“Because That’s What You Do”

by Dr. Rachel Kallem Whitman

RKWhitman year book copy

I did everything I was supposed to do.

I graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA.

I attended the top public university in the country.

I boasted great grades, a long list of extracurricular activities, and an impressive resume. On graduation day I donned my cap and gown, celebrated with my friends, and thought about my next step: getting a job. Because that’s what you do.

It starts early. I think we all remember this question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And if you’re anything like me, your early career aspirations probably weren’t gonna work out. I wanted to be a dog, which I was told was unlikely, so I set my sights even higher. Unfortunately I was informed that I could not become Robin Williams. I think after that I opted for “teacher” or something more conventional, but I never stopped thinking about being my own personal genie.

After college I needed a “real” job (whatever that means) so I started applying, interviewing, and landed a job working on the administrative end of a healthcare organization. It wasn’t great, but this is what I was supposed to do. This is what everyone was supposed to do, right? Get a job, work 40 hours a week, and make money. That’s what adults did, that’s what success looked like, and more than anything I wanted to live up to this expectation. If other people can do it, so can I! Or so I thought.


I forgot to mention an important detail, something that makes me a bit different: I live with a serious mental illness. High school was full of straight As and symptoms. I struggled with bipolar disorder, and while I was a highly motivated student, it was hard to fit in as a typical high schooler when I refused to take my medication and my brain constantly teetered on the brink of insanity. In college I was unsupervised and un-medicated (again, my ill advised decision) but this actually fueled my “typical” college behavior. Everyone parties, everyone experiments with drugs, everyone hooks up with everybody else. But my bipolar disorder raised the stakes. I was hypomanic and manic the bulk of my college career, which meant I did very stupid things with reckless zeal and unbridled ferocity because I thought I was invincible. I didn’t need to sleep, I didn’t need to eat, I slept around, and I did drugs. I might have looked like a typical college student having a good time but I was living in the extremes. When I was hypomanic and manic I was the poster child for college induced hedonism, but when depression took over I suffocated under the debilitating weight of hopelessness. Rachel graduating from collegeBut this lifestyle kind of worked in college because my responsibilities were limited and not needing sleep was actually pretty useful when it came to doing all of my homework for the semester in the first few weeks of school. Well, other than the fact that it fried my brain. Minor detail. I was living rather dangerously, but my untreated bipolar disorder didn’t stand in the way of my grabbing that degree. I was a success story!


I was taking my meds as prescribed for the first time in… well, for the first time ever, which felt very adult of me. However, it wasn’t all Seroquel and sanity. A very frustrating aspect of bipolar disorder is that even though I was taking my medication, I was still bipolar. I still experienced symptoms, but for the most part they were muted. Medication helps you manage bipolar but it doesn’t cure it. I didn’t want to admit it to myself at the time, but whether I liked it or not I’m saddled with bipolar for life.

After I graduated I decided that now was the time to become a grownup. I wanted to get my shit together and be a responsible member of society. This meant finally trying to understand my bipolar disorder. Let me tell ya, living with a hidden disability has its perks. Mainly, you can hide in plain sight. Even when I was feeling depressed or slightly hypomanic, I could pretend to have the same kind of brain everybody else had while we milled around the water cooler chatting about last night’s Steeler’s game. Like most people with mental illnesses, you become a really good actor so people have no clue what is actually going on with your brain chemistry. You smile on cue, make small talk, show up to work on time, and you don’t wear mismatched shoes (guilty of this one a few times over). My first job wasn’t exactly fulfilling, spreadsheets will only give you so much joy, but I could pull it off. I was taking my meds as prescribed for the first time in… well, for the first time ever, which felt very adult of me. However, it wasn’t all Seroquel and sanity. A very frustrating aspect of bipolar disorder is that even though I was taking my medication, I was still bipolar. I still experienced symptoms, but for the most part they were muted. Medication helps you manage bipolar but it doesn’t cure it. I didn’t want to admit it to myself at the time, but whether I liked it or not I’m saddled with bipolar for life.

