Several years ago I bought an engraved brick to put with other alumni at my old school Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, FL. I was recently back and got to see my brick. I wrote a story for the school newspaper Eagle News. This is that story.
Story of a Brick
by Bridget Regan Kolek
You’ve probably passed it. It’s a few over from the second bench in front of the Cohen Center main doors. Let me back up, my name is Bridget. Not to boast, but when I went to FGCU I was kind of a big deal. FGCU was my life. I served on Student Government for 3 years as Civic Engagement Director, helped start Students Against Hunger and Homelessness, worked at Alico Arena, was a chemistry supplemental instructor, played viola in the school orchestra all while getting a 3.8 GPA in biology. I won Undergraduate Student of the Year 2008 (there’s even a picture of me in the Cohen Center). I was always doing something giving back to the community or the school. When I graduated I was accepted into the number 8 top physical therapy school in the country and graduate with my doctorate. I’m not telling you all this to brag, but to make my point: I was going places. Everyone thought I was a rising star, off to do great things in the world… and then it hit me. Mental illness. Instead of filling my days with meaningful work, volunteering and hanging out with friends like I used to, I couldn’t even get out of bed for weeks. Taking a shower felt like running a marathon. I worked as a home health physical therapist and would sit outside of patient’s homes in my car crying, completely unable to go in and see them. My paperwork piled up because I was unable to concentrate long enough to complete it. I was fired from my job and unable to hold down any other ones. I was nothing like the bad ass, high achiever I used to be. In 2013 I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It felt like a death sentence. I gained 100 lbs in 2 years from the antipsychotic medications. I absolutely loathed myself. The mere sight of myself in the mirror or a picture would sent me spiraling down. I was so ashamed of what I had become. I couldn’t do laundry, cook or take care of myself at all. I would spend my days laying in bed wasting time on my laptop. I didn’t leave the house. To people who saw me like this I just wanted to scream “This isn’t me!”. I have been hospitalized twice and attempted suicide too many times to count. I just couldn’t stand the person I had become. The negative voices were just too loud, the fight too hard. I couldn’t escape my own mind, my worst enemy. The disease had taken everything from me; my job, my social life, my appearance, the joy in my life and left me in utter despair, left to collect the broken pieces
I live in Austin, TX and am part of the alumni chapter there. I was invited back to FGCU for leadership training on building our chapter. As I walked the campus I felt completely disconnected from the person I was when I went here. I thought to myself “I am nothing like her, she is gone”. But then I found it. There in front of the Cohen Center, a place that meant so much to me once. It reads “Don’t Give Up, You’re Stronger Than You Know”. I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. I had ordered it years ago when I was in a better place. There it was, my younger, happier self giving encouragement to the future, tired and battle-worn self. How could I know what was to come? But there it was: reassurance that I have within me the strength to fight whatever comes. Confidence that I am already equipped with what I need to battle my demons. There on the brick pavement I found someone who believed in me: myself. I was overwhelmed in emotions of love, support and the feeling that everything is going to be okay.
I wish my story had a “happily ever after”, but that’s not how it goes. Every day is still a fight, the demons are still there, but now I have a voice fighting with me saying “don’t give up”. Even though I still don’t feel like the person I was when I went to FGCU, the girl whose picture is in the Cohen Center, I’m learning that she is still me. Although it’s not easy I’m working on starting my own physical therapy company and I’m getting involved with my community, especially advocating for decreasing the stigma surrounding mental illness.
When you pass that little stone I want you to know that I believe in you. Even though you don’t know me, I know you have within you everything you need to face whatever may come your way. Even when everything seems like too much, I want you to keep fighting. To each of you who struggle, especially those with mental illness, I want you to know: “Don’t Give Up, You’re Stronger Than You Know”.