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Once I realized I had to take time off school because of my illness, I was adamant about going back right away. Fortunately, I found a program to help me get back to school and to support me when I got there.

The program I found is called Fountain House’s College Re-Entry Program. It helped me become a little more comfortable with my bipolar disorder. It’s a little weird to say that, but it’s true. At first I felt like I would be the odd one out when I went back to school. I thought I would be so far behind because I dropped out. But going to this program every day and talking to the other students who were going to go back to school made me realize it could turn out to be a pretty normal ordeal. I realized I wasn’t the only one who had taken time off school, it wasn’t crazy I had taken time off and my bipolar disorder wasn’t going to be the end of my college career. It made me feel good to have a safety net when I went back. I felt more comfortable.

I’m a bit of a dreamer, so I had the idea that going back to school was going to be perfect. That after taking the time I needed off, everything would fall back into place. But over time, I realized even if that didn’t happen, there were ways to navigate it. There are ways to be prepared for the worst and be excited for the best.

It was a process when I went back to school. The mindfulness tactics I had learned really helped me. I hadn’t taken mindfulness seriously in the past because I had been told you had to have complete silence and sit and think seriously. I’m never going to do that in my life. But once I learned ways to incorporate it into my everyday routine, it was really helpful.

On my first day of classes, I found myself doing mindfulness exercises before I had to talk. It’s little things that usually get me on edge and make me nervous, but this time it was better. I was really patting myself on the back.

Since I’ve been back at school, I’ve had quite a few issues with medication affecting my sleeping schedule. Missing classes can really throw off your whole school flow. But I’m still at school and I’m still doing really well. Now, I’m actually meeting with my dean every other week just to catch up. We meet even if nothing is going wrong so we can catch it in time. I think being proactive in this way has really made a difference because I could easily have fallen back into a situation where I had to leave or I was failing classes. Because I am now in a position with this system in place, it has not come to that point. Everyone is working hard to help me finish well and I am working to my full potential.

It was completely different from my first year. I met with the dean my first year, but I definitely didn’t have a relationship with her in the way I do now. Or with any of the teachers I have. I really appreciate my relationship with my teachers. It’s made it as smooth a transition as it could be.

Right now I’m a sophomore and I’m thinking of majoring in biology with a minor in healthcare studies. I think I want to be a doctor. Coming out of school, hopefully I’ll be able to do some sort of health care job.

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It was a simple break, he said.

It would heal fast and well, he said.

Unbeknownst to him, my break was a physical manifestation of a greater issue: my wrestle with bipolar disorder. I went through a period of mania 10 months ago, exercised excessively and consequently broke my foot as a result.

I never told this to the doctor. So, 10 months after the incident, I found myself sitting in his office, in tears because of the searing pain that refused to relent.

“Lola, I’m perplexed. You shouldn’t still be having pain; you’ve been seeing a physiotherapist and the break wasn’t too severe.  Yet, I see from this MRI that fluid is filling into your bones, a sign that your foot is trying to heal but it can’t. I guess I’ll fit you in a walking boot for six weeks and hope for the best.”

I need to tell him.

Like a dam breaking, I finally released the truth to him. I explained that I have bipolar disorder, and I frequently go through phases of extreme agitation or hypomania.

“The walking boots, slab casts and plaster casts fitted for me in the past haven’t stayed on for longer than 24 hours, I’m sorry doctor, please don’t be mad.”

He laughed. “No wonder it hasn’t healed!” Then he got serious. “Lola this is important. I can help you now that I understand. We will fit you with a hard cast that will be impossible for you to take off.”

The myriad of doctors before him had a different approach — they knew I’d take the cast off so they didn’t put much effort or resources into making it secure, thus making it even easier for me to take it off in a moment of agitation. I even had one doctor who refused to cast it. Here I had a doctor going through lengthy measures to ensure my recovery. He tracked down the very last of the fiberglass casting the hospital had, for me. He made it thick and secure. He coached me through how to deal with the agitation that would likely come. He said to call if I had any problems.

When I asked why he was working so hard on my cast, he said, “I want to give you the best possible shot at recovery.”

So to the doctor who cared about my mental health as much as my broken limb, thank you.

Thank you for creating a safe space where I felt comfortable (and not ridiculed) for being honest. Thank you for not blaming me for what happens in my brain.

I respect you and your work a lot. I will try my absolute hardest to work with you because you were willing to work with me and my special circumstances.

As far as I’m concerned, you’ll go down in my books as one heck of a physician.

Thank you.

In that half hour of conversation, I learned something. The more we fully disclose the root cause behind our actions, the more doctors are able to treat us in our entirety. They can only work with what they are told. And mental health is nothing to be ashamed of talking about. I encourage you to be real with the professionals in your life because they entered the profession to help.

