We would like to introduce this month's guest blogger Hattie. Last week we sat down with Dr. Benjamin Goldstein to discuss bipolar disorder in youth and young adults. This week to continue to bring awareness to World Bipolar Day we wanted to share a first-hand perspective from Hattie on her intrapersonal encounter with bipolar disorder.
Hattie is a 2nd-degree student at Villanova University with a focus in nursing. As a future healthcare provider, Hattie's overarching goal is to advocate for the mental wellbeing of all her patients.
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Let’s start out with one thing that a lot of other readers that deal with bipolar disorder may agree with, let’s not use the phrase “I am bipolar.” That label can be heavy. Instead, let’s use the phrase, “I am someone who has bipolar tendencies.” Now that we have that established, let’s get to it, shall we?
I guess we can begin at the time of diagnosis, which was in March of 2019, my senior year of undergrad. I was working full time and going to school full time, this led to an unsteady sleep schedule, and major stress. Those are two things to remember, sleep and stress, keep that in mind for later. I knew something was out of rhythm. I was either feeling euphoric, agitated, or I was in bed crying. There wasn’t a happy medium. I had two family members who were previously diagnosed with bipolar tendencies, and it made me start to wonder. So, I started keeping track of my moods. I wrote down emotions I was feeling, decisions I was making, how I felt after certain events, etc., etc. I even started looking years in the past at impulsive decisions, euphoric moments, and depressive moods and wrote those down as well.
This was a major moment for me. I read through my list and realized that these things were off. I was binge drinking and blacking out every single weekend, I was smoking weed all the time, I was making impulsive decisions, I was paranoid about little things. Someone might say, “oh she’s a college student, of course, she’s blacking out and doing drugs”, but no. It wasn’t like that and looking back and reflecting on myself I recognized that I used alcohol and weed to cope with everything I was feeling.
Bipolar two is my diagnosis. I remember the day I was diagnosed, I went to my car, called my mom, and cried. I remember thinking if my emotions of happiness, sadness, agitation, excitement, etc. were heightened, was I going to feel like a zombie once I got this all under control? It felt like a death sentence. You hear about people or celebrities who have a diagnosis of bipolar one or two and how they have trouble living a normal life. I had so many goals and felt so defeated.
One thing I live by, and I wish I lived by back then, is that your brain is an organ just like your kidneys or your liver or your heart, etc. If you had an infection in any other of your organs, you would get the help you need to keep going. The same goes for any mental illness. It is 2021 and mental illness is still incredibly stigmatized. We live in a world that people need to see something to believe it’s there. It is so much easier for someone to think that someone is crazy instead of trying to understand what they are going through. My mind was so incredibly sick, and I needed help.
I am so grateful and lucky to have parents that are so well educated when it comes to mental illness. They were so supportive and loving. There was even a time that I was so hypomanic and agitated and scared that I came home, and my parents blew up an air mattress in their room for me, so I felt safe with them there. As someone who deals with bipolar tendencies, having a family that is well informed on mental illness has been a game-changer. I feel for other people that deal with mental illness and don’t have that support. I firmly believe that anyone who is planning on having children, should take time and do their research on different mental illnesses, general anxiety, mental health crises, and how to parent and deal with these situations. I also believe that all parents should talk to their children openly about mental illness and don’t let it become stigmatized in the household so that if their child is struggling, they aren’t afraid to go to their parents. Having that support from my family helped me keep going.
Let’s get back to the topics of sleep and stress. Stress is a major trigger for bipolar episodes. My initial stress in undergrad ended up leading me into hypomania, which was what made me realize something was up. Luckily for me, this hypomania gave me the energy to continue to succeed in school. However, I know for others that may not be the case.
In fact, that was a huge fear of mine. This past year I started a second B.S. in nursing in an accelerated program. Let’s break that up into a few pieces. Nursing school = stress, accelerated program = stress, during a pandemic = stress. I was getting myself into a very stressful situation, and I knew this going in. After earning my first B.S., I knew I wanted to go back to be a nurse, and I knew I had bipolar tendencies, but after much time of lifestyle modification and reflection, I decided that I wasn’t going to let the diagnosis of bipolar 2 hinder me from achieving my goals.
I had to keep my modified lifestyle in check. This included cutting out liquor (liquor has been known to lead me into depressive episodes starting about days to a week after I drank), stop smoking weed (weed really helps some people, but for other’s, it’s a trigger), to eat right, to exercise, to go to therapy weekly, to see a psychiatrist for med management, and most importantly, to get an adequate amount of sleep. This can be a lot for anyone in their early to mid-twenties but let me tell you; lifestyle change has been everything for me.
Sleep is something that can make or break bipolar disorder. I cannot even begin to explain the difference. Lacking sleep can send you through a loop. I have been practicing meditation for years. On the nights that I feel like I can’t sleep and that I need to be cleaning or working out or studying, I can end up successfully sleeping. Meditation has been really great not only for achieving sleep but also for centering your mind. Mindfulness is key if you have bipolar tendencies. I have worked on this skill for so long, that I’m always on high alert and try to notice when I enter hypomania or depression. You have to get to know yourself.
Looking back before my diagnosis, I felt really alone. I remember people telling me I was paranoid, and I remember hearing friends saying I was crazy. I mean, if someone I knew heard a noise in their house with ALL of their roommates there and called the cops anyway, I would probably think something was a little off too (It’s okay, you can laugh at that now).
Initially, after my diagnosis, I was angry. Angry that not everyone understood, and that people felt awkward (and still do) when you bring up your mental illness. If one of your friends talking to you about a chronic physical ailment they were dealing with, would you feel awkward? No? Well, then why do we feel awkward when your friend talks about being bipolar? The answer is the stigma. The stigma refers to the negative attitudes toward mental illness. This includes internalized shame. Now, I still get annoyed when people don’t understand. But I also feel sorry for them; that they either have not been educated or wish to be educated about mental illness or do not have the empathy and compassion for others who are mentally ill. I will say my close friends, who I still have around today were very supportive once I was diagnosed. I had friends that told me they were worried about me, and that they were glad I was getting help. I have friends check up on me and call me out when I am going out of bounds. I am lucky to have those friends.
As someone entering the healthcare field. I plan on advocating for mental health in every way I can. Mental illness is EVERYWHERE. You aren’t going to travel two states over and be in a mental state of complete happiness, it just doesn’t work like that. We need to be aware. Be aware of ourselves, our unconscious bias, and advocate for those around us. If you think you are alone, I can tell you that you are not. It feels lonely, but there are people around you that are fighting a very similar battle.
To wrap up here, I wanted to say thank you for reading a bit about my story. It was hard to dig through my past like this, but I’m glad in doing so it could help someone else. I want whoever is reading this to remember there is no shame in what you are going through, whether you are the one with the mental illness, or you are a loved one of someone with a mental illness. Your mental illness does not define who you are. In fact, it helps you grow into who you are supposed to be. This journey isn’t over for me, but I plan on persevering every step of the way.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line: Text “NAMI” to 741-741
We want to thank Hattie for sharing her story with us and our readers. It is an honor to feature such a raw and honest discussion about mental health and supporting your loved ones who are struggling. As she mentioned, it is not always easy to share your story but it is a powerful tool to show others that they are not alone. If you are a parent raising a child or young adult and feel like you are alone or need support reach out to our FREE and CONFIDENTIAL Family Support Partners to speak to someone who gets it.