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12 Things I'd Tell My Past Self About Going to College With Bipolar Disorder

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Navigating college can, well, be awesome. And for some it can suck. When you have bipolar disorder, it can be both simultaneously.

When I went to college, I had not yet been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In fact, I had not been diagnosed with anything, even though I should have (but that’s a rant for another day). However, as someone who now can look back at my college years and see both the mania and depression at work in different times, I think I have some helpful advice.

And, as a caveat, I also offer the following as someone with a Ph.D. in the humanities who has taught both online and in the traditional classroom. I have watched students with mental illness struggle and watched others with the same illness thrive. I have tried to help students and have let others refuse my help. But the following comes from being both a student who had bipolar and a professor with bipolar watching my students struggle.

So, here are the top 12 things I’d say to someone with bipolar (or, really, any mental illness) about attending college. (As a side note, I believe much of this applies to both traditional and online colleges, but I am focusing on more traditional campuses right now).

1. Find a counselor on campus. 

It can be particularly challenging to find is a good counselor in general. Trying to find a counselor or therapist in a foreign environment who can work within the confines of our budget is even more difficult. But there are a few things I recommend. First, see if your school has a counseling center and make sure, if they do, this is not an “academic counseling” center. Academic counselors are not therapists and may not be equipped to do the heavy-lifting a person with bipolar needs. Instead, find someone who specializes in mental health counseling at the counseling center.

If the counseling center does not have anyone specializing in such (which, while incredibly unfortunate, is somewhat common), go to the university health center. There is usually a number of nurses and a nurse practitioner, at least, there. They can point you to the right place for finding quality therapy. You can also email the professors in the counseling or psychology department on campus and see if they may have suggestions. Who knows? Maybe one will offer to see you?

2. Meditate.

One of the things I have found the most helpful in dealing with my bipolar is meditation, or what is commonly referred to as the practice of mindfulness. The idea is to simply be present in the moment you are in right then. And to try and take the presentness into the next parts of your day.

I practice meditation in the following way. First, I set my timer for about five minutes. I do this after I have woken up a little bit, had coffee, whatever. But, it’s before I start my day seriously, like going to class and the like. I spend the five minutes just being present, listening to what is going on, feeling the air, smelling in smells, and letting my thoughts wash over me. I don’t try to control them, just let them come and go. When the ringer goes off, I start my day. I feel better and it helps me stay present in the different moments of the day while also keep racing thoughts at bay. Lastly, if I need to do it one or two or even eight more times during the day, I can.

3. Find a support group.

It is imperative you find support on campus. You have to have people who know what you are going through and what it means to check up on you. This is what a support group does. It’s a place where you are valued and can be yourself and reveal your truest feelings.

The organization I run, Here/Hear, organizes peer-to-peer support groups on college campuses. Our groups use meditation/mindfulness, discussion, and engaged reflection to help each other live lives to the fullest. And if you do not have a group on campus, contact us and we’ll help get one set up. We do this because we know the power of groups to effect positive change and growth in people’s lives. We also know they are places you can land when the world is falling apart.

4. Figure out where to get your meds.

If you have been diagnosed bipolar, you are probably on meds. And you need those meds so you can survive. With that in mind, you need to find a place where you can easily get your medication. This matters if you have a car, where your insurance is accepted (if you have it), if you can do mail-order medications at the school, etc. And, figure out what you need to do when your medications inevitably run out. Having plans in place for all of this is important.

5. Exercise.

The one thing you can do to naturally boost your mood and maintain your mood is regular exercise. This does not have to be anything great or over-the-top (no need to train for an ultra marathon or becoming a professional body builder), but some exercise every day can help maintain a good mood. This is also a really important habit for you to get into for the rest of your life as it becomes even more imperative for your mood to exercise when you are older.

