Editor’s Note: If you struggle with self harm, the following story may potentially be triggering. You can contact Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741 from anywhere in the U.S.
My name is Alexis (Maislen) Zinkerman and I am a writer, a journalist, a mental health advocate, and the creator of the blog A Mile a Minute Fresh Takes on Mental Health. I have been diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder at age 19 and have lived with it for 22 years.
I attended Simmons College, now Simmons University, in Boston during undergraduate for a little while. Freshman year, I joined many clubs, on top of taking five classes, while interning on a senator’s re-election campaign, volunteering at Project Vote Smart, and working odd jobs for extra cash. I didn’t realize I was becoming full-blown manic until after I crashed into a depression. After a night of cutting myself with razors, I found myself being urged by my friend Rosina to go to the counseling center on campus. So there I was sitting in front of a student intern therapist mumbling and trying to find the words to tell her what was going on. I ended up walking out figuring she wouldn’t understand. I had my first panic attack a few days later where I ran to the restroom, locked myself in a stall, and blacked out for several minutes (to this day, I don’t know how long I did).
After that depressive episode with anxiety, which lasted a few weeks, my energy came back and I was soon racing toward a manic break. I was home for the summer and working an internship at a business magazine. This episode of mania sent me to the hospital for eight days in a psych ward where I was finally diagnosed. I spent the summer recovering, but when I went back to school, things were different. I now had to take these pills every night. There wasn’t an Active Minds chapter around yet on campus where I could go to talk about these issues yet and raise awareness about mental health with my peers. So it became my secret.
I attended DBSA (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance) meetings off-campus and pretty much tried to resume being a normal college student. Everyone expected me to be the “high”-energy me. I never could get back to that person again. The pills made me sluggish and dull, so I flushed them down the dorm toilet. Then my mind went black, which eventually led to another hospitalization. When I came back this time, I felt alone and exposed. Working in the campus newsroom felt scary because I was afraid the deans had alerted my editor and peers that I had been in the hospital. I never asked her what she told them. I managed to keep it a secret still until one day, I was walking with another student reporter and she said out of the blue, “I never knew anyone to have a nervous breakdown in college,” to which I changed the subject. I wasn’t sure how to talk about it. I eventually was forced to change schools and start over.
College Survival Guide
I have decided to write a college survival guide to help students going through what I went through. While the book is being written and compiled, here are a few tips.
The important thing to know is to find someone on campus that you trust. It could be a close friend, professor, administrative staff, counselor, faith leader, or someone in Active Minds if your school has a chapter. Tell this person about your condition and what you need from them should they see symptoms arise. It may take a few weeks for you to find this person, so rely on someone from home to call should something come up.
Eat a well-balanced diet of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. Try to avoid caffeine, alcohol, and drugs (including energy drinks). Try to get eight hours of sleep at night, but one all-nighter a month is not a bad thing. If you pull an all-nighter, make sure your support system is around you. Remember to get exercise every day, even if it is a jog around campus, a brisk walk, yoga, or a trip to the gym.
Be honest with your roommates and friends. Give them literature on mental health and engage them in dialogue about such issues. Tell them what you go through and ask for their support. Tell them how you don’t want them to act if you are in an episode.
Try to avoid using social media during an episode. You might do and say things you might regret later. Get active in your campus’ chapter of Active Minds, and if the campus doesn’t have one, consider starting one.
Choose social and extracurricular activities wisely. Pick two related to your major and one that is a passion of yours. You don’t have to hold leadership roles in all of them.
Remember, you are enough. Self-care is important to obtain a healthy student/life balance.
Stigma and Telling Others
Whether you choose to disclose your condition or not, know you are not alone with what you are going through. Chances are, someone else on campus is going through the same thing. Should you become a campus mental health advocate, that’s great too. Whatever path you choose, know that by focusing on your recovery and your coursework, you will be changing minds with how you handle your condition and ultimately your life.
Today, I have found hope through the right dosage of medication, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), writing, blogging, running, yoga, and love.
Written by Alexis Zinkerman