Living—not just dealing—with a mental disorder
By Anne Marie Abraham, Contributor
My wrist is trapped in Ariel Sommers’ grip. “Always towards the thumb,” Sommers instructs as I twist my arm around forcing her to release me. “The thumb is the weakest part of the hand,” she explains, positioning herself in front of me to demonstrate the next self-defence technique.
“If someone grabs you from behind,” she says playing the victim, “just lift your foot and drag it down.” She lightly pushes her heel against my shin and drags her foot down from my knee. Red hair loose around her shoulders, in a tank top and jeans, standing with her feet shoulder-width apart, she assumes a fighting position.
Self-defence training is one of the many strategies in which 28-year-old Sommers uses to cope with having bipolar disorder, previously known as Manic Depressive Disorder. Most people with bipolar must take medications, such as Lithium Carbonate Oral or Seroquel XR Oral. Due to negative side effects, such as vomiting, headaches, weight gain, and liver damage, Sommers was forced to learn to control her bipolar through other means such as meditation or kick-boxing. A year and a half has passed since Sommers last took any medication, and since then she has been struggling to live like a normal person.
Bipolar disorder is a mental disorder where an individual experiences strong fluctuations in their mood. In a 10-minute span, Sommers, who was diagnosed at 13, can go from laughing to falling into a complete rage. “Physically, depression hurts. It’s debilitating,” she says. When Sommers is depressed, a bad day can often feel like the worst day in the world. Her motto is, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” She forces herself through rough times pretending she’s alright, even if all she wants to do is hide from the world.
Studies have shown that bipolar can appear at any time in a person’s lifetime. Over 50 per cent of bipolar cases start when a student is in college. Stress, late nights, drinking and exposure to drugs can cause bipolar symptoms to appear. Common symptoms are fluctuating emotions, speaking faster-than-normal, and jumping thoughts.
Sommers points to her head and lifts her brows as she tries to make me understand how she feels having this disorder. “It’s like having a thousand TV screens in my head,” Sommers explains. For her, every screen in her mind is playing her favourite show and in order to focus on one thing at a time she must have an organized schedule. Without her agenda, two calendars and phone to keep her in order, Sommers says, “I would never be able to accomplish anything.” According to studies, most post-secondary students with bipolar must rely on medication to be successful in school. Without treatment, functioning in a normal day-to-day life is very difficult and many resort to drug use.
Sommers has attended Douglas College since 2010 and is set to graduate with a Business Diploma and Associates of Arts Degree in December 2013. The college provides services at the Centre for Students with Disabilities to help disabled students achieve their educational goals.
Sommers’ goal now is to maintain her business, Fido Frontier. Started at the time that Sommers began taking classes at Douglas, Fido Frontier provides dog services such as walking, boarding, nutrition classes, and behaviour modification. Sommers has always had an affinity for animals and believes “the best therapy in the world is to pet a dog.” She is particularly fond of her own pet, Charlie, an 11-year-old yellow Labrador retriever and German shepherd cross.
“My dog is the centre of my universe,” Sommers says, holding up a photograph of herself laying down with her head resting on Charlie’s side. Being around animals calms her and helps her to control her bipolar. Some days, her duty to take care of Charlie is the only thing that helps her get out of bed.
Despite challenges, Sommers refuses government and school assistance. If she chose to, she could be given special accommodations to assist her in school; instead, she opts for treating school as if she were working in the real world. Douglas College offered a panel to inform teachers about students with various mental health disorders. Teachers are taught what signs to be aware of, how to cope with the situation, and what services they can suggest to their students.
Studying for finals can be near-impossible when Sommers is having a rough time with her bipolar. “I have to drag myself through it to even make it to school or work.” There are times where she has gone two or three days without sleep and still has to take care of her pets and daily life requirements regardless.
Every day she proves that she is capable of managing her life like any other person. “I don’t rely on my parents for much,” she says. “I support myself and my business and I nanny my niece and nephew three days a week.” The only thing she relies on her parents for is emotional support. With two jobs and being a full-time student, she must maintain a rigorous schedule. For Sommers to be successful in staying off her medication, a structured life is vital.
“There’s a pressure point right there,” Sommers says, showing me another self-defence move to help in an escape when trapped. She presses the pressure point on my neck right below my ear and laughs when I flinch away before taking the 10 tablets in her hand. Multi-vitamin, fish oils, B-complex, Milk Thistle, and Vitamin D are only a few of the pills Sommers consumes every morning to help her function throughout the day. “They help me stabilize my mood,” she says, which helps her “cope a little better with the illness.” As she pops the pills into her mouth one at a time, she says, “I’d rather take 10 pills of natural medicine then one pill of unnatural chemicals.” These herbal supplements and vitamins have no negative side effects; however, they require Sommers to fight a little harder to stabilize her disorder and remain a normal demeanor.
***Image of Ariel Sommers and her dog, Charlie.