Life as a University Student With Bipolar Disorder
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.