6. Have a bedtime and wake up time.

I know. This sucks. You are in college and staying up late and getting up late or just staying out all night are part of the allure. I get it. But I can tell you from personal experience, this is a bad idea. I made my worst mistakes in college when I deprived myself of sleep for days (when I was not manic). Staying on a schedule, at least a schedule where you sleep seven or eight hours a night, will help you maintain some steadiness in your life. It’s also important because studies have shown sleeplessness can lead to both mania and depression in the bipolar person: neither one is good or fun and both are quite dangerous. So, sorry, get some sleep.

7. Eat well… or as well as you can.

For as much as you pay for your dining plan as part of your room and board, you’d think colleges would offer much healthier and better alternatives, but they often don’t. So, you are going to be tempted beyond tempted to eat crap quite a bit of the time. And if you live off campus, that is going be a much bigger temptation because crappy food is often much cheaper. But you need to eat at least somewhat well and mindfully. And the reason is that processed, fried, canned foods can have an effect on your mood. They also are unhealthy and you probably are already dealing with enough medical issues so why tack on one more?

8. Find the right friends.

Now I sound like your high school guidance counselor. I apologize. But finding the right friends is really important. One of the biggest issues I had my first year or two of school was I had a group of friends  I thought I was supposed to be friends with – mostly because they were from the same hometown – who ultimately exacerbated my mental illness. It was not that they were bad people. They weren’t. Instead, they just did things that raised my anxiety, they encouraged my hypomanic episodes (who doesn’t want a friend who can break every social barrier in a quick second?), and they didn’t “get” my depression — or worse, they wanted me to wallow in my depression because it made them feel a little better.

I’d encourage finding friends who have similar interests, believe in similar things, and who don’t give you crap for going to bed at midnight every night and waking at 8 a.m. Even on Saturday.

9. Figure out what you can handle.

One of the most difficult things college can bring is an abundance of opportunity. That, as well as the perceived need to finish certain things in a certain amount of time (everyone nowadays thinks college will take four years when the average person spends almost five years there). The real issue for the person with bipolar disorder is you can only handle so much. When we start to push against that limit, bad things can happen. We may become manic and do all this work and more work and beyond and end up in some sort of psychotic state or we may become incredibly depressed because our brain shuts down and can’t handle it. Or both.

Find what you can handle and evaluate that every year. Your first year you might be able to handle a larger class load because the courses are simply meeting general education requirements and do not require the time that, say, an advanced biology class and lab require or calculus II does or an advanced writing seminar. The thing is, you know you and you need to figure out what you can handle. Doing so now will help tremendously as you go throughout your life.

10. Screw other people’s expectations.

If your parents think you should get all A’s while managing a maxed course load and doing band, and having bipolar disorder, well invite them to come down to campus and try. If your boyfriend thinks you should travel every weekend to come see him because you’ve got less to do than he does or whatever, tell him it is a two way street.

Here’s the thing. Only you know what it is like to live with your mental illness. I know at times I was the most productive person in the world because that’s how my hypomanic states worked. I was laser focused. Others’ hypomania makes them ADHD-like, so they can’t concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes. You have to have your own expectations and live up to those. Other people’s expectations are merely going to cause you stress and, if like me, anxiety. You can’t meet them. You can only do what you can do. Screw everyone else.

11. Avoid alcohol and drugs.

This is a tough one. On most college campuses, going out to Ladies Night Wednesday, Thirsty Thursday, Friday Night Bombs, Saturday Night Shots, and Sunday Morning Hangover Cures is part of the college experience. Going to other campus parties that have alcohol and drugs is also a major part of the “college experience.” But let me let you in on a little secret: you are probably already on a cocktail of mind-altering drugs and adding more to the mix is not safe. And it can also throw you off by messing with your other meds.

The other thing to remember about illicit drugs is they are never the same. One strand of marijuana is different than another, one batch of heroin or cocaine can be cut or made differently than the next, etc. And the way that drugs act with you and your brain can change so the first time you may have a great time but the second one may result in a terrible trip. You just never know how something may affect your brain.

