. I evaluate the necessity of each purchase I make and whether it suits me and will make me happy. I will write more about personal finances and wellness in future columns as well as have some interviews with personal finance experts.