Updated: Jun 25, 2020
| This is the 428th story of Our Life Logs |
I was born in 1971 in Dover, New Jersey. Because of my father’s work, my childhood was spent all over the US. But no matter where we lived, I was a smart high achiever. No kidding. We were a family of hard-workers and I loved going to school. Both my parents supported me, but my mother was my anchor. She contributed in a self-sacrificing, loving way to my success not only as a student, but also as a compassionate and creative human being.
I started school a year early because my parents said I was so advanced, and I even skipped the tenth grade. You see, I had big plans for my future, and I remained focused when I began attending Princeton University at only 16. There, I studied Romance Languages and Literatures with a concentration in French. I was awarded the Mellon-Ford Undergraduate Minority Fellowship which enabled me to pursue my language studies abroad in France and Brazil in the summer. I thought nothing could stop the momentum I’d picked up.
Then, my mom died when I was 19. She passed the summer before my senior year. Knowing that the woman who was always my biggest cheerleader would never see me graduate tore me up inside. I was so broken up by the loss that I took a year off school. Our family of three now became two, and the two became 1+1, no longer a tight unit—just two individuals related by blood.
Without my mother, I relied on my public face as being “the smart one” now more than ever. My mind became my anchor. The following school year, I dug into my reserves, pushed past my grief, wrote my thesis, passed my departmental exams, and managed to graduate from Princeton in 1993. From there, I worked in a law firm for a year and then was accepted to a law school in Cincinnati, Ohio at age 22.
During law school, I got married. Meanwhile in the classroom, I thrived, obtaining externships, making the Dean’s List, and getting the highest grade in my Administrative Law class. My academic reputation got me connections with legal practitioners and important members of the bar and bench which helped me become a court-referred mediator. I was building a career. I was moving my way up. What I didn’t realize just yet was that I was about to run on empty and I would pay the price.
The world had been my pearl, but after graduation when I began studying for the Ohio Bar Exam in 1997, all of my potential stopped fueling my achievements. The promises of a bright future that I had looked forward to were replaced with a dark and difficult path to perdition. I didn’t know when my light started to dim, but when I became aware, it was already dark. I guess I had been falling, falling for the past six years, and now I’d finally hit the ground. All the pressure got to me, and I had a nervous breakdown. I was hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar disorder II with paranoid features. “Creative genius” was typical of this type. I always thought the “paranoid features” part of the description made it sound like a trailer for movies coming soon to theaters, but it was nothing entertaining to look forward to.
The timing could not have been worse. I just had begun to move past the profound grief of losing my mom and started building my reputation in the legal field. I began to panic. If my mind was failing me, what else did I have? Nothing, that’s what! Who would want a lawyer with what some considered an unstable mind?
My mind was the one thing I could always count on. Maybe I was not pretty or was better described as plain, but my looks were always tempered by the phrases: “she’s smart”, “she’s creative”, or “she has a good personality”. Now, without my sanity, who was I? “She’s crazy”? As if losing my mother and losing my sanity were not enough, I was losing my definition of self. My pursuits of a high-quality lifestyle no longer mattered with this diagnosis. I lost it all because I was deemed “crazy.”
It felt like my career was over before it even began. After the fall from the academic and professional promise, there was no prestigious, high-paying job I could find. No promise of a thriving future. There were just calls from creditors, a reminder of looming medical bills, student loans, and a life redefined by mental illness.
I dealt with my loss by ignoring life, sleeping away the day, and eating up my feelings. When things became scary, I chose sleep and food as antidotes to facing “she’s crazy.” This allowed me to put my mind on continuous pause to try to stop the mental illness’ power of continuous play. Coming to terms with my new reality sent me into fits of mania.
Fortunately, my husband really stepped up to support me while I was unable to function on my own. He became the caregiver-husband and I, the dependent patient-wife. At one point, I moved out and lived apart from my husband because of paranoia. But he welcomed me back when I was ready, despite knowing that all he could look forward to was a clinically depressed wife, who slept all day and seldom pulled it together to see him off to work in the morning or welcome him home at night. I was so heavily sedated from my medication that I was basically a zombie. I called myself his “wife in the box”, since I only emerged from the bedroom maybe once or twice a day just to shower, see him, and return to bed. This was no one’s version of domestic bliss, but he stood by his commitment to me.
