It happened very quickly. I had just finished my sophomore year at college and was working at a summer camp. I sank into a depression which quickly turned suicidal and psychotic. Fortunately, the camp nurse sent me home to get help before I spun too far out of control.
I have limited memories of the three months after I returned home: doctors, medications, mixed states, hearing voices, not being able to tell what was real, no sleep, too much sleep. It’s all a blur. But I did emerge from this and returned to college, still shaky in my mental health but trying to move forward with my life—and it was not a linear progression. I was hospitalized twice during my senior year, but managed to graduate. Slowly I built a tool kit that has served as the foundation of my mental health stability.
I grew more adept at managing my recovery, despite my shaky start. Over the ten years post-graduation, I developed a career I love in international health and development policy. I finished graduate school, got married, and had a child. I lived abroad in China, which taught me to build a social support network in lieu of the mental health treatment facilities I had used in the United States. There were still bad days and weeks and months, but the skills I developed in therapy and group allowed me to manage them better.
I have learned that while you have to be vigilant about symptoms, you can live a full life pursuing your goals. You do not need to let the illness define you or what you can do. Don’t ignore the illness, but work around the limitations. And there will be set backs—I’ve been hospitalized a few times since college but each time I’ve bounced back faster. If I’m ever in the hospital again, I’ll know that I have bounced back before and can do it again.
Three things have turned out to be the most important to my recovery: a schedule, sleep, and medication. Having to go to work gives me a routine even when my brain is not in the mood to function. Work and taking care of my son keep my life anchored and help head off larger mood swings. Sleep is also essential to my mood stability and I know that even an hour variation in my schedule can have serious consequences.
Medications are great for managing my mood. Medications, of course, do not resolve all symptoms and can have nasty side effects, so you must tinker until you find the right levels. Therapy, mindfulness, family, and friends have also played important roles in my mental health, but the triad of schedule, sleep, and medication are what keep me functioning.
Now, except on the worst days, I look forward to what the future will bring.