I have bipolar disorder. I’ve probably had it since my teens, but I was only recently diagnosed. In high school, they said that I had ADHD, and I was sometimes provided with accommodations for this, which mostly entailed writing in a distraction free environment and being allowed to use a computer for in class essays. But ADHD never felt right, because I only had symptoms some of the time. Other times, I was so exhausted and depressed that is wouldn’t have mattered where I wrote the exam, it would have been more than I could handle. As a result, I ended up not using my accommodations some of the time, because requesting them took more than I had. I would either do my best in class with everyone else and accept a lower grade or simply not complete the assignment and accept an F. Because I didn’t use my accommodations regularly, the school decided that I no longer needed them, and took them away from me. This resulted in my failing math 30 and having to repeat it, only being able to manage two classes a semester (instead of the regular 4) and still having major attendance problems. I managed to graduate high school after a stint in summer school and by selecting only those classes which played to my strengths.
Then I went to college for nursing, and it was way more than I could handle. I ended up caught up in a scandal with around half of my classmates and with one professor who was out to change the way that LPN students were taught pharmacology. This professor wanted to make an example of us, and I couldn’t handle the stress, so I dropped out. I had a major depressive episode and didn’t leave my house for six months. I then pulled myself out of the depressive episode, held 6 different jobs over a 12-month period before coming to university. I was really excited when I first started. But within a few weeks of starting, I ended up really depressed again. I started skipping classes, not completing homework and socially isolating myself. The result was that by the end of first year, I had a C average, with my best mark being a B and my lowest a D. I had dropped half of my classes and was taking just three courses a semester to manage that. I then took a spring and summer semester to make up the classes. By mid-summer, I was up. Way up. I decided to quit my job because I thought that there was a conspiracy happening within my office and that my coworkers were spying on me and reporting my negative thoughts about the charge nurse to her. I was feeling better and was a lot more productive, and ended up earning my first two As that summer. I had a lot more energy, and was motivated to work and do well. And I was very passionate about all of my courses. I changed my program because I thought I had found my “true” calling (although I would later go on to change my program 3 or 4 more times before graduating).
My second year went much better than my first. I was mostly up. I made a friend. I managed a B average while taking 4 courses at a time. I took a spring semester but let myself have summer off. Third year was pretty similar. It was a period of “normalcy” and things were fine, as long as I took no more than 4 courses at once. I started running my own business, which was much better for me employment wise. And then fourth year, almost as if I had forgotten all about my struggles in first year, I decided to take 6 courses in the fall semester. That did not go well. I was able to complete 5 of them (taking a W in the 6th) but I was exhausted all of the time. I ended up slipping into another depression. I started skipping classes, alienating my friends and stopped accepting clients into my business. Which really only made things worse, as I was now so broke that I couldn’t afford nutritious food, clothing or to go out for coffee with my friends. I started gaining a lot of weight (that happens when you can only afford kraft dinner and mr noodle). By the middle of winter semester my fourth year, I was timing out on my exams, and my grades started slipping. I was convinced that one of my professors personally hated me and had it out for me. It didn’t help that he happened to be the head of the department. I was positive that he was telling all of the other professors that I was a bad person who didn’t deserve to go to university. Things continued on this way until the end of spring semester, when something wonderful happened. I stopped needing sleep. I wasn’t sad anymore. I was really productive. I took on a lot of new clients. I stopped eating, I started losing weight, I was being way more physically active (in the order of 35 – 40 000 steps a day). I cleaned my house from top to bottom every day. I started maxing out my credit cards, buying myself anything fancy or shiny or that I thought was cool (I spent just over $5000 in a week – I bought an imac, a macbook, an ipad, hundreds of dollars’ worth of clothing, a designer purse, four pairs of designer shoes and a dishwasher).
