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Mental Illness Looks Like: Drea, 27

Questions and Answers by Drea

Q: Do you struggle with mental illness? If so what?

I have struggled with my mental health for as long as I can remember. Though I had given myself explanations for years as to why I felt and acted as I do. My formal diagnosis was more recent with my Bipolar Disorder II and PTSD. I have also struggled with an eating disorder in the past, but that was many years ago.

Q: When did you first realize you struggled with mental illness?

It’s hard to say because the house I grew up in was full of traumatizing and unhealthy situations. I think I always knew I was affected, but I couldn’t put a name to it. At twelve years old, I began to experience such deep depression that I felt suicidal. That was when I began treatment, though it was short lived and I was pushed not to talk about what was going on. I would say I have always struggled, though sometimes more than others. Looking back, I can see how it was not depression, but Bipolar II, because there were many bouts of manic behavior followed by deep plummets.

Q: How were you diagnosed?

I am “high functioning” in many ways, and I let that be an excuse for not seeking treatment. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I had thought I was just depressed but had sometimes wondered if bipolar might be what it was. I was a bit in denial, but it was also a breath of relief to have a name for my internal monsters. I had the best psychiatrist who let whatever I felt be okay. I honestly didn’t expect to have any diagnosis and even held back, but it was apparent to my psychiatrist. I credit him with giving me the opportunity to learn about myself.

Q: What does Bipolar Disorder II and PTSD feel like for you? Describe your symptoms.

This is mostly before treatment stuff. I still feel these ways but I have much more control now, which I never thought was possible.

With Bipolar, it feels like I never know who I am going to be one day, one week, or one month to another. Altogether, I feel unsettled because I can go from empowered and fabulous to a total mess.

The depression feels like, well it feels a lot like not feeling anything at all. Everything is monotone, showering is hard, concentrating is hard, there is so much guilt, and nothing is possible. I feel resentful, like who I am was stripped away from me.

Hypomania/mania feels like I. Am. Unstoppable.

I can’t sleep because I am so excited to clean, go for a walk, paint, write, scream. It’s like I’m suddenly feral and I make dumb decisions, which at the time I am convinced are perfect. I start to be really spiritual and connected with nature. I am so creative and I can’t catch every thought fast enough. I shop a lot, I don’t sleep, and I write like crazy. Sometimes it feels like I can’t expand my reach far enough and wish I could be everywhere at once. It’s all a party until I look back and wonder who I am. I read what I wrote, which at the time felt like the most brilliant idea, and now sounds beyond insane. It’s like a toxic friendship with your favorite parts of you.

PTSD is just an asshole. Without your control you like time travel to the scariest times of your life. You can feel it in your breath and on your skin. More than flashbacks, avoidance behaviors are around a lot. Interpersonal relationships are hard, boundaries are impossible, and you spend a lot of time just doing whatever you can to stop the world from being so big.

Q: Is there a metaphor or an example you use to describe your mental illness?

So many. I write all the time. Recently I was manic and afraid of what I would do, so I wrote. I decided I was a Phoenix trapped in a cage, which sounds really cliche but there was much more to it.

I sent this to a friend recently: There is something very powerful for me about realizing that my mental illness is a funny visitor who sometimes doesn’t understand your rules, and I have to prevent this houseguest from taking over my home. I wouldn’t be judgmental of someone’s home because they had a messy houseguest (long term for me), so I can’t be judgmental of myself. Just have to learn to live in the same place.

Q: Do your friends and family know about your illness? If so, how did you tell them?

They know. Well, most of them. Some were harder than others because they deny their own mental health struggles and disorders. Overall the feedback has been positive. To some, I kind of just blurted it out. For others, whose judgment I feared, it took a lot of failed attempts. At the end of the day, telling others helped me destigmatize myself.

Sometimes people said they couldn’t believe it, because I’m so bubbly and strong. That hurt. Some people asked if I was sure. I was in denial for a long time and I just can’t be in denial anymore. I try to maintain an internal locust of control, so often it seems like I’m fine. But also, I need people to know I have these traits, yet I’ve got this down.

Q: Do you believe your illness has held you back in any way?

Yes, it has. Jumping into the next wild idea I have without much thought. Spending too much money. Or alternatively feeling like I couldn’t do anything at all. I have been so lucky that others have acted with understanding. But having the diagnosis and having a name for my feelings helped, because I realized I could still be in control. There are still hard days. And I have some strained relationships due to traumas I haven’t resolved.

Q: What have you been able to achieve in spite of your mental struggles?

I was so, so blessed to be awarded Stanford Intern of the Year last year. I went back to school a few years ago and have done pretty well, which I didn’t believe was possible. I have tried more often to do the things which scare me, but I also keep it in check.

Q: Do you go to therapy?

I attend two group therapy sessions weekly: one for bipolar and one for ptsd. I also have infrequent one on one appointments. It has changed everything because I speak weekly with others who share my circumstances. It is empowering, and it provided me tools to stay on track.

Q: Do you take medication?

Yes - Lamictal. At first I was hesitant to take medication. I worried if I would still feel like myself, but if anything it gave me myself back. It’s a mood stabilizer. I just feel more in control now, even though I still vacillate a bit. It helps keep everything in perspective.

Q: Do you do anything besides therapy or medication to manage your symptoms?

I had a mood journal for a while. I keep saying I’ll get back into it. I think everyone can benefit from that.

I try to write a lot. It really helps me with complex emotions. Sometimes the writing doesn’t make any sense but sometimes my brain doesn’t either!And I talk a lot about what I’m going through. People came out of the woodwork when I told them about my diagnosis. I now have a community around me who I can share with. That was big.

Q: Any stereotypes you'd like to address regarding the disorder?

Somehow, Bipolar Disorder receives a bad wrap. I’ve heard people say that someone is acting “bipolar” when referring to erratic or angry behavior. Sure, that can be a part of it for many, but it does disservice to those who are affected. If you’re not sure what it’s like, just ask. You’ll be surprised how normal we really are. I have also found those with bipolar disorder, as well as other mental health struggles, to be some of the most empathic people I have ever met.

Q: Are you an advocate? If so, please tell us about your advocacy work.

I am not, but I am a psychology major. And I try to keep conversations open to anyone. I advocate daily, but informally. I would love to do so more formally when the opportunity arises.

Q: Any books, resources, or influencers that have helped you?

Exposure Project, actually! Also there are really great mood journals you can get online- even PDFs.

Umm also memes can heal. On IG @mytherapistsays @adhd_alien Reddit has a great community. Be careful with what you read as it can be triggering. However, I found that there are a lot of threads of people’s funny manic behaviors, which are great. I like that a lot because sometimes you just have to laugh about it. I mean don’t get me wrong, the struggle and pain is not funny, but I think it’s important to share experiences with each other. And it really helps me to laugh with people who have been in similar positions.

Q: What do you want people to know about mental illness?

Never forsake someone’s experience. Mental illness is so much more common than people think. Just try to be in everyone’s court and be supportive. The little things sometimes help the most.

And someone with mental illness is not broken; we’re not crazy. Our brains just play tricks on us from time to time.

Q: Use three words to describe your experience.

Wild. Empowering. Unstoppable.

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