When doctors first told Kimberly Frentheway, 37, she has a bipolar disorder, she was taken aback. She thought her diagnosis was wrong because she never experienced the euphoric feelings of loving life that are often associated with the disorder.
But looking back, she can now identify the year 2006 as a particularly manic year for her.
While studying at a law school in the small town of Laramie, Wyoming, she said she began experiencing psychosis and other manic behaviors.
“I started thinking every FedEx truck I saw was sent by my mom to watch me,” she said, adding that she had had arguments with her mother in the past about her ability to stick with school. “Every time I would see one, the more it confirmed it.”
Then, in two and a half months, she charged $30,000 on her credit card at Walmart, buying things she said later she didn’t need: cupboards, a kitchen island on wheels, a lemon juicer.
“I don’t juice lemons,” she said.
She also bought curtain rods and lodged them vertically in all eight windows of her home because she was afraid someone would break in.
Now, over a decade later, all of the items from that Walmart spree reside in a storage space in Georgia.
“I’m afraid to go and see,” Frentheway said. “I really don’t want to face all of that stuff. It’s evidence of how sick I was.”
She didn’t identify these episodes as manic back then, because they weren’t euphoric like she mistakenly thought mania had to be.
“[Symptoms of mania] can be that your thoughts are burning through your head,” she said. “It can be you’re frustrated with everything because people are moving so slowly. Or you’re just raging when you have no reason to be angry. You have to consciously tell yourself that this is not real.”
After two weeks in law school, Frentheway said she decided she didn’t want to be a lawyer. She rented a U-Haul, put her car on a trailer behind it and drove the 22-hour trip from Laramie to Atlanta.
On her way, she heard snippets of voices — not full sentences, but what sounded like overhearing parts of a conversation.
“It was like I had my own radio the whole way,” she said.
In Atlanta, she moved in with her dad and got a job at Circuit City, but she hated it. She’d throw up in the mornings from anxiety.
“I didn’t really have any frame of reference for what was going on,” Frentheway said, “and neither did my family.”
It wasn’t until when she started attending a graduate program at Michigan State University in 2008 that a student health center psychiatrist helped her make sense of it all.
After hearing Frentheway’s story, the psychiatrist looked at her and said, “So why exactly did you not think you’re bipolar?” She started her on medication that day.
Frentheway saw the counselor every other week and took a medical withdrawal that semester. Later she’d occasionally take classes, but by 2012, she said it was clear she wouldn’t make it through the graduate program.
“I had been hospitalized a few times by then,” she said. “School was incompatible with my mental health.”
But with help of her psychiatrist, she was developing a better understanding of her illnesses, which turned out to be primarily bipolar 1 with a mixed subtype, along with comorbid anxiety and panic disorder. (Comorbid essentially means coexisting.)
She has what she called mixed episodes, which is when a person experiences some symptoms of both mania and depression simultaneously. Frentheway said she believes it is a misunderstood part of bipolar disorder since people who don’t have it often believe you go through cycles of manic and depressive without having episodes that incorporate both simultaneously.
“It’s not just mania, and it’s not just depression,” she said. “There’s a very scary gray area in between.”
Here’s how Frentheway described how she feels when she experiences a mixed episode:
“When you feel like everything is a whirlwind around you and you’re going a million miles an hour and your brain is flying and you have all of this going on, everything is dark,” she said. “You have enough energy to commit suicide and all of the negative thoughts that go with it.”
Frentheway said her problems with mental health started during high school. She said she tried to take her own life on a Super Bowl Sunday, when everyone in her family was out of the house, by ingesting excessive amounts of prescription drugs, including a bottle of Benadryl.
“I was thinking, ‘Stop the world. I want to get off. This will stop the pain somehow,’” she said.
She survived that attempt, and since then, she said she’s been very responsible about taking herself to the hospital voluntarily when the thoughts of suicide strike.
After leaving school, Frentheway got disability and applied for bankruptcy on her credit cards. She currently lives with her parents, and one of her priorities is getting her over $100,000 in student loans discharged after being in and out of college for 15 years.
“I’m in a very interesting sort of purgatory place,” she said. “I’m transitioning from where I’m constantly in a battle with my illness to acceptance.”
She wants other people with bipolar disorder to know they’re not alone — that “there are a huge number of us out there.”
She finds some solace in works that describe bipolar disorder, like Carrie Fisher’s
“Postcards From the Edge.” Over the phone, she read aloud this passage:
“She wanted to be tranquil, to be someone who took walks in the late-afternoon sun, listening to the birds and crickets and feeling the whole world breathe. Instead she lived in her head like a madwoman locked in a tower, hearing the wind howling through her hair and waiting for someone to come and rescue her from feeling things so deeply that her bones burned. She had plenty of evidence that she had a good life. She just couldn’t feel the life she saw she had. It was as though she had cancer of the perspective.”
It’s her favorite part of the book.
“I’m the crazy lady in the tower,” she said. “I want to be that person who walks along to hear the birds.”
If you are having suicidal thoughts or are in emotional distress, please call 1-800-273-8255.