I am bipolar. There’s debate as to whether I’m bipolar II or I. There’s debate as to whether I have anxiety attacks or hypomanic episodes. I take two medications every day and will for the rest of my life. One, lithium, balances my moods and keeps me from becoming uncontrollably and terrifyingly manic. The other, effexor, does what it can to keep me from slipping into a dark and enveloping depression. Both have side effects I could really do without – the constant thirst, the layer of fat over my belly, the moments that feel like an electric shock in my brain if I miss even one dose of effexor.
There are a lot of things I could say about being bipolar. How even though I have amazing health insurance, I still can’t get assigned to a therapist for longer than 10 weeks at a time. How I feel about the wide gulf between the reality of mental illness and the public perception of mental illness. How sometimes I still have so much trouble with depression that I want to crawl into bed for the rest of my life. How I used to cut myself and haven’t for over 10 years but still automatically think about it whenever I get emotionally overwhelmed, the way I imagine a drug addict would think of using.
But instead I want to talk about intersectionality. While I feel I would share a lot of experiences with other people with bipolar, I also feel I have a unique experience in the disability community because of my socioeconomic privilege. I want to highlight the impact my class had on my disability experience because I feel it was one of the most important factors in my recovery, and I think the fact that class can be such an important factor is ridiculous and needs to be addressed.
I began having problems my freshman year of college, at a small private university a thousand miles from my home and parents. The depression came first. I felt like I was wrapped in a thick layer of cotton wool, insulated from the world, everything so muffled I could barely feel it. Some mornings I was so overwhelmed by the idea of trying to figure out what clothes to put on that I would stay in bed all day to avoid the daunting task. When I felt the waters start slipping over my head, I discovered self-harm. It gave me a pure line of adrenaline, a sensation that was unarguably mine, unarguably real.
I was scared of what I was doing, so I went to student health. They diagnosed me with depression and started me on anti-depressants. Unfortunately, these also triggered mania. Most of it was low-level hypomania where I would pace up and down the dorm hallway for hours and hours and hours, shaking my hands to try to work out the extra energy. But the swings started getting worse, and moving faster, so sometimes I would trudge into a class in a depression only to have to leave halfway through, filled with uncontrollable energy.
This all culminated one awful afternoon. My self-harm had seriously escalated, to the point where my friends were trying to keep me away from razors or knives, and it was all I could think about, all I wanted to do. I came up with a scheme to get some kind of blade and asked someone in the dorm I didn’t know very well to borrow a Swiss Army knife on the pretext of needing the corkscrew to open a bottle of wine. I can’t remember what happened after I used the pocketknife to make four or five cuts into my leg but here’s what I’m told: I went to my friends’ dorm room on the third floor and went to the window. I demanded that they let me jump because I knew I could fly and I wanted to try it out. I was genuinely convinced that I could fly and genuinely confused as to why my friends would not let me. They called 911 and an ambulance took me to the hospital, where I was admitted to the psychiatric ward. I do remember waking up there, and my mom being there.
For pretty obvious reasons, the small private university had some serious concerns about me returning to the dorms. My friends, who had to prevent a psychotic me from swan diving out a window, were understandably freaked out and the university certainly didn’t want that happening to any other students. So they told me that when I got out of the hospital, I was not allowed to return to the dorms to live. They also suggested that perhaps it would be better if I took some time off. And went away. And preferably did not come back to school there. Ever.
If I had dropped out of school then it would have been a disaster. I could have returned home, but all of my friends had left town to go to college elsewhere and I would have been mostly alone, disconnected from my social supports. Also, for better or for worse, a lot of my confidence and self-esteem was wrapped up in my academic achievements (I got a 4.0 the semester I was hospitalized twice) and a break in academics would have set back my recovery significantly. I was panicking. My therapist was very concerned. So my parents hired a lawyer and sued the university and worked out an agreement for me to move to a new dorm and sign a behavioral contract to stop self harming and some other stuff, but basically I got to go back to school.
I ended up being hospitalized again a month later and then spent a whole lot of time in a psych outpatient treatment program through the hospital, and then a whole lot of time in private therapy and with a psychiatrist who specialized in bipolar patients. I found a combination and dosage of medications that worked for me. I learned more productive coping skills and ways to avoid self-harm. I worked on negative patterns of thinking and cognitive behavioral techniques. My privilege made that possible as well – a whole lot of this wasn’t covered by any kind of insurance and my parents paid out of pocket. I know they still are arguing with the hospital over billing for my inpatient and outpatient treatment.
There have certainly been ups and downs and will continue to be, but overall, I’m ok. I graduated with honors, went on to law school, and now am a successful lawyer. I honestly and wholeheartedly believe that without my parents and their money, their willingness to argue with the authorities of a university, their comfort with the legal system and ability to use it successfully – I would be dead. All in all, I had seven suicide attempts, not even counting the extremely dangerous behavior I exhibited while manic. But instead of trying again until I got it right, I had the opportunity to get my treatment right.
I believe that being born into a family with socioeconomic privilege made the difference between my success and my death. And I think that’s ridiculous. Everyone deserves the same opportunity for recovery and treatment that I got. Everyone should have the chance to get every possible support to thrive. And I mourn for everyone who hasn’t had the same access to treatment, the same ability to fight for what’s best for them and their recovery.
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