“Look at me,” says the young man on stage. “I’m white. I’m straight. I’m not in a wheelchair.”
The venue is a new student orientation event at Stanford University in Sept 2004. The topic is diversity, and one of the speakers is Adam Kahn, a fifth year senior who has what the university administration calls a hidden disability.
“I’m just your average New York Jew,” he says to a noisy and appreciative audience of 1,700. Then he lets them know why he is here.
“I’m bipolar,” he relates. This time you can hear a pin drop. Now he tells his story:
Adam entered his senior year in high school at the head of his class, only to end up barely graduating as a result of the depressions he experienced. Despite this, he still got into Stanford and entered as a freshman in 2000, full of naïve hope. Unfortunately, he was overmedicated due to an incompetent psychiatrist back home. He very quickly got behind in his course load and began piling up incompletes. He entered his junior year on academic probation. The anxiety brought on by having to perform under intense pressure led to his not being able to finish the quarter. This resulted in a one-year academic suspension.
How bad was Adam’s fall from grace? During high school, Adam had been a finalist in the 59th Intel Science Talent Search. His project involved investigating the mechanism by which bacteria become resistant to antibiotics. The effort employed a combination of applied math, computer simulations, and microbiology. Adam was also captain of the math team, senior editor of the literary magazine, editor-in-chief of the yearbook, managing editor of the newspaper, and the official statistician for several varsity sports. To top it off, he was a grand prize winner in the USA Mathematics Talent Search.
The statistics on wasted lives due to this illness are positively distressing. A Stanley Foundation Bipolar Network study found that despite the fact that approximately 90 percent of the patients it surveyed had high school diplomas and a third had completed college, almost 65 percent were unemployed and 40 percent were on welfare or disability.
Back home, during one of the coldest winters in New York history, Adam’s depression spiraled downward. Desperate, his parents got him into a day treatment program. There, Adam slowly but surely learned the “here and now” skills he needed to take control of his life. From home, he was able to finish some of his incompletes and was able to prove to the school – and more importantly himself – that he was well enough to return a quarter early.
He came back to campus knowing if he were to screw up again, he’d be placed on three-year academic suspension. But this time he was smart. He took a reduced course load and entered psychotherapy. That quarter, he handed in all his work on time for the first time in more than four years. The next quarter, now with a full load, he pulled it off again. He was going to make it.
“I’d be lying if I said life is easy for me,” Adam told his audience. His bipolar disorder does a lot to make him who he is, he confided, but does not define him as it once did. Yet, at the end of the day, “I’m still bipolar.” But here he was on a stage sharing his story and telling extremely appreciative incoming students “how great the present is and how great the future can be.”
Eighteen months ago, I published the text to Adam’s inspiring talk on my website. Two days ago, Adam informed me he graduated from Stanford in January this year with two bachelors’ degrees and in June with a masters. He is now employed as a graduate assistant in a cognitive psychology lab in Stanford.
Too often, when readers contact me, it is with stories that break my heart. That is why I’m so delighted to pass on news of Adam’s success and his message of hope. Mazel Tov!
You can check out two videos of talks Adam gave to incoming students here.
Share your thoughts about Adam's story in the message boards.
Published On: June 26, 2006
Living With6 Chronic Condition Guidelines to Live By
Facing the challenges5 Rules for Bipolar Relationships