The paper slid gently across the desk with two words on it: bipolar disorder.
I promise you, my heart dropped from my shoulders — an answer, to my sleepless nights and sleep-filled days. A routine that began with a simple desire to avoid what was causing me stress in the first place: homework.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 5 percent of people in the United States have a serious mental illness that "substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities." And they're not as unusual among the college crowd as you might think.
"For bipolar disorder and psychotic disorders, the college years is the time when they are seen," says Benek Aytayli, clinical psychologist and director of counseling at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. "Most people are diagnosed with these disorders between the ages of 16 and 24."
For me, it all started during the 2011 spring break.
Going into it, at 21, I was a consistent student; I rarely turned assignments in late, so I was almost never behind in my schoolwork. I avoided stress by staying ahead.
However, during the break there was an English paper I could not beat, and instead of fighting it, I just avoided it. Procrastinating, naturally, amplified my stress. I attempted to bury that stress with sleep.
A lot of sleep.
Unfortunately, these abnormal (to me) behaviors of procrastination and avoidance carried over into the continuation of spring semester. But at some point, I also experienced something completely new: a burst of energy that not only liberated me from the burden of homework assignments but also from social restrictions in general.
This energy found an outlet initially on Facebook, where I was convinced that I was part of a social experiment that included me making obscene and controversial wall posts at a frenzied pace.
These manic episodes generally lasted a few days, during which I could go entirely without sleep. I'd take up odd behaviors, such as riding my long board at late hours of the night in my bib biking shorts.
And I'd have confrontations with family and friends over the smallest of matters. I remember shouting expletives in a friend's face because he admitted he believed in a conspiracy theory involving Barack Obama.
Days like these were usually followed up by depressive episodes, during which I grieved my fiendish behavior.
Testing the waters
My friends and family expressed concern, and all had interpretations of what was wrong with me. Nothing really helped until I met with my pastor, who directed me to seek professional help. That is, he said I should see my school counselor immediately.
At the time, I felt a bit abandoned by him. I wanted help from someone I knew. I also felt that my problem was stress-related, not psychological. I didn't know there could be a chemical backbone to my issue. I thought I just needed someone to listen and understand my perspective.
Hesitantly, I sought "help." The first couple sessions went well; my counselors at Arizona State University had me explain what I was going through, which was kind of cathartic. After hearing me explain my situation, they concluded that I should undergo a psychiatric evaluation. I felt this was unnecessary.
Aytayli calls this the "denial period" that most people go through "because they are so scared and they have not connected the diagnosis with themselves [and] are afraid of feeling 'less than.'"
In spite of their recommendation, I kept on with the sessions until, at one point, I was paired with a graduate student who spent our session trying to get me to visualize being happy. I could visualize being happy on my own. I didn't need to spend $30 a visit for someone to "help" me.
I was done with counseling.
But actually, this wouldn't last long. What I thought was stress just got worse, and I was in a position to fail all my classes if things didn't change. I was desperate.
With my tail between my legs, I returned to the counseling office around the end of April.
The counselors finally gave me an unofficial diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I was heading to Colorado for summer break and they advised me to complete a psychiatric evaluation as soon as I arrived.
I read up on the symptoms, and it all made sense. In retrospect, I accepted the unofficial diagnosis, and agreed to an evaluation, because I couldn't deny that I was out of control of my life, and I was petrified by the deductions I made about myself while depressed. I was going to end up living in my mom's basement (which she doesn't even have) because I would flunk out of college, even though I had always been a responsible student and a good guy.
To salvage my classes, the assistant dean of my college, under whom I worked, advised me to request incompletes from my teachers. I had to talk with each of them to get those incompletes approved; to my surprise, they were all completely supportive. They filled out the paperwork that gave me a year to finish up my course work, helping my stress decrease and allowing me to focus on getting healthy.
It wasn't until later in the summer here in Colorado that I was officially diagnosed with rapid-cycling bipolar disorder, a form of bipolar wherein you cycle through manic and depressive episodes faster than the average person with the condition — sometimes daily. In addition to medication, my doctor suggested that I follow a highly regimented schedule, to offset the effects of my disorder.
Since starting meds and following a schedule, I have been significantly more stable. Though I still experience the highs and lows, they are a lot more subdued than when I was not seeking treatment. Lately, I have been trying to imagine my illness as more of a unique skill-set than anything else, one that needs to be reeled in every once in a while.
As for what I've learned? No matter what you're struggling with, take the initiative and get help. Though it may take some time, and some persistence, letting issues bottle up inside will only lead to an eventual burst, which can hurt you and the people you love the most.
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