Carrie McDonald, now 44 and living in Junction City, Kan., has had a traumatic life. Born and raised a Latter-day Saint in Utah, McDonald lost her mother at age 10. But her faith's famously strong family values faltered as her alcoholic father and aloof grandparents didn't step up to take care of her and her older sister. The sisters drifted from family to family — unwanted, unloved and, occasionally, abused.
McDonald's bipolar illness, already exacerbated by loss and depression, was soon made acute by teenage alcoholism and drug use.
She managed to graduate from a Utah high school in 1983 but then declared herself done with education. "I'd just had enough," she said. "Of school and all its rules. I never planned on going to school again."
But an online university known for its aggressive marketing tactics kept bugging her, and something dormant was sparked: maybe she did want to go back to school. But with them?
McDonald was at that time interested in criminal justice, and talked to someone she knew attending Columbia College's Moberly campus who highly recommended the college. She went in to the campus, met with Dr. Bruce Jackson, director, and others, and left impressed. Maybe college was right for her.
She began attending the online campus in early 2007. She had a meaningful, stable job as a counselor with a youth center. Life was better.
But she was haunted by a terrible secret:
"I had been through several relationships and marriages, and lost my son," said McDonald. "He was born without a left lung; and his heart was on the right side. He only lived to be 14 hours old. I never got to see him or hold him. I've had many, many bad things happen to me, but this was almost unendurable."
One day she was struggling with a writing assignment while sitting in the cemetery in which her son was buried. This was a place of peace and reflection for her; something about the wall of white headstones deeply moved her. She began to write. When she later took the scribbled pages from behind the car's windshield visor, she liked what she saw. She wrote some more. Then more.
"This started out as a simple English writing assignment, and became so much more. At night, writing, I often felt like giving up. I was so tired! And, because of my bipolar illness, everything just seemed that much worse. I hit a black wall. But one of my favorite professors, Mr. Oglesby (online history instructor James Oglesby), said to me, 'You only fail when you don’t try. You have already overcome so much. Don't give up!' "
She didn't, even when the thinly fictionalized look at her terrible life became almost unbearably painful. She tried to let it flow and resisted the urge to edit herself.
"I went back over my life and chose, when editing, to leave it all, the mistakes too, in the book. Bipolar illness has been overglamorized. But when a person becomes manic or depressed, they often don’t make sense. It's like a VCR running on fast-forward and rewind at same time. I wanted people to see that, hear that, feel that in the book."
Her then-online English teacher, Joyce Keitel, concurs. "Carrie is a warm, caring person with good values. During the time I taught her, she had no money and was suffering health problems. I tried to be as supportive as I could. In terms of facility with the conventions of grammar, spelling, punctuation and so forth, she wasn't a standout, but she had energy and creativity. Writing the book was for her a work of therapy as she grieved and mourning for her son."
McDonald says that her faith, and particularly a hymn from her childhood, sustained her during this cathartic, but traumatic, period:
"Lead me, guide me, walk beside me,
Help me find the way.
Teach me all that I must do
To live with him someday."
"Behind the White Stone Wall" was picked up by PublishAmerica and is now available on the company's Web site, barnesandnoble.com and on amazon.com. The book is dedicated to her lost son and to Keitel.
Angels amongst us
"She has been much more than an English teacher, she has been my angel in disguise," McDonald said of Keitel.
McDonald eased her pain somewhat by adopting her daughter's five-week-old son, who is now five years old. ("The most awesome thing to ever happen to me!" she says of the adoption.) She also has changed her major to her current occupational field of human services, and says online courses work well for her. "I didn’t know what to expect when I started taking online classes in 2007, but really it's been very good. The participation is amazing! And the professors help you, talk to you on the phone when you need it. They are just great!"
McDonald is now working on not one, but two, more novels, one the reminiscences of an old man sitting on a farmhouse porch watching the sunset; the other about two friends who lose touch with each other for 25 years but unexpectedly reconnect. The two friends, unbeknownst to each other, have bipolar illness and eerily similar lives. Its haunting working title is "The Hand on the Other Side of the Mirror."
McDonald said although at times it is painful, writing has helped her. " 'Writing Behind the White Stone Wall' has helped me accept myself more. When you grow up being told that you’re a bad girl, a failure, that you'll never amount to a hill of beans, you get so discouraged you don't even want to try. But I have learned that it’s okay to make a mistake, it's okay that even if you do have a mental illness or an addiction, don’t be afraid to try something important. It doesn't matter what you went through. You can move forward."