I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of fifteen. I have been on medication ever since, and can therefore tell you from personal experience that mental disorders are not myths as some might believe; they are very, very real, and it is important for you to recognize when you have one yourself and that you need to get help if you do.
Let’s start with perhaps the most bothersome thing about mental disorders for me: people who don’t have them often think people who do have them are lying about their problem and need to just “think more positively.” This, for those of you fortunate enough to not have a mental disorder, is the equivalent of telling someone without legs that they can run if they try hard enough. Typing, “are mental disorders” into Google resulted in the first search suggestion, “are mental disorders real,” and that really ticks me off.
I can tell you from personal experience that it is undeniable fact that mental disorders, such as depression, bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder, and anxiety disorders, are real. They are tangible, debilitating chemical imbalances in the brain that make it almost impossible to function normally, let alone be happy, as a person with a healthy brain can. If I forget to take my medications, I realize it within a day or two. I can feel the difference as my happiness is sapped away, as my rationality vanishes to be replaced with negativity.
Take, for example, this scenario. When I was in sixth grade, prior to my diagnosis, I could have a day full of positive events and a single negative one, and end up thinking of myself as a failure and an idiot because I was a little late getting out the door in the morning and almost missed the school bus. I won the Spelling Bee in sixth grade and I was still convinced I was stupid. I got straight A’s and thought I was inadequate. The best teacher I’ve ever had told me I could be a great writer someday, and yet I couldn’t see it in myself. Any other kid probably would have been proud of this series of events. I was not. I couldn’t stop focusing on that bus.
Mental disorders are not something one can easily fight off, as hard as people may try. Some people with disorders, such as myself and others I know, will essentially become addicted to endorphins, which they get by working out for hours and relying on addictive substances, just so they can get away from their own thoughts. Doing taekwondo was a wonderful escape for me as a kid, mainly because it gave me an excuse to punch something. Heavy reliance on these things becomes unhealthy, however, because it ultimately becomes difficult for someone with a disorder to function without them.
There are certainly some other factors involved, too. Serotonin, a chemical in the brain that helps regulate your mood, is typically in short supply for people with mental disorders, and there are several reasons why. One can be genetically predisposed to get something like bipolar disorder (I inherited it from my mom), but our modern lifestyles don’t help, either. Getting enough sunlight boosts serotonin levels, and eating certain foods can also decrease the likelihood (or symptoms) of mental disorders. So, the fact that we sit inside all day and that we don’t eat nearly enough salmon, walnuts, and edamame (all rich in omega-3 acids) contributes negatively to our mental and physical health.
However, in many cases these efforts are not enough. Mental disorders can do crippling damage to a person, not just in terms of their lifestyle and emotions, but also to their biological makeup. In fact, the hippocampus and frontal lobes of the brain are often shrunken and atrophied in people with disorders, which has an impact on the brain’s serotonin receptors, memory, management of emotion, and the ability to focus one’s attention.
Anyone with a mental disorder, especially one as fortunate as myself who has been treated and can observe the problem more objectively, can tell you that this makes perfect sense. One effect of these areas of the brain atrophying is that disorders make negative memories prevalent rather than positive ones. When I’m on my medication, I can look back on a time in my life and primarily think of the good things unless something really horrible happens. When I’m not, the opposite is true; I look back on my past and see nothing but a string of bad events, regardless of my grades, paychecks, or relationships with family and friends.
Expecting someone with bipolar disorder to control their emotions is also close to impossible. It’s as though the brain simply doesn’t have the tools to do the job. This is problematic, of course, because being able to be professional in the workplace or keep longterm relationships tends to require some level of emotional consistency. Without my medication, however, I know that the slightest thing going wrong — a typo while writing an essay, forgetting to signal before changing lanes in traffic, anything — can make me feel inadequate and depressed, emotions that I typically bottle up until they explode. With my medication? I feel, well … normal. I can recognize that accidents happen and that no one is perfect, and simply move on with life.
Being unable to focus is another thing I’m attuned to. This is partly due to extensive research on how the multitasking we attempt to do in our daily lives is killing our attention span (deeply discussed in Focus by Daniel Goleman), but it’s also due to the inability to care when I’m not on medication. It’s difficult to follow a schedule; it’s difficult to enjoy things I love; it’s difficult to do just about anything with bipolar disorder, other than let self-loathing gnaw at me.
If you don’t have any of these problems, try and imagine dealing with them every single day. Imagine having to overcome your own negative memories, your own emotions gone haywire (like puberty and hormones multiplied by a thousand), and your own resultant self-hate in order to do absolutely anything. Sound insurmountable? That’s not far from the truth.
So if you’ve never experienced any of these things yourself, I implore you to try and understand instead of ignore the issue. If someone you know has a disorder, I hope this helps you recognize why they may not seem to think clearly, why they may seem to struggle with seemingly trivial problems, why they need your support.
And if you have experienced these issues, I hope you now recognize that you need to get help.
When I had no medication for my disorder, there were days I could barely force myself to get out of bed and face the day. Now I try and wake up early to get started sooner. Without medication, I hated myself, even wanted to kill myself. Now I am getting ready to graduate, want to start a publishing company, aspire to write novels, and plan to make a huge impact on the world. Without medication I was filled with self-loathing; now I am filled with optimism and confidence. Getting help allowed me to be happy, but just as importantly, it has allowed me to strive for my true potential.
Out-thinking a mental disorder is like fighting a ghost, since your thoughts are already distorted by the disorder. If you have a disorder, finding the support system you need, whether it’s a healthier lifestyle, therapy, or medication, will help you recognize that it is not your own weakness that is making daily life a struggle, but in fact a problem that has changed your biological makeup to stack the odds against you. If you’re a college student like me, you’re fighting with a mental disorder, and you still haven’t given in, I applaud you, because you are one of the strongest people in the world.
However, don’t make life harder on yourself than you have to. Let your loved ones help, find someone to talk to, and that inner strength you have already built in yourself through years of hardship will allow you to move mountains.
Collegian Columnist Dan Rice can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @danriceman.