The Mad Scholar

Here you will find the works and ramblings of me, the mad scholar. This is how I have come to identify with my professional life as an academic – an academic in transit, at the moment – carrying the baggage of a history with “mental illness”.

I hate using that term. It is too clinical and sterile to express anything useful about the human experience that it signifies. I prefer to call it like I see it – or, rather, how I feel it: I have a history with madness.

Because of this history, I have been in and out of school throughout my adolescent and adult life. Not because I am a bad student or hate learning, but because school has regularly provoked misery and terror.

This year I earned my first ever degree: a bachelor’s in humanities and philosophy. Having met my madness in middle school and never gone on to complete high school, it was the first time I had graduated since sixth grade. So for me, earning my degree was a monumental achievement. I had gone from a suicidal middle school student to a highly distinguished undergraduate with the grades, publications, and awards to show for it. I felt maybe, finally, this maladjusted malcontent had found a way to be accepted and integrated into the rest of society.

Last spring I accepted an offer to do a PhD in philosophy at McGill University. It was my first choice for graduate school, and I was elated to have the opportunity to study at a prestigious institution, with an impressive faculty who had a wealth of expertise in the subjects I wanted to research. Despite living two hours away from Montreal, and with a young child to care for as well, I made arrangements to commute and had the full support of family, friends, professors, mentors, and most importantly, my son.

It didn’t work out. For a whole lot of reasons, one of them just personal circumstance: my son was starting a new school, and the respective demands of our new routines quickly outgrew our ability to keep up. I ultimately made the decision to abandon my PhD at McGill. My son needed extra support at home that I just couldn’t give while commuting two hours away for school. But there were other reasons having to do with the relationship between madness and academia. That’s a story for another day.

I can’t blame anyone at McGill for my having to leave. If anyone is to blame, it is the behemoth of an institution which is education itself – but that’s no one to blame at all. Academia is not a conscious agent deliberately trying to crush my soul into mortar. At best, it is a network of agents, a network in which I am a tiny and expendable piece, pushing forward this great machine of higher learning. However, if that network were shaped like a man, I would say I have always felt myself to be located squarely under that man’s boot.

So I find myself here, after a lifetime of being shaped and defined by a poorly adapted yet insatiable thirst for knowledge, turning the table and offering to teach what little I have learned along the way. My experiences as a mad scholar are, I think, valuable to others, because I am not alone in struggling with breakdowns triggered and influenced by my education.

Students are disproportionately vulnerable to mental health problems, and although media reporting and student advocacy groups have increased public awareness about the problems facing mental health in academia, the issue extends beyond university. There is a growing consensus that progress must be made when it comes to improving mental health, and in making sure students can get an education without losing their minds. This applies to all levels of education.

My life offers a case study in how the educational institution can fail. It also offers hope for a better way. But this project will not be purely autobiographical – mine is one story I would like to tell, but it isn’t the whole story. Because as a scholar, I’ve learned and continue to learn things that are unrelated to my experience with madness, but which are still interesting and indeed useful to the project of improving the way we educate, and the way we live.

So here you will find personal stories, academic papers, and everything in between: fiction, reviews, satire, and hopefully sooner than later, a podcast and video essay series. I’m also a hobby artist, and will sometimes share poetry, music, and other creations along the way. While I am still a working student, and have to fund this project by other means like most creatives, I sure would love to do this work full time.

So if you believe this is important, if you’d like to support me speaking out on issues like mental health, education reform, addressing existential threats like poverty, climate change, and nuclear arms, or if you just want to learn about the arts and humanities from a creative misfit, please consider supporting this work at my Patreon page, where you can enjoy a bunch of behind-the-scenes content that I will be producing along the way. Even a dollar a month makes a difference.

And so it begins. Welcome to The Mad Scholar, my little home on the internet. Stick around, and join the conversation. Thanks for dropping by.

G. J. “Huxley” O’Farrell
The Mad Scholar