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Illustration by Alyssa Kiefer

This essay covers topics that may be difficult for some readers, including depression, suicide, hospitalization, child abuse, and sexual assault.

Growing up, solitude was my best friend. I saw this as normal, and so did my family and friends. I just wasn’t a “people person.” But after speaking with my psychiatrist as an adult, this could have been an early sign of what I’d eventually come to know as my diagnosis: bipolar disorder.

Withdrawal and isolation, something I embraced wholeheartedly the older I got, was all a part of my mood disorder. Yet, I didn’t even have an inkling that this was the case.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, 50 percent of mental health conditions begin by age 14, and 75 percent begin by age 24. I almost narrowly bypassed it altogether, but inevitably, what’s for you will find you.

“The most incredible thing about a psychotic break is that you have no idea you’re going through one.”

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I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in a behavioral health hospital at the age of 25, after my first psychotic break. Nothing could have prepared me for that unrealistic reality. But sometimes, when life flips you upside down, all you can do is hold on tight.

The most incredible thing about a psychotic break is that you have no idea you’re going through one. I found myself surpassing my mental capacities, reaching a level of brainpower I’d never known existed within myself. I felt as though I had acquired knowledge from books I’d never read. In fact, I vividly remember telling my mom and aunt that I had a “museum of libraries” in my brain.

I wasn’t eating. Over a span of a week I’d get 2 hours sleep max a day, yet somehow wake up fully charged and ready to tackle the day. For me, I felt my purpose was to save and help people, that God had made me the “chosen one” after I’d prayed and asked for so much from Him.

As part of my psychosis, I felt it was my duty to obey God’s requests in order to both honor Him and receive what I wanted in return. I asked God to help me with a business venture making white tank tops that had “God’s Gladiator” in gold sequin. I prayed for marriage to the guy I was dating at the time, and requested visions into the future to know what to look forward to.

But to fully understand why my mental health crisis resulted in a psychotic break, you have to understand how I got there.

One summer, I sought out a doctor to get treated for a series of bug bites I’d received after a family vacation in Florida. I decided to go with the cheapest and closest option. The doctor prescribed a high dose of prednisone to clear the bites — starting with 6 pills the first day, then tapering down.

By day 2, I wasn’t eating or sleeping, and my mind was racing with creative ideas and inspiration. On day 3, I started hearing voices. I had auditory hallucinations about my neighbors fighting, and was determined to save them until my family stopped me.

“Under the influence of my psychosis, I became loud, rude, and out of control. The complete opposite of my regular self.”

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I thought going to church could save me, so my aunt recommended a house of worship that her friend preached at. I embarrassed everyone I came with because I woke up under the delusion that it was my wedding day. I was convinced that the guy I was dating would be meeting me there with his family, and his mother would be gifting me a 24k gold wedding dress.

Under the influence of my psychosis, I became loud, rude, and out of control. The complete opposite of my regular self. My family took me to the hospital shortly after.

The first doctor that came to evaluate me suggested bipolar disorder, however my mom and aunt wouldn’t even consider it. I was too angry and annoyed to be there to even care. The doctor told me I’d likely recover if I flushed the prednisone out of my system, so my mom urged me to drink as much water as possible.

My first inpatient hospitalization came after I attempted suicide, twice.

In death, the voices promised, I’d have everything I ever desired — marriage to the man I loved, a beautiful daughter, a perfect life. I tried to drown myself by swallowing shower water, turning the temperature to scalding until I screamed.

I knew it was bad when my mom burst in the bathroom. Her eyes were big as Brownsnout spookfish.

Surprisingly, I loved it at the behavioral health hospital. I introduced myself with my name, followed by “I love you,” to everyone I met. And I mean everyone: nurses, my peers, even the therapists making their rounds. This extremely warm approach made people feel safe with me. I listened to everyone’s stories, and felt a sense of purpose. When I shared my story, no one judged me.

I told my mom I felt like royalty there. We had three delicious meals a day with snacks in between. The only thing I didn’t like was how confined we were to our area of the hospital, and that we weren’t permitted to go outside. It’s a cruel thing to feel the warmth of the sun on the window, and not on your skin.

