While sitting in my ninth grade English class, staring down at the pages of the Odyssey, the way I understood myself changed forever. I felt the room around me blur, almost like the rest of the people in the room were pushed away from me, and I became narrowly focused on the words on the page. I was reading them, but I was not making meaning of them. At that moment, I couldn't.
I live with bipolar disorder and, throughout the years, experiences like this peel back layers of my brain and the way it works. At each stage of my life, I’ve become more acutely aware of the warning signs that I am at risk for a depressive or manic episode.
Even in my childhood years, there were warning signs of my mental health condition. While I wasn’t diagnosed until adolescence, I’m hopeful that my childhood experiences are useful for other caregivers.
The earlier a first psychotic episode is treated, the greater the likelihood for reducing relapses or severity of future episodes. For about a year when I was 10–11 years old, several nights a week I slept very little. I’d lie in my bed, staring at the shadows in the corners and on the walls. I’d make up stories for my toys, which sometimes helped me fall asleep, though often I’d end up in thought spirals.
Non-existent handprints would appear on the windows and, eventually, I hallucinated a witch hovering in the corner near the ceiling. She would whisper frightening things to me. Sometimes, I would wake up in the middle of the floor with bruises on my face and hip bones, not knowing how I arrived there.
I remember several conversations with my teachers where my experiences were ignored. On one occasion, my teacher was so frustrated with me that she let out a large sigh and mockingly banged her head against the wall. My high academic achievement and quietness meant that my struggles were dismissed. They assumed that I would be fine. In children, symptoms of mental illness may go undetected, attributed to attention-seeking behaviors or tantrums, but they should be taken seriously.
In my first year of high school, I held tightly to academic achievement for stability and security. I slept less than five hours a night. Initially I did this to study, but eventually it morphed into insomnia. The sharp focus that my teachers generally praised fell farther from my grasp. In every waking moment, I felt a tightness in my chest. I was irritable.
Eventually, I lost touch with the reality of my surroundings. I don't remember, but caring adults in my life told me that I wandered outside with inappropriate clothing for the weather, and that I unsafely walked in front of traffic. I thought I was dying.
The day that I was blankly staring down at the Odyssey, my English teacher sent me to the nurse. I told the nurse that I thought I was dying and needed to go to the hospital. My mom collected me and took me to a psychiatric hospital. It’s possible that was the safest place for me at the time, though if we had the resources that are now available online, like NAMI Basics for example, I am sure the adults in my life would have felt more equipped to navigate this situation.
After graduating from college, I moved to a tiny town in south Texas to teach middle school science. The first year was daunting. The realities of my students’ lives overwhelmed me. The pressure I put on myself to succeed at providing them with opportunities for high academic expectations nearly swallowed me.
I experienced another acute episode of mania and then depression. It started with obsessive cleaning of my classroom, sometimes until 9 or 10 p.m. I’d put off lesson planning until late at night, often the night before, because I had the grandiose idea that “my best ideas came to me at the last minute.” I felt “amazing” and productive on small amounts of sleep. So, I started sleeping less, and then eating less.
I would drive into school before the sun had risen, and as soon as I saw the glowing water tower in the south Texas horizon, my stomach would clench and I would have to pull the car over to vomit. By late October, I crashed. I couldn't focus. I felt incapable of anything, even folding laundry. I dropped a computer and cracked the monitor. I knew I was not providing my students the educational experience they deserved. I took a leave of absence to heal.
As an adult, I am much more in tune with my emotions and psychological state.
Daily, I strive for being in the middle most of the time. Feeling too good can trigger grandiose thoughts, abrasive impatience, and unintentionally unsafe behaviors. Feeling too low can trigger deep paralysis, a black hole of self-doubt and hopelessness. Sleeping less and moving faster are signs that mania or hypomania may be near. Lack of focus and self-doubt loops are signs that depression looms. In either case, the sense that I’m losing control — of my time, my thoughts, my life — is the greatest signal to me that I need to take precautionary measures.
I still have darker periods that make it difficult to see the light, but I have greater awareness of how to navigate my way through the dark.
Nicole recently left a more than 20-year career in STEM education and is now pursuing her passion to support youth mental health and mental illness recovery through service and being a resource for parents and caregivers. Find her at www.iamoneinfive.com or email her at [email protected] to connect.