Discovering My Bipolar Disorder at 19: “I Had to Save My Life Before Changing Anyone Else’s”

Discovering My Bipolar Disorder at 19:

“I Had to Save My Life Before Changing Anyone Else’s”

For this author, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder at once clarified and disorganized her life. Below she writes of the struggles and intricacies of dealing with her diagnosis, and how she emerged from the desolation…

For as long as I can remember, thoughts while alone were a strange phenomenon to me. As a youngster, I was barely ever alone. I loved being with my older sister. I studied and copied her every move, as most younger siblings do. I loved and appreciated my time with my family. I always wanted to be with them as their affection, attention and company felt good to me.

But then, there was the small alone time I had as a child. My sister was my play-date on a daily basis, and my cousins of similar age as well. I was certainly well-liked by my peers and had wonderful times playing sports and ordinary child-like fantasy games. Alone time was not routine, but on the rare occasions I was alone, I’m knew I did not like it.

" I was alone in this. All I had in my alone time was to reflect how alone I was in my depression."

I distinctly and vividly remember the ants. Every Sunday, my family was up very early for mass. My mother would wake me up and I would begrudgingly walk to the bathroom. Our duplex in Elizabeth, New Jersey was charming in its own right, but there were adorable little ants that lived in the cracks of our bathroom floor. I remember always thinking about their little ant lives, who ran everything and made the rules? Are they happy little ants? Are we cool now since they watch me pee sometimes? Much like the Tootsie Pop slogan, the world will never know. 

Our church was huge, had a concert-like appeal, red carpet and tacky wine fabric covered chairs.

The music was far too loud for my young, sensitive ears. My sister and I played hangman a lot. Similarly with the ants in my childhood bathroom my mind wondered  in that church too- why was a lady speaking “in tongues?”, and why did some people just fall asleep at the altar when Pastor touched them? However, I never dared to ask. I just thought about it on my alone time.

As I started to grow and mature I was still very curious. Alone time was a good enough time to reflect on many things, but my thought patterns seemingly were a bit different. My thoughts were much darker, and the questions were no longer about curious existentialism in ants. My thoughts became more distraught, like why am I alive if I am suffering so much? I was a very happy person when surrounded by friends or family. Which is why I wanted to constantly be surrounded by people. I smiled more, I was a part of a team, I was eating and laughing regularly and got exercise like every other kid my age.

I know it began earlier, but the memory that stands out the most is when I woke up one morning and I just couldn’t do it that day. ‘It’ meaning being a sixth grader. I wasn’t sure why- but I lied to my mother and said I felt sick. I named every symptom in the book. So I stayed home that day. And I laid in bed pretty much all day, feeling this feeling I could not explain. I just know it wasn’t sadness anymore. It was my body rejecting me.

“Women are about 40% more likely than men to develop depression. They’re twice as likely to develop PTSD, with about 10% of women developing the condition after a traumatic event, compared to just 4% of men.”

It was telling me that I could not do this any longer. This meaning life. I started to hate this alone time, as it did not feel good. But pretending to not feel this way in public was a bigger hurdle to overcome. This is when I discovered what facades and hiding behind them were. I did it often and I did it well, but I could not hide my truth when I was alone. My thoughts and feelings of depression would overcome and take over me much like red ants when you step on their property.

This went on for years. Along with my fear of my depression being discovered. I hid in my depression closet for so long, but you would never know it. I attributed my mood swings and bouts of depression to being a teenager at times. I was a popular teen, attractive, well dressed, confidently changed my hair style twice a year, and was very social amongst my peers. In middle school, I was Class President and involved in many groups and organizations. That followed me in high school as well, I was in student government, nominated for homecoming queen, won Prom Princess and Prom Queen, and won many superlatives in the year book. I participated in school plays, musicals, talent shows, and always had genuinely great experiences. I truly loved High School and was very interested in making friends with everyone, not just the well known popular students in all grades.

