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October 4, 2022

Mind Over Matter: UT student faces adversity, stigmas with bipolar disorder

Melanie Westfall

Editor's Note: This is one part in a series about students and mental health. To check out the other stories, click here.

At age 22, Alexis recalled nothing but a life of regret and disappointment and couldn’t understand how she had gone from being a 17-year-old, engaged high school graduate to a divorced, recovering meth addict.

Alexis, a 27-year-old UT student who requested her real name not be used, began showing symptoms at age 15, but, as a high school teenager, she struggled to determine how much of her emotional instability could be attributed to “teen angst” and how much was something more. It was after a public altercation with a stranger that she decided to begin seeing a counselor, who diagnosed her with bipolar disorder at 17. 

Alexis’ doctor prescribed her mood stabilizers and anti-depressants as she struggled to adapt to her new illness. Alexis was eager to graduate high school and get married that December, but, two months before the wedding, her fiancé called off their engagement. Devastated, Alexis became severely depressed and worried that her depression was more than the expected result of heartbreak.

“Any time I feel any type of extreme emotion — either anger, sadness [or] happiness — I’m constantly questioning myself,” Alexis said. “Is this a good reason to be mad? Is it logical to be sad? Is it logical to be happy? Am I losing my mind?”

UT alumna and licensed professional counselor Maggie Erben said bipolar disorder is latent, typically arising in late teenage years or early 20s and that many cases are discovered during college. She said bipolar disorder is an organic illness, meaning it is always present and not triggered by the environment. Symptoms include an oscillation between periods of mania and depression.

“Mania is characterized by impulsive behaviors like substance abuse or gambling,” Erben said. “The person often feels like they don’t need sleep and have abnormal amounts of energy.”

Alexis said her episodes are often extreme, particularly if she forgets to take her medications.

“While it’s scary, [the mania] is exhilarating,” Alexis said. “You feel like you’re on top of the world [and] can do anything. ‘Volatile’ is the one word I would use for my particular depressive episodes. It’s a complete contradiction of a person — you don’t know if what you’re feeling is accurate.”

Soon after her breakup, Alexis entered an abusive marriage that would last for the next four years. Alexis’ husband did not allow her to take her medicine or leave their two-bedroom apartment and threatened to have her “locked up” for her mental illness. Severely depressed, she gained over 100 pounds and became addicted to methamphetamine in an effort to self-medicate and lose weight.

“I felt normal,” Alexis said. “I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t eating as much. I didn’t hate my life.”

She divorced her husband near the end of 2010, and Alexis returned home to live with her parents. It has taken 10 years since she was diagnosed for Alexis to finally be prescribed the correct dosages of medication. Even still, her treatment requires constant monitoring, care and adjustments.

“It takes courage to start taking medicine,” Alexis said. “It’s a step people with mental illness are very hesitant to take — it means you’re admitting you’re sick.”

In March 2012, she met her current boyfriend, and he and her grandmother were two of the most supportive relationships in her life. In August 2012, however, her grandmother passed away. Alexis was devastated.

A few weeks later, Alexis was feeling better and listening to her grandmother’s favorite classical Mexican music. She vocalized to her boyfriend that she missed her grandmother and was going to give her a call.

Confused, her boyfriend objected and reminded her what had happened. She began to feel an overwhelming sense of panic — unable to determine if she was hallucinating that she was alive or dead. It was only after they had taken a trip to the hospital that Alexis finally allowed herself to accept that her grandmother was dead.

“I still remember the look of pain in his eyes seeing me fall apart and having to go through the pain of losing her all over again,” Alexis said.

Alexis underwent a psychotic break and was unable to distinguish fiction from reality. Medically, there was not much to be done, and Alexis recovered through the support and love shared by her boyfriend’s family as well as in forgiving herself.

“As a piece of advice for any person with mental illness, your personal best is enough,” Alexis said. “You don’t have to measure yourself against anyone else. Be gentle with yourself.”

After beginning school at her local community college, Alexis transferred to UT in the summer of 2014 and said the University has been incredibly supportive in terms of mental health outreach and accommodations.

She aims to continue protecting her mental health by making necessary adjustments on her medication, seeing her counselor and avoiding behaviors such as drinking that could threaten her health.

Alexis has now accepted her mental illness as a part of herself.

“I’m not ashamed of [my mental illness],” Alexis said. “If anything, it makes me a stronger person. It proves how determined I am to survive. It’s something you’re born with. You don’t choose it, but you do choose how you react to it, how you live your life with it, and that’s what matters."

If you or someone you know would like to talk to someone about bipolar disorder or other mental health concerns, contact the UT Counseling and Mental Health Center at (512) 471-3515 or click here to find out more about CMHC's resources.

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Mind Over Matter: UT student faces adversity, stigmas with bipolar disorder