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Graduating from college despite serious mental illness

Posted Dec 18 2010 12:00am

The first time I started college was in 1993. I was suffering from Anorexia at the time, and suffering is a very accurate word in this sentence. I literally couldn't think about anything but calories and fat grams, which controlled my life. I recall clearly sitting in the library at a desk with a calculator, going over my calorie counts for the week (yes, the week, not just the day; I was quite obsessed), when I was supposed to be doing math work or something for my speech class. I dropped out pretty quickly after school started.

I didn't go back to school for a few years. In the 1996-97 year, I was dealing, still, with the eating disorder, but worse, at that time, was my problem with depression. I was not correctly diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder until 2005/2006, so back in the 1990's, I was going under other diagnoses: steadily worsening chronic, recurrent Major Depression and Cylcothymia, and also Attention Deficit Disorder. I was on medications some of the time, when I had insurance and when I could afford the part the insurance did not cover.

I met a professor that year who changed my life. I will call him Dr. B., because he is a PhD now, though he wasn't back then. He taught my English Composition class. He thought I was intelligent. Sure, I had always been a good student - until I had decided to drop out of high school. It was hard to feel smart after making that decision. I was in my 20's now, but this professor thought I should try to go to a more difficult college than the community college where he taught. He encouraged me to take the SAT, which I had never done in high school. I took it, and got an 800 on the verbal section, which was a perfect score, and an average score on the math section, as math was always really hard for me. When I got those scores in the mail I could not believe them. I had studied for the test, with one of those SAT prep books, but I had not thought I would do so well.

Yet, school was hard, not easy. I had no ability to memorize formulas for math. I went to the office for students with disabilities as this same professor encouraged me to do, and the advisor there looked at some I.Q. test scores I had from when I was first in a psychiatric hospital at age 16, and said that I most likely had a learning disability when it came to math. Some expensive tests would be required to find out for sure, so I never found out for sure. But I did get help through her office, since I had the other diagnoses. I was also just newly living with Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome at that time, which were quite debilitating. They worsened my depression.

There were days that I would sit in a private room, or a cubby-style desk in the library at that school that I have now been to a million times, and I would just contemplate death. I would read depressing poetry and I would think that I needed to kill myself. I would cry. Or I would just sit there with my head down on the desk and try to concentrate enough to study. I got good grades. But I was having a really hard time with life. I dropped classes, and I wrote depressing entries in a journal for my composition class read by Dr. B. (who I would maintain a friendship with, mostly via email, that continues today).

In 1998, I moved to Maryland. Things weren't working out with me living with my mother in Florida, and I wasn't doing well enough physically or mentally to work full time and support myself. I went to live with my grandparents. I was 23. I enrolled in the honors program at the community college there where they lived, because there were honors classes I wanted to take. I was serious about studying and I got good grades. I was encouraged that year by another professor who changed my life. She encouraged me to apply to other colleges, the same way that Dr. B. had done before. I had never actually done it before, but this time I did. I get admitted to every college I applied to, but the big deal was that I got into the Ada Comstock Scholar's Program for students above the traditional age at Smith College in Massachusetts. I went there for a visit and fell in love with Northampton. I couldn't wait to move there. But apparently it was not meant to be.

The year I got admitted to Smith was the year I officially became delusional. I began to hallucinate on occasion, and I got into a fierce fight with my dad which ended my ability to live at his parents' home anymore. I became homeless. I ended up moving into a homeless shelter rather than Smith College. I was about to give up on my college dreams.

You see, I had always had these college dreams. I had always, all my life, wanted to go to college. And especially a good college. I didn't dream of getting married and having a baby much, like some girls do. I didn't know for sure what career I wanted. But I knew, more than anything, that I loved learning and I wanted to be in a college. Even when I dropped out of high school, I planned as I did that, to still go to college. My parents had not gone to college until my mom went back to school when she was in her mid 30's after they got divorced and she needed a career to support herself and us kids. I had not had a lot of guidance on how to apply to college, or any offers for my dad to help with my tuition if I went to school somewhere. But I wanted to go.

So when I got that opportunity for Smith and couldn't grab it, I gave up. That was 1999. I did not end up completing another college class until 2007.

After I was lost from the world for years, after all the hell of psychosis, after being homeless repeatedly, and after numerous hospitalizations and suicide attempts, I finally was diagnosed correctly, and I finally got the help I so desperately needed for half my life. After that, I got an apartment with my boyfriend, and I got a job, and I went back to school. The school I went back to was that same community college with that professor who encouraged me to go somewhere else; that same school where I had spent those days with my head on desks, my mind wandering out the window during math classes, my soul feeling crushed as I crumpled up into a ball on the floor of a bathroom stall so many times. I went back there. And I was determined that there was no way in hell that, THIS TIME, I would give up. Nothing, nothing, nothing was going to make me give up again. If you've read posts like this one , and this one , you'll know that it was not always easy to stick to that commitment.

Today, I walked down the aisle of a church, not for a wedding, since I never cared much about having a wedding, but for my graduation from St. Petersburg College, formerly known as St. Petersburg Junior College. I graduated today. And people who matter to me a great deal were there: my mom, my brother, my sister, and my close friend Kathy. (*I was disappointd my dad did not care to show up, but this really should have come as no surprise). I got to wear a goofy-looking cap and gown, smile for cameras and don an honors cord, because I managed to graduate with honors. It was a big moment for me. Afterwards, we went to a restaurant and my mom brought a cake she had made with the school's colors: blue and white.

I would never have gotten to this point if it were not for certain people who encouraged me along the way. Dr. B. and Dr. R. were chief among those people, but my mom, my brother (D.), my sister (J.), my friends, the people who read this blog, my case manager, my therapist, my doctors, and other people helped me get there too. I am so very grateful for that help and that encouragement. And I can say that I am proud of myself for this, too. Sure, I'm old to be getting a degree, and it's only an A.A. degree which is supposed to take 2 years, not 17 years. But I did it despite multiple serious chronic illnesses that are disabling to a great degree, and I did it in spite of the fact that I wanted to give up when I lost my chance to go to that elite institution in Massachusetts. I did it because getting a degree mattered to me, and I'm not done yet, either. In January, I start the second part of my Bachelor's program. I am looking forward to it, despite my nerves. It has taken a long time to get here, but I can say that nowadays, I can read without having to re-read everything 30 times; I may have to read it 5 times, but if that's what it takes to get a good grade, I am willing to do that. I can remember much of what I learn in lectures now, which wasn't always the case, and I've also gotten help with tutoring from the office of services for students with disabilities. My brain has adjusted some, and I've learned how to use it so it can work as well as possible too. I'm able to get through school now, I think. So I will.

Don't give up on your dreams.
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