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Navigating a Ph.D. program with a Bipolar Compass

Updated: May 3, 2023

The first semester of my Ph.D. program commenced with a weekend gathering of incoming Ph.D. students. The nature of the program itself is theological. We met with each of our professors, became oriented with the university, and began to discuss potential dissertation ideas amongst the group. During the Saturday evening meeting, a dialogical approach was employed by our program director as we shared our educational backgrounds, various life experiences (as we saw fit), and dissertation interests in round-robin conversation. Coming into the meeting that evening I was just trying to make a good impression during an extended amount of time around the group. I had been diagnosed with bipolar I disorder in 2000. I had not fully accepted my diagnosis until 2008. When I did accept my diagnosis in 2008 an opportunity for an educational track opened and I trekked a bachelor’s degree program and a master’s degree program to the Saturday evening in 2018 in the Ph.D. program introductory weekend. As others shared unique stories of their lived experiences for me there was a majority of lived experience “not on the table” to share that evening – anything about my bipolar diagnosis or my bipolar lived experience.




I had chosen not to self-disclose my bipolar I disorder diagnosis on a broad scale from the time I accepted it in 2008 through 2018. Yet, an intellectual and personal “safe space” was made available by way of conversations via the expression of life story and vision in the Ph.D. program throughout the opening weekend. For some reason, I am still coming to grips within a positive sense. I wanted to open some of the experiences including the bipolar experiences that are a part of my human experience or the way I navigate life. I made a phone call early that next week to my mother to discuss the pros and cons of self-disclosure with the program director and the rest of my peers. My mother supported me either way in the decision to self-disclose or not to self-disclose. I decided to self-disclose. For me, this wasn’t only an intellectual journey it was a spiritual one as well.


As I revealed to my program director my bipolar diagnosis in that first week I was met with openness, gentleness, and positivity. This was the result I was hoping for. Surprisingly my program director mentioned I might contemplate a dissertation enveloping bipolar experience. I was not only accepted, I was also affirmed that bipolar experience is ripe dissertation terrain for academic research. It was that week I also shared with the class my diagnosis so they could understand my scholarly worldview better as well as the unique perspectives and experiences I “bring to the table” within the field of practical theology a field itself delving into all kinds of lived experience.



This is a story of navigation. In a highly dialogical Ph.D. program, as a person with a bipolar I disorder diagnosis, my contributions in round-robin conversations could sometimes be with rapid and pressured speech. Sometimes I interrupted others and didn’t mean to. My program director, professors, and my peers in the program were understanding. They also were open to creative expression. Sometimes, I could be a bit more poetic than others or become passionate about certain topics in the classroom. On the other hand, I would at times take an anti-anxiety medication prescribed to me just before class (according to the label or in other words as needed) so I could slow down my speech and corral my thinking to more efficiently in contributing to the good of the group. I discovered I would have to exercise my willpower to be fully present in the classroom due to the drowsiness caused by the four different medications as a cocktail I have been taking in various dosages since 2008. I also discovered I had more energy at certain times during the day to write papers with more focus and clarity than others. I successfully defended my prospectus in July 2021 and am currently in chapter five of my dissertation writing. It has not been an easy journey, nor do I believe anyone with or without a mental health issue has an easy journey in a Ph.D. program. I take this severe mental health diagnosis seriously, yet I identify as a person with a mental health diagnosis rather than a person as a mental health diagnosis. That is, with medications, counseling, a good support network and some level for resilience bipolarity may in some cases work to my advantage pointing me at times like a compass in the direction of some of my positive dimensions and utilizing storytelling as helping others to cope and even succeed.


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We thank Andrew McCarthy (email:andrewj1971@gmail.com, Twitter: @AndrewJ2023 ) for sharing this story with us. Hope you enjoyed and gained something from it! If you would like to share your story with us, please write to us at email@phdbalance.com.

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