Young Man Interrupted
How Mental Illness Detoured My Extraordinary Education/Career
I was born into a family of seven in Minnesota 60 years ago, then moved to Pennsylvania in 1964 where I developed many friendships of all ages over the years. I attended high school in a Pittsburgh suburb and excelled in both academia, sports and extracurricular activities. Upon graduation I was accepted at Yale, Dartmouth, Princeton and Notre Dame, to name a few. I chose Princeton.
My family was not wealthy and so I needed to work on campus and take out quite a few loans in order to matriculate. I did have a partial scholarship, but since my four sisters and I were born within five years of each other, we were all in universities simultaneously, which caused an extreme financial burden on the family.
I also played sports and majored in English Literature. My freshman year I lettered in both football and crew. My grades were not good, as I was stretched pretty thin and also was experimenting with grass. And I had a required withdrawal at the end of my freshman year.
With the help of my dad I got a job on the Great Lakes as a Merchant Marine, which paid well enough for me to return to Princeton after another lapse. I was still smoking grass and began smoking cigarettes, too. It was the 1970s and my hair was really long. While out of school I waited anxiously for my draft number. The Vietnam war was still waging. Luckily my number was high.
I returned to Princeton University in New Jersey and did better in school, quit football but still rowed Crew which was very strenuous. I also joined Tower Club and started drinking a lot there. The legal age was lowered to 18 while I attended, much to my detriment. I had a girl friend I professed to love who was a little older than me and was going to Rutgers after undergrad work at Vassar.
My Junior year I was still rowing crew and again doing poorly in classes. During this time my mom was dying of cancer and my sibs were still in college. My dad wanted me to withdraw from the school I loved. Plus I had marriage plans. I got a case of poison ivy while working a summer job on campus and was treated with cortical steroids which I was allergic to. That, the drinking, and use of grass and the pressure caused me to have my first breakdown. I went into convulsions. My father came in from Pennsylvania and he and my girlfriend drove me back to Pittsburgh, since I would not be allowed on a flight being incoherent and so debilitated from the spasms. I remember lying on the back floor of my girlfriend's car in agony as my dad drove us back to Pittsburgh; it felt like my brain was on fire and lit up like a klieg light.
I ended up at Western Pennsylvania Institute and Clinic (WPIC) and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. My current diagnosis is schizo-affective disorder. I have been hospitalized some 20 times over the years, even in state institutions such as Mayview.
My mother died after I left Princeton. I was heavily in debt and defaulted on my loans. Years later, through perseverance, I paid them back with interest, established credit and worked at many different jobs despite having additional breakdowns. My family really didn't help me out at all during that time. Not one of my siblings visited while I was hospitalized. They all are married with happy existences.
At the present time, I am happy with a girlfriend and two cats which are like our children. My family is more accepting of me now that I am well. I gave up drinking years ago as well as smoking. I went back to night school at The University of Pittsburgh and graduated with Honors with a degree in the Humanities, a major in English and minor in Philosophy, while working full time. None of my sibs came to my graduation ceremonies.
My dad died too young, just after retiring.
Although now I enjoy fishing with friends, playing board games, cats, pottery and poker, cooking and am pretty much a homebody, I was always underemployed, and often worked for minimum wage. Now, I am on disability for my chronic illness. My last hospitalization was two years ago.
It seems the medicines just fail to work at some point, but I know my symptoms and generally go in voluntarily. My current medications are Saphris and Depakote. I see a psychiatrist regularly every three months.