kaitlynn | a mental health journey

January 6, 2020

Kaitlynn reached out a couple of months ago and told me she’d like to do portraits to really symbolize her college experience and her mental health journey.  She and I have been in some shows together and I’ve known her for some time, so I knew a little bit about her story and I knew I wanted to be a part of this project.  We talked a little about her ideas and a concept just hit me. I told her what I was thinking, asked her to send me some words that described her journey, and a blurb about what she had been through. What she sent me was more than I could have possibly imagined.  When I read her piece, I knew it had to be shared, and I was grateful for the opportunity to help her cope through creating art together.  

I’ve thought a lot about this post, and I normally have a lot to say but I feel like Kaitlynn’s words are just so much better than anything I could write.  It’s always so interesting the projects that seem to come up for me right at the exact moment they’re supposed to…  Thank you for sharing this with me, Kaitlynn. 

Regarding my childhood, my parents would say I was stubborn, overly sensitive, and perfectionistic. My pediatricians would say it was all my imagination and intelligence, and teachers would say I was anti-authoritarian and gifted. When I was around 14 years old, it stopped feeling like a gift. During the day, I was energetic, talkative, and bossy, but I would wake up at night and tell my parents I was hearing things or explain how worried I was about dying. When I was 16, “little things” would send me spiraling into day-long panic attacks, and I became so depressed that when my Mom broke a Christmas ornament that was given to me by my deceased grandmother, I sobbed for several days. None of us were completely convinced of my psychiatrist’s diagnosis, but I was admitted to the hospital the winter of my junior year of high school for a depressive episode and suicidal ideation. 

I made it through high school purely on nervous energy. I committed to everything, competed in everything, and carried around an ego four times my size. One musical rehearsal would have me talking rapidly and loudly to my parents into the early morning. I remember sitting on the floor in my room completely surrounded by notecards, like that scene from Suicide Squad where the Joker is surrounded by knives and laughing maniacally. I had memorized my entire Anatomy and Physiology chapter verbatim for an exam the next day, and I was completely and utterly shocked when I asked my mom if I could go get a haircut, and she told me nothing was open because it was already midnight. I graduated, but not before burning a lot of bridges with loved ones and teachers because of my bad attitude and anger at the world. 

Growing up, I always heard, “You can be anything you want to be,” or, “You could get into any school you wanted to,” or my personal favorite, “Everything will get better once to move to college.” I imagined moving away from my “boring” town, finding new friends who knew nothing about me (and the qualities I hated about myself), and then, naturally, becoming ruler of the world. 

I decided on a school that wasn’t too far away from home and wasn’t too expensive. After the two most unmemorable months of my life, I started having unexplainable crying episodes. I would sit in my Old Testament class in the back row with a tissue held over my face trying to hold in my uncontrollable sobs. Then came the nausea- I couldn’t throw up, but I felt nauseous and off-balance all the time. I tried several medications, and gained a new medical vocabulary- akathisia, Stephens-Johnson syndrome, and hypernatremia.

I don’t know that I felt sad, just completely and utterly out of control. I felt useless- I couldn’t do anything without breaking down. My mom took weeks off from work to drive me an hour to Bowling Green, wait in the parking lot between classes, and then drive me home. I told my boyfriend at the time that I thought I’d had enough of being useless, and my parents rushed to campus. After much deliberation, we walked to the registrar and I withdrew from college, the place that was supposed to fix my problems. 

After being released from the hospital, I started tracking my mood swings and triggers, and my family and I finally came to terms with (it felt a lot like a grieving process) the fact that this was not an acute issue. My all-night ramblings really were hypomania, and my uncontrollable sobs really were depressive episodes. When I admitted these things to those who needed to know, I usually prefaced them with, “But I’m never angry,” or “I’m not violent though,” or “I’m not psychotic,” just to give them some peace of mind. 

 I got a full-time job and moved back home. I was broken. I could barely go to work, and I stopped being able to picture my future as anything ambitious. I always required 100% stability, and even nostalgic movies could trigger major depressive episodes. I worked until I was sick of my retail job, I gained a little weight, and lost contact with most of my friends. The hospital had been a good transition point from suicidal ideation to the real-world, but it didn’t do much other than that. Eventually, through pure time (and lots of support from family), I got a new job, applied to a new university, and decided, “I’m better now.”

College was better this go-round, but as soon as the harder assignments and expectations from earlier academic experiences resurfaced, I lost all concept of self-care, and treated myself like I couldn’t afford to fail again. I started majoring in psychology (mostly to spite my own chemical imbalances) and joined a few clubs. I joined the choir, made some friends, and made it through my sophomore and junior year unscathed (except for my permanently scarred ego). For a while it felt like I was cured. I told all my closest friends the general ideas of my life story, and they held me accountable for telling the truth about my emotional state. I even managed to study abroad for a whole semester in Chile without any major issues. 

When I got back to campus for my fall semester of senior year of college (September 2019) I was taking undergrad classes and a grad class. I felt lost, and the familiar thoughts of, “you can’t escape this endless cycle of mood swings so why keep trying,” crept back into my regular daily routine. 

I spent one singular night moaning and sobbing in my boyfriend’s lap this September when my whole family silently acknowledged the fact that, “yes, it’s back, and it’s different this time.” Straight to the hospital we went, but this time, I had to miss three weeks of college courses. When I returned to school, it felt like I had been gone a whole semester. It took me a month to catch up, and the anxiety and mania set in as soon as the depression died down. 

I’ve started to explain mania and depression to people with this extended analogy I call “The Faucet of Life”:

I am a red solo cup sitting under a water faucet. When I’m manic, the water keeps running and filling me up. For a while, being full feels amazing, but the fuller I get, the more spills out, and it’s overwhelming, and you’ve made a huge mess. Then, my first impulse is to knock the cup over to pour all the water out. The faucet keeps running, but the cup is mostly empty now. The water keeps hitting the cup and crushing it with its pressure. Eventually, I’ll pick the cup back up to fill it again, and it’s a never-ending cycle. After too many times of this annoying and embarrassing cycle of being too full or drowning, what seems like the only realistic option? Turn the faucet off.

I always look around and think that I missed out. I feel like a 70 year old woman- going to bed at 10pm, forcing myself to get 9 hours of sleep, never missing a medication, getting 10,000 steps in, tracking my bowel movements, and avoiding overly stimulating situations. Do other college students have to do those things? I know I’m not the only one. I hope no one looks around and says, “College should look like this,” because I’ve dropped out of school, transferred, worked full-time, worked part-time, lived on campus, lived off campus, had boyfriends, been single, been manic, been depressed, gone out dancing, gone to bed early, studied abroad, stayed inside, aced tests, failed tests, been hospitalized, and had perfect attendance, and college is still just a place, not an experience. Not the “best time of your life (or the worst).” Just a place. Buildings. Classes. You’re not a college student. You’re just you in a new place.

I’d be happy to have a day where my cup was half-full or half-empty. After 21 years of living with Type II Bipolar Disorder, I’ve learned to love neutral. 

My time in college doesn’t have to be black or white- in fact, I’d say it looks pretty good in grey. 

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  1. Connie Smith says:

    I pray that your soul baring with this article and photo shoot not only help you but others who experience similar lives. Love, respect, admiration and applause to both Kait and Shelby for this beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing and thank you for caring. <3 <3 <3