Coming to Terms with Autism, Bipolar 1, and OCD as a Young College Student
Listen to Editor in Chief Gabriel Nathan read this story:
This essay is in dedication to one of my best friends from middle school, Elijah. When I was going through hell, he would always be there to brighten my day. I will always cherish your wicked sense of humor and our passion for gaming. Rest easy my friend.
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I have always been an outgoing person. Anything good that happens in my life, whether it be receiving an award in college, enjoying a party with my friends, or visiting a new country, I have been guilty of sharing it on social media—perhaps too much if I am being honest.
But what happens when you receive a psychiatric diagnosis? Do you announce to the world that you have bipolar disorder? That you are dealing with obsessive and intrusive thoughts daily? Or that you are on the autism spectrum? Most people would say no, and that you should keep your personal information to yourself. That’s what was on my mind when I was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. I was afraid to share my diagnoses with my friends because I was worried they wouldn’t understand I was going through.
I am no foreigner when it comes to mental health. I was in special education for ten years before that diagnosis, all the way to high school. During these times, I never understood why I was in special education or was aware of the problems I had. It never really bothered me, which is why I rarely asked about it. All I knew as a child was that I would occasionally be taken out of my regular classroom and receive more one-on-one instruction.
Fast forward to when I was 18: After digging through the garage, I discovered a three-inch-thick binder that contained all kinds of paperwork about me: individual education programs (IEPs), schoolwork, and paperwork about a psychiatric diagnosis. In that binder I discovered that I had been diagnosed with “pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified” as a child. That means I have autism.
When I found that binder, I didn’t know whether to be mad, disappointed, or surprised. I was upset about finding it because my parents never talked about my diagnosis growing up. But I understood why. They did not want others to think of me as different for having autism.
In the end, reading through that binder and discovering this paperwork was actually liberating for me. I googled what PDD-NOS was and I found so much of myself in the articles I was reading.
I remember reading from the binder, “Thomas demonstrates delays in his receptive and expressive language skills, fine motor skills, cognitive skills, social/emotional skills, and self-help skills.” As an adult, I still can identify with many autistic behaviors that were described in my diagnostic papers. I discovered that I’ve always been obsessive, like my fascination with Poland’s history and its border changes. I still tend to daydream a lot like I’m in my own world. I have a hard time looking strangers in the eye. And with sarcasm, I might not always get a joke, but when I do, I have a great laugh with my friends. Reading through that binder reminded me how much I have changed, and really, how things are still the same.
Around the same time I found that binder, I was in community college. I was an underachiever when I was in K-12, so being in college was a fresh start for me and an opportunity to make up for lost time. It was also the time I became a workaholic. On weekdays I would be on campus for up to ten to twelve hours a day. I spent many endless days in study groups. I got involved in nearly every extracurricular on campus. And I worked with professors applying for competitive scholarships. I was trying to make the most of my college experience, but little did I know at the time I was masking my symptoms from bipolar disorder and OCD.
You wouldn’t know it with the smile I put on every day, but outside of college I was dealing with a lot of intrusive thoughts. At the time I did not know what compulsions were, but I was performing them excessively to relieve my anxiety. One compulsion: I’d google myself and my former usernames. My brain would tell me to keep checking to see if there was anything negative about me on the internet, or else. If I didn’t check, I’d develop immense anxiety until I performed the compulsion. I was a slave to my own fears and irrationalities.
I now know that I frequently deal with what my psychiatrist calls “mixed” episodes of bipolar disorder. In my episode during community college, I felt that I had so much energy that I didn’t need to sleep at night. This manic energy also gave me rapid speech, which made it hard for me to form even proper sentences in seminars at college. But I also felt unmotivated to work because I was depressed and drained from overanalyzing my past. It was nearly impossible to focus in class while dealing with intrusive thoughts and mania and depression. Combining both disorders was like a wildfire spreading in my mind.
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Suppressing my symptoms worked, for a while. But the truth eventually came out when I sat down with a college counselor. In this meeting we initially went over what I wanted to major in. But as our meeting concluded, I broke down crying in front of them. I described to them behaviors I had been exhibiting, and surprisingly, she knew exactly what I was suffering from. She opened up about her son having bipolar disorder, and she suspected that I may also have this disorder. She guided me to a facility where I could receive treatment, and this was a pivotal moment in my life. By opening up about her son to me, she essentially saved my life.
I finally received my diagnosis of bipolar I disorder and OCD a year later after starting college. Surprisingly, while it was emotional to come to terms with this, it also felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I realized I was able to take care of myself through medication and therapy. And just as I discovered that paperwork in that binder, things finally started making sense to me as I discovered what I had been suffering through. More importantly, I discovered that I am not the only one.
The question lingering my mind after receiving my diagnosis was: should I share my diagnosis with others? The short answer is: It depends. For starters, it shouldn’t be the subject of every conversation I have with someone. I’ve often noticed that it can be overwhelming trying to explain how my mental disorder works.
People can also misunderstand you when you talk about it. Members of my family didn’t have access to mental health services growing up. And they have told me that my mental health problems are “all in my head” and that I can easily get over my problems by just not thinking about them. That’s why I’ve been reluctant to open up about my experiences in the past. Not everyone will understand what I am going through.
But despite the stigma, I am still motivated to talk about it, because I can educate people on the misconceptions of having a mental illness. While I may seem powerless to my disabilities, I have more power than I think. I have the power to advocate for myself, to educate others, and to prove that my mental disorders don’t define me. When I look back, keeping all my problems to myself is what hurt me the most. But when I started to open up about my mental health, I discovered that I was not alone in this. I found out that there were a lot of people who wanted to support me, whether it be family, friends, therapists, or even college faculty.
I have gone so far to share my mental health journey that when I spoke at my commencement ceremony, I disclosed my mental disorders and my struggles to thousands of people. I will never forget that after the ceremony a mother came up to me and shared that her loved one also has bipolar disorder. She was grateful I brought attention to bipolar disorder and appreciated that I painted a picture that those who have it can be successful.
I went on to Temple University to complete my bachelor’s degree after community college. During my time at Temple, I continued to discover resources that are out there to help me in my recovery. I received accommodations for my disabilities, which acted as a safety net for my classes. I was provided with financial aid to finish college, received career services from my local government, and I was awarded scholarships celebrating my mental health journey. I also began working at Temple as a coach for students with intellectual disabilities, and which inspired me to work in a social security disability advocacy group after graduation.
Nowadays I am making sure that I am enjoying my life, and I recently fulfilled a lifelong dream to study in Poland. In the future, I want to continue advocating for disability inclusivity and for the destigmatization of mental illnesses. Because for me, if I can help just one person, then my work has been done.
A quote comes to mind by Shakespeare: “So shines a good deed in a weary world.” If I can help someone by opening up about my mental health, then I have shed some light in this weary world, just like that college counselor did for me.