Editor's note: This story contains references to suicide. If you or a loved one are in need of immediate support, help is available 24/7 at the National Suicide Prevention hotline: 800-273-8255.
It all started with a muffin.
Hmm, I guess it didn’t start with the muffin — it ended with one.
You could tell she hated her job. The bagels were burned, the countertop cluttered with old receipts and neglected crumbs, and there were no straws or drink lids as far as the eye could see. When she saw me trudge through the front door, ringing the little bell, she met me with a soft sigh and knowing eyes. I think she could tell I was struggling, too.
I was in the thick of writing my dissertation in disability studies for an Educational Leadership degree at Duquesne University, and I felt like a failure. Draft after draft, a serious case of writer’s block, computer tantrums, human meltdowns, I was doubting everything about my identity as an academic and an educator. Let’s be honest, I was doubting everything about myself. How did I even make it into a doctoral program? When were they going to discover that I was an imposter who didn’t belong? When were they going to catapult me out of the ivory tower?
I was trying my hardest, and it didn’t feel like I was making any progress. Dr. Rachel Kallem Whitman was a person I’d never get to be. As my dreams felt dashed, I grew more and more anxious about my future. Not just my future in academia, but having a future at all.
Doctoral work and mental illness are definitely enemies. The long hours you put into your research, your analysis, your editing is exhausting. As much as I loved what I was doing, I began to feel increasingly overwhelmed. This is common for doctoral students. Doesn’t matter the field. Every rigorous, demanding, high-powered program can leave even the steadiest soul shaking. Heartbreak, homesickness and hopelessness tag along as you work tirelessly. This is punctuated with moments of terror like when you spill milk on your computer while watching a YouTube video of floppy baby corgis bounding through a snowbank and have a panic attack at the Apple store.
And it can be hard to stay positive even when your program chair says he believes in your work because you don’t really believe in yourself. The anxiety that was a lump in my throat turned into a depressed sludge in my stomach. I felt sick all of the time. I found myself at a breaking point with increasing frequency. I would never succeed. I was never going to. Why was this a lie I told myself?
I was distracted by my edits, anxiety, and depression so much so that I didn’t recognize the insidious, vicious and toxic bipolar takeover consuming my brain. I was no longer dealing with pure depression. I was no longer dealing with pure anxiety. I started having mixed episodes. Bipolar 1 disorder is characterized by extreme mood states that can undermine and overthrow you as a person. Hypomania, mania and depression can appear in rapid succession, with the sole plan of taking you down.
It’s easy to get lost in a disease that tells you you’ve always been worthless, a disappointment and crazy. Mixed episodes are pure destruction. They are the combination of desperate depression and agitated anxiety. You feel utterly broken one minute, and the next, you find yourself flying off into a rage, usually over nothing.
Once I forgot my umbrella at school and suddenly, I was the biggest idiot who had ever existed. I came home and slammed the front door, cried hysterically, fell apart in my husband’s arms. How could one person be so stupid? When my husband ordered my favorite takeout that evening, I was too depressed to eat. Too depressed to say thank you, to say I was sorry for being this way. I crawled into bed and prayed that I wouldn’t wake up. The world would be better off without me in it.
The back and forth, the deep sadness and the fiery rage, the incurable ache in my chest, I couldn’t run from it. Bipolar disorder does an excellent job of erasing your memories, lying to you that you’ve never been happy, and you never will be. You lose all perspective and become your illness.
Bipolar disorder told me that it was time to kill myself. And I listened. My final meal would be a bagel with lox and cream cheese, one of my favorites, and then I’d take every pill I could find. My husband was traveling, and I knew I could get away with it. I knew he’d be better off without his pathetic failure of a wife. My family would be, my friends, my doctoral cohort and professors, they didn’t need me to mar their happiness.
I made peace with my decision, my suicide note tucked in my phone, ready to be forwarded to my loved ones by the time it was too late.
