College with a Neuro-atypical Spin

UVa Graduation May 2007; Me, my diploma, and my parents (who are happy I graduated but most likely a bit in shock)

Like so many other ambitious Northern Virginians, I knew I wanted to attend the University of Virginia before I had even made it out of 6th grade. Everything in Arlington boasted about the prestige of UVa, from famous alumni to the Cavaliers. My neighbors’ well-manicured lawns were decorated year-round with banners pledging allegiance to the illustrious UVa, and while occasionally you happened upon a Virginia Tech family with a “Hokies VT” flag spiked in their front yard — or even more sparingly still a green and gold William and Mary pennant — UVa unified the neighborhood. At least this is how I remember it. UVa was my destiny and considering I was smart, driven, goal-oriented, in state, and had a supportive family, there wasn’t a lot standing in my way. UVa was the best and I wanted to be affiliated with the best. UVa was my plan.

Bipolar disorder was not a part of my plan. I was 15 years old when I first suspected that something wasn’t quite right. The way my brain pieced together tangential ideas in a state of hurried chaos, how I put these ideas into erratic, often peculiar action, and how my emotions were louder and more unpredictable than anything else in my life suggested that something was broken. But I didn’t want to admit anything was wrong, that felt synonymous with defeat. I was able to keep this secret with moderate success for two more years until I had my first full-blown manic episode that nobody could ignore. I was promptly and accurately diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder and prescribed a long list of pills that promised to help me manage my symptoms.

However, to my utter dismay the combination of capsules and tablets left my brain feeling damp, foggy, and sluggish; side effects seemingly worse than bipolar’s symptoms. I was 17 years old and I identified as a bright young woman who was going to go to college, but under the saturated weight of my mood stabilizers and antipsychotics I stumbled just trying to assemble coherent ideas. I struggled to reconcile the abilities and expectations of the Rachel who lived before the diagnosis with the Rachel who now battled it daily. The incongruence was stifling. I was a determined Northern Virginian with a UVa flag on her lawn, I had been accepted early admission, and I vowed that nothing would stop me from making my pilgrimage to Charlottesville. Especially a diagnosis that I refused to recognize and pills that literally slowed me down. I told myself that with my willpower and discipline I could do this on my own and holding firm with this rationale I flushed my medications down the toilet. I moved into a fourth floor room in the Dobie Residence Hall that August.

In my case bipolar 1 disorder consists of cyclical episodes of hypomania, mania, mania with psychotic features, and depression. In my every day life this expresses itself as undulating cycles that peak and plummet based on my current brain chemistry, my environment, and whether or not I am doing something self-destructive or self-saving. When left untreated, my illness quickly escalates in severity and intensity resulting in subsequent episodes becoming increasingly more vitriolic.

Untethered hypomania resulted in electric mad-dashes of energy in which my brain buzzed furiously with ideas so much so I could write 10 page papers in an hour. Hypomania gave me unquestionably brilliant revelations like the decision to funnel all of my grocery money into buying George Forman Grills, which I told my roommate was a sound investment strategy to plan for my future. Hypomania “blessed” me with the effervescence, charisma, and invincibility to go out to Rugby Road, drink and dance all night long, and after losing a shoe somewhere on the walk back to the Lambeth dorms, confidently decide to take a nap on a patch of grass, stretched out like a happy starfish because life was sublimely beautiful.

This “life-of-the-party” lifestyle was unsustainable and the damage done by sincerely believing that I lived without consequences (a trademark of hypomania) would rocket me into mania. Mania made everything feel urgent and unsettlingly perfect. Every sparkly thought rattling around in my head was worth sharing to everyone, everywhere, because I was an unparalleled genius. I spoke rapidly (there was no other way), I didn’t eat (food slows you down), and I succumbed to my bizarre delusions. During my first year I stopped going to German class because if I bought any of the textbooks I would actually be buying brand new uniforms for a secret society of Nazis. Mania seriously interfered with my life.

Unchecked mania catapulted me into extreme agitation and paranoia and if I wasn’t careful I would start having psychotic breakthroughs characterized by disorientation, fear, and alarming behavior. I was hospitalized twice during college due to psychosis. During my second year I told my roommate that I was a messenger from God and I needed to kill myself to get back to heaven. Third year I stopped eating because I was convinced the police were trying to poison me and I cried inconsolably for a week because it was the apocalypse. I was left with my delusions and hallucinations in a psych ward as I watched reality unravel.

Following psychosis came the swan dive into debilitating depression where all I could do was cry, watch all hope slip through my fingers, and be numb to anything and everything around me. It is hard to conjure up a story from a time when I was depressed because those memories are mostly dark black smudges.

I refused to take my medication and I refused to take care of myself, so this was my life.

Mental illness is exhausting. My first three years at UVa played out in a series of eventful, cataclysmic episodes that felt completely out of my control. I tried to do all of my schoolwork when hypomania made me productive, I embraced mania’s recklessness in order to have memorable date functions, one-night stands, and welcome substances into my life with open arms, I locked myself in my apartment when the psychosis crept in and seized me with paranoia, and when depression swallowed me whole I would look in the mirror and wonder “who is this sick person?” She had no place in my plan but there I was, tired, frenzied, with my reserve of ambition slowly petering out.

Your college years are the perfect temporal breeding ground to cultivate a sense of identity. First year is a year of firsts, moving away from home, taking a stab at being interdependent, forging new relationships with a diverse group of people who have different life experiences than your own, experimenting in every sense of the word, learning what your boundaries are and how to enforce them, and establishing goals and priorities. In college you can change your major, pick your roommates, decide who to hang out with and what you do with your time. It is a time of decision-making and adapting. You have dedicated space to try on new identities. Some might say that this period in your life provides the opportunity to re-invent yourself but I believe for most people this time is actually spent figuring out who you truly are, understanding that person, and accepting that just because plans change doesn’t mean you give up.

Looking back I had a typical college experience but with a neuro-atypical spin. I applied to the Curry School of Education committed to becoming a teacher and the day after I was accepted I impulsively changed my mind and declared a psych major, I made lifelong friendships that have survived moves all over the world, I painstakingly learned how to squish my large bubbly handwriting into a Blue Book, I had my heart broken, and Littlejohn’s was my best friend at 3am for four solid years. But I also spent four years learning how to manage an illness that I didn’t deserve but couldn’t deny I had, accepting that my plan had to include taking medication and going to therapy all of which actually made me healthy not a failure, and celebrating the fact that despite living with a mental illness I could still accomplish my goals. While I wanted to compartmentalize the Rachel who was smart and promising and the Rachel who was sick and falling apart, I was just one person, and all of me earned my place at UVa, worked hard to get through it, and graduated with immeasurable pride.

I live in Pittsburgh, PA now where I am a doctoral candidate at Duquesne University in the School of Education with a focus on disability studies. And while I must admit I don’t have a UVa or Duquesne flag propped up on my lawn, I don’t believe I have a set destiny or prescribed master plan either. I am carving out a future that is defined on my own terms based on the decisions I make every day. My four years as a Wahoo taught me that I have the power to author, adapt, and advance my own plan, all with the guiding principle that my diagnosis doesn’t define me, my accomplishments do.

Rachel Kallem Whitman graduated from UVa in 2007, majoring in psychology with a minor in Anthropology. This piece originally posted on Disability@UVA

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