Brian Fu

@brian-fu | contributor
Super Contributor
Brian is a proud Super Contributor for The Mighty, writing stories and articles about mental health/illness and physical/chronic illness. He graduated in 2021 with a BS in Neuroscience from American University in Washington D.C. and was driven by his passion for mental illness research during his undergraduate studies. Brian is now a first-year seminarian at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C. pursuing to become an ordained pastor. He hopes to be a bridge between the science of mental and physical illnesses, personal experience, and spirituality to ultimately help people on their own journeys. In his downtime, Brian is a freelance portrait photographer and enjoys studying the intersections of science and philosophy.
Brian Fu
Brian Fu @brian-fu
contributor

How I Cope When Mania Leads Me to Overspend During the Holidays

The holiday season for many is a time of celebration, joy, and excitement. For others, it can be a time of sorrow, remembrance, and difficulty. Just as most things in life, the holidays can become particularly complicated for those with mental illnesses or mental health challenges. Holidays are anxiety-provoking for many as well, as stressors such as family gatherings, planning for events, or higher-than-normal levels of social interactions can exacerbate feelings of being overwhelmed. From my own personal experiences as someone with bipolar disorder, the holidays are easily warped by mood swings, and mania can lead to some very damaging behaviors and consequences. For anyone unfamiliar with this characteristic symptom of many mood and personality disorders, mania is an atypically-elevated mood state involving feelings of euphoria, high energy, and excitability. Manic episodes are unique for each person and can manifest in a number of different ways, such as hyper-attentiveness, increased productivity, increased desires for socialization, increased anxiety, and many others. One common manifestation of mania is impulsivity, or thoughts and desires to engage in or perform certain actions or behaviors without significant prior consideration for benefits or consequences. While not always true for every person who experiences this, impulsive thoughts and actions tend to be engaging behaviors that are otherwise undesirable to the person when they are not manic. So, what does manic-impulsivity have to do with the holidays, you may be wondering? My manic impulses tend to always manifest as excessive shopping habits and desires, and this is not an uncommon expression of impulsivity (not exclusive to bipolar manic-impulsivity either). Even outside of the holidays, excessive shopping really shoots me in the foot. As a graduate student with a low-paying job, more medical bills than I’d like to recognize, and costs of living in an expensive city, I don’t have a lot of extra money laying around for exuberant shopping sprees at the mall or online. Even when my bank account is empty and my credit card debt is high, my manic self tends to care very little about the ramifications of buying new camera equipment accessories or books or computer programs. It’s only after my mania has subsided that I then have to address the mess I’ve made, surrounded by new stuff I don’t need or no longer want, and a lack of money I was already short on or more credit card debt. The winter holidays in particular have become characterized by consumerism culture and constant pushing to “buy, buy, buy.” With all of those things being pushed on everyone through ads, billboards, and social media campaigns, it’s easy to see how the impulse to buy more than one can afford can impact anyone, even those without mania or atypical impulsivity challenges. But, for anyone like me, a constant encouragement from the world to shop and “treat yourself” can not only play into my manic symptoms and make them worse, they can actually trigger manic episodes altogether. In the past, I’ve had manic episodes during the holidays turn out more damaging than episodes any other time of the year, and there are a couple of reasons for that. First, there already exists a pervasive stigma and culture of shame around mania. Many don’t understand it or believe it’s a real thing, especially impulsivity (“Why don’t you just stop yourself?” people will say, as if that’s somehow helpful). That doesn’t breed great feelings of wanting to recognize damaging behaviors or mindsets, and it especially discourages asking or seeking help. Who wants to admit they need help if they are only going to be shamed for it all? Second, with the society we live in today, anyone who expresses they actively work to resist shopping during the holidays is seen as counter-cultural, rebellious, and “a real Scrooge.” The expectation from the world is clear: During the holidays, you celebrate by buying things for yourself and others. But, for those like me who are prone to manic shopping, or those who have shopping addictions (yes, that’s a real thing, but a topic for a different writer and a different article), the holiday expectation for splurging can make life very, very difficult. Third, the increased emphasis on family and friends during the holidays, in theory, sounds like it should help with mental illnesses in general, and for some it does. For me, even though I love my family and friends, too much exposure to them quickly becomes anxiety-provoking and takes a real toll on my mood and mental state. I have to be careful to take care of myself when the holidays come around and I’m expected to be more social than “normal,” but having to police myself in that respect, and practicing self-restraint with shopping can quickly become very tiring and exhausting. I couldn’t even give you a guess how many times the holidays, winter holidays in particular, have skyrocketed my mood and my debt. It’s always a difficult time of year for me, even without considering the mania and impulsive shopping. However, I have figured out a couple of key things to help, and they may be helpful for you if you face similar difficulties. One big thing is I have created a blanket rule across all my relationships: I don’t give gifts. I tell everyone it isn’t personal (and the proof of that is how it is so generalized across my life, so I’m not singling people out). There are other, and frankly better, ways to express thankfulness for someone in your life or show your appreciation for people than gift-giving. While some people do highly value giving and receiving gifts, it isn’t fair to impose that on everyone all the time, especially for people who face manic shopping impulses or shopping addictions. So, I’ve found in my life just saying, “no one gets a gift from me” allows me to fight the urges to over-shop, and gives me an opportunity to be creative with how I celebrate people. If the holidays are difficult for you because of your relationship with shopping and the detrimental effects it has on your life, know that you’re not along in any of that. There is a large community of people (larger than I think society would like to admit) who struggle with this every year. But, we owe it to ourselves to find solutions and coping mechanisms for manic impulsivity during the holidays. Over-spending can be incredibly dangerous for some people, particularly those in socio-economic positions where they do not have the luxury of affording luxury. It’s important we recognize that, honor that as a society, and as individuals, prioritize our own minds and pocketbooks over what the holidays may want us to do.

