Down But Not Out

Alumni10 min. read

After being derailed by mental illness at Colby, the author ponders recovery, the liberal arts, and life’s richness

Miller Library
By Richard D. Whitecar ’75
January 9, 2020

I grew up in a blue-collar town north of Camden, N.J., which loved its beans and pork. When I arrived at Colby in the fall of 1971, I was overwhelmed by the talent I saw from around the world. I struggled to keep my head above water freshman year. Sophomore year I found good friends, stepped up the pace, and began to excel. By junior year I was earning as many A’s as B’s and held numerous leadership positions on campus. I served as the business manager of both the Oracle and Echo as well as the treasurer of the newly formed student association.

The faculty recognized my hard work and awarded me the George F. Baker Fellowship, which provided full tuition at any M.B.A. program I wanted to attend. Senior year I worked just as hard—but something was happening that I didn’t understand. Suddenly I found it necessary to drop many courses. My professors and friends didn’t understand my bizarre behavior in or outside the classroom.

I had become bipolar.

Mine is a true story of mental illness, the dignity of all work, and the value of the liberal arts in preparation for all of life’s journeys.

The 13 years after graduation were a train wreck. My first employer, an insurance company in Portland, Maine, found it necessary to place me in the psychiatric ward of Maine Medical Center. I secured a janitor’s job in my old high school, where the kids shot spitballs at me while I cleaned up after lunch. The fellowship was still good, so I quit the maintenance job on a Friday and I started at Columbia University on Monday.

Unfortunately, the M.B.A. program quickly spun out of control. I took a medical leave of absence before they, too, could put me in the hospital. I tried selling pharmaceuticals, then intraocular lenses to ophthalmologists, and finally chest crackers to thoracic surgeons. Manic energy and depression always got in my way. I was fired three times. The fellowship was gone, but somehow the University of Pennsylvania’s urban planning school accepted me on the basis of my Colby grades. Penn lasted eight or nine weeks. I tried, but the demon inside my head was running my mind.

After a heart-wrenching heart-to-heart in 1988, my wife, Cathy, and I decided I should apply for Social Security disability. The deal with disability then was that you could only earn $300 a month. You can’t even work at McDonald’s for eight hours a week without going over the $300 monthly limit, and McDonald’s won’t hire you unless you can work 10 hours a week. I couldn’t have a W-2, the government wage form, but my psychological need to work was overwhelming. What did I do? I turned to the dark side and under-the-table pay. I resented the kinds of jobs that were open to me, but the things I learned and saw in our nation’s underground economy were amazing.

At various times, I delivered flowers, dry cleaning, and newspapers. I cleaned offices by night and gutters by day. I was a fitness instructor at one gym and mixed protein shakes at another. Gradually, I came to learn that all work is honorable. My recovery was beginning.

I was a clerk in a hardware store and rang the register at a pizza place. I was a woodworker and a home health aide. I worked as hired help at weddings and drove cars for a wholesale auctioneer. There was a stint as a professional fundraiser for a shady AIDS organization, another selling Christmas trees for a drug dealer. I met many good people at these jobs as well as the worst of our society. I picked apples and drove tractors. I even fed pigs. That was too much for this Eagle Scout, high school class president, most-likely-to-succeed recipient, and two-time Ivy leaguer. I quit. I was so ashamed my life had come to this, I didn’t even pick up my last under-the-table pay.

That door closed. But another opened.

I took a job selling used cars from an unheated gas station in the dead of winter. I sat in my parka by the kerosene heater, reading the Wall Street Journal, and realized there was another way. Schedule D, the tax form for dividends and capital gains—legal income for bipolar souls like me. I’ve since come to love the stock market. I particularly like to invest in the great megatrends of our age, such as Amazon, FedEx, UPS, and all of the box makers.

It occurred to me that we all live in boxes, shaped by race, gender, family, the Philadelphia Eagles. My box had been crushed by mental illness. Little did I know that hard work—and curiosity honed by the liberal arts—was keeping me sane.

I now have a new container in which to travel, a balloon, and I’m floating freer every day. Social Security has relaxed its income requirements in recent years so I can earn a little bit more. From 2009 to 2014, I worked for the Philadelphia Eagles ($120 for a 10-hour day), greeting TV announcers and press. There were perks with this job. I once found a coat hanger for Troy Aikman’s jacket.

I’m 67 now, and love my current retirement job buckling up little kids on the little yellow school bus. We tell each other knock-knock jokes, sing “It’s a Small World,” and do addition on our fingers. I know I’m appreciated by parents and students alike.

Today Cathy and I have a strong marriage of 39 years, a successful son who is a good person, a house we love, a condo at the shore, money in the bank, and good friends. More importantly though, I have become proud of who I am. I realize I have a great deal to offer society. I have become a champion for the mentally ill and talk freely about my experiences at national and regional events.

Just as I’m doing here.

Great progress has been made in the field of mental health since my time at Colby. The College has developed a comprehensive counseling program that did not exist when I lived on second-floor Johnson Hall. Stigma has been reduced over the last 40 years by bringing mental illness out of the darkness. Friends are supportive rather than fearful and disdainful. Research has brought tremendously improved medications, and the cost of psychiatric treatment has been brought into parity with other medical conditions in the eyes of insurance companies. All college students and young graduates have reason to be extremely hopeful. Help is there for you if you feel ill. You just need to take advantage of it.

And perhaps thinking of my experience will be helpful as well.

I often think of Colby President Robert E. Lee Strider’s welcoming address to first-years in the fall of 1971. He urged us to practice “the fine art of serendipity,” suggesting that when you find the book you’re searching for in the stacks, choose the one next to it instead. You never know what you might learn.

Life kept giving me the next book, and hard work and a Colby liberal arts education have made all the difference. I am grateful for the time I spent on Mayflower Hill. I am also confident your liberal arts degree will be invaluable wherever life’s journey takes you.

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