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I recently had a blog published by the International Bipolar Foundation. The article was defined by a spirit of hopefulness after meeting my now new fiancé. I was struck by a comment which really saddened me. The post revealed that the reader had been instructed by her doctor to not try to become involved with anyone because “nobody likes sick people.” Additionally, just a few days ago, someone close to me, who deals with a dysthymic disorder, was called “abnormal” by a family member who he used to trust and confide in. With all of this stigmatizing talk surrounding us in our daily lives, it is a wonder why anyone recovering from a mental illness would ever even attempt to find normalcy in hobbies they may have once enjoyed, new opportunities in work, much less in the hope of finding a significant other or forming new friendships. However, as discouraging as this may sound, it is not only healthy but also necessary, to find a way to begin anew for those recovering from mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders, even if that means starting over time and time again and maybe on a different path than before. The time it takes will absolutely depend on the individual, and we must only take advice from the members of our support network who are genuinely supportive and credible. The most important part of answering any question of “when” is to be honest with and know ourselves on a very real level.

When I began recovery from a long manic episode, which cost me my job, friendships, and most everything I owned, as well as leaving me homeless, once I was stabilized and returned to treatment last year, I knew I was in for a lifelong rebuilding process. A myriad of mental disorders, including bipolar and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), had stolen a good portion of my life, and I honestly, finally grasped that I had a major job ahead of me. The beautiful part is I found the patience with myself, which had long been lacking in previous recovery attempts. I had to learn how to live in the moment and reassess who indeed I am. I decided I did not like much of what I saw in myself and that even though tackling my issues was a challenge, it was well worth the effort if I wanted to salvage the life I have left to live. I do have rough spots, and I have had some minor setbacks dealing with depression and managing some medication changes, but I know the past eight months have been all about taking baby steps. I have become engaged, have done some traveling, and among other things, I am looking forward to searching for work in the next month or so. I no longer define success in the same terms, but for me, I have already won, and I love what is coming around the corner because I have a great support system. I am in great hands.

My most valuable assets in the world are definitely the people I have in my corner.  From my parents, to the love of my life, my friends, my doctors, and even my priest. All have become invaluable. Another jewel is the wonderful people of the mental health advocacy community online — around the world. These are people who let you know you are never alone. They see the good in you on the days when all you can see or feel is bad.  All of these good people are a reflection of the good I have been trying to become. It is often easy to be discouraged, but someone will always be there to give me a boost when I truly need one. The really good ones you hold onto for dear life because in them you can find an ear or a word which lets you know when you are truly ready to take on a big step. Their encouragement (or cautioning) can be vital in knowing when it is necessary to make a move or even slow yourself down in those instances you cannot see the forest for the trees on your own. Of course, we do not all have or at least are not aware of these “treasures” when we begin, but for all of the negativity in the world, I believe there are also equal numbers who would happily support us when we need it. The tough part sometimes goes back to that all-important measure of learning who we are and knowing who and when to ask for help.

Just like a New Year’s resolution, the important part is just that we start. There might be as many failures as successes along the way, but just as when discussing my desire to return to work recently, my fiancé expressed concern when he asked, “Do you think you’re ready?” I replied without hesitation, “I am not sure, but I am sure of one thing, if I don’t try…I will never know.”

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I recently learned about Carrie Fisher while watching the documentary “Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive.” I had just been diagnosed with bipolar I and was very interested in learning about my illness. To my knowledge, there was a small population diagnosed with bipolar disorder, especially type I. I tried to keep an open mind when researching to understand everyone’s experiences will be different.

While watching the documentary, Stephen Fry visits Carrie Fisher. I only vaguely knew her as princess Leia from Star Wars. I knew this because my fiance loves those movies. However, the way she spoke about her illness with such confidence really inspired me. She owned that she had a mental illness and it blew my mind. She made me feel “normal” for having bipolar disorder and allowed me to realize manic episodes were nothing to be ashamed of. Carrie showed me even though I am mentally ill, I deserve to be treated with respect and equality.

Carrie Fisher demonstrated the courage of a true warrior and the lessons she has taught me will stay with me forever. Her passing has truly left me breathless. Her courage followed her into the next life when she was buried in a Prozac pill. Even in death, she is owning her illness.

I wish I had the opportunity to have dinner with her and tell her just how inspiring she is to me. I dream I could share my experiences with her because she made me feel less alone. I wish I could hear more of her experiences and her wisdom.

