At the very end of my semester in undergraduate school, I attended a reception on campus in which I participated in honoring faculty that was special with and dedicated to people with disabilities. In my entire time as a student, I had never had a disability, or a documented disorder, but in April of that Spring, I was not only receiving assistance through the disabilities office on campus, I was also speaking at their ceremony and reception for graduating students. The story of how I became connected with disabilities services, and the event that transpired at the end of the Semester, is one of deception, intrigue, respect, and courage for both facility and students taking part in the event.
This story begins during course registration six months earlier. I had just run into a professor I had my very first semester in Binghamton. Her name, was Dr. D, and she both respected my work, and had disappeared for two years totally off my radar until the final semester. When we ran into each other in the department, we talked about this loss of connection, our finding each other again, and the timeliness of it all that we could bookend my experience in the English department with her courses. Indeed, Dr. D suggested that upon matriculation to the Graduate program, I take her course and finish out undergraduate school with the same staff member I had began it with in Medieval Literature years back.
But when I reviewed notice I was rejected from the program I needed to change my courses, re-register for some, and de-register from others due to my status as a student and a restriction placed on my course selection. Dr. D was outwardly fairly understanding from the point of departure into the fall out from the graduate school and the initial events that unfolded around miscommunication with my intentions to re-apply to the program and how to proceed with my undergraduate-graduate status conflict as a result of being ready to graduate but still taking courses as an un-matriculated graduate student. Due to all this confusion, Dr. D suggested I speak with the disabilities department and explain to them my confusion and ask for guidance on how to proceed.
Indeed, I contacted the disabilities department. I was interviewed and along with being provided access to a library carousel, which is a story for another day, I was provided with documentation and a plan to handle moving forward with graduate study in the future. Unfortunately, I did not follow the plan. In fact, I made it more complicated to make future plans and problem-solve issues in the department without creating more. By mid semester, I was very paranoid, and becoming delusional. Dr. D took the seminar to a talk in the library where a speaker was presenting a paper. I found the whole affair very adversarial. I found many things to be more and more adversarial, especially when attached to university affairs. I observed at the speaking event the author being interrogated by people in the room including our class sitting in on the reading. The audience made a series of hostile criticisms on the merit, validity, and value of the authors scholarship. I remember the author sweating, fidgeting, and speaking with pressure as he answered each successive question from the listeners.
When I explained how I perceived the event Dr. D laughed. She said:
“It was just a friendly academic conversation”
I couldn’t have disagreed more with Dr. D. And as time unfolded, and a larger term paper was due, I realized I was no shape to write a paper for a graduate seminar unless I was more focused and devoting my energy to coursework and not fighting windmills across the academy. So, I agreed to withdraw from the class without pause. I didn’t see much of Dr. D after I withdrew from the class, but her legacy that semester was firmly intact. I was a self-identifying student with disabilities. Specifically, a psychiatric disability. Now I had a label, and was a giant moving target for university staff ready to document my forced withdrawal from the semester.
The office had all my medical information and I signed-off on papers to release everything to the school regarding my psychiatric history. This was a big mistake when my medical information was used to build an argument that I was unfit to continue as a student. My current behavior, given the history also down on paper, signaled to poorly trained staff on people in psychiatric crisis that I might also be sick right now. As much as past history is a predictor of future behavior, in my case, my new symptoms were attached to a new emerging disorder and first episode psychosis.
By the time I was in a full blown psychotic break, it was time for the disabilities reception. I had the opportunity to honor three people who were important to my success, albeit ultimate demise, with coursework, campus life, and any access issue I had with campus services due to my disability. I choose to take the time to honor these people because in that last semester, I had fewer than few allies, and the ones that were there, mattered very much to me in keeping hope alive that I would resolve the graduate school issues, my loitering charge, and all problems created as a result of responding to the admission decision so reactively and without thinking about the long-term effect my behavior on campus would have on my health for a very long time into the future.
These people mattered so much I wrote a little blurb for each honoree. The first person I honored was my department secretary, of the English undergraduate department. Stephanie was always very friendly, respectful, and concerned with my happiness even in the final throws the semester. She was very supportive, even when she couldn’t directly change the political climate in the department, and helpful when the restrictions limited my ability to visit the department office in person. For the later phases of the semester, I was only communicating with Stephanie via email, largely because I wasn’t allowed in the office without a campus police responding. Stephanie was always there to help, even when I wasn’t there to be present.
The second faculty member I honored was Dr. W. Dr. W. offered counseling to me as a friend, and former professor who taught my Shakespeare class. I visited Dr. W as much as possible, updating he regularly on the unfolding of events and she would offer her feedback, in the most reassuring yet critical manner as possible to both soothe my anger and offer an alternative perspective. Dr. W was the only staff member to recommend me to the Graduate School in English. To this day, I have her recommendation saved and re read it to reflect on my standing as a student in “reality” versus the delusion I created, or at least participated in, without consent. Reading her recommendation and knowing she stood courageously in the face of the department and beside her student when she knew the outcome would be the catastrophic or at least a giant nuisance to the integrity of people in the department who marked my file rejected for graduate study. Dr. W. did her very best to make sure the fall out didn’t hurt me or jeopardize my work as student. I visited Dr. W when I returned to campus as a social worker student. She was still there in her office when I went back to the department. She told me very candidly she was battling new demons and handling other incidents with students on campus. Even more candidly, she said another student one year after I graduated from Binghamton succumbed to a similar condition and might have also had a similar response from the department staff if it wasn’t from the lessons learned by some faculty from my incident on how improve campus response to people in psychiatric crisis.
The final faculty member I honored was Dr. G. Dr. G was my professor in English for several courses. He believed in my passion, my skill, and my dedication to learning. He was also a friend to me when I began to unravel. He never judged the changes in my personality, speech, or behavior. Indeed, when I was with Dr. G it felt like old times on campus, even when the very department was becoming unhinged. Dr. G was very authentic, and I learned more about being an academic with heart and integrity, than being the elitist ladder climbing scholar with an agenda that I had come across again at the beginning of the year with Dr. D. I never felt like dismayed, disillusioned, or without hope when I was in the presence of Dr. G. To this day, I keep taps on his whereabouts, and his own journey through the chronicles of higher education.