Stories of Hope: An Interview with Anja Burcak
This is part of a series featuring individuals who share their life experiences with mental health issues. Recently, I asked mental health advocate and student Anja Burcak about her history of mental health challenges and her current activities. Here’s our interview:
DS: Tell us about when you first started becoming aware of concerns related to your mental health. How did these issues continue to affect you before you sought treatment?
AB: In June, 2014, following my sophomore year of college at UNC (University of North Carolina), a crippling, severe depression seemed to hit me out of nowhere. All of a sudden, anxiety and depression took over my ability to think, work, communicate, and make plans. No one in my family had ever been diagnosed with a mental illness, so we were not prepared to handle it.
My parents were scared, so I went to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and put me on an antidepressant. I stopped taking the medications when I felt as if I no longer needed them. Shortly afterward, I was drawing attention by family and friends for appearing “too happy.”
Their concern confused me. Did they not want me to be no longer depressed? I was veering towards mania and had no idea what was happening. My psychiatrist didn’t tell me that she thought I may have Bipolar Disorder instead of MDD. It wasn’t until a year later, when I was writing a psychology paper on Bipolar Disorder, that I realized that I met the criteria for a manic episode.
The mania became so severe that I had to postpone my final exams and be hospitalized for two weeks of that year. Now, I have the “correct” diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder type 1, but I still struggle to find the right medications, the balance between “normal” and clinically “abnormal,” and to deal with the stigma that those with mental illnesses face.
DS: What was the turning point that led you to decide to seek help?
AB: Depressive episodes are sometimes characterized by self-harm and even suicidal thoughts. I was obsessing about failure and my own death. I had no previous history of self-harm, but suddenly I was engaging in those harmful cutting behaviors. When my parents found out, I think that was what really pushed them to make me go to the doctor. They were desperate. How do you help your daughter who is so deep in depression that she has lost the will to live, given up hope completely? They thought that medicine was the answer, so I went.
DS: What has your treatment consisted of, and what have you found that has worked well for you?
AB: I have been on various medications, from ones for insomnia to depression to anxiety to mania. The side effects are really discouraging in trying to find the “perfect” treatment, but I am working on it. I met with a new psychiatrist who brought up the possibility of doing a DNA test, assessing my genes to see what medication would be best. I am very excited to try this test out and see what medications I should try next. I have also seen a clinical psychologist a few times, which helps with talk therapy, as opposed to merely medication management.
DS: How are things going for you now? What have you learned that has helped you stay positive and healthy?
AB: Things are going well! I have found an amazingly supportive network on campus and even on social media. I try to find creative approaches to dealing with my mental illnesses. I started my blog in 2015 and am absolutely in love with writing. Since then, I have written mental health articles for various sites, including The Mighty, Consumer Health Digest, and The Odyssey. I also branched off into drawing and photography. Dance is a physical way in which I keep healthy, also allowing me to be creative and engage with other dancers! I’m choreographing a piece this semester for UNC’s Blank Canvas organization and I am so excited!
DS: You’ve been active in mental health advocacy and social media. Tell us about your involvement in those activities.
AB: I started off with just a WordPress blog (The Calculating Mind). At first, I was going to keep it anonymous, a blog on a person’s struggle with a mood disorder. Then, I considered what kind of message that would send to its readers. Can I really say that no one should be ashamed of their mental illnesses if I myself am afraid to be public about it?
That lead to a complete change in my approach. I got into other platforms, such as Twitter and Instagram, and started using hashtags such as #BipolarSelfie, #ProudlyBipolar, and #Bipolar1 to draw attention to Bipolar Disorder and its advocacy. I love the responses that I have been getting from others impacted by mania, depression and anxiety! It is such a supportive network of people!
A few months back, I saw that Hopexchange Nonprofit was doing #130ReasonsWhyNot as a suicide campaign (based on 13 Reasons Why) in which each day’s post consists of a good reason to live. I started my own reasons based on this campaign and am on day 80 myself!
DS: What would you like to say to encourage others who are still working on their journey of recovery?
AB : It can be so easy to be discouraged by misdiagnoses, side effects, and even mental health professionals who just don’t “get it.” I’ve had even a professor tell me that Bipolar Disorder isn’t even “psychiatric” and does not require medications, after I told him that I was just in the ER for my condition.
I had another professor tell me to be careful with considering grad school, because I could become “unstable.” I won’t be limited by my mental illnesses, and neither should you. Stay strong. Find something that you are passionate about, whether it is dance, writing, or painting, and make time to pursue it. Life can become very overwhelming, but remember that recovery is not a race. It is a process. It may have some setbacks, but you CAN recover and get your life back.
I am a senior undergraduate psychology/neuroscience and biology student at the University of North Carolina. My mental health advocacy, #MHrevolution, was started while I was struggling with my first manic episode and continues now on multiple social media platforms and sites! I love to write, draw, photograph and even dance for mental health advocacy! You can connect with me on Instagram, Twitter, or on my blog and website.
Thanks so much to Anja for her inspiring story of hope!
Would you like to share your story of hope? I plan to feature more personal accounts like this from time to time on my blog. If you are interested in sharing your story, please notify me via my contact page. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Finally, if you enjoyed this post, please share it with a friend. Thanks!