Carrie Fisher truly mastered living with bipolar disorder and gave me the courage to become a mental health advocate and truly accept my diagnosis. Thank you Carrie, for being so courageous and setting an example so many would like to follow. Thank you for being so open and honest about your illness and showing the world what living with a mental illness is truly about.

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While most people know those with bipolar disorder experience periods of “ups” and “downs,” it can be hard to understand exactly what that means, since we all experiences mood fluctuations to some extent. But bipolar disorder isn’t an everyday shift from happiness to sadness — its periods of depression and mania can be much more extreme and sometimes debilitating.

Bipolar disorder isn’t a scary thing, either. There are several ways to manage it, and many go on to live fulfilling lives riding its waves.

To get a better idea of what it’s like to have bipolar disorder, we asked people in our mental health community to describe what it’s like.

Here’s what they had to say:

1. “Imagine feeling extremely happy and on top of the world but not able to truly appreciate the happiness because you know that soon (could be seconds, minutes, hours or days later) the happiness will be replaced with complete sadness. It’s only a matter of time before you are back to square one with the one demon that’s never gone and is always around the corner: depression.” — Hannah C.

2. “One day I have to miss work because I can’t get out of bed, and I spend the whole day wanting to die (even though I know I won’t, the thought is always there). The next day I’m staying up 24 hours taking on two jobs and spending more money than I have, running errands, loving life. It’s unpredictable and difficult because it’s not the kind of illness people understand. People look at it as a really bad illness and they don’t want to talk about it at all.” — Cailey C.

3. “It’s not always a slow spiral between depressed and manic moods. For some it could be rage and manic or depression and rage. Or any combination of those. On or off medication, it’s a battle to keep a balance of all the emotions.” — Tina B.

4. “Bipolar disorder doesn’t look the same in each person with bipolar disorder. Just because you know someone who knows someone with bipolar doesn’t mean I am like them or experience it the same way.” — David W.

5. “It’s a constant question mark. There are some days depression takes its turn and you can’t get out of bed. There are some days there is a weird burning sensation inside of you and you can’t eat or sleep or think straight and you feel alive and out of control. And there are the days you are trying to juggle the extremes and it requires all you have to make it through, though the smallest thing (a question, a song, a thought you keep obsessing) can make you fluctuate to one of the extremes.” — Livia S.

6. “It’s like one moment you’ve got your future figured out and you feel like yes! I’m finally doing something with my life and you start imagining about the success and how it would make people around you proud of you and then boom! Next moment all you can think about is how you’re good for nothing, and there’s nothing you could do with your life and no one expects anything from you anyway, and what’s the point of life in itself, and you just let go of that little hope that brightened your life for few seconds.” — Eesha I.

7. “I don’t trust if it’s joy or mania, so I fear it instead of leaning into any pleasure. And the burst of energy and creativity is tarnished by unrelenting disorganized thoughts.” — Jenn R.

8. “It’s not as simple as the mood swings everyone goes through. I’m fighting for control over my mind to not be the ‘suicidal me’ and not be the ‘manic me.’ The only time there is ‘just me’ is when I am stable on my meds and going to therapy. Before I was stable, I would have days upon days where I could not get out of bed physically… and the thoughts of death were so overwhelming no other thoughts could penetrate. Then, all of a sudden, I would be infused with so much energy, but it was too much. So much so that I would become so irritable, and angry and impulsive. Then the worst days when I would bounce back and forth with in hours from suicidal and crying to feeling like a God and planning on flying (literally, that was my delusion). Before meds, on those days where the alter-me was semi-quiet, I was able to pretend to function like anyone else. But every so often on those days I would have to get away and hide because an episode was upon me. It’s a fight. Every day.” — Julie J.

9. “I read this after sleeping for 18 hours and haven’t had a shower in a week and a half. It’s not even recognizing who you are sometimes. It’s looking in the mirror and seeing someone else. It’s hiding behind silence so you no one will call you ‘crazy.’ It’s every emotion rolled into a ball and you wait to see which ‘you’ comes out first.” — Ashley S.

10.I never know what to expect for the day. I could be super depressed and not want to get out of bed one day and then jump out of my bed with joy the following day. It’s often difficult to distinguish sadness from depression and happiness from mania. It’s very unpredictable.” — Lisbet F.

11. “Bipolar is an emotional roller coaster. Every corner is a different emotion. While a roller coaster flips you upside down, bipolar flips the person’s life and world upside down. The climb up one hill to feeling better is what we all want. It’s when you’re on top looking at the steep descent to the bottom knowing you’re on your way there that affects your mind and body. This can last from hours to days and in so many cases longer. The faster the ride the scarier the experience. That is also true with bipolar disorder. I wake up fearing what the day might bring and go to bed praying to be better the next.” — Allison Q.

