I never imagined growing up that someday I would become a mental health advocate. It wasn’t something that I ever searched for on my journey to answer that elusive question of, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Yet it found me anyway. If you asked me when I graduated high school in 1999 what I even knew about mental health I couldn’t have told you much, but just 2 years later, my entire life would revolve around it.
It started in college
After graduating, I was ecstatic to begin my college adventure, traveling 700 miles from my home in Michigan to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Though I anticipated the transition to the rigors of college and living on my own would be an adjustment, the full extent of it and the many twists and turns that occurred were very unexpected.
I had always been fortunate that school came rather easily to me, but soon after my first college semester began, paying attention in class and reading my textbooks no longer felt as natural as it did in high school. Processing the information of what I was hearing or reading was difficult. At first, this seemed easily explainable by the major adjustment I was experiencing. And coupled with homesickness, a potentially deeper issue wasn’t a thought I even entertained.
Occasional "funks" evolved to panic attacks and clinical depression
During the next two years, I went through occasional “funks”, as I called them, when I struggled with a lot of sadness and self-loathing. I started to experience panic attacks and intensely feared something horrible had happened to someone I loved. All of these symptoms seemed few and far between, so I wasn’t able to make a significant connection, but this all changed at the start of my junior year.
After the September 11, 2001 tragedy, I fell into a major depression. Even after some time had passed I was still deeply depressed, only there was no longer an obvious situational trigger. When I came to understand I was sad for no reason at all, I started to link everything together and began questioning whether I might have clinical depression. My parents, both in the medical field, agreed, and with their encouragement I looked into getting some help.
I was a little uncertain about beginning therapy because it seemed like a societal taboo. Reluctantly, I began sessions with a therapist and started to take antidepressants. Despite these proactive interventions, my grades plummeted and I had to withdraw from most of my classes that semester. Academic success became an uphill battle, as I was too depressed to get out of bed and unable to pay attention in class. Further complicating matters were some unexplained periods of high energy and euphoria that were mixed in with my depressive phases. Each time I would have these sudden surges, it sparked a medication change and I had the added struggle of overcoming the side effects on top of everything else.
I didn’t know how else to make the pain stop
Determined to heal
Once home, I received a new diagnosis of bipolar disorder and I started taking lithium. I suddenly had a renewed hope that I could become healthy, because I finally had an accurate diagnosis and correct medication. I spent the summer taking classes locally to catch up on credits and finishing my courses, with intense focus on healing and managing my illness. I was determined to go back to Holy Cross, graduate within 4 years, and get my life back. I was not 100% healthy at the time, but I returned to school nonetheless.
It was a battle unlike anything I’d encountered in my whole life, but I was not discouraged, no matter the obstacles. The side effects of lithium had me doubled over in pain in between classes and I grappled with the challenges of re-adjusting. Healing had become easier in the comforts of home and away from the place I had attempted to take my life, so transitioning back was a system shock. With an immense amount of faith and will, coupled with an incredible safety net of friends and family, I made it through the year. With great pride, I ended my final semester with a much improved GPA, and even had an opportunity to present my mental health story on campus to my classmates. I walked across the graduation stage that May, received my diploma, and it still stands as one of the proudest moments of my life.
A new found path
After receiving my Master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania, I relocated back to Michigan and a period of time passed where I was mired in confusion of what I wanted to do with my life; what I wanted to be “when I grew up”. Thinking back to my own journey, I began to consider mental health as a profession and my mom suggested taking a class in Counseling at Oakland University. During my first class I knew I had finally found my calling - to counsel struggling college students just like myself. I completed my counseling internship in academic advising and was then hired at Wayne State University as an academic advisor immediately after achieving my Master’s in Counseling.
Prospering with bipolar disorder
10 years later, I am still pursuing my genuine passion, which is loving and caring for college students in need and deserving of empathy and compassion. I strive daily to be the person I needed when I was a scared and struggling college student. My work has motivated me to share my message of hope; you can have a severe mental illness and still accomplish your dreams. When I’m not advising, trying to be the best husband I can be to my wonderful wife, or chasing around my amazing 3 year old son, helping and inspiring others is at the forefront of my mind.
Through the channels of Instagram, I use my mental health advocacy account (@goodfortuneindisguise) to share the ups and downs of my everyday life being a full-time working parent with a chronic mental illness. Everyday is still an on-going battle and I’m still always invested in attentively caring for my mental health. It’s hard to put in all the energy and effort that I do, but considering I have far more in my life than I ever could have dreamed, it’s well worth it to give myself the love and care I need and that we all deserve. Though my life isn’t what I expected, I’m proud of who I’ve become, and I wouldn’t change a thing.