By De Andra Kenoly
It is like a roller coaster. At first, I am on a high. I can do anything. I do not need to eat. I do not need to sleep. I need to do something – anything. I clean my room. Do my homework – this week's, next week's, if possible. It is still not enough. I pace back and forth for hours in a futile attempt to drain energy, but it continues to build.
Then I drop.
The depression is profound. I cry uncontrollably. Thoughts of death and suicide race through my head. At its worst, I cannot move. Gravity seems to have been cranked up tenfold. I wake up in my bed, struggling to get out. But I am unable to. Breathing hurts. I try to cry out for help, but I cannot move my mouth to formulate the words. I am trapped in my body.
This is my life with bipolar disorder. As a college student, I constantly worry how my mood shifts will affect my abilities as it did when I began experiencing symptoms of the illness in my junior year of high school.
At the age of 18, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder II. The condition, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a mood disorder that causes shifts in mood, energy and activity level. With type II, I experienced cycles of hypomania, a mild to moderate increase of energy and activity levels, and severe depression. I was relieved finally to have an explanation for the elation and severe depression I experienced over the preceding year and a half. However, I knew my life would not be the same.
I barely made it through high school, scraping up mediocre grades at the last minute to graduate. I gave up playing tennis and being involved in clubs and other activities. My episodes of depression were so severe that I could hardly function.
That fall I would start my freshman year at Whitworth. I was worried that I would not make it through another four years of schooling.
Transitioning from high school to college can be tricky for any college student. But for someone with a serious mental disorder, the transition is all the more arduous. On top of balancing school, work, and a social life, I worried about how my hypomania and depression would affect me.
I feared having to drop out. Since childhood I had dreamed of going to a university to earn my bachelors degree. I dreamt of graduating with honors with lovely colored honor cords draped around my neck. Now I saw my dreams drifting away like soap bubbles in the wind.
I told my doctor about my fears. She assured me that I could have a good college experience despite having bipolar disorder. She said the best thing I could do was to take advantage of the campus's counseling services.
I took her advice to heart, and looked into Whitworth Health and Counseling Center when I started college.
The first session changed everything for me. When the counselor, Teresa Warren, asked me how I felt, the thoughts and feelings I could never articulate to my family and closest friends, gushed out as rapidly as my tears.
For the first time in two years, I felt relief. I realized that holding my emotions in had made things worse because I felt alone. There was someone I could tell everything to, and she understood. The more I revealed, the less intense my depression episodes became.
After the first session, I decided to make weekly visits. I divulged everything I could think of that made me feel bad. I felt better after each session. However, I soon found that confiding in someone was an insufficient insurance against my condition.
Towards the end of the fall semester of my freshman year, I stumbled into a deep depression. I became frustrated at myself. Although my grades were consistently good, I thought I did not deserve them. My work was garbage. Nothing I did was ever right. No matter how much I expressed my feelings to my counselor, family, and friends, my anguish remained.
The frustration and anger would soon take a toll on me physically.
One night, as I was poring over my core 150 notes, I started having chills. My head throbbed. I kneaded my temples but the pain would not subside. Sweat surged from my pores. My hands twitched wildly. The world swirled around me. Breathing grew difficult. My heart felt like it was going to explode.
I got up from my desk and lay down on my bed, clutching my chest. The chest pain grew so intense that I thought I was having a heart attack. I tried calling for help, but I could hardly make a sound. My throat tightened. I tried concentrated on my breathing, inhaling and exhaling deeply.
When I thought I could speak I begged my mother to take me to the hospital. There, I learned that I had suffered a severe panic attack.
The panic attack was one of the worst moments I have ever experienced. Clearly, I did not have as much control over my illness as I thought. To tame my condition, I needed to know more about methods to manage it.
My counselor, Teresa, helped me to find a solution. We talked about the events leading up to the panic attack. It all came down to one thing: stress. The stress of studying for my exams, writing my final essays, and the pressure to excel was too much for me to handle. I needed structure.
Teresa worked with me to come up with a daily schedule to follow, planning everything from morning until night. I had to get eight hours of sleep. I needed to time set aside for myself.
And so I started to see an improvement. I felt more productive and less anxious. With the help of my counselor I was able to finish my freshman year with little problem. At the end of the year, I earned a 3.5 GPA.
As course work became more rigorous in my sophomore and junior year, I was able to handle the pressure better. However, there were still times of struggling with stress. In the fall of my sophomore year I earned D's in two courses, Reporting for Mass Media and International Relations.
Although I was disappointed, the setback did not discourage me. I maintained a GPA over 3.0, and was proud of the effort I put into making the best of my time at Whitworth.
Though things are better, I know I am not done. I face a new challenge – transitioning into life beyond college. Uncertainty abounds. Will I function well in the professional world? Will I have a support system like I had at Whitworth? Will my condition get worse? The uncertainty worries me. The questions swirl in my head.
But instead of fearing the future, I embrace it. Instead of dwelling on the worries, I focus on my aspirations.
I close my eyes, breathe in deeply and think to myself, "I know I will persevere."