When you've been diagnosed with mental illness, it's really easy to feel alone. I've felt like that a million times, but I'm writing here to remind you that you're not.
Hello there! I'm Kelly. I'm 24, a shop owner, a freelancer, a dog-mom, a bit of a nerd, and one of the twenty percent of adults currently living with mental illness. If numbers are your thing, that means I'm one of over six million people with a form of bipolar disorder as well as one of the 40 million with an anxiety disorder, just in the United States. Maybe you are too, maybe you want to learn more for yourself or a friend, maybe you're just curious. If that's you, read on. I've had just about twenty years worth of experience with mental illness, two o them diagnosed and undergoing treatment, and I hope sharing my experiences will help you or someone you love.
A Bit About OCD
Unbeknownst to me, I've likely had various types of OCD pretty much as long as I can remember. IT started with hoarding. I can remember sobbing around age six as my mom forced me to throw out piece after piece of trash that was hidden away in my desk. She wasn't doing anything mean or wrong of course, you could barely open the drawers without something falling out. But everything felt important or special, and parting with that wrapper from a piece of gum a friend gave me two years before really did feel like the end of the world.
The hoarding tendencies never went away, but I've had periodic issues with other forms that have evolved over time: compulsive tooth brushing began in middle school, checking tendencies started after a concussion in college, and severe contamination fears cropped up briefly during a really stressful time in my adult life. Like many other people with OCD, these affect my life more or less depending on how anxious I am about other things. They never completely go away, but they change over time and there are definitely days and weeks that are better than others.
A Bit About Bipolar
Unlike OCD, the signs of bipolar disorder began during adolescence. Things started slowly when I was in high school and got increasingly out of control. I would have times where I struggled to find motivation to do school work despite being goal-oriented and often in honors classes. Hypomanic episodes likely started around this time as well. They took form in long periods of insomnia. I'd often stay up painting until 3:00 a.m. or later and then get up for school at six. While depression often came with feelings of emptiness, hypomania was accompanied by exaggerated emotions: happiness was over the moon, sadness was all-consuming. No matter my mood, I was snappy and angry with everyone around me, whether justified or not (usually not). My mom had questioned me about my moods, but I brushed her off. I didn't have the words to describe how I was feeling or the awareness to realize that this wasn't normal.
Although problems started earlier, the first definite bad depressive episode I can point to was around the second half of senior year in high school. I couldn't find the motivation to apply to colleges, even ones that I had been excited about for years. I finally did apply to one school about two weeks after their deadline. They accepted me before graduation and summer began.
The first semester of college was probably the hardest. I had started school with severe anxiety about alcohol from being around a violent alcoholic for a few years as a child. Any event that had even a chance of involving it (which I was convinced was pretty much all of college) was completely off the table. It took years of my significant other telling me that alcohol was not the awful substance that I thought it was to finally get over that. I had a few friends to watch movies with or grab a bite to eat, but overall I was pretty isolated, mostly by my own doing. That semester, depression and anxiety hit hard. I just stopped doing school work about halfway through. I was so anxious that eating made me feel sick almost always. I wasn't excited about anything and, for the first time in my life, I hated being in school. I considered transferring or dropping out entirely. I lost 15 pounds that I didn't have to lose and finished the semester with just below a C average -- the lowest grades I have ever gotten in my life.
The beginning of the second semester was better. I changed majors about three times in that first week and fell in love with communication. Things improved, at least a bit. Although my moods were still uncontrolled and causing trouble, I would get all my work done during ups and then mentally shut down during down periods. Although unhealthy, this pattern continued through the duration of undergrad and it looked great on paper. I even joined a few school clubs and went to a party or two my senior year. This system worked well enough that I was able to boost my GPA. I graduated with a double major in Communication and Religion Studies and enthusiastically went on to grad school.
It was in grad school when things went very wrong. My first few months were marked by rapid, unhinged mood swings. I would either be "can't-get-off-the-couch-for-days-at-a-time" down or "out-shopping-until-midnight" up. When feeling depressed, I needed a ton of sleep and wanted to eat anything that didn't take energy to make, while during ups I would sleep for maybe a few hours a day and would often forget to eat for days at a time. The pattern that I had used in undergrad no longer worked for me. I fell behind in school work, messed up personal relationships, started projects I had no way to complete, you name it. Additionally, the OCD checking tendencies made it difficult to leave the house, I rarely got anywhere on time. Thankfully, my significant other had moved with me to North Carolina for school and let me know in no uncertain terms that this was not normal or healthy. He encouraged me to get checked out and seek treatment. Fortunately, I listened.
A Bit About Treatment
I finally worked up the courage to go to the school medical office in October 2015. I described what I was experiencing and they scheduled me with the school psychiatrist fairly quickly. Within less than fifteen minutes, this school doctor gave me the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Which was amazing at first: I had a label for the problem, which surely meant there was a path to resolving it. His first solution, however, immediately soured it. In under twenty minutes, I had a diagnosis and a prescription -- one which he said I would likely need long-term -- without discussing any other possible solutions. I hadn't prepared myself for that and turned it down, insisting that I should be tested for every other possible cause in mood changes first. In addition to a whole lot of blood work, I tried to exercise, get on a schedule, and eat properly. This process went on for a little over a month, completely unsuccessfully.
I still wasn't entirely convinced that the school doctor was correct, and after an awful experience with the first prescription I tried under his guidance, I sought a doctor outside of school. Fortunately, I found a great practice that accepted my insurance. They confirmed my original diagnosis, and helped me find the right medication and dosage. They explained that medication wasn't a weakness or a fix-all, but it was an important step towards feeling better. While I was being treated there, they found that I had OCD and a form of social anxiety as well. Taking the right medication along with healthy lifestyle changes was a complete game-changer. For the first time in years, I felt level.
Seeking treatment was probably one of the healthiest and most positive things I've ever done for myself.
At this point, like just about anyone else, I'd still say I'm a work in progress. There have been times when I needed to make changes, but it's been just over two years since I started treatment and, for the most part, things have gone well. Thanks to getting the right medicines, support from my family and friends, and making some lifestyle changes, I finished my graduate course work. I am currently working on (and just opened) my first brick-and-mortar location of a business I started last year, and I have the energy to do things with my friends, my family, and my significant other. That's not to say things are perfect. Although my moods are pretty stable, OCD still causes me some trouble, but it's been more manageable by far. I have to put in effort to be sure I don't do anything that will throw off the current balance, but overall, things have been really good and I'm hopeful they will stay that way.
I spent a long time without identifying that there was a problem at all. It took entirely too long to realize that my symptoms were not just caused by personality and situational factors. So, if I were to tell you anything important about my experience, it would be this: if you start to notice signs of a mental illness in yourself or someone close to you, don't ignore it. Like any other illness, every person is different and starting treatment in the form of medication, therapy, lifestyle changes, or all of the above can be crucial -- doing so earlier is usually better. And finally, it's important to remember that there are approximately 450 million people in the world currently living with mental illness. You are not alone.