While diagnosis destroyed me at first, I knew I couldn’t sit in my self-pity forever. To help recover and move forward, I was forced to redefine my sense of self. Reconstruction would mean picking up the pieces and forming a new me. The latter would be less artful and demand more effort, but I had to. I started with accepting my new normal and learning to cope with my symptoms.
After a couple of years in recovery, I decided to pursue work again. I wanted to prove to myself that I could still work despite my diagnosis. I could still find fulfillment. I knew that practicing law could regress me back to my manic state, so I started out small, looking for any type of job that interested me. I challenged myself to try out everything I wanted to do, be, or become. This was my “bucket list.” I was broken, not hopeless.
And that was what I did. I tried on many hats for the next 18 years, from around age 27 to 45. Prime jobs were eventually replaced with survival jobs. I went from jobs like legal editor, judicial extern, nonprofit advocate, grant writer, library copy cataloguer, and production assistant, to fast food or retail employee, janitor, childcare assistant, grocery clerk, and temporary office worker. My jobs changed from passion to necessity as I found myself unable to cope with prime jobs for very long. Still, I had full faith that there was always a next best occupation right around the corner and that once I found it and presented myself (Ivy League education and law degree), I would have stability and a secure place in the world. I believed that things would be different and better each time, and I would keep a job for the next two decades. This was my fairy tale.
The problem was that I could never keep a job for very long at all. I was still a hard-worker and would give it 200% borrowed from my mania. It’d fuel me for three to nine months, and then I’d burn out and crash back into clinical depression. I tried too hard to be perfect, but I just could not ignore the voices of the paranoid features, and they sabotaged my success. My 52-job resume is evidence of this. As I grew older, the prime jobs and the survival jobs both became increasingly harder and harder for me to get, handle, and keep.
I also discovered, 20 years after my initial diagnosis, that I’d been partly misdiagnosed and was actually a paranoid schizophrenic. The news made it harder to live my daily life. I went from keeping a job for one year to not even being able to go on interviews or complete the on-boarding required to start the latest new job.
As the saying goes, doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. And that’s when I realized that as persistent as I was, I could not escape my diagnosis no matter how many jobs I tried to fit into. Instead of moving on, I must learn to move through. My mental illness is a part of me but it is not all that I am. Crazy is not my label, and I’m fighting to believe that for myself. I’ve decided that I can either choose to be happy where I am or be miserable trying to be where I thought I once wanted to be. If I kept looking back, I’d never find the beauty in the new reality, what’s in front of me. After 18 years of trying, I finally decided to stop trying and start living.
What is next for me? Is it some fancy, exciting job opportunity? Hardly. It is doing the work that it takes for me to stay mentally stable. This is what I consider success is for me these days: being able to go grocery shopping, to go to church, to go anywhere outside of my apartment without thinking that people are talking about me. It is sitting outside on my little patio, in a waiting room, or at the library without needing to put earplugs in to drown out snippets of conversations that make me think someone wants to hurt me.
Whether I’m falling down for what seems like the umpteenth time or getting up for the millionth “second chance,” I have learned that the level of happiness and success in life are what you make of them. I control how I react to life. I thought my life was over with my diagnosis. I thought my promise was lost, but it never left. It just had to come back to the surface and push past the changes made. Once lost, now found.
This is the story of April McQueen
April currently resides in the Greater Metropolitan Atlanta area. Growing up as the smart girl, April had a life laid out for success in law, but a mental breakdown delivered shocking news: she had bipolar disorder with paranoid features (later re-diagnosed to be paranoid schizophrenia). The diagnosis devastated her as she felt no one would hire someone considered “crazy.” She did her best to search for other jobs and fight her mental illness but it wasn’t until she accepted that part of herself 18 years later that she truly began to recover. April has a new definition of success now, and it is to maintain mental stability and be happy despite all her losses. She has a supportive family and loving partner. Although her first marriage didn’t work out, she was grateful for his support all those years. April enjoys reading, cooking, walking, and listening to live music. Her favorite way to relax on Saturdays is to settle into the sofa and binge-watch cooking shows.
This story first touched our hearts on September 23, 2019.
| Writer: April McQueen| Editor: Kristen Petronio |