Crystal Lancaster

Check out Crystal’s blog at bitsofbipolar.com

I was a typical teenager in high school, awkward and shy. I was always a good student, so it was easy to stay focused. I started experiencing mental health symptoms when I was sixteen. Sometimes, it is hard to remember what life was like before then. I guess you can say, they were happier times? I wasn’t hearing voices or thinking rumors were going on about me at school. I had much better peace of mind before the symptoms began.
When I was sixteen, about to turn 17, I started having hallucinations–audio hallucinations. I was hearing voices and I thought everyone at my high school was talking about me and calling me a freak and weirdo behind my back. I even imagined classmates shooting nasty glares my way. It threw me into a deep depression, and I had a major identity crisis. It got so bad I no longer wanted to go to school–it was my senior year, too. I feigned illness and even overdosed on pills hoping they’d make me sick. I didn’t overdose in hopes of dying. I just wanted them to make me ill enough that I wouldn’t have to go to school. I began to trust no one and thought everyone was turned against me. I even thought the U.S. government was trying to brainwash America through the television and radio airwaves with subliminal messaging. My mom pulled me out of school my first semester of senior year because I was too terrified to attend class. I almost didn’t graduate. The psychiatrist diagnosed me with some type of general anxiety disorder. I barely graduated. He prescribed me new medication and apart from gaining 20 pounds, somehow I was elevating out of the depressed state and climbing into manic mode. I became a totally different person. I “looked” like I was doing better. I was happier and had a lot of energy so my mom put me back in school. I did things I would never do in the past. I asked a high school teacher to prop. I agreed to meet up with a guy I met on the internet. I was this bold, brazen girl that I look back and wouldn’t recognize today. My family was extremely worried, most of them thought I was just being rebellious, but my mom knew better. I had become outgoing, very sociable, and very energetic. In my mind, I was finally coming out of my shell. But in reality, I was facing the symptoms of bipolar disorder.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a few weeks before my 18th birthday when I was confined to a psychiatric hospital. I stayed there for about a month and two weeks, not counting the hospital I stayed at two weeks prior to that one. I had no reaction to the diagnosis because I was still in a delusional state of mind when I was at the hospital. I thought the guy I was dating for about a week before I was committed was trying to find ways to propose to me, and that any day now, he’d show his face, and we’d get married. I didn’t get that I was sick, or that something was wrong with me. To me, it was all an elaborate scheme on his part. So I played along. Slowly, I began to realize he wasn’t coming and it wasn’t a scheme, but I still didn’t realize I was ill. All I knew was that I was stuck in this strange place with strange people I didn’t know, and I had to get out. Every time my mom came to visit me, I begged her to take me home. It was a really sad time in my life. The feeling of being trapped, physically, with no exits. To be held somewhere against your will. I couldn’t stand it.
I think it wasn’t until several weeks after I was released that I came to terms with my illness. My manic high had definitely deflated and I was stuck with boring reality. I remember having to see a therapist for a defined amount of time. She made me keep a journal. At the time, writing in the journal really helped lay out my thoughts. It helped me think logically again. With these therapist visits and the requirement of taking Lithium and other medication, I slowly began to acknowledge that I had an illness and these were all things that were put in place to help me cope with it. In addition to the therapist, I began seeing the psychiatrist would had diagnosed me with anxiety disorder before. It took about 2 years but we finally determined the medication medley that worked. That was 15 years ago. I am still seeing him today.

