(Photo: Dana Fletcher)
This year, I gave up on myself. My backbone broke under the weight of the intricate and deceptive facade I’d spent years perfecting. A series of idealized thoughts and a startling confession later, I found myself in an emergency room on what would have been an otherwise uneventful Wednesday night.
“Do you need something to take the edge off? We’ve got [insert laundry list of pharmaceuticals here].”
Not really? All I wanted was my freedom from these overwhelming feelings of despondency. I was admitted that night and would wake in the morning to review my current emotional state.
“Why are you depressed? Did your boyfriend break up with you? You’re too pretty to be depressed.”
Just like that, another drop in a bucket filled to its brim, following a lifetime of casual invalidations.
Cheer up. You need to smile more. I just want you to be happy. You worry too much. Stop overthinking things. Calm down. You need to relax. You should try going to sleep earlier. You look skinny. You need to eat more. Just breathe. You need to live your life. Don’t let life’s horrors get you down. Just walk into a room and act like you own it. Have you tried exercise?
In other words, “Your emotional breakdown is making me uncomfortable. I don’t know how to talk to you about it so here is some oversimplified advice on how to fight your demons, whom I’d rather not acknowledge directly.”
I would have given up following my interactions during that hospital stint. I would have spent the ensuing months convinced this was all in my head. I would have repeated the vicious cycle I’ve found myself stuck in for the past decade. You see, if you’re told something often enough, you begin to believe it. Maybe I am too moody. Maybe I do need to learn how to be less sensitive. Maybe I really should learn to not let my emotions control my life the way they do. Maybe it really was my own fault I wasn’t able to have peace of mind and happiness. Maybe I am crazy.
Had it not been for my mother’s concern and persistence, I wouldn’t know what I know now. After numerous phone calls and mere chance, I met with the person who is now my current psychiatrist and it has made all the difference in my road to recovery.
During our first consultation, she began with a simple statement. “Tell me about yourself.” With that golden statement, she differentiated herself through sheer compassion and patience. I told her everything.
I told her how I’d spent a lifetime intuitively knowing there was something different about me. I told her how I’d studied psychology at university to try to figure out what that difference was. I told her how I’d completed my studies at age 20 and then decided to ditch my comfort zone and move to Spain to teach English. I told her how I’d returned home early to spend time with my dying stepfather before moving back across the pond to do an academically rigorous master’s program at the University of Leeds.
I described the major depression I experienced while abroad and my difficulty keeping myself afloat through my intense feelings of grief. I told her how I often had overwhelming, reckless urges, over which I felt I had no control. I mentioned my frighteningly dark lows, characterized by intense desires to self-harm and self-medicate. I described the debilitating panic attacks that left me exhausted for hours following the indescribable feelings of suffocation.
I told her how often I found myself obsessively worrying over situations and people, all of which I had no control of. I told her how despite struggling with all of this, I consistently positioned myself as a top-performing student with an enviable CV. I told her of the dizzying expansiveness of my dreams. I let her know the only thing I feared in life, besides losing another emotional rock, was myself. I told her I was scared.
No sooner had I finished summarizing my life did she come to her conclusion: “It sounds like you have bipolar II depression.” I answered a few questions, completed some questionnaires and discussed DSM-5 symptoms. The signs were as plain as day: bipolar II depression, panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. My very own medley of cerebral deviations.
Was I shocked by my diagnosis? Not really. I first suspected I had bipolar disorder a few months ago while watching,“What Happened, Miss Simone?” on Netflix. Throughout the documentation of each career high and personal low, I found myself connecting with her struggle in a way I hadn’t previously felt or recognized. The intense bouts of creativity, the impassioned grandiosity and the occasional tendency to go off the deep end, I identified with it all.
Despite the feeling of relief at having found the puzzle piece I’d felt I’d been missing, I was still incredibly nervous about what my diagnosis meant. While it seems the current climate surrounding mental health has become increasingly beneficial to discussing instances of anxiety and depression, it is significantly less favorable to mood disorders like bipolar disorder. Furthermore, we’ve grown so accustomed to ascribing a person’s emotional well-being to character traits and situational factors that it has become the norm to view any deviations in emotional stability as personal shortcomings. It has resulted is the construction of an unnecessary and formidable barrier against the recognition and adequate treatment of very real and serious illnesses. Recognizing this, I’ve decided to reclaim my narrative. Rather than sit back and fade into the background, I’ve made the decision to proactively educate any and everyone around me who is willing to learn.
So what exactly is bipolar disorder and how does it feel? Also known as manic-depressive illness, it is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. Living with untreated bipolar disorder feels like you are permanently strapped onto the world’s most expansive roller coaster ride. At times, it is exhilarating but most times it is dizzying, exhausting and quite scary. My hypomanic states are defined by this “catch-me-if-you-can” mentality, in which I am equal parts beauty-queen, intellectual and globe-trotter. It is not uncommon for me to wake up feeling as if there is sunshine radiating from my pores, as I bounce from activity to activity, leaving a sparkle-filled rainbow in my wake. It is an incredible high until it’s not, until I find myself running ragged after a few weeks of non-stop insomnia and intensive productivity.
What starts off feeling like an inspirational surge of intelligence and creativity, eventually burns itself out into a bottomless crash, wherein I spend the ensuing months in a depressive state so dark, I lose myself completely. During one particularly bad depressive episode in Leeds, I was unable to describe myself beyond my country of origin and program of study. I had to resort to Post-It notes scattered throughout my room to remind myself of my redeeming qualities.
I wouldn’t wish these all-consuming feelings of dejection upon anyone. When you couple these mood swings with my experiences of anxiety and panic, what you get is a listless zombie who is unable to fulfill simple daily tasks, let alone complete any form of academic or professional work. What most people are unaware of is it’s not unusual for someone to have more than one co-occurring mental illnesses. In fact, it may be the norm. Nearly one-half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
So why was it so important for me to share such a personal story? Mainly because there is an alarming mental health crisis that is running rampant on university campuses affecting students at all phases of their educational careers. This is what so many of us face and are struggling with at an age when we are leaving our safety nets for the first times, when we’re being subjected to the unprecedented social and academic pressures of university and young adult life, when we’re finding our feet in an unstable job market, when our social support network is most influx and when we’re generally coming to grips with our young adult identities. Due to the social stigma and “hush hush”nature of mental health, nearly two-thirds of people with a known mental disorder never seek help from a health professional. What results is widespread and entirely preventable instances of self-medication, self-harm and suicidal ideations. If it wasn’t clear to you before, I hope it is now. We need to be talking about this.
In the month following my diagnosis, I’ve found myself reflecting upon how my mental health has defined my life until this point. Generally speaking, there is this sense of wonder about how I managed to keep up the façade as long as I did. I have climbed mountains, crossed oceans and wooed large audiences, all while holding my own against the sixth leading cause of disability. I am the strongest person I know. Through my numerous interactions with fellow recovery warriors, I’ve recognized this strength is not unique to me but is an inherent trait to the 450 million people around the world living with these “invisible illnesses.”
If there is one thing I want my readers to take away from this post, it is the pressing need to do away with arbitrary and damaging label systems. It is imperative that we arm ourselves with the knowledge and understanding necessary to dismantle this one-dimensional dialogue that leads people to believe situational factors and well-coiffed external appearances suggest immunity from the throes of mental illness. There is no such thing as being “too pretty to be depressed.”
If you are reading this and can relate in any way to what I’m saying, then I want you to know this: you are not alone. I see you. I hear you. I feel you. If you, like me, are on the path to recovery, I celebrate you. If you suspect you may be grappling with mental health issues, then please don’t attempt to fight it on your own!
As is with any other illness, if left untreated for too long it can significantly impact your daily functioning and may eventually become life-threatening. Please, seek help. I want and need you to know that while it is OK not to be OK, it is completely unacceptable to suffer alone in silence. You owe it to yourself to stop living in a nightmare and start living in the reality you deserve.
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