This was different: reckoning with Bipolar Disorder while in Grad School
I knew something was wrong.
After having battled depression and anxiety during my time in undergrad, I had become accustomed to those feelings and behaviors. For me, it meant locking myself in my room for days at a time, never moving from my bed, but my anxious desire to maintain a perfect image meant dragging my laptop into my lap and doing my homework and reading while under the cover of a blanket. It meant ignoring texts messages and calls, deleting social media so no one could find me, and weeping while my parents attempted to solve the problem. I had grown used to the debilitating feeling of needing to hold myself together, lay on my side and wrap my arms around myself, because it felt like someone had cleaved my chest in two.
But this was different.
I could barely explain what was happening. In January of 2017, I first noticed that something different was happening to me. I was irritable and had this ball of sickening energy growing and pulsing in the pit of my stomach. The energy was sharp and if I didn’t attend to it, I would lash out. I felt the impulse to work harder than I’d ever worked before, my mind moving so fast I could barely hold onto the thoughts, because the work kept the energy at bay. I snapped when interrupted, could barely even talk to my parents on the phone without hanging up in irritation mid way through, and would get so lost in swirling thoughts that I would walk my dog and couldn’t remember the path I had taken to get where I was. My body was on autopilot but I wasn’t in control of the plane.
A friend encouraged me to write down my symptoms, the inexplicable things I was doing, the racing thoughts, the pulsing energy. I decided to go back all the way to high school to see if I could determine a pattern in my behavior. I noticed that my behavior was characterized by a series of short highs that lasted a month or so, followed by months or years of lows, and very few “normals” in between. Worried about what this might mean, I called my parents to ask about my grandmother’s mental health history. They told me that she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After taking all of this information to a school psychiatrist, I was diagnosed with Bipolar II.
I handled it like a champ. I was relieved to have an explanation for my behaviors. I vowed that though I had Bipolar Disorder, it wouldn’t have me. I started bullet journaling. I started tracking my moods, food and water intake, and medicine. I started eating three meals a day. I, for a short while, started exercising, even if it only meant doing 30 minutes of yoga in my apartment. I took my dog for longer walks and took my medication exactly as directed. I leaned into my support systems.
And I still spiraled out of control.
A combination of a hypomanic episode mixed with medication increases which made me increasingly irritable ended with me not sleeping for two days, attempting to cause myself harm, and landed me three back to back appointments in the school Counseling Center with my very alarmed and concerned parents. I talked myself out of hospitalization but I was ordered to take a medical break from school for a week and then we would reevaluate.
I ended up being allowed to come back to school but after having a complete mental break, I had to really assess what was important in my life. Grad school and the stresses I was under while doing so were really harmful to my well being. I had to convince myself that I would not die to get this degree. Literally. I was pushing myself to my mental and emotional limits and I had to stop.
Things did eventually get better, but not before they got worse. I switched medications about once every couple of weeks for a few months, which made me irritable and unable to focus. I did most of my medication changes in the weeks leading up to finals, so how I got through my papers when I was improperly medicated I will never know. I got so stressed out during finals last semester that I passed out on a trip to the library and ended up spending the rest of the day in the Urgent Care.
This semester I’ve been relatively stable, which is the first time I can say that confidently in over a year. I attribute this to being properly medicated, in therapy, well supported by my friends and family, and my new found ability to put myself first. I have incorporated a few mindfulness practices into my life (like breathing exercises) and gratitude logs into my journaling life. And I do my best to stay prayed up. If you, like me, are not the greatest at prayer, make sure to get a few prayer warriors that will lift you up in their own prayers. I have a couple people who serve that purpose in my life and I always feel better when they pray with/for me.
But I know how lucky I am. I have an emotional support animal, my dog, Genghis, and I live an hour away from my parents. I take advantage of their proximity and spend time with them to heal. Get through grad school with mental illness can be challenging but entirely possible. It’s important to know what heals you and be unapologetic about the time you need to spend doing that. Allow yourself the time and space to tend to your emotional needs. I’m so proud that I have learned to take the time to nourish myself, and I can only grow from here.
About the Author:
Ravynn Stringfield is a PhD student in American Studies at the College of William & Mary. Her work is at the intersection of Black Studies, literature and Comic Studies. When she working, she runs a blog about her grad school experience, Black Girl Does Grad School, in the hopes of making life easier for those who come after her.
You can find her on Twitter @RavynnKaMia