Stigma Fighters: Jenna K.

It wasn’t until after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder at the age of eighteen that I could see the signs of mental illness throughout my childhood and young-adulthood. The “hyper attacks” and moments I called “mad scientist” were early manic episodes. The times when I was too angry or sad to function properly were depressive episodes. I remembered counting syllables of sentences before I fell asleep. As I aged, the episodes became more frequent, severe, and lasted longer. My OCD changed from annoying to destructive.

I had my first serious episode that required a doctor’s attention when I was fifteen and a sophomore in high school. I was being sexually harassed at a new school I had just started that winter, and I was not adjusting well. I turned to self harm as a way to deal with how I was feeling, and I used it as a sort of bargaining tool with myself. I would let myself cut if I did my homework, went to class, etc. Eventually, I was too unwell to even go to school, and my family made the decision to move to Maryland. Before this point, we had been living in Europe because of my dad’s job. A psychiatrist advised us that this huge lifestyle change should end my depression. It didn’t.

I restarted my sophomore year at suburban high school near Annapolis, but I still struggled with my mental health. I vacillated between mania and depression. Three therapists I saw believed I had bipolar disorder, but my psychiatrist refused to acknowledge my symptoms. I remember telling him that I thought I had bipolar, and he responded by asking me what my grades were. When I told him I had As, he informed me that it was impossible for me to have bipolar disorder.

My situation continued to get worse without the proper medication, so my family let me switch psychiatrists, even though my new doctor would not be covered by our insurance. Shortly after making the switch, I had a serious episode and ended up in the hospital for seven days. At the hospital, I was formally diagnosed with bipolar I rapid-cycling and OCD. My new psychiatrist supported this diagnosis whole-heartedly, and she prescribed me new medication.

The rest of my high school experience was marred as we tried different meds: different pills, different doses, different combinations. I continued to have episodes, though less severe. I enjoyed the hypomania, when I was productive and creative, but the depression and mania made life very difficult. I managed to have some successes – I continued to have great grades and I was president of the Improv Troupe at my high school, but eventually even just going to school became to much. The second half of my senior year I took half of my classes at home, and I stopped going to improv. I didn’t go to prom or graduation because I felt so alienated from my classmates. I was hopeful that college would be different.

One thing that kept me going through my episodes was a blog I started, The Awkward Indie Girl. It had started as a fashion blog where I would post photographs of my daily outfits. After my seven-day hospitalization, I decided to transform my blog from a fashion blog to a mental health blog. I made my status as a young woman with mental illness public knowledge, and I shared my thoughts on my symptoms and diagnoses. I was surprised by the reaction I got; men, women, people of all ages responded to what I wrote. People want to learn about mental illness, and they want to learn from people like me who live with it everyday.

I started college in August of 2013. At college, I continued to blog, and I decided to pursue advocacy more passionately. I joined Active Minds, a group on campus that has a mission to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health. I was elected as the public relations officer, and I was on a committee to organize our first annual 5K, which took place in May of this year. My blog readership grew, and my blog posts were published in my dorm’s newsletter each month. In the spring, I submitted an audition to speak at my university’s TEDx event, and I was chosen to be my school’s student speaker. At TEDxTowsonU, I shared my story and urged others to share theirs. I believe that mental health is an issue that affects more than the one in four who personally have mental illness; it affects four in four. We all know someone with mental illness, and it is our responsibility to have a conversation about mental health.

My goal is to finish college and get my B.S. in English with a minor in Family Studies, which will prepare me to be a writer and work in the non-profit sector. I’d like to work for an organization like Active Minds or NAMI. I think I am finally taking the right combination of medications, and I am hopeful that I will start to feel good on a regular basis. It’s hard to be an advocate when I’m not feeling well, but I believe that my voice is unique and important. Even dealing with everything I have been through (including all of my episodes, hallucinations, and self harm), I have been able to accomplish so much! It is exciting to see all of the new opportunities that become available to me as I continue to grow as an advocate and learn to live with bipolar and OCD.

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Bio: Jenna Kahn is an English major at Towson University. She was born in near Munich, Germany and lived in Western Europe until she turned sixteen. She was diagnosed with bipolar I and OCD at the age of eighteen and decided to pursue the life of a mental health advocate. She blogs at www.jenna-kahn.com and tweets as @awkindiegirl