By Hannah Blum, as told to Hallie Levine
At 20 years old, I was involuntarily placed in a mental hospital and diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. I went from prom queen to a mental patient, seemingly in an instant. Since then, it’s been a journey filled with ups and downs, but every battle has shaped me into the woman and advocate I am today.
Coming to Terms With the Diagnosis
I began to display the symptoms of bipolar disorder my junior year of high school. I felt like I was screaming in the middle of a crowded room and no one could hear me. On the outside, I appeared happy and perfect. But on the inside, I was a mess of self-doubt, self-loathing, and hatred.
At age 20, I broke down. My friends called my mother, who picked me up from college and took me home. I ended up in the emergency room where they sedated me. When I woke up a few hours later, I was in handcuffs in a mental hospital. The first thing they did was strip me of anything I could use to hurt myself, including shoelaces and hair ties. I’ll never forget the noise I heard when I walked through the doors of my unit: the clack-clack-clack of my sneakers against the ice-cold floor.
A few days into my hospitalization, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I immediately rejected it. I walked back to the bathroom and stared at myself in the mirror. All I knew of bipolar disorder was what I’d seen in horror films. That couldn’t be me.
Thankfully, I had my family there to support me. I didn’t expect them to show up at the weekly visitation hour, as it was a long drive and they all had full-time jobs. Then one day I walked into the common area and saw my brothers’ huge heads peeking through a window. My father, brothers, and sister-in-law were all there to say they loved me. At that moment, it didn’t matter that I was in the hospital struggling with a diagnosis of bipolar. That didn’t define me. I was still me, the person they loved.
When I was hospitalized, there were three words I kept repeating to myself: it didn’t work. All the things that were supposed to make me happy -- like good grades and being prom queen and having friends -- didn’t work. I knew I had to find a new path, a new way.
I walked out of that mental hospital with nothing but a couple of plastic bags filled with my belongings. I was a college dropout, no job, and no money. But as terrified as I was, I also felt relief. My family and I had to recognize that this wasn’t just a teenage problem I’d grow out of. My bipolar disorder was a condition I would have to stay on top of for the rest of my life. I felt lost, but I was also relieved to have everything out on the table. Deep down, I knew that if I exposed my broken, my truth, and embraced what made me different, it would be the gateway to happiness.
I won’t lie. It took me a while to get there. It took years for me to find the right psychiatrist and treatment, which is ridiculous. I liken navigating the mental health system to trying to sail through a storm in a canoe. I remember once, when I told my psychiatrist that I didn’t want to be on medications that sedated me, she pointed to the degree hanging on her wall and said, “I am the expert, I know what’s best for you.” I said to her, “I live with the mind you’re so desperately trying to figure out; treat me with respect,” and walked out of her office. After that, I asked every psychiatrist to leave the door slightly open and record our conversations. Trust me, it made a difference.
After many tries, I’ve finally found a medication that works for me. Before that, I felt like I took way too many drugs. I gained about 30 pounds and walked around literally feeling that I couldn’t see straight. I didn’t want to spend my days sleeping and eating sugar. We may add an antidepressant to the mix, but my goal is to try to keep my pillbox as small as possible.
Getting Comfortable With the Uncomfortable
I was on stage facing an audience the first time I opened up about my life with bipolar disorder. I’d never expected I’d end up there. I’d gone back to college, had a job as a nanny, and otherwise seemed to be back in life as “normal.” I volunteered at a nonprofit mental health agency, but when they asked me why I wanted to work there, I told them that my sister was bipolar. I wasn’t ready to tell the truth just yet. Eventually, however, I agreed to speak at a local mental health conference about my diagnosis. Afterward, people came up to me with their stories: the father who lost his daughter to suicide, the college student with depression, the woman with bipolar whose husband had just left her. I realized I was making a difference.
The truth is, we all experience discomfort at some point. But would you rather be uncomfortable pretending to be someone you are not, or would you rather be uncomfortable being who you are and open and honest? It’s better to be uncomfortable and love the unfixed version of yourself.
It’s something I came to terms with several years ago when I was about to graduate from college. I had a couple of great job offers in corporate marketing. But I also knew that if I accepted these jobs, I wouldn’t be able to truly go public with my bipolar disorder. But if I did what I really wanted to do -- advocate for bipolar disorder and create a blog -- I would be taking a huge financial risk. I’d be much less likely to get a job. Yet my gut told me to do it and not look back. In January 2016, I created my blog, Halfway2Hannah. I also found a workplace with a supportive boss who understands that I have bipolar disorder, and she’s worked with me to create a job that allows me to work remotely and take time when I need it to focus on my advocacy work.
When you live with bipolar disorder, you see peoples’ true colors, and unfortunately, some aren’t so pretty. But you also learn the meaning of real friendships. The people who are there for us whether we are crying or laughing. Real friends add to your life, even when you are at your lowest. I have a great group of friends that I love. We have a close bond, but they also don’t mind when I need some time to isolate. I’ll sometimes go for weeks, even months, not answering calls or texts when I’m going through an intense cycle of ups and down. When I’m ready to resurface, I can reach out again to them like nothing has happened.
It’s been almost a decade since my diagnosis. At that time, I felt so much shame, but today I feel the opposite. I am filled with pride.
Hannah Blum, 32, author, The Truth About Broken: The Unfixed Version of Self-love; advocate for bipolar disorder, San Diego, CA.