Story by Cameron Bocanegra | Photo by Aadil Shelkh
Getting sick is supposed to come in waves. You wake up with a stuffy nose and the next day, a scratchy throat. It is supposed to be subtle. Now what if this sickness were sleeping in your genes, waiting for a stressful life event to drag the symptoms out into the light to wriggle, breathe and control your life? It was not a traumatic childhood experience or ongoing hardships that tore Kelsey Rood’s bipolar disorder out of the dark. It took the death of her grandmother, her first semester of college out of state and a patiently waiting chemical imbalance to knock her off balance and spin her out of control.
Tiffany Anschutz, CEO and licensed clinical social worker at Sage Recover & Wellness in Austin, said it isn’t uncommon for events like these to allow for Rood’s bipolar disorder to present itself.
“Bipolar disorder is often genetic, but any kind of traumatic event can trigger it,” Anschutz said. “Women show symptoms sooner because they develop faster than men. Women’s frontal lobes develops fully around age 21, while men’s develop around age 25. As the frontal lobe is starting to develop is when mental disorders begin to first show themselves.”
Rood’s grandmother was her ally, her constant, the woman who now sits eternally in a framed picture in Rood’s bedroom. Her grandmother’s memory haunted her, echoing through her dreams and taking form when she blinked.
Desperately seeking change, Rood chopped off her long blonde curls and ran off to Waco, where she slapped on a smile, playing the part of a pre-med, happy-go-lucky Baylor freshman who was far from her home in the small town of Malvern, Arkansas. Four hundred miles was just far enough from a dusty funeral dress and the pain of summer.
“The transition from having limited freedom at home to defining my freedom at college was undeniable,” Rood said. “No one was telling me when to sleep or when to eat. No one was making sure I was OK. I had all the freedom in the world to self-destruct, so I just had at it.”
Her community created itself with ease. She was new, fresh and unchained from the pain she was refusing to face. There were the wild parties packed body to body with opportunity, the roommates full of life, Baylor boys and a new world on campus untouched by her smile. She wanted it all and so she took on the beginning of her education with success. All the while, her brain was beginning to react to the parts of her that were not properly healing.
“I didn’t know things were getting crazy,” Rood said. “I didn’t even see it. When I think back, it’s all blurry. I remember some of the highs and some of the lows, but I never knew things were getting so bad until it was too late. ”
Every opportunity became a choice, because the manic side of her bipolar disorder said so and it seemed normal enough for a young woman far from home to binge on her new life.
College is time for new experiences and discovering yourself, so Rood’s actions were understandable enough at first. She had fun, she drank, she dated, she turned assignments in late and rubbed her eyes raw when she walked into class five minutes late, only to be greeted by a pop quiz.
Anschutz said this impulsive behavior is not rare for people living with bipolar disorder.
“Mania presents itself with heightened senses, talking quickly, shopping sprees and impulsive sexual behaviors,” Anschutz said. “During mania is when people usually get diagnosed, because those big signs are more recognizable than the depressive side of bipolar disorder.”
Those big signs for Rood were the self-destructive behaviors that came with her manic moments. Her life was out of control. There were bright happy moments with friends and then drug use that stretched the definition of recreational. There was young love and then there was more than enough unprotected sex. She did not need to eat for half a week because mania was spoon feeding her all the energy and self-destructive behavior she needed to survive the next test, the next pregame to the pregame, the next time she had mis-scheduled all the things she wanted to do, only to be left alone with herself and the actions she did not intend.
“The first moment I noticed something was off, someone else had to notice first,” Rood said. “The guy I was dating kept telling me he needed a more stable person. I wouldn’t sleep or eat for days and I ignored responsibilities until I was manic again. Manic Kelsey tackled everything at once. Manic Kelsey could handle it all in toxic way, but it only came in limited stretches of time until the low hit.”
The cruel lows of depression took her somewhere quiet after the weeks of back-bending mania.
“People without mental disorders have good and bad days, but for someone with bipolar disorder, their highs are intense and their lows are impossible,” Anschutz said. “When their lows get to the lowest, they feel hopeless, helpless and like there is nothing to make this better, so that can lead to suicide attempts. It’s an irrational state of mind.”
Rood did feel hopeless. To everyone around her, she was just a normal college freshman. Maybe she slept the past week of classes away because that biology midterm hit too hard and she was not going out as much because the party scene was boring her.
The red flags lined the road to her fall. Little did anyone know, her disorder was stretching its legs and sprinting through Rood’s psyche, keeping her company while she cried in public restrooms and traced the sharp edges of her hollowed cheeks and ribcage.
“I truly did not think I had a future,” Rood said. “I can remember so vividly the night I was crying in the bathroom with a knife in one hand. It was 4 a.m. and I was ready to die, all because of this disorder.”
In the mirror was a disturbingly familiar woman who Rood was unsure her grandmother would recognize. Yes, that was her face in the reflection, but it was worn from battle and while she could not argue those were her eyes staring back at her, they were so much emptier than she remembered. The knife was there. It was another opportunity, another quick choice that mania would have licked its lips for, but depression was in control. Depression said, “What’s left anyway?”
Fortunately depression could not do it. Something inside her set the pain and knife aside. The next day, she dragged what was left of herself to Baylor’s Counseling Center and told the first doctor she met, “I want to die and I don’t know where to go from here. Please help me.” What they found was a textbook case of bipolar disorder and Rood was immediately appointed a psychiatrist and an emergency appointment.
As winter arrived, Rood took a short leave of absence and returned home to process her diagnosis and get help. While her final exams did not exist, she still did. That’s what mattered. Her friends were far, but they waited patiently. She was sick for a long time and she needed to get better. She found a combination of medications that worked for her and slowly, yet surely, began to feel her mental health improving.
“I take eight pills every day, but I function now,” Rood said. “I wake up groggy and slow, but it’s worth it to feel like one person now.”
Anschutz said when battling suicidal thoughts and bipolar disorder, medication management is key.
“It does not necessarily have to be forever, but continuous communication with the doctor is important,” Anschutz said. “With bipolar disorder, medication tends to utilize a mood stabilizer to curve the highs from being so high and the lows from being so low.”
Rood may wake up with something like a hangover, but instead of the cause being a night she cannot remember, it is now because of a cocktail of antipsychotics she takes each night. Trying to find the right medication for each person’s mental illness is often a game of Russian roulette, but Rood was fortunate.
While she was encouraged to take time at a psychiatric facility, the first few medications she tried were a success for her recovery and she was able to return to Baylor in the spring to continue her freshman year in a different light.
She is no longer studying on the pre-med track. Instead, she is studying psychology, following in the footsteps of those who helped her on her journey to a brighter future. This journey was not subtle. It did not come in waves. It was a six-month tsunami that she bravely survived. Kelsey Rood was sick and, like she would with a cough or a fever, she reached out and received help from doctors so she could learn to tuck her bipolar disorder in with medication every night and start her day knowing her life is her own now.
“It took a long time to accept that I am bipolar because when it happens to you, it seems to completely change your self-image and worth,” Rood said. “I had to accept that I was mentally different from people, but I am still myself. It took time to understand everything. I had to be patient. I now understand how intensely wrong I was. The future is brighter now. I can feel it.”