Growing Up

Collage by J. Glenn
When I was growing up, I worked hard at everything. In school, I was told it was important to become well rounded. So, without really thinking deeply about it, that became my goal. I took accelerated and advanced placement classes, played soccer, tennis, swam, ran track, rode bikes, acted, sang, and danced in plays and musicals, and sang in my church choir. I enjoyed engaging in different activities, because when I was engaged, nothing troubled me.

The hardest thing about my childhood was that I moved a lot. By the time I was in high school, I had been to seven different schools in five different states and Canada. I expected to move every couple of years, and if I didn't, I felt that something was wrong, that I had been stuck in the same place for too long.

My parents were happy with my productivity and encouraged my interests. Then I got to college, and I had to choose a major. I started out as a theater major, which my parents strongly discouraged. My father wanted me to study business which, at the time, I  thought was much too boring. I was creative and considered myself to be unconventional, and didn't think I would fit into that school. I settled on journalism because I liked to write and take pictures, and my university had one of the best programs in the country. It seemed like a respectable enough path. I also had to choose a subject for my concentration, so I chose biology, because I had always found it interesting, and I imagined that I could work as a science writer. That was the first time I set major goals instead of just trying to excel at everything. Then, I had my first breakdown and dealt with the aftermath.

Shortly after I returned to my university, I applied for a prestigious scientific grant and got it. I was given money to study sensory perception in the mating system of a species of parasitic wasp. Exciting! I felt like a real adult. I was doing research! I had loved all of my science classes in high school, but I had never imagined myself working in a lab, and I had applied for the grant on a whim and couldn't believe I had actually gotten it.

One reason the professor in charge of the lab wanted to work with me, is that he hoped that I would help him with his writing, and I did. It was an honor. I couldn't believe he appreciated my help. After the initial excitement though, my attitude toward working in the lab changed. I was the only female and the only undergraduate in the lab. The professor treated me respectfully, but the other researchers hit on me mercilessly. I had never even considered that might happen. They were really geeky guys, and I was certainly not attracted to any of them. They were not threatening, they just became more and more annoying each day, and I started to feel claustrophobic in the lab.

Around that time, some cyclists, who were aware that I had recently quit the soccer team after a mental breakdown, tried to recruit me to be on their team for a big bike race held every year on my college campus. I told  them I was busy working at the lab in the afternoons when they wanted me to practice. One weekend though, I went on a ride with them and they told me that I had talent and that they hoped I would join their team. Shortly after that, I abandoned my research and started racing bikes. With the help of their coaching, I became really good at it, especially, I discovered, without lithium, so I was lithium-free for most of the rest of my college days. We won the big race on campus, and I won a lot of bike races on my own, and ended up being ranked 3rd in the Midwest Collegiate Cycling Conference in 1992.

Achieving success as a bike racer helped me deal with the pain of losing my mind, but I knew I could not keep winning if I started to take lithium. When I take lithium, it seems like my muscles just don't twitch the same way, and I can't push myself hard enough to win. I used to enjoy riding so hard that I could taste blood, and I am just not that intense when I take lithium. But I knew I needed the medication to live a productive life. When I was racing bikes, I didn't become extremely manic, but I was hypomanic, and also depressed and angry at times. I often felt disoriented and disorganized and there were some times when I couldn't remember things I had done recently, even though I hadn't been drinking or using drugs. The people around me were supportive and thought my spaciness, and unpredictability were, for the most part, funny, but I knew that I wouldn't be able to continue living in that fragile state and keep up with my adult responsibilities. So, because I was used to closing chapters of my life, I easily quit bike racing, resumed taking lithium, and eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism with a Concentration in Biology, amidst very little fanfare.


  1. Great post. It's interesting to see how you handled college life and bi-polar disorder. I myself denied the fact I had bi-polar disorder when I was college and didn't take any medication I was prescribed. I just threw it away to convince my parents I was taking it and it was time for a refill. I applaud you for taking the steps to recognize that you needed to be medicated.

  2. Thanks. I think most of us accept our diagnosis and treatment differently. I wish deciding to take medication were easier, which it would be, if there weren't so many unpleasant side effects. Maybe someday...