Not everyone is willing or able to share their personal struggles with others, but for Jason Wegner (BA/BEd '21), opening up about his journey with Bipolar 1 Disorder has become a superpower in his practice as a middle school teacher.
Born and raised in Lethbridge, Wegner began his time at the University of Lethbridge in 2015, and in reflecting on that period early in his undergraduate studies, he sees hints of what was to come. "I was doing really well in my first year of university. I was taking five classes, working two jobs and playing hockey at night, and those were very late nights, but I was still doing everything really well," he recalls. "It was kind of a tell that my illness was starting to show itself. I was shorting myself on sleep and still had high energy and was doing everything well, so that was the initial sign of my hypomania."
Some speedbumps in his first year resulted in Wegner not being accepted to the Faculty of Education in his second year, so he pivoted to taking business and Career and Technology Studies (CTS) courses, but says he faced an identity crisis as his illness began to bubble to the surface.
Spiraling into mania
"I was 19, going into the fall semester of my second year, and that's when I started experimenting with drugs to help me sleep and destress," he says, adding that an experience with psilocybin, or magic mushrooms, in December of 2016 was a real glimpse into what mania would be like just six months later. It was the decision to take LSD, more commonly known as acid, in the summer of 2017 that took things over the top, just as he was preparing to take a trip to Africa to build schools.
"It was one of the primary triggers of my manic episode. I was already starting to show signs of mania, but that was the tipping point," Wegner says. "The perfect storm for bipolar disorder is stress, lack of sleep and drug use, and I had all three of those as I was going to Africa."
The 16-day trip to Africa came just two weeks after the decision to take LSD, and Wegner says he was in "high mania" at that point.
"I took 300 pages of notes, over two hours of audio journals and tons of videos during that time, which was all characterized by rapid thoughts, pressured speech, antagonistic behaviour, highly emotional and complete insomnia. I was sleeping maybe three or four hours a night, getting in fights with people on the trip and having all these grandiose ideas," he says. "When my parents picked me up at the airport, it was very concerning because I was talking nonstop, rambling and going off topic, and I could barely hold a sentence coherently."
The manic episode lasted about six weeks, spanning his time in Africa plus a month back in Lethbridge, and ultimately resulted in 57 days in hospital in the acute psychiatry ward. After weeks of refusing medication, Wegner finally decided he was all in on his recovery, but stepping back into society proved difficult.
First signs of recovery
"I had a really great psychiatrist in hospital who told me I could have my life back and be successful if I was disciplined in my recovery, and that was really what I needed to hear," Wegner says. "I had seven months of severe depression, characterized by lethargy and huge weight gain – I gained 70 pounds in a year – because what comes up must come down in bipolar disorder. It was 22 changes and adjustments to medication before we got it right, because it was like trying to hit a bullseye on a dartboard that keeps moving."
After months of chipping away at recovery, Wegner returned to classes at ULethbridge, majoring in English with his sights once again set on being a teacher. It was at this point he realized he could try to make a difference for others.
"All of the depression and feelings of lethargy and weight gain and losing my lifestyle, I asked myself if it was all happening to me, or if it was all happening for me, so I could serve others and live a life of empowering others," he says. "That reframing changed everything."
Sharing his story
Once he was admitted to the Faculty of Education, Wegner had positive experiences interacting vulnerably with students during all three of his practicum placements in the field. He also wrote and published a book: Manic Man: How to Live Successfully With a Severe Mental Illness.
"I would say by going through all that I've gone through, I can connect with students on a whole other level; I've turned it into an advantage," he says. "I'm not debilitated by my illness, if anything I'm stronger because of it."
"It informs my practice, I can build amazing relationships with students because I'm vulnerable about my story; when I open up and get emotional, they see me as a real person and connect with me, and I can also connect them with different resources and be an ear for them."
Things have now come full circle for Wegner, who is currently teaching eighth grade at Wilson Middle School, where he was once a student.
"There's some of my old teachers who are still kicking around there who really impacted me, which is super cool," he says. "I just want to make a difference. Every single morning I'm out greeting every student by name to see how they're doing and giving unconditional care, because that may be the only positive exchange they have all day."
"A lot of students are struggling with trauma, and by me being vulnerable and open, I invite them to be open about their struggles too. I want my classroom to be a safe space."
Wegner has shared his story widely, including with current Faculty of Education students in a presentation during the Spring 2023 semester. He says while his focus right now is on being the best teacher he can be, he could see himself returning to ULethbridge one day as an instructor.