The biochemical issue

My on- and off-campus struggle with a cognitive curveball
By DEMETRIUS BURNS  |  August 31, 2011

bipolar disorder
The paper slid gently across the desk with two words on it: bipolar disorder.

I promise you, my heart dropped from my shoulders — an answer, to my sleepless nights and sleep-filled days. A routine that began with a simple desire to avoid what was causing me stress in the first place: homework.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 5 percent of people in the United States have a serious mental illness that "substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities." And they're not as unusual among the college crowd as you might think.

"For bipolar disorder and psychotic disorders, the college years is the time when they are seen," says Benek Aytayli, clinical psychologist and director of counseling at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. "Most people are diagnosed with these disorders between the ages of 16 and 24."


The beginning

For me, it all started during the 2011 spring break.

Going into it, at 21, I was a consistent student; I rarely turned assignments in late, so I was almost never behind in my schoolwork. I avoided stress by staying ahead.

However, during the break there was an English paper I could not beat, and instead of fighting it, I just avoided it. Procrastinating, naturally, amplified my stress. I attempted to bury that stress with sleep.

A lot of sleep.

Unfortunately, these abnormal (to me) behaviors of procrastination and avoidance carried over into the continuation of spring semester.

But at some point, I also experienced something completely new: a burst of energy that not only liberated me from the burden of homework assignments but also from social restrictions in general.

This energy found an outlet initially on Facebook, where I was convinced that I was part of a social experiment that included me making obscene and controversial wall posts at a frenzied pace.

These manic episodes generally lasted a few days, during which I could go entirely without sleep. I'd take up odd behaviors, such as riding my long board at late hours of the night in my bib biking shorts.

And I'd have confrontations with family and friends over the smallest of matters. I remember shouting expletives in a friend's face because he admitted he believed in a conspiracy theory involving Barack Obama.

Days like these were usually followed up by depressive episodes, during which I grieved my fiendish behavior.

And slept.


Testing the waters

My friends and family expressed concern, and all had interpretations of what was wrong with me. Nothing really helped until I met with my pastor, who directed me to seek professional help. That is, he said I should see my school counselor immediately.

At the time, I felt a bit abandoned by him. I wanted help from someone I knew. I also felt that my problem was stress-related, not psychological. I didn't know there could be a chemical backbone to my issue. I thought I just needed someone to listen and understand my perspective.

Hesitantly, I sought "help." The first couple sessions went well; my counselors at Arizona State University had me explain what I was going through, which was kind of cathartic. After hearing me explain my situation, they concluded that I should undergo a psychiatric evaluation. I felt this was unnecessary.

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  Topics: Lifestyle Features , National Institute of Mental Health, Depression, loneliness,  More more >
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