Friday, April 22, 2011

What I want back is what I was: deconstructing past career goals

What I want back is what I was

Before the bed, before the knife,

Before the brooch-pin and the salve

Fixed me in this parenthesis;

Horses fluent in the wind,

A place, a time gone out of mind.
-Sylvia Plath, "The Eyemote"
I've told the story before of how I almost went to Smith College (yes, Plath went there, but that wasn't the only reason I wanted to), so I will be brief about it now. But I was over at the Define Functioning site, which I love, and this thread about deconstructing and reconstructing your previous career goals, really got to me.
I almost went to a somewhat elite institution as a student above the "traditional age" when I was 24. And that was when I became psychotic. So, instead of getting to Northampton, I got into the Hannah Moore Homeless Shelter in Maryland. After my time at that shelter ran out, I ended up in my car, living. I was then offered a room in my online friend's former boyfriend's  condo, and I ended up living there for three years. When the three years ended, I wandered about, never able to keep a roof over my head.
I lost my dreams. I had been an English major. I had a professor, who I'm still friends with now, in 1996, tell me at my community college in Florida (the one I also go to now) that I was definitely smart enough to go to a better school. I didn't believe him. He said, "Did you ever take the SAT? I bet you would blow away the verbal section." I had never had parents who cared if I took the SAT or not, and so, I never had ended up doing that. In fact I skipped my last year of high school, and got a GED instead.  But after this professor encouraged me to do it, just to see how I'd do, I took the SAT. I got an  800 on the verbal section, which is the highest possible score. (I did not do so well on the math, though!). This actually amazed me, because it meant that I might have the requirements to go to a decent college after all, despite years battling depression, anorexia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Fibromyalgia Plus More.
Then I ended up moving to Maryland, (because I couldn't afford to live on my own and couldn't stay with my mother, so was given a roof over my head by my grandparents) where I met a professor who ran the honors program at the community college I attended there, and she convinced me to apply to Smith College, a school I had dreamed of going to, because I was a feminist and going to a women's college like that was something I thought would be an excellent experience. I had first learned of Smith by reading Plath as a depressed teenager, and  I was intrigued by the quality of the education there, not just by the fact that my favorite depressed poet went there. It's an excellent school, and  I could see myself blossoming there. They had five libraries. It was the place where I belonged.  I fell in love with the school when I visited it. I was beyond thrilled to get admitted. It was a real dream come true.
But my mind couldn't hack it. While I was supposed to be planning to go to that college, I was delusional, thinking that people had abused me and making a lot of accusations that got me estranged from most of my family, which is how I ended up homeless in a city where I have dozens of relatives. I was doing crazy, manic things and I was really out of it. Then it got worse, and worse, and worse, over the following few years, while I was terribly paranoid, acutely psychotic, and never getting any real help except for some brief hospital stays where I was never correctly diagnosed. I reverted to self-injury. I rarely ate. I ended up in a lot of bad situations. I was raped. I didn't have support. I didn't have friends except online, and then most of those friends got  sick of me and my problems, and told me so, then abruptly left my life.
The thing is, for the past few years, since 2005, I have had treatment and I have gotten progressively (to some degree) better. I have been able to return to the original community college, and get my AA degree. This was no small feat for me. It took years of work, tutoring, note takers from the office for students with disabilities, and it took a lot of time and effort. When I got that degree, I was really thrilled. But it still was not enough. I wanted a Master's degree. I still feel inadequate that I don't have a Master's degree. I still feel lost and empty because I'm not doing anything I really want to do in my life as far as work goes, and I don't think that I can.
Right now I'm at a crossroads. I could stay in the Bachelor's program I am in at the community college, or I could, if I am even accepted (which I may not be), go to a university. That would take a lot of work on managing money and transportation, but it might be possible. What I don't know is if my brain could manage it. I'd have to get accommodations, and I'd probably have to go through the disabilities office to get permission to attend college part-time there. Even if I did all this, and my car managed the drive and kept running (I recently put $1,000 into my pathetic car, and this university is an hour away), I don't know that I could do it.
My therapist suggested talking to a career counselor at the school. I work at the school, and I know who the career counselors are, and I don't want to talk to them about having a mental illness, and whether or not my brain can hack the degree I want. I don't think they would have any answers for me at all. I don't think anybody would. But I'm afraid I'm in a program for a degree that will never land me a job I really like, and what is the point of doing this if I can't do something I like in the end? I may never be able to work full time, or, on the other hand, I may mange it some day. But I know that what I need is a job I can enjoy at some level and have an income that would hopefully get me out of poverty. I'm not quite sure what to do.
I know that I only have this one life to live, and a lot of it has been lost to serious mental illness, so I want to make the most of what I have left, and not allow this illness to rule my life any more than it has to. I know that there were legitimate reasons to why I never went to Smith College, or any other great college, why I never got an advanced degree, why I do not go to college full time, why I cannot work full time right now, but I want, I want, I want so much more than this out of my life. I am so tired of feeling like a pathetic loser because of what I have done being so pale in comparison to what I meant to do. I am so tired of feeling like I cannot speak to people who have advanced degrees because they will look down on me. I am so tired of being unfulfilled.
But maybe I am doing the best I can, and maybe trying to do much more would be a total disaster.  I have gotten into a groove with the little job I have, the school I go to, the apartment I just moved into, the injections at the community mental health center every two weeks......Soon, I'll be losing the supports of my case manager and my therapist thanks to the crappy budget of the community mental health center. Soon, I'll have to be even more alert to my symptoms, on guard to them, carefully monitoring how the meds are doing because there will be no one else checking up on me. So I'm scared to make any major changes. I'm scared to try to go to the university. I'm very anxious, and have been for quite some time, about this.

