We are two different people, but we have a lot of similarities. We are the same age and race. We were both diagnosed with bipolar disorder in our teens. Both of us are overachievers who were highly involved in high school and not necessarily on anyone’s radar for developing bipolar disorder. Our biggest difference is our gender.
We thought we would do a bit of a comparison and look at how a similar struggle with bipolar disorder presented itself differently in each of us. Obviously, we are only two people, and there are a lot of ways these issues can come out in others. But, we hope that, in doing this comparison, we can help parents and loved ones of young people who struggle with their mental health to be aware of how it can manifest differently in people of different sexes.
Q: What were some early warning signs that you now know were indications that you were struggling with your mental health?
Ross: I was drinking heavily, had explosive anger, and I wasn’t sleeping, but was never tired. I would drink as much as I could until I passed out. I never drank to hang out with people. Looking back it’s easy to see that I was trying to find a way to stop the uncontrollable emotions, but in those moments I had no clue what was happening to me.
Emily: I had a lot of anxiety around school performance. I also would fall into periods of depression. I was trying to control my emotions by starving myself, and was quite underweight. I would go to parties on the weekend and binge drink. I would also binge eat and then go back to starving myself and over-exercising. Behind closed doors, I also cried quite a bit.
Q: How did your struggle manifest itself in terms of symptoms/ineffective coping strategies?
Ross: I had endless energy followed by times where I didn’t want to do anything. I was yelling at my parents a lot, then just shutting down and avoiding them for days. I was unstable and erratic. I could play basketball outdoors for a full day, win games and still hurt my hand punching walls after a game. I couldn’t control my emotions, so I drank as much alcohol as I could. It felt like the only way to shut my brain down.
Emily: My symptoms at my worst included anxiety, depression, not sleeping, and periods where I was delusional with some visual hallucinations. While I had very low self-esteem, I could be quite grandiose at times. In terms of coping strategies, I relied on the “support” of an abusive boyfriend, starved myself, binged, and then over-exercised, and at times drank excessively. I was often tearful and turned my feelings inward, where I often blamed myself for my struggles, and would have suicidal thoughts.
Q: How did societal ideas of male/female roles (gender roles) play into your experience?
Ross: I think it was more acceptable for me to drink, flip out and not talk about my emotions, because I was a guy in a small rural town. A lot of my male friends at the time were drinking with me. Sometimes I’d get drunk and talk about everything I felt, but then sober up and we’d laugh it off or not even discuss it again. While their anger wasn’t as extreme as mine it was common for us to express it in similar ways.
Emily: A lot of times, the general masses said that I was just “hormonal” or an “emotional female.” They didn’t realize that my struggles were deeper than that. When I was too thin, it was believed that I was starving myself because “all teenage girls care about their appearance,” not because I was using this ineffective coping strategy to manage my emotions.
Q: If you could give advice to parents/loved ones about how to help a young man/ young woman who struggles, what it be?
Ross: Focusing on the reasons a young man doesn’t want to seek help can be a great approach. I felt talking about my emotions was a sign of weakness, I thought I should just be able to suck it up and most dangerously I didn’t have the words to describe how I felt. For years everyone around me focused solely on my symptoms and getting me help. I didn’t accept that I had a problem until I worked on the feelings of weakness, self-hatred and found words to describe what was happening.
Emily: I think that young women in our society have a lot of pressure on them to look and act a certain way in their teens. It’s normal for a young girl to worry about things like weight, relationships, and school. What becomes a warning sign is if a young woman starts to become obsessive about any of these things — and finds unhealthy ways to cope. That is a major clue that these unhealthy coping mechanisms are being used to cover up a larger issue, such as a mental health struggle.
Our experiences might be different from yours. We wanted to use this blog to start a conversation about similarities and differences in how mental illness impacts genders. Please share your story (or the story of your loved one) in the comments.