Managing Bipolar Illness in College and in Graduate School

Graduate school from 1992 to 1994 was a time when my bipolar illness appeared to be getting more manageable.  Again, this was before the time of becoming a Project Management Professional or PMP-certified in 2002.  The mini-breaks began to subside in or around 1994, though I was still managing bipolar symptoms.  During this time my awareness of the importance of the sleep cycle developed.  If I had two nights of really bad sleep in a row, there were warning signs that instability was around the corner.  This two-night sleep rule continues with me today.  Now I can generally manage a one-night sleep deprivation but not two.  In addition to the new sleep hygiene, I gave up caffeine and alcohol at this time (though later resumed my use of caffeine only).

When I was enrolled in my master’s program, I was taking a Finance class and was having difficulty with bipolar symptoms.  The date for dropping or adding a course had already passed.  But I knew that I was not going to pass this Finance course.  I simply could not get the concepts the way the professor was teaching them.  So I reached out to the professor and asked if he could make an exception for the drop/add rule due to the fact that I was experiencing bipolar symptoms.  He reluctantly agreed but agreed nevertheless.

Later that summer I took a finance class from a different professor whose method of teaching “I got.”  I had no problems taking the course and passing it with this new professor.

This experience in academia also harkens back to a time during my undergraduate career.  I was able to drop a course associated with writing my thesis around the time I had my first break.  The college was accommodating in this regard, but did not provide any disciplinary action for the professor associated with that thesis who was engaged in trying to get me to come with him on a trip to New York.  My experience is that he was engaging in very inappropriate behavior – trying to get me to go to New York with him as well as providing cocaine to a group of undergrad students.  I have written several blogposts surrounding this experience as an undergrad so I will not go into detail about it at this time.

All in all, academia has been pretty tolerant of special needs associated with school requirements and my bipolar symptoms.  I would say though that there is still a long way to go in clarifying what type of behavior is appropriate for a college professor towards his or her students.  At the time in 1984 and 1985 there was absolutely no guidance from academia and academic ethics in this regard.

My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Life before Anxiety

I have limited or very limited memories of what life was like for me as a child and/or a teen before bipolar illness hit me in my twenties as a college student.   This is particularly true of my early childhood years before middle school. These memories before middle school are largely blank. They are not bad memories, per say, they are just not memories at all. Like a blank screen on a TV set — all images gone with little sound either. I am seeking to explore the lack of early memories as time moves forward and as my therapy progresses.

In high school, I was a typical over-achiever and straight A student.  I graduated at the top of my high school class and was voted by high school peers to be “the most likely to succeed.”  I had a steady high school boyfriend for my Junior and Senior years in high school.  My study peers were the Advanced Placement teens while my social peers were “the in-crowd.”  Somehow it was important for me to feel that I was part of “the in-crowd” rather than just being satisfied with my academic peer group. Most of my memories of high school are very strong as I was able to hold onto this vision of myself as “successful.” These memories are much more vigorous than memories from the years before middle school.

Most of my memory absence appears to be before middle school years. When I was in sixth grade, my parents divorced.  I tended to manage what I now recognize as what may have been anxiety and feelings of depression by becoming a great student and high achiever.  I felt somehow if I could be a straight A student, there was no wrong happening in my life and all was right with the world. 

My Dad remarried a short time after I transferred in sixth grade to a private school. When I was a Sophomore in high school, my Mom also remarried.   With both parents happily remarried, I continued to live life relatively anxiety-free or so it seemed.  I was a super student and a valued member of the cheerleading squad, the track team and the student council.  I was the top student in my Senior class and voted in as “the May Queen” by my Senior class peers. 

It was not until I arrived at Ivy College that I first experienced anxiety that I was aware of.  Suddenly everybody was as smart as I was.  Suddenly my coping mechanisms for stress – being the top in my class – seemed very very far away.  I took to studying all the time to keep my grade point average in the “A” zone rather than adopting an acceptance for “B” work.  This preponderance for “A” work I think was a factor in my inability to distance myself from the come-on’s and other subpar behaviors of my college thesis professor–  Professor Flannigan — during my Senior year.   The coping mechanisms I had adopted in my middle school and upper school years were inadequate for coping with the challenges in college days, particularly those challenges of my late Junior and early Senior year days.  Perhaps unlike many college students, in college I did not appear to grow out of or beyond coping mechanisms that were helpful in my younger years in middle and high school.    

In addition, it may have been that Professor Flannigan, untrained therapist that he was, was somehow trespassing dangerously into the “safe world” of that six-year-old child while that six-year-old child was striving desperately to stay on course.  Once again, Flannigan’s assuming to be a trained therapist or acting like one was likely very, very dangerous for me particularly if sexual or other abuse was present for me as a young child.

What has changed since college days? There is still a blank screen there where there should be early memories, but at least now I am in a place to work through those voids with a trained therapist rather than an emotionally immature egotist.