At the end of my sophomore year of college, I started writing an email to a high school teacher. In it, I wrote about all that I had accomplished in the 3 years since I had been in his class, and all I hoped to accomplish going forward – graduating with honors, finding a job that I loved, and building a life far from the place I grew up.
I never sent the email, because it wasn't really for him. It was a letter to myself, a reminder of how far I had come and how far I had to go. You see, I was a student in this teacher's class – a 16-year-old high school junior – when I began experiencing symptoms of the illness that would profoundly shape the rest of my high school experience, and much of my young adulthood. What a doctor had first diagnosed as "teenage blues," we would later learn was the depressive slide of bipolar disorder. This is the incurable, but highly manageable, mental illness that I live and thrive with today.
Like many teens living with serious mental illness, my road to diagnosis and treatment was rocky and roundabout. When I became withdrawn and irritable, my parents chalked it up to typical teenage attitude. And when it became difficult to focus in class, my teachers assumed I just wanted to rebel. Once my sadness became unshakable and too much to bear, I ended up in the office of a psychiatrist who misdiagnosed me and treated me only for depression. This is common for people living with my kind of bipolar disorder, people who experience deeper bouts of depression and more manageable mini-mania (known as hypomania). Unfortunately, only treating the depression sent me into intense hypomania. This type of thing happens often to people with bipolar disorder.
Usually, this is when the psychiatrist realizes that the illness is not just depression, and treats them with a mix of mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and sometimes, antipsychotics. Unfortunately for me, my path was not so smooth; I did not get a proper diagnosis and treatment plan until over a year after I started displaying depressive, manic, and psychotic symptoms. My life was in shambles.
But it's not all bad news. Thanks to my parents’ relentless efforts, I worked out a plan with the school district to graduate on time, making up classes I’d missed or failed when I was ill. With a lot of hard work on my part, I got my grades up and was awarded a large scholarship to a school that I loved and respected.
Adjusting to college and to my new diagnosis of bipolar disorder wasn’t always easy. But, I do think that being in tune with my mental and physical health gave me a leg up on my classmates. I learned to manage my time to stick to a sleep regime, and to keep my moods even. To keep my head clear, I ate well most of the time and exercised regularly. I’ve been practicing those habits ever since.
I was determined to take advantage of the many academic and professional opportunities available at my college. I wanted to prove that I was more than my illness. So, I studied abroad 3 times – in Italy, Ghana, and the United Kingdom. I interned for a United States senator. I graduated with Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude honors. Since high school, I've reconnected with friends, and made new ones all over the world. I've run marathons and I have a dream job. And I did all of this while living with bipolar disorder.
It might be great to be neurotypical and not have this mental illness. It might be great not to have to decide if my emotions are symptoms or wonder if the sky is just a little too blue today. But I'm actually pretty happy. I take 2 pills a day (or sometimes more), I talk to my psychiatrist once a month, and I get on with my life.