12. “I used to feel like I was constantly at war with myself, punishing myself for ‘letting myself’ become manic or depressed. Over the past year I’ve learned to be a little less harsh on myself, knowing a lot of it is out of my control. But sometimes I feel like I have to ‘prove myself’ to people that I’m more than just my diagnosis. One and half years, no relapse so far. And have a healthy, happy 5-month-old little boy!” — Maria H.

13. “Bipolar disorder is like being behind the wheel of a car with the gas peddle stuck down. You have control of the steering, but you can’t slow down. You don’t want to be in the car, but you’re stuck there and you know it. So you attempt to avoid hitting other people for as long as you can, but it’s impossible to avoid everyone. Meanwhile you’re scared, crying and lonely in this out of control car just begging to be free of it, only to be even more inclined to stay in the car to avoid dealing with the devastation you’ve brought on other people. So you scream sorry at every person you hit but they can never hear you. Even if they could hear you, you’re fully aware of their inclination not to listen. This car ride continues to impound on itself, as more and more people are driven away from your path and roads are shut down, you are left to cruise alone in your out of control vehicle.” — Helena H.

14. “Bipolar is something that can be lived with and managed. I have learned that and always try to remember that. But it’s also hard to live with and almost equally hard to explain. Bipolar is being unsure if joy is really joy or if mania is creeping up. It’s doubting that it’s OK to be upset about something or that you can have a bad day because you fear it could be the start of a depression. It’s moments of doubt — total disbelief that you really have bipolar and feeling certain it’s all a sham and those meds and life changes are completely unnecessary. It’s trying to come to terms with the fact that bipolar can’t be past tense — even when you are stable you don’t get to say, ‘I had bipolar.’ You will always have it.” — Abigail J.

15. “For me, it’s like walking through a lighted tunnel and then suddenly having everything go dark… you feel trapped, scared and anxious not knowing when or if the lights will ever come on again. You feel lost and alone, uncertain of what is waiting for you in the dark. Often times, it feels like it would be easier just to stop moving forward and let the darkness consume you. For me, it’s usually a struggle to find the light again.” — Danielle C.

16. “It’s like two souls fighting over one body.” — Chino G.

17. “It’s like listening to music on a never-ending loop. The high notes are so high and the low notes so low that nobody around can hear. Sometimes I love the music, I’m in it, I dance as it plays for me and only me. Sometimes it’s haunting, vicious and it relentlessly encourages me to dance with the devil. Although sometimes — most of the time — the music is just the music that everybody else can dance to and I’m me. That’s my favorite.” — Lucy D.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

Many people have made New Year’s resolutions recently, pledging to give up something bad for them in order to make the first tentative steps towards a healthier future. I too, will be giving up something this new year, something that has had a hold on me for far too long. This year I am giving up being bipolar.

Mental illness is a funny thing, it seems to permeate our very core and the repercussions of it resonate throughout every area of our life. Many who struggle with mental illness are socially excluded, sometimes involuntarily through statutory intervention, sometimes psychologically, their demons keeping them at a distance from others, and sometimes through society’s inability to tolerate what at times seems like the intolerable.

I have known few users of mental health services who have not felt the sting of stigma and rejection by the mentally “healthy.” And the thing is, I get it. It’s hard for people who have never experienced mental illness to comprehend it. They cannot feel the rise and fall of fluctuating moods, they do not have the compulsions to cause harm to themselves. They do not hear the voices constantly screaming abuse from the corner of the room.

And while many may be sympathetic for a while, most often, with severe and enduring mental illness, the rest of the world eventually turns away. Because they have lives to lead, children to bring up, work to go to. No one can be continually “on call” for someone who is constantly in crisis. But what this does of course is marginalize people with mental illnesses further. Because no matter however valid the reason, no matter how understandable, it still feels like abandonment when someone you need leaves when you need them the most.

And already feeling like a psychological stranger in your own mind, you then begin to feel like a stranger in society. You realize you don’t fit into its mold of what a “well” person should look like. And it hurts. It is excruciatingly painful to feel you don’t belong, just like it is for a lonely child on a playground. As an adult who feels “different,” the constant battles with the bullies inside and outside your head wear you down. They become thieves. Thieves who steal your hope.

And in my experience, what so often can happen then is you begin to seek refuge in the chains that bind you. Like a psychological version of Stockholm syndrome, you begin to identify with your tormentor, because it is all you have. In the isolation of living in a world that doesn’t seem to either understand or accept you, your illness becomes the frame of reference with which you define yourself. It becomes like a trusted friend.

