“Hannah, I know you aren’t going to want to hear this. But given your symptoms, I’m almost positive you have bipolar 2.”
I sat there, looking at the doctor, dumbfounded. No, no, that doesn’t seem right. No way. My mind was spinning, trying desperately to comprehend her words. In that moment, nothing seemed to make any sense.
I sought out psychiatric help not long after coming to college. In high school, I had battled depression, generalized anxiety, panic attacks, and restrictive eating. I knew these challenges wouldn’t suddenly disappear as soon as I came to my university, although I certainly prayed and hoped they would. When things got a little messy toward the end of my first quarter, I decided it was probably time to go back to receiving professional care.
I started going to therapy and began taking stronger medication for my anxiety, but something was just a little out of sorts. Over winter break, my anxiety started to rage for days on end. With it came irritability, racing thoughts, little desire to sleep, a surprising amount of productivity, and seemingly boundless energy. I was still anxious, sure, but I wasn’t really in a bad mood. In fact, I felt pretty good about myself, even as I experienced a certain edginess. My doctor would later describe this phenomenon as “hypomania.” In retrospect, this probably wasn’t the first time I’d experienced such a mood swing.
About a week after I returned to school, I felt like I hit a wall. The anxiety, the neuroticism, the productivity was all gone. I was exhausted. I developed severe headaches and found it challenging to do anything but sleep. For about a week, I felt engulfed in a fog, as if life was moving way faster than I was. I certainly recognized it as depression – this kind of situation had happened more than once before. Still, as a new quarter began and my responsibilities grew, I struggled to figure out what was up.
The next week, I went in to the campus health center and got my diagnosis. It was one I never thought I would receive. Bipolar. You have bipolar disorder. At the moment, it didn’t make any sense. I was a normal student. I was taking 16 academic credits, had earned a prestigious internship, and was in a leadership position in my sorority. I had been dealing with my mental health issues, sure, but there was no way I could have expected something like this. I stared blankly at the physician with tears streaming down my face. She offered very little in the way of comforting words or detailed explanations. Instead, she sent me home with an enormous pile of paperwork, a new prescription for mood stabilizers, and a lump in my throat unlike any other.
For the rest of the week, I tried to put the pieces together. I knew what I had experienced over the holidays was more than just anxiety because it wasn’t all so bad. Depression was more typical for me, so it was much easier to identify those symptoms. Still, I struggled for days to come to terms with this new label.
My roommate was the one who helped me to understand the importance of self-acceptance. “Think of it this way,” she told me. “If this ‘label’ is what helps you receive treatment and ultimately feel better, isn’t that a good thing? I know it’s hard and I know it’s scary, but maybe this is what you need to get well.”
Her words really helped put things into perspective for me. She was right: a changed diagnosis is sometimes a positive because it helps point towards a potentially more effective treatment regimen. It took me days to really understand what she meant, but I think she had an excellent point.
Don’t get me wrong, there is still a lot I am trying to understand about bipolar disorder and what it means for me, if my diagnosis is indeed accurate. But today I feel much more at ease, knowing whatever my “label” is, it doesn’t have to have a negative connotation. More importantly, it doesn’t have to define me. My identity lies in my humanity, not in whatever disease I may have.
I am not bipolar. I am not anxiety, nor am I depression. I am not a sleepless night, nor a restless mind. I am not a bad day, a bad week, a bad month, a bad year. I am not a statistic. And I most definitely am not some diagnostic label.
I am supported. I am loved. I am an intellectual. I am a friend. I am a sister. I am a daughter. I am a child of God.
I am Hannah, and I am beautiful.
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