I am grateful to say I have recovered from the breakdowns and relapses tied to my illness (knock on wood). But I am smart enough to know that doesn’t mean it can’t happen again. My last breakdown was 4 and ½ years ago in 2012. My last breakdown before that was a decade before. The breakdown in 2012 came so unexpectedly, especially because after all I had already gone through, with two breakdowns before, with all that experience, somehow, it still happened to me. I thought I was done. I thought it would not, could not happen again. Because I had been through all of it before, I just kept thinking, how could I let it happen again? I knew the symptoms, I knew the signs, and yet, there I was 10 years later, not able to get out of bed for almost 5 months in a row. I was a wreck. I learned the hard way that sometimes this illness of bipolar disorder can be so severe, and so massive, that it can’t be predicted or controlled. What bothered me the most is that I wish, I wish I could’ve seen it coming, that I could have prevented it. I am healthy and happy today though, and have been since that last breakdown. Every now and then I experience some moments of depression, but they are quickly swept away and I am reminded of the great life I have built for myself. I have family, friends, and a boyfriend who not only loves me but takes care of me and I am eternally grateful.
When I was first diagnosed back in 2002, my family was all shocked. No one had any idea of bipolar disorder was, and they tried their best to help my mom who had become a widow only two years prior when my dad passed. They were all really supportive. My friends knew nothing. I cut off all communication with them basically. I was too ashamed of how I acted my last days in high school. My mom was amazing though, following up with doctors, making sure I got the best care I could. She fought hard for me and my health, and I owe the world to her. She really helped me tremendously. I probably wouldn’t be doing as well as I am if it wasn’t for her. Also, another person who plays a huge role in me keeping my sanity is my boyfriend Richard of 9 years. We met when I was 23, 6 years after I was diagnosed. He always knew I was bipolar. I told him from the very beginning, but I never had any relapses or showed any symptoms until four years into our relationship in 2012 when I had my third major breakdown. Now, this man could have turned around and ran away. But instead, he stayed by my side and supported me 100%. He didn’t fully understand what was going on but he tried his best to keep my spirits up. It was a weird situation because I had fallen into a state where, again, I didn’t trust anyone, not my family and not my friends, but I trusted him. I felt so safe and protected simply being with him. It wasn’t until about a year ago that I learned the reason he acted like nothing was wrong, wasn’t because he didn’t think anything was wrong, but rather because he thought doing so would help me. He thought it would help me forget and make me better faster. He didn’t realize it only made me feel like he didn’t understand and a little more alone. But despite that, just the effort he made to be there for me and support me, means the world to me. I couldn’t ask for a better boyfriend, and I am grateful as well to have him in my life. He keeps my head on straight sometimes. When I start panicking, he’s there to ground me.
My mom is from the Philippines and my dad was African-American. It is fair to say, I identify with both of my races, however, I identify more culturally with my Filipino background (perhaps because I grew up around my mom’s family whereas my dad’s mainly lives on the east coast. I’m aware of both heritages but I’ve been exposed to Filipino traditions and social mores my entire life, more so than African-American). I do however tend to identify socio-politically more with my African-American background, meaning I identify with its history. I identify with the struggles that blacks endured through the years and even still today. My heart hurts when I think back to what my people had to go through, had to live in, BE in. I cannot recall for I was not there, but I feel their struggles are my own. Their pain is my own. Their victories, I take for granted but I view as my own.
I think in general, not only my community but communities all over the world do not understand mental illness. Some simply wish to ignore it, some think it is not real, that it is a sign of weakness, or someone begging for attention. They don’t realize how debilitating and crippling mental illnesses can be. I always compare it to a person who has a physical illness, like cancer. People lay them down on a hospital bed with care, while we can be taken off to a psychiatric ward to be shackled up. I think because people don’t understand mental illness, they don’t necessarily sympathize with those who live with it. I think a lot of people don’t want to understand it. To some, it’s too messy, too complicated, and they think, “Why can’t they just snap out of it like most people?”
I now have a website, bitsofbipolar.com, that I currently run. It mainly contains a blog I write about my experiences with bipolar disorder along with articles I have written in the past about it, and random commentaries. I also am a contributor for the website theMighty.com, where I submit a lot of my commentaries on the disease. A lot of my work I repost on Facebook, and I’ve had a lot of people privately message me, telling me that they themselves have a mental illness or someone that they know and thanking me for writing about it because they’ve felt really alone or because they are happy someone is actually talking about it. It makes me feel really good knowing that I’ve touched someone or at least moved them to get in contact with me. I also spoke at a staff meeting at a mental health clinic a few months back, just detailing my experience with the illness. Also, I am currently working on a book (fiction, based on true events) about a young woman struggling with bipolar disorder. I am a writer and I find it really helps me to write about my illness. With my novel I hope to educate people in general about bipolar disorder and mental illnesses in general, to get them to feel what we feel and hopefully move them to do something about it. I’d love to be a spokesperson, speaking out and fighting the stigma of mental illnesses.