Campus Life in good company

Multiple moods

Struggling with bipolar disorder

For a couple of years, I could never be sure how I would feel during any given day. Some days were really good: I felt elated for no particular reason and enjoyed everything I did. Some days, though, were fairly bad: I struggled to care enough to even do anything like get out of bed. Though most days were somewhere in between, and though the bad days outnumbered the good, I thought that this was just everyday life, that a lot of people were experiencing the same thing.

But then I started opening myself up to what mental health is all about. I took AP Psychology in high school and 9.00 here at MIT. I joined Active Minds and MedLinks. I became a member of the UA Student Support Committee. Soon, I realized that the fear and shame I once had around visiting mental health clinicians and mental health disorders were uninformed and dangerous.

I am very thankful I did so, or else I am not sure where I would be today. Last summer, my conditions worsened. My good days extended to the point where I would sleep and eat very little, if at all. Sometimes I had so much energy rushing throughout my body that I felt “on edge” to an extreme degree. On the other hand, my bad days turned into a series of sleeping the days away because I had zero motivation to actually get out of bed to do anything.

Yet, I was still embarrassed about needing help. I thought that only a certain kind of people went into therapy, so I tried convincing myself that nothing was wrong.

But then the fall semester hit, and as the semester progressed, my symptoms worsened. I began to miss multiple classes, all of which factored attendance into the final grade. On my good days, I had trouble focusing on any one task like reading or writing an essay. On my bad days, I lacked motivation to complete any task.

In addition to my academics, I noticed that my personal relationships were being affected. In some communication, whether via email, phone, or in person, people commented that I would sometimes interrupt others, rush to decisions, have terse or rude responses, and just seem generally strung out. At other times, I delayed communication because I lost interest or could not muster the energy to respond.

Ultimately, I realized that this was something I would not be able to get through myself, that this was something I could not solve myself. So, I called MIT Mental Health & Counseling. Although we had to play a bit of phone tag before I could actually set up an appointment, when I finally sat down with a psychiatrist, I knew that I would get the help I needed.

After a few sessions, I was diagnosed with bipolar mood disorder and was prescribed a mood-stabilizing drug.

Now on track to understanding and resolving my situation, I visited Student Support Services (S3) to discuss how to approach my professors with this. All of my professors responded well and understood my situation. They excused my absences and gave me extensions on assignments when I needed them. Furthermore, I started to respond well to my medication, and continued to meet with my psychiatrist.

Bipolar mood disorder is chronic. It is something that I will have to account for in every aspect of my life. For instance, I have met with the MIT Disabilities Services Office to discuss how to work with my current and future professors around my disorder. While my medication has helped significantly, I will still have flare-ups of hypomanic or depressive states. And though these episodes are rare, they are nonetheless unpredictable, which means I could unexpectedly miss a class, an assignment, or a meeting.

Although I have found the MIT community to be generally supportive to this point, I am concerned because in broader society, mental health issues are still stigmatized. Many people do not really know what it means to be bipolar. Some people do not have a clear understanding of the difference between bipolar disorder and other disorders like Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), previously known as multiple personality disorder. Indeed, I did not understand before talking with my psychiatrist about it.

Misunderstandings about mental health disorders, whether malicious or accidental, can be offensive and harmful. After being told that someone is bipolar, others might make fun of them or respect them less, thinking that they cannot perform the same functions because they might be too “crazy,” “depressed,” or “all over the place.” Some that I have told ask me again and again if I would be able to perform a certain task because “who knows how [I will] feel,” despite the fact that I know what I can and cannot commit to.

Notwithstanding the potential for stigma, I am thrilled to see the shifting and expanding conversation around mental health on campus. From efforts of various student groups, and especially from the stories that courageous MIT community members have shared, I believe that the stigma is fading away; it seems to me that people are more comfortable discussing these issues.

In closing, I want to emphasize a key takeaway for those living with a mental health disorder: your life includes more than your disorder. And I want others to realize this truth as well. Yes, I am bipolar. But I am heavily involved in student groups and student government. I am applying for internships and studying for the LSAT. I am a Truman Scholarship finalist with a good GPA and the possibility of finishing two majors and a master’s degree in four years.

In the end, I am an MIT student.