Brian Fu
Brian Fu @brian-fu
contributor

Experiencing Temporary Paralysis Because of My Movement Disorder

What do you mean you’re paralyzed? Like, I can’t move right now. How is that possible? That’s an excellent question. This was the beginning of a conversation between me and a friend a few nights ago when she witnessed, for the first time, a very real and scary manifestation of my movement disorder: temporary generalized paralysis. I’d never been around other people when a paralysis tic had hit, so this was a first for me as well. I was actually paralyzed before she and another friend came over to my apartment that night. I was sitting on the ground leaning against my couch, so at first glance, it wouldn’t have looked like anything was wrong when they first walked in. But, as the night went on and they realized I wasn’t standing up or moving hardly at all, they finally asked me why I wasn’t. I simply told them, “I’m just paralyzed right now.” One of the friends there knew this was something I dealt with, but she had never seen it before. The other friend didn’t know anything about this, all she knew is that I have a movement disorder, but I haven’t really been able to share with them much. After I told them that I was sitting on the ground in very uncomfortable positions (feet curled up, arms seized up against my chest, wrists bent, shoulders shrugged, etc.) and unable to move, they asked me a couple of very understandable questions that I was happy to try my best to answer. They started off by asking if I was OK, and I told them I was. I could still talk (mostly), and I wasn’t in any significant pain other than just tension in the joints that were curled, so I was OK in that respect. They asked if there was anything they could do, and I said there wasn’t and that we could just resume our night as normal. We did for the most part. Every now and then one of my friends would notice that I was sliding towards the ground and she would, after asking permission to do so, grab me and pull me up to sit me back upright. It probably looked very awkward, and we laughed about it, but it was actually one of the nicest things someone has done for me. Towards the end of the night, one of them said something that, again, is very understandable and relatable: I just can’t wrap my mind around you not being able to move. Like, how does that work? I wish I had a satisfying answer to a question like that. I can’t wrap my mind around it either, and it’s my mind that’s doing all this work. I don’t know why my muscles contract so severely and so long that I’m stuck and unable to move. I don’t know why my body does the things it does, or doesn’t do the things I want it to. What I do know is that my friends handled a very uncomfortable and unusual situation, for all three of us, very well. It seemed they had never had an encounter like this before, and it was new to me as well trying to figure out what to say and not say to them. They were supportive, helpful, and kind to me. However, I’ve realized that this story is not going to be the only one in my life like it. There will be other times I go paralyzed around other people, and I need to be prepared to make clear what I need at that moment. So, there are a couple of things I want to detail and make clear about what to do and know in a situation where you encounter someone who is experiencing a paralysis tic as a result of a movement disorder (there are a host of other medical conditions and situations that lead to people being paralyzed, but I can only speak to the context of movement disorder-related paralysis): Recognize the discomfort of the situation Speaking just for myself, I would never expect anyone in a situation where they are with me while I am paralyzed to be totally 100% comfortable. It’s a strange experience and I recognize that as the person who is in that state of paralysis. I also know that it is especially challenging for people who I see often, since 99% of the time they see me walking and moving around without issue. So, to see a close friend be curled up and frozen in place would be difficult for me to see, and I don’t expect anyone in my circle of relationships to try to deny that. For me, the best thing anyone in that situation can do is be honest with themselves and me, because that will make everything that follows a lot easier. Continue to interact and engage with the person just as you would under normal circumstances I hesitate to use the phrase “normal circumstances” here, but I will simply because it makes the most sense. When people encounter me while I am unable to move, having difficulty speaking, and perhaps even in significant pain sometimes, I’m still the same person I was an hour ago when my body wasn’t doing those things. I don’t look for pity or sympathy or platitudes of “I’m sorry you’re going through that.” Those are all well-intentioned, but they don’t do much for me in that moment. I’m still me even when I’m paralyzed, so you can still speak and engage with me as if I am. Ask before helping This one can get complicated very quickly, so for me, there is a lot of room for grace with mistakes. However, as a general rule of thumb, it isn’t the greatest idea to just jump in and “help” how you think I need it. There is a possibility that whatever you are trying to do actually doesn’t help at all or may make the situation worse. It’s just best to ask first, then respect the answer. Earlier I mentioned my friend had helped me by grabbing my torso and pulling me up so I wasn’t sliding onto the ground (which was severely hurting my back). She asked if she could touch me first, and I said yes, then asked if I would be more comfortable if she pulled me up. I gave my consent, she did exactly what she asked she could, and no more. That happened a couple of times that night, and she asked each time. That is what I am looking for. While I cannot speak on behalf of all people with movement disorders and people who experience paralysis, I know there are those out there who share that sentiment. Now, I did say this one can get complicated, and I will give an example of when this rule isn’t so clear-cut. I normally can still speak clearly when I am having a paralysis tic. However, that is not true all the time. Sometimes my jaw starts to clench, my tongue can start moving around sporadically (that is a different kind of tic, separate from the paralysis), or my neck could be seized up so much that speaking hurts. If I’m unable to speak, and you ask to assist me in some way, I won’t be able to answer. What then? Well, it depends on the situation. If, for instance, that exact same scenario I described above were to happen, where I was slipping to the ground, but unable to communicate verbally that I needed help, should my friend still have helped me? Different people will have different answers to this, so do not take my perspective as the universal one. For me, I would’ve been fine with her still helping. She was not doing anything that had the potential to hurt me, so the worst-case scenario was that whatever she did was not going to help. I would’ve been fine with that, but not everyone would. There are also other ways to get my consent, and it requires some creativity. For example, it’s somewhat common for people who are paralyzed and cannot verbally communicate, but can still understand what is going on around them, to be asked yes-no questions and told to blink as a signal for one or the other. I’ve also seen people do things such as establish that a grunt means yes when presented with a question, and no grunt means no. This is usually a system that people will establish with their close ones in advance so that it is clear what to do, but if my friends had done something like that, it would’ve given me a way to consent to help without speaking. Follow-up This is true for people who encounter my paralysis for the first time and whom I see frequently. The more my friends and family know about what to expect when I’m paralyzed, the better we all are. We can establish permanent “what to do” plans, like the situation when I cannot verbally communicate that I described above. After a particular tic is over, I don’t mind engaging in a conversation about what the people with me can do next time. I’m also happy to field questions about what just happened. The better prepared I and those around me are for my next tic, the easier it will be for everyone. The opinions I just shared are mine based on my experiences and perspectives. Though I know there are others who share similar views to mine, don’t assume that what you’ve read here is true across the board. Movement disorders on their own are shrouded in mystery and stigma, so I always encourage people to ask me questions about anything I experience. I find the more I talk with people about them, the less alien the reality of movement disorders becomes. Paralysis as a particular manifestation of these disorders can be one of the scariest and dangerous, so it is understandable that conversations about it would be considered sensitive and may not happen as often as they should. But, it is my opinion that we need more open and honest talk about temporary paralysis, because it helps everyone know what to do, what not to do, and ultimately will lead to the best end result for that person experiencing the paralysis. Paralysis isn’t fun. Let’s not hesitate to talk about it to make it a little more painless.

