To the Professor Who Dismissed My Bipolar Disorder
Perhaps you’ve been here a few times before. A student shows up at your office the day before the final exam asking you to defer it. She needs just a little more time to prepare. It was a difficult term: she had a messy breakup or a difficult roommate. Perhaps you suspect she drank her way through the term and is trying to take the easy way out by asking to have the final exam be worth 100 percent of her grade. After all, she didn’t complete a single assignment or even write the midterm. Maybe that’s what you saw today when I met with you in your office. Maybe that’s why you were so firm and unyielding in your resolute: “I don’t do that. I’ve never heard of anyone doing that.”
I break easily. For 22 years, I have been broken and put back together more times than I can count. Sometimes, I am able to gather the pieces and glue them back together myself. More often than not, it is a team effort. You see, I have bipolar disorder. I was a bright-eyed, 18-year-old, first-year engineering student when it struck. It slowly but surely dismantled my life. I fought and clawed my way through the courses I could, all the time working through getting the right diagnosis and medication, and trying my best to keep myself alive. I succeeded and I failed. I left university without a degree and no hope of ever completing one.
I took the torment and battle scars and found a way forward. I created a simple life for myself: my own apartment, a job in which I am my own boss and a few close friends. And I started to dedicate myself to breaking down the stigma that faces everyone with a mental illness diagnosis. I speak to high school classes about my experiences. I educate them about how common mental illness is, that it is no different from physical illness and how they can support those they in their lives who are struggling. I let them know there is hope.
Some days, I deliver that message with conviction. Other days, it comes from a clenched jaw and eyes red from crying in my car on the way to the school. You see, no matter how much I know about my illness, no matter how hard I dedicate myself to all the elements needed to maintain stability — like handfuls of medication taken daily, without fail, a strict sleep schedule, regular medical appointments, no alcohol — I still break from time to time. When I know I’m in a depressive episode, I usually just buckle up and do my best to ride out the storm. Some storms last longer than others. Mine usually last about a month. Though, really, there is no “usually” with a disorder like this.
I started taking courses again last fall. It’s been exciting and stressful. I’ve completed three courses so far, each one taking me a step closer to earning my degree and reclaiming a dream I thought bipolar disorder had taken from me. But a storm hit this May. I didn’t know how long it would last or how bad it would be. When I started to come out of the other side, it had been close to three months. And it was bad. I am not exaggerating when I say that I was fighting for my life. I wasn’t in the hospital hooked up to life support. I wasn’t battling something quantifiable, like heart disease or kidney failure. I can’t show you scans or blood tests to prove this to you. I wish I could hand you a piece of paper to prove my situation. But I can’t.
So, when this happens in my life, I have to lay myself bare: how I felt, how long I felt it, how it impacted my life, how serious I actually was about my intentions to kill myself. I usually have to tell several people, several times. Every time, it rips the wound back open. I hardly imagine that if someone with ulcerative colitis had a flare up they would have to describe again and again, in detail, what was happening in their body in order to be believed.
But I did emerge, alive. As always, I had created quite a mess. I don’t tend to communicate with, well, anyone that I don’t absolutely need to during such episodes. I lie my way out of work and family engagements, feigning a bad cold or claiming that I’m having car trouble, always with short texts or emails. I’m afraid if I speak to someone on the phone, I will betray myself. So, when the clouds lift, they reveal a lot of people inconvenienced, upset and let down, a lot of tasks neglected and no clear path to putting things right. All I can do is take one step at a time and try to piece things back together. It’s a lot of work. Especially when I am just start to feel human again. But I don’t have a choice.
Two and a half weeks ago, I started to teach myself the content from your course. I worked very hard on it. I hired a tutor, who I paid for myself. I started to feel confident with the material. I just needed a bit more time. Just a week would have given me a total of three and a half weeks to learn an entire term’s worth of material. But I knew I could do it. After such a long time in such a self-loathing and dark place, when I feel confident about something so early after coming out of it, it’s genuine. I was even enjoying the content.
That was my mindset when I met with you today. I came to you, binder in hand, ready to show you my work, my progress and my dedication to doing well in your course. But you dismissed me, questioned why I even took the course, if I didn’t “need” it, and told me that there was nothing you could do. I needed to talk to someone else. I was a mere irritation that you didn’t have time for.
This isn’t over, professor. I’ve slain bigger dragons than your cold indifference. I’ve conquered bigger mountains than a second-year chemistry course. When my own life, or that of another person, is on the line, I don’t have a choice but to fight. This is a battle I am choosing to fight. I may get nowhere. I may end up with a failing mark on my transcript. Even so, I hope the next time you sit across from a student who is broken and trying to put the pieces back together, asking for a little leniency, maybe with some compassion, you will meet them where they are and offer a way forward, not a dead end.
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