Wednesday, August 13, 2008

College and Schizophrenia: An odd mix

I was talking to my therapist yesterday about school, and my self-esteem issues related to that subject. This is something that I think about frequently, and yet, I have not written about it much here, at least not recently. I am currently working at the college where I have also been an on-again, off-again student since 1993. That's really humiliating to me - the fact that I started taking classes 15 years ago and still have not earned a degree. I have enough credits for a degree, but not enough of the right credits, in the required areas. The reason for that is that my brain seems to work okay for certain things, and not so well for others. It has been this way since well before I was officially diagnosed, so I frequently felt that I had some kind of learning disability (and perhaps I do, I don't really know for sure). I was also diagnosed, many years before Schizophrenia, with Attention Deficit Disorder. So for a while, I took Wellbutrin every day to treat that, and I thought that problem was what was causing me difficulties in college. But there was more going on than just ADD, as you know.

The kinds of problems I have with college are:
-inability to concentrate at times to read texts
-memory deficits that make me forget what I did read and what was said in a lecture
-inability to focus well enough on lectures
-difficulty taking notes and listening to a lecture at the same time (so I ask for a notetaker from the Office for Students of Disabilities when necessary; even though, years ago, I myself was a notetaker for the same office)
-complete confusion in regards to most math classes
-feeling overwhelmed by assignments, deadlines, tests, and requirements, and becoming full of panic, anxiety and sometimes suicidal depression or psychosis
-hearing voices while in class or while studying, which makes it basically impossible to focus on class or studying
-hearing double speak coming out of the professor's mouth when they are giving a lecture
For example, I once heard a professor speak ad nauseum about me and the ways I was going to be tortured and killed and what a horrible, worthless human being I was, and how my whole family was also going to be tortured and killed, when he was actually talking about literature. This was about four years ago when I was not on meds. I had taken his class at the recommendation of my short-term boyfriend who thought that I was a good writer and would enjoy it, but who did not know I was psychotic - as I did not know myself.

-trouble remembering anything related to mathematics for any quizzes or tests
-trouble comprehending algebra, at all
-trouble related to the fact I did not take higher math in high school, and therefore, never learned it, so I have had to take classes that were below college level for math, and last semster managed to fail one such class, even though I had a tutor every week at the Office for Students with Disabilities
-trouble being awake and alert in classes when I am tired from medication
-trouble reading when medication (and also dry eye from Sjogren's) makes my vision blurry so I can't (I use eye drops for this when it is a problem, and I have had plugs in my tear ducts)
-wanting to take all the classes that I see that look interesting, even though I can, actually, barely manage to take two classes at once (because I still long to do what I was supposed to be able to do before this illness catapulted my life into Failure Land)
-wanting to take only classes that interest me (like literature), and not the required classes I actually need for a degree (like math and biology), because the things I like are easier for me than the things I have trouble with and therefore dislike
-hating myself because I did not manage to go to a better college, complete a degree, and have a degree by now

One of the biggest issues I have as far as why I hate myself is, back in 1999, when I was becoming psychotic but did not know it yet (and would not know for a long time), I was supposed to go to Smith College through a program for students above the traditional age. I had been encouraged to apply for this program by professors at the community college I was then attending in Maryland, and I had gotten references, written the essay, gone for the in-person interview and tour of the campus, and gotten admitted with a large scholarship. I wanted, desperately to go there. Instead, I ended up in a homeless shelter that year, and alternately sleeping in my car.

Also, I applied to several other colleges, including Evergreen State College in Washington, which has an alternative format which I believe would have worked well with my brain, and where I really wanted to go. I was admitted there too, but, of course, never got there.

So, now that I'm working at the college where I have been taking classes since the Stone Age, and am constantly talking to people about their college courses, as that is my job, I am thinking about college more frequently again, and I am berating myself about my failure in this area. My therapist, of course, encouraged me not to berate myself, and instead to have mercy on myself the way I would for someone else who was in the same situation, with the same illness. I find this very difficult to do. She said that this is because I am ambitious, that I hate myself for not being able to fulfill my ambitions, so, technically, it's an asset, because it means I want to accomplish things. I said, "Isn't everyone ambitious??" She said, "No". I don't know if she's right about that or not. I know she has a lot of experience counseling people with problems, though, so perhaps she has a point.

She mentioned that perhaps I could just get the Associate's degree I've been trying to get forever, and forget about getting a Bachelor's or anything else. I don't really like that idea, though I have mulled it over many times in the past. College has always been important to me. When I was a kid, the positive feedback I got was mostly related to school and my performance there. It became ingrained in me that this was a way to get accolades and feel like worthy person. It is also important to me because I like learning and value education and - dammit- I don't think there is anything wrong with that. I want my damn degree. I want a couple of them, in fact. I should have them. I don't have them. This angers me. Sometimes I really hate Schizophrenia.

So, this semester, as usual, I'm having trouble deciding what classes to take, deciding if I should take any classes at all, and wondering if I will be able to successfully complete any classes that I attempt. These questions are never easy to answer, because the symptoms change, the effects of the medication change, and the effectiveness of the medications change, so I never know for sure what the next four or five months are going to be like. It is basically a shot in the dark. I am, however, going to take something this semester, and I am not going to give up on earning a degree. Not just yet.

The following quote is on a postcard I bought when I visited the United Nations building in NYC last summer, which I just found in an old purse the other day:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." (let's add, sisterhood)

-from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by Octavio Roth


  1. I feel for you. It has to be frustrating to face courses when having problems that interfere with learning. Well, look at the bright side here. You have a part time job now. That will keep you afloat while you work on these issues.

    We are never as bad or as good as we think we are. Worth and value are earned by the ways in which we touch other people's lives. You have done a lot already to help others understand mental illness. Be easy on yourself and patient. Give yourself permission to not be perfect but always work on becoming the person you want to be.

  2. I can definitely relate to this. I have also been taking classes on and off for ten (ugh!) years. I know that if it were not for this illness, I would have a bachelor's and probably a master's or doctorate. I feel such shame about the ways I have sabotaged these things in my life.


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