Students Speak: How I Put Myself First While Living With Bipolar Disorder

Managing your time in grad school isn't easy. One student shares how she learned to prioritize her needs while living with bipolar disorder.

portrait of Selines Sanchez
by Selines Sanchez

Updated May 16, 2022

Edited by Hannah Muniz
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Students Speak: How I Put Myself First While Living With Bipolar Disorder
Image Credit: Pau Novell / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

Things always get easier when you put yourself first.

That's one thing I can certainly tell you when it comes to living with bipolar disorder as a college student — even though I still have my up days, my down days, my "I really don't know what to call this feeling" days, and my "I don't think I can control this" days.

I've learned that all these emotions are valid. And though they don't just go away, they become easier to manage when you prioritize being comfortable with the way you feel, in whatever way that may look for you.

When I first got diagnosed with bipolar disorder in October 2020 and started taking medication, I felt like a rock. As if I already didn't pick my brain enough trying to keep up with my fluctuating emotions, I became hyperfixated on trying to mentally track my mood to see whether the meds were effective.

This didn't work, though, because I struggle with determining which emotions and thoughts are real. Sometimes I can feel more than one emotion simultaneously and my thoughts get entangled, enhancing the intensity of the emotion as I try to figure out what I'm feeling.

Hyperfixating on particular emotions led me to believe false truths about how the medication was working. It's from this very encounter with myself that I learned how much harder it is to snap out of an emotion than to believe it's real in the first place.

“Sometimes I can feel more than one emotion simultaneously and my thoughts get entangled, enhancing the intensity of the emotion as I try to figure out what I’m feeling.”

Upon entering my fifth year of college and last semester of graduate school, I knew the most important thing for me was to find balance — more specifically, a mental health-school balance.

In addition to taking classes, I had to write a thesis, defend it, and fulfill my duties as a graduate assistant in the English department. And with classes now in person, I had to begin commuting again, which added to the stress of managing my time.

My therapist and I came up with ways to help me adjust. The first question she asked me was "What are you passionate about?" I responded with writing, dancing, drawing, cooking — anything in the realm of creating, really. From this, instead of framing my days around my school schedule, I framed them around ensuring I feel connected to my passions at least once a day.

Practicing small habits like putting my emotions on paper, cooking myself a nice meal, and planning time to create art helped ground myself and reminded me that I'm a person who adores creativity. I need this because there are times when I feel like I'm completely detached from who I am, or I've completely forgotten who I was.

Bipolar disorder isn't just feeling an uncontrollable amount of intense emotions and mania — it's dealing with the amount of energy those episodes take out of you. It's exhausting, and there are times when I need days to recuperate.

But as a student, you don't have days — you have deadlines.

Taking time, whether it's five minutes or an hour, to pause and center myself on a regular basis helps me reduce manic episodes and maintain emotional stability.

“Bipolar disorder isn’t just feeling an uncontrollable amount of intense emotions and mania — it’s dealing with the amount of energy those episodes take out of you. It’s exhausting, and there are times when I need days to recuperate.”

When I become overwhelmed from back-to-back assignments and responsibilities, I can feel myself falling into feelings of extreme numbness, anger, depression, or compulsion. In those moments, my reality becomes intensely fixated on that one emotion.

For a long time, I never knew the cause of my hyperfixation, which only intensified my habits of self-sabotage. But even after I became more in tune with my emotions — and as I learn more about myself every day — this awareness doesn't change the intensity. While medications can help stabilize, they cannot rid you of that emotion entirely.

I know bipolar disorder is something I have to live with, but not suffer with. To say I can feel myself falling into these emotions, and to be able to describe them, is a huge improvement from where I was just two years ago.

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Creating a school-health balance centered around making sure I feel OK wherever I am has enhanced my ability to manage my time. I was good at time management academically, but it's important to note that managing your time throughout the day should always include setting aside time to ground yourself. You should also forgive yourself if you just can't get it right some days.

As a grad student and assistant, I find my days filled with emailed assistantship assignments, classwork, and 20-page papers. My thesis is like the cherry on top of an anxiety sundae.

While many have questioned why I went on to pursue higher education with such a condition, I never let that get to me because writing is what I'm passionate about. And in order for me to remind myself who I am in the moments I'm struggling the most, I turn to my passion, to ground myself in the parts I'll always know are true about myself.

Our passions are unique to our personalities, and remembering that connection by practicing ways to remain as close to it as possible helps me know what's real and what's not. Writing was my goal before I got diagnosed — and that isn't changing.

“In order for me to remind myself who I am in the moments I’m struggling the most, I turn to my passion, to ground myself in the parts I’ll always know are true about myself.”

This year, aside from other graduate assistant responsibilities, I was assigned to co-organize the graduate student conference at my university. To say the least, it was extremely stressful. Every last detail fell upon me and another graduate assistant.

Even though the work was split, it was too much for two people, and we had little to no help from the department. I became fed up as the conference date approached and wanted to give up. It became harder and harder to conceal my anger.

Anger is the most difficult emotion for me. I feel it in waves of fury and rage that are oftentimes uncontrollable and unexplainable. The struggle to control my frustration really worried me because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to hide it in front of professors.

And, in fact, there came a point when I couldn't. I ended up having to apologize to a professor for "shutting down" on them during a conference meeting.

I still go back and forth with myself as to whether or not "shutting down" was the right way to describe it, but at least I'm not gaslighting myself and trying to blame myself for the reaction. I've learned doing this only worsens how I'm feeling and isn't conducive to any positive change.

Despite it all, I'm grateful for both the challenges and successes I've faced throughout my year of grad school. These experiences mean more to me because I've been able to get through them with an underlying mental health condition. In all honesty, my diagnosis was very discouraging, and it took time for me to shake that off and feel confident moving forward.

Integrating what I learn in therapy with how I learn in general has been extremely eye-opening and even improved my performance in school. Day-to-day life as a student can be overwhelming, but prioritizing feeling good while you get through it really does make all the difference.

Being a college student with a mental health disorder differs for everyone, but in whatever way this looks for you, know that your experience is always valid.


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