After a bipolar diagnosis, a college student takes time off to fine-tune his treatment and learn management strategies—then returns triumphantly to graduate.
By Benjamin M.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder the summer after my freshman year at Georgetown University.
I didn’t know what my diagnosis meant for my future, but on reflection it did provide insight into my behavior over the previous months.
As mania took hold, I became passionate about everything. I joined a multitude of organizations, whether or not they reflected my core interests.
I knew I couldn’t keep up with all my activities or carry the same course load while I was trying to figure out how to cope with my new reality. When I made the difficult but necessary decision not to return for the fall semester, though, it felt like my world had come crashing down.
I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to stay on track to graduate. I worried that my absence would cause people to forget about me. But my true friends, and even people whom I did not really consider close, kept encouraging me and wishing for a speedy recovery.
Taking a semester off gave me the opportunity to reevaluate my life.It gave me time to learn about my disorder and how to manage it. Without that break, I believe I never would have found the right dosage of medications. I had the breathing room to identify my triggers and make changes to my behavior.
Before, I would stay up and skip sleep just to finish a task.I was spending money haphazardly. I was convinced I would be able to bypass an undergrad degree and go straight into graduate school. I would not have succeeded with those kinds of delusions.
Taking a semester off … gave me time to learn about my disorder and how to manage it.
I set my sights on returning to Georgetown once I had achieved recovery. The leave-of-absence requirements to be accepted back provided me with a focus.
I knew I had to take baby steps, though. I took one class at a community college to acclimate myself to academia again. I worked at a retail store and volunteered at a high school every week to keep occupied.
I also saw a therapist and psychiatrist regularly to monitor my progress. At first, I thought that just seeing a psychiatrist to deal with my medication was going to be enough, but it wasn’t. The meds adjust your chemical imbalance, but therapy teaches you to navigate through those imbalances and other stressors in life.
Once I achieved my goal of returning to school, I had to take what I had learned and apply it in a more challenging environment. I prepared myself by acknowledging that it wasn’t going to be easy. Emotional support from family and friends helped make the ride less bumpy.
I made adjustments that allowed me to be successful. I kept my work load manageable by taking fewer credits and making them up in the summer. I limited my participation in extracurriculars that would create added stress. Finally, I reminded myself to have patience.
By taking an active approach to my mental health, I was able to graduate with a bachelor’s of science in foreign service. I have worked for three years in the field of public health, including a year at the national office of Mental Health America.I started My Campus Health, an online platform that helps college students with mental health challenges and other disabilities get on the right path to graduation.
The website has a space for parents and other allies to build a community of support, because one of the things I’ve learned is that I could not manage all this strictly on my own.
Learning how to manage mental health after a diagnosis is an uneven process, and stumbles are to be expected. I learned from my mistakes and continued to move forward.Recovery is possible, recovery is attainable, and recovery is freedom.
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