I was done crying at this point. My eyes were red and my shoulders slumped. I sat crookedly in my seat at the bagel shop, forcing bites down my throat. Everything hurt. Lifting the bagel, biting it, chewing it, swallowing it. I was exhausted. But the next minute, I was furious with myself. I was such a failure that I would probably mess up and not actually kill myself. I was so enraged at the thought of failing that I stabbed a plastic fork into my thigh. My body shook with violent frustration. I don’t know which part of me she saw, but she knew that my day was going as badly as hers. Maybe worse.
“Do you want a muffin?”
It didn’t register right away that she was talking to me even though I was the only person in the cafe.
“How about two?”
She came over decked out in her apron and matching visor and placed two plastic wrapped muffins on the table. I looked up at her, and the first thing that stumbled out of my mouth was, “Won’t you get in trouble?”
“No. And even if I do, it’s OK. I hate my job. But the muffins aren’t bad.”
She paused. Maybe she was thinking of something else to say, deciding whether or not to pat me on the shoulder, but she sighed again and walked back to her post behind the counter. My bagel was half eaten, and I had two large chocolate chip muffins staring back at me. Part of me wanted to cry into one, another part wanted to smash one, but I did neither. I threw away my bagel, slid the muffins into my bag and left. I hope I thanked her but I can’t remember.
I got home and removed the slightly squished muffins from my bag and placed them delicately on the counter. My husband loves chocolate chip muffins. One for him and one for me. In that moment I thought, “Maybe I’m going to be OK.” Instead of collecting my medicine cabinet in my hands, I unwrapped a sugary muffin and took a bite. It was delicious.
I was still depressed and anxious, my mixed episodes still hijacked my mind, but this woman’s kindness broke me out of my disordered stupor. Maybe she did it to get back at a job that was thankless and underpaid but the fact she saw me in that moment, saw me close enough to know that maybe a few muffins might help, meant something to me.
As I crunched the chocolate chips, I found myself gaining some perspective. I wouldn’t call them magical muffins, but they did do something powerful. They made me pause. They made me rethink my plan. I thought about seeing my husband’s happy face when I presented him with a muffin. I thought about having a painful and important conversation about feeling suicidal. I thought about how it would feel for him to wrap his arms around me and tell me we’d get through this together. We’d take it one day at a time. One draft at a time. I could do it. But honestly, if I couldn’t finish my program, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. There was more to life than killing myself over qualitative data.
But I did graduate. And not only did I finish my dissertation, I was the recipient of my university’s School of Education’s Distinguished Dissertation Award for 2018. It took time and tears. It took long nights of writing and frantic mornings of editing, but I did it. I told my treatment team I was struggling, and with the help of extra medication and a powerful, uplifting conversation from my chair about what it means to succeed as an educator – that I was already succeeding – helped me turn things around. The process was still hard and I had my dark moments, but I chose to speak up, to ask for help when I needed it. The day I was hooded was one of the proudest moments in my entire life.
I guess it didn’t really end with two chocolate chip muffins. Since then, I’ve struggled with my bipolar disorder countless times. Hypomania, mania, psychosis, depression and mixed episodes are part of my existence, but I’ve kept moving forward. I know I will feel suicidal again, but I feel better prepared to regain my stability. To keep my balance. I’m not going to lie and say I’m fixed, healed, cured, but I will always remember the day I got two free muffins from a woman who made a difference without ever knowing it.
To this day, I can’t help but smile when I see chocolate chip muffins. It’s a sobering memory with a happy ending, and it reminds me to be proud of what I’ve accomplished and who I am. My diploma hangs in my office, my muffins sit on my counter top, and I know that things will be bumpy, but ultimately I’ll be OK. Just take it one bite at a time.
Dr. Rachel Kallem Whitman is an educator, advocate and writer who authored a memoir entitled, "Instability in Six Colors." She is an advisor to the All-Abilities Media Project at the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University. If you want to send Rachel a message, email email@example.com.
PublicSource and Pittsburgh City Paper partnered to co-publish this first-person essay.
This essay was made possible with financial support through the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.