Erica Bennett

from Bellaire, MI

I was diagnosed either bipolar or cyclothymia disorder(bipolar with a milder manic phase) when I was 18. The diagnosis shifted from doctor to doctor, but it was not the main problem. The problem was that I developed the symptoms, as a recognizable illness at age 11. All through middle and high school, I was in and out of minor trouble, and routinely had my grades go from As to Fs in a matter of weeks. My parents didn't know what was going on and grounded me regularly. From age 13 to 17, I didn't spend a summer where I wasn’t grounded. Yet, while I knew I wasn't doing things right, I couldn't stop myself.

As young as five, I wasn't able to make friends easily. I had an uncontrollable temper. Once, I put my bike through the metal half of a screen door because I couldn't reach the knob around the handle bars. At 12, I was bulimic and hid everything I thought I did wrong from everybody. At age 13, I could no longer make myself vomit, so I began to burn myself with a stolen lighter. At 14, I started cutting myself and had my first suicide attempt. After that, self-mutilation and self-loathing began.

At school, no one noticed. The grades dropped but rose again, so there wasn’t a need to worry. It was the height of "grunge", so no one thought a girl wearing oversized flannel in the middle summer was surprising, never mind all her friends and peers are in tank tops. I didn't do drugs, or drink, or get into fights, I rebelled by being a Straight Edge (no drugs, alcohol, not even soda), so I didn't merit any attention. I cracked jokes and was an avid reader with a good family. I wasn't at risk. The odd behavior was just explained away as teenage blues. Really? Teenage blues means I want to die? Hmmm.

After I graduated and I went to university, I knew something was wrong with me. I wasn't growing out of the teenage blues. My mom had tried to get me therapy at 14, but I was in a normal phase when I saw the doctor and was declared a normal kid. So from 18 to 25, I tried different therapists, different drugs, and different diagnoses. I had another suicide attempt at age 21. Unable to get through a semester at school, I left for a year here and there.

Help was found, not in doctors, but in books. As a major in anthropology, I learned about alternative ways of life and experience and above all, research. No one was coming up with answers for me, so I looked for them myself. It's frightening how little is known about these illnesses. I learned about lifestyle changes and new forms of psychotherapy. So at 26, I'm graduating with a degree in anthropology, am (most of the time) happily married, and looking forward to grad school.

I am not diminishing what doctors contribute to handling these diseases, but I want to emphasize how important life changes are to living with mental illness. The answer is not in drugs alone, there must be talk therapy and lifestyle adjustments. One can live a normal life with bipolar, it just requires a new definition of normal.

Looking back, what could have been done at the time to improve the situation? Treatment, medication, a different approach, or understanding from others around you?

Looking back, I really wish someone in my school would have noticed what was happening to me. My mother had an idea, but I think see needed confirmation from an outside source. Part of the problem is that bipolar and depressed kids tend to be smart and can be very good at convincing people it's not mental illness. So to parents, trust your guts. If something says your kid needs help, pursue it.

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