Saturday, December 18, 2010

Graduating from college despite serious mental illness

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.


  1. You go girl. And I whole heartily mean this as a great compliment. I also am a person with a schizoaffective disorder, and I was struggling and suffering for a long time because I was not diagnosed at onset even though I was on active duty with the United States Marine Corps and had been a model Marine for two years. I am still fighting for service-connected disability even though I recieve SSDI for the same thing. But I am clean and sober almost four years and cigarette free for two. I am right now working on funding for college and have done many courses online in preparation. I can relate to reading thirty times to get it and all I want is to get it. I will. You are doing a great job and yes you can go further. Trust in God and yourself and work with your network. You go girl. You're pretty too.

  2. Congratulations! You are an inspiration, I am going back to college as well and it is taking longer than anticipated, however, learning about your story gives me hope that my schooling will have a happy ending. About your father, he probably has a lot of concerns right now and is in a runt, don't take it personally that he did not make it to the event, he will come around and regret not being there. Again, I am so happy for you!

    Take care,


  3. I am so very proud and happy for you. I plan to go back to college for my BA in teaching but I am scared. I am 28 and will probably take 3 years to get my degree...but good things come to those who wait. I wish you all the best.

  4. congratulations!!! You have had such a rough time, well done on holding onto your dream and not giving up, you are such a strong person, a real inspiration.

  5. Way to go, this is awesome. I too suffered through years of uni without the proper diagnosis and help and we are the same age. I have bipolar disorder and it has wrecked havoc on my life. I am very happy you have now graduated, on the up and up I say.

  6. Hi Jen,
    Congrats on graduating! You had a lot on your plate throughout those years, and you did the best you could. Now you got to the stage where you were capable of completing your course, and have done so, which is great.

    Your struggle reminds me of something Churchill said in one of his speeches:
    "Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never--in nothing, great or small, large or petty--never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."

    Mental illness can be just as devastating to an individual as blitzkrieg can to a nation. Good on you for not yielding.

  7. Thanks, everybody! It is so nice of you all to leave these comments.
    Ysraal, you will get it. Just don't give up.

    Ashley, I think it's great you are going back to school. You are obviously smart and capable, so you will manage it well I'm sure.

    In the Pink, I like your blog too. I think you will get your teaching degree and be a great teacher. It's a really admirable profession.

    Battleinmymind, thank you, I really appreciate that.

    Sarah, I'm glad you are doing so well now! I like your blog too.

    D.R. - I like your blog a lot and I really appreciate that Churchill quote!

  8. Congratulations! As a person living with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, I know how hard it can be to stick to the rigors of a college schedule.

    I have been reading your blog since before the name change and your outlook improved, and I am so glad you have come this far. I always enjoy your words.

    Best of luck with your next phase of life!

  9. Happy belated Congrats!! I am so proud of you because I know how many challenges that you've had to overcome. What an amazing accomplishment and no matter what anyone says or does; no one can take that away from you--ever.

    YOU are a college grad!!!! And, you did while dealing with a mental illness. That should count for graduating with major honors!!!! You deserve this time of happiness.

  10. Your story inspires me. You display a great deal of strength and determination despite the obstacles you have had to overcome.Congratulations on your degree and achieving your dreams! You help me believe that all things are possible.


I welcome comments from all readers and encourage you to leave them! Please do. However, due to spam, I review each comment before it can be posted, so it may take 24-48 hours before your comment appears on the blog. Please be patient. I post comments that are not spam.Note: my definition of "spam" includes ALL links to sites claiming to cure or provide "the solution" for incurable diseases such as Schizoaffective Disorder and Schizophrenia. Vulnerable people come to my blog, and I will not let them be preyed upon, but people who post snake oil remedies on the internets. Take your garbage and peddle it elsewhere. Since Blogger doesn't weed all that garbage out, I've been doing it myself for years.