Thumbnail graphic by Olivia Abeyta / North by Northwestern

I couldn’t do my work. I was wasting days away in bed. I was missing exams and dreading meetings with my understanding-but-kinda-fed-up professors who had already given me extensions for my ever-growing mountain of overdue assignments. I couldn’t get up to go to class; I couldn’t get up to do anything. At this point, I knew I had a problem, but I thought the problem was me.

Northwestern’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) seemed to be the only option for me…great. On Oct. 26, 2021, I requested a same-day virtual appointment with a CAPS counselor. Together we concluded that my motivation issues — more so, lack of motivation issues — were getting in the way of my schooling, most likely a symptom of what we presumed to be ADHD.

I assumed that all I would need an Adderall prescription and a brush up with Academic Support and Learning Advancement, but to proceed with treatment and get accommodations with AccessibleNU, I needed to obtain what seemed impossible: a diagnosis. For those of you who don’t know, getting diagnosed (in general, but particularly for mental disorders) is typically a nightmare for poor queer Black gender non-conforming folks like me (what a mouthful!). It’s been proven doctors don’t take cases of ADHD in Black women (and women in general) seriously.

Nevertheless, I moved through constant referrals for months, from counselors to psychiatrists and then to counselors again. The last stop seemed to be getting a complete psych evaluation to test for attention disorders.

I obliged, bussing myself to Chicago to be mentally prodded in a four-hour psychological evaluation of my entire existence. Months later, my results came in a password-protected, 11-page-long document that analyzed every inch of my mental well-being. I sifted through to find the results that I had been waiting so long for.

Though I had gone in for an ADHD diagnosis, the psychologist who evaluated me was left with a myriad of evidence for what she thought to be a clear-cut case of Bipolar I Disorder, of which my attention, depression and motivation issues were just side effects.

My first thought, admittedly, was, “Damn, that’s what Kanye West has.” And I wasn’t trying to be anything like Kanye West, who at the time (and perhaps, always) was amid controversies that left his legacy hanging by a thread.

A few Google searches later, and I had deemed myself as having the “cancer” of mental illness, as bipolar disorder is a chronic condition with no cure. Medication options for the disorder made my sights seem even dimmer: Bipolar medications like lithium come with intense treatments and side effects such as weight gain and tremors.

Bipolar disorder had snuck up on me, and it had put up a fight. I got a second, and yes, a third, opinion just to make sure I had it. From research, I learned that the disorder was quick in onset and severe in intensity, typically springing up during young adulthood. Being in environments with stress, drugs and other struggles (aka college) only exacerbates the disorder’s onset.

Looking back, I’m extremely grateful for the circumstances of my diagnosis. Yes, I was behind in all of my classes, constrained to my bed by a force that would sometimes grab hold of me for weeks on end. But I wasn’t in a state where I was a true danger to myself or others. I felt spared, in a way, from the initial dangers of untreated bipolar disorder.

Even with the seemingly infinite variations of symptoms bipolar disorder can show, the only commonalities in all who have it are both “mania” and “depression,” known as the ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ of the condition. Periods of mania and depression, or episodes, typically last from a single day to a couple of weeks.

I was already all too familiar with depression; I knew the ins and outs of feeling blue like the back of my hand. Mania, though, was new to me. But in doing my research, I found out that I had already experienced episodes of it. I had unknowingly been riding the faulty rollercoaster of bipolar disorder for months now.

My mania (hypomania, mostly) had disguised itself as what I liked to call my “productive eras.” I would commit myself to tons of responsibilities, drain my bank account on irresponsible purchases (like a $30 pencil sharpener that I convinced myself I would have died without), and get little to no sleep. Mania was me at my most productive, and it just so happened to be my favorite me. And I wasn’t ready to give it up.

In the meantime, my journalism major was all too accommodating of the most harmful parts of my ‘highs’ and merciless to the debilitating state of my ‘lows.’ With the chaotic allure of being the busy reporter archetype — always working on their next beat and trying to find the next Watergate scandal — there is no “too much.” One of the core dilemmas of the disorder is not knowing how much is too much.

For me, there had never been an upper limit. Throughout my academic career, teachers welcomed my hypomania with open arms. I didn’t want to give up my highs for fear of flying too close to the sun; I liked the warmth of being able to do everything. But it never failed to burn me out.

And so the cycle was created. I would work myself to death just to be buried in my bed in the weeks afterward in my body’s attempt to recover. And that depression would take hold of me with a firm grip. I would sleep through dozens of morning alarms loud enough to break the sound barrier. It made me feel useless at the time, and in retrospect, I was! I was constantly sad about being sad and tired of being tired. This was my least favorite me.

But many of my Northwestern professors were extremely forgiving of my condition — that is, after I came clean about what I was going through and became fully transparent. Some even joined me in figuring out how to navigate my disorder. My closest friends who knew what I was going through would ride with me through my mania and depression, keeping my highs contained and making sure my lows never sank my college career. After all, assignments were still due, exams were still happening, and the world never stopped to give me the pause I needed to learn how to live with the disorder.

For now, I’m trying different combinations of medications and treatments. I’m trying to find the balance of treatment that would dull the buzz beneath my skin when manic without leaving me lifeless in bed when not.

And I’m still working toward that balance. And I’m being supported from many sides.

In finding a conclusion to this rollercoaster of a journey, I’ve wondered where it’s led me. Sad to say, I don’t think I’ve reached that happy ending that would tie this story up into a little bow. There really isn’t an end to this cycle of ups and downs, of me at my laziest and my craziest, trying to find some equilibrium in the world and in my mind at the same time. And I think I’d rather leave on that note.