Noisy Water Review

Looking for Value Against the Odds:
Finding College Success in My Bipolar Life

Dennis Crisp

I remember sitting on the comfortable brown couch at the mental health counselor’s office. I listened to her explain all the reasons why college wasn’t “a smart choice” for me. “Having Bipolar disorder makes it very difficult to stay on track in school,” she would say, along with, “The pace of college tends to amplify mania and depressed moods. I believe its best that you wait until you can get on some medications that will keep you on an even keel.” These thoughts, of waiting, were devastating to me as I was becoming very excited at the thought of going back to school. I felt it was a chance to get my life back on track; after all, college always reaps rewards. The subject of my schooling, or why I shouldn’t school, became a constant topic at each counseling session we had. She always found reasons to wait and I have to admit, with time I started to buy into it. I began questioning what I had done enrolling at WCC. Was I crazy?

My mind couldn’t let it just sit. I’ve never been good at taking directions that go against my intentions. This diagnosis of bipolar disorder was still so new to me that I felt I didn’t have enough knowledge about the disease to take only one counselor’s words; I needed more information, more people’s views. It couldn't be as bad as this counselor had made it out to be. I started searching for terms like “bipolar symptoms" and “manic depression” on the web, and I acquired an overwhelming amount of hits. Being “Joe Intelligent,” I went to the web sites that I felt were most reputable, ones I felt I could trust. What did I find? Information I didn't want to see. Web sites like the National Institute of Health, a very reputable institution, listed under bipolar symptoms phrases like "having racing thoughts, being easily distracted, having problems concentrating, remembering and making decisions, etc.” The news didn't get any better when I went to other sites. WebMd stated, “Bipolar is a complex illness. There are many different symptoms—and several different types—of bipolar disorder. The primary symptoms of the disorder are dramatic and unpredictable mood swings.” Even The New England Journal of Medicine was painting a fairly grim picture. These were all very well-established, well-qualified leaders in the field of mental health studies and all of them were painting the same grim picture of the disease. The results were only adding to my growing conviction that I was heading, once again, in the wrong direction with another of my life’s choices. A little insight: don’t give a bipolar person any extra reasons to doubt themselves.

The web sites were delivering pretty dour news. I found, mixed among these sites on the search pages, sites showing articles about research being done. When it comes to information on bipolar disorder and educational goals, the research articles weren't giving out any better news. I went to the Health Magazine web site and in their article “Back to School with Bipolar? How College Can Unleash Mania,” they stated, “Without the right treatment and support, bipolar college students face higher dropout rates, drug and alcohol abuse and even suicide.” The research that was being done seemed to be backing up the claims put forth on the original web sites.

It was becoming very easy to buy into the negative rhetoric. Self-doubt is a constant companion of mine and this news was only fueling the fire. I had serious questions of what I was doing enrolled at WCC. I have always believed in the value of higher education, it was a belief I was raised on. I felt education can open doors that are closed to others. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to go to college right out of high school; opportunities for financing schooling were a lot fewer back then. Being the youngest of four kids left me out of luck on any money from home. Once again, I was starting to believe that maybe higher education was not available to me; this time for a different reason.

I just couldn’t pass on the opportunity to try at least, so off to college I went. But I would have to say that the fall quarter, my first quarter, did nothing but add to my discouragement. I found that I went through multiple anxiety attacks and even ended up going to another counselor. It got very rough. I even spent a few weeks during the quarter sleeping only a couple hours each night as the anxiety that had built up spurred on manic episodes. Finals week was not a happy story as stress ran rampant the whole week. Much of what the articles I had read had stated was now bearing out to be true.

Here’s the thing though, information can move mountains. I was fighting demons like self-doubt, fear, insecurity and depression. But I was also learning ways to look at these symptoms and fight through them. I had a big battle, but with the help of other people including my instructors, I was willing to try. I made a choice to take the option of quitting off the table. This forced me to have to look for other options when the going got tough and my mental capacities went south. I won some battles that quarter and, in the end, I stuck it out and made it through. I felt well enough about myself to go ahead and try the winter quarter.