Brian Fu
Brian Fu @brian-fu
contributor

I Hate When ADHD Makes Me Talk Too Much

In my undergraduate days, I had an incredible opportunity to work for one of the world’s most highly esteemed researchers in developmental neuroscience. I worked in her lab for two years, and she was even my mentor for my senior thesis project. Her lab, appropriately titled the “Developmental Neuroscience Lab” at my university, studied a wide array of disorders such as autism, dyslexia and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder ( ADHD ). It wasn’t only fascinating to engage in this area of research because of my genuine interest in neuroscience, but also as a person with ADHD , I was learning more about myself in my work. I was literally taking classes and doing research into myself, a profound experience that shaped who I am today. While working in that lab, I was also exposed to a fundamental truth of ADHD , and all mental illnesses really: people with ADHD have a common diagnosis, but there aren’t any two people who experience the disorder in the same way. I knew this on paper, but when it came to my personal experiences, it took a bit longer for that idea to sink in. I was diagnosed with ADHD in the middle of college, and I thought I knew all there was to it. All of my siblings have ADHD , and all four of us have radically different expressions of it. I have friends I can say the same about. Our symptoms have some commonalities and similar roots, but the ways they manifest in each of us is unique to the highest degree. A quick note or two about ADHD before I continue with my story, as it is necessary for the context. The disorder is often dichotomized into two “types” — ADHD hyperactive type and ADHD inattentive type (sometimes also informally referred to as behavioral ADHD and cognitive ADHD , respectively), though not everyone has a type. My ADHD has always been inattentive type, so my symptoms are primarily cognitive (impaired ability to maintain attention, memory loss, comprehension difficulties, etc.) but I’ve never been immune to hyperactivity. Though, since hyperactivity was rarely a disordering effect for me, I focused more on addressing my cognitive symptoms. But when I started experiencing a rather severe hyperactive symptom, I couldn’t ignore that part of my diagnosis any longer. Before I get into the real meat of this story, some more context is necessary. When I was little, people would often describe me as outgoing, personable and talkative. These were positive attributes, uncommon in a lot of 5 and 6-year-olds. As I grew up and matured, these traits became my personality, not just a phase of my childhood. A really good summary of me, then and now: I like to talk. I’ve never been afraid of public speaking, and in fact, I love it. I like to think I’m good at initiating casual conversation, and frequently engage in thought-provoking discussions and debates. But just as all things can, my natural tendency for speaking can go too far. (Stay with me here, I’m getting to the good stuff, but I’ve still got some more background information for you so you can get the full picture). Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, which as of the writing of this article is being reignited by the surging of the Delta and Lambda variants, people around the world have relied on phone and video calls to maintain some semblance of socialization. I got into a rhythm of calling friends and family often just to make sure I stayed connected to those I couldn’t be with physically. But what does this have to do with my ADHD and talkative nature? It was these phone and video calls that opened my eyes to how my proclivity for conversation was impacting people around me. You see, on a phone or video call, most of the time there is a timer to tell you how long the call has lasted. I slowly started to see the time of my calls getting longer and longer over time, and it was me that would prolong them. Calls started lasting for two, three, four, five, and even a handful reached six hours long, an unreasonable amount of time to expect anyone to stay on the phone. It took seeing those timestamps to make me realize something I’m actually a bit embarrassed to admit: I’m talking too much, and it’s rooted in both the inattentiveness and hyperactivity of ADHD . After I realized this, I started to monitor myself in every conversation. What was I saying? Was it relevant? Was I giving the other person space to speak as well, or was I dominating it all? These questions sat in the back of my mind for a long time, during every interaction I would have with someone, and I noticed a pattern emerge. The reason I talk so much, to a detrimental degree, is because I’m almost constantly experiencing racing thoughts fueled by my inability to maintain a direct focus and enflamed by hyperactivity that speeds it all up. When added to my natural personality of being an active, outgoing conversationalist, it leads to me always saying the first thing that pops into my head, even if it isn’t relevant. I’ll give you an example. I was talking with someone the other night about some interpersonal conflicts I’m navigating. In the middle of the conversation, I said something vaguely related to a political topic I’m passionate about. Because of that, my mind lost all focus of the original topic and started to fill with irrelevant thoughts and ideas, all of which I felt compelled to say out loud. I managed to tangent the conversation into those politics. After ranting a bit about that, I found something else I said that pegged a memory from my childhood, so I started to go into great depth to tell that story. This snowball went on and on for the rest of the evening. But, there’s something even worse about it. As I said, I’m pretty cognizant of this issue now. As a mitigation effort, I often tell people that I feel myself tempted to tangent the conversation into something else. I can usually catch when my brain is telling, “hey, start talking about this and make sure you say everything!” I’ll admit to the person/people that I know I’m talking too long. You’d think that would be enough for me to bite my tongue more, right? It’s not that simple, and it makes this problem so much worse because I essentially get trapped in my own head. What do I mean by that? I essentially split into two mindsets whenever I admit those things. Half of my brain just tells me to keep going, keep talking, say everything. The other half is begging me to stop, to slow down, reminding me that I don’t need to say everything I think. The result of that split mindset: my continuous talking, conscious that it’s unhealthy, unable to stop myself, and feelings of guilt and embarrassment start to bubble up. I literally can’t stop myself from doing something I know I shouldn’t be, and so I shame myself for my lack of control. This entire situation has really dragged down my self-esteem, made me feel like a burden to those around me, and tempted me to isolate myself socially. It’s made me start to hate myself. I don’t want to talk so much. I don’t want to annoy, bore or bother people, and despite people reassuring me I’m not, I know they’re saying those things to be supportive of me as I struggle with this. I don’t want my ADHD to win, but it seems to have the upper hand here. So, where does that leave me? Well, not in a great place, but not defeated either. As time goes on, more and more I am learning to catch myself when I feel my ADHD starting to manifest itself in this way. That’s step one in addressing any issue: recognizing it exists. What’s next? For me, I need to be bold enough to ask for help, and I know exactly what that looks like. I need to be very blunt with people and tell them, “If you hear me go off-topic, please cut me off or tell me.” The idea of saying those words scares me, and I wish I didn’t have to. But I do. After that, I must engage in a continuous and honest dialogue with the mental health professionals helping me manage my ADHD . Those are my three main steps to handling any issue like this. Everyone has their own ways of handling and treating their mental health struggles (not just illnesses). If you’re reading this, and going through something similar in any way, but are unsure of what to do, I would offer this piece of advice. I just outlined how I approach my mental health treatment (recognizing the issue, honestly asking for help from my support system and seeking professional help). That is my process, and I follow it because it works for me. If you have a process, keep going with it. It’s on the hardest days that our process can save us. If you don’t have such a clear-cut approach for handling your challenges, I would recommend putting together a rough idea of what you think would work for you. Write it down, draw a picture or flow chart to represent it, talk it out with someone close to you. You may need to change your process over time, and that’s OK. But if you have a process in place, your process will be what grounds you and allows you an avenue to find relief from whatever you’re experiencing. Trust your process. Trust yourself. Stay kind and motivated to yourself. And above all, keep going. I may not know you, but I know you’ve got what it takes to face your challenges because you’ve made it this far. Keep going, I believe in you. Make sure you believe in yourself too.

