November 8, 2022

PLOWE | Bipolar Blues and Books

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Right now, I am riding a stable moment in the middle of a mixed episode. It has lasted about two weeks, amplifying over the past week. My brain feels like a blind infant mouse, soft and incapacitated. But I am expected to be a College Scholar! An editor! A writer! A friend! What should I do?

My Student Disability Services (SDS) accommodation vaguely informs my professors that when I am absent from class, it might be a mental health concern — I’m not just skipping. The accommodation lays out no further boundaries for grading. 

When I’m in the middle of an episode, pulling the SDS card somehow feels like an unethical act. Can’t I just push through? All the anxious and depressed kids are pushing through! Sometimes, I convince myself that I am faking my mental illness. How do I get permission to take time off when I am not bleeding out or actively suicidal? 

Psychically, I want to beg my professors: please understand how much I wish I could be in class today. 

Every time I have sat down to write or do homework over the past two weeks, it has felt like trying to swallow a potato whole. I have been up, agitated and down, frozen, in spin cycles lasting days. I have felt stuck in myself, filled with fluttering bats. I get frustrated when I cannot think, ashamed of the brick walls between each neuron. 

Literature has been my refuge. Books slow down my mania, and open me up from my depression. I have been reading The Sentence by Louise Erdrich and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Both books balance brightness with darkness, play and death. Word by word, I learn each character’s hope and grief and euphoria. The spinning of my brightness and darkness is no longer as disorienting when I read about the painful dualities within other characters. 

Word by word, I also string together poems to express my longing to exit my cycles of self-judgment. I want to accept my pain, my stuckness, my agitation, my mania. But I am so embarrassed, and I turn to write about missing my long distance partner instead. 

I am embarrassed to examine my need to relate differently in a world which expects my passion, generosity and creativity to flow from me like a persistent river. I am not a river. When I am going through a mixed episode, I am barely a person. I do not know how to ask for space from my life when I am going through a mixed episode. 

I do not know who understands that bipolar does not mean that I am crazy or psychotic or paranoid. When I share with people that I am bipolar, and suffering, I am tasked with reciting to them which Web MD symptoms I possess and which I do not. 

When I tell people I am bipolar, it is as if I have whispered to them that I am a witch. Some people react with delight that I trust them with the information, some cower with fear. Most stare silently at me in befuddlement. 

I care deeply about connecting with my professors and peers in a meaningful way. I do not want to disappear from them. But I am not sure who will understand, and because of that, I grieve for the gap of knowledge. 

I hope that my experience of facing bewildered faces when I share that I am bipolar does not reflect the reality of what my community understands about bipolar disorder. But the awareness of mental illness at the University seems pretty immature. We discuss depression and anxiety, but other neurodivergent challenges seem to be unknown and ignored by the community. 

Asking for help is hard, especially within the context of grading. I have hovered for hours above an email asking for an extension, worried about seeming like an intellectual wuss. Some of my professors speak openly about their personal struggles with mental health, which helps me feel more comfortable sharing my challenges. 

When professors model kindness and gentleness with themselves, it makes students comfortable to arrive to class as their full selves. No frigid mental health email from a University administrator can compete with that. 

I have no idea how I will feel in an hour. It is a miracle I got this article out. When I am struggling to discern that I am coming up or falling back down in an episode, I appreciate the compassion and patience my community offers me. Thank you for supporting me and other students with mental illnesses by reading this article. 

ED Plowe is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected] With Gratitude runs every other Tuesday this semester.