Intellect, Interrupted.

When you’re diagnosed with bipolar disorder there a certain things that you come to expect. For instance, you expect that there will be times where you’re depressed and others when you are manic/hypomanic. Or even that you will go OFF on someone if they try you even a little (as you should). What people don’t often expect is that the way you take in information or are able to communicate it changes. The symptom is often portrayed as “trouble focusing”, but that’s not even the half of it. At times bipolar disorder symptoms can mirror that of ADHD. It’s a mind-fuck of a mixture when you’re a college student (which is ironically when symptoms of bipolar tend to manifest–haha life). The best way to describe how this symptom progresses is the same way John Green described falling in love: Slowly, and then all at once.

First, I struggled with reading. I went from devouring books like Thanksgiving dinner to getting stuck on single paragraphs for hours. Then, my thoughts became disorganized. Writing turned into a nightmare task as I couldn’t hold onto ideas long enough to transfer them onto paper. Draft after draft, I would lose my train of thought easily and not understand what it was I was even trying to say. There was a disconnect. And finally, classes became torture chambers. I was hit with constant streams of information that confusingly danced in my brain before disappearing completely. I felt like I couldn’t hold onto anything. Just like that, my grades plummeted. I acted like it didn’t matter to me but really it ate at my core. As the daughter of an African immigrant, education was pitched to me as my ticket to success. I was constantly reminded that the odds were stacked against me because I’m Black but I had my intellect to offer, so, “losing” it was a near fatal blow. Ultimately, I got so frustrated with my inability to learn as I always had that I became suicidal.  I was convinced that bipolar disorder had stolen my intelligence and that my IQ had dipped to an unsalvageable level. I kept thinking “I’m dumb and my life will never amount to anything because of it.” I felt worthless. 

Fact: my IQ was unscathed. I simply had to adjust to my new way of learning. But there was nothing simple about it, it took a lot of hard work. I’ve cried through essays, fallen asleep during exams, and had panic attacks before presentations but I kept trying until I found the right system. Trial and error was the name of the game. I thought about dropping out many times, which is something many people with bipolar disorder deal with. In 2006 a study was published in the Journal of Affective Disorders that compared a group of bipolar adults with a group of healthy adults, both groups having similar IQ’s and social backgrounds. More than 60 % of both groups went to college but their outcomes varied: About half of the control group received a college degree, compared to just 16 % of the bipolar group.(Source)

The truth is, it took years to find a system that worked with my “new mind” and it was far from easy. You can definitely complete your education with bipolar disorder, but it may not happen the way you planned. If you told 18 year old me that I would be 25 years old when I completed my Bachelors I would have cried. But over the years I’ve learned that this isn’t a damn race and that appreciating the small successes within the journey makes it much easier. I write to you as a college student with bipolar disorder that had a 2.0 GPA and is now sitting at a 3.9 GPA. More importantly, I’m writing to you as a college student with bipolar disorder that is confident in my ability to complete my education. And I say with certainty, that with time and effort, anyone with a bipolar diagnosis can achieve the same.

Here are some quick tips for surviving/ thriving in college while having bipolar disorder:

