My Story: An Academic Career Ruined, a Reputation Tarnished… and yet…

This post holds a combination of how I viewed my life at the end of my twenties (I was a “failure”) and how I view it now.

I remember when my academic career was ruined as a result of my experience of mental illness while in graduate school. No one would recommend me. No one wanted to work with me. Looking back I can’t say I blame them. But the isolation and the despair I experienced was nothing like I had ever known. And because no one shares about their recovery until they’re in their 60’s or tenured, I had no one to look toward with hope. Which is why writing this blog is my calling…

I went to graduate school at UC Davis. Straight A’s. Fulbright scholar. Highest honors at Berkeley as an undergraduate. Departmental citation for excellence in research…

…And it all disintegrated over the course of two years as I lost touch with reality. Since there is no mental health education in this country, I did not know what was happening to me as I became progressively worse. And since I lacked insight into what was happening to me, in other words, since I had not the faintest idea that I was becoming ill, there was no reasonable way that anyone could intervene meaningfully.

I couldn’t have held my life together nearly as well without my husband. So I don’t blame people who don’t power through. Even people who really fall hard can make a great recovery.

I often ask myself: What would have happened if I had received mental health education when in high school or before entering the university? In that case I would have seen the warning signs, or believed other people when they shared them with me. And people who were worried about me would have been able to come up to me and use common language with me to explain that I needed medication and to take a break. Which no one did.

I powered through and got two MA degrees and then went on to work full time for 6 years… Many people do this, and then they don’t share how hard they had it for a while in the 20’s. They move on, have great resumes and get good jobs like I have. But if I had just taken a break for a year to resume my studies the following year, people would have forgotten about my struggles, I would have continued to be brilliant, and I would not have alienated myself from my departments.

My calling happens to be writing and sharing my story, studying literature and making connections between life, literature, faith, health and wellness, and helping others like me. It is a joy to be more open than most. And my illness makes it so that I know that academia would never be a good environment for me. And I am empowered to choose wellness.

Each of us has our own distinctive fingerprint as a creature of God. And it changes over time. In this season I am doing the right thing for myself: sharing my recovery and staying out of hierarchical things like graduate school, which are triggering for me if I’m not on loads of medication.

There is still a lot of stigma, job discrimination and misunderstanding around the topic of serious mental illness. So be careful who you share with and what you share…know that you can make a full recovery just like me. And know that, unlike me, you don’t have to share just how bad it got. If I wasn’t called to share, no one would know any of this about me. And just imagine how many people there are like me who don’t feel that call toward health advocacy?

Always remember this: that from our suffering comes great growth. I often think about how committed I would have been to material wealth, career success and Facebook bragging expeditions if my life hadn’t gotten real with a serious health challenge in my early years. Now I am creating and living the life I want.

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