But there is this Ani Difranco song called, "Swan Dive", which I have loved for many years. These are some of the lyric

.......But I've had a lack of inhibition

I've had a loss of perspective

I've had a little bit to drink

And it's making me think

That I can jump ship and swim

That the ocean will hold me

That there's got to be more

Than this boat I'm in

They can call me crazy if I fail

All the chance that I need is one-in-a-million,

And they can call me brilliant if I succeed

Gravity is nothing to me

I'm moving at the speed of sound

I'm just gonna to get my feet wet until I drown

I teeter between tired

And really, really tired

I'm wiped and I'm wired

But I guess that's just as well

Cuz I've built my own empire

Out of car tires and chicken wire

And now I'm queen of my own compost heap

And I'm getting used to the smell


So what to do?
The title of this post is from "The EyeMote", and my first email address in the late 90's was


  1. Oh sweetie, I feel for you. I to had high aspirations which fizzled out due to the all consuming manifestation of 'mental illness'. Anyhow, I ended up with just an associates degree too.

    But never NEVER let yourself feel less than another due to their education level. Intelligence is not something you can just is. I think you write in a very fluid and engaging manner. I can see that you are talented and smart. And an 800 on the verbal SAT is so incredible!!

    The hardest part of your life is hopefully over. You are not homeless and are now medicated. Stay strong and be proud of the fact you are a survivor. And I was so sorry to hear you were violated. So sorry sweetie.

    Hold your head high my dear because you are fabulous and radiate intelligence. PS: I too love Ani Difranco.

  2. So, Jen, you are at a crossroad between staying safe and taking some risks and you don't know which direction to go in. I think a lot of people get to that point, regardless of whether they have mental illness or not, but for those of us who do, it makes the decision all the harder.

    You have to decide for yourself, feel yourself out, weigh things and be very honest about what you can and cannot do presently. I do think you're right that you should choose to study something that interests you. Perhaps you have to soul search. If you really do want to be challenged, you might have to come to terms with the fact that some risk taking is necessary. The pace you choose can also factor into your decision making process. In your case, slower progress is probably better than pushing it through quickly.

    You are someone who needs to have a support system in place in order to stay balanced and productive. I'd also say focus on one degree at a time. Yes, getting a Master's would be fantastic, but first you must commit to the Bachelor's degree. Personally, I think you are on a path to a better life. You have accomplished a lot already, but you still have a long road ahead. Sustain yourself and pace yourself and you'll get to your goal. I know you will Jen.

    Love, Kate : )

  3. Jen,
    Great lyrics and intro poem. Really struck a chord with what's going on with several of us now. But I especially liked your use of the DiFranco lyrics. They jumped off the page at me saying you are on the other side. You may be anxious but you are heading toward the edge. You're gaining momentum. Awesome!

  4. Jen, even through the limited communication we have through the blogosphere, I know you are an enviably amazing woman. Anyone with the privilege of actually meeting you in person would have to be a serious ass not to see that. I think I said it on DF, but I'll say it again: what's written on pieces of paper are just things written on pieces of paper. The world does a terrible job of valuing the education that comes from learning how to live. But, honestly, that's the world's loss. I can say from more personal experience than necessary that you are more accomplished, more intelligent, and more sensitive to the world around you than 95% of people I know with advanced degrees from prestigious schools.

    All that aside, I was struck by the title of this post. I sometimes find myself wrapped up in remembering my missed opportunities rather than remembering the past as a whole. I am not suggesting that you do the same, but when I force myself to look back at what I was as a whole, there is so much of me that never wants that back. Please remember to know that you've done a great ways that can't be measured by degrees.

  5. Your honesty and vulnerability left me in tears - who can understand an illness except those who have endured the consequences of it's pain? If Society's attitude were to change we would all feel so much better about ourselves wouldn't we? We're forced to justify our illness and justify our existence at times we are the least able to do that. Keep fighting, you have accomplished a great deal, there is greater to come!

  6. Never think that you are a loser! After all you have survived ALL that life has thrown at you, and it was a lot!! You are doing well now, what an achievement to be proud of!!! That makes you a hero in my book!
    Having those changes in your support system coming up, maybe it is good to see how you will handle that. I have no doubt you will be ok, but it will take time to get used to do it on your own and be 'independent'.
    When you are stable with that, maybe it would be good to talk to someone of the university you want to go to in order to find out what the possibilities are for you. Without that knowledge you can't make a balanced decision in any case.
    Keep taking care of yourself, youa re doing a good job!!

  7. Thank you to everyone who posted comments here, for your encouragement, your support, and just for listening to me rant and ramble. I had my final exam for my last class of this semester today. I have not signed up for summer courses at the community college I go to, but I have not fully decided not to do so either. I just haven't gotten around to making up my mind what to do. Some of it is still up in the air, because I don't know that I'll even be accepted into the other school yet. I'm thinking I might just stay where I am, even if it is less than ideal and not what I really *want* to do. I'm not sure I can do what I want to do, and this is a fact I have to live with. Thank you for understanding.

  8. I know exactly this feeling. I was a super smart student too (it seems most of us mentally ill are smart) and was headed toward a Phd in History. I was going to teach history at the collegiate level. We all have so many stories of dreams dashed. Imagine all the potential we all had!!! It's sad to think of it as wasted in a way. At least I feel that way about my talents. It makes me wonder why I have them at all.

  9. Hi Jen!

    Well, you have already come a long way. I don't have an answer to your decision at this crossroads except to say that whatever you do, do it to please yourself. You only go around once in this world so you had might as well enjoy as much of it and learn as much during your stay as possible. Best of luck with your decision and have a great week!


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