Opening up about mental illness

Mikaela Wegner—Staff Writer

Mallory Nilles is 19 years old and a freshman at Dordt University. She has lived in Boyden, Iowa all her life, until this past year when she moved to Dordt’s campus. While transitioning from high school to university always presents difficulties, Nilles faced with more than just the adjustment from school to school—she needed to figure out what life would look like after being diagnosed with generalized anxiety and bipolar II disorder.

Her high school experience was tough. She watched friends betray her trust time and time again, always adding to the depression and anger within Nilles that confused her.

“I have a hard time trusting that people aren’t going to hurt me,” Nilles said. “Over and over, I see it proven to me: you give people information about you, they will use it against you.”

Around March of her senior year, she began to suffer from intense anxiety attacks. Nilles was registered to attend Dordt in the fall and play on the women’s basketball team but was scared she was not ready. During the COVID-19 lockdown, she played basketball in her basement—bringing her joy and an overwhelming pressure. She would break down from the invading anxiety she did not know how to handle. She worked out with tears streaming down her face.

Intense thoughts about hating her life and feeling trapped began to flood her mind. It was as though everywhere Nilles went, something was preventing her from being fully present.

Nilles had dealt with bouts of depression over her years, sometimes months at a time. There was always a part of her that thought she had depression, but the rest of her believed she was being a “drama queen” because  everyone told her she was. They thought it was normal. She said it was not.

In September 2020, Nilles began counselling. They decided she should try medication for anxiety disorder. And from there, life went on.

It was another weekly session with her therapist, on a Friday late in November, when things changed. Nilles had been at home for Thanksgiving break. 

They discussed how Nilles had been feeling lately—if she had any anxiety in the past week.

About half-way through the discussion, Nilles said something that would be life changing.

“I just feel so hot and cold all the time,” Nilles said.

Her therapist just listened. Then she asked:

“When did you feel hot and cold? What was the timeline like?”

“Every couple weeks I just switch. I don’t know why,” Nilles said.

“What do you feel like in the good weeks? And what about the bad weeks?”

“In the good weeks I felt like I could do anything. But in the bad weeks I feel depressed, like I don’t want to get out of bed.”

Nilles knew what these questions meant. She had done research on it before and had seen the exact same things asked.

“Do you know where I’m going with this?” her therapist asked.

“Yes,” Nilles said.

Nilles was told for the first time in this moment that she could be mild bipolar. She had mixed feelings.

She felt nervous about the diagnosis, that there was finally a label. For the next week, Nilles was filled with deep thought.

But now she had something to work with.

Understanding what was going on in her body allowed Nilles to take steps forward and recognize different patterns. She described experiencing high energy for a couple weeks and then feeling a crash as a characteristic of these experiences.

The crash is ugly. In these times Nilles feels completely discontented, tired of everything. This switch can happen as quickly as in a day, feeling like the snap of one’s fingers.

After this, a period of time comes in which all emotions escalate. Here, everything matters more, starting deep senses of sadness or anger. Nilles said it is here that any little thing that happens is a good enough reason to “call it quits.” It is during these crashes that Nilles is quick to make assumptions. In these moments, she says there is very little will to live.

“Then you come out of the crash and are like, ‘Dang, that was really bad, hope I don’t have to do that again,’” Nilles said. “But you know that in about a month you will.”

According to Depression and Bipolar Disorder Alliance, one in five individuals with Bipolar Disorder commit suicide. The organization also states that it is much more prevalent in women with bipolar disorder to experience the rapid change between highs and crashes much like Nilles described.

The yearly number of Americans with bipolar disorder tends to be around 2.7 percent. In 2020, that would be about 8,937,072 individuals 18 years or older.

Nilles is not alone in the struggles that she faces, but in the middle of it, she can feel like she is.

“I still struggle with it every day,” Nilles said. “I don’t want to get out of bed because I don’t want to put on my identity, cause it’s heavy.”

Getting through these hard times Nilles ultimately accredits to the support system of her friends and family. She is intentional about taking one thing at a time, and not being “too heavy” with all she does.

In all honesty, Nilles does not think she has her depression figured out. She does not yet “know how to beat them.”

But what gives Nilles the most hope is believing one day she will. She says she has been in her high for four weeks. Typically, she is only in it for two. She believes this means her medications are working.

“I don’t find like, ‘Oh man, this all makes life worth living,’ kind of hope,” Nilles said. “I find, ‘Okay, I can do another day.’”

“That’s like my biggest dream, that I’m at peace,” Nilles said.

Nilles is very open about her mental illness and does not see it as something people should be ashamed of. Even with strangers, she will open up and talk about it, believing that the more mental illness is discussed, the more the stigma is broken down. Nilles does not want anyone to hide the issues they go through because she does not want anyone to go through it alone.

“People who don’t have mental illness really struggle to understand it, and that’s not their fault,” Nilles said. “It’s just the more we can try and let them understand it, the more we can all help each other.”

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