The ups and downs of being at university and having bipolar disorder
My “good moods” were far above what lots of people experienced, my “bad moods” were a black hole
I was diagnosed with bipolar in my second year of university. I had long been aware my moods waxed and waned but at university, this spiralled out of control. I knew that my “good moods” were far above what lots of people experienced; the birds would sing arias for me and every song on the radio was about me, or so it felt. My “bad moods” were a black hole.
Depression was my first diagnosis. The inability to get out of bed – I missed a lot of seminars, loathing myself and still lying in bed – and the social withdrawal were the first signs. My books mocked me unopened on my untouched desk. Sometimes I would make it to the kitchen to eat some rice pudding, cold, from the tin; my housemates grew sick of this sort of thing. I took an exam during a protracted panic attack, crying into the paper. Smiling felt like dementia-stricken muscle memory; stiff and unsure. A solution presented itself. I was self-harming and daydreaming of death. These thoughts, made worse by heavy drinking and copious amounts of Sylvia Plath, came to a head when a crisis came up: rather than live in a house with people who would not be around my mood swings, I took an overdose. This rather proved their point.
I was dispatched to A&E, where I was patched up and sent home the next morning due to a lack of beds. Eventually I was prescribed fluoxetine, or Prozac. Lots of people with bipolar are initially prescribed similar antidepressants. Elation is listed as a side effect, and soon my mood was sky-high. I was wildly writing what seemed brilliant essays, attending all my classes, talking again, reading and reading. In fact I was talking too much and too quickly, and jumping from topic to topic too fast. My essays made no sense. I was drinking to calm down before seminars, sitting silently in them. I was twitchy and nervous on campus. Old Joe’s chimes made me jump every time. My sleep had dwindled to two hours a night, and my appetite had vanished. My diary is full of long dawn-scrawled entries about bees seeing in ultraviolet. Colours burned and seared and shone, and sound warped. Time seemed to be moving slowly compared to my thoughts, which were being read by Google anyway. I stopped sleeping completely. At this point I thought I was perhaps a prophet. Actions lost all consequences.
I met with my mentor, a former mental health nurse. She became concerned, because I was fixated suddenly on becoming a ballerina, and seemed rather obviously unwell. I was sent to the doctor, who prescribed sedatives – which did nothing until I took four times the recommended dose. At last, I slept.
I saw a psychiatrist whilst still thinking I was holy. I cannot remember much of what was said, apart from that everything he said was funny and he did not seem to get the joke. He told me I had bipolar. I laughed, but three exams were deferred. I did my second-year exams in the supplementary examination period, and did well.
My mood swings meant my former housemates refused to live with me again – I have lost friendships, or perhaps they were only friendships when viewed through the fluorescent-pink-tinted hypomanic lens. I am on medication, which makes me sluggish and means I cannot really function before 10am. I have had to alter my aims; a first might be out of reach, if I have another episode at a bad time. When getting out of bed is a struggle, so is writing an essay or reading and annotating Old English poetry. And writing long, rambling papers in which you discuss your glorious plans for the universe rarely leads to good marks when the question is about John Donne.
Bipolar is seen as “scarier” than more common depression, which gets lots more attention and sympathy. It is also rarely discussed, unless as a synonym for mercurial weather, or if Stephen Fry is in the news. But with mental illness on the rise, to pretend bipolar doesn’t exist – or to see it as just “mood swings”, or as the price to pay for creative genius – is implying that severe, long-term mental illness does not matter. I am about to take my final exam, and I have submitted all my essays. Some needed deadline extensions, some were not my best work, but I did them. Surviving university with a mental illness is difficult but doable.
For students – young adulthood is when symptoms often appear, and bipolar episodes are worsened by drugs and alcohol, late nights and coffee, and stress – mental illness must become a topic that is more commonly discussed. This article could have been written by a doctor, a playwright, a binman; mental illness does not discriminate or follow trends, and it is time to drag it out from the shadows and talk about it. For me it is a gift; sometimes the world sparkles and the stars dance. The only way is (stable, medicated, non-Joan-of-Arc-related) up.