My name’s Kelly. I love Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew detective PC games. I know the lyrics to any song on the oldies station. I suck at billiards, but I still love playing. All this and… I have type 2 rapid-cycling bipolar disorder with a nice overlay of generalized anxiety disorder. Go ahead, call me a Renaissance (Wo)man.
My first depressive episode happened when I was 12 years old, around 12 years ago at this point. These past dozen years have taught me a lot about living with and rising above mental illness. I believe it to be not only my duty, but also my pleasure, to inform, reassure, and bring comfort to any one of you who may feel alone, overwhelmed, scared, hopeless, powerless, or maybe even feeling nothing at all.
Before we get into the dark details and those late-night Merlot conversations, let me explain how my disorder progressed for me – because it can certainly be different for everyone. The onset of puberty (and middle school in general) is hell in itself, so it was easy to write off a lot of the symptoms that were developing in my thought patterns and behaviors. In middle school, I was an apple-polisher who started getting into trouble with my peers, getting worse grades, and isolating myself in the library during lunch to write some “emo” poetry that is probably best left buried in my closet. (Or thrown in a fire.) I saw a school counselor a couple of times and out of a natural instinct to agree with people, I reassured everyone that my sadness and acting out was just a phase. I was smart. I was in every club. I had friends. What could have been wrong? Instead of asking for any emotional guidance or supervision, I apologized: “I mean, you’re right, it’s probably just a phase. I’m sorry I caused any trouble.”
This facade of wellness continued into high school. I remember my first panic attack; my first day in my pre-calculus class, waiting what seemed like FOREVER while my teacher assigned everyone textbooks. And then … My heart…was something choking it? Was I getting enough oxygen? I started feeling clammy. Was this what dying felt like? Sitting still, with my line of vision getting narrower, I wondered: do I tell the 15-year-old classmate next to me, a stranger, that I was about to die? What should my last words be? How will my mom react when she hears the news that my heart stopped suddenly in class?
You’d be surprised how normal those thoughts felt at the time.
The panic attacks would come and go, but the mood changes dictated my success or my failure. All of my energy was channeled into my high school drama troupe, to which I dedicated every spare hour of my four years there. It was the only thing that provided relief. I felt most like my real self….Happy. No anxiety I couldn’t overcome, no threat that would rattle me. Outside of theatre, I chose to challenge myself academically: Advanced Placement Physics, Calculus, dual enrollment – spending most of the week at high school and a couple days at the local community college. Why not? I was on top of the world. I was loved, I was a genius, and I was capable of anything. Little did I know these thoughts and those choices were the manifestation of hypomania encouraging me to bite off more than I could chew.
By junior year, the mask was slipping off. I would wake up feeling dark. I would snap at my friends and as soon as I could find some privacy, I would start crying uncontrollably, without understanding why. I stopped caring about grades. I froze on tests. I dropped out of my dual enrollment program. Worst of all, I had already started redefining myself as someone who could never be as talented, intelligent, or strong as I wanted to be. Still, much like middle school, and much like the actress I had spent four years being, I let everyone believe I was going to be fine as I was accepted to the University of Florida in Fall of 2010.
Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, and I am no exception. I joined the comedy troupe at UF and found my new support system among a bunch of wry, outgoing people. My energetic, hypomanic side had a release. But now at college, the stakes were higher and the demands were more intense. My low emotional threshold led me to sobbing in public places, eventually skipping classes and binge drinking at every opportunity. In 2011, I decided to reach out to the Counseling and Wellness Center at school, spending months cycling through different antidepressants, receiving weekly therapy off-campus, and ultimately medically withdrawing from my classes. I covered up as much of it as I could from my family. I had trouble admitting it wasn’t just a phase – it felt like it was just me.
Eventually, finally, my psychiatrist found an effective medicine for me. Appointments with my therapist became the highlight of my week. The three of us pieced together that my normal “productivity” and “energy” was actually hypomania, which can include decreased need for sleep and food, grandiose ideas of the self and the universe, hyper-sexuality, embarrassing gregariousness, and over-reactive aggression. I had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, type 2. I was grateful that things were starting to make sense. My troubles weren’t a phase, and they certainly weren’t a personality defect – they were a biological expression that could be controlled. I chose to pay attention to my health and left school in 2012.
It has been four years since. I’ve worked various jobs in many cities across Central Florida trying to find a good lifestyle fit. I’ve gone back to school and received my Associate’s degree this past December – “thank you, thank you.” *bows*
I still receive regular medical care through therapy appointments, medications, and diet awareness. I plan to get my Bachelor’s in Computer Engineering in the next couple of years.
You, reader: you know me a little better now – better than classmates, coworkers, family members, and even some close friends. I’ve become much more of a straight shooter these days, and here’s why: I want my contributions to Stronger Than Stigma to show you that the pain you’re feeling is real, but it can be overcome. You may have to make some lifestyle changes while you battle, but they will be worth it. The pain may even come back, but it’s not fighting the same you – it’s fighting a stronger, wiser, more patient, more compassionate hero. You may feel like the victim, but recovery is about choosing to be the hero – as many times as it takes.