“The riptide set me free”
By Katie Martinez
Major: Cognitive Studies
Year: Senior, Class of 2017
Learning to live with bipolar disorder is a delicate process. It’s a nonlinear journey through different phases that disappear, reappear and overlap.
When bipolar first hit me, I was a freshman. Once the shock of the first episode subsided, I forced myself to believe that I was okay with the illness. I addressed bipolar clinically, learning all the facts. Stubborn and blind, I only relied on logic and the bullet points of the DSM-5. I tricked myself into believing that I was capable of mastering bipolar right out of the gate.
I was in denial. Sometimes, I’m still in denial. During multiple stretches of stability, I have sincerely thought I was misdiagnosed. Like clockwork, I would eventually come to the conclusion that I did, in fact, have bipolar. Every time, my heart broke.
Despite my challenging experience as a freshman, I was very hopeful going into my second year. The semester began and I had so much fun living in my Mayfield, going to football games with the Spirit of Gold, getting more involved in Alternative Spring Break, etc. I didn’t like that I had bipolar, but it didn’t consume me. By keeping it at a safe distance, I was able to move forward.
At the beginning of sophomore year, I was in a positive, healthy and accepting place. Two weeks passed and it was gone. The Eight Month Depression had arrived. It consumed me; I didn’t know where Katie ended and bipolar began. I was lost in the dark. By month eight, I was close to stability again. The healthier I got, the clearer I saw the bipolar I couldn’t have seen while depressed. In horror, I recalled my own experiences and the extraordinary danger of bipolar finally set in. I was so angry at the world for being so painful and unfair. I raged when I thought about how it would continue to affect my life. Bipolar took my body, the opportunity to study abroad, and 31 out of 36 months at Vanderbilt so far. I grieved, and still grieve, for what I’ve lost.
Over the past three years, in no specific order, I’ve experienced strength, hopelessness, heartbreak, grief, confidence, caution, positivity, anger, acceptance, fear, bravery, guilt, respect and naivety. I’ve now been healthy for my longest streak: five months and counting (knock on wood). Yet, a substantial part of this summer has been pretty difficult. I’ve learned that stability and pain are not mutually exclusive. I was healthy and also wrecked by all the things I hadn’t been thinking about when I wasn’t healthy. It’s now the beginning of my senior year and the dust is finally settling. My life is in transit and I can tell I’m moving toward some peace and quiet. Silver linings are making their way out of the fog. I feel healthy and happy and excited. Still, without a doubt, I know I’m not finished.
I look to a hero, Elyn Saks. She is a brilliant woman with schizophrenia. After laboriously working her way through Vanderbilt University, University of Oxford and Yale Law School, she is now an expert in mental health law. When people like Elyn Saks bravely share their stories, my confidence grows, my grief is valid and, over time, periods of acceptance grow longer, stronger and brighter.
Tattooed on my arm is a quote from Elyn Saks’ memoir, The Center Cannot Hold. I look at it every day. It’s with me when I feel swallowed and also when I feel resilient.
“The riptide set me free” — the more you accept your illness, the less it defines you.