| On why I don't attend class reunions
By Kristen S. DeVoe '74
People with mental illnesses have a hard time with class reunions. Let me speak for myself-I have a hard time with them. As a manic-depressive, I find that attending them is the least of my worries. The first hurdle is the decision to attend, which, depending on my mood, is an enthusiastic two thumbs-up or a suicidal revulsion at the thought. By the time the actual reunion rolls around, my mood will have changed and I'll be full of regret-either for missing the deadline or for signing up.
But it's not that simple. I didn't have this illness when I came to Exeter. People will remember me as an always smiling, over-positive Jesus freak who exasperated classmates and teachers with incessant Bible-thumping. I was in a cult at the time, though no one believed it. Especially me. Still, I'll never forget the day a leader from the so-called ministry I had joined sat with me in the Exeter Inn dining room and informed me that the student body and faculty were godless members of the Illuminati, conspiring to form a one-world government. It was my single-handed task as True Believer on Campus to stop them.
My approach, I thought at the time, was both magnanimous and far-sighted. I wrote an editorial for The Exonian about an assembly we had had discussing the movie The Exorcist. I praised the chaplain for choosing a biblically correct movie and assured everyone that yes, Virginia, there was a devil and he was alive and well at Exeter. I naively expected fellow-Exonians to flock to my Bible meetings and repent. I was not prepared for the chaplain's outrage or his unsuccessful attempt at an intervention, an attempt which backfired and contributed to my first depressive episode.
The first signs of my illness emerged shortly after this encounter. I climbed to the top of the Academy Building and tried sneak up to the bell tower, intending to jump. Fortunately, the door was locked. That was the first time I seriously contemplated suicide. For weeks after, I wandered alone across the athletic fields and through the woods at night praying to God for the strength to kill myself. No one knew, not even my roommate. I always kept a sunny face on it all.
In college, the depressions got worse, the suicidal thoughts intensified. I medicated myself with Scripture and finally dropped out to join my cult full time. There, I was introduced to another medication-sex. Sex, especially with the leaders, was a godly thing. When I sought help for an agonizing depression, I was "exorcised of devil spirits," then taken to bed.
I finally left when I was pregnant with my second child. Caught in a violent relationship and overwhelmed by an exploitive religion, I was convinced it was better to die than betray my faith. I called my doctor, requesting to be admitted to the hospital in order to give birth before I killed myself. I was placed in the mental health ward, and three weeks later had my daughter. She spent her first two weeks of life with me back on the ward; psych aids fussing over her like cooing OB nurses. The doctors figured I was just "stressed out" from a bad marriage and a kooky religion. No one thought cult. No one thought bipolar illness.
I'm not saying I was an easy case. It's only just been this year that my doctor and I finally figured out what was going on with my head. Bipolar Disorder II had come up before during other hospitalizations for suicidal depressions and hypomanic episodes. But I fought the diagnosis like crazy, especially since my ex-husband used it in court to successfully take away my kids. I decided that was one label I could do without.
From what I've read, I'm not that unusual. According to one study, most people with bipolar illness will have their first "episode" in late adolescence and not show up in treatment until their mid-20s, when a job or marriage is at stake. That's only the beginning. It may take decades before the patient accepts his or her mental illness and agrees to take medication. Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, one of the world's foremost authorities on manic-depression, testifies to this in her memoir An Unquiet Mind. As a patient, she was well into her 30s before she surrendered to her need for lithium.
I've thought about what I would say if I went to a reunion. Someone comes up to me, drink in hand, and says, "So what have you been up to, lo, these 25 years?" "Well, let's see," I'd say, "I was sexually exploited, physically battered and I lost custody of my kids. I was diagnosed with an illness I couldn't accept and it took years to find medication that worked. But wait," I'd say, as they're running out the door, "everything's fine now. Really. I have a great job, my kids are in college and I'm happily remarried."
My daughter is now 17 and just graduated from high school. She was part of the school's Peer Council, which intervenes on behalf of troubled classmates. One week before graduation, a friend of hers had a breakdown and was hospitalized. He was diagnosed with manic-depression and when he returned on graduation day, his classmates cheered uproariously as he received his diploma.
It's a different world now from when I was 17. The stigma of mental illness, while not obliterated, has taken a significant blow. Grassroots organizations like the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill have educated families and patients about mental illness and raised consciousness among lay people. Who could imagine a prime time commercial about psychotropic medication 30 years ago? Our kids have grown up with them. Prozac is as common a brand name to them as Nikes or Gap Jeans. This generation compares antidepressants among themselves the way we used to compare SAT scores. In fact, these days SAT scores may be harder to discuss than mental illness.
I'm not sure I'll attend my next class reunion. It depends on my state of mind. But if I do, I hope I can soft-pedal my war stories and focus on the present. I hope I can say something like, "Well, I found out I'm a manic-depressive and I'm learning to live with it." Living is the important thing. Now, how about you?
Kristen S. DeVoe '74