Player Profile: Desiree “DEZ” Nunez. Standing at 5”8, 145 pounds. 23 years young. Church kid. Amateur writer. Mental health advocate. Nerd. Graduate student. Number 30, the Bipolar Bear fighting out of New Mexico!!
Uhm, yes. Basically. That’s me. That’s a quick fact introduction for you. (Please do read the above in Bruce Buffer’s booming UFC announcer voice though. It sounded awesome in my head. And yes, I do know fighters don’t have numbers – but I played most sports growing up, hence I have a number. Plus, Steph Curry. Enough said).
Pre-diagnosis & Diagnosis:
“Now, this is a story all about how my life got flipped, turned upside down…” (I love the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Will Smith is iconic). Anyway, this is my story.
Despite my dad’s service in our great U.S. Air Force, I’ve lived in New Mexico for most of my life. Yes, contrary to popular belief, New Mexico is in the United States – we’re wedged between Arizona and Texas. We aren’t that lame either, we have: the dunes of White Sands near Alamogordo, Walter White’s house from Breaking Bad in Albuquerque, the Caverns of Carlsbad, aliens and Area 51 in Roswell, NASA in Las Cruces, Meow Wolf in Santa Fe… Additionally, tons of movies have been filmed here. The sunsets here are heavenly.
My childhood was pretty normal and lackluster: I was shy, read a lot, had few friends, played basketball starting at age 3, and always ended up being the teacher’s pet. High school was much better: top of my class academically, an active volunteer in church, Varsity athlete, etc. I was also voted “Most Academic” and must live every day knowing that there is an awkward photo of myself and the Valedictorian in the yearbook forever. It is cringeworthy. However, I did earn a full academic scholarship. I can’t complain. I worked hard and was blessed amply. I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Psychology with minors in Ethics, Forensic Science, and Philosophy. (Snazzy)? I did change my major three times – from (my premed) Biology to Education and then (finally) switching and sticking with Psychology. I try not to remind my mum that I was also two classes away from earning a Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice too. (Sorry mother). College was uniquely confusing and arguably easy.
Oh, that is until I turned 21.
That’s when the news was delivered. I went to see a neuropsychologist with an odd mixture of severe migraines, insomnia, irritability, rapid thoughts, and other (seemingly) random symptoms. He told me that my brain was broken, that chemicals were supremely unbalanced. I was housing chaos in my skull. Bipolar I. I knew little of the condition. My mind took off: “Am I crazy? I am crazy then. Do I not pray enough? Is this punishment? What does that even mean? My brain is sick? It doesn’t feel like it’s sick. Is this guy truly qualified enough to throw such a label around?” It continued: “You’re fine. He’s wrong. He must be wrong. You’re a tremendous student. You’re just anxious and tired. This is typical. They’re just powerful emotions and occasionally dangerous, impulsive thoughts. I have a grasp on reality. I’m dealing with normative stress. It’s just migraines and long nights. I. Am. Fine.” I left it at that. I moved on. I was in denial.
At that point in life, I had only ever experienced Depressed Dez and Hypomanic Dez. I thrived on achievements. Then Manic Dez and (Dangerous) Deeply Depressed Dez made appearances. Suicidal scares. Delusions. Hallucinations. Honestly, it was textbook Bipolar I. Despite my intellect and all the evidence around me, I still rejected my condition. Several episodes came and went – each coming faster and more ruthless than the one before. Isolation drowning me. The silence was deafening. I didn’t let anyone in; no one knew. I was still working 25-30 hours a week, maintaining A’s in all my classes (even while missing most), always smiling and cracking jokes… I masked the pain.
Then, I hit a wall. Figuratively and literally. Anger overwhelmed me. I punched a giant hole next to my closet door. I had a casted hand for quite some time. I had to take my finals without my writing hand – that was unique. Post-exam week, sadly, I ran over a dog. (I love dogs. Thankfully, he jogged away. I pray he was okay). I was not okay. I met my breaking point. Delusions slammed down. I thought the dog was a person. I was paranoid. I thought I killed someone. I thought the cops were after me. I was terrified. I thought my life was over. It hadn’t felt worth it. I was ready to give up… Miraculously, I ended up on the doorstep of my friend C’s house. She’s a wife, mom, mental health professional, and superhero through and through. She saved my life. Her love, concern, and support led me to seek out counseling (coaching) and a medication regimen (via an athletic trainer, a.k.a. a psychiatrist).
