Clayton talks, writes about experiences

CLINTON, Miss. (AP) — She is different.

Elizabeth Clayton can admit that now after years of dreading the judgment that came with it.

"I hear every drop of rain that falls. I see every subtle change in sunlight," she said. "I cannot lie to myself so I hold myself to a standard that is impossible to meet, and that sets up a struggle within me. And everything is intense. There is no middle ground, no mediocre. Everything is either intensely good or intensely evil."

Clayton, a 70-year-old adjunct professor at Mississippi College in Clinton, suffers from bipolar disorder, sometimes called manic-depressive disorder. Her mood swings range from sky high to ocean deep. They are maintained to a degree by medication. But there is no cure.

"And it makes for an extremely lonely existence," Clayton said.

A widow who never had children, she has been estranged from her family for nine years.

"A couple of them will call me at Christmas," she said, "and one of my brothers brings me vegetables during the summer. But that's about it."

But through all of Clayton's struggles, she has been a productive — teaching psychology at Hinds Community College for 29 years and serving as chairwoman of the department for two decades. And she hopes to continue instructing at Mississippi College for at least another five years.

"Elizabeth is a very courageous person," said John Norton, associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson and Clayton's personal therapist. "Her bipolar illness is pretty significant. But she never blames other people. She's kind, compassionate, has a passion for teaching and her students.

"And in her job, she has to be at her best every day. There is no hiding in the front of a classroom. And just remember this: Only 40 percent of the people who are diagnosed as bipolar work to their educational level. But even when she was in her darkest times, she never missed a session, always wanted to fight through it.

"It's rare when a doctor can say this," Norton said, "but she has taught me more about bipolar illness than I have helped her. She's an amazing person.

"And the thing is, it's not like she has cancer and has gone through treatments and lost her hair ... those people are looked at as heroes, and rightfully so. But what Elizabeth has come through is just as amazing. But because people can't see it, they can't appreciate it the way I can."

Her students find Clayton cool and unique in a good way.

Jamison Dodd, a 19-year-old sophomore from Picayune, took Clayton's English Composition I and World Masterpieces classes as a freshman. He is in her American Literature class this semester.

"She is a very deep thinker," Dodd said. "She wants to make sure we get something out of every class. Not just the key points in the book, but life lessons. I think her students really enjoy that about her.

"She talks to us all the time about having an appreciation for life ... to take time to notice the small things — to the smell and beauty of a flower, the small things that so many of us walk past every day and never give a second thought. She definitely makes the class fun but she also makes you earn your grade."

Dodd, by the way, is a 6-foot, 260-pound defensive tackle on the Choctaws' football team who doesn't mind admitting Clayton has helped him get in touch with his sensitive side.

Is he aware Clayton is bipolar?

"She's mentioned it briefly," he said, "but you would never know it by watching her teach."

When she interviewed for the job at Mississippi College, Clayton did not hide her condition.

"She told me flat out she was bipolar. And I have to admit, I was a bit taken aback that she was so casual talking about it," said David Miller, associate professor in MC's English department and chairman of the honors council. "But it was obvious that she had taken things that people might view as weaknesses and turned them into strengths.

"We hired her because of her experience and the fact that she genuinely wanted to get back into the classroom. I thought it would be a good thing for her and her students. And it's worked out that way."

After graduating from Copiah-Lincoln Agricultural High School in Wesson in 1958, it took Clayton only three years to earn degrees in psychology and English from Mississippi College.

"I loved learning, but all through high school I was miserable," she said. "I was smart and I was pretty, and those things combined are the kiss of death. The other girls were not very nice to me."

She married while in college, but it lasted only six years. The breakup led to a nervous breakdown in 1965. She was hospitalized for six weeks at St. Dominic in Jackson and diagnosed as bipolar.

She was hired at Hinds in 1969 and married again.

"I was propped up on 'uppers' in the daytime, 'downers' at night and a whole lot of prayer and determination," she said. "But the classroom was my salvation. In there, I soared."

In the mid-1970s, Lithium — one of the first medications to treat bipolar disorder — was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It helped stabilize her mood swings, but they were ever present.

Her marriage was crumbling.

She frequently contemplated suicide.

She found it difficult to relate to friends.

"I couldn't talk about my condition because it makes people uncomfortable. And if you can't talk about it, then there is no way people can understand you.

"I got all kinds of advice. I needed to get a hobby. I needed to get out more, be around people. One thing I discovered: Once you confide to someone that you have an emotional disturbance, they feel like they have the right to tell you how to manage your life."

Her husband died in 1992 due to complications from diabetes.

Eventually, she found writing at the suggestion of Norton, and she began to paint and sculpt. Her home is filled with her work.

She typically rises around 4 a.m. and writes and paints, and prepares for her classes. She doesn't watch television, but her home is usually filled with music. She now takes Abilify to maintain a healthy mood balance.

"I'm social when I want to be," she said, "and when I don't, I come home, close my door and don't answer my door if someone drops by. I know eventually the bad mood will pass, and I will come up again."

Her one regret?

"That I have never been able to find a companion who would accept me as I am," she said. "And I had so much to give. So much."

But she follows that with this: "I'm happier than I've ever been in my life. I'm as free as I can be. Free of the guilt from my early youth of never being good enough in other's eyes. I love teaching, and I do it because I want to, not because I have to have the money.

"I wrote in my journal recently 'It was a good, memorable day, and I was seeing, even in shadows, a great deal of contentment.' I'm doing all that I can do. And the distance I have come, I would come again."

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