The winter quarter has found me facing new challenges, including a classroom exercise that has pushed me to address my views on my college experience. One of the requisites of my degree program is English 101. I was very lucky to have Jeff Klausman as my instructor. The topics he presented for our consideration were thought provoking and relevant. Part of the class requirements were to write essays. For our first essay, the topic was “how important is a college education to being successful in the work force?” I put this topic in a personal perspective and asked myself how important is college to me? Am I willing to face my fears and get through it? I have never been in doubt about the value of college, so I looked more at was my condition going to hold me back. This assignment asked me to see if my negative outlook on my situation is the only option I have. So I’m taking another look into my feelings, trying to dig a little further into researching this view of bipolar disease and college success. I plan to look at the stories of others that struggle with conditions that make college a challenge. From those stories I hope to find a connection that can help me on my path to college success.

I’ve begun by listening to my classmates tell their stories. Stories about how they've had to struggle to get here. In reading their comments, I am realizing that my struggles may not be any worse than the struggles being overcome by many of my fellow classmates. Financial hardships, social class biases, learning disabilities and the like are just a few of the hardships being faced by others. Struggles that are as difficult as my own, yet they are here, learning, believing in the “value” they can get from receiving a college degree. The same value I have believed in all these years.

I’ve continued looking into it by seeking out the views of other bipolar persons that have been through the college experience and survived. I inquired about their unique experiences and their thoughts on the value of going to college. Since mental health issues are a subject that still hides itself from open public discussions, I had to turn to my fellow WordPress bloggers online for input and I received replies like these:

Rainey, from N.C., wrote, “I went to college after both of my kids were born. I got through it, but a few times I had to withdraw from classes because I just couldn't handle it. When I was manic, I could do it all; when the crash came, it was almost unbearable. It took me 7 years, but I did it and I have been working in my field ever since.”

Lennon, from California, wrote, “Good topic. College saved my LIFE! No joke. Before, I couldn't maintain interest because I was (1) un-medicated, (2) bored as hell, (3) crazy. College channeled that creative bipolar energy into something useful.”

I also wanted to do more research online about bipolar, but after all the negative research I found when I first was looking for information, I was hesitant to look again. I found I was right to feel that way. To this day, the overwhelming majority of research articles out there tell only of the debilitating conditions of bipolar disease: they state all the problems, but rarely offer any solutions. Searching finally paid off though as I found little specks of gold in the sand. I found a few sites that offered help to go with all the gloom. Leave it to WikiHow to hold articles like “Get Help in Living with Bipolar Disorder” and “How to Manage Your Bipolar Disorder.” They were articles that offered helpful hints to cope with the disease. They also offered links to other sources of help and other articles of help. I had finally started to find hope that there could be better outcomes in my life.

Yes, the challenges are still there; I’m still bipolar, always will be and that means the odds are stacked against me. Roadblocks, big and small will always be waiting. But by listening to the stories of others, in class and online, who are struggling just as hard with their own paths, yet are determined to succeed, and with reading the success stories of those who found a way through, I have found a little hidden strength to push harder. I am starting to realize that attempting this “struggle against the odds” may be the hidden value I have always believed I would receive from my college experience. I may not gain substantially on a fiscal scale but I will have gained the skill to face up to long odds and win and that is worth every penny.

Follow-up: I am currently in my third quarter here at Whatcom (Spring of 2013). I still face challenges on an almost daily basis. I’ve experienced bouts of mania and depression in each of the quarters I’ve attended school. Sometimes I wonder if it will ever change, but I also realize that it’s the nature of the bipolar beast. I don’t know why, but that seems to drive me harder towards my goals of college success. I want to make it and I want to succeed…

Works Cited

"Bipolar Disorder Health Center." WebMd. WebMd. Web. 16 Mar 2013. <http://www.webmd.com/bipolar-disorder/guide/bipolar-disorder-symptoms-types>.

Belmaker, RH. "Treatment of Bipolar Depression." New England Journal of Medicine. (2007): 356:1771-1773. Web. 16 Mar. 2013. <http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMe078042>.

Hoos, Michele. "Back to School with Bipolar? How College Can Unleash Mania." Health. 15 Sept 2009: n. page. Web. 16 Mar. 2013. <http://www.health.com/health/condition-article/0,,20304580,00.html>.

Rubenstein, Ben. "How to Get Help in Living with Bipolar Disease (Manic Depression)." WikiHow. N.p. Web. 16 Mar 2013. <http://www.wikihow.com/Get-Help-in-Living-With-Bipolar-Disorder-(Manic-Depression)>.

"What are the symptoms of bipolar disorder?." National Institute of Mental Health. National Institute of Health, 15 Apr 2009. Web. 16 Mar 2013. <http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/bipolar-disorder/what-are-the-symptoms-of-bipolar-disorder.shtml>.

> Return to Top