Mental disorders or mad gifts? Reflections from a dysfunctional graduate

By Cal Colgan|

I am about to graduate college, and I can’t even sleep soundly in my own bed. My bedroom makes a homeless camp look like a palace: dirty clothes seem to creep out of every corner and nook. Papers, posters, Power Bar wrappers and old Arizona Tea cans cover the floor, and I create “walking space” just by shifting the pile of refuse from one end of the room to the other.

My room is a testament to my life: a disorganized, erratic mess. I’ve been this way ever since I can remember.

When I was nine years old, a psychiatrist diagnosed me with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. That’s why I never wanted to do my homework, the therapist told my parents. That’s why I couldn’t pay attention to the teacher’s lectures.

And so I went on Ritalin. Then Concerta. Then Adderall. My grades improved, and I became a busy little worker bee, burying myself in textbooks and devoting my life to school. But I wasn’t happy, and the next few years became a struggle between either being medication free and struggling to concentrate on assignments, or being on the pills and worrying about the side effects and possible addiction that went along with them.

I know I am not alone. In her 2009 opinion piece in The New York Times, guidance counselor Tara Parker-Pope writes that college kids with ADHD typically have greater academic and psychological difficulties, as well as lower grade-point averages, than their fellow students without the disorder. Park-Pope quotes Dr. Mark H. Thomas, a physician at the University of Alabama student health center, who said that the lack of outside support from parents and teachers to keep them organized often causes students with ADHD to struggle in order to finish their work.

Glenn Goldberg would agree with Thomas’ study. The Director of Counseling Services at Flagler, Goldberg said most of the students he sees claim that while high school was easy for them, the juggling act of work, course loads and personal lives can be overwhelming for incoming college students. Even with Flagler’s more paternalistic administration, students still suffer from time management problems.

“[F]or many of them, the thing that becomes the final greatest motivator is coming up against the wall, and just the anxiety of not doing well in a class or not getting a project in,” Goldberg said.

For proponents of the psychiatric industry like Parker-Pope and Thomas, the answer is adjusting medication. They suggest college students take longer-acting pills twice a day, try combinations of long- and short-acting meds or else try patch treatments that release the medication onto the skin.

After reading that study, I had just one thought: There was no way in hell I was going on those pills again. I wouldn’t put myself through emotional peril just to get high grades in college.

Goldberg suggested other solutions for students like me who don’t like medication, such as purchasing a planner and writing down clear, specific lists of tasks they must complete every day.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my problems don’t just stem from an inability to focus. They are the result of my struggle to deal with the monotony of everyday life.

Like the students who come to Goldberg’s counseling sessions, I would procrastinate on assignments until locking myself in the Proctor Library and downing a five-hour energy shot were the only ways I would hope to make a passing grade on my papers.

But when I put off my essays, I wasn’t watching T.V. or playing video games. I was on Wikipedia, researching information about 19th century Western philosophers. Or I was reading lengthy features from Mother Jones magazine and The New York Times.

The problem was not that I wasn’t learning, that I was stupid or that I was incompetent. I always spoke up in class, sparking debates with the students and rigorously taking notes. And even when I started assignments at the eleventh hour, I would usually turn in A or B-work — that is, when I did turn it in.

Outside the academic arena, I demonstrated to the world of student journalism that having a learning disorder doesn’t prevent me from going toe-to-toe with writers from colleges with heavyweight journalism programs like those of the University of Florida and the University of Miami. During my two years as co-editor in chief of the Gargoyle, I won seven awards for my writing and reporting. And at this year’s southeastern regional conference for the Society of Professional Journalists, I won first place in online opinion and commentary.

My reporting skills even helped me to get a research internship with an investigative reporter for The New York Times. I worked so diligently for him while I was at the Institute on Political Journalism that the summer internship program gave me another award, for excellence in print journalism.

But when measured up to the average bureaucrat, I can’t even compare. To the bean-counters, I am a walking jumble of disorganization, and my dysfunction will turn into a death-trap if I don’t learn to cope with the demands of the real world. If I don’t want to take medication, I must at least see a therapist who can help me function in the “normal” nine-to-five.

Maybe that’s true, but I wasn’t about to see someone who was going to tell me to be like everybody else. There has to be another way for disorganized people to function in regular society without actually having to shed our eccentric behaviors for a suit and briefcase. And there are too many people like me for the rest of the country to disregard.

According to the medical website WebMD, 60 percent of children with ADHD will continue to have the condition’s symptoms into adulthood, with about 8 million adults — or 4 percent of the U.S. population — officially diagnosed with the disorder.

The WebMD article said most adults are never identified with or treated for ADHD, so the numbers could be far greater. The U.S. could have the equivalent of entire cities of people whose contributions are ignored without being drugged or talked into behaving like the rest of society.

That might seem like a harsh critique of the psychiatric industry. As Dr. Goldberg said during my interview with him, medication seems to work well for many college students struggling with ADHD or other organizational issues. And regular therapy sessions have helped mold troubled young adults like myself into productive members of the professional world.

But there are those of us who just don’t fit in well to a world structured by the type-A personalities, with rigid time frames and deadlines. There must be a way that we can emerge from the crevices of our subculture of scattered brains without having to sacrifice the eccentricities that make us who we are.

The Icarus Project’s methods might be that way.

According to the mission statement on its national website, the Icarus Project is a network of people with psychological conditions who believe that their experiences should be recognized for their potential benefits — called “mad gifts” — rather than dismissed outright as disorders. The group calls itself a radical mental health support network, and it seeks to examine the social causes of depression and other mental disorders.

Rusty Poulette’s reasons why he helped to start Gainesville’s Icarus chapter are as practical as they are political. The Gainesville chapter believes that psychotherapy should be more focused on social analysis like the teachings of Sigmund Freud, but its members don’t exclude people who use medication or traditional therapy.

“The reason that we exist is to be that space for people who have had bad experiences in going to psychologists and psychiatrists, and haven’t been heard,” Poulette said.

Poulette said the Icarus Project organizes based on consensus, or universal agreement from all members. There is no rigid, centralized structure, and all members take turns at sharing their experiences.

For the members of Gainesville’s Icarus Project, what’s most important is building a community, one that incorporates the contributions of people who were previously cast out by society as dysfunctional. It’s that type of grassroots approach that the psychological industry needs if it is to truly shape the erratic, the scatter-brained and the disorganized into prominent citizens.

After all, it is precisely these eccentrics who make up most of modern society’s movers and shakers. From scientists to poets to painters to journalists, American society is filled to the brim with dysfunctional people who, given the opportunity to participate in their own way, put their ingredients into our cultural soup to make the dish taste better.

As I leave the academic world for the adult one, I would like to think that such tolerance is the grown-up approach.

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