I was lucky to escape months of risk taking behaviour relatively unscathed. My interstate escapade which ended in a suicide watch was scary but necessary. It made me realise that I needed help for my mental health but my biggest worry at that time was salvaging my Honours degree.
I started by going to my doctor. She is a wonderfully understanding and non-judgmental woman who had treated me for depression for a few years. I told her everything about the highs, the drugs, the sex and she told me what I already suspected – that I probably had bipolar. She organised a psychiatric appointment for me and he confirmed the diagnosis. He prescribed mood stabilisers and referred me to a psychologist for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
Then I called my supervisor at uni for help. A supervisor is an academic whose job is to mentor their student through their research project and to provide feedback on their thesis before it’s submitted. I had travelled interstate twice to spend time working in a research lab to collect my data and to work with him on my thesis. I had sacrificed a lot to do this including getting myself into further debt and taking weeks off from my full-time job. Once, I missed my flight due to a herniated disc in my spine and had to fork out more money for a second flight. My supervisor knew I was dedicated and had seen the quality of my work. But when I called him in tears asking for support, he turned his back on me and told me to quit. I was devastated. I couldn’t throw away 18 months of study and I didn’t know how I would complete my thesis without his mentorship and endorsement.
But I am stubborn by nature and driven by naysayers. I went back to my doctor and asked her to write a letter of support so I could get an extension on my thesis. I was still grappling with my diagnosis and at the time, I was embarrassed sharing this with a group of academics in order to get an extension. It is highly unorthodox to get an extension for an Honours project since you have an entire year to complete it. But despite the odds, I was granted a four week extension. I had four weeks to complete six months of work. It was a mammoth task, especially as my brain wasn’t working the way it was supposed to.
Without an incredible support network, I just wouldn’t have been able to succeed. It was truly a team effort. I took some time off work and started to write. My sister was there to listen to me rant and cry all the way through. She bought me coffee and cake and cheered me on. A family friend pushed me on too, and she helped me decipher pages and pages of statistics and was a sounding board as I talked through my research with her. I confided in a few close friends and they listened as I railed against my new diagnosis and struggled with my crumbling self identity. My thesis started to come together.
I had to take more action though. I quit two of my five jobs. I took my new medication. I started seeing a psychologist and she helped me process my jumbled thoughts and feelings. I began to recognise my symptoms which helped me manage them better. I noticed racing thoughts and agitation and learnt to regulate myself rather than latch on to the feelings and be taken away. I still maintained a rather active sex life, but I stuck with a few regular lovers rather than wasting hours vetting new ones. I stopped clubbing and taking drugs. Slowly, my moods began to stabilise, my life became less chaotic, and I completed my 160 page thesis and submitted it.
My supervisor was aware that I was going ahead with my degree. He didn’t offer any support and he didn’t bother reading it before I submitted it despite the fact that his name was going to be on it alongside mine. I knew that results were sent to the supervisor and not the student. I waited a long time for my results before calling him to check on them. He had actually received my results two weeks earlier but hadn’t bothered looking at them or letting me know. I wish I was there to see his face when he opened the mail and saw that I had achieved the highest possible grade – without his help. I was even offered an opportunity to present my research at a conference which is a significant achievement for an Honours student! My supervisor boasted to all his colleagues about his successful student. I knew that I would be a notch on his academic belt of achievement.
I took his gloating with a grain of salt. I felt such a sense of achievement that it didn’t matter. But to my surprise, it wasn’t the academic success which pleased me so much. I was proud of myself for not giving up, for believing in myself when I was at rock bottom, for starting a journey of self discovery and for picking up the broken pieces of my life. I had unwittingly proven to myself that I could still achieve my big dreams even with bipolar.
I was at the end of 2016. I had spent considerable time throughout the year talking to potential supervisors who could take me on for a PhD in 2017. I had a highly respected and renown professor who was interested in supervising me. However, I was just learning about myself and learning how to manage bipolar. I was worried that I would start a PhD and have another ‘episode’ and jeopardise my degree. It is much harder to salvage a PhD than an Honours degree. So, I made the difficult decision to forgo this appealing opportunity, to put my dreams on hold and work on my mental health first.
Since then I have learnt how to navigate my bipolar. I have spent a lot of time building a nuanced understanding of what bipolar looks like for me. I can now identify my triggers, subthreshold symptoms and I can identify when I’m having a relapse. Today, I haven’t had a relapse for over six months and I am relatively stable. It was a long journey to my diagnosis. It was bumpy and dangerous at times, but also exhilarating and wonderful and I wouldn’t change a thing! I’m still travelling the road of recovery but at least now I have some tools to help me navigate it.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: a talking therapy that helps someone identify the relationship between their thoughts, feelings and behaviour. It is an evidence-based and widely used therapy used for many psychological problems.
Mood stabiliser: a pharmaceutical medication used in mood disorders and helps to stabilise moods.
Subthreshold symptoms: milder symptoms that don’t meet the criteria for a diagnosis or a relapse.
Thesis: a long essay that a university student writes to describe a unique research project that they have undertaken.
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