Revisiting my mental map

Revising My Mental Map: A Story of Exceptionality

Jul 16, 2020

*Client blog written my Jordan Vaughn. Jordan Vaughan was born and raised in the Twin Cities and has lived in West St. Paul since 2003. He is the second youngest of four kids. Jordan is a talented writer who currently studies English literature at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul. He will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree on August 16, 2020, and was recently accepted into graduate school. Jordan lives with bipolar disorder and received Guild services from April 2003 to July 2018. 

Introductions and ice breakers have always been challenging for me. “So, tell me about yourself?” can make me cringe in job interviews. How I introduce myself and my level of self-disclosure, the words I use, the tone I use, my body language, and so on, reveals much about how I view myself and others, my worldview, my level of social awareness, my status, my education, and my personality. Forgive me if I seem not up to the task.

My name is Jordan. I am an INFJ (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) and one of the estimated 7 million U.S. adults who lives with bipolar disorder, a mood disorder. My condition has no known cure. If I manage it well, I am very high functioning. If I do not manage it well, it can lead to premature death.

Language matters to me, and I have studied it for most of my life. It is still difficult for me to say the words “mental illness” because of what it means to me denotatively and, even more so, what it means connotatively. But my story of exceptionality – and that is how I choose to frame it – is not a neat, tidy, linear narrative like an autobiography. Bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses seldom fit such a framework. And so, more like contemporary memoir, I begin in media res – in the middle of the story.

I was twenty-six years old and in a very dark place in my life during the winter and early spring of 2003. I still lived at home with my parents in Apple Valley, having lost my student housing at the University of Minnesota earlier that year after withdrawing from school, and had just been fired from a full-time job for insubordination. In the grips of a mixed episode, I booked a flight and hotel to London in late February on a whim, not telling anyone where I was going or when I’d return, staying for five days and losing my passport in Toronto during a layover on my way back to Minneapolis.

When I returned home, my parents knew where I had been, thanks to a call from a Canadian official, as my parents were listed as an emergency contact. Intuitively, I knew I needed help. I checked myself into the hospital in mid-March, one of several voluntary hospitalizations in just a few years. But I was not at all in a lucid state and during my stay and consented to two ECT treatments. After a week, I was discharged without a viable aftercare plan, no psychiatrist, no therapist, no medication.

I will never forget the day that changed my life and trajectory forever. I was arrested on March 31, 2003, following an argument with my mother that managed to go terribly wrong. It was not the first time I had experienced involvement in the criminal justice system. After two days in jail, I was transported to Regions Hospital and was subject to involuntary hospitalization. An emergency petition had been filed. I was facing the very real possibility of six months minimum at the Anoka Regional Treatment Center. My pending criminal case was placed on hold and would be resolved later that summer.

I remember my hearing on April 10, 2003, like it was yesterday. I even remember what I wore: a green sweatshirt, blue jeans, white socks, and brown loafers. I was asked if I cared to address the court. I composed myself and said, “Your Honor, I’m not going to lie or equivocate. I have struggled with my moods all my life. I need help or else I will face one of two fates: prison or death. But please do not send me to Anoka. I do not think I could bear it. I ask for your mercy. Thank you.” I received a stay for six months, completed sixty days of inpatient treatment, and the wheels were set in motion. I would finally get the outpatient and community-based mental health resources I needed through the assistance of Guild. I would even get my own apartment, which I have now maintained for seventeen years.

But I was still very much broken; if not in mind or body, I was broken in spirit. It was a very demoralizing and humbling time for me. I got GA, MSA, and SNAP while awaiting a decision regarding SSDI. I had a representative payee. I no longer felt “whole.”

I remember the first time I went to the Guild Community Support Program Member Center. I did not know what to expect at the time. It probably took me at least six months, if not a year, before I would really engage with others. I was still convinced that I “didn’t belong here.” People would introduce themselves to me, and sometimes it was painfully awkward when they self-disclosed their diagnosis and asked me about mine. I did not make eye contact. I was withdrawn. Between 2003 and 2005, my 5’9” frame went from 140 to 215 pounds due to psychotropic medication. I was in a fog much of the time. I began working with employment services but lost two jobs due to my sluggishness and poor performance, including my “dream” retail job working part-time in a bookstore. I did not deserve this, I told myself. After all, I had taught myself to read at age two. I had earned a scholarship to Concordia College years earlier to study music. I had to “make something of myself.” I had to “beat” mental illness and prove to myself and others that I was worth more than a label.

