100 Individuals: Carolyn Dobbins

  • The 100 Individuals campaign continues with a Q&A with Carolyn Dobbins, PhD who published What a Life Can Be: One Therapist's Take on Schizo-Affective Disorder, based on a true story.


    From her author page at Bridgeross:

    Dr. Dobbins received her BS from University of Utah and her PhD from Vanderbilt University in 1990.


    While at Vanderbilt, Carolyn received an NIMH scholarship and two two-year Clinical Fellowships along with four research assistantships and a research associateship.


    She has served in the mental health field for 22 years and, in her teens, Carolyn was a top, nationally ranked Alpine skier.

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    The interview will take place in two parts.


    CB: You obtained a PhD in Psychology which is remarkable given that you were diagnosed with schizoaffective.
    Could you tell us a little about your early recovery, when you were diagnosed, and any detours you had to take to ultimately be successful.


    CD: I guess my “early recovery” began when I was finally correctly diagnosed and prescribed an anti-psychotic medication. I was 23 years old and had battled my illness since age 17. It was six extremely difficult years. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other.


    Every day was not just a detour but a road block. As a top athlete in my teens, I was on a treadmill when a cardiologist pulled me off and took me to Massachusetts General Hospital where I was told that I had a metabolic disorder. They wanted to keep me on their research ward to try to treat it.


    Scared and alone, I just left. My sports career was over, as I felt heavy, dizzy and in slow motion. I then tried college and flunked out my first semester, basically for not coming out of my room. I wandered around New England, working at motels, disoriented and confused.


    After two years of trying to make it through each day, I went home to my parents. A psychiatrist diagnosed me as mild bipolar when I was twenty. (I had become an expert at “hiding” symptoms, although I was not really doing so purposefully.) The medication that he described just left me with a dry mouth and blurred vision. I realized that I was just going to try to adjust to this new “existence” which was devastating – but what choice did I have? At age twenty, I was suicidal but just kept praying for some relief.


    CB: What advice can you give to people with SZ or SZA or another MI who are contemplating going to school?  A recent NAMI study claims 2/3s of students with mental health conditions drop out of school.  What enabled you to thrive?


    CD: I don’t know that I have any advice, but I can just tell you what I did. After flunking out my first semester in New England and being home in Knoxville, TN, school was for me the only thing that I thought would keep me going. It was my belief that if I sat down, I wouldn’t get up. So I tried college at University of Tennessee. It was so overwhelming that I often sat in the Ladies Room all day at times. Registration was a nightmare, and I always had to ask multiple times for directions to the class rooms.


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    Somehow I made it through a semester with As, but I didn’t register for the next semester, because it was just too much. However, by the time the semester after that rolled around, I took more classes and “got over it”. I completed two years in Knoxville.


    At that point, I saw the medications weren’t going to help, but I had adjusted to “me” and wanted to finish college out west (so I could ski, no matter how slowly). I moved to Salt Lake City (U of Utah) and did pretty well my first year there. The next year, I wanted to live in an apartment but was unable to make this happen, just very confusing. And so I lived out of my car that year. By then, I thought I had schizophrenia, and the symptoms were pronounced. I knew I was dealing with a monster, but all I cared about was getting a college degree.


    I went back to Tennessee to be at my sister’s graduation, and my dad, upon seeing me, went white. He took me back to the psychiatrist. My “poor schizophrenic mind” was hanging on for dear life, no mistaking what was going on. Six years. This is when he put me on an anti-psychotic medication. However, by then, I didn’t want help, as I saw myself sitting in a rocking chair and staring out a grime-smudged window of a state hospital for my life. (That was not so unrealistic.) Nevertheless, I complied, and to my confusion, they let me leave the hospital after two weeks. I was scared to death and sat in my room trying to figure out what I was “allowed” to do. For example, “Mom, can I get the mail? Can I walk the dog?”


    I thought that I had finished college but was one class short. I took a correspondence course and graduated, facing my new life on a medication that was going to help me.


    As for dropping out and difficulties, I can only say that it was very hard, not being medicated, and as for impasses, there is usually a way around them. I just tried to keep going and doing the best I could do. However, college isn’t for everyone; there are tech schools and ways to get an education online. Goals must be realistic. I have a friend right now who says he is on the “eight year plan” in his college undertaking. I also know someone whose illness was not treatable, and he was only allowed to get through college once a better drug for him came out.


    To be continued

Published On: March 11, 2013