I attended college at an older age and felt proud after earning my degree. I also learned the consequences of pushing too hard, burning out, and risking depression.
Realizing the Breadth of Bipolar’s Influence
Recently, I was asked to share my experiences regarding my time as a college student. It was something different for me to discuss because, outside of talking to a few friends about it, I never talked about it publicly. Although I didn’t realize it then, I see now how bipolar disorder played a huge role in my college career, just like it did in my military career.
I didn’t start attending college in my teens and twenties. I had just turned 31 when I first set foot on a college campus, a community college in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
My goal: Obtain my business degree.
My mindset: “Work hard as hell to get through these two years.”
Simple enough, one would think.
Starting “Small” with Big Goals
Since my ultimate aim was to earn my bachelor’s degree in business and I was in a two-year program, some people wondered why I didn’t go straight for my four-year degree. I planned it that way. At the time, I wasn’t even a full year into my bipolar diagnosis.
I was coming down from a months-long hypomanic episode that was followed by a “crash” of bipolar depression (which ended up being a fairly small part of my overall four-year deep depression that ended my Army career), and I was trying to adjust to a new normal.
Working toward an associate degree first was my way of taking baby steps, trying not to bite off more than I could chew. I thought, If I can’t finish my bachelor’s program, then at least I would have a two-year degree. Earning a degree was important to me because it carried a sense of completion and pride.
I managed to complete my associate degree—and I did so a semester early. That was because I didn’t take a break; I remained a full-time student even during the summer semester. Also, there were semesters in which I took as many as six classes.
It was very overwhelming. But I enjoyed it. I was in the company of great people; I was at a great school; and I had great instructors. I hadn’t felt that sense of pride and accomplishment in a very long time.
Success Followed by Overwhelm
Things took a big turn when I moved to Atlanta, Georgia. It was then that I realized just how overwhelmed I was. Attending a larger school, I found myself surrounded by people who were much younger than me. At the community college, I had been in class with people close to my age or older. In Atlanta, I felt like the old man on campus.
About six months in, I started noticing the cracks where my bipolar symptoms were showing up. I was starting to question if I should complete my degree program. My anxiety was picking up, and I was having a hard time staying focused.
I was losing steam—and I was losing it fast. It wasn’t long before I started to slip into the familiar throes of bipolar depression. Eventually, I had enough, and I decided I needed a break. I was no longer happy with what I was doing. I no longer felt a sense of pride and accomplishment.
Returning Home to Cope with Bipolar Depression
But this depressive episode wasn’t some fluke in a plan that I could just brush off and then go back to class. The depression lasted for months, and it wasn’t something that came suddenly. It had started snowballing much earlier, until it crashed over me.
At this time, my depression was so intense that I started experiencing dangerous thoughts and feelings of shame again. I felt the need to escape Atlanta and go back home to Mississippi.
Once there, I stayed in a hotel for an entire weekend, with almost no contact with the outside world. Except for my mom, sister, and best friend, no one even knew I was home. Looking back, that weekend trip to return home probably saved my life.
Focusing on Recovery and Acceptance
Ultimately, I never returned to college. Even now, I don’t feel like it’s the right time. I am not yet comfortable with my stability to go in that direction now. I would much rather focus my continuous recovery on other projects.
Back when the reality kicked in that my Army career was over, I had felt a sense of defeat. Leaving college had me feeling the same way, which only added to my depression. I felt embarrassed and ashamed that I couldn’t complete another goal and dream of mine.
College Should Be Challenging; It Should Not Cause Burn-Out
College life can be stressful for anyone. I believe it’s supposed to be. As long as the student has the tools to manage, it’s something that can be used to their advantage. After all, real life is stressful. Anyone who claims that life should be stress-free is living in a world of denial.
But college life for someone with mental health conditions—whether anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or any other brain disorder—brings a different level of stress that’s simply not healthy and beneficial. It’s painful, it’s embarrassing, and it can derail one’s college career.
While I was considerably older than most of the students around me, I understand the struggle all too well.
There were days when I simply was too burned out to participate and engage in my classes. Whether it was because of lack of sleep, side effects from my medications, or a potential episode (I had several bouts of mania and mixed episodes while attending both colleges), there were days I simply couldn’t show up to class.
Most of my instructors knew, at a minimum, that I was facing personal struggles, and they understood. While some people would skip class for other reasons, I would do so just to get some sleep and try to get my mind settled.
I haven’t been on a campus since 2016, so I don’t know how colleges and universities are handling mental health conditions among their student populations now. But when I was there, I know that they had ways to help those in need, plus accommodations for students. I took advantage of some of them back then, and I hope that now—especially in light of the current world health crisis—they have even more robust tools and programs.
I don’t regret the time I spent as a college student. When it was going well, it was what I needed to help me regain a sense of purpose. Maybe I could have taken my mental health more seriously; it was during this time that I was in therapy but was mostly resistant to treatment. But I’m proud of what I accomplished.
I also miss it. Maybe when the time is right, I’ll return.
JB Burrage is a writer living in the Atlanta, Georgia, area. A Meridian, Mississippi, native, he served in the US Army for over a decade. JB’s battle with depression began before he became a teenager. After years of different diagnoses, he received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder in 2011. JB lived in denial for a long time before finally accepting his bipolar, and he’s slowly working to manage it, one day at a time. To escape from and cope with the world around him, JB began writing skits as a child, and he later moved on to write books, plays, and other materials. He can be found at JBBurrage.com.
I started college early and pursued multiple degrees in different fields over many years. Navigating it all with bipolar meant overcoming tricky issues of disclosure, accommodation, and managing expectations and emotions. Seeking Dual Enrollment for Higher Education Once the summer of 1987 was over, I went to school on the first day of my senior...
A successful student newly diagnosed with bipolar, I was initially unprepared for the transition to college. Here’s what can help you prepare for this exciting next step. Tips for Transitioning to College Life As an incoming freshman, or first-year college student, I was entirely unprepared for the transition from high school to university life. I...
When mania resulted in hospitalization and a bipolar diagnosis, I struggled with my career, faith, parenting, and more. I wanted answers. But I needed a new purpose. New Struggles & Hard Realizations After Hospitalization for Bipolar I wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar disorder until I was 35 years old, in May 2006. I had struggled with...
It starts with identifying our needs and communicating them clearly, so we can keep our mood stable and enjoy the festivities. We can create a holiday plan that serves us for years to come, starting now. Let’s focus on what we need and how we want to feel during every holiday season. It’s possible to...