Thursday, September 14, 2006

Disclosure revisited

Every once in a while, our program invites outside experts to lecture to us in their area of expertise. Today's speaker was Dr. Bob Leahy, a leading cognitive-behavioral therapist and director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, who specializes in anxiety disorders .

After lecturing about the cognitive processes involved in worrying -- very interesting if you're a grad student; since I'm not sure how interested anyone else would be, I'll let the curious check out Leahy's institute -- he wanted to deconstruct a current problem that a student was worrying about, and asked for a volunteer.

Dead silence.

I had already asked a couple of questions, so I didn't think I should say anything more. But I knew that my current knee difficulty was rather tailor-made for his brand of intervention. I didn't think he'd tell me anything I didn't already know -- after all, I have more than four years of cognitive therapy under my belt -- but I thought his approach to my problem could prove useful for the other students.

So I raised my hand and gave him the upshot: after joining a gym and working out with a trainer, I sustained a knee injury and don't yet know how serious it is, but that my doctor believed I should consult an orthopedic surgeon, who would probably recommend surgery. Extremely painful, potentially not covered by my crummy insurance, yada yada yada.

He spoke very nice about validating the problem -- acknowledging that I might be facing a tremendous expense and a world of pain. He also talked about the importance of keeping my life in perspective, in that I still have many things to live for. He brought up the example of Jean-Jacques Bowlby, a journalist who became almost completely paralyzed, but who was able to blink and wrote a book -- letter by letter, communicating in blinks with his assistant -- called The Bell Jar and the Butterfly. Bowlby was still able to find richness of experience and meaning in his greatly circumscribed life -- the softness of the sheets on which he lies, memories of the people who visit and talk to him, sunshine and a fresh breeze streaming through an open window.

After he spoke to me, very tenderly and compassionately, the assembly applauded. Several of my fellow students thanked me for disclosing (and subsequently, many of them have gone out of their way to be nice to me). I was sobbing, which I hate -- I really don't like crying in front of people, it makes me feel helpless. Dr. Leahy came over and gave me a big hug, which, as I write this now, again brings tears to my eyes.

But what I really want from him -- more than a five-minute therapeutic boost -- is an externship at the Cognitive Therapy Institute, and I asked him about that. He said to send him a letter, which I've done. The professor at my school who's in charge of externships told me that usually students don't apply until late December -- but that's probably when I'd be having the surgery. I'm going to see if I can apply early and get this taken care of -- one less thing to worry about.

And what I'd really like to disclose is my bipolar disorder. But I'm afraid of how my professors would react. I can't help but think that they'd view me as less stable and reliable, a poor prospect for becoming a clinician. Maybe I'm exaggerating this concern; maybe they wouldn't think any less of me. But I can't take that risk; my professional future is in their hands. As a result, it's frustrating to have a disability and not be able to ask for special assistance or accommodation.
Copyright (c) 2006 "Ayelet Survivor"

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