I did my best as a mentally ill working adult and progressed from one job to another, working hard and moving my way towards my dream job. I finally accepted that I couldn’t be a genie, so instead I set my sights on working at a college as a disability services coordinator. I was convinced that this was it. This was my calling. Helping students with disabilities secure accommodations that empowered them to be the best student they could be. Not too long ago, I was that kid who needed accommodations and I was eager to give back. After a few years I was offered a job working in disability services at a local college, and I loved the work. But something started happening… Every morning and night I dutifully took my meds, I went to therapy once a week, I had a bedtime, I was doing everything right, but something was wrong…

To be honest, I don’t really remember everything that happened leading up to the day my brain gave out. I actually don’t really remember having a psychotic break at all, but my husband and my employer were witnesses. I went from eager employee to psychotic psychiatric patient. While I wasn’t ashamed of my bipolar disorder and I did some public speaking at the time about living while mentally ill, the bipolar I advertised was neat and tidy, aka it was a gross misrepresentation of what my illness was actually like. It’s easy to talk about being mentally ill when your illness isn’t actively taking over your life. I had no problem being the embodiment of a well-behaved bipolar person, but unfortunately that’s not a permanent position. When I had my psychotic break my bipolar catapulted from hidden disability to completely visible. Everyone saw that I was a mentally ill mess, but I think I took it the hardest.


My psychotic break was terrifying, but I learned that I have to be honest about my bipolar disorder. I can’t hide behind my desire to be a perfect patient; I have to acknowledge that part of understanding my bipolar is accepting that inevitably my hidden illness will break through. My job is to manage my mental health, which requires self-care and authenticity. It includes asking for help when I need it and taking a break when I feel my illness start to gnaw its way to the surface. It means I have to be kind to myself because this isn’t my fault.

After recovering from my psychotic break I was devastated – that’s putting it lightly. I didn’t understand why my brain had betrayed me. But with some psychiatric illnesses and with some people, even when you take care of yourself things can still fall apart. I had plateaued on my medication and didn’t even know it. I didn’t even know that was possible. I had been taking my meds religiously, but they gradually stopped working and as my illness crept in I lost all objectivity. Something felt amiss, but I sunk into my illness so deeply that I didn’t even know I was drowning. Finding my way out of this episode wasn’t easy. It broke my heart when my psychiatrist insisted on me taking a medical leave and, after further treatment he gave me crushing news. To stay healthy he recommended that I leave my job. Bipolar had officially ruined my life.

I didn’t know what to do next. I was a great student! I was a hard worker! I should’ve been busy with a good job! If I couldn’t be that person, who would I be? How would I live up to expectations and be successful? It took a lot of therapy — and I mean a lot of therapy — before I started rebuilding my sense of self. My psychiatrist prescribed me meds that worked, and we came up with a crisis plan for when (not if, remember this disease cannot be cured) I had my next psychotic episode. I finally started feeling like myself again and wanted to get back on track. I was ready for a new definition.


My psychotic break was terrifying, but I learned that I have to be honest about my bipolar disorder. I can’t hide behind my desire to be a perfect patient; I have to acknowledge that part of understanding my bipolar is accepting that inevitably my hidden illness will break through. My job is to manage my mental health, which requires self-care and authenticity. It includes asking for help when I need it and taking a break when I feel my illness start to gnaw its way to the surface. It means I have to be kind to myself because this isn’t my fault. RKWhitman manic bender photo 2 copyToday I am an adjunct faculty member at a local college. I teach two classes a semester and I have no intention of applying for tenure. I am a disability studies consultant, an advocate, a blogger, and I have a book coming out next year. This works for my bipolar brain – it works for me. I’m lucky that I’ve found a career that helps me stay healthy and gives me the opportunity to teach and advocate so, hopefully, other people with disabilities can define success for themselves in a way that does not compromise their well-being.

One of the most revolutionary epiphanies I’ve ever had is that there are no “supposed to’s.” We all have to carve out our own path in a way that works for us. There will be barriers, we will make mistakes, and that’s ok. That’s life! We plan as best we can but more than half the time we make up the rest as we move along. People aren’t neat and tidy, we’re messy and complex. And we’re brave and beautiful too. Disability is part of the human condition and we shouldn’t apologize for our differences.

I never could figure out how to be a professional dog but I do have three lovely pups. And technically I never quite made it to genie status. But, I live a life I’m proud of and that was always my wish. So maybe, I’m a bit of a genie after all.


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