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Brett Tomlinson: For this episode of PAW Tracks, we spoke with April McQueen ’93, a librarian in Atlanta, Ga., about what happens when life doesn’t go according to plan. It is a story about mental illness, recovery, and perseverance.
McQueen arrived at Princeton as a 16-year-old freshman in 1988. She credits her mother with encouraging her to make higher education a priority, and supporting her along the way.
April McQueen: She was really an anchor for me — best friend, cheerleader, all of that. And she is one of the reasons that I think I wound up at Princeton, because she always developed my language skills and my creativity, and my passion for learning, and my sense of humor too.
BT: In the summer after McQueen’s junior year, her mother died unexpectedly, and the absence of that anchor had an immediate effect.
AM: She died in August. And when I came back to school, it was very — it was just so different. The experience that led me to decide to take a year off is, I was living in an apartment with friends, and one of the friends was celebrating her 21st birthday, and her mother was planning a surprise party for her, with all of her friends and everything. And I thought, “That’s the kind of thing my mom would’ve done,” and it just knocked me for a loop. And I just — I felt like I wouldn’t be able to go on that year. I needed to take a year away.
BT: McQueen, a romance languages major, returned to finish her degree and in 1993 she began her first job after college.
AM: When I was working I went back to Cincinnati, where my father was living, and I worked at the Chesley law firm, on the breast implant litigation at the time, and they encouraged me to go to law school. And I felt, “Well, I need a secure career,” so I went to law school with the intent to practice law. But I never ended up practicing law, because while I was studying the Ohio Bar Examination, I was hospitalized for two weeks and diagnosed with a severe and persistent mental illness.
While I was studying for the bar examination, I had symptoms of paranoia from graduation all the way through until about the two weeks that I was hospitalized, which was two weeks before the actual exam. When I was hospitalized, I was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder II with paranoid features, the one that tends toward depression, instead of schizophrenia.
At the time when it happened I was 25, it was just so devastating. It took at least a couple of years just to get from the point of being disheartened to having a comeback strategy. I had to change my expectations once I was diagnosed. I was heartbroken not to be sitting for the bar exam in Ohio and I basically — while I was in recovery, I was thinking, “I’ve got to be able to do something that uses my talents and my skill sets, even though I don’t think I’m going to be able to practice law” — because of the way that stress affects the diagnosis that I have.
So I basically had to just try job after job after job to see if that would work for me in terms of being something that I could actually do, being something that I could maintain, being something that I would enjoy, and not defining myself in terms of the things that I had for so many years, which was getting into Princeton, graduating from Princeton, getting into law school, graduating from law school.
I’ve worked as a janitor, a food-service worker, child caregiver, adult English as a Second Language instructor at a community college, social service worker, court-referred dispute mediator, then administrative law judge for a state administrative agency, and then a library paraprofessional, which is my current profession.
While I was at Princeton, I worked at the Firestone Library for all of the years that I was there, and I knew from Princeton that library work — I could handle that, and I would enjoy it. And when I was redefining my idea of personal success, I chose that.
My support structure has been a combination of professional support — people who are paid to help you — job coaches, counselors, doctors, nurses, that kind of thing. But most of all it’s been my family, because they’ve seen me through my best and worst, and especially my father. I think because he is a social worker — at least he was, before he retired — because he was a social worker he was more predisposed to be able to learn about the illness with me, and I think that’s what it really takes. It takes having people in your life. Those paid people are great — but having a family’s support that will be by you, because the relationships that one has, it can be very isolating and hard to maintain friendships, with all that goes on with a mental health diagnosis.
Even though I’ve had a lot of different professional and educational and social experiences, and a lot of time in mental health recovery, I believe that it’s made me who I am today. I use my talents and skillsets in many more diverse ways than if things had all gone as planned. And I don’t believe that everyone can look back and say that. So for me, right now, I’m living my truth. It feels like, if I had to go through all of that to get to where I am now, I would say, it’s weird, but it’s been worth it.
BT: McQueen says that she would like to see Princeton and its Ivy League peers offer students a course in how to deal with setbacks in mental health, drawing on the experiences of students and alumni who have dealt with similar situations.
Our thanks to April McQueen for sharing her story. Brett Tomlinson produced this episode. The music is licensed from FirstCom Music.