Rachel Kallem Whitman


I am defending my dissertation in a week. Between now and 10:30am on February 23rd my schedule is completely packed.

1) I have to actually finish my academic spiel. How do you slap 200 pages onto a powerpoint presentation anyway? Can I use Word Art? Ack.

2) Next I have to practice and time the damn thing so Iím at 30 minutes—no more, no less—which seems nearly impossible. Every time I think about it my palms instantly get sweaty and the lump in my throat bulges. Blurgh.

3) I also have to make sure that I triumphantly champion this dissertation with the courage and conviction of an impenetrable Elizabeth Warren yelling at the Senate. To be that confident, that collected. Swoon. Honestly, I know what Iím talking about but understandably, I still kind of feel like puking. (Does Elizabeth Warren even puke??)

This is the pinnacle of my educational existence. The degree, the title, more importantly: the cool octagon hat. I donít want to fuck this up. I want to believe that I can make this happen. Iíve been doing this work for years. Iím passionate and Iíve got a solid work ethic.

Iím so close.

If it wasnít for the auditory hallucinations, Iíd be a sure thing.

When you experience a psychotic depression it is not uncommon to have auditory hallucinations. Your brain cracks in half and in addition to the festering stew of tears, delusions, fear, paranoia, anxiety, and utter hopelessness that gushes out, occasionally you can find trace amounts of "hearing things" mixed in. Iíve lived with bipolar for about 15 years and this is the first time Iíve had auditory hallucinations.

My disease learned a new trick. Yeeeeeeeah. At my appointment this afternoon, my psychiatrist told me that since the voice in my head isnít frightening (other than the fact that, ya know, Iím hearing a fucking voice), itís not trying to convince me that Iím a terrible, shitty person, and itís not demanding me to do anything, that I just have to sit with the voice, listen to the voice, try my best to ignore the voice, and let the voice fade into a whisper. Thereís no medication on the market manufactured specifically to eradicate extra voices in your head. If your current anti-psychotics arenít taking them down, that means you have to move on to another brand of crazy-stabilizers.

My brain chemistry is shifting. Words all good bipolars dread hearing. It means retreating back to the rigged game of pharmaceutical hide and seek. Assessing if the terrible side effects from the meds are worth the dulling of your disorderís symptoms. It is a particularly cruel sentencing.

Pack up your pill bottles and titrate off the old guard because itís time to clean out the medicine cabinet and invite some new prescriptions into your life. The process is daunting. Emotionally exhausting. Taxing on your body. It honestly feels like a gut-wrenching break up. The meds that worked—well, used to work?—the meds that you trusted, that you relied on to keep your head together—well, used to—the meds that took you so long to find are now obsolete. Start again. Game over.


But the problem is—I canít start yet. I canít introduce a brand new, wild card psychiatric med that could potentially trash my skull. Instead I have to push through this week, prepare and defend, wait patiently for the new script, and entertain the voice in my head until February 24th. Only then can the barrage of new meds on my brain begin.

The powerpoint, the time limit, the confidence, the research, thatís all me. Thatís what Iíve been dedicating my life too. I see myself in the work, I am the work. Iím proud of how far Iíve come.

But I am also crazy.

Bipolar is nothing new, but this voice is. And while it destroys me to think that thereís a good chance Iíll be standing in front of my committee defending my work while simultaneously pretending to be sane, it also makes me feel doubly proud of how far Iíve come. Iím crushing it. And soon Iíll be the proud owner of a kickass velvet hat.


*I wrote and posted this piece to confront my own internalized stigma. To challenge my belief that this aspect of my mental illness is particularly shameful or ostracizing. The truth is Iím going to be a doctor who has bipolar disorder. And Iím going to be ok.


Rachel Kallem Whitman is a doctoral candidate, educator, advocate, and writer who has been shacking up with bipolar disorder since 2000. Kallem Whitman's research explores the relationship between disability, identity, narrative, and agency in the context of advocacy programs designed to empower young people with disabilities. Additionally, Kallem Whitman has published numerous essays and poems about our cultural misunderstanding of disability and the subsequent consequences of ableism. With the support of her loving partner, devoted pets, and patient therapist, Kallem Whitman has been able to look beyond illness to find herself.