An Interview With Anja Burcak: The Calculating Mind
This post is part of the Uncustomary Housewife’s Not Alone Series. This series features individuals who have been impacted by mental illness. Each individual featured on this series has a valuable mental health story to tell. I hope that people will read these stories, find strength in them, and realize that they are not alone.
I recently conducted an interview with Anja Burcak, a mental health advocate and blogger on The Calculating Mind. During her interview she shared stories about living with Type 1 Bipolar Disorder. Continue reading for the full interview:
EB: Elizabeth Banks (Interviewer)
AB: Anja Burcak (Interviewee)
EB: If you don’t mind, tell me about your diagnosis.
AB: The summer following my sophomore year of college, I was hit with a major depressive episode. Prior to this episode, I had never struggled with my mental health, other than perhaps some subclinical, situational anxiety. No one in my family has a history of mental illness, nor did I have some tragic “triggering” life event, so it was really unexpected.
After being on an antidepressant, I eventually started becoming better… a little too well. I was trying to convince my concerned family and friends that this was just the new post-depression me – weren’t they happy that I was no longer severely depressed?
It turns out that I was experiencing hypomania. I was in denial. I wanted to believe that I just had some random one-time depressive thing during the summer, not an illness that will impact me for the rest of my life. Two years after being diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, following a manic episode which required hospitalizations, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder Type 1.
EB: Why do you speak publicly about your mental illness/mental health?
AB: Mental illness can be so incredibly isolating. Literally, the symptoms of depression can make you isolate yourself. But, the thing is, you are far from alone. Even if not everyone with a mental illness speaks out about their condition, it is very likely that someone you know has a mental illness!
When I started writing, I was surprised by how many people I personally knew who connected to what I had experienced, whether it was crippling anxiety, dysphoric mania, or suicidal depression. I have been told by someone that my blog makes them feel less alone. If I can manage to do that, then I have accomplished my goal.
EB: What experiences have you encountered with therapy?
AB: To treat my first depressive episode, I went to one session with a therapist as well as a psychiatrist. I was practically mute, so the therapy session was not very productive and incredibly awkward, to say the least. It ended with her suggesting that I do something I like, such as go to a zumba class. I was incredibly frustrated and decided to never come again. Maybe she was trying to go for a behavioral activation approach to treating my depression, but what I heard was that she was not taking my depression seriously, telling me I could just dance it off.
Years later, I went to a clinical psychologist who I actually liked, but she no longer wanted me as a patient once I had a full-blown manic episode. The last clinical psychologist appeared to know less about bipolar disorder than I did… so therapy has not gone so well.
EB: What experiences have you encountered with medication?
AB: I have not been the ideal patient in terms of medication adherence. Yes, at first, it was the idea of medications messing with my brain. But, I also had really troubling side effects. I’ve been on meds which were so sedating that I had difficulty even walking to bed. One medication made me incredibly tired, to the point which I wanted to go to bed by 7 pm every day. There was one which made my skin extremely itchy, which made me concerned for SJS (life-threatening side effects are not ideal). The most terrifying experience was with a medication that caused oculogyric crisis. I did not know what was going on, but, sometimes in the evening, I lost control of my eyes. My eyes would be stuck upwards towards the ceiling. Most of my vision was a blur. Also, I had extreme anxiety and difficulty even speaking (felt like my tongue was all of a sudden too big for my mouth). If I went to sleep, it would go away by the time I woke up. My psychiatrist had not known what I was experiencing when I tried to explain this occurrence, but know I know what it was.
EB: Have you developed positive coping strategies? If so, would you please tell me about them?
AB: I love being artsy, so when those art therapy adult coloring books started trending, I was all over those! I love different ways to express myself, including writing, drawing, and photography. Relaxing activities such as reading, listening to music, and spending time with friends/family help. I have also used mental wellness apps with features such as progressive muscle relaxation.
EB: Do you believe there is a negative stigma attached to mental illness?
AB: I absolutely believe that there is negative stigma attached to mental illness. It isn’t nearly as bad as it used to be, but it still has a far way to go. For example, Bipolar Disorder used to be called “manic-depressive insanity” which sounds much worse than our modern term.
I told a college professor that I wanted to go to grad school after undergrad. I had just told her that I had Bipolar Disorder. Her response was that I should rethink going to grad school given that it could make me “unstable.” I don’t think that it is fair to think that someone is incapable of accomplishing their goals due to their condition. That interaction was stigmatizing, in my opinion.
EB: What do you believe causes the negative stigma?
AB: There are so many sources of stigma, from inaccurate media coverage (i.e. automatically assuming that every shooter must be mentally ill) to Hollywood portrayals of the mentally ill. It is almost amusing that the portrayals tend to be one extreme or the other, either the person is homeless or the person is a successful genius. With whom are the majority of people with mental illness supposed to identify?
EB: How can people help stop the stigma?
AB: The key to stopping stigma is psychoeducation. Educate your family. Educate your friends. Educate your social media followers. Educate yourself. There is so much power in fighting stigma through simply sharing people’s stories and explaining mental illnesses.
EB: Is your particular mental illness portrayed in popular movies, shows, or books? If so, do you feel like it is given a fair portrayal?
AB: Oddly enough, the way that I found out I had bipolar disorder was through watching “The Silver Linings Playbook” for my abnormal psychology class. The assignment was to judge the accuracy of the portrayal of their illness. While skimming the DSM-5 to see if the main character’s characteristics were truly representative of Bipolar Disorder, I saw that he didn’t really match up well, but I did. I ended up writing an entire paper on how Bradley Cooper’s character did not really fit the bipolar criteria. The movie featured a lot of really random burst of violent behavior, ones that made me think more along the lines of Intermittent Explosive Disorder than Bipolar Disorder.
EB: Do you have a mental health success story you would like to share with me? Perhaps an achievement you are proud of, a goal you met, an obstacle you overcame, or something else?
AB: Depression convinced me time and time again that I would not be able to complete college. I took multiple semesters off, but this past December I finally graduated from UNC with Biology and Psychology degrees!
EB: What challenges and/or struggles are you still facing?
AB: I am still on the search for the perfect treatment approach. I think that my current medications may be okay, but I tend to still feel symptomatic at times. I also would like to learn how to be more aware of my symptoms, so that I can monitor my condition better.
EB: What advice do you have for individuals living with mental illness?
AB: Do not be ashamed to seek help. It does not make you weak. It takes strength to seek help and you should remember that you are worth it, no matter what depression tells you.
EB: Is there anything else you would like to share?
AB: I am soon expanding to new platforms and mediums, such as a podcast and vlogging. I’m really excited!
About Anja Burcak:
Anja Burcak is a blogger with a passion for mental health advocacy. She often writes about mania, depression, and anxiety, from a first-person perspective. Diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder (Type 1) in 2016, she has insight into the struggles many face with finding the right diagnosis, treatment, and providers. She hopes that sharing her story on her “The Calculating Mind” blog will create more open, honest conversations about mental illnesses, fighting the stigma one post at a time. You can follow her on Twitter and WordPress for her latest writings.
A huge thank you to Anja Burcak for sharing her story with me. I really appreciate it.
Do you have a mental health story to tell? I want to help you tell it. If interested, you can contact me and/or view the Not Alone Series: Introduction and Questions page to see the next steps. You can also subscribe to my blog, and connect with me on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.