By Janell Spigner
When you’re diagnosed with bipolar disorder there are certain things that you come to expect. For instance, you expect that there will be times where you’re depressed and others when you are manic/hypomanic. Or even that you will go OFF on someone if they try you even a little (as you should). What people don’t often expect is that the way you take in information or are able to communicate it changes. The symptom is often portrayed as “trouble focusing”, but that’s not even the half of it. At times bipolar disorder symptoms can mirror that of ADHD. It’s a mind-fuck of a mixture when you’re a college student (which is ironically when symptoms of bipolar tend to manifest–haha life). The best way to describe how this symptom progresses is the same way John Green described falling in love: Slowly, and then all at once.
First, I struggled with reading. I went from devouring books like Thanksgiving dinner to getting stuck on single paragraphs for hours. Then, my thoughts became disorganized. Writing turned into a nightmare task as I couldn’t hold onto ideas long enough to transfer them onto paper. Draft after draft, I would lose my train of thought easily and not understand what it was I was even trying to say. There was a disconnect. And finally, classes became torture chambers. I was hit with constant streams of information that confusingly danced in my brain before disappearing completely. I felt like I couldn’t hold onto anything. Just like that, my grades plummeted. I acted like it didn’t matter to me but really it ate at my core. As the daughter of an African immigrant, education was pitched to me as my ticket to success. I was constantly reminded that the odds were stacked against me because I’m Black but I had my intellect to offer, so, “losing” it was a near-fatal blow. Ultimately, I got so frustrated with my inability to learn as I always had that I became suicidal. I was convinced that bipolar disorder had stolen my intelligence and that my IQ had dipped to an unsalvageable level. I kept thinking “I’m dumb and my life will never amount to anything because of it.” I felt worthless.
Fact: my IQ was unscathed. I simply had to adjust to my new way of learning. But there was nothing simple about it, it took a lot of hard work. I’ve cried through essays, fallen asleep during exams, and had panic attacks before presentations but I kept trying until I found the right system. Trial and error was the name of the game. I thought about dropping out many times, which is something many people with bipolar disorder deal with. In 2006 a study was published in the Journal of Affective Disorders that compared a group of bipolar adults with a group of healthy adults, both groups having similar IQ and social backgrounds. More than 60 % of both groups went to college but their outcomes varied: About half of the control group received a college degree, compared to just 16 % of the bipolar group.
The truth is, it took years to find a system that worked with my “new mind” and it was far from easy. You can definitely complete your education with bipolar disorder, but it may not happen the way you planned. If you told 18 year old me that I would be 25 years old when I completed my Bachelors I would have cried. But over the years I’ve learned that this isn’t a damn race and that appreciating the small successes within the journey makes it much easier. I write to you as a college student with bipolar disorder that had a 2.0 GPA and is now sitting at a 3.9 GPA. More importantly, I’m writing to you as a college student with bipolar disorder that is confident in my ability to complete my education. And I say with certainty, that with time and effort, anyone with a bipolar diagnosis can achieve the same.
Here are some quick tips for surviving/thriving in college while having bipolar disorder:
- If you take medication, get stable before you try to tackle a semester. There is little worse than starting a new medication a day before you have an Orgo exam, and I say this from experience. I can’t even tell you the number of times I slept through a class because of sedating medication. Medications have side effects, and sometimes they can be more distracting to your education than the symptoms of your illness. Your best bet is to try to get a sense of stability FIRST instead of bulldozing through a semester and underperforming. If you’re worried about taking time off from school, I found that taking one or two courses at my local community college while trying to get stable was doable.
- Be on #TeamAccommodations. Through your school's Office of Disabilities, you can receive classroom accommodations. It can be a kind of annoying process but once you get them, you have a whole department that can go to bat for you if a teacher is being an ass. It helps to have these if you don’t like disclosing your illness to professors. You start the semester with them knowing that you're struggling with a generic disability, and that can make them more likely to help you out. My accommodations are extended time for exams and quizzes (1.5x), reduced distractions testing location, electronic note-taking services, and extensions on assignments (this one was hard to get but proper documentation was the key).
- If your school offers campus counseling, use it. The more advocates you have in your school for you, the better your chances of thriving are. It means when times get rough, you have multiple points of support to help you out of the rut. I once had a school counselor reach out to a teacher for me when I couldn’t find the words and it helped to prevent me from failing out of that class. Another great advocate could be your Dean of Students. If you find yourself in a rut, reach out to them, explain the situation and see if they can help you find a solution or are willing to talk to your teachers about a solution.
- If you suffer from disorganized thoughts that are affecting your writing, try recording yourself, stream of consciousness style. There are features in many writing applications that allow you to dictate speech into text. Your mouth is faster than your hands so it helps to get everything out, and then try to sift through the brain dump.
- GET SOME DAMN SLEEP. Try to limit the number of late nights you have. I definitely recommend early or midday classes so you have time to do HW during the daytime. If you have difficulty sleeping, tell your doctor ASAP so they can come up with a plan to address it.
- The Pomodoro technique is your friend. This is the method of studying where you do an increment of 25-30 min of studying followed by a 2-5 min break. You do this four times, before having a longer break of 15-30 min, and then you start over. This really works if you’re having trouble with focusing. You can adjust the times as you need. I found 20 mins was my study g-spot.
Janell is a Ghanian- American student at Pace University and graduated from Fountain House College Re-Entry in 2016. She lives with bipolar disorder type 2. This post originally appeared on Janell's blog Bipolar Bliss and has been republished with permission from the author. You can follow Janell on Instagram @bipolarblisss.