MHAM Post #14: A Mentor

The writer of this piece is someone I consider to be not just a friend, but in many ways, a mentor as well.

I actually couldn’t even tell you when I first met this writer. I was probably like 8? I attended the same camp every summer throughout my childhood, and as a teenager I began working there too. That is when me and this writer became closer. 

Growing up, if you had asked me to describe him, I would say he was filled with nothing but love, positivity, and happiness. This writer literally made the kids at camp light up with joy every day. He seemed to be constantly be overflowing with energy and passion.

I know I’ve said it a million times before, but you really can’t judge a book by it’s cover. So many people you are surrounded by everyday are battling their inner demons in silence. 

It means so much to me that the writer of this piece was willing to share his words. I’m so happy to know that we are able to still connect now, years after working together, to share our experiences with mental health. 

As you will see in this piece, it is HARD to open up about what you’re going through. Mental health struggles are a catch-22 in that sense. Not only do they cause you to feel unstable, but they often also make you feel less capable of opening up about what you’re going through. Then, to top it off, the stigma surrounding mental health makes it, in many ways, even more difficult to share your experiences openly. It’s no surprise than so many people grapple with these issues silently. 

Having the courage to share your experiences is extremely commendable, so, without further ado, check it out: 

When I graduated from high school in 1997, I had the vaguest notion of what bipolar disorder was. I certainly did not understand its destructive power, its ability to tear away at the life one built with terrifying swiftness. I would not know that I was bipolar until August of 2009. What I do remember knowing without any doubt when I was seventeen, and entering my first year at Penn State, was that I did not feel emotionally well-balanced. I do not mean this in the sense that I was feeling down, or going through a transition in my life that made me feel more stressed and emotionally drained. I felt shame, guilt, embarrassment, hopelessness, and uselessness to such a degree that I would hide from the world for days at a time, which progressed to weeks, and eventually months. I eventually spent the better part of seven years locked away in a studio apartment with the blinds drawn, trapped in my own mind.

No family, friends, or medical professionals knew of the way I lived until March of 2008, when I hit a breaking point, but I was not properly diagnosed with cyclothymic bipolar disorder until August of 2009. It was only then that I allowed myself to begin healing. Until recently, I rarely spoke or wrote about my mental health condition for various reasons that were grounded in the shame that fueled my protracted silence, in addition to the pernicious stigma that unfortunately continues to surround mental health issues. My voicelessness, however, did not stop me from learning about my own condition. I read as much as I could in the scientific literature, in addition to memoirs about people’s experiences associated with being bipolar. I am finally able to share my story more readily; I hope it helps anyone who reads it.

Nearly everyone I have known has felt depressed at some point in their life, which is a normal phenomenon. They understand that depression tends to shut people down and draw them inward mentally. Most people, however, are fairly resilient and find that mental balance without any help, so they are soon back on their feet and functioning normally. This resiliency is the line in the sand where my diagnosis separates me from those who are able to bounce back. It is critical that I emphasize two points. First, this separation is not my choice. I would never choose to continue to be depressed. Second, the severity of the depression that I suffer from is far more serious than what most people have ever had to deal with.

Looking back, it makes sense that I was bipolar at Penn State. I loved learning, reading, hanging out with friends, and playing competitive sports. Yet, very soon after I started college, I began to withdraw. The life that I worked very hard to build throughout high school was fading as life started feeling less important to me, for reasons that I may never know. Feeling that depressed, my natural reaction was to hide, both physically and emotionally. As professors and friends told me, when they did happen to see me, it was as if I just fell off the face of the earth. From time to time I did leave my apartment, and some classes were able to motivate me enough to participate and do well. For the majority of the time, however, I was hiding in my apartment. I cried, read, and slept. A few times a week I would eat. I was fortunate to have loving parents who worked hard to put me through school, which made me more ashamed of my lack of attendance and participation in college. Until I spoke out years later, my parents paid my tuition, I tried to recover from my depression, and I would continue to fail most of the time. When I was not failing because of never attending class, I was withdrawing from a semester of courses that I never went to. I was not a party animal who blew off everything academic. I was a lost person hiding from the world, and trying to run from my mind and my pain. This was my life for many years. When I was supposed to have graduated from Penn State, I remained in my apartment and lived off of my own savings from high school. My sporadic academic victories against bipolar disorder were marked with As on my transcript. My academic shortcomings were not indicative of blowing off college; they were the markers of my suffering. Medical research strongly suggests that people with a bipolar disorder often lose social functioning that is so easy for others and do not recover it for many years. I am living proof of that.

Throughout those difficult years in my life, there were a few genuinely bright spots. I did have windows in my house of misery that brought rays of happiness into my life. I enjoyed photography, and I especially enjoyed working with children in the summer when I had to live at home. To be sure, my years working at a summer camp saved my life, and sparked my interest in education. I am certain of this, which makes me grateful for the happiness and sense of purpose the children brought into my life. I do not speak much about working with children in this particular summer camp beyond the superficial comments of how fun it was. The truth is, that summer camp holds such a special place in my heart that I find it hard to articulate how much it really means to me.

In early 2008, I finally hit bottom and broke down in front of my parents. The stress and emotional toll that the silence brought was starting to kill me. I was a shell of my former self. I told them everything. I explained how their son left his apartment once every few weeks to every two months, and learned to subsist by getting food delivered. I apologized for wasting their money, and for failing them. One of the most profound moments of my life came after I apologized. My father picked me up off the ground, wiped the tears from my eyes, and told me that the only thing lost was money and time, but that I was still here, still alive, and should be proud of that, not ashamed. From that moment on, I never allowed myself to feel like I was too weak to overcome this disorder.

It has not been an easy road, but the faith I placed in myself has helped me tremendously. I never completed my degree at Penn State, but I am proud to say that I am a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania who is currently pursuing a masters degree at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. I am studying how institutions of higher education can do more to promote mental health awareness. I have a wonderful wife, and three beautiful children who have redefined what it means to be happy and to love unconditionally. There are indeed quite a few things in this world that are far more powerful than the destructive nature of bipolar disorder. Most of all, I have learned to stop hating who I am and what I suffer from, and began to love the face I see in the mirror, as well as the mind behind that face.

Although my own struggles with bipolar disorder prevented me from actively raising awareness over the years, I truly believe that my academic and professional work regarding mental health conditions, combined with my efforts to raise my voice and share my story, are in themselves forms of activism and resistance to the stigma associated with living with bipolar disorder. I learned that my lived experience, combined with what I learned throughout the past 20 years, can effectively be used toward making the lives of others like me thrive. No one should ever make others feel like they are not worthy of love or acceptance, or loving and accepting themselves. Loving oneself is a radical act. Loving oneself is an act of resistance in a world where so many forces seek to make groups of people feel lesser. There is much work to do….

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