Caught in the Doorway: Mental Illness, Academia, and Me

A Story of Making Space

Being my own skeleton key #tattoo

Growing up I was always told that an education opened doors. When I was a teenager newly diagnosed with bipolar disorder I was told that mental illness throws away the key. At seventeen I wholeheartedly believed having bipolar disorder meant that I would never truly belong in a world where the majority of people did not end their nights with a dose of lithium. My only chance for normalcy was pretending that I did not live in a world of appointments, pills, rapid cycling, and occasionally episodes of psychosis. I was a smart, capable, and driven young woman with bipolar disorder and features of imposter syndrome. In order to fit in, I had to fake it.

My diehard commitment to perfection guided my attitudes and behaviors throughout my education and well into my work as a disability services coordinator at a college. I rationalized that in order to excel in academia and advance professionally I had to hide the pieces of me written in the DSM. I perpetuated our destructive culture of stigma and silence by smiling through my depressive episodes, rehearsing with my husband to tell my boss that I missed work because of the flu and not manic breakthroughs, and sacrificing my own stability in order to support college students with disabilities. While I espoused the values of self-advocacy and self-acceptance in my office, I covertly invested countless hours on the couch with my therapist and psychiatrist trying to prolong the façade of perfection. Eventually, juggling the demands, side effects, and secrecy of my toxic relationship with mental illness led to more profound struggles, longer recovery periods, and ultimately a devastating and dangerous psychotic episode. The fallout of this unparalleled period of psychosis left me with no choice but to shamefully navigate attitudinal and systemic barriers in order to secure a medical leave from work. With this last psychotic episode I had finally failed.

However, after two years of reflection and new medication I have realized that my “failure” actually gifted me a vast sense of relief rather than a ruined career. My imperfect, resilient self had survived and I know now more than ever how to achieve my ambitions without jeopardizing my health. This authenticity set me free. Now as a third year doctoral candidate who aspires to work in academia I remain acutely aware of the need to create spaces where practitioners can be people. Without opportunities for members of the academic community to share their experiences with mental health we continue delineating between what belongs, or rather, who belongs, and who does not in the plane of higher education. A sorely limiting and gross simplification of how mental illness impacts someone’s ability to achieve, influence, and inspire in an academic setting.

Neither perfect nor broken

To ensure that all academics fit within their campus communities we must recognize the wide spectrum of neurodiversity and redefine which voices deserve rhetoricity. Until then I am challenged with growing in a system that was not designed with my chemistry in mind. The space I need to exist as the truest definition of myself, a person who is neither perfect nor broken, is still cordoned off by the occasional door. So, like other academics with mental illness, I continue to be my own skeleton key.