Brian Fu
Brian Fu @brian-fu
contributor

My Experience With Both Bipolar Mania and ADHD

I’ve lived with a bipolar disorder diagnosis for four years now, and an attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder ( ADHD ) diagnosis for about two. But as many people with mental illnesses will tell you, you don’t get a diagnosis immediately after you begin experiencing an illness. So, to put it another way, I’ve been living with bipolar disorder and ADHD for several years, and couldn’t pinpoint a “start date” even if I tried. Bipolar disorder , for those who don’t know much about it, is a disorder characterized by instability in maintaining one’s mood, cycling between episodes of depression on one end of the spectrum, and mania at the other. Mania can be difficult to identify because it presents in a significant number of ways, and some symptom manifestations are rather unorthodox from what mania is best understood as in the clinical world. But to provide a broad definition: mania is atypically enhanced feelings of euphoria and/or energy. Personally, my manic symptoms usually include insomnia due to heightened energy levels, excessive and detrimental shopping habits, and increased “productivity,” which may sound like a good thing, but it’s to an extreme. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder ( ADHD ) is a developmental disorder that impairs cognitive abilities (mostly attention, but usually impacts other abilities like memory, comprehension, etc.) and behavioral symptoms which can include spontaneous bouts of undirected energy, increased motivation, and agitation. ADHD , clinically speaking, has two “types,” though not everyone with ADHD has a type. Hyperactive-type ADHD means a person’s symptoms are mostly behavioral, while inattentive-type ADHD expresses mostly cognitive impairments. So, why did I just write out a synopsis of bipolar mania and ADHD when the two aren’t in the same class of disorders? Well, because I live with both of them, and let me tell you, it isn’t fun. It’s remarkably confusing to think about, but you may have already noticed the overlaps in my explanation. Mania usually consists of heightened energy and mood, and part of ADHD is symptoms of hyperactivity, like heightened energy and mood. It seems somewhat rare for someone to get both of these diagnoses because in my experience, mental health professionals usually just pick one and run with that. I consider myself lucky to have been diagnosed with both because I genuinely experience difficulties with daily life from symptoms unique to each. I was lucky enough to have doctors and therapists that looked beyond the surface and saw that I exhibited behaviors common to both, but also symptoms unique to each. One of the biggest challenges I have living with both can be summarized with a simple question that I ask myself, and that my doctors and therapists ask me: Do you think this is mania or hyperactivity? Now, that question is usually asked when I’m exhibiting signs common to both disorders, and that is the difficulty with diagnosing and treating them together. When I’m really high energy and motivated, in my personal experience, I can’t really tell if it’s my ADHD or if I’m moving into a manic episode . If I can’t identify which it is, deciding the best course of action in terms of treatment and therapy is nearly impossible. And sometimes, the storm surges in just the right way where I enter a manic episode at the same time I start experiencing a bout of hyperactivity. The two work in tangent and elevate my mood and energy to an astronomical level. I feel incredible, but the reason mania and hyperactivity aren’t positive is because they become detrimental, and what that looks like varies from person to person. Another difficulty, a much more pragmatic one, is medications. The classes of medications for bipolar disorder — particularly mania — and ADHD are totally separate, and in some cases actually do the opposite things for our brains and bodies. The most common medications for ADHD are known as stimulants. That may sound like a strange medication to take for someone who experiences hyperactivity and inability to maintain focus, and I thought the same thing at first: why would I want to increase my mental stimulation if that’s what’s making me hyperactive, and gives me the racing thoughts that make it difficult to focus? Without going into the very detailed chemistry and biology of it (my degree is in neuroscience, so I always have to control myself when writing about science), calling ADHD medications stimulants is scientifically accurate, but misleading in layman’s context. What those medications are actually stimulating is our brains’ ability to inhibit our energy levels when they get too high and the ability to control our focus better. A simpler way of putting it: these medications are stimulating our brains to better calm ourselves down. Now, that sounds at first like it would work perfectly for bipolar mania as well. Unfortunately, it isn’t so simple. People with bipolar disorder are actually highly recommended to stay away from stimulants if possible. Again, avoiding the complex science of it, the networks in our brains impacted by ADHD are not the same (largely) as the ones impacted by mood dysregulation in bipolar disorder . So, taking stimulants with bipolar disorder and ADHD can show improvements in the latter, but can actually induce episodes of mania or hypomania since they can stimulate those systems in our brains. When it comes to bipolar disorder medications, traditionally mood stabilizers or antipsychotics, they can have the opposite effect, chemically and biologically, as ADHD medications. Taking both at the same time, depending on the wide variety of factors that all patients and health care providers consider, can lead to them canceling each other out and reducing their efficacy. For people with both bipolar mania and ADHD , this can make the hellish game of psychiatric medications even worse. For me, not only can I not escape the highs of mania and hyperactivity/inattentiveness, but the treatments available to me are double-edged swords. Both bipolar mania and ADHD are characterized, to a certain degree, by instability. For people with both and trying to reach a more stable mental state, it generally is more difficult than people with just one of these diagnoses. The very nature of both leads to an almost unavoidable collision of the symptoms of both working in tandem to increase the severity of the other. Bipolar mania can increase the intensity of hyperactivity or worsen racing thoughts as a result of inattentiveness. Classic ADHD symptoms can sometimes induce manic or hypomanic episodes, and medications for both are double-edged swords in that they can help with one while exacerbating the other. Overall, ADHD and bipolar mania are a tough mixture. But if there’s anything I’ve learned in my journey with mental illness , it’s that there’s nothing that’s totally insurmountable. Progress in treatment, both in medications and therapy, is always possible in my opinion. Take it from someone who has made great strides in balancing treatments for both of these disorders at the same time. It is possible to reach a sense of stability. It isn’t easy, but trust me, it’s worth it.

Brian Fu
Brian Fu @brian-fu
contributor

What I Want People to Know About My TD Diagnosis

Just a few years ago, my life was relatively calm and stable — or at least as much as it could be with bipolar disorder. I was managing my mental health with both medication and talk therapy, but the biggest challenge was finding the right medication to stabilize my mood without exacerbating my other conditions. The cornerstone to my medication regimen was an antipsychotic, which was also found to be effective in stabilizing mood disorders. After trying close to a dozen different options without positive results — and in some cases, detrimental effects — this antipsychotic did wonders for my mood. I really can’t put into words how much my life improved with it. However, there was also a downside. This antipsychotic came with certain side effects. I read up on the common ones but not the rarer ones. This ended up being a mistake for me; I developed one of those rare side effects. Had I known about it sooner, it could’ve been treated earlier and may not have become chronic. That condition is called tardive dyskinesia (TD). For those who may not know what this condition is, I have another article going into much more detail about it . Here’s a quick summary: TD is a movement disorder that develops from long-term use of antipsychotic medications. It causes uncontrollable movements, often referred to as “tics,” which commonly show up in the face and neck (however tics in any part of the body are possible). Unlike other side effects, TD typically doesn’t develop in the short-term after starting the medication. It can actually take months, sometimes years, to manifest. The immediate treatment for TD is discontinuing the medication. TD can either be temporary or chronic, and that depends on the length of time between symptom onset and diagnosis/treatment initiation. If that timeframe is relatively short, most patients see their symptoms slowly fade and end on their own. However, for those like me, who didn’t know the signs and symptoms of TD , my diagnosis took several months after symptom onset. I didn’t think my different blinking pattern was an issue, so I didn’t raise any concerns with my doctor. With such a long time between onset and diagnosis, my condition ultimately became chronic, with symptoms persisting for longer than a year. It’s been two or three years now, and I still have tics every day. Considering TD is such a rare condition, I got a lot of questions when I started telling my friends and family about it. After years of explaining my TD to people, I’ve learned a couple of big things that people should know about the condition: I had to grieve after my TD diagnosis. As I said, the main TD treatment is discontinuing the medication that caused it. For some people, that means losing a medication that they had been on for a long time — ones that were likely effective at treating their condition(s). That antipsychotic medication was the most effective medication I’ve ever been on for my bipolar disorder. If you’ve ever known heartbreak over losing someone or something, it’s a similar feeling to how I felt giving up my antipsychotic. It had improved my life in ways nothing else had, so having to part ways was like losing a friend who had helped me through my darkest times. I had grown to love that medication for the way it helped me; to this day, I still miss having the relief it gave me. Nothing has really been able to do what it did, so I had to grieve losing a massive source of relief for my mental health in the interest of my physical health. If I could, I would get rid of my TD entirely. This is a broadly controversial topic in the health world: if you could take a magic pill to get rid of a certain condition, would you? Everyone has different answers that need to be respected, and I think there needs to be more understanding for those different answers. For me, I wish I could get rid of TD. I have enough on my plate with mental and physical illnesses, including an entirely separate movement disorder, so I’d love to get a break from any of them. Having to deal with multiple movement disorders is rare and frustrating beyond words; the prospect of alleviating one of them would be a dream come true. This is just my experience, and I cannot speak on behalf of all people with TD. Many will have different opinions on this, but this is my own point of view. But there is an important point with this too. I had to come to terms with my feelings of wanting to get rid of my TD, but I also had to learn to have grace with myself and the fact that there isn’t a cure for TD. There are treatments, which have given a lot of people relief. But my TD happens to be treatment-resistant. Despite my dream of getting rid of my TD, I needed to come to terms with that reality. And I can confidently say that I have. TD represents how mental illness isn’t “just something in my head.” When I was diagnosed with my mental illnesses, and when my TD symptoms first started, I was an undergraduate student studying neuroscience. I had learned enough about how much our minds are interwoven with our bodies, but I didn’t realize that that also applied to me. I had never really experienced physical illnesses beyond childhood asthma and the occasional cold or flu. And I never thought treating my mental health could threaten my physical health — even though I knew better. It unfortunately took two movement disorders to learn an important lesson: mental illnesses and treatments don’t just live in my head. They impact my body as well. Now I will say, TD is a rather extreme example of this, but many with mental illnesses know how anxiety can lead to chest pain and tightening, or how depression can lead to muscle aches. And the physical side effects of psychiatric medications only prove that we cannot think about mental health and physical health as separate entities. They are connected forever, and we have to take both into account when we treat one or the other. I could go on for much longer about my relationship with TD tics, but these three lessons I think represent the biggest things I’ve learned and what I want people to know about TD. My story is not everyone’s story, but there are also parts of it that are not unique to me. My experience may not be yours in one way, but maybe you can relate to another part. All in all, my life with TD is complicated; it certainly isn’t easy. It has changed my life forever, but I would be lying if I said it has changed it only for the worse. While I wish I could get rid of it, the reality is that it’s going to stick around, so I’ve tried to learn something from it and will continue to do so.