For years now I have described myself as “being bipolar.” You see, amidst the fear and the rejection, so often feeling lost in the darkness, I lost my way. I stopped being able to see myself as a person. I stopped being able to see myself at all. I “became” the thing that ails me, I reduced myself to a set of symptoms, I defined my identity by my diagnosis.

I have lost count of psychiatric inpatients I have known — myself included at times — who have been discharged from the hospital and have proceeded to lead the bleakest of existences imprisoned in their own homes. Shutting themselves away from society because they feel they do not have a stake in it, that they are not even part of it. Life becomes about seclusion, with the curtains drawn, existing on an hourly basis. Even off the ward, even with their freedom pass, they are not free. They are still shackled. Only this section has no end date.

And the thing is, it is so easy to forget the jailor is inside us and that we actually hold the key. It is we who have the authority to lift this type of psychological section and set ourselves free. Someone pointed out to me recently after knowing me for quite some time the only things they actually knew about me were I have a child and I am bipolar. And there is something very wrong with this picture.

Because I am so much more than the sum of my symptoms. There are other things about me. I have a passion for politics and social justice, I love retro fashion and vintage interiors. I am an avid cook, I eat crisps compulsively, my eye shadow always matches my outfit, Nelson Mandela and Gloria Steinem are two of my heroes, I have travelled the world twice and hope to see more of it, music is my soul food, poetry is my passion and American teen dramas are my guilty pleasure. And yet this person knew none of this.

And when I reflected on this, I realized “being” bipolar is all I give people of myself. Weary from a lifetime of rejection because of my “otherness,” I now deliberately cast myself in this role, projecting my disability outward like a silent challenge. “I’m bipolar. Go on, reject me,” is what I’m really saying to people when I tell them about my condition. But in doing so I debilitate myself more, I debilitate any ability to build new relationships on any sort of equal footing. Because then people treat me differently. They treat me like I’m ill. They treat me like I “am” bipolar.

So here’s the thing about having a mental disability. It is like being part of a club. Service users tend to stick to friendships with other service users, because it feels like they are the only people who can understand the struggles. And of course membership to this club is entirely exclusive. And it fuels the cycle of exclusion, because just as we have so often felt rejected by society, we begin to reject it. We form our own counter-culture, where people speak the language of the wards, where we define ourselves by diagnostic criteria, where our natural habitat is the hospital.

And if hospital is our “home”’ then the professionals are our parents. We look to them for everything, our medicines are our daily meals, therapy is our classroom, the Community Psychiatric Nurses (CPNs) are like the kind aunties contrasting with the strict father psychiatrists and other service users are our siblings. And we swallow our psychiatric sweeties and consume the services, because we don’t want to leave home yet, we are not ready to leave our family behind. Because it is the only time we have ever felt like we belonged.

But at some point, everyone has to leave home. Everyone has to beat those schoolyard bullies and grow. And when you leave the comfort of the family nest, it is scary. The real world is petrifying, just like when you go to university at 18 and everything seems big and frightening and people seem strange and different to you. Leaving services is like this, because when you’ve been out of the game for a long time, you forget what the real world looks like, you forget how people who are not ill communicate.

Of course mental illness is not easily “cured.” It is often chronic and requires lifelong management, but we do not have to become our illness. We can just have our illness, just like we have blue eyes or blonde hair. It is not who we are, it’s something we have. And this is why I am surrendering my membership to this club, because I no longer want to “be” bipolar.

When Nelson Mandela walked free from jail in 1990, he spoke famously about making peace with his past and forgiving his enemies. He said if he didn’t, he would have remained imprisoned. Having a mental illness is a bit like this, only the jail is your own mind and the enemy is the thing that ails it. Sometimes you have to let go of this version of yourself in order to be free.

Sometimes you have to open those curtains in order to let the sunlight of the outside world in. And this is our “long walk to freedom,” this is the path we travel. Sometimes we need to sit by the road for a while, sometimes we need a break from the journey, to take a minute, put the bags down and have a rest. But you know what, that’s OK. And sometimes we lose people along the way, people who just don’t want to make that journey with us. And that’s OK too. It’s tricky terrain, sometimes the territory is hostile. It’s not for everyone. In her final column for The Guardian a month ago, the late Carrie Fisher advised a reader with bipolar who had reached out:

“You don’t have to like doing a lot of what you do, you just have to do it. You can let it all fall down and feel defeated and hopeless and that you’re done. But you reached out to me – that took courage. Now build on that. Move through those feelings and meet me on the other side. As your bipolar sister, I’ll be watching. Now get out there and show me and you what you can do.”

Amen to that.

This post originally appeared on FortyFavourstheBrave.

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