I decided to return to the University of Minnesota to resume my junior year in Fall 2004, commuting by public transit. It was a long commute from West St. Paul before the Green Line was built. I successfully completed two classes, but my term GPA was a 2.0. I received a B in an upper division American literature survey, and a C- in German, which I had studied for four years, beginning in high school. Once again, I was defeated. My overall GPA at the U of M was a lackluster 2.659. I would never graduate, I told myself, or become an English teacher. I would never realize my potential. I was convinced I was a failure.

I had a series of case managers those first five or so years. Sometimes I did not get along too well with them and things would get acrimonious. Could it be that they really did know me better than I knew myself?

In Fall 2006, I bought a 2004 Honda Civic. Sticker price was over $16,000. I figured I could afford it since I was working part-time, receiving SSDI, and had trial work period months left. My payments were $359 a month due to having poor credit history and a low down payment. Gas at the time cost nearly $4 per gallon. After I quit my job working at a St. Paul BP gas station and convenience store, my car was repossessed.

I do not want to say, “I told you so, but…” as the saying goes.

I decided to participate in dialectic behavior therapy. I did two rounds of it, “graduating” in Spring 2007. Around this time, I began freelance writing opinion columns for a local magazine. Once again, I felt competent and in control, even if I earned $50 per column.

Wanting to go back to work again but finding my criminal history to be a significant barrier, I petitioned for expungement and later, a pardon extraordinary. I was denied. To make matters worse, the legal aid nonprofit that initially worked with me passed my case onto a private criminal defense attorney who was facing disciplinary action and has since been disbarred. Once again, I was defeated and angry at the world. Still, I pressed on and luckily found a retail job working at a kiosk. I was promoted to trainer within a week of my initial hire.

Having survived two stressful Christmas seasons selling calendars at the kiosk and, later, interning at a computer repair shop where I hoped to get a job with a new skill set in information technology, I burned out in early 2012. I had another serious hospitalization lasting over a month, following a severe manic episode. I had gone off my medication for six months. I had to once again start over and get back to basics.

My most memorable moment as a Guild member was in October 2006 when I had the opportunity to attend the Guild of Catholic Women’s Women of Substance Series at the St. Catherine University O’Shaughnessy Auditorium. The guest speaker was actress and writer Carrie Fisher. Inspired by her story, I bought two books and stood in line to meet her and have them autographed. I still have them. She wrote in my copy of The Best Awful, “To Jordan, write your story, talk about yourself, change your luck! Carrie Fisher.”

My luck did finally change in Fall 2016 when I returned to college after nearly twelve years. I earned an A- in a graduate-level literary theory and criticism course at Metropolitan State University. I felt “at home” once again. I became involved with the college’s literary and arts magazine, publishing numerous poems, fiction, nonfiction, and even presenting my work at Open Book in Minneapolis! I am proud to say that I will graduate this August with a Bachelor of Arts in English, having earned a 3.75 GPA while at Metro State, and will begin a Master of Arts program this September.

For things to change, I realize now that I had to learn to revise my own mental map of what mental illness looks like. Guild helped me get there, and I am grateful for that. I am not alone, and mental illness does not discriminate. It transcends education level, socioeconomic class, race, gender, religion, and so on. And so, I took a “refresher” course in DBT. I gradually began to see the world and myself not as “either/or” but “both and.” And just as I did not want to be treated as a monolithic or static essence, as I began to thrive, I began to appreciate more the diversity among the people of Guild. As other members looked to me for inspiration and support, I learned to be more compassionate, more charitable, gentler, and kinder to others and myself as I tried to keep in mind that recovery is a journey, not a destination.

Thank you for allowing me to share.

– Jordan Vaughan, Guild CSP Member and Contributing Writer