Six years ago I started university. It was a time full of excitement, anticipation, growth, and although I didn’t know it at the time, bipolar disorder.
I was eighteen when I finished high school and embarked on tertiary studies to become a nurse. My years as an undergraduate student were a turbulent, fast-paced messy blur consisting of wild, uncontainable euphoria or dark, suicidal lows. There was never a happy medium with me; I was either up or down. Everyone would describe me as an all-or-nothing person and for the first couple of years I thought that was my problem, not that I had a mental illness.
In hindsight, it is easy to attribute behaviour and emotions that were inexplicable back then to bipolar disorder. But at the time I didn’t know it. My first year was full of constant partying and decisions born out of manic impulsivity. There were times when I could party all week if given the chance and I would stay up for days. But when I was down those fun nights out turned into an opportunity to drink myself into oblivion to escape the turmoil in my head.
When elevated, I was notorious in my lectures and tutes for always talking and not being able to sit still. I believe the reason I passed that year was due to the unnoticed times of hypomania when I could study for an exam in a night, or write an assignment in half a day.
By the time second year came around I channelled my excess energy into learning everything I could. I would not only read my nursing texts, but also the medical and science text books in the university library. However, the hypomania was short lived and I spent the better part of that year depressed. It was extremely hard to meet deadlines for assignments and it took all of my energy to complete my nursing placements. Fortunately I scraped through thanks to my excessive studying during times of fleeting elevation.
That year I took psychology subjects and also had a nursing placement at a psychiatric hospital. I had come to hate everything to do with mental health – not because of the content, but because of what I was trying to ignore. By then I had figured out the reason why I would get suicidally low. It was a slap in the face seeing the depressed patients on my placement because it was like looking in the mirror and I feared ending up in hospital as a patient. I would spend my time drinking at the pub opposite campus to avoid my mental health classes.
I knew I had depression, but at that stage never would I have thought I had bipolar. Still, I tried to deny it because I was embarrassed and by the time third year came around I was feeling so good that my depressions were a distant memory. I convinced myself that they were a one-off and there was nothing to worry about. Besides, I was on top of the world and believed I would never fall down. But I was wrong.
At the end of my third and final year I found myself in a severe episode of depression and was planning to take my life. I couldn’t ignore it anymore and cracks were appearing in my happy and composed façade.
I didn’t know what was more concerning: seeing my life falling apart or the fact that I didn’t care about it. So I went to my lecturer for help and she referred me to a university counsellor. The day I spoke to my tutor probably saved my life. After speaking with my tutor I had a small glimmer of hope – something that I had not felt for a long time. I was diagnosed with depression. By that stage I was 20.
Seeing a counsellor opened up my world to mental illness. It was the first contact I had with a mental health professional and would also prove to be life saving later on when my moods would get so extreme and tip the scales into psychosis.
Miraculously I got through my undergraduate studies without having to repeat units and graduated with distinction. Though that wasn’t the end of university for me. I went on to do honours in nursing, which I am currently completing. I felt immense relief after finishing my bachelor degree and I felt like I had won the battle with my moods. Little did I know that the war against my bipolar disorder was just getting started and the battlefield was university and work. Stay Tuned for Part 2.
Sally lives in Victoria, Australia. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder two years ago when she was 22, however she has been dealing with extreme moods since she was 14. When she experienced her first episode of depression, she was too embarrassed to get help even though she knew that something was wrong. Throughout high school she battled depression after depression, each one getting worse. At university she continued to have depressive episodes and when she wasn’t depressed she was extremely happy, incredibly driven and unusually energetic. Everyone thought this was her normal mood, herself included and so the elevated times went unnoticed.
The turning point was in her final year of university when she was referred to the university counsellor. She was diagnosed with depression but after many failed treatments she saw a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with type II bipolar disorder. However that quickly turned into a diagnosis of type I bipolar disorder after a psychotic manic episode.
She is currently completing her honours degree in nursing and works as a nurse in the emergency department. She blogs for The International Bipolar Foundation and has written for several publications. She also volunteers for a mental health organization where she delivers presentations about mood disorders to high school students. Although relatively new to this world, she is passionate about mental health promotion and thoroughly enjoys writing about mental health.
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