Brian Fu
Brian Fu @brian-fu
contributor

I’m Not Scared to Admit My Suicide Attempt Anymore

We’ve all got days and dates burned into our memories forever, and for a variety of reasons, good and bad. Birthdays, wedding anniversaries, anniversaries of death or divorce, graduation days and plenty of others. Memories are an important part of defining who we are, understanding how we came to be where we are in life, and what lessons we’ve learned to take with us going forward. We’ve all seen good days, bad days and “eh” days. Most are not very memorable, and if they are, many are probably not worth being held onto long-term. But those few days and dates that do deserve to be remembered for a lifetime are the brightest and darkest days of our lives, filled with lessons to inform how we live. There’s one date burned into my mind that I’d like to share with you, and why it‘s important. October 31, 2019. Now, you might have noticed right away, “Hey, that’s Halloween!” And if you did, good catch! That holiday alone is not why I remember that specific day, but it helps peg the memory and story of what happened that day. Halloween of 2019 was the day of my suicide attempt. Now, as with all good stories, we’ll need context, context, context. Let’s wind the clock back about two years. It was my junior year of college, I was in a miserably toxic relationship with my partner whom I lived with, my academics were falling apart, and my mental illnesses were far from under control or stable. I was in the worst depressive episode of my entire life, and that’s saying something given my history. I’d dealt with depression in the dark for half of my life at that point. A few years before then, I was actually hospitalized for active suicidal ideation and self-injury. But even then, I didn’t attempt. I was just very close. I’d thought that would be the worst I’d ever get. I couldn’t have imagined how depressed and terrible I felt back in that fall of 2019. My depression finally spiraled so far that I contemplated ending my life yet again. I had gone through phases in and out after the hospital of having suicidal thoughts , and a handful of times I would say I seriously considered it. But this was different. This was bad enough to bring me to an edge I had known before, an edge that had long tempted me to walk off (this is a metaphor). And on that night, October 31, 2019, I tried. For obvious reasons, I am not going to detail any part of the “how” of my attempt, and I’m not going to paint a picture of the events of that night. The point I want to make clear is that, on that day, I never once thought about backing out of my plan. I had decided what I had, and I did what I planned. And here’s the real interesting detail: by all measures of the incident, medically speaking, it’s nothing short of a miracle that I’m alive today to write this story. My attempt should’ve “worked,” and the fact that I lived to tell the tale defies medical expectation. A little more than a month later, very shortly after my 21st birthday, I somehow got up the courage to tell two friends of mine what had happened that night. I’m not sure how or why I told them, but I did, and they supported me how they could. But other than them, nobody on Planet Earth knew. Most people in my life had known up till that point that I had bipolar disorder and that depressive episodes were my main issue. Many know of my history with suicidal ideation, and I’ve rarely been afraid to admit that. I’ve written story after story, and have had probably hundreds of conversations with people, telling my story of how back in high school I nearly attempted to end my life. But admitting that I had, in fact, attempted, was something different. I was ashamed in a lot of ways. I was ashamed that, up to that point, I had invested so much money, time and energy (and not just my own) to improve my mental health and my life overall. I was scared of the repercussions. If people knew, would they try to hospitalize me again in a psychiatric ward? Would my family insist I drop out of college to come home and deal with my issues, away from the burdens of school (something I greatly did not want to do)? Would my friends and family treat me differently? It certainly would make people sad and scared. That was their response when I told them I was suicidal. I could only try to imagine what they would do and feel if I had admitted that I had gone one step further. I didn’t want to put the burden of those emotions on them, and I convinced myself it wouldn’t have been fair to. But, at what cost to myself have I kept this secret hidden? What has it gained me trying to hide one of the most pivotal moments of my life? I can say, confidently, that I have not struggled with suicidal ideation for a long time. It has hit me a few times since that October night, but rarely and not for a while. I have never made another attempt, and I certainly plan not to. I would be lying if I said it’s never crossed my mind as passive thoughts, or that I’ve somehow “cured” myself of suicidal ideation. There is no such thing, so to strive for it would be futile. But what am I supposed to do with this story? How am I to use it to better myself? Wouldn’t it just be better to leave the past where it is and move on? I wish it were so easy and simple. The truth is this there is little point in denying reality. Pretending October 31, 2019 just didn’t happen waters down the progress I’ve made since that night. There are obviously much better and healthier ways to learn the lessons I did from my attempt, but being scared of my own story would weaken those lessons. That is reality, and that is why I’m ready to tell my full story. I struggled with depression in high school. I was hospitalized for self-injury before college. I was diagnosed with mental illnesses in college. I relapsed into unhealthy addictions and behaviors in that time as well, all of which I am recovering from. And yes, October 31, 2019 happened, and that was the day I made an attempt on my life. I’m no longer scared to admit it. I will say that not everyone’s story is so easily framed. Everyone who has struggled with mental illnesses and/or suicidal ideation has a unique story. Stories can have overlap and similarities, but at the end of the day, my journey with mental illness and my suicide attempt are not like anyone else’s. So, just because I can say the things I have so confidently does not translate to “this is what everyone who has a similar story should do and think.” I am personally ready to tell my story and reveal my truth. But I do not want the point of this to convey, in any way, an expectation that others should automatically follow suit. We are the masters of our own stories, the author of our own lives. We get to decide if and when we tell certain parts of our stories. There are still things I am not comfortable revealing just yet. But this story, this has weighed me down for too long, and I refuse to give it any more power over me. I used to be scared to admit my suicide attempt. I’m not anymore.

