Turning 25: A reflection on my journey with mental illness (Guest Blog)

PsoHoward illustration
Illustration by Lydia Chang

 As Father’s day approaches I can’t believe our oldest, Lydia, is turning 25. She shares her story from the heart here on her journey growing up with bipolar disorder.

For my perspective as a father on coming to better understand her bipolar condition see I Picked up My Daughter from the Psychiatric Hospital for the First Time on Father’s Day.

This year happens to be one of major milestones. I will be graduating with a bachelor’s degree after seven long years of undergraduate work that has been riddled with health setbacks. I will also be turning 25. It feels like a prime opportunity to reflect on my life journey and how it’s been shaped by living with bipolar disorder. While it certainly hasn’t been easy, I’ve grown in ways I likely never would have otherwise.

A developing diagnosis

When I began experiencing mood swings as a young teenager in high school, I would have never guessed their implications for the rest of my life. I was certainly moody in ways many teenagers experience, but it was when I began self harming and daydreaming about suicide that I knew something was very wrong.

I remember a fellow classmate pointing out the scabbed over cuts on my wrist and asking what happened. I quickly pulled my sleeve over the evidence of my tumultuous mind and blamed the cat. They didn’t seem convinced but didn’t push the issue further. That moment of fear, guilt, and shame at my actions was a clear sign to me that I was ill. However, it wasn’t until much later that I finally asked for help.

That moment was one of the scariest of my life. I knew once I told my parents about my cutting and suicidal thoughts that I couldn’t go back to normalcy. But at that point, normalcy was locking myself in my room anytime I wasn’t at school. It was sitting in the dark with sharp blades, crying for reasons unknown to me, trying to push out the intrusive thoughts that constantly berated me. Although I wasn’t fully conscious of it, I had reached the point where I couldn’t live that way any longer.

As I predicted, life changed drastically. I began seeing a therapist weekly and started medications. The initial diagnosis of depression didn’t seem to quite fit, but having a name for all of these unwelcome thoughts and feelings seemed to help. While this time of my life is extremely blurry, I know I struggled desperately to regain a foothold but the ground seemed to keep slipping out from under me.

I lost close friends likely due to my erratic and sometimes toxic behavior. I wondered if I truly had a disorder or if I was just a terrible person. Even after being hospitalized multiple times, this question haunted me throughout the rest of my teenage years and well into young adulthood. There were many times I acted on wild impulses, saying and doing damaging things that couldn’t be taken back. I couldn’t understand why I had this pent up energy and, at times, aggression.

When I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the diagnosis didn’t click for me. I didn’t fully understand what the symptoms were or what that meant in terms of recovery. I remember thinking back on those couple of nights where I hadn’t slept but felt completely fine the next day. At such a competitive high school, I figured every other high school student had done the same. I didn’t accept the bipolar disorder diagnosis until a few years later when I truly couldn’t deny it.

The manic episode

The end of the year of 2016 will be forever burned in my brain as the “episode”. At this point I had been in community college for some time, already on a longer trajectory than most of my peers. It was difficult to see the progress with their degrees while I felt I was moving at a snail’s pace. I had consistently taken a reduced workload and had a number of withdrawals on my transcript due to a hospitalization because of depressive symptoms. When I was accepted to university as a transfer student, I was elated. I had fought hard to reach this point.

What no one knew was that I had stopped taking my medications. It was a very calculated decision—I told myself I didn’t need them. At that time, I saw the bipolar disorder diagnosis as something I created, a way to seek attention. I told myself that back then, as a teenager, I wanted to push the boundaries to see what would come of it. While I never lied to the psychiatrist who diagnosed me, I felt I had stretched my symptoms to see what would happen. It was this thinking that led me to my ultimate decision.

Everything seemed normal for a while. For almost an entire year I lied to my therapist, psychiatrist, and family about taking medications without seemingly any consequences. I was thriving in my classes, on track to transfer to university, and felt creatively inspired. No one could have predicted the intense manic episode that came soon after.

My memory for this time is also extremely hazy, likely due to the electroconvulsive therapy I received after a long period of mania. Along with barely sleeping, my symptoms included hallucinations and delusions, paranoia, and agitation. Apparently I also sang a lot and scribbled my way through two journals. I spent nearly two entire months in the psych ward while my parents visited me every day.

The recovery time was extremely sobering. I lost a year to this episode as my transfer had to be delayed and I needed time to recover. The electroconvulsive therapy became unbearable as side effects worsened. My creativity levels were low, I had little energy, and it was easy to blame myself for “ruining” everything. Despite these hardships, looking back not only on this episode but my entire experience with bipolar disorder, I have learned so much.

Emerging lessons

I find myself constantly comparing where I am in life to others. It was extremely difficult to see many of my high school classmates post college graduation photos and even easier to compare myself in a negative light. However, I learned to distance myself from that type of unhelpful thinking.

I had to work hard and attend many sessions of therapy to shift my perspective. Instead of directly comparing my life stage with someone else’s, I took my experience with bipolar disorder into account. While I may be graduating a few years after many of my peers, I have learned a multitude of lessons while living with mental illness. These lessons take time.

One of these is patience. Not only when it comes to earning my degree, but when it comes to how I view myself. I’ve learned to cultivate a patient attitude toward my own feelings and struggles. I used to berate myself for feeling certain ways or acting in ways I thought I shouldn’t. While this still happens from time to time, I am much more kind to my experiences than I used to be. If I’m feeling low one day and can’t concentrate, I’ll relax that day. Instead of judging myself, I take it as a sign that I should give myself some space from what I wanted to work on.

I am also much more aware of my personal limitations. After interning at the California National Primate Research Center for some time, I was offered the opportunity to work closely with a graduate student on their research. I was incredibly excited and accepted before fully realizing the strain it would add to my already full workload. Once I spoke to my psychiatrist and parents, I knew I had to explain my situation and step back from the additional responsibility for my own health. It was disappointing but for the best.

In the past I probably wouldn’t have even asked my doctor or family for any input. I would have tried it and likely would have burned out or worse, experienced mania. While I’m not happy about these types of limitations, I find I am much more aware of my boundaries. Not only that, but I can express this to others. If I need to miss a meeting because of medication side effects or can’t meet with a friend because I’m feeling down, instead of pushing through it, I share my situation.

In this way, I’ve integrated bipolar disorder into my life. It’s no longer a big scary thing that I’m fighting on the side but a part of my daily life that I need to consider. This isn’t to say I don’t have my days—sometimes I really wish I didn’t have to live with mental illness. But I am no longer fighting my diagnosis. I’ve come to a place of acceptance and because of this I can focus on how to best live with these limitations and extra considerations.

This integration has empowered me to take an active interest in my medications. I now view self-care as essential instead of a suggestion. My experience with bipolar disorder also helps fuel my passion for writing: I found that nearly every article I wrote for my science journalism class this quarter was focused on mental health.

As I reflect on my life so far, I know that there is so much more I want to contribute. I wouldn’t have this story to tell without the experience of living with mental illness. Despite the difficulties, I find myself thankful for the opportunity to learn and share what I’ve learned with others. I’m looking forward to what the future holds, even if it does include more hardship. In the end, I know it will only serve to strengthen these lessons I’m already learning.