The Reality of Mental Illness: University Edition

I’m diagnosed with a variety of psychiatric conditions: bipolar I disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, ADHD and a learning disability called dyscalculia. As a teenager I battled anorexia nervosa. I’ve been hospitalized in a psychiatric ward three times since the age of 14, tried over 30 different kinds of psychotropic medication (most of which didn’t work) and self-harmed. I’ve shamelessly sobbed in public for no reason, stayed awake for days on end without stimulants (including caffeine), bled, bruised myself, screamed at strangers, believed I was thinking someone else’s thoughts, blacked out drunk to escape my mind, hurt people I loved and seriously contemplated suicide. Electroconvulsive therapy is a likely treatment option for my next major depressive episode. At 21, I had a voluntary tubal ligation because I feared that I would become pregnant on medications that cause severe birth defects. That being said, my life is good. I come from a loving, middle-class family and I have reliable, caring friends. It’s the hand I was dealt, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’m disclosing this very personal (and obviously unflattering) information because I’m tired of the shame and stigma that surround mental illness. Actually, I’m really fucking sick of it. I want other students who are in my position to know that they aren’t alone and that at least one other person on this campus understands what it’s like to attend college while living (and often struggling) with a serious psychiatric condition.

From my perspective, the most common misconception about mental illness is that it’s some sort of affectation. Many people seem to think it’s something we choose because we want attention, that we want others to make our lives “easier” with disability accommodations, or that we like the idea of being perceived as “dark and tortured.” For my generation, I feel that the stigma attached to mental illness is largely an issue of ableism. During past manic and mixed episodes (when my cognitive processes are severely disturbed) people have told me to exercise and eat a more nutritious diet, as if swimming laps and consuming protein will automatically fix my brain chemistry. People who give this type of advice are under the false impression that my emotional instability, crawling skin and racing thoughts are a result of poor lifestyle choices. They are wrong.

Experiencing a bipolar episode is a lot like having the flu — I can’t take care of myself, and for the most part, I can’t control my illness. I can take preventative measures but ultimately what goes up must come crashing down, and it’s often a matter of weathering the storm, waiting for symptoms to pass. It’s all I can do to keep myself out of the hospital and in school when I lose stability. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I don’t bathe, I isolate myself. Walking to the mailbox becomes a daunting task. I can’t find the will to tie my shoelaces so I wear bright purple rain boots on hot, sunny days. My limbs are heavy, my thoughts disorganized and maddening. Scariest of all, these episodes often come on without warning, develop over the course of a week and leave damage that sometimes lasts months or years. The only solution that even makes a dent in my mental health problems is a medication regimen consisting of mind-numbing lithium, anticonvulsants, benzodiazepines and occasionally antipsychotics. If it were possible to remedy mental health problems with diet and exercise, I wouldn’t have issues in the first place.

Mentally ill students can’t just “pick themselves up by their bootstraps.” We don’t want attention. We do everything we can to get through the day, hoping, praying, that we stay stable long enough to complete our courses and earn our degrees. We hide our scars, prescription bottles, medication-induced tremors. We rely on the Americans with Disabilities Act to cover our asses in the event that something goes wrong and we need to take a leave of absence without academic penalty. We work hard to conceal our unpredictable and unstable brains for fear of being thought of as “lazy,” “self-indulgent” and “crazy.” Worst of all, should we reveal an ounce of weakness, we might be told — despite our good grades, resilience and other accomplishments — that we “just aren’t cut out for university life.”

I am privileged to have had the opportunity to attend college. Sixty years ago I would have been institutionalized with no hope for a future. I would’ve been expected to bag groceries for a living. Today, people like me are doctors, lawyers, academicians, artists, authors, librarians and nurses. You walk past us on campus all the time. We are elusive, yet omnipresent. If you met me, you would have no idea. I’m intelligent, vivacious, strong, stubborn and tender-hearted. At first glance, I am anything but mentally ill. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll realize that everyone has a story. This is mine. All I’m asking is that you recognize, reader, that psychiatric conditions are legitimate medical problems. Next time, please think before you judge.

Leslie Purdie is a fourth-year cultural anthropology major.