The problem with being that high up is that it isn’t sustainable. And the crash is bad, really bad. I tried to get all of my clients moved to the same two days, and I lost all of those who couldn’t come on one of those two days. I started sleeping 18 hours a day, stopped seeing all of my friends and was just generally really depressed. I couldn’t shake that, and so in October of 2016, I finally approached my GP about the depression. She told me that there was nothing that she could do for me and insisted that I go and see a counsellor at the university. So I did just that. I saw her for two months and with her encouragement, I finally saw a doctor at the university’s wellness centre. That doctor put me on an anti-depressant, which at first I thought was a miracle cure, because I felt better within a few days. Except that I then, in early January, became angry, anxious antsy and paranoid. I started picking fights with everyone around me, I started skipping class again because I would just get into fights with everyone that I saw. I started going for walks all night long and wandering around the city. Then I would come home and hang out in my bathroom, crying and cutting and breaking things for the entire day. I wasn’t sleeping anymore and I couldn’t concentrate on anything. This thankfully only lasted two weeks and lead back to the same old depression that had become a permanent feature in my life. This seemed to concern the doctor though, and so she referred me to a psychiatrist. Before I saw him, at the end of March, I once again went up. Way, way up. I spent tons of money again, started taking 30-40 000 steps again, stopped sleeping and started making really bad judgement calls. I stopped attending all of my classes because I thought that I was a genius and that I already knew everything that there was to know and so I didn’t have to go to class. I forgot to go on the day I was meant to do my oral presentation and hand in my final paper. Just completely forgot, because I was too busy doing other projects. But like my school work, I either wouldn’t finish those projects or it would take me an inordinately long time to complete them, because I kept getting distracted. Either by own thoughts that I couldn’t seem to keep on one topic or by other things in my environment. And when I did focus, what I ended up writing looked a great deal more like word soup than it did cohesive writing.
Just as I started to come down, I ended up seeing the psychiatrist. He diagnosed me with bipolar type 2 and told me that there were supports available to me to help me. Being still a bit up, I really resisted the idea, still feeling like I could do anything, but he insisted, so I ended up going to speak to the people responsible for academic accommodations. I thought that things were finally looking better for me. I had a real diagnosis that explained what had been going on in my life for the better part of the last decade. I started taking medications to help control the ups and downs. I’m still not sure if they will help, but at least it is a start. My psychiatrist wrote me a letter to take to the people responsible for academic accommodations recommending that I get extra time on assignments and exams and that I be provided with a distraction free exam room. But when I got there, the woman there asked me what they could do to make things easier. Being still up, the only thing I could think of was being allowed to hand in assignments via email (because at least then, even if I wasn’t able to attend class, I wouldn’t fall behind on my work). She told me that they couldn’t provide me with that because I was physically capable of handing in work. That completely shut me down, made me feel defensive, and prevented me from asking for the things that the psychiatrist recommended for me. Because I am physically capable of writing an exam in a distraction filled space, and I am physically capable of typing up assignments at the same speed as other people. My issues are all mental. And they aren’t consistent. Sometimes I have periods of normalcy. Sitting in the advisor’s office, I started having flash backs to high school, where I became dependant on having that distraction free environment. And then I didn’t need it for a while, so I was never allowed to have it again. I can’t let that happen again, so my hypomanic brain decided to make up concerns about everyone asking why I don’t write my exams in class. Because hypomanic me can’t admit that I am afraid of something. That would directly conflict with the delusion that I am awesome, a genius and capable of doing anything. And besides, when I am up, I don’t want to ask for help. For one, I can’t organise my thoughts in a cohesive manner to ask for what I need, and, even if I could, I tend to think that I am invincible and can do anything, so therefor I don’t need any help if the question is “what are my barriers to learning?”. And because I was registering for a professional program, the advisor seemed more concerned with the fact that my program was going to be intense and asking if I was planning on attending my classes. Of course I am planning on attending them. I always have the best intentions. But her comments made me feel like she believed that my chosen program was not a good choice for me because of bipolar disorder. That just made me feel even more defensive. By the time I left, I wanted to cry. I felt totally invalidated and like my struggles with mental health were meant to be kept to myself and dealt with alone, because their services are only for students with a physical disability or a pre-existing IPP from high school that has their limitations to learning clearly laid out and the accommodations that they require to overcome them explicitly explained. But all I had was a letter from my psychiatrist. And she only looked at it for a second. I left with the impression that she believed that people with mental health problems needed to sort out their own issues, and that they didn’t merit the same type of help that is provided to people with other challenges. She may or may not have actually felt that, but in my state of mind, that’s how it came across. The worst part is, had she just said that, because of my intended program, they couldn’t do anything to help, while still be disappointing, would not have led me to feel so invalidated. It was the way the whole situation was approached that bothered the most. But I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. So I sent her an email saying that I felt really uncomfortable with the situation and explaining the way that I had interpreted it, and asking her to please clarify what, if anything, I misunderstood, in writing.