Help is out there

If you or someone you know is in crisis and considering suicide or self-harm, please seek support:

If you’re calling on behalf of someone else, stay with them until help arrives. You may remove weapons or substances that can cause harm if you can do so safely.

If you are not in the same household, stay on the phone with them until help arrives.

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Even after being told I had a mental illness, I remained in denial. And my denial wouldn’t weaken. How could I have such a thing when I’d led such a brilliant life in school? Plus, all the countless accolades I’d received — even making the dean’s list!

But little did I know that people living with mental illnesses are some of the most brilliant people in the world! Had I been privy to this knowledge, I’d have embraced my diagnosis sooner.

Instead, once released from the behavioral health hospital, I stopped taking my medication and attempted to resume life as I knew it.

Joke’s on me.

Only 2 months later, I found myself back in the hospital for a week and a half.

My family was just as much in denial about my bipolar disorder diagnosis as I was. However, this changed when I checked into the behavioral health hospital for that second and final time.

The second time was not a pleasant experience, and after I checked out, I cried to my mom and told her I needed help. We both decided then that we’d educate ourselves about my diagnosis. And that is what I feel saved my life. My family came to support me completely, and to this day, I’m grateful for my strong support system because many people I was in the hospital with never had visitors at all.

Following my hospitalizations, I felt my life was over. I was going through a breakup at the same time as I had to process my diagnosis. It seemed all my hard work had been reduced to nothing. Yet, I had no idea the beautiful things that were in store for me.

Ultimately, fighting against my bipolar disorder diagnosis did nothing for me but hinder my progression towards healing and growth. Had I continued to be in denial, I’d have continued to return to the behavioral health hospital. Even worse, I’d have continued roaming about life without help or support, putting myself in danger.

“Following my hospitalizations, I felt my life was over… Yet, I had no idea the beautiful things that were in store for me.”

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This time, when I left the hospital, I came home knowing full well that I needed help, instead of thinking I was the one who always needed to help others. I was finally ready to accept all the help I was offered. And that was a turning point in my life.

After being discharged from the hospital a second time, I immediately set up an appointment with a psychiatrist I’d previously worked with there and was given a therapist as well. I still go to both professionals, and therapy has been a great sounding board for me. I find it’s great to express my experiences and ideas to someone who is a great listener, unbiased, and nonjudgemental.

I’ve grown so much in the 8 years since I’ve been diagnosed, it’s unbelievable.

A lot of the coping skills that I use today are a result of past traumas. I journal, talk to those close to me, enjoy my solitude, paint, and listen to music. I adopted all of these skills at the age of 16 years old after the most traumatic experience in my life happened.

At that time in my youth, I was dealing with the betrayal of being verbally abused and molested by my uncle who lived with my mom and me. He broke me down for years, verbally, and made me feel worthless, like all predators do. One day, he escalated his behavior and decided to inappropriately touch and kiss me.

I told no one, as I was still a child, and in total disbelief.

Instead, I journaled, kept to myself, focused on my visual art and language class, and listened to music. When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in adulthood, that same powerless feeling I had as a 16-year-old resurfaced, and reared its ugly head. Only this time, I refused to let it defeat me.

I’d say my past trauma helped me realize my strength, a strength I never knew I possessed. I was able to eventually pick myself up again. Sure, I was depressed after being diagnosed. I cried, was angry, felt cheated, cursed, and devastated. But one thing my mom instilled in me as a child was that rainy days don’t last forever. I picked myself up again, and I think that made all the difference.

Being diagnosed with bipolar disorder wasn’t easy to accept, but it gave me a story. As a child, I knew I wanted to be an author, but I never knew what my first book would be about. However, after living out such a traumatic ordeal, everything made sense. I went through all of that to help and relate with others. And so my memoir “Half the Battle” was born — my greatest creation to date.

The main takeaway from my experience is that nothing is in vain. We all have experiences and stories to share. No one is immune from life’s unexpected changes and circumstances. But character is built when you make peace with what you’ve gone through and learn to grow within yourself. And that’s what I’ve chosen to do.

Candis Y. McDow is a mental health advocate, a Respect Institute speaker, and a Certified Peer Specialist. When she’s not writing Candis enjoys painting, attending concerts, shopping, traveling, watching movies, and car karaoke. Candis lives by a quote: “What you seek is seeking you”- Rumi.