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Two sides of one coin: La Jolla student shares story of life with bipolar disorder

La Jolla High School student Ana Gimber with her dog, Paco. Courtesy
La Jolla High School student Ana Gimber with her dog, Paco. Courtesy

During her last few months of middle school in 2011, La Jolla resident Ana Gimber had a lot on her mind. Chiefly, preparing to start high school at La Jolla High. She said she felt anxiety and some depression as her final year of eighth grade came to a close, but as soon as summer hit, she felt uplifted and energized once again.

What she didn’t know was underneath the seemingly normal teenage behavior for that time of year, the early symptoms of bipolar disorder were starting to emerge. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, Ana sat down with La Jolla Light to share her story of life with bipolar disorder.

The common stages of bipolar disorder are mania (the “high”) and depression (the “low”) with hypomania (a lesser state of mania) and/or mixed state (feeling the high and low at the same time).

The high

Ana’s mother, Pilar Gimber said, “I thought Ana was anxious because she was thinking about high school coming and wanting to keep her grades up. Then she snapped out of it in the summer, and had a lot of plans with friends, so I thought it was just about end-of-the-school-year stresses. Because I was so relieved she seemed happy, I didn’t notice the subtle changes that were happening.”

Some of the changes included being “bolder” than usual, saying unusual or odd things, and not sleeping at night, but having a surplus of energy during the day.(All of which are early symptoms of mania.)

During the summer months, Pilar said, Ana would not feel the need for sleep, but still make plans to walk to Pacific Beach from their La Jolla home or skateboard to UTC to hang out with friends during the day.

“I was all over the place and wanted to do everything. I thought I could do everything,” Ana said. “Every day from the minute I woke up until the sun went down I was busy.” She also took on odd jobs to pay for a trip to horseback riding camp that included dog walking, house sitting, painting addresses on curbs and babysitting. “I think that was the start of mania,” she said.

Her mother added, “I didn’t know she wasn’t sleeping until one night I got up in the middle of the night to get water and saw her light on at 2 in the morning. She was only getting a couple hours (of sleep a night) while doing a million things during the day, and she started talking so much.”

The low

When school started, Ana’s mania subsided and she fell into a deep depression. She also started to forget things — an additional symptom of bipolar disorder.

“I wasn’t feeling like myself, but I told myself it was just coming down from the fun of summer,” she said. “I was out of focus with everything and I would forget things so often. I would lose things. I wouldn’t know where I was supposed to be picked up from school.”

Ana described the depression as being in a fog, where everything seemed gray. Her mother said Ana seemed sedated.

“There was a time she could not get a sentence out at a normal pace,” Pilar said. “Her processing speed went down and it was very hard for her to get through school that way. She’d never been like that and it was so different to see D’s and F’s on her report card.”

Ana interjected, “That depressed me even more because I wanted to have a good high school experience and get good grades and I gave it my all and still did the work.”

Also during the low period, Ana would say things that didn’t make sense to her family. “At one point, she said she and our family dog knew each other and she was experimenting in giving him messages,” Pilar said. “She would say things like she was an angel and needed to save the world, or that she thought she was related to Napoleon Bonaparte.”

‘You have bipolar disorder.’

Pilar started to take notes on the odd things her daughter was saying and the unusual behavior she was exhibiting, and called a friend in the mental health field for advice.

On the friend’s suggestion, the Gimbers took their daughter to see a psychologist, hoping for a diagnosis. When they got there and the doctor had a chance to speak with Ana, “The doctor knew within the first few moments what she was looking at,” Pilar said.

When it came to breaking the news, Ana said the psychologist was direct and simply said, ‘you have bipolar disorder.’ “She didn’t even finish the sentence before I started crying,” Ana said. “I didn’t hear anything she said after that. I didn’t believe it, but deep down, I did believe it.”

Although she was relieved to have a diagnosis and begin medication, the question arose whether to tell her friends.

“I started by telling a really good friend,” she said. “We had a notebook we shared and would write notes to each other (while sitting next to each other in class), I went to write ‘I’m bipolar’ and I got to the ‘P’ and her face just dropped. She was frozen and couldn’t say anything. It changed our friendship really dramatically.

“It’s so hard to tell people because you don’t know how they’re going to respond. It depends on what they know (about bipolar disorder), if they don’t know anything, they can get freaked out,” she said.

This was coupled with having peers that often used the word “bipolar” as a slur. “Before my friends knew, they would talk about people being in a bad mood and say ‘she’s being so bipolar.’ If the weather changed during the day, people would say ‘the weather is being so bipolar,’ ” Ana said.

“When people think of bipolar, they pick two adjectives, and that’s what that person is from then on. For example, they are angry and sweet, and that’s it,” she said. “Most people picture someone angry and violent. It can be different (emotional highs and lows) for different people, but it’s still the same principle.”

Ana Gimber speaks at the International Bipolar Foundation Gala in 2015. Courtesy
Ana Gimber speaks at the International Bipolar Foundation Gala in 2015. Courtesy

Reaching out

Wanting to meet people who understood what she was going through, Ana got involved with the International Bipolar Foundation (IBPF) — an organization that aims to improve understanding and treatment of bipolar disorder and erase stigma — and said the organization’s annual fundraising gala in 2014 was a turning point for her.

“I pictured people that had bipolar as being hidden and doing their best to hide what they are going through,” she said. “Then I saw all these people that were so motivated. It was so different from what I expected.”

While at the 2014 gala, Ana (unknowingly) was spotted by a boy she knew at school. The next day, the boy approached Ana while she was with friends and mentioned seeing her. Her friends immediately grew curious as to why Ana was at an event for bipolar disorder. “I told them my parents were really into it and wanted me to go,” she said. “It technically wasn’t a lie!”

She later decided to be honest and tell her friends. “They were so good about it. I was really surprised, because I didn’t think that would happen,” she said. “It felt so good to get it off my chest though.”

The key, in her experience, was having friends who were willing to learn about or understand bipolar disorder before jumping to judgment. “Take it seriously and realize how much courage it took for them to tell you,” she said.

Pilar added, “It’s not all doom and gloom, she has so much to contribute. She is so creative and has incredible character and compassion for others, and unique talents she might not have had without this illness. There is a link between bright people and bipolar.”

A smart and committed student, Ana plans to go to college when she graduates from high school, and received a scholarship to Whittier College.

“Today I feel really happy and really proud to be in the place that I am. I could never have imagined this before, when my highs and lows were bad,” she aaid. “I feel stronger and I know myself more. I’m excited to keep going and excited for where I am now.”

Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder

Mania (the “high”): long periods of feeling overly happy or outgoing, extreme irritability, talking quickly, racing thoughts, being easily distracted, taking on new projects, overly restless, reduced need for sleep, having an unrealistic belief in one’s abilities, engaging in high-risk behaviors.

Depression (the “low”): long periods of sadness or hopelessness, loss of interest once enjoyed, feeling slowed down, difficulty concentrating or remembering, irritability, changes in sleeping or eating habits, suicidal thoughts.

International Bipolar Foundation: 8895 Towne Centre Drive, Suites 105-360, San Diego. (858) 764-2496