12. Have fun.

My last piece of advice I’d tell myself is to have fun and don’t take college too seriously. You need to find friends who do what you think is important. Your grades are not the be-all end-all of life. Hanging out, seeing a concert, watching a movie, playing frisbee, or whatever else needs to be part of your college experience. If you don’t have fun, none of the above will matter anyway. Just make sure it is fun that lends itself to helping your mood.

Image via Thinkstock.

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5 Lies Mania Told Me (and 5 Things That Actually Happened)

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I was watching a documentary about the effects of crystal meth. One of the people with the addiction described how she (on a meth high) spent three days, non-stop, cleaning her entire house. When her high subsided, she realized she’d only spent a couple of hours cleaning a single smudge on a table. Sadly, this is the best way I can describe my mania. It can make me feel productive, and confident, and goddamn invincible. But when the episode is over, I’m left with nothing. Everything I thought I’d been achieving is bullshit. It’s frustrating. You spend so much time and energy on all these things and then what, have nothing to show for it? Nothing. It’s like running a marathon in one spot.

My mania lies to me. It convinces me to do nonsensical and potentially dangerous things without thinking about the consequences. Mania is like a drunk best friend…who’s trying to kill you.

I have type 2 bipolar and here are some of the lies my mania tells me:

1. Write your memoir. Write it. You’re writing it. You’ve written half of it already. Oh my god, you’ve written your memoir.

Truth: Wrote “nrovwndiefhui” in a Google doc.

Google doc called "my memoir" -- my content is gibberish

2. Don’t stop talking. If your friend talks, talk louder. He doesn’t mind. He loves being interrupted. Just keep talking.

Truth: He does mind and he doesn’t love it.

3. Read all the books.

Truth: Even if I did read them, I wouldn’t have remembered what they were about.

4. Accomplish all the goals from your five-year plan in one day. You can do it. It is very possible. 

Truth: Don’t even have a five-year plan.

5. If you fall asleep now, then you won’t be able to write your memoir and talk to your friend and read all your books and accomplish all your goals so do not fall so DO NOT FALL ASLEEP STAY AWAKE FOREVER. DO EVERYTHING. IT IS VERY POSSIBLE.

Truth: I stay awake, but don’t do anything.

This post originally appeared on Medium. You can follow Amanda Rosenberg on Twitter@AmandaRosenberg.

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How Bipolar Disorder Shapes Tiana Duddleston's Summer

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Tiana Duddleston cover

How Tiana Duddleston feels about her body often depends on the state of her bipolar disorder. “If I’m manic, I feel a lot better about myself and I usually lose more weight because I don’t eat and I’m very active, so during those times I’ll wear more flattering things,” Duddleston explained. “If I’m depressed, or just in between, I will cover myself up more and constantly try to hide my stomach.”

While Duddleston can appreciate summertime, the warm weather in Sound Beach, New York, often makes the 34-year-old feel obligated to be enjoying herself. “The nice weather makes me feel like I’m supposed to be outside and I’m supposed to be happy, and if I’m not I’m wasting the day,” she said.

Duddleston, who is 6 feet tall, finds it hard not to compare herself to the models and celebrities she sees in magazines – many of whom share her height, but not her body type. “I see models and actresses having babies and looking perfect weeks after,” the mother of four said. “This year I had a baby and went bathing suit shopping and ended up with what I sort of consider a ‘mom suit.’”

“I’ve been trying hard to be happy with who I am, before what I look like,” Duddleston, who also has borderline personality disorder and anxiety, said. “It’s not easy because of all the meds I take… My medicine makes me tired. My kids make me tired. Life in general just makes me want to sit back and relax after a long day.”

Duddleston is working hard to improve her inner-dialogue. “Despite the negative things I say about myself, I think every woman and man should be happy being who they are no matter their body type,” she said.