Those first days were hell. They were the longest and hardest. As Mike Vosters put it: “In colloquial terms, Bipolar is like steroids for emotions. The routine happy is the best day of your life, and the routine sad is the worst day of your life.” Typically, this swing between the extremes is periodic. Unfortunately, I like to be atypical: I have ultra-rapid-cycling Bipolar I. Rare. This means that my brain shifts within days. It was such a blurry time. I can hardly recall any details of those days. They bleed into each other. Therefore, I cannot reflect on those times now. I only have snippets of memories and the stories that C tells me. It was my Rookie year. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know how to handle things. Overnight I acquired a head coach, a few athletic trainers, some teammates, and a small, unconditionally loving fan base. I needed all the assistance that I received.
Season 2 & 3:
I can breathe easier. I don’t feel as heavy. Life isn’t as blurry. My coaching and training staffs have grown. I have found some stability. I have found the light. I have found hope.
I’m on a mood stabilizer, antianxiety medication, and an antipsychotic. I was so ashamed of taking them before. My perspective has greatly changed. Taking a mood stabilizer for my brain is no different than someone needing their blood pressure pills. The true opponents are not my meds. They are the stigma, the lack of general knowledge and awareness around mental health, misconceptions, awful stereotypes, symptoms, and so on.
There is no off-season. It’s a tough battle every game. I’ve taken a few L’s. I’ve forfeited a couple of games. “Forgetting” to take my meds or “forgetting” about therapy appointments, losing a job, missing class, getting bad grades, sleeping too much or too little… Thankfully, I still have a winning record. I have earned every single win through blood, sweat, and tears. Some were overtime wins, some were blowouts. I cherish the Ws.
I have a chronic, health condition – and that’s okay! It just means that I’ll have to stay vigilant and honest. Also, transparent and vulnerable. I can’t back down. I can’t let up. When I feel like quitting, I can call a time-out instead or draw up some new plays or call for a screen from a teammate or talk to my coaches or change my game plan or look back on my progress or just celebrate with my fans and friends. I have a long career ahead of me. That’s the greatest news.
Considering this is the equivalent of an ESPN thorough interview, I’ll stay faithful to my viewers/listeners/readers: things are hardly any easier, but they are better. Much, much better. I am rediscovering who I am and who I want to be. I’m encountering more and more reasons for why I play and why I stay: my siblings, Little C, C & D, my parents, school, my mentors, classmates, travels (actual trips, not the basketball violation), team dinners, hype music, cheat meals, books, Xbox… and the list goes on. It’s lengthy now. I’m proud of that. These games are wild. I love it. I hate it. I own it. I am so blessed to be a part of a team.
I am glad that you’re alive. I am glad that you are here. I am proud of you. You’re doing it. You’re making it. You’re surviving. You’re thriving. Thank you for fighting – your efforts aren’t unnoticed. I see you! Your stats are impressive. Even with the odds stacked against you, you’re winning. There’s no off-season. But, you can do it. You’re putting in the work. Ask for help when you need it. Don’t be afraid to. It’s okay.
We don’t have to have a perfect record. Keep that in mind. Losses aren’t the end of the world. Recovery is possible. If you fall, get back up. If you’re struggling to get up, take that hand reaching down to lift you. If you’re limping, you’re still okay! Go see a trainer or coach, or both. Talk things through and establish a game plan. Do all that you can do and employ the resources around you. Community is beautiful. We weren’t and aren’t meant to live life alone. We are made for each other. I’m one of your biggest fans. Don’t forget that. I’m rooting for you. Congrats on your tremendous career thus far! Let’s aim for the Hall of Fame? We’re All-Stars at the very least. “Up, down – but, never out!” I have Bipolar and I am not ashamed. I’m winning. GAME ON.
Dez rocks the Bipolar Bears cap in her moving story of living with bipolar disorder.