Throughout grade school, middle school, and high school, I earned top grades. I wasn’t the valedictorian, but I gave the high school commencement address, and I rocked it. People on the outside saw a high-achieving, confident person. Inside, I was fighting bipolar disorder, crushing anxiety, and an eating disorder. No one knew, and I didn’t tell them. I was afraid of what people would think.
When I went off to college, I went somewhere small, about an hour away from home, with the unsaid statement that I couldn’t go far away and succed; not without support. Not without trips home every weekend. I accepted it, and as time went on, I learned they were right.
I excelled at this small college, changing my major from pre-med to psychology after a horrific first semester in science classes that I couldn’t wrap my mind around. I was depressed. I had stopped taking my medication. I think everyone knew that, and that summer, Mom tried to get me help again.
Every summer, actually, Mom would try to get me help again. I would always participate, but then go off my meds as soon as I came back to school. It was an ugly cycle, and it pains me to this day that I went through it. But I didn’t want anyone to know what I was going through. No one knew I had bipolar disorder, outside of my aunt who worked in the counseling center and my academic advisor, who was more like a surrogate mother.
My senior year, I was applying for Ph.D. programs that combined psychology and the law. Forensic psychology, it was called. I went on interviews. Costly interviews. They bore no fruit because I acted absolutely crazy when I went to these colleges. They saw through me and saw that I was very ill.
After college and after failing to get into any kind of graduate program, I started working as a mental health technician on an Eating Disorders Unit (EDU) at a local hospital. As a person living with bulimia, this was a bad choice. I wasn’t on medication, I was drinking a lot, and I started to gain weight. I was also working PRN at another hospital as a mental health tech.
I became manic. Several days a week, I would work 7:30-4 at the EDU and then 5-12 at the other hospital. A lot of the reason I did this was to stay away from Joe, my abusive boyfriend that I was living with. All that working didn’t keep his hands off my body, or his reigns of terror on my psyche absent. I became suicidal.
I moved out of Joe’s house and into my own apartment. I picked up a boyfriend, almost literally off the streets, and continued to drink heavily and work many hours. Eventually, I completely cracked. I quit drinking and I started seeing a psychiatrist. When things didn’t level out quickly enough, my parents brought me back to live with them in the little city.
After a few months, I had a job and I moved back out. I was working as a case manager with the mentally ill. My caseload was loaded with the sickest of the sick. It was a very stressful job and I didn’t fare well. I was written up numerous times for poor attendance and tardiness. I eventually left that job, three years later, on FMLA because I had really lost it and couldn’t work.
I did an intensive outpatient program and started to feel better. After about a year, I was hired at the local prison to work with the mentally ill on things like obtaining disability and getting services set up in the community. Here, I was constantly being written up and warned about my attendance and lack of punctuality. I was very depressed, I was very manic, I was very anxious. I was always very something. I did good work, though, and even won awards. My boss liked to say that I’d outwork anybody, as long as I came in that day.
Eventually pressure built up again and I was very ill. I went on FMLA and had to resign because there was no way I could come back to work. My mom saw a pattern in my work and educational history, and talked with my doctors and therapist about filing for SSDI.
I couldn’t see a life without work, but I filed anyway. We applied April of 2012 and it was awarded June or July of the same year. This quick answer, with no questions or rebuttals, confirmed to me that, while I might feel like I could work, the powers that be disagreed. SSA, my parents, my doctors, my therapist all concurred — Rose can’t manage full-time employment.
So here I stand, at the bait shop. SSDI checks coming in and working about 20 hours per week at an extremely low-stress job, so that I can function on a daily basis. I moved from high-achieving college student, pursuing a Ph.D., to a cashier and bait slinger. How far we fall, right?
What I can say now, however, is that I’m happy. I am truly, genuinely living a life worth living. It’s not always easy and there are many bad days. Not enough sunlight or getting my sleep schedule thrown off can put me in a tailspin. If I stick to my structure, to my routine, use my DBT skills, and employ my support system, I do pretty well. I even like my job in the bait store, slinging bait, ringing people up, and keeping track of files and paperwork.
People who knew me way back when may not recognize or understand who I am now. I generally don’t give them that luxury, either. There is a very difficult stigma surrounding mental illness, and additionally surrounding young people being on SSDI. I tell only those I trust, and only those who I think will have an either neutral or positive response.
What you see isn’t always what you get. There is more to me than bipolar and depression and anxiety. If I had high blood pressure and diabetes, you wouldn’t shame me, now would you? The unfortunate truth is that you will likely never know who I am and what I go through. I would rather you not know me than be shamed for having illnesses that came to me through no fault of my own.