Read More: This Is What It Looks Like When You Feature Disabled and Chronically Ill People in Magazines

Next: Justina Bonilla: When Health Conditions Affect How You Dress in the Summer

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Ros Limbo Fights Her Body Insecurities in the Summer

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Ros Limbo used to date a photographer. Looking at his photographs, the 25-year-old remembers staring at the same body type over and over again. “They all had super long legs, rock hard abs, toned arms and the perfect bum,” Limbo said. “Whenever I looked at them, I realized they had the perfect ‘beach bodies.’”

Limbo, who lives with bipolar disorder II, constantly feels pressure to be perfect. It’s feeling she’s had since grade school, when she first started experimenting with diet pills. By the time Limbo graduated high school her eating habits resembled those of an eating disorder. “I still struggle with food,” Limbo said.

While Limbo strives to be healthier, summer threatens any progress she’s made. “I am prone to get depressed in summer because of how insecure I feel,” she said. “It is hard for me to feel very comfortable in my body, but I suppose that is part of the healing process. I can now look at myself in the mirror, something I could never do in the past.”

Often, Limbo tries to dress in a way that makes her comfortable – wearing a bikini with a wrap or tights underneath her dresses. But in Windhoek, Namibia, where Limbo is from, the summer heat makes dressing how she wants to dress difficult. “I hate it because I don’t feel comfortable,” Limbo said. “Summer makes me very self-conscious. At that moment my anxiety increases and I start feeling the need to eat less and exercise”

Limbo credits the medication she takes for her bipolar disorder for the strides she’s made decreasing the frequency of her depressive states. “I’m slowly building up my self-worth,” Limbo said. “It’s a process where some days are better than others. However, if anything, bipolar has made me resilient. I know that one day I will love myself fully and without reservation.”

Read More: This Is What It Looks Like When You Feature Disabled and Chronically Ill People in Magazines

Next: Matthew Medrano Talks About Body Image and Cerebral Palsy

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I'm an Olympian, Former Escort and Now – a Mental Health Advocate

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My name is Suzy Favor Hamilton. I was once one of the top middle distance runners in the world and a three-time Olympian. After my running career, I was a successful businesswoman, wife and mother living in Wisconsin. To many, my life appeared perfect. An image I had tried to live up to my entire life, the squeaky clean all-American girl who won races and played the role of “good girl” to a tee.

But in late 2012, at the age of 44, I was outed by an investigative tabloid as a high-end Las Vegas escort. I had been secretly escorting for the past year, and at the time, I would have told you I loved every minute of it. I was devastated when I was outed not so much because of the public scrutiny and ridicule that were coming my way — not because I had tarnished my family name. I was devastated mostly because exposure would likely put an end to the secret life that had brought me everything I wanted and needed at the time. Thrill, taboo, admiration, money and most of all, sex.

Weeks later, reluctantly seeing a psychiatrist for the first time in order to keep loved ones from completely abandoning me, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and told the antidepressant I was prescribed and had been taking the past year and a half had likely triggered a mostly constant manic state, and in my case, an intensely sexual state, irrational in thought and oblivious to any ramifications of what I was doing. Antidepressants can be a big “no-no” for those with bipolar, I learned.

So here we are, three in a half years later, and I can say at times, recovery was a living hell, especially in that first year, but I’m doing quite well these days. My life is usually quite normal, I guess you could say, though I’ve found that various forms of intense exercise are useful to take the place of previous coping mechanisms that tended to get me in trouble. I crave independence these days, creating art, a little thrill here and there, and an extremely active outdoors lifestyle helps. Yoga has been a godsend and I’m now a certified yoga teacher. I have my moments where my triggers get the best of me and I’m best left alone until I come out of a depressive episode. I’m manic occasionally, but nothing like before. The mood stabilizer I’m on has worked well for me. Generally, life is pretty good.

