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The Fifth Course: Imagine the Worst Thing in the World for a College Student

Fletcher Wortmann ’09, Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, NYC, 2012.WortmannINSIDE_1.jpg

To carry the burden of a chronic illness or learning disability during the college years is what I call The Fifth Course. The Fifth Course is more than a burden: It is both an imposed and possible learning opportunity. Fletcher Wortmann’s irreverent, funny, and sad chronicle of his time at Swarthmore College, before, during, and after his hospitalization for mental illness offers keen insight into The Fifth Course.

In this book we learn about the parallel worlds in which many of our students live—worlds in which the right T-shirt, self-mutilating girlfriend, prescribed medications, alcohol, misery poker, comedy troupe Boy Meets Tractor, Pokémