Bryn Mawr and the Beast: Coping with Bipolar II in a Competitive College Environment


“Hey, what time did you wake up today?” Saskia asked me. It was 2 p.m. on a Wednesday. I was still in my pajamas and had just brewed my first cup of coffee for the day. I dipped my finger into a Costco-sized jar of Nutella. “You don’t want to know.” My roommate frowned. She had stopped by the room to put down her books from her morning classes, and pick up more books for the afternoon. Leaving the room, she warned, “Maura, try not to skip class today. Again.”

My stomach dropped. Class.

I had only been at Bryn Mawr for two months, and I already shuddered at the thought of class. Particularly French class. I came to college with high ambitions. I wanted to take over the French department. I wanted to get a Master’s degree along with my Bachelors. A coup du diplôme, if you will.

But instead, I found myself in my room on the second floor of Brecon, Nutella on my fingers, skipping my sixth French class in a row. I couldn’t pinpoint what exactly it was that made it so easy to skip class. Perhaps it was the cold embarrassment of stuttering through a presentation. Perhaps it was because I couldn’t fall asleep before 4 a.m. and couldn’t wake up before 2 p.m. Perhaps it was because I spent 30 hours a week at a local campaign office, a place that I felt useful. Perhaps it was because I found myself manically writing books for a French boy I hadn’t seen in three years, and then in the next second—I would be sobbing on the floor of the common room at 3 a.m. There was only one reasonable explanation for this behavior.

“I’m just lazy,” I thought.

A year and a half later, I am in an evaluation room at a psychiatric hospital in Georgia. “You’re clearly Bipolar,” a woman told me apathetically. “I’m what?” I hissed. “Suicidal ideation. Highs and lows. Can’t go to class or fulfill your responsibilities. Soul-sucking…” She checked her notes, “emptiness.” The next thing I knew, I was in an open-back gown, sitting on a dirty laminate floor for 10 hours a day – praying to be released or dead.

In the summer of 2014, I was admitted to a residential treatment center in Atlanta. My assigned therapist asked me why I was here. “I’m Bipolar,” I told her. Her brow furrowed. “You have Bipolar. You’re not Bipolar.” I just stared at her with bewilderment. “Maura, you have a mental illness, but you are not your illness. Does that make sense?”

It didn’t at the time. In my personal experience, the symptoms of my mental illness often feel like they are simply character flaws. That I’m just a lazy person. A sensitive person. As my dad would often shout, a “drama queen.” Even many medical professionals view mental illness as your identity. The nurse in the evaluation room of the psychiatric hospital told me that I am Bipolar, not that I have Bipolar disorder. Another patient in the ward was crying because she was scared from her hallucinations, and a social worker told her to “shut up already.”

It took five months of treatment at possibly the best therapeutic center in the country to finally believe that I am a separate individual from my illness. After months of daily dialectical behavioral therapy sessions, I could finally look at myself in the mirror and say, “I am worthwhile. I am smart. I am a hard worker. I deserve happiness. I have Bipolar and I will be a successful adult.” I could finally return to Bryn Mawr after a two year long leave of absence.

In Fall of 2015, I moved back to Bryn Mawr’s campus. I was determined to use what I learned from the treatment center to thrive in this challenging environment. Take your meds. Go to therapy weekly. Exercise daily. Tell your professors when things are going wrong. Have your dean’s cell phone on speed dial (Thanks, Dean Heyduk).

But my biggest goal was to be open about my past. To never hide the fact that I suffer from mental illness. When I think back to my freshman year of college, I can’t help but wonder what I would have done if I talked to people who discussed the dangers of stress rather than glorify it. What if my professors reached out to me, after missing six classes in a row, and asked me if everything is alright? What if someone suggested therapy to me as a good thing, instead of something to be ashamed of?

Now, I don’t fault other people for the abyss that is Bipolar II and the damage it can do to a GPA. But I do recognize that our campus has a culture of silence about mental illness. When I find myself in a depressive episode and stuck in bed all day, I am often tempted to tell my professors that I have the flu or some other illness that is socially acceptable. When I’m walking across campus with the weight of ten million things and I’m starting to break down, I’m overwhelmed with the urgency to hide, to not be found out for being unable to gracefully handle my course load.

Furthermore, the college as a whole is not on the same page on how Bryn Mawr should view mental illness. I know professors who are very supportive and accommodating when I find myself in a manic or depressive episode. And there are professors who clearly don’t view mental illness as a reality. This past November, I was hospitalized for a week during a particularly bad manic-depressive period. When I returned to campus, one of my professors told me that, despite being in the hospital, I would still be marked down for turning in my work late by a full letter grade. “Sorry, it’s out of my hands. You can’t just turn work in late and receive no penalty.”

The week approaching that hospitalization, I called the Health Center. “Hi. I have Bipolar II and I am experiencing really bad highs and lows on a daily basis. This is an emergency. I need to see a psychiatrist.” They told me that they will get back to me. Three days later they finally called back to tell me that I could take an appointment slot in two weeks. “But this is an emergency.” They told me to hold on and hang in there.

I do reflect on what are the responsibilities of the college when it comes to mental health. Where does one draw the line in regard to level of care? This March, I convened a deliberative forum on the topic of mental health on campus. 18 students came together for two hours to discuss the central concerns in regard to mental health at Bryn Mawr and recommend changes for improvement.  All in all, there was a lot of discussion about the lack of preventative care for students. The college is quick to jump on assigning a psychiatrist or encouraging medical leave when a student is on the brink of suicide or is already self-harming. But where is the effort to reduce these instances?

Why aren’t there more full-time personnel in the counseling center? Why aren’t there more persons of color or queer persons in the counseling center? Can the self-care campaign be expanded to more strategic coping skills than just eating sweets and taking baths? Can Bryn Mawr establish more spaces for relaxation rather than studying? How can we stop glorifying stress on campus? Shouldn’t the college mandate to all professors that mental illness is an observed reality and that a student shouldn’t be penalized for experiencing the harsh symptoms of their illness? These are all questions that came up during the forum and often swirl through my mind.

I don’t know where the line is when it comes to the level of care a college should provide for students. What I do know is that Bryn Mawr’s spirit is about uplifting its students and launching them into success. It’s high time that we start including mental health care with that mission.


Please Love Me So I Can Love Myself.


“Maura, I like you a lot. However, I do not love you and I have realized that I will never love you. Though, I still really enjoy your company and I want to continue to date if you want to.” I stared out ahead into the distance, unable to meet Max’s eyes. It was a stunning first day of spring in Philadelphia. Finally, I could lounge outside without wearing a coat. Flowers were blooming everywhere making Bryn Mawr College’s campus even more beautiful. It was the perfect moment to tell my boyfriend that I love him and him to tell me that he feels the same way.

I didn’t tell Max that I loved him out on that stone patio. I told him the night before in bed. We were cuddling like usual and I could hear his breath slowing into a soft slumber. I met Max during a meteor shower the night before our colleges broke for a six-week long winter vacation. We counted shooting stars together, drank milkshakes from the college café, and talked about our lives before college. The next morning, I flew back to Georgia and he flew back to Oregon. We talked to each other every night through Skype calls. We made a to do list of fun activities for when we returned to school. Max and I were like opposites. He was rationally-minded. I was emotionally-minded. He was a science major. I was a political science major. He was from the Pacific Northwest. I was from the South Atlantic. He hated running. I ran for my college.

But Max was also a great listener. And I was a great talker. He was safe to confide in about any thought, feeling, and anxiety. I had felt very depressed and lonely all throughout my first semester, and I was so relieved to have met someone that could spend time with me, study with me, and most importantly, give me affection. Suddenly, I felt motivated to do well in the courses I had been struggling in. I felt energized to train even harder for my track team. I felt good and it was all thanks to having a boyfriend.

The semester blew by quickly. I found myself spending every night with Max. Outside of school and our sports teams, we spent most moments together. Our rare “fights” were more like scholarly debates. We never seemed to grow tired of each other. It was a honeymoon feeling that never went away and that was A-Ok with me. As summer break drew closer and closer, I started to question what that meant for our relationship. Would we do long distance? Would we break up? I thought, “Surely, we won’t break up. There are absolutely no issues with this relationship. Why would we break up?”

I began to feel self-doubt. I didn’t know how I could do without the daily affection. Before our relationship, I was alone and I felt miserable. I cried nearly every day. I skipped class constantly. I would stay awake journalling until 3 o’clock in the morning and then sleep until 2 o’clock in the afternoon. I felt guilty for missing my courses but I hated myself too much to do anything about it. I was a sinking ship and the only person who had a clue was my roommate. Needlesstosay, my parents were shocked when they saw my transcripts. I had withdrawn from two courses and almost failed the other two. This was unacceptable. They warned me that if I could not raise my GPA during the second semester, I would have to return to Atlanta for a year. That was the last thing I wanted to happen.