I’m blessed to have a wonderful husband who amazingly stuck with me through all of this, though at times, he had one foot out the door. With education, he began to focus on the illness and not so much on the behavior. There was therapy and major bumps along the way, but we’ve made it. My daughter is as amazing as it gets and she totally gets my illness. She’s mostly patient with me when I’m not quite there. She’s the light that keeps me going when I’m struggling. Most of my family and friends have stuck by me. Support is so, so key in recovery. I know how fortunate I am for so many reasons.

I decided to tell my story initially for selfish reasons. I simply wanted to be understood, on my terms and in my words. So I wrote a memoir, and it turned out to be a New York Times Best Seller. Who knew? To be understood is what we living with mental illness want so desperately. But I realized as the writing progressed this book might help others living with mental illness. We tend to take comfort in knowing we are not alone, and storytelling has a way of doing that. How many notes do I receive every week from people who say they relate to my story, whether it’s my mania, my intimate relationship with anxiety and darkness, my history of eating disorder, my obsession for perfection and to please others? I can tell you the notes I receive (this happens a lot when people know you’ve been through some serious shit) remind me I’m not alone. I believe telling my story has done the same for others, and for that, the painful reliving of much of my journey was well worth it (the book was very challenging to write and at times, I just wanted to chuck it).

So now I travel the country, speaking my truth and advocating for the cause. I try to show others what mental illness looks like. I try to bring out in the open the rarely discussed sexual component of bipolar disorder. Even a lot of psychiatrists and psychologists have trouble going there. I try to show that one can hit rock bottom, as I did in the aftermath of being outed, and still come out of it OK, that there is hope.

It’s been an evolution, but I’ve come to feel strongly that we should never feel shame about our mental illnesses, nor should we feel shame for the behaviors that may have resulted, at least in part due to the illness. I found that the shame — and believe me, I felt plenty of it initially — holds us back from moving forward in recovery. What we need is compassion and understanding. Simple as that. That’s the message I try to spread each and every day, at least when my brain cooperates. Thanks for listening.

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What I Do to Feel Good on the ‘Bad Days’ With Bipolar Disorder

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Some days, I wake up and can tell it’s going to be a bad day. Those are the mornings when I can feel it down deep in my bones that this day will not be good, unless I make it happen. Those are the days I know I have to mentally prepare myself to be happy. Doing so is difficult at times. I’d be lying if I dared to say all I have to do is decide, “Today will be a good day,” or “I choose to be happy.”

While I do believe positivity is crucial for having a happy life and being mentally stable, there’s far more to it for those of us with mental illness. It takes more for us to strive, rather than simply to decide it so.

The first crucial step is to figure out what tactics you have that make you feel better. For some, it’s sleeping. For others, it is shopping, and for others, it might be exercising. Personally for me, I have had 10 years to learn the triggers and methods of how to prevent them or nip them quick.

So here’s what I do to feel good on the bad days of my bipolar disorder:

1. I start my morning with exercise. This is very difficult and takes dedication to keep it up, but oh boy, does it work.

2. After my workout, I shower and actually fix my hair and makeup. It feels good to dress up sometimes.

3. I go to work telling myself, “Today can be a good day.”

4. I search for a positive quote that speaks to me. I write it down, with a goal in mind to reread it often.

5. I keep to myself. Believe it or not, I’ve learned I can be my own worst enemy. Keeping to myself helps me to monitor my interactions with others so I don’t annoy or piss someone off.

6. I read my favorite books during breaks or read funny memes. This gets my mind off things that might be bothering me.

7. Lastly, I step back and take a breather if I need to.

But guess what? On other days when I can sense it, I sleep in. I pull my hair back in a ponytail. I opt for zero ounces of makeup. I eat whatever the heck I want! It’s called balance. Anyone with this illness knows there has to be a lot of balance to remain stable and balanced ourselves.

I’ve learned a lot, but I’m also always learning new ways to turn a bad day around. I hope this will help someone else to feel motivated, even on those days when it feels like there is no reason at all to make it a good day.

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