I spent my entire freshman year, at Syracuse University, walking the fine line between manic and psychotic. Finally it was too much for my brain to take and as Spring Break ended and my friends were returning to class rested and rejuvenated, I found myself staring at the blank walls of a hospital room.
I fought my way back to campus and my final three years at Syracuse were a mix of brief respites of joy and the endless pain of recovery and adjusting to a new life. When my friends were out partying or toiling away in the library, I was holed up in my dorm, fast asleep. The exhaustion from the readjustment was enough to knock me out, but more so than that I was watching my sleep habits carefully to make sure to avoid restless, manic nights. As much as I wanted to rejoice at making it back to campus, I couldn’t. My thought processes were considerably slower after my bipolar diagnosis and subsequent pharmaceutical regimen. It took me three hours to complete homework assignments and readings that would have taken me thirty minutes in the past.
I couldn’t bring myself to try and process any of the trauma of that fateful Spring semester. I did not yet have the words or the courage to express how I was feeling – even to my closest friends and mentors. It was a lonely time for me. I was trapped in my own head and couldn’t see beyond my reality of the moment. I had yet to see any college students step forward and say “I have a mental illness. This is my struggle. Look at how I’m thriving.” The only examples I had to look to were the adults with whom I shared an inpatient stay – hardly a comfort.
My last visit to Syracuse in Fall of 2009 brought up many painful memories. Walking around campus meant retracing my footsteps on a journey that I don’t look back on with pride. I still have vivid flashbacks of manic conversations. I remember things I said that I can’t believe. I remember actions I took that shock me. You would think that with all that pain, I wouldn’t want to come back. Thankfully, those memories aren’t all that remain.
I’m just getting home from my most recent trip up to Syracuse. I had the opportunity to visit with the mentors that I’ve kept in touch with over the years, my extended family that supported me even when I didn’t know how to ask for their help, and the wonderful friends I made along the way. The amazing thing about when you are made vulnerable by circumstances beyond your control is that it invites those around you to draw near. Even now, I am so open about my struggles not only to set a positive example for those who are facing similar adversities, but also because it fosters a connection with people that I have yet to replicate any other way.
For those of you of you out there who haven’t been able to disclose your illness to people around you, just know that for all the stigma and misunderstanding there is also hope and love. I still hold on to the painful memories, the anxiety that they bring, and the shame I can’t seem to leave behind. I know one day I’ll have to shed that weight if I’m going to grow into the person I want to be, but in the meantime it helps to have the bright spots too. I’m so incredibly grateful for the people that have remained in my life and seen me through my highest highs and my lowest lows. I’m so thankful for what remains.