I'm having symptoms of mental illness in grad school

People are looking at me funny -- should I reveal my diagnosis?

Published January 11, 2006 11:35AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

How much information should a person who hasn't been acting "normal" give to her professors and peers?

A little background: I'm a grad student in a creative field, so a little oddness is OK, I think. After a year and a half of battling the irrational thoughts that go through my head while I'm trying to work and attend class, though, I know my increasing nervousness and odd behavior around professors and peers have made people talk. It seems like no one in the department even makes eye contact with me anymore.

Yes, I'm shy. Yes, I'm strange. But the reason I can't talk to people or that I can't function around them isn't because I'm intimidated by or attracted to them, as I've heard rumored. It's because they turn into other people, like the professor who, I was convinced, was a manifestation of my father. Or it's because they know that I was on to their schemes to steal another student's identity, like a former co-worker.

I came into the program with a diagnosis of mental illness in hand, though I have told no one in the department about my condition. I've scraped myself up as well as I can in the past month, am doing all the little things to get myself back to functional again. The therapists I've been to keep giving me career interest tests and personality profiles, which seems pointless; the psychiatrists just want me back on the meds again, which is not an option.

They don't offer much in the way of an answer to my question, though.

So, now that I have things a little more under control, do I tell my dissertation committee that I'm "not normal" and "please excuse me," or should I let them go on believing what I think others say about me? Does it even matter?

The Freak in the Hallway

Dear Freak in the Hallway,

Please call your psychiatrist right now and say that you have stopped taking your medication and have been having hallucinations.

That is by far the most important thing you could do at this moment.

There are many reasons why this is so. But I'm loath even to enumerate them, lest they become a subject of debate and thus distract you from your necessary course of action.

So please, get up right now, call your psychiatrist, and say that you need further care. If you have disagreements about your treatment, fine. Work them out. But get back on the path to recovery. Though you've shown courage in fighting these thoughts and images on your own, to go it alone can be very dangerous, even deadly.

Now: If I were sure that you had now made the call, and we were together, say, in the back seat of a Lincoln Town Car being driven to your psychiatrist -- you having found yourself strangely disinclined to drive down now strangely unfamiliar streets -- only then might I mutter the following things, simply because it's a bit of a drive to the psychiatrist's office and it is my habit to mull and mutter.

And by the way -- Turn left here, driver -- may I ask that, after conferring with your doctor, you inform your dissertation committee of your condition? I imagine that they are intelligent, compassionate people, and will be rooting for you to recover.

Sometimes being creative -- a trait you and I apparently share -- means seeing what others do not see, and seeing what they do see in ways they do not or cannot see it. But this habit of creativity, so powerful and entertaining and at times vital to our survival, can also bring a hell of paralysis, as we face too many plausible -- and interesting! -- alternatives to simple, life-saving action. And so there are times when one has to act without thinking lest thinking itself not only delay action but call its necessity into question and thus prevent it altogether. This is what people sometimes mean, I think, when they say you need faith to act, although I don't agree that you need faith to act. You just need to act to act.

In such moments when one chooses action, when one takes the simple but profound action of dialing a telephone number or walking in a doorway, one becomes, for a moment, a warrior against one's own madness. One reaches in that moment an almost exalted state of clarity. I pray that you can have that clarity of mind today, long enough to make one simple, life-changing phone call.

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