I’m currently a 5th-year physics female graduate student, and I struggle with Bipolar II and OCD. However, I wasn’t diagnosed with either of these things until I was well into my Ph.D. program.
I have had depression (undiagnosed) going back to early high school. If I’m honest, my first year of graduate school completely broke me. During my summer semester post-first into second year, I had horrible depression and daily anxiety (which was new for me). I spent about 6 months not doing any work and was unable to eat much of anything, shower, or get off the couch. I would have spurts of productivity that lasted a day or two, motivated by the fear of being asked to leave the program, before sinking back down. There were many false starts.
Upon reflection, the anxiety was caused in part by my boyfriend at the time and in part by the stress of the graduate program. I went to the psychiatrist on campus, and they started trying out different medications for depression and anxiety. When the doctor put me on Wellbutrin, I had a hypomanic episode, which led to a mixed state episode that had me self-admitted to the psychiatric hospital for emergency medication management. It was then that I was diagnosed with Bipolar II. Having a hypomanic/mixed-state reaction to SSRIs is a tell-tale sign of Bipolar Disorder. This included horrible obsessive thoughts, an inability to sleep, compulsive spending, the inability to sit still, self-harm, and suicidal ideation.
It's VERY hard to do research when this is going on.
I went completely off the grid, not communicating it to my advisor until a week or two after I got back from the hospital. I didn’t tell her that I was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder, only that I was having severe depression and self-admitted to the hospital. She was understanding and supported me taking 9 months off. When I returned, the research that I had been working on had moved on without me, and I had to start over on something new. This was challenging, especially since I wasn’t in the right line of research.
My advisor was emotionally supportive but had a very hands-off and distant advising style. I’m grateful for how supportive she was of the former, but the latter made things challenging. I switched research groups and still haven’t quite gotten my meds right. This, once again, messed with my ability to be productive and function on a “normal” level.
I started therapy a little before admitting to the hospital. It took switching to a better therapist until I was also diagnosed with OCD. I was having extreme intrusive thoughts. After I left my husband a year ago, I went off of my medication for a few months because I couldn’t afford doctor visits. This was absolutely detrimental to my research. Once I was finally able to go back to therapy, I told my advisor about my Bipolar diagnosis. From my perspective, he received it well enough. I don’t think he understands it very well, but he is still supportive when I’m having problems with my mental health.
Earlier this year, I had a HUGE depressive episode and was unable to make any progress with my research for several months. This led to me being extremely worried about my place in my program, which obviously contributed to the cycle of depression. I was able to come out of it and get on medication that stabilized me, but it’s terrifying to think that this non-neurotypical part of myself could prevent me from achieving my goals. I’m so grateful to my current advisor for his support and understanding, as well as my previous advisor. Without either of them, I wouldn’t be where I am now. And I know that I’m lucky in that aspect—a lot of students don’t have that kind of support.
I was able to get back on my medication, but it’s taken the better part of 8 months to get stable on it. I’m at a point where I can function properly, but I still have bad weeks. So, a soul-crushing first year, identity crisis, bipolar and OCD diagnoses, a hospital stay, getting married, a pending divorce, and trying to hold onto my research position for dear life while not being able to force myself to eat or shower regularly characterizes my stay in graduate school thus far
The good news? After 3.5 years of therapy and medication management, I feel like I’m finally getting a handle on my life. I’m now exercising regularly, cooking all my meals, and have a thriving spiritual practice, friends who support me, and research that I think has the potential to really help people.
In terms of coping, I try to take things day to day.
I’m still working on a regular sleep schedule, making sure to take my medication every night, leaning on friends when I need to, eating healthy, exercising, and meditating. I also found that I LOVE flow arts (poi, contact staff, hoola hooping); it’s honestly the thing that makes the most difference in my day-to-day mental health. I don’t have to “make” myself do it—I just start playing around with one of the toys I have, and suddenly 30 minutes go by, and I’m feeling better. I’m still working on getting a consistent schedule, but I’ve found that slowly integrating small pieces of healthy activities in my life is really helping the process. (And I can’t stress enough the importance of going to therapy regularly.) Also, cutting out toxic relationships has been a big part of me getting better. I have learned that those can have much more of an impact on your mental health than you might think.
So many times over the last 5 years, I thought it wouldn’t get better. But it will. It takes work, but it’s possible and so worth it.
Thank you to our anonymous storyteller!