  1. If you take medication, get stable before you try to tackle a semester. There is little worse than starting a new medication a day before you have an Orgo exam, and I say this from experience. I can’t even tell you the amount of times I slept through a class because of a sedating medication. Medications have side effects, and sometimes they can be more distracting to your education than the symptoms of your illness. Your best bet it to try to get a sense of stability FIRST instead of bulldozing through a semester and underperforming. If you’re worried about taking time off from school, I found that taking one or two courses at my local community college while trying to get stable was doable.
  2. Be on #TeamAccommodations . Through your schools Office of Disability you can receive classroom accommodations. It can be a kind of annoying process but once you get them, you have a whole department that can go to bat for you if a teacher is being an ass. It helps to have these if you don’t like disclosing your illness to professors. You start the semester with them knowing that your struggling with a generic disability, and that can make them more likely to help you out. My accommodations are: Extended time for exams and quizzes (1.5x), reduced distractions testing location, note taking services-electronic, and extensions on assignments (this one was hard to get but proper documentation was the key).
  3. If your school offers campus counseling, use it. The more advocates you have in your school for you, the better your chances of thriving are. It means when times get rough, you have multiple points of support to help you out of the rut. I once had a school counselor reach out to a teacher for me when I couldn’t find the words and it helped to prevent me from failing out of that class. Another great advocate could be your Dean of Students. If you find yourself in a rut, reach out to them, explain the situation and see if they can help you find a solution or are willing to talk to your teachers about a solution.
  4. If you suffer from disorganized thoughts that are affecting your writing, try recording yourself, stream of consciousness style. There are features in many writing applications that allow you to dictate speech into text. Your mouth is faster than your hands so it helps to get everything out, and then try to sift through the brain dump.
  5. GET SOME DAMN SLEEP. Try to limit the amount of late nights you have. I definitely recommend early or midday classes so you have time to do HW during the day time. If you have difficulty sleeping, tell you doctor ASAP so they can come up with a plan to address it.
  6. The Pomodoro technique is your friend. This is the method of studying where you do an increment of 25-30 min of studying followed by a 2-5 min break. You do this four times, before having a longer break of 15-30 min, and then you start over. This really works if you’re having trouble with focusing. You can adjust the times as you need. I found 20 mins was my study g-spot.

P.S. Follow me on instagram @bipolarblisss. Also let me know if you want a post about more tips for navigating college.

Intersectional Fear

In this post, I’ve decided to highlight a fear that is well understood by many black people and extends to the mentally ill. I also detail why I felt it was important to center the black female experience in this blog. I’ll take you through one of the first experiences I had of being symptomatic in front of others and why it made me want to hide.

Growing up as a black girl in a predominantly white town, I grew up carrying the burden of representation. Atlas style, I felt any public misstep could lead to a white person reconsidering their stance on the KKK. (It’s a phenomena known as the burden of representation, I’m not making this up). So I had two selves, my public self and my real self. I dialed back my blackness to a palatable grey so as not to scare the white folk. That meant no public sightings of me eating watermelon, tempering my voice to a quiet medium (even when the story called for bolstering laughter), and making sure that everyone knew I listened to Lil Wayne AND Paramore. I was made to fear being myself in public because people wouldn’t understand. They could assume the worst and I could end up hurt, arrested, or dead because of it. I grew up with this fear and I learned to live with it. A protective measure.

Artist: Liz Montague Instagram: @lizatlarge

When I first experienced the symptoms of bipolar disorder my freshman year of college, that learned fear morphed into something darker.

Late in my first semester of college, I was having what I now know to be a mixed episode. For those who aren’t well versed in bipolar terminology, a mixed episode is when you experience depression and mania symptoms at the SAME. DAMN. TIME. Anyway, I was really going through it in my dorm room and my roommate saw this. She was white, from a small town in the south, and we’d already had a number of ‘close calls’ with racism. Now, to be fair, I looked bat shit crazy. I was crying and I had a razor in front of me when she walked in (I was still in my cutting phase). We were both on the soccer team and were supposed to go to practice but I was in no state to sprint on that huge ass field. Cut to three hours later, after practice, my mood was elevated and I was jumping around talking to my sister on the phone. My roommate comes back except this time she’s not alone. One (or two) of my teammates had come with her and started to pack some of her things. I just remember their faces, etched with fear. They were terrified of me. Me, the girl who had cried when I saw a bird with a broken wing drowning in a puddle. Scared of ME, the girl who has apologized to walls after walking into them on more than one occasion. But they weren’t seeing me, they were seeing my illness. And to them, that erased all the other parts of me that they had come to know. The worst of it was, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out if they were that scared just because of my mental illness or if my blackness had sealed the deal.

One of the first stories I heard about a black man with mental illness, ended with his death. He had an anxiety attack that caused him to crash his car. He then, still in crisis, knocked on the door of a stranger to see if he could get assistance and instead of help he was met with a bullet. That story danced in my head when I saw my teammates fearfully packing to get away from my crazy. I bet the man who shot Jelani Manigault felt as justified as they did.

Artist: Liz Montague Instagram: @lizatlarge

It was then that I realized that I now had two bullseyes on my back. One for my blackness, the other for my mental illness. And that’s when I started to hide. I kept to myself not wanting to give people the chance to misinterpret my crazy as dangerous. And I lied to everyone; doctors and therapists included about symptoms and the like because I didn’t trust them to use that information for my benefit. It was exhausting.

