Well, here it goes. This is something that only a very few number of people know about me. But before I tell you, let me start at the beginning.
As you are aware by now, this is National Suicide Prevention Week, and the title itself is enough to turn heads. With the death of comedian Robin Williams this year, people are gradually beginning to understand the seriousness that is mental illness. How could such a happy, beautiful, funny person do such a thing, they ask. The thing is, I thought the same thing up until about a year ago. When someone seemingly has everything together, so many people on his side, how could ending your own life even be an option?
The weird thing about mental illness is that there is no sign of it. And what I mean by that is that there is no cast, no scars to show, no crutches to lean on. It’s in your mind. Maybe a close friend or family member can see through your carefully-guarded walls, understand that something is not okay, but mental illness practically has no symptoms. Some people are experts in hiding it, concealing from the world the daily struggle to rise in the morning or fall asleep at night.
In high school, I was a successful student, athlete, and the leader of several clubs. I had a lot on my plate, but nothing that I couldn’t handle. I’ve done it before, right? My senior year was by far the most difficult, balancing my 3 AP and 2 honors courses with being captain of the cross country and track teams, president of student council, and marching band music leader. You could say I was–am–an overachiever. In fact, no statement could be more accurate. I was awarded with the “Most Studious” award, and had the honor of speaking at graduation in front of my peers. With many flashes of the camera and a final glance at my high school as I drove off to celebrate the last four years of my life, I never looked back.
I was accepted into the prestigious Washington and Lee University in Virginia, and decided to attend the school after graduation, majoring in journalism and running both cross country and track for the Division 3 program. It was my dream school, and would surely guarantee my entrance into a good law program after graduation. If you can’t tell by now, I’m one of those people that is constantly planning my next step, happy only when I have a solid plan in place. So for me, this was the endgame. I would finally be on my way to becoming an attorney who, according to my 5th grade self, “saves the world by fighting the bad guys.”
So when that carefully mapped-out plan unexpectedly fell through–actually, crashed and burned–I was devastated. Before my first semester was even halfway through, I, along with much discussion with my parents, made the decision to withdraw. Everything happened so fast: one day I was happily running with my team on a sunny Virginia afternoon in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the next I felt like I was suffocating in my childhood home, sitting at the same desk where I did my homework for 12 years. The pressure I put on myself to be better finally caught up with me, I had no more to give. That’s the first time I felt it.
Things moved quickly, and I was easily accepted to study at a local school, Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, for the spring semester. The time off was unbearable. I would see pictures of my teammates and friends at W&L and start bawling. What was wrong with me, that I couldn’t take the pressure of being at my dream school, living up to my highest expectation? I was afraid to go out, knowing the girl decorated with awards who spoke at her high school graduation in front of 600 fellow peers was no longer in school. I greatly respect anyone who chooses a different path after high school, however I knew for me that it was the wrong one. I couldn’t stand to face anyone I knew, or myself.
Thanksgiving and Christmas passed, things gradually became normal, and pretty soon I was back in school alongside several friends I knew from high school. Of course there were many questions: why did I leave? I didn’t like it? It must be nice to be closer to home. But none of those were any of the reasons why I left that pretty school in Virginia. It was me.
The transition could have been smoother, but overall I can’t complain. Slippery Rock, especially the Rock Catholic group, made me feel welcome immediately. And I found some of my best friends there. But pretty soon, I felt it again.
And it came so suddenly, so powerfully, that I had no control this time. I left school that Saturday night to go home and do laundry, homework, and catch up on this abrupt storm that was my life.
That night, I was absolutely hysterical. All my school notes and books were tossed on the downstairs floor, tv on, blasting music, all after my parents went to bed. I felt happy and sad, productive and confused, but I was sure of one thing: I could not sleep.
My mom came down first and we talked, laughed. Then she went to bed and asked me to come upstairs and try sleeping in my own bed. I refused. After she left, my midnight dance/study party continued. Later on, my dad came downstairs and the cycle continued. Only he said something my mom didn’t: “I’m calling the doctor in the morning.”
I’m told now that what I experienced that night was an episode of mania. It’s something that’s commonly found in bipolar patients.
That morning, I went to the hospital. It was the first time I was not wearing my signature red and white-striped candy striping uniform. I found myself in the ER room, throwing my glasses at my mom frantically, screaming that I needed to get home to finish my homework and back to school as soon as possible. The nurse listened intently. Soon the doctor came in and explained my rights as a patient, including the fact that once admitted, I must stay. Before I knew it, I was sedated and in an ambulance on the way to a neighboring hospital.
Since I was 18, I had the choice to continue care at the new hospital or be released. At everyone’s request, I signed my name next to the statement that would forever change my life.
In a psychiatric ward, you will find many types of people. Looking back, I felt like I was Piper in OITNB trying desperately to navigate her way around this new community that was her life. Pretty soon I found my Lorna, someone who was older, though not so much different from me. She told me her story, that she had bipolar-disorder, and drove herself here to seek treatment. “Sometimes when my meds don’t work, I know I need to get some extra help. My husband and son know it, too. They both tell me to go here and they’ll see me soon when I’m better.”
The next day, I met with the doctor who my dad had called the previous day. My suspicion was confirmed: I was 4 days away from celebrating my 19th birthday, and I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
I didn’t spend my birthday in the hospital, thank goodness, and I returned to school only a few days later to what was the most confusing week of my life. I now had nightly medication to take, and more questions than I ever could have imagined. But with time, it became easier, and I realized that I could face it–bipolar disorder and the vast concept of mental illness was no longer a Voldemort for me.
What my diagnosis did for me was provide me with perspective, a change of scenery, and a lot of reflecting. The reason I left my dream school was not me, it was my mind. How ironic that the same thing that got me accepted into college caused me to leave.
Slowly I became more comfortable with everything that had happened, and I told my best friend. What she told me I will forever hold in my heart, and so should anyone suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, or just simply having a bad day. I told her my last few hard weeks, and she looked me straight in the eye, matter-of-factly saying the most comfort I have ever received: “But you’re still you.”
Those words were all I needed to hear. My best friend in the entire world didn’t think any differently of me. She loved me just as much as she had before I was, legally, crazy. And I loved her for accepting that.
So I now think of bipolar disorder as what has the potential to be the best of you, and what has the power to destroy you. The key is to find a balance between the two–a happy medium between the happy and sad face you see on the Wikipedia page. I embrace the feelings of confidence and productivity without losing control. Some of the most creative people have the same thing I do–Beethoven, Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Mark Twain, Robert Downey Jr., Demi Lovato, and Robin Williams. It’s unfortunate that we are connected by something that has caused so much pain, but I value the wonderful qualities we have in common.
But above all else, just know these four words: “But you’re still you.”