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National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Making it to Harvard

by Caitlin C.
 
I will never forget where I was on March 31, 2009, at 5:02 pm. I was sitting on my couch trying to log on to the admissions decisions pages of the colleges to which I applied, when an e-mail notification popped up on the bottom right of my screen: “We are delighted…” I started bawling.
 
I never expected to make it to Harvard. I’ve had OCD since the first grade. In elementary school, I was the “problem child” who would run out of class screaming every two hours (I now realize that I was having about three to five panic attacks per day. As a six-year-old.). In middle school, the panic attacks continued, and I got to know the school nurses by first name. Oddly enough, no one ever referred me to a mental health provider, so I blamed myself for my apparent “weakness.”

In high school, the obsessions got worse. I had straight A+’s my freshman year, but I wasn’t sleeping more than four hours per night or eating over several hundred calories per day. My work consumed me. Sophomore year, after staying up for 72 hours, I begged my mom to take me to a psychiatrist. We literally knocked on all of the doors of a local medical complex at 10:30 pm until we could secure an appointment. Thus began my treatment, nine years after the onset of illness.

I immediately started getting better with antidepressants. I still had symptoms, but I was able to control them. My junior and seniors ran a bit less-than-smoothly, and I missed about 120 days total in my high school tenure. Towards the middle of my senior year, I started preparing the forms to drop out of high school and get my GED.

As one can imagine, taking the PSATs, ACTs, SAT IIs, and APs, along with filling out applications for college, fell a bit to the wayside. I was actually supposed to take the SATs but, after missing the test multiple times due to illness, decided to take the ACTs instead (which I most certainly do not regret…but don’t get me started on a tirade against the SATs!). My options for teacher recommendations were extremely limited due to the fact that I had been absent or sick for the majority of my high school career. My transcript got sent late. It took a great effort to gather enough strength to hold a coherent interview.

Like I said, I was not quite what I thought of as “Harvard material.” Most of my teachers would agree. But I was completely honest and open on my applications and in my interviews; I knew that I wasn’t always saying what the school wanted to hear (“So I missed an incredible amount of school my junior year…”), but I showed them who I was and how determined I was to change the path of my life. I didn’t like the way my life had gone thus far, and I wanted to make sure the rest of my life was on MY terms—not OCD’s.

I would use the cliché of “getting into college was the easy part…” but it’s not really true. Getting into college was HARD. College, on the other hand, is incredibly exciting! Getting away from my hometown was actually therapeutic—I had spent all of my sick years there. I love being able to choose my classes (I’m taking three Psych classes this semester. Coincidence? I think not!). I have also experienced something I had never had before: friendship.

This is not to say that my OCD hasn’t gotten in the way sometimes. I’ve messed up my medications a few times, with somewhat negative results. At parties, I can’t partake in certain recreational activities due to my medications. And it’s always awkward trying to figure out how much to reveal to a person. (And then there’s the even more awkward antidepressants-and-relationships-don’t-mix situation!)

But I’m trying to spin my illness in a positive light here on campus. I’ve joined the Student Mental Health Liaisons and am involved in a mental health advocacy group as well. I’m studying abnormal psychology and researching in a schizophrenia lab. If I ever have a problem, I can go see my psychiatrist over at University Health Services, make an appointment with a therapist, or go to one of the peer counseling groups.

And don’t dismiss this as a “Harvard” thing! I looked at many colleges in my search, and every one of them had similar support systems. If you find a school that fits your personality (and, yes, each college has a unique personality) and has a support system that is comfortable for you, college shouldn’t be a problem at all. For me, it was a VAST improvement!

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