Last Page: Learning to Live With Bipolar Disorder, Minus the Stigma

 

By Richard Whitecar '75
Illustrations by Richard Downs
 

Colby alumni are interesting in any number of ways, but unless you know the spies and informants among us, I may be one of the more interesting. I went traying on chapel hill as a freshman, and I went streaking through the quad as a senior—not once, but twice. Serving as the treasurer of the very first (1974-75) and still existing Student Government Association, I also was the business manager of both the Echo and Oracle and keeper of the exchequer for my fraternity (Pi Lamda Phi). Somewhere amidst all the fun, I also found time to study. In fact, I graduated from Colby armed with a Baker Fellowship that allowed me to go to the M.B.A. program of my choice. And that isn’t even the most interesting part.

You see, I chose Columbia University, enrolled, but never got to finish. Unlike many Colby students who prepared hard and went on to pursue their dreams, I became bipolar.

Bipolar disease is a mental illness characterized by severe mood swings, from mania to debilitating depression. Even though my course in life forever changed, I’ve never stopped searching for a way to make a difference in the world and to use the gifts Colby gave to me. It hasn’t been easy—in fact, at times it’s been very difficult—but I believe my mission in life is to try to eliminate the stigma of mental illness.

Some may say I have done nothing exceptional, but I know that coping with and surmounting mental illness is an accomplishment in itself. It took me quite a long time to realize this. I had to learn that my accomplishments at Colby weren’t wasted just because they didn’t lead me to fame and riches. Social Security retired my number when I was 34, and I have held part-time jobs for the past 22 years. Does that mean I’m a failure? Does that mean my parents wasted the $11,500 tuition ($15,985 comprehensive fee, 1971-75) they spent on a liberal arts education? Not at all. But I must say that there have been times when I’ve thought just that. Illustration by Richard Downs

My plan was to work for a couple of years before pursuing my M.B.A. My first job at an insurance company was a train wreck, and the company placed me in the hospital. I worked for two years as a maintenance man at my old high school, then left that job on a Friday and started my M.B.A. at Columbia the following Monday. I didn’t do too well at Columbia, either, and another hospitalization followed. Then I convinced a couple of sales forces to hire me. Like any bipolar person, I always rose like a star—and fell like a meteor. By the time I was 36, my batting average wasn’t too high.

Years later, the fellowship was still good, so I interviewed at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in 1988. They accepted me on the strength of my Colby grades and the prestige of the Baker Fellowship. Alas, Penn didn’t go so well either. I withdrew before they too could put me in the hospital. But those first 15 years or so of my life after college were fun compared to the next 15.

By the early nineties, all the professional jobs were over. I was so ashamed of being mentally ill, ashamed of being such a star and failing so miserably. I was sick of listening to the dot-com beamers asking me, “What do you do?” But I never gave up. During the late eighties and early nineties, I worked jobs that were better suited to my abilities and disabilities: apple picker, tractor driver, hardware store clerk, Christmas tree yard worker, carpenter, companion, newspaper delivery man, AIDS fundraiser, flower-truck driver, late-night office cleaner, and gym attendant.

And over time, I’ve learned that that’s okay.

Today I have been married for 29 years and my wife still loves me. How many people can say that? My son is a dentist and happy at his profession. I couldn’t be more proud of him. I have become a stock day trader—and a very successful one at that (thanks to Colby administrative science professors Yvonne Knight and Walter Zukowski). Colby’s liberal arts curriculum helped me learn to absorb and deflect life’s blows. And today there are a lot of punches going around.

A Colby education is relevant to its graduates in different ways. Some Colby alumni are destined to become chief executives while some are genetically prone, unfortunately, to struggle in life. I believe it’s in life’s struggles that we each become stronger. I think it was in one of Professor Gustave Todrank’s religion classes that I read something by Booker T. Washington. He said, “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”

If Booker T. was right—and I think he was—then I’ve done all right. And I hope my experiences, even this essay, can help others who are dealing with mental illness. I still want to make the world a better place for all who live on the other side of a great chasm. After all, it was Colby that taught me to lead by example.
 
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Comments

  • On July 13, 2009, Harold A; Maio wrote:
    ---Minus the "Stigma" Minus? Sorry, but it is right there in the title. ---A Colby education is relevant to its graduates in different ways. Including imposing the term "stigma" "correctly" in education. Living with bipolar disorder: It varies in degree as do many illnesses, it also varies with the individual. --- I believe my mission in life is to try to eliminate the "stigma" of mental illness That cannot be accomplished by asserting it. Harold A. Maio, retired Mental Health Editor khmaio@earthlink.net
  • On July 17, 2009, Nancy Viens wrote:
    You were very lucky to have finished college before you got knocked to your knees by bipolar illness. My son was not so lucky. He fought it for many years, with hospitalization at age 17, and in and out of treatment centers after that. But he made it halfway through his junior year in college (taking 2 classes a semester) before it caught up with him again, the medicines stopped working, and he literally had to start at the bottom again. Thank the lord for his tough, New England backbone, because he is now taking care of himself. He couldn't even do that for a long time. Nowo he has a new doctor, one medication instead of five, and there is hope in his life again. I agree with what you said about education being the only way someone who is lucky enough in life not to have to cope with this handicap can possibly understand how difficult it is. I am very proud of my son, and of all the people who get up every morning and fight the dragons, one day at a time.
  • On July 17, 2009, Paula Hulbert wrote:
    I didn't have the good fortune to get into a "good" school, but I did very well at the schools I did get into. Until grad school. My lifelong depression spiraled out of control and I ended up in the hospital for the first of many times. My college career was over and now I still owe Sallie Mae over $75,000. (I was a nontraditional student with four young children.) I was just diagnosed with bipolar disorder last summer, and just a couple of weeks ago, I found out that my grandmother probably had it too. The longest I've ever held a job was before I was married. I worked in a Dairy Queen for five years. But since college, the longest I've had a job is two years. Most have been much shorter. Now I'm on SSI. I had such promise in college. Now I feel like a failure. But I am working hard at maintaining stability and I have spent the last 7 years working at mental health advocacy. Until we have the courage to stand up and say..."Yes, I have a mental illness," stigma will never end.
  • On August 28, 2009, Judi Kenoyer Stoy wrote:
    I always enjoy reading the latest issue of Colby, but your summer issue was particularly good. The cover story on Jeronimo Maradiaga was inspirational and awe-inspiring. However, it was the Last Page article by Richard Whitecar on his struggles with bipolar disorder that really struck home. Last summer my 26-year-old son called from Arizona where he was attending ASU, sobbing hysterically and talking about suicide. I hopped the next plane, checked him into a hospital where he was diagnosed as Bipolar, Type 2, rapid-cycling. Thus began my personal education in this disorder. I am gratified to report that he is doing exceptionally well on medication and has returned to college, but it was a sometimes agonizing and nightmarish time in my life (and not how I had planned to spend the first year of my retirement from government service). We are currently following the health care reform issues with particular attention because my son now has a "pre-existing condition" and his medication costs $2,000 per month. Who can afford that? And yet, it is vital to his continued well-being. My personal thanks to Mr. Whitecar for speaking openly about his condition and its impact on his life. There is strength in numbers.