Brian Fu
Brian Fu @brian-fu
contributor

Watching Netflix Doc ‘Pray Away’ as a Queer Man With Religious Trauma

In just a few days from the writing of this article, Netflix will release a new documentary called “Pray Away.” If that phrase sounds familiar, it’s because many people, especially those who lived through the 80s and 90s, will recall the prevalence of the words “pray away the gay,” or “pray the gay away.” This documentary chronicles the history of the “anti-gay” and “gay conversion” religious movement that tore through the American Christian landscape towards the end of the 20th century. But it doesn’t stop at history. It shows how that movement is still very much alive and well, it’s just hiding better. I should know because I grew up in the modern expression of this dangerous and deadly wave of trauma for thousands of people. And it almost claimed my life. For those who don’t know much about the “anti-gay” and “gay conversion” religious ideologies, it is a series of Christian beliefs rooted in two foundational concepts. First is the idea that being LGBTQIA+ (some common descriptions include: “an active homosexual, “a self-proclaimed practicing homosexual,” or “one who rejects the sex they were assigned by God at birth”) is an automatic ticket to eternal suffering in hell. Second is that these “lifestyles” (the word they use instead of “identities”) can be changed, eliminated or rejected by completely devoting oneself to God and Christ. Anyone who “struggles” with same-sex or gender attraction, or gender dysphoria , can be “saved” and “converted” simply by embracing a particular branch of Christianity and “making Christ your one and only identity,” as one person told me. This branch is a radically conservative sect of the religion, one that many in our society like to think is not still having a significant impact on the LGBTQIA+ population. That is wrong. Through middle and high school, I went to a religious school that very much fell in line with this radical expression of Christianity. They embraced the idea that LGBTQIA+ people are damned to hell, but that they could be “saved” from their attractions or gender dysphoria by faith. If someone admitted these feelings, tried to embrace the “solution,” but ultimately were not succeeding (because “gay conversion” doesn’t work), they would be shamed by the community continuously until one of two things happened: they were manipulated to believing they had converted from their LGBTQIA+ identity, or they broke. In middle school, as a young kid with a gay older brother, hearing this stuff was repulsive and I fought back. But in high school, when I came to terms with my own identity as a gay man, these dangerous ideologies reached a different level of impact on me. They became traumatic. I never wanted to admit that the school traumatized me in lots of ways, but especially regarding my queer identity. I thought that if I said the school didn’t harm me, that I would’ve “won.” If I convinced myself and others that no trauma had happened, that somehow would make it true. I wasn’t going to give the school the satisfaction, even without knowing it, of having had the power to traumatize me. But that’s just not how trauma works, including religious trauma . If you watch the trailer for the documentary, you will see a momentary glimpse into what will be one of the focuses of the movie: the impacts these churches and religious organizations had on the mental health of their communities. When this movement was at its peak, conservative communities began to notice a trend among their members: deaths and hospitalizations due to suicide or suicide attempts. A lot of people underestimate the power religion can have on queer folk, especially young queer kids and teenagers trying their best to navigate life. To be told they are going to hell for who they are or forcing them into conversion camps and programs to try to change them, irreparable harm and damage can occur. And if those sorts of efforts occur constantly, at home and church and school, with nowhere for these people to go to be themselves, it brings many to a breaking point. LGBTQIA+ youth are at significantly higher risk of attempting or dying by suicide if they had heard their parents speak negatively about LGBTQIA+ people as a matter of religiosity, and that is regardless of the person’s own religious beliefs (or lack thereof). As I said, I lived for seven years in a school that harmed and permanently traumatized me due to my LGBTQIA+ identity. I can also attest, personally, to this “breaking point” because I got to it. After my high school graduation, but before starting college, you would think my mental health would improve beyond measure. Never again would I have to be around the teachers and preachers who damned me to hell, who told me I would never be good enough if I didn’t reject my identity. Graduation was a threshold I passed through to get away from the community that traumatized me. So, my torment should’ve been over during that summer, right? In one aspect, yes. Very matter of factly, I was no longer surrounded by that school community to continue to be traumatized. But after seven years, the damage had been done. I had suffered in the dark for all those years, spiraling further and further into depression , and I’ve now come to terms with the fact that part of that was fueled by the trauma that school caused me. My spiral didn’t stop after graduation. In fact, it brought me to the edge of the abyss. I was hospitalized for nine days that summer for being actively suicidal, and it was then that my friends and family saw the mask I had been putting on my entire life was a fake. I shocked my parents and siblings with the truth of my suicidal ideation, and hurt them beyond my imagination when I was honest about my self-injury behavior. With all that, here is what I will say about “Pray Away.” Based on the trailer and other information available about the movie pre-release, the movie appears to tackle head-on the past and present of the “anti-gay” and “gay conversion” movements in Christianity. Many of the people interviewed were the figureheads, the household names associated with this movement. All of them have recanted their beliefs, admitted their personal stories of having achieved “conversion” were lies, and expressed immense regret over the pain and damage they caused their immediate communities, but also people around the country, and even the world. So, I will leave you with a couple of pieces of advice. First, as a matter of justice and reconciliation with this country’s past, I would highly recommend as many people as possible see this film. However, I would caution some about watching it. If you have experienced any form of trauma based on your identity as an LGBTQIA+ person, this movie may be triggering and bring up a lot of old memories. Even just watching the trailer did that for me. So I would caution you in that respect when deciding whether to watch the film. I would have the same advice for anyone who has experienced any form of religious trauma , not just based on an LGBTQIA+ identity. Though trauma can manifest in a multitude of ways, radical religion is remarkable in its ability to use the same few tools and techniques available to it to harm and traumatize just about anyone they want, for whatever reason. So for anyone who has experienced religious trauma (also, not just in Christianity), I would also suggest careful consideration when deciding whether or not to watch. The same thing goes for anyone who has attempted suicide or who has been personally impacted by someone’s death by suicide. We are all in control of whether we choose to watch this movie or not. For me, I fit into all of these categories in very deep ways. Just speaking for myself, I have decided to watch the film when it is released, but I will not watch it alone. Regardless of whoever decides to watch, or not watch, and for whatever reason, just know that this movie has the potential to change a subculture in American society that, like a parasite, has damaged and harmed the LGBTQIA+ community from the inside out. Let’s hope that this change will manifest to give LGBTQIA+ people and all those who are survivors of religious trauma some justice, and help others avoid the mistakes of the past going forward.