For some, to be black and mentally ill is to know what it’s like to be afraid to be feared, in more ways than one.

To anyone that is experiencing the same fear, I say to you that I understand. Battling mental illness requires vulnerability that, as a black women, I don’t always have the luxury of offering. I haven’t trusted a doctor since the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, and I wasn’t even born yet. I say to you that fear is not unfounded, but it is wholly unhelpful to your treatment.

You need to be vulnerable and truthful in your care but you also need to be in a safe space that allows for it. At some point, I will share with you the tips and tricks I have for curating your care team with varying levels of resources.

Artist: Liz Montague Instagram: @lizatlarge

PS. Follow my instagram page @bipolarblisss if you haven’t already. I’ll be more active on that platform soon!

5 Things to Know About Me

Hello Internet. I was racking my brain trying to think of the perfect first post only to realize that this post won’t be seen by many. So in the spirit of getting shit done, I thought the easiest introduction to my blog would be a short list of must know facts about me. Let’s get acquainted.

1. Bliss is my favorite word. For as long as I can remember, this word has been etched into my brain as a goal. I seek to attain and understand what it means to live a life of bliss.  Bliss, by definition, is unobtainable. Perfect happiness is a myth. But try telling that to my dark and twisty mind. I’m still going for it. It’s a tall order but one that has helped me push through some of my toughest moments.

2. I’m Ghanaian-American. My mother is from the mountains of Ghana, West Africa and my dad is from the projects in Queens, NY. Subsequently, my mom is religiously a Protestant and my dad is a Jehovah’s Witness. I grew up with conflicting cultures and at times my confused identity shows. There’s a part of me that refuses to eat with my left hand because my mom told me it was an insult to her cooking. And there’s another part of me that avoids wearing necklaces because my dad swore up and down that someone could choke me with it. It’s made me feel like the only pen in a pencil box at times but it has also been one of my strengths. Also yes, that means I’m Black. I decided to write this blog primarily for black people going through mental illness. We’re out there, we’re just not very visible, and I’d like that to change. Personally, my journey to connecting with my blackness began at the same time as the symptoms of my bipolar disorder, so they’re forever intertwined. Denying that fact has cost me a lot of time and energy, so I won’t be making that mistake again.

3. I have bipolar disorder II, with psychotic features. A mouthful I know. It’s also a mind fuck and the main reason I started this blog. I want to provide a transparent look into the life of a black person with mental illness, an area of storytelling that I believe is currently lacking. I’ve had my battles with this disorder, many of them I’ve lost, but recently I’ve had a series of wins, and I think it’s worth documenting. Even though I’ve had this disease for a while, I’m still not used to showing people my symptomatic side. Whenever I think about being vulnerable, a montage of reaction faces flash through my mind like a warning, and I recede. This blog is like my coming out story, for myself and for those who might hide like I did.

4. I was a division 1 athlete, past tense is crucial here. A difficult thing that happened after my diagnosis with bipolar disorder was that I left my Division 1 soccer team. Truth be told, I was kind of forced out, but that’s a story for another day. It’s been five years and I’m still mourning the loss of my old self. It’s not easy to shift identities after only claiming one for 12 years. I lost my sanity and my first love within what felt like a single breath , so it’s worth acknowledging that this disease is not my friend. While I know it doesn’t help to deny it’s existence, I will never be the type of person to lie and say I’m happy that I got diagnosed. I am happy that I can name what has railroaded my life, but I will never thank my mental illness. And that’s that on that.

5. I have the same birthday as Prince. My birthday twin is the one and only Prince and I will never shut up about it. Besides fueling my love for weird R&B, this little fact has heavily influenced my love of purple and all things dramatic. Less impressive but still noteworthy, Michael Cera and Bill Hader also entered the world on my day. Yes, that makes me a Gemini. And no, the irony of being a bipolar Gemini is not lost on me. I also read in a book of birthdays that June 7th is the Day of the Entertainer, so it is my personal mission to live up to that. This blog is my first step, so let’s see how it goes.