October 30, 2011

My College Career

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Late on a June evening in 1984 my father and sister drove up to Ithaca and carted me back to New York City. The next day, one of the finest psychiatrists in the city, Dr. Harry Reiss, informed me that I had had an emotional breakdown, and started me on Lithium Carbonate. Two weeks before, my classmates had graduated.

My first two years as a student in Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences passed for normal. There were signs of trouble in my excessive studying, but this was Cornell. Things got worse during the summer after my sophomore year while traveling and working in Alaska. I experienced periods of rage that I had no way of explaining.

During my junior year, I did what many Cornell students do. I became politically involved.  For my generation the cause was nuclear disarmament during the Cold War. Being a budding severe-obsessive-compulsive, I took it too far — way too far. I started out on the third floor of Annabel Taylor Hall, a training ground for young leftists, and went on to an internship with a liberal congressman in Washington, D.C. My effectiveness was hampered by recurring thoughts of global incineration. I tried to return to my studies in the fall of my senior year, but found myself spending the better part of my time organizing petition drives in Willard Straight Hall and bus caravans to anti-nuclear rallies. In addition to being a card-carrying severe-obsessive-compulsive, I had been born with the genetic predisposition for what was then known as manic depression. Both were at play. I took a leave of absence from Cornell and returned to Washington for another internship. The second internship ended worse than the first. My prolonged silent rages left me unable to communicate at all.

I made it back to Ithaca with my nine boxes of important documents and landed on the floor of a basement room in the Collegetown co-op I had lived in before. My housemates took me in, but it was not a pretty picture. I got a part-time waitering job at the old Cabbagetown Café on Eddy Street, but missed shifts and failed to follow through on important aspects of the job description, like turning in the customers’ orders to the kitchen. On the night my father and sister arrived I was unable to walk across the parking lot beside U-Hall Two without doubling back repeatedly to pick up the trash.

Doctor Reiss had a firm grasp on both my diagnosis and what needed to be done. Unfortunately, the next summer he took a month-long vacation to Japan, and unfortunately I reacted by going cold turkey off the six psychiatric medications I was taking daily. I landed in the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Hospital for a four-week stay, shortened only by my decision to run away, and so return to my own doctor.

Reiss, however, had a plan. He had started me as a visiting student a Columbia University and I was accumulating credits acceptable to Cornell. I was functional enough to take two courses a semester. When the Cornell administration thought it was necessary I returned to Ithaca to try and finish in a flurry but instead spent my time lying on the floor of a boarder’s room in a North Campus fraternity. I failed to complete the semester and was once again brought back to the city by family. I can say that living in proximity to my psychiatrist and attending Columbia as a visiting student proved a workable option for me, and in August of 1988 I completed the required course of study necessary for a Cornell degree. I even made it back to Ithaca to take part in the graduation ceremony with my proud parents looking on.

Since graduating from Cornell, I have gone on to receive two master’s degrees in American History and English Literature from Hunter College, City University of New York, and to complete all the coursework required for a doctorate in English Literature at Fordham University. I have also become a writer and have, in fact, written a novel, which tells a portion of the story outlined above, entitled Cutting Through the Knot.

I attribute the fact that I was able to complete my Cornell education in part to a brilliant doctor and recent advances in psychiatric pharmacology. But there were helpful people in Ithaca as well — a kind and patient listener at the Gannet Health Center and housemates who came to Uris Library to check up on me one stressful afternoon during exams.

There is help available to those who make the effort to reach out and get it, and there are alternate routes though this fine university when necessary. Much of my success, though, has been due to an ability to laugh at myself, and to keep a humorous distance from my difficulties.

Josh Greenfield is a Cornell alumnus, Class of 1984. He may be reached at [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Josh Greenfield