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Authentic Eagles: On Mental Illness

As Boston College students, it can be tempting to hide our struggles in the constant quest to appear perfect. Embracing our  truths can help us to understand ourselves and experience the world around us as genuinely as possible. Authentic Eagles is a series that gives a voice to the people who have experienced firsthand the trials and tribulations of being one’s authentic self at BC.

Ryan Galvin, A&S '14

College, Interrupted: My Bipolar Journey

Some of it is tough to remember.  When the mind loses stability, its ability to retain experiences accurately becomes compromised, but I remember enough to know that I thought everything was perfectly fine.  Why do people keep asking me if I’m OK? Why do people keep wondering if I was on some psychedelic drugs? What is so wrong, why doesn’t everyone just relax?  I was thinking all of these things as I navigated the world in the midst of a manic episode, a heightened state caused by the brain losing control while working in overdrive.  This episode catapulted me into the world of mental illness, a world I never thought I’d ever have to view from the inside.  It’s been a little over two years since my mental breakdown, and since then I’ve had two separate hospital stays, a year-long medical leave of absence, countless hours of therapy and a slow journey to where I am now: happy, healthy, and ready to tell my story.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in December of 2011 after a nine-day hospital stay in the psychiatric ward in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Brighton, Mass.  Let me back up a bit, though, and go back to that manic episode I mentioned, which was the reason I ended up in the psych ward.  Going into that fall, I was a junior at BC who was on top of the world.  I had just completed an unbelievably fun and rewarding summer working as an Orientation Leader, and I was walking onto campus with a confidence I had never felt before.  I was excited to sing with my a cappella group, the Dynamics, to start playing lacrosse again for the club team, which had just had its most successful season to date, and to spend time with all of my friends. Things were great for a while, until, out of nowhere, they weren’t. The week following Thanksgiving would ultimately reveal what had been brewing in my brain throughout the fall.

That week was a hellish one even before my mind started to pull me out of reality, with our winter Dynamics concert primed for that Saturday and a massive amount of work I had somehow fallen behind on.  Looking back, there was no specific trigger that switched me from stable to insane, just mounting stress that came from the chaos that had become my life, with the tipping point being my mind trying to comprehend my friend’s sudden death, which had happened only a couple weeks prior.  There are some doctors who would say I was hypomanic before the real storm hit, which only means I had all of the positive things about mania—like increased energy, metabolism, and creativity—before the psychosis of mania would take over.  And boy, did it take over.

That first Monday, the one after Thanksgiving, I realized that I didn’t need to sleep to feel awake.  So, I just didn’t sleep. For five nights straight.  I acted more and more erratic as the week wore on, and I remember bits and pieces of what was going on in my head specifically, but the main feeling I had was unadulterated euphoria.  No wonder everyone thought I was on drugs—save for the few who thought I was off my drugs—because I began to see the world in a way that I had never seen it, brighter, clearer, and more beautiful than it had ever been.  That’s what I remember most, the sheer beauty of it all, and why I kept feeling like I had tapped into something unknown.  Not something psychotic, but superhuman.  The climax of this glorious, terrifying, mad week of mania came right before the Dynamics’ big concert, and I remember seeing the concern on everyone’s faces, and I remember wondering what there was to worry about. I had lost my mind, saying ridiculous things, doing ridiculous things, running around like a man possessed. Pretty soon, I found myself in my parents’ car, being driven to St. Elizabeth’s, where I’d spend the better part of nine days coming down from my episode, until I was finally OK to go home.

I left the hospital thinking everything was going to be all right, that it was a fluke, that I’d go back to school and graduate on time and that taking time off was out of the question.  I was at home for the last two weeks of 2011, taking newly prescribed meds that would later, due to their fun side effects of weight gain and hair loss, help me in the pursuit of that middle-aged look every twenty-year-old guy wants.  I had a psychiatrist, who approved me to head back to school in January, only for that attempt to blow up in my face after I stopped taking my medication and wound up in the psych ward at Yale New Haven Hospital for seven days.  (One of those days included me watching my beloved Patriots lose to the Giants in the Super Bowl in the waiting room of the psych ward. I had no idea what was going on.)  I stopped taking my meds because they made me feel like shit, essentially.  I arrived to school early to start playing lacrosse again, and I soon realized that I was hopelessly depressed, losing any and all interest in everything about BC, starting with lacrosse, which I had loved for so long.  Dropping the meds made me feel a little happier, until I felt too happy, and round two of the hospital came around.

After that, I officially took a leave of absence, and it would extend into the fall of that year. 2012 will forever be known as the lost year to me, a year in which I suffered a depression I hope no one will ever have to go through.  That’s the less fun side of bipolar disorder, the sad, ugly, make-you-want-to-die side.  But I got through it.  Through a combination of the Philadelphia Eagles, dancing lessons, and Jennifer Lawrence…wait, no, that’s Silver Linings Playbook. No, I got through it the old fashion way, with time, medication, and an unrelenting support system. There was a time when Boston College was a place where I felt so uncomfortable that I couldn’t walk through campus, that I couldn’t interact with people that I loved, because I was in such a warped, sad, and anxious state. My bounce-back eventually came, though, thanks to that aforementioned support system made up of my family, my unbelievable friends who refused to give up on me, and my Dynamics, a group of people that helped me feel like my old BC self again.  So, right now, I’m doing pretty good, and I’m embracing this new class I’ve found myself in—2014, what up!—embracing a new group of people who’ve probably been wondering why the hell I’m still here, and embracing the fact that I survived something I never thought I could.  My name is Ryan Galvin, I have bipolar disorder, and I’m perfectly OK with that.