But again, when I was alone, my thoughts were all around self depreciation and came from such a deep place of true depression. I attempted suicide in 9th grade after lying to my mother yet again. It was all too much for me and I did not feel as I was worthy of this life. Describing depression is truly one of the hardest things for me, because you cannot see it. Its so difficult to put into words how it feels to experience true joy, the anthesis is even more difficult. After failing that attempt, I decided I would continue to try my best. I honestly did not know anyone who felt like me, there were no assemblies in school that informed us about depression or mental illness. There were no books in the library. I was alone in this. All I had in my alone time was to reflect how alone I was in my depression. That was the worst part, feeling completely alone while surrounded by people who love you. How was that even possible in my life? I had it all.

"Women are about 40% more likely than men to develop depression. They're twice as likely to develop PTSD, with about 10% of women developing the condition after a traumatic event, compared to just 4% of men."

I lost interest in finding a University for me by Senior year of high school. I knew we couldn’t afford a theatre conservatory or university, and just like that, I gave up. So I decided to go to the closest university by our house which was Kean University. My depression went on a whole new level there. There were layers, colors, and songs of desperation I never thought were possible to hear feel and see while attending this university. I gave up to the point where I wouldn’t shower for days and would sleep in my car instead of going to class. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. But again, I hid it well. I wasn’t living, I was surviving.

My manic episode began at age 19 when I decided I had enough and needed to take a semester off. A manic episode is a mood state characterized by period of at least one week where an elevated, expansive, or unusually irritable mood exists. A person experiencing a manic episode is usually engaged in significant goal-directed activity beyond their normal activities. My thoughts were so grandiose I went from thinking I would be on Oprah, to I AM Oprah. Mania is the strangest thing because while you are manic it is the most exhilarating feeling in the world. I wrote extensively long and wordy poems and performed them at open mic. People were in awe of them, and my highs just kept getting more and more euphoric.

Fast forward to Newark Beth Israel Hospital, 2011, about 2 months later when my episode finally reached psychosis. I was diagnosed with Bipolar 1 disorder. I went home, did not shower or speak for three days. I was submerged into such a bad depression, worse than ever before. There was so much I remembered but there was no way I could have done those things.  And what’s worse, people were telling me things I said or did that I wasn’t aware I had done. It was terrifying and I couldn’t believe this was my current state. I knew I was never to pick up a pencil to paper and my days as an actor were over. 

I did not write for seven years. I did not share my story or my illness to anyone who did not see me when I was manic. My illness was my constant elephant in the room, and it consumed me and became such a huge part of my identity. I let it become my crutch and I let it speak for me before I could utter a word. I gave my illness a worst stigma than society bestowed upon those who suffer from mental illness.

All the while, I knew that somehow there had to be some reason for me being on this planet. I didn’t know what it was, but I always felt like there had to be someone else, someone my age who had suffered and went through mania, the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, someone to relate to. Then something happened.

One day I was searching through quotes on Google just for inspiration to make it through the day. I stumbled upon a quote that literally saved my life: “You were assigned this mountain to show others it can be moved.” I started sobbing the most effortless and liberating tears. It was in that moment where I realized what my purpose was. I knew that the only way to find the people like me, was to write about the people like me. I had to come out of my bipolar closet. But, I had to save my life before changing anyone else’s life.

Social media is the best platform we have today. I decided to use Instagram, Facebook, and Youtube to come out as a person living with mental illness through my poetry.

One in three Americans struggles with a mental illness, but the rate is much higher in women. Women are about 40% more likely than men to develop depression. They’re twice as likely to develop PTSD, with about 10% of women developing the condition after a traumatic event, compared to just 4% of men.  Yet most people do not know this.  So many people affected (women, men, teens, families) that need to be educated.

Mental illness does not discriminate against age, gender, or race. My journey is never-ending for me. I hope my story and way of coping and how I still live a fulfilling life will inspire many girls and women and I can be the person that I so desperately wished for back in middle school. It is so incredible to say that the  weight I carried for so long is now lifted and I can be free to be me, unapologetically. I want everyone with a mental illness to feel this way. But we all must take the first step, we must bravely come forward in our truth. Thats where the magic lies.

Dailyn Santana

Dailyn Santana is an actress, model, and mental health advocate.

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