Update: She chose to respond by thanking me for my email, telling me that it was my choice to be registered, and that if I wanted to, I could come and pick up my documentation if I didn’t want to be registered anymore. I was trying to open up a dialogue. and she shut me down by not responding. At this point I was feeling very frustrated. I responded back that I would come and pick up my documentation, and that, while I may be over sensitive, in my opinion, telling a student that the program that they are trying to get into is very intense and then asking them if they intend on actually attending is discouraging and makes it seem like maybe there is a misunderstanding at to what the nature of what an episode entails. And that’s okay – it isn’t her job to know that. But as a student who, while having bipolar as a new diagnosis, has actually been struggling with symptoms for nearly a decade all my own, the implication that maybe my program of choice isn’t right for me is offending and doesn’t really make me feel comfortable in telling her about my struggles. I then shared with her a link to this post so that she could read more about my experiences if she wanted to know what it was like for me.
I have made a lot of compromises in my own education just to keep my head above the water. Multiple choice exams are very difficult for me, because I can’t predict how someone else might formulate the answer to the question. My solution – don’t take classes that have multiple choice, or, if I can’t get out of it, chose a class that has equal weight applied to papers. Take a D on the multiple choice portion, get an A on the paper and even out with a B- in the class. As a result, I changed my program. Sociology, especially first and second year courses ,are very multiple choice heavy. Archaeology’s courses have a practical component as well, so the grades can be evened out with hands-on work. And by second year, most exams are essay based, so the problem in completely eliminated. I have attendance problem, so I started a literature degree. Because even if you miss class, you can still read the book and come up with a fairly cohesive analysis. I have a hard time focussing on reading a long printed book, but I overcame this all on my own by buying the audio version whenever possible.
In my opinion, my experience from high school through to the end this university degree shows how we are letting our mentally ill students fall through the cracks. Mentally ill people are far more likely to become homeless than are people with physical disabilities or learning disabilities. They are more likely to drop out of post-secondary education. They are more likely to experience unemployment and discrimination. And it is no wonder. If it is a battle just to access education, and one that they must fight alone, how can we expect them to access the job market?
I’m lucky, because I have a really supportive mother, who has been financially supporting me, even though I am in my mid-20s. She emotionally supported me when I dropped out of college, and when I quit my job – she was there for me. When I told her it was going to take me an extra year to graduate because I just can’t handle 5 classes at once, she didn’t mind. When I asked her for extra money to buy audio versions of books when they were available (which are normally more expensive), she consented. My mother was a single parent. She sacrificed a lot to get me to where I am today. She went without to pay for tutors for me in high school and in university. She took a second job to help support me financially. Because of her, I have made it to where I am today. But not all people with mental illness have that kind of familial support. And that is where getting a proper diagnosis and accessing support is really important. But apparently those things aren’t for the mentally ill. I’ve had the luxury of getting an education because my mother worked her butt off to make it possible for me to do so. But not all people with mental health problems have that kind of privilege.