I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 18 years old, a time when most people’s concerns are sitting next to someone hot during freshman seminar or whether your parents are going to pick up your dirty laundry when they visit for the weekend. Two months into college and my concerns became bipolar disorder, what it was and what I would do now that I had it.
The diagnosis came on the heels of a manic episode that I had in the dorms while taking Prednisone, a steroid drug. This opened up the case, in my mind, of whether or not this episode was merely a side effect of the Prednisone, although the doctors didn’t care as much. I had bipolar I and was being treated for a severe manic episode. When I started getting better, my mom and I would take walks on the grounds of the hospital during visiting hours. Together we’d sift through the confusion of what this now meant for me. “Maybe I’ll become a hairdresser, that could be fun,” I told her, not sure if I’d ever return to college.
Two months and many pages of Harry Potter later, I did return to school with that post-episode depression that looms overhead so persistently. It was the start of my new life, my bipolar life. The kind filled with doctors, anger, confusion, tears and hope- always a tiny glimmer of it.
As years passed with the medication, I started to experience a merry-go-round of side effects. It started with acne, then the medication to treat the acne gave me other side effects, then I started to gain weight. I was frustrated from seeing so many doctors and wanted off all my medications, so I went to a woman that a relative swore by. I call her a woman because I’m not sure what kind of doctor she was. She had the stirrups on her doctor’s table like a gynecologist, but she was more like a gastroenterologist. The first thing she ever said to me was “do you really think you have bipolar disorder?”
It was shocking and enough to get the attention of my fatigued mind. She told me I was gluten intolerant and I started going off my medication with her instruction, against the desires of my psychiatrist whom I had lost respect for. I weaned off Lamictal first over the summer of 2012 then my Lithium through that fall. By February of 2013, I was back in the hospital with a full blown manic episode, one whole month after completing college.
My life was in crisis at this point. I had abandoned a job at an advertising agency due to stress and a lack of interest even though marketing was my college major and I’d been interning obsessively for three years. I wanted to help others so I took a job doing marketing for a holistic nutritionist. Health and holistic was becoming my fascination. I was convinced that nutrition could help me to get off my medications for good. I preached about withdrawal effects being the reason for my latest episode, all the while resisting my diagnosis.
A year later, I was back in the hospital after weaning myself off medication for two months. This episode was unlike any of the ones I’d had before. This time, as I sat through visiting hours at the hospital with my parents, I was able to recall how I acted without drugs. I recalled my scattered mind and how my judgment waned along with my perception. I would try and do things but it would take hours to complete a task. I couldn’t even read a book anymore. For the first time, I was recognizing that the bipolar disorder was something occurring in me, not some evil outside force determined to ruin my life.
That last episode was made for acceptance. I allowed my life to become a ball of stress, nerves, anger and hurt only to surrender it to the uncertainty and struggle that I so resisted. I now see that having bipolar disorder has been a disguised blessing within my life. Something that has forced me to push and prod, something that didn’t come easy, that allowed me to harness my own strength and courage.
I’m still fascinated with health and nutrition only now in a way that incorporates the medication I take with a healthy diet, exercise regimen, supportive relationships, and relaxation techniques. I write a blog, Embracing Mania, with the hope of showing others that staying healthy and having mental illness don’t have to be exclusive of one another and that accepting an illness takes time and necessary struggle. I’m also training to become a health coach at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition. In my coaching practice, I hope to help those with mental illness balance a healthy lifestyle while they’re taking medication, since it’s so important to be on these medications.
Resisting my illness caused a lot of stress and heartache in my life, but I’m glad to be at a place of acceptance today. Wherever you are in your journey with mental illness, I salute you for being so brave and strong. Know that this does get easier with time. Just keep on keeping on!
Stephanie Federico is a blogger and aspiring health coach who studies at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition. Her goal is to help those with mental health issues to achieve optimal health through proper diet, relationships, relaxation and exercise in conjunction with a psychiatrist’s plan. She loves yoga, meditation, a riveting television series, and a good laugh.
Twitter: @embracingmania Website: embracingmania.com