I went to a very good university. I learned nothing about bipolar disorder from the curriculum. I didn’t take any classes in psychology, though at that time (the 70s), I’m not sure they would have taught that much about the disorder – almost certainly not that there were two versions of it.
I could have taken psychology. There was a requirement that all students had to take two classes outside their major – there were called distribution requirements and were intended to make us more well-rounded individuals. My major was English and I took History of Science and Astronomy (also Beekeeping, but that’s a story for another time).
It had not escaped everyone’s notice that I had psychological problems by that point. My high school had recommended to my parents that I be taken to the school district’s psychologist. They left the choice up to me and I declined, as I thought it would look bad on my permanent record. (It never occurred to me how the behavior leading to that recommendation looked.)
So, I toddled off to college undiagnosed and untreated, but surely in the throes of bipolar disorder. Gradually, I became aware that my mental state was, to say the least, unsteady. I had insomnia – I would spend some nights sitting in the hallway, staring at a poster. I had mental confusion – I changed my major from Linguistics to English based on an irrational assumption about the job possibilities. And I took a year off because I was too depressed to continue. (I went back after a year of working in a restaurant.)
There are certainly things I regret. I regret that I missed so much that was educational, enlightening, or entertaining. I regret that in a fit of hypomania I joined a sorority and tried to fit in while living there. I regret the cutting. And, perhaps most of all, I regret that, once, a fellow depression sufferer asked me to meet her one evening in the student union building to talk – and I didn’t go. I was too involved in my own pain to be open to hers.
As the years went on, I got worse. I had physical problems due to anxiety. I had disastrous relationships. Once or twice, friends became so worried about me that they insisted I go to the school infirmary because they were afraid I might be suicidal. I stayed a couple of days, denied suicidal ideation, and went back to my regular college life.
I did try to get help. At one point I joined a therapy group. One of the exercises that we had to do was to start and maintain a brief conversation with someone else in the group. “I can do that,” I said. I had learned to do that in the sorority, and besides, I was able to fake normal for that length of time. The therapy group never addressed my real problem and so did me no good.
If I knew more about bipolar disorder at that time in my life, I still might not have gotten help for it – there wasn’t that much help available at the time. But I might have understood myself better, done better academically, enjoyed more of the varied experiences that the university and the town had to offer, and been ready to accept help when it finally appeared (in the form of Prozac).
When I finally did get help, it was because I drove past a building with the sign “South Community Mental Health.” I thought, “I don’t know what I’m feeling, but whatever it is, it’s not mentally healthy.” So I began the journey that brought me to where I am today – still bipolar, of course, but diagnosed, treated with medication and therapy, and living a pretty good life. I even went back to college and got a Master’s degree.
I do still think about those years of struggle. I’m glad they’re over, but I still have those regrets. I don’t regret the university experience, though. It did broaden my horizons, introduced me to some people who are still dear friends, and taught me that I needed to keep searching for help with my problems. And that was a valuable thing to learn.