I thought it only reasonable that I try to push my relationship to the next level with Max. That way, we would definitely survive the summer apart and I would feel confident enough in myself to withstand a summer alone. That April night, my mind scrambled on how to tell Max that I love him. I did not know how he felt about me and, to be honest, I am not sure that I really knew how I felt about him either. But I needed to do this. I needed to do this so I could be okay.

I could hear him falling into a deeper sleep and time was running out. I gave him a gentle nudge. “Max?” He gave me a warm squeeze and sleepily replied, “Mhm?” I felt stricken with a silent panic. What am I thinking? What if he doesn’t feel the same way? What if I don’t really feel this way to begin with? And then I remembered that summer was coming. Summer was coming and I was going to be alone. I had to do this. I took a deep breath and mumbled a shaky, “I love you.” Immediately I knew that it was a bad idea. I threw my hands over my face, prepared for the inevitable blow.

After a minute of reflective silence, Max gave me another squeeze. “I am really honored that you love me, but I do not feel the same way at this time.” There was another moment of silence and another squeeze, “But that doesn’t mean that I will never love you. I just need more time.” I said, “Okay” and he fell back asleep. I stayed awake cursing myself for being so juvenile.

That next afternoon, he came to Bryn Mawr to talk to me. We sat out on comfy, red lounge chairs on the stone patio of Rhodes Hall. It overlooked the duck pond, an expansive green, and blooming cherry blossom trees. The sun felt nice on the back of my neck. The dining hall was serving mexican food for lunch. It was a perfect day and I felt perfectly ashamed of myself. I wanted to throw that embarrassing moment deep into the back of my mind, never to be found again.

Max held my hand when he told me that he would never love me. I remember the words swirling around my head for a long minute before I could really grasp what he was saying. I thought to myself, “How do I react to this kind of statement? What do I think of it? How do I feel? I don’t know how I feel. I don’t know what is going to happen.” I began to cry. I tried to back peddle on my words from the night before. “When I said that I love you last night, I didn’t mean that I am in love with you. I just meant that I really care about you and love you like that. You know?” He stayed firm. “I don’t love you. I’m sorry.”

I felt confused. If he knew that he would never love me, why would he continue to date me? Why would he continue, what I considered to be, a very intimate relationship? He explained to me that love is the commitment to do anything for your lover, no matter the cost. That whomever he ends up loving one day will be someone who he feels a fiery, intense passion for and sorry, but that just wasn’t me. Honestly, I really couldn’t blame him. We had a really lovely, simpatico relationship, but he knew that there was something even better out there for him. Why settle for less?

As for me, why was I pushing love to augment a relationship that was just fine as it was? I felt that if someone else loved me, if my boyfriend loved me, I could learn to love myself. I needed someone else’s permission to love, motivate, and trust myself. I depended on the affection of others to be successful and it destroyed my academic ambitions at this college.

It took me a couple of days to get over it, but Max and I continued to date happily throughout the rest of the semester. When summer break rolled around, we agreed to discontinue our monogamous relationship but to stay close friends. I did not raise my GPA enough by my parents’ terms to return to Philadelphia. That time was followed by a tumultuous year of other codependent relationships, failed academic dreams, and growing mental health challenges. By spring time that next year, I found myself involuntarily admitted into a psychiatric hospital for five painfully long days. After discharge, I was moved into a residential treatment mental health care facility for five more months.

At the treatment center, I discovered the meaning of “self-love.” I found confidence in myself without depending on the affection of others. I began to truly understand that I am not defined by the actions or words of others, but by how I choose to perceive myself in the most challenging of situations. Instead of waiting for others to treat me with compliments and cuddles, I treat myself with delicious Vietnamese phō noodle soup, working out, drawing, and eating raw brownie batter. I celebrate every victory no matter how small. It has really made a difference in how I feel about myself and how I behave toward others now. For the first time in my life, I have been able to advocate for myself and end relationships that I know are unhealthy for me.

I am currently single and while I do enjoy to go on occasional dates, I do not need a boyfriend to feel good. I feel good on my own. Relationships are no longer a way to gain confidence, but instead an opportunity to develop a meaningful, heartfelt connection with another self-loving human being.  They do not define anything about me and it is fucking great.

These days, I sometimes choose to kick back and relax by whipping together a bowl of dark chocolate raw brownie batter (brand name because I love myself) and dig in while I read my journal entries from that week in April freshman year. I laugh at my over dramatic sentences, my poor handwriting and my longing to have sex with Jake Gyllenhaal. That is really all that I can do. That is all that I need to do.