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Am I Really Teaching My Students About My 'High-Functioning' Bipolar Disorder?

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As I sat on my couch to do some school work at a time when I should not have been —  because I should have been at school — I had a thought: Do I really “teach” mental illness? Allow me to explain my question.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

I am ridiculously open with my students about my mental health when I need to be. If there is a student who is struggling emotionally and is diagnosed or is wondering if they should seek intervention, I will tell them I have bipolar disorder, that it’s really hard sometimes, but that there is also hope that it won’t “ruin” my life. I think it’s good for them to know you can have a mental health issue and still be a functioning member of society.

But then I really begin to wonder just what I’m teaching them in sharing this information.

I’m a pretty “together” person at school. I’m a teacher, mentor, coach, secondary school nurse (I hand out more Band-Aids than she ever does… and the occasional illegal cough drop!), unpaid athletic trainer (need KT tape? I’m your girl!), auntie, and mom. I have no children of my own, by choice, so my students are my kids, and I don’t really have an issue with filling these roles. I come to work more than not; I usually only miss for school-related meetings, but today is my sixth sick day this year. Two of these days were for a surgery, a few for god-awful vertigo, and today for a slight fever and flu-ish symptoms of chills and bone-tired body aches. I’m snuggled in a blanket next to a 90-pound fuzzy water bottle, my beloved Mira-pup, and have been alternating an extra blanket and a sherpa fleece hoodie most of the day. But I wonder if sometimes I need to take a day to practice better self-care and acknowledge my weaknesses as brought on due to my illness?

Do I create an unrealistic picture for my students by being super-teacher 95 or so percent of the time? Is my “high-functioning” bipolar disorder a lie in a sense?

I usually don’t pull the “I have bipolar and today sucks!” card as openly as one might think for someone who is comfortable with my disorder. I’ve been excusing my current run of bad days with the “awful headache” reasoning, and while that is 100-percent true due to weaning of antidepressant, I don’t think it’s the sole cause of my misery. While if anyone asks, I will acknowledge that the headaches are med-related, I don’t acknowledge my bipolar as the root cause. When my bones and joints ache or I’m just dead tired, I excuse it with the arthritis or my patellar-femoral syndrome or with lack of good sleep (often attributed to my bed-hogging, snoring boyfriend… and there is truth to that!), not symptoms of my current bipolar depressive episode. My current episode is a rough one. I have the highest score on the rating scale that I have had since 2010, and more days than not it’s been this…

5:15 a.m. Alarm goes off.

I spend 10 minutes pondering if I can really get out of bed and be functional for the day.

5:25 Alarm two, with additional loud puppy barking from Gus.

I drag myself out of bed and make my way downstairs

5:26-ish – 6:20-ish

I let the pups out, give them food, water and dental biscuits, make the coffee, do random household chores like emptying the dishwasher, eat breakfast and go back upstairs.

6:20-ish – 6:55-ish

“Take the pills, Dave” (Our play on “eat the sandwich, Dave” from a Wayne Brady and Dave Chapelle skit). I shower, dress, put on make-up.

6:55-ish – 7:05-ish

I get the pup’s Kong filled, water filled and pop her in the crate, give the dog a treat as she lounges on the couch, lock the back door, grab coffee (unless we’re stopping at Dunkin or I’m making coffee at school), grab all my school junk and head out the door.
Once I get to school, it’s usually coach/mom duty until the school day starts at 7:45 and then I’m running until 2:15.

2:15 p.m. – 5:00/5:30

I have meetings or coach class and practice.

5:15 – 5:45-ish

I take two sibling pairs home from practice.

6:00-ish – 9:30-ish

I come home to the pups and care for them, make dinner and do household chores (because I’m also a housewife!), fall onto couch exhausted and nap, get things ready for tomorrow, go to bed and dread starting all over tomorrow.

What I really need in there is more me-time for self-care, and I just don’t take it. Instead, I run myself ragged and hope the occasional online shopping binge, for clothes that are comfortable (and weight gain/loss-flexible) and make me look like I care about dressing for work, will be enough to keep me going. With that in mind, don’t judge my LuLaRoe collection. Buying that is theoretically better than eating as much ice cream as I was just a few months ago… well, and yesterday when I downed a whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s with the cookie butter core. I don’t have the energy to properly prep for my upcoming run events. I don’t have the energy to grade during the week. I don’t walk the pups or play with them enough, and then I feel guilty. I don’t read as much as I’d like, unless it’s stories on The Mighty or things related to suicide. I get up dreading the day and go to sleep dreading waking and the next one.

I think there were only two times when I have been wholly authentic about my disorder with my students in the recent past. They happened within two days of each other about three weeks ago. On one of those days, I had a lunchtime heart-to-heart that ended up with both my sophomore male students and me in tears. I pulled it together after that and made it through coach class and coaching. The next day I fell apart. One of my seniors needed to do an interview for the school newspaper. Apparently I’m the most popular teacher for teacher profiles, I swear, and in the midst of taking about that I fell apart.

What was odd was that I bawled until I just let go and sat on the floor in the hallway to cry. He sat with me, co-workers came out of classrooms to check on me. It was bad. During coach class, I basically sat at my desk with my head down and let my awesome intern deal with the kiddos. Luckily that day I had an appointment scheduled with my psychiatrist, and I left at 3 to go to that.

My doctor switched my meds because I wasn’t about to stay on the current cocktail if it meant feeling like utter walking-death, and I walked out hoping for the best. That night I hit the couch way earlier and did take-out for dinner. My boyfriend understood (and I felt like shouting “for once!”), and I went to bed early. From the next day, up until today, I’ve been struggling along with my false happy face at work (thank you gods of coffee!), walking the black dog of depression with me on a tether, and dealing with the withdrawal from one med and the new side effects from the other. What I have not been struggling with is illuminating my struggles for everyone else; I’m too good at my high-functioning lie for all that. After all, I have been doing it most of my life!

So, if I’m indeed “teaching” mental illness, what am I teaching? That’s something I need to think about. How real is too real? Hope much hope is too much hope? How can I support self-care if I don’t engage in self-care? Teaching is always more questions than answers. I tell my kids that all the time… maybe I shouldn’t expect to have them all.

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, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

Follow this journey here.

Thinkstock photo by George Rudy

Originally published: May 31, 2017
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