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The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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The struggle within | Defying definitions

In high school, Caroline would get up at 8 a.m. to get ready for the day. She ate breakfast, went school and read in her downtime. As she got ready for bed, she would reflect on her actions and thoughts throughout the day. Around 10:30 p.m., she’d tuck herself between the sheets and go to sleep – in her locked and padded room.
Caroline, a quiet, reserved senior at Texas A&M who requested anonymity, suffers from several psychiatric and learning disabilities, the most prominent being a generalized anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder II. She was diagnosed in her junior year of high school and spent years in and out of treatment facilities and on and off medications. At one point, she was on 10 prescription medications at once.
“I’m definitely not textbook by any stretch of the imagination,” Caroline said. “I’m basically the opposite of everything they define.”
The University of Maryland Medical Center states that bipolar disorder II is characterized by depressive symptoms with occasional episodes of hypomania. Unlike mania symptoms hypomania symptoms tend to be less euphoric and don’t last as long. Bipolar disorder I, the more common of the two, is characterized by at least one manic episode, with or without major depression.
“When people say ‘bipolar,’ they always think bipolar I, so I don’t have the mania they would expect,” Caroline said. “Mine is more angry and passive-aggressive, but they both have the same depression feature. I’m not the typical bipolar person you think of, with the giant mood swings and weird shopping sprees.”
However, Caroline said her anxiety disorder is pretty much by-the-book.
“With anxiety disorder, I get stressed over the same things everyone else does. The difference is my stress builds and becomes more amplified. People have told me it sounds like I’m describing a heart attack when I get panic attacks from the anxiety. My chest hurts really bad and sometimes they can be so debilitating that I can’t move because I’m in so much pain.”
Caroline described her childhood as similar to any other child’s, minus one crucial element.
“I’m an only child with two working parents, a middle-upper class family and I had everything I could ever want. My parents were just…busy,” Caroline said. She credited
the absence of her parents as part of the reason why her
disorders developed.
“Part of it was also just chemical, like adolescence – that’s when all the chemicals just kind of went ‘Woo-hoo!’ That was just timing. I went to a magnate middle school, which is harder anyway, but that’s pretty much when everything started crumbling. It kind of plateaued, then a lot of big stuff happened, and I got treatment.”
Big stuff for the average teenager involves not getting a date to the dance or getting a pimple on picture day. Big stuff for Caroline involved being placed in a mental health treatment facility on suicide watch because she would burn and cut herself when her parents weren’t around.
“Lots of it was threats that they [my parents and the hospital] caught before I could do anything, which was frustrating at the time, but good for me in the long run. I’ve cut, I’ve burned, I’ve overdosed on stuff – lots of self-inflicted stuff that they assumed was suicidal, which it wasn’t normally, but that’s what they called it.”
In the treatment facilities, the orderlies watched the patients closely and were very strict with the limits they placed on the personal effects the patients were allowed in their rooms.
“Anything you could hurt yourself or someone else with, you couldn’t have,” Caroline said. “One time I had pictures in a flip-thing on a metal stand that you could unscrew to get the pictures out, and I couldn’t have it because I could unscrew the metal balls and hurt myself with the ends of the frames. They wouldn’t let me have the pictures either, which was weird, but I guess I understand. I’ve seen very creative methods of hurting yourself from other people. Some people get really desperate.”
After extensive therapy, Caroline and her doctors concluded that her self-inflicted harm was partly because she thought she deserved it and did something wrong, and partly to get the attention she wasn’t receiving by her parents’ excessive absence in the home.
“Basic things that people normally know, like ‘I can do things,’ ‘I affect people’ and ‘People care about me’ – normal feelings that any small child would probably learn on a normal basis — were things I didn’t believe were true; mostly that I can succeed and I’m not always going to be a failure. [I realize now that] I have a lot more potential than I gave myself credit for.”
As tough as it has been for Caroline, her disorders have affected her family life just as much. After her learning disorders were diagnosed, she got in a big fight with her family about grades and how they weren’t everything. She described her parents as being much more understanding now that she’s in college. Even after hours of mandated therapy, she noticed basic changes in the family dynamic.
“The biggest change was that they like having a label [to put on me]. It’s easier for them to deal with the stuff I did and didn’t do when they can say, ‘Oh, she did this because she has this.’ This doesn’t always work for me, but there’s only so much change you can make to someone else without them being willing to change, and I had to accept that. It’s still really hard for me to deal with, though, because I think ‘Why won’t they change? I had to.’
“Now my parents’ attitude is ‘As long as you pass, that’s fine, and as long as you do the best you can, that’s OK with us.’ Whereas before, it was ‘You need to make As and that’s pretty much the end of that.’ I believed I couldn’t live up to their expectations, which were pretty out there anyway. By the time I got to college, though, it had all blown over because my parents saw the toll it had taken on me.”
Caroline said high school passed in a blur. She missed out on some normal high school experiences, such as prom and after-school activities, because of her time spent in treatment. She was only allowed to leave her treatment facility to take the SAT, after which she was briskly whisked back to the center. Despite it all, she graduated with good grades and is continuing her education at Texas A&M University.
“Overall, the Texas A&M community has been very accommodating. Freshman year, I had a really bad bout where I didn’t want to get up and do anything, and stayed in my dorm for a whole week and missed all my classes. For the most part, my teachers were very understanding and helped me catch up in any way they could. I also got lecture notes from my classmates.
“[Having these disorders in college] makes it hard because people don’t generally understand psychiatric disorders very well and they’re so different from person to person. Some people are more willing to listen and learn than others, as with anything. I’ve learned how to choose my battles more wisely as I’ve grown, so I can usually tell if it’s worth the battle or not, depending on who it is.”
To help deal with her disorders, Caroline likes to ride her horse, swim, listen to music and read, even though her learning disorders have made the latter particularly frustrating.
“Music helps me focus on other things and get away. I mostly listen to Christian and country…I like the noise. Silence reminds me of being alone.”
She said she always makes sure to have time for herself to get away from people who are bothering her and do the things she loves. She even finds time to volunteer, despite everything else she deals with.
“Right now I volunteer at two public schools during the day and after school. I volunteer with two different programs which help children with special needs learn how to care for and ride horses. I want to teach special education, but I was so far into my degree when I figured that out that I would have had to start completely over. [Animal science] isn’t what I’m truly passionate about anymore. I’ll finish out my degree and hopefully go back and get my teaching certificate.”
In addition to doing the things she loves, she cited her friends and herself as means of motivation and support.
“I try not to lean on anyone in particular too much because it’s hard, especially when things get really bad,” Caroline said. “It’s hard for any one person to deal with that on top of their own everyday stresses and worries. I have different friends I go to for different things. I’m pretty in-tune with what I need, mostly self-motivated. [My faith] has come under a lot of turmoil because of my disorders. I wouldn’t say it’s helped me, per se. It’s made me question more than it’s helped, actually.
“Even though I wouldn’t say my disorders are a defining characteristic, I don’t think I’d be as mature as I am [if I hadn’t had them]. I had to grow up pretty fast. It gave me a pretty positive insight to other people, which helps when I work with people with special needs. I just don’t think the way people typically think because I’ve had to come at things from different angles. I have that ‘Well, let’s do it differently and accomplish the same thing’ mentality.”
Caroline has learned through years of experience, therapy and medication how to handle situations and herself at college.
“For a long time I didn’t feel at all. It was just easier not to than to feel the ups and downs, so I made myself not feel, which is actually really bad for you. I didn’t cry for years, but I could also cry on demand. It used to be very frustrating and annoying when I didn’t know how to deal with it. There was lots of ‘Why me?’ and ‘Why now?’ and ‘What did I do?’ It was annoying because I’d be having a panic attack in the middle of class and people wouldn’t understand. They’d be like ‘You look fine, nothing’s wrong with you.’
“Every so often, I come across someone who doesn’t understand or is not willing to listen, but as a whole, it’s part of me and I’ve accepted that, and it doesn’t really make me feel one way or the other. It just is the way it is.”
Despite all the difficulties she has had to face, Caroline stressed that she is just a regular student with regular problems, regular dislikes and likes. She’s a native of Austin with a fondness for horror movies, Italian food and psychology books.
“I’m just like any other person for the most part. I’m a lot better at letting things drop than I used to be. Before, I felt like ‘I want everybody to understand and get it and know why this is happening,’ but I know that’s not possible. If someone doesn’t understand, I’ll either try to help them or drop it because it’s not worth the effort or the anxiety it causes either party.”
Having come this far her ordeals, she offered her advice to those going through the same thing and those unaware of such afflictions on their peers.
“To students going through the same thing, I just want to say you’re not alone. People do care and want to help, if you’ll let them. Don’t be afraid. And to those unaware of these afflictions, know that not everybody is just like you. Have an open mind. Be considerate.”

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