In 2008, the summer between my first and second year at the University of Toronto (U of T), I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and I will never forget the crisis that motivated me to find help on campus.
Throughout my first year at school, I felt a growing pressure, like someone was slowly wrapping my chest in cellophane, squeezing it tighter as the layers thickened until I was nothing but a hot, sweaty mess.
U of T wasn’t my first case of the varsity blues.
In 2007, I was 18 years old when I withdrew from the acting program at Syracuse University (SU) due to a massive depression. My withdrawal was a surprise even to my psychiatrist because I refused to admit I needed help.
Two years previous, while in high school, I was diagnosed with unipolar depression, but I never believed that I had a chronic problem. I thought my self-harming impulses and my evenings spent drowning in swampy hopelessness would end when I went to acting school. I worked obsessively hard to get into SU and when I got in, I felt proud and confident for the first time.
But when I arrived on SU campus, I felt immense social anxiety. I was panicked by the large crowds, or maybe it was the pressure to be brilliant, or maybe it was the risk of being less-than brilliant. Whatever it was, fear partnered with stress to become an existential panic, expressed as a hypo-manic effort to save the world through obsessive garbage sorting and environmental-warrior monologues to my parents (or to no one). I comforted myself by binge eating sugar until I boomeranged into a depression so deep, I forgot how hard I had worked to get to SU, and I dropped out because I felt helpless.
After a year off, I recovered. But I think, deep down, I knew that the cycle would repeat at U of T.
In 2008, I had applied to U of T with no real goal other than to stop working for my dad. Months before school started, he drove me downtown for an orientation on campus. I started shaking and crying on the drive down Avenue Rd. As we approached Bloor St, we were surrounded by busy people with backpacks and briefcases who walked in passionate surrender to their life’s focus while I rode beside my Dad, heading to a fancy school, trying to collect a purpose for myself in my head. He kept asking me “what’s wrong,” until I finally screamed, “I DON’T KNOW WHY I AM GOING TO SCHOOL!”
I needed a pep talk or a hug or maybe even a suggestion of my value. But instead, Dad yelled, “WELL THAT’S RIDICULOUS. YOU’RE NOT GOING TO BE A DOCTOR, ARE YOU? YOU’RE NOT GOING TO BE A LAWYER, ARE YOU? NO, YOU AREN’T SO JUST TAKE A BUNCH OF COURSES AND YOU’LL FIGURE IT OUT.”
But I felt guilty having no focus and I was worried my guilt would combine with fear to cause yet another failure to launch. And Dad was wrong. I was right to be worried that I might not “figure it out.”
I began my first year with the same intense social anxiety I experienced at SU, a fear of crowds, of being in the way, of standing out and offending people. I think, in some way, I defend myself from these repeated anxieties by falling into a depression so deep that time slows so that I can hide in my bed.
I reported my depression to my psychiatrist, and she prescribed me more antidepressants. Since my mom has bipolar disorder, my doctor knew to monitor my mood for an elevation. But, at age nineteen, I was determined to avoid further diagnosis. Even as my mood began to lift, I ignored the signs.
As summer approached, I was entertaining a major in socio-cultural anthropology which, at the time, required a 100-level course in a second type of anthropology. I took a summer course in biological anthropology which, to my surprise, I found fascinating.
I felt a pay-off in the sciences. I felt a sudden direction, unlike the abstraction and the valuelessness I felt at art school. And even though this tiny dip into science was a shallow escape from who I was, I felt proud again.
I obsessively studied, devouring cue cards and timelines. And then at night, high from my academic productivity sessions, I visited every patio or threw parties at my apartment, and I felt truly independent for the first time.
But then, I stopped eating.
And, I stopped sleeping.
I started to feel restless. I knew my high mood wouldn’t last. I became anxious and paranoid, and I began hearing the voice of God, directing me to safety, focusing my efforts on my newfound love of studying. I became obsessive and delusional about the small possibility that one day I could become a doctor, a person with value.
Life kept soaring until one day I woke up and I was too afraid to leave my bed. I felt certain that a tsunami was hitting Toronto. The noises outside, the groups of children walking to daycare, the traffic, the wind, it was all the result of a giant slow-motion wave. I hid in my bedroom until the voice of God led me to the door. Outside my bedroom door, there was no storm. It was in my head.
From there, I tried distracting myself at the cinema but the lights and sound triggered me further. Out of panic, I called my brother but quickly hung up on him. I am lucky that I have people around me who are prepared to help. He called my Mom and she took me to the hospital that afternoon. It was clear that the new addition of antidepressants was disruptive. Sometime later that month, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
As I worked with my psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Hospital, she referred me to Accessibility Services at U of T. I booked a consultation with their office and learned that I could take exams in a private room. I was given extra time and, a note taker. Without their accommodations, I would never have graduated.
As I eased into accessibility services, I learned to trust my environment. For some reason, it’s awkward to accept the imbalances of our personalities, moods and neuro landscapes but, my accomplishments at U of T helped me accept the art of identifying pressure and the practice of trusting the people around me to help me let it out.
Edited by Jeffrey Lynham & Curtis D'Hollander