Brian Fu
Brian Fu @brian-fu
contributor

Signs and Symptoms of Tardive Dyskinesia (TD)

As someone who lives with tardive dyskinesia (TD), I really wish I had known its signs and symptoms when I was first diagnosed. I didn’t even know it existed! A neurological condition that develops from long-term anti-psychotic medication use , TD is a disorder that can be either temporary or chronic, which depends on a number of factors that can vary for each individual. TD is in a class of disorders known as dyskinesias, which are broadly defined as involuntary movements. Dyskinesias are characteristic of conditions like Huntington’s and Parkinson’s diseases. However TD is unique in that it is caused by medication; put another way, you cannot develop TD unless you’ve taken one of the medications that can cause it. Involuntary movements, or sometimes called “tics,” is an intentionally broad and vague definition of dyskinesias. Simply put, any part of the body that moves can be affected by TD. Facial muscle tics are the most common in TD patients , specifically the tongue, lips, eyes, cheeks and jaw. My psychiatrist once described the “rule of thumb:” TD is more likely to affect muscle groups in the higher parts of the body, and likelihood of symptoms decreases as you move down toward the feet. These tics can all feel and look different, it’s difficult to describe what it feels like to have your body move in involuntary ways. However TD is diagnosed based on those tics look like. Involuntary facial and neck movements can include (but aren’t limited to): Tongue protrusion (sticking out your tongue) Puffing cheeks Eye twitches/excessive or intense blinking (blepharospasms) Head bobbing Neck twists and turns Involuntary sounds (grunting, clicking tongue, etc.) TD tics in other parts of the body vary as well. These can include (but again aren’t limited to): Rapid/jerking movements in the arms or legs (chorea) Fidgeting Restlessness (shaking of legs that can look like nervousness) Impaired coordination of arm or leg movements, including walking (ataxia) In addition there is an important detail in TD in terms of the biological causes of these movements . TD is uncontrollable movements and needs to be differentiated medically from something called dystonia . Dystonias are uncontrollable muscle contractions, but they can produce very similar looking tics to TD. Doctors who specialize in movement disorders will know the difference; TD symptoms do not include muscle contractions. This article should not be considered professional medical advice or used to self-diagnose any symptoms. The purpose of knowing signs and symptoms of something like TD is not to encourage people to make unilateral decisions about their medication. Rather, had I known the signs, I would’ve continued to take the anti-psychotic medications, but I would’ve discussed it with my doctor at my next appointment. In other words, don’t discontinue medication without your doctor’s approval or input. Unfortunately, I did not know the signs, so my tics went unnoticed for a considerable amount of time. It’s been many years since they started, so my condition is now considered chronic. However, the chances of TD becoming chronic are much lower when signs and symptoms are noticed earlier. If you are currently taking certain medications like anti-psychotics, watch for these symptoms and know when you should t alk to your doctor . I’ve chronicled my journey with TD on The Mighty extensively, and it isn’t an easy condition to live with. My journey has transformed into movement disorders beyond TD, but TD will always be the first movement-related condition I ever experienced, and I still do to this day. I wish I had known what to watch for when I started my anti-psychotic medication; I can’t imagine how different my life would be now if I had. My hope now is that this article simply serves to educate and empower someone else that’s taking an anti-psychotic medication. If you notice anything out of the ordinary, speak openly and candidly with your medical provider. TD isn’t something you can ignore and just hope it goes away (that’s what I did). The earlier you spot it and talk to your doctor, the better chances of keeping it from becoming chronic and of finding relief sooner. Keep going with your health journey! It isn’t easy, but you deserve a thriving life, and you can get there.

Brian Fu
Brian Fu @brian-fu
contributor

Experiencing Loneliness as a Depression Trigger

Lately, I’ve been feeling pretty good about myself. Life has been unusually calm and stable. I just graduated from college so I’ve had that as a reason to celebrate. The coronavirus ( COVID-19 ) pandemic is lightening a bit (as of the writing of this article), and being fully vaccinated makes me feel safer to be outside. My medications are working and mental illnesses seem to be under control. But despite all of that, I can feel myself beginning to slip into a depressive episode, and I think I know exactly why. Bipolar disorder is very much an unpredictable mental illness , but after living with it long enough, I’ve figured out how to tell when either a depressive or manic episode is beginning or coming to an end. I don’t always know exactly when, but I can feel the emotions behind those episodes brewing or dissipating. Right now, I’m fairly confident a depressive episode is on the horizon, and I have a bad feeling it’s going to be around a while. I know why it’s coming on, and it’s because of a feeling that I absolutely hate. I don’t think anyone enjoys this feeling, but it’s often unavoidable once it hits: loneliness . I’m surrounded by coworkers, friends and family who love and support me, and have for a long time. While I am physically separated from many of them, it doesn’t mean our relationships aren’t strong, and I do still have people around me that I am happy to call my friends. But loneliness isn’t the same thing as being alone. Someone can be in a crowded room with friends and family and still feel lonely . Others can be home alone for long periods of time and not feel lonely . It’s a variable thing, unpleasant, and just about everyone has experienced it. But where does loneliness come from? Why isn’t being with people enough to keep the loneliness away? It logically makes sense, but in real life, it isn’t the case that seeing people cures loneliness . I’ve felt this dark cloud of loneliness for a few days now, and for most of it I was confused where it came from. I couldn’t pinpoint an exact trigger or cause, but I did know that every second of every day was miserable. Waking up in the morning, going to work, coming home, going to bed, and even tiny little tasks like cooking or doing laundry have been darkened by these feelings. The fact that I live alone and have for over a year now doesn’t help, but again, living with someone doesn’t mean loneliness is impossible. For me, I just think it would help right now. At random times of the day and night, my heart aches and my stomach turns. I want to cry sometimes simply because of this terrible feeling of being all alone in the world. I consciously know I have friends and family, but those relationships feel weaker and less meaningful right now. Life just isn’t the same feeling lonely . And this is why, I think, I am returning to depression . But like most things with depression and bipolar disorder , it is a sick cycle that often feeds into itself. Depression triggered by loneliness can often just reinforce those same negative thoughts, or causes people to isolate themselves physically from seeing people, and that certainly doesn’t help. The depression triggered by loneliness can sometimes make the loneliness worse, which in turn can make the depression worse, and so on. A vicious cycle of near-indescribable pain and heartache. When the pain feels particularly strong, I have vivid memories of the friends I’ve lost the past couple of years. I experience the exact same feelings of heartbreak I felt when my past romantic relationships fell apart, and heartbreak a second time is almost as bad as the first. I remember those family members I haven’t seen in a long time, or who I have lost to time and death. Loneliness is one thing. Loneliness with a name and a face is another. Maybe you know what this feels like, regardless of whether you experience depression or bipolar disorder . Maybe you’ve felt a loneliness that seemed random and unfounded, or perhaps it followed a sad parting of ways with someone you cared about, or after the loss of a dear friend or family member. Whatever the case, loneliness is a painful part of life sometimes. It can drag down your mood, color your world gray for a time, and make each step a little more difficult to take. There’s a chance someone is reading this and feeling lonely right now. For you, know that my heart aches at the thought of the pain you are feeling now. I wish I had an easy answer for loneliness . I wish I had an easy answer for depression and bipolar disorder . I wish I could snap my fingers and make it all disappear, or ask a magic genie to lift these burdens from my shoulders. But I can’t, and none of us can. So, what are we left to do? We need to tap into two forces within us that will sustain us through this time: hope and grit. Hope is the trust in ourselves and our circumstances for what we dream and envision for our lives. Hope is the fuel for the fire of our passions, the wind in our sails, the vision of a future that doesn’t look like the past. Now, hope is not just something we keep in the pantry next to the cereal, easily accessible and simple to use. Hope is a muscle that needs training and strength, but each time you find it in yourself, you strengthen it a little more. That’s where grit comes in. Grit is getting a firm grasp of your foundations, those things that ground you in who you are, so that you can persevere through your circumstances. Grit is telling yourself, “I can, and will, see this through.” Grit is the strength to hold on while you know you head for the sanctuary at the eye of the storm, fully understanding you’ll need to experience the storm itself beforehand. Loneliness requires these things before we can free ourselves of it. We must hope in ourselves and those around us that, although we feel these things now, there are better days to come. We must have grit to patiently yet strongly await what we hope for. If you are lonely now, I promise that your hope and grit can sustain you. It isn’t as simple as reading those words and poof, your troubles are over. But my hope is that you know you have it in you to see yourself through these times of challenge, just as you have before.

Brian Fu
Brian Fu @brian-fu
contributor

Graduating From College and Lessons Learned After a Suicide Attempt

For four years, I’ve been blessed to study at my dream university, and a couple of days ago my time in undergrad came to a close. I can now say, confidently and honestly, that I am a college graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience. In those four years, I experienced some of the best times of my life, but also some of the most challenging. I made and lost friendships, experienced love and heartbreak for the first time, excelled in some classes and failed others, and made great strides and slip-ups in managing my health. For many graduates, the time after their last semester is characterized by self-reflection and looking back on the past to take inventory of the lessons learned in and out of the classroom. I found myself doing exactly this, and while examining my time at college in the context of my mental health , I discovered something that was probably a little repressed, and brought new meaning to my graduation. In a couple of months, I will “celebrate” (yes, that is the accurate word for me) another milestone: four years since my first, and only, admission to a psychiatric hospital. I was there for nine days for active suicidal ideation and self-harm behaviors. After the hospital, life wasn’t just smooth sailing as I naively expected. College presented new and unexpected challenges for me, and it was here I began outpatient therapy and psychiatric medications. But these are not the things that have given more weight and importance to my graduation. It’s the fact that, for good chunks of time dispersed over the past eight years of high school and college, I gave up hope for graduating and fully expected I would be dead by now. My suicidal ideation did not evaporate as I wanted it to when I came to school. It lingered, wavered and at times grew stronger. I continued to deal with the same suicidal thoughts I had in high school, the ones that led me to the hospital. I wrote letters, fully expecting they would be read by someone other than me someday. I contemplated details for how to make my death as non-burdensome on my family as possible. My junior year I was lucky to survive an attempt, and I can say without exaggeration that that changed my life forever. But even after my attempt, my suicidal ideation didn’t go away. Due to a toxic culture often found in higher education, though rarely discussed openly, many students feel an overwhelming pressure to not only survive college but to excel beyond expectation. I’ve had friends who took on full class loads, internships and jobs at the same time because they felt anything less wasn’t good enough. I fell victim to this mindset and bound my self-worth to my grades. Like I said, my degree is in neuroscience, and STEM majors and degrees are notoriously difficult. I had classes in everything from the basic sciences (physics, chemistry, etc.) to the much more nuanced and complex (developmental neuroscience, molecular neurobiology, etc.) These are not easy classes to take, even for the most talented and intelligent students. But I had to manage these classes while also juggling unstable mental illnesses (including ADHD , considered a learning disability) and deteriorating physical health. When I failed a chemistry class, I can tell you honestly that I thought my life was over. When I almost failed a different chemistry class, I was convinced my life no longer had any value, hope, and that I was not just failing, but I was a failure. Failing a class became my identity. I am not unique in this. Many college students, regardless of their major, tie themselves to their GPAs and transcripts, fueled by a culture that demands constant and ever-growing excellence in everything we do. When my interpersonal relationships (friendships and romantic alike) fell apart, it felt like I was unlovable, a burden, and that I would never be a good friend or partner. In some ways, I still deal with these things. But again, I am not alone in this. College is almost characterized by going through ups and downs with all kinds of relationships . It’s a microcosm for how the real world works. Learning to manage heartbreak or fighting with friends is never fun, and if internalized, can take a real toll on someone’s confidence and self-esteem. But why am I explaining all this? These experiences occur every day with students around the world, yet aren’t openly discussed or dealt with as much as they should be. But besides that, these things can serve as the starting point for unhealthy and dangerous mindsets, like suicidal ideation. And this doesn’t even factor in preexisting mental illnesses like depression and anxiety in college students which can only exacerbate things. Death by suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students in the United States. Approximately 1,100 students every year die by suicide. One in every ten college students will seriously consider attempting suicide. There is data to suggest the disproportionate rates of suicide attempts and deaths in college students is directly related to their academic success, or perception of failure, as well as other habits college culture can encourage like alcohol and drug use (though addiction among college students is an entirely different topic). College communities are always devastated when a life is lost to suicide. But what about those students who attempt? If they are anything like me, their attempt likely included thoughts about how, if they died by suicide, that would mean not graduating. To put it rather bluntly because of the severity of this crisis: dead college students don’t graduate. Our attempts also often stay hidden, unspoken, and a close secret we hide, if possible. I know I haven’t told many people about my attempt because I feared the repercussions and reactions. Now that I am done with school, I feel the freedom to speak about it, but not everyone is like me. This month, millions of college students around the world will celebrate their academic achievements with a shiny new degree. Similarly, many of those college students will have a new degree that they likely imagined they would never receive. Framing graduation this way, for me, made it take on an entirely new meaning. I do remember very vividly mourning the loss of my future, the loss of my graduation because of my suicide attempt. I did this many times, more times than I’d like to admit. But today, and every day going forward, I can boast in the fact that I lived through college and came out the other side with a degree in a field I love. I don’t have a great GPA, I didn’t get any Latin honors, and there is still a big letter F on my transcript. But none of that matters now. I survived, and I got to graduate when I didn’t expect I would even be alive to see the day. For my fellow graduates, near and far, congratulations on your achievements! For those who considered and/or attempted suicide in your college career (or anytime in your life, frankly), you have accomplished something greater. If you imagined that you wouldn’t be here today, then you’ve overcome one of the most difficult mental struggles a person can experience, and that is cause for celebration even more. If I take anything away from my time in college, it’s this: I have control over how I want to define myself. I defined myself by my academic and relational failures, and that was wrong and unhealthy. Today, and every day, I’m going to make the conscious decision to recognize my inner worth and value regardless of the outside world. And every time I look at my diploma, I’m going to smile, as I remember that my dreams for a successful future overcame my darkest hour.