Stronger Than You Know Sometimes I don’t know what to say. My mental illness is not something I discuss openly and it is not something I lay out there for everyone to know. If asked, I’ll answer, but I never know what to say. My story begins in college. Sure, I had a history with depression, it had been on and off since I was in middle school. But in college, I spiraled. Freshman year was picture perfect, sorority, 3.8 GPA, goals, leadership positions. Sophomore year? Not quite. I had to take a leave of absence, my grades dropped, my friends disappeared. My best friend saw my wrist one day and gave me the most shocking look and just said my name slowly, as if she didn’t know me. To be fair, I never really let it show in the beginning. I had never been completely suicidal. Any time I ever felt the urge I told myself to wait and see. And while I may not have been suicidal this time either, I was terrified of myself. I was scared to drive in fear of driving my car off the road, into a tree, off a bridge. I was scared to cross the street alone, in fear of walking into traffic. I didn’t want to die, but it was all that was on my mind. I was in Abnormal Psychology at the time, and our professor started off the class by explaining to us that sometimes we read about these disorders and trick ourselves into thinking we have them. But most likely we don’t so we should just not worry too much, but that if we really had an issue to come see him. My grades began to drop and I felt off. I couldn’t breathe and I began panicking. I tried to get an appointment with the counselors at my university and their next appointment wasn’t for a few weeks. So I told them to forget it. I asked my mom and told her I felt strange, she told me I was fine and was just stressed. I went to my doctor for a check-up and asked him about anti-depressants and he laughed at me and said I didn’t need them and he asked “well you’re not thinking about harming yourself, right?” How could I say anything but no to the man I had known since birth. Months later it got worse. No one suspected anything. I hung out with my friends, but in-between doing so I would take a trip to the bathroom alone. I always had a friend in my pocket. I even remember one day my knife fell out in front of a classmate and he looked at me and I made a plausible excuse. It went on like this until my mom herself found my knife months and months later in my pillow case during a weekend trip home. She forced me to show her and she cried like I’ve never seen her cry. She didn’t understand, at all. She told me I had no reason to be sad and couldn’t understand why I would harm myself. She grabbed my knife and was about to use it against herself to see why I would do that, what it was like. I stopped her immediately. After all, it was okay for me to hurt but never her. Still, she lovingly rubbed neosporin into my wounds. She took my knives, and sent me to the counselors at my university. She told me I had to show them and if I didn’t, that she would call them and tell them herself. So I talked to my counselor. I showed her. She did a great job of not showing shock and horror, and I am still thankful for that. My arms were quite literally unrecognizable. She told me I had two options. I could continue seeing her and go to a doctor and get anti-depressants, or I could be sent to our local psychiatric ward. It was the middle of the semester, and I was terrified, so I agreed to go to a doctor right away. I made an appointment. But I was scared to drive there alone. The trip was 30 minutes long and I was terrified. So I asked my best friend to go with me because I knew that if she was in the car I would do everything in my power to make sure we were safe at all times. She waited in the waiting room for me as I talked to the doctor. The doctor made me show her my arms, and she also did well at hiding her expression. She told me she was prescribing me an anti-depressant, and she explained everything that came along with that information. She told me a nurse would come in to draw blood for some blood work, and she told me I could go get my friend and that my friend could wait with me while I got my blood drawn. So I did. And I have never regretted anything more. My friend was sitting two feet away from me and I had to pull up my sleeve for the blood work. The horror that was on her face and the crippling guilt that I have until this day will never go away. I will say that if I saw someone’s arms today looking like mine did then, I would have been horrified too. The guilt, however, stemmed from the fact that she had no warning. She had no idea. Sure she saw my wrists months and months back where I had small, paper cut like marks. But that would never prepare her for me bearing my arm in this instance. We have been friends for over four years now and I still don’t talk about that day. I honestly forgot that day even happened until I began writing this. I think I tried to apologize on our way home, but I can’t even remember anymore because this is not something I allow myself to think about. Of course, nothing goes the way you want and it all got even worse. Sure they took my knives and sure they tried to keep sharp objects from me. But I was an adult with a car and money who can easily drive and buy something new. They had all thought I had stopped. But I fell deeper. I was more irritable, more depressed. I could not physically leave my bed for class. So I went back to the doctor and we determined that medication #1 was not working and made me much worse. For some reason, I really liked medication #2 immediately. It was in extended release form, so if you shook the capsule it made little sounds from the medicine knocking around inside. It is such a dumb thing to think of now, but then it brought me some joy and helped me continue on my medication even through some bad side effects. But then came an add on medication, and when that made me worse, came a different add on medication. I had been through several antidepressants at this point and honestly was beginning to get fed up with my “medication salad.” But by this point, I had gotten better. And I had made a promise to myself. With the help of a friend who stayed by my side and slept with me on my couch at night, I stopped self harming. I had a relapse every now and then. One night I had gotten too deep, too rough, too extreme. And I promised myself it was over. It was never going to happen again and I would do everything in my power to stop the darkness. I stopped for a really long time, long enough for those deep cuts to begin to heal. And to further my resolve, I decided to get a tattoo on my arm to remind myself that I can no longer resort to that method. So I did it, I got a tattoo of an outline of mountains and underneath it the words “stand strong.” Sure, cliché, whatever. Even the tattoo artists said “so what, you’re going to stand strong like these mountains?” My answer was simple: yes. It helped me. I told myself, after I get this tattoo I can never self harm ever again. Or the tattoo would be worthless, that it would be meaningless and become the stupidest part of me. And while this may not have been true, telling myself this has kept me self harm free, even today. My tattoo would have been the same, it wouldn’t have changed. But when I told myself it would lose its meaning, I meant it. And whenever I get the urge to harm, I look at my tattoo and remind myself that it is not an option any longer. A year or so went by and I was back in classes and raising my GPA back up. And then came the mania. You know, when I was first diagnosed with severe depression, I was told bipolar disorder was a chance but I thought the doctor was the crazy one. That couldn’t be an option, not for me. So I didn’t recognize the mania at first. I talked too fast, spent too much, found myself dressing weird and on the odd occasion I found myself wanting to go outside in the snow in the shortest dress I owned. I became so friendly and I made others smile. Really, I didn’t even notice my change in speech patterns until I couldn’t stop talking. My coworkers began telling me I was speaking too fast and they couldn’t understand me. I began getting so uncomfortable in my own skin. I would sit there and feel inside out, like I was wrong. Like I needed out of my body or I was going to explode because I couldn’t handle sitting there any longer. So I was diagnosed with Bipolar Type II. I told my mom and she didn’t understand. She told me I wouldn’t want that on my records and, essentially, to go back to my depression diagnosis. No one really knew. I told my best friend and my mom and that was it. Later, months and months and months, later, I asked one of my brothers if he knew that I had a bipolar disorder and he said he didn’t. And still I think that is sadly ironic, because when I was diagnosed with depression my mother called the whole family and told them. But she didn’t tell anyone about my bipolar disorder and neither did I. The new medicine began to help. I had withdrawal effects from coming off one of my particularly nasty antidepressants. I have a ton of prescriptions under my name, and I take so many pills a day that I had to even by myself a pill keeper to remind myself. But understanding my diagnosis and finally finding the right medication has done wonders. My memory isn’t the best, and it can be hard to study. But I graduated from my university with a Bachelors of Arts in psychology this past semester, and I’m taking classes to apply to nursing school. My end goal is to get my APRN and work with mental illness patients and help them as I have been helped. But I still struggle. I started birth control for the first time, and it’s just my luck that my medicine for bipolar has a reaction with any birth control that makes the bipolar medication less effective. So I’m now waiting to go back to see my psychiatrist to adjust my medication. And again with the long wait for help. And trust me, this wait has seemed like an eternity because now that my medication is less effective I’m back to having some issues that I had gotten used to not having. But I’m doing really well and accepted a job at our local mental health hospital. I’m really excited. I will be a mental health associate, which is basically an assistant nurse. This job is in the middle of my two fields (psychology and nursing) and can provide me with great experience, skills and an environment where I can help others. But I’m terrified as well. Tomorrow is my last day of training and then we begin orientation on our floors. I’m working on an all-female floor where the main diagnoses seem to be borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder. I haven’t told anyone I work with about my own disorder, and I don’t know whether or not I should. They told us to tell our higher up staff if we need any help or if we need them to work with us in certain ways. I’m not sure. I’m scared to tell them because it could have been me as a patient instead. And they told us not to share anything personal with the patients and that our relationships with the patients have to be about the patient only and getting them help. And I agree the patient is why we are there. But they also said you can share information that might help them. One behavioral analyst shares nothing with her patients. Except one time a patient was having trouble and the patient told her that no one understands what she’s been through because she was a foster kid, and the behavioral analyst shared with her that she is a foster kid as well and that she does understand. So they made that connection and the patient’s recovery was much faster for it. Could I help my patients by telling them that I know what it’s like? Would this give them someone to relate to? Any sense of hope? Or would it just annoy them that I worked on their floor? I’m not sure. And I understand that everyone will react differently, but it still gives me anxiety. And for the scars on my arms, they are not covered by my scrubs. They are only there if you look for them, but someone with scars usually has eyes for others with scars. So I wonder, will the patients use this against me? I mean, it’s okay if they do. I’m not ashamed of my scars or my history. Or will the patients understand? Should I just wear long sleeves and avoid the entire thing? I’ll probably talk to my manager about it once I start on my floor. I’m fine with talking about my diagnosis and my past, though I never bring it up on my own unless I know the person I’m speaking with also has some history of a mental disorder. But if anyone understands, wouldn’t my manager? A manager at a psychiatric ward? Though I’m scared she’ll think I’m not cut out for this job. I don’t have triggers anymore and my medication is steady and I’m more than stable. But again, how can she think I’m not cut out for something but also tell our patients that there is hope for a future for them too? So surely it’ll be okay. All I know is that I’m strong. And I will help anyone as much as I can. I am excited for my new job and I hope to bring a level of understanding and patience that the patients might not see often. I’ve never really shared my story in any way so I wanted to get it all out at once. I could have stopped the post when I said I got a job at a mental health facility to give back and made it super inspirational, but including my fears and qualms is more real. Living with a mental illness doesn’t just end. Medication sometimes needs to be changed and you might always be worried about what people will think or how they will react. Do not let this deter you. For you are always stronger than you know.