Bipolar is Not a Kind of Bear: My struggles with mental illness

Some days, I feel like I am a time bomb. I am 21 years old, and I am independent. I am in control of my life, and doing the things I feel that I need to do. I am in a healthy relationship, living in my own apartment, working at a great job, and finishing up a degree in a field that I am passionate about. I am happy, and I am proud of myself. But, it hasn't always been this way.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, type II, almost three years ago now, but my struggles with mental illness started much earlier. I have kept a journal regularly for years, starting shortly after I learned to write. When I was first diagnosed, I went back through these journals and tried to piece together where it all started. It has been a challenging, and often agonizing process. That said, I think it has helped me towards recovery more than anything else thus far.

From what I can tell, I first experienced an episode of depression at the age of 11. My beloved family dog passed away, and I was inconsolable. It was my first real experience with death, and it changed me. I cried myself to sleep for months, and when I finally stopped grieving, the world was not the same. I had lost my faith in religion, and I had lost my faith in the world. It was understandably a traumatic event, but I didn't recover in the “normal” way. I was a sensitive kid, and I quickly got caught up in a spiral of rage and negativity which would color most of my youth. I was 12 when I first started self-injuring; I didn't know what I was doing at the time. It didn't find out that there was a name for it until much, much later. But I knew that it was abnormal, and I knew that it was dangerous. A strange mix of fear, shame, and stubbornness kept me from discussing my worries and problems with anyone.

That’s not to say no one noticed; I had brief and superficial conversations with friends, family, and doctors alike. I think all of us, including myself, ascribed it to the normal mood swings associated with growing up. I kept the worst of it hidden, and the thought of sharing any of it with anyone made me feel like I was betraying myself. If I had known then that I would struggle with this for almost a decade, I certainly would have found help sooner. That said, at the time, I don’t even think I expected to make it this far.

My first experiences with what they now tell me is “hypomania” are harder to pinpoint. I was a naturally hyperactive kid with a wild imagination. I was always writing stories, inventing random phrases, and bursting with energy. I was probably about 14 when these periods of excessive energy could be classified as hypomanic episodes. I developed insomnia, and went through periods of recklessness and risk-taking behavior. I began experimenting with alcohol and drugs, and started sneaking out of the house late at night to party.

My parents worked a lot, and I kept my marks up through both highs and lows. I never really did get caught, and to this day, I doubt my family knows a lot about what I have experienced. I think they have some idea that I was up to no good, but I think they really didn't know enough to challenge their belief that I was okay. I don’t blame them. I was a smart kid, and independent. I shut out people a lot, and I was good at hiding things. It’s taken me a long time to break those walls down, and I can’t even begin to count the experiences and friendships that I have missed out on. I struggled constantly with insomnia, and drove myself to the point of physical exhaustion repeatedly. Sometimes, I was so wired that I couldn't sleep more than a couple hours a night. Other times, I’d lie awake and mentally replay all the agonies of the day.

During this time, I repeatedly attempted to stop self-injuring. At first, I’d last weeks. Eventually, months. I self-injured on and off for about 6 years, altogether. Finally, at the age of 18, I hurt myself for the last time. It’s been four years now, and I don’t look back. That’s not to say the triggers are gone; it still pops into my head, every now and then. But I know that I won’t start again. I know that I have that control.

Really, three things had to happen before I could stop: I needed to WANT to stop for MYSELF, and not for a significant other or a family member. I also needed to understand WHY I started and what my triggers were. Finally, I needed to learn how to delay acting on the impulse, and slowly learn to substitute self-injury with another release. For me, it was writing.

Anyways, this continued through high school, with varying degrees of severity. Generally, I was at least functional. I cut class and kept up with my other responsibilities enough to get by. I was smart enough to know where I could push things, and I was functioning well enough to at least realize where I needed to actually put in some effort. It was often a major challenge for me, but I pulled it off. I ultimately floated my way through high school, finishing on a high and graduating with honours.

I guess these successes make me luckier than most. I know others who lost out on some great opportunities because of the effect mental illness had on their marks in school. In some ways, it really was a blessing that I was able to carry on regardless. But the truth was, a lot of my successes simply masked the fact that I was hurting. It made it easier to hide my struggles, and the raw agony and ecstasy that I swung between on regular basis. All in all, I did pretty okay, all things considered.

But of course, then everything changed.

After making it through high school, I finally hit university. I got into a music programme at a great school with a scholarship, and I really thought I was in for the best experience of my life. And I was…well, for a while anyways.

Frosh week was full of excitement. There was a constant stream of events, parties, and new people to meet. Suddenly, I was no longer the introvert. Sleep became a distant afterthought, and I was on top of the world. I thought this was just standard first-year excitement. I felt strong, unstoppable, and edgy. I was always on the edge of starting a fight or starting a party. I went for walks at 3 in the morning, just trying to burn off enough sleep.

Classes started, and my high didn't fade. I thought I was on cloud nine. For weeks, I thought I was invincible. I drank, I smoked, and tried anything and everything to just keep the feeling going.

Of course, what goes up, must come down.

After Christmas break, I crashed hard and I crashed fast. One week I was celebrating Christmas with my family, tearing open presents and devouring turkey with fervour. And the next week, I could barely get out of bed. I had experienced depression before, but always with an edge of raw, dramatic anger. This was different. It was slow, gray, and pervasive.

Whereas before I had simply hated myself, this depression left me defenseless. It robbed me of all passion, and let me enjoy nothing. I slept for 12 hours a night, and still felt tired upon waking. I ate either rarely or non-stop. Eventually, I stopped going to classes. I forced myself to go to the odd tutorial, but would often even leave early. I just lay on my bed, watching TV and waiting for either the year or the world to end.

After weeks of hiding in my room, feigning illness and inventing excuses, I had hit my lowest point. I never reached the point of seriously considering suicide, but the thought still crept through my mind. I found myself on the edge of self harm night after night.

Eventually, I forced myself to go to my music lesson. My professor quickly figured out that I was not okay. She cancelled our lesson, got me some tea, and sat me down. She said to me, “It doesn't always have to be like this. You can get help, and you can be happy.” It’s such a simple thing to say, and a very familiar concept. I understood the statistics, I understood that help was available. But it had never occurred to me that any of that applied to ME. I will always be grateful to my professor for taking the time to speak with me and the time to care.

Help had always been an option for me. I had just never considered the fact that it might actually work. I didn't understand the financial aspect of seeking psychiatric and therapeutic help, and didn’t want my family to know that I was struggling. I was always independent, and this seemed to signal weakness in me. Strangely enough, I think it takes more strength to ask for help than to ignore it.

I started seeing a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I tried various combinations of drugs, and eventually found a combination that stabilized me at least enough to think clearly again. Eventually, I also met with a social worker, who was a tremendous help to me. While our sessions were short, she respected my intelligence and insight, working with me to improve my situation. In those sessions, I realized what I had working in my favor.

I have since decided to go into the field of social work, and am pursuing these studies with a passion that I never thought possible. I am doing well, and I owe much to my old professor, doctor, social worker, friends, and family. Their support and insight has got me where I am, and I will always be grateful to them.

Now that I can stand on my own, I can now better help others. I can be a better sister, daughter, girlfriend, student….and really, a better person. Living with mental illness is never an ideal situation, but I have learned how to make it work. Even if I slip, and even if the worst comes to pass, I know now that I can ask for help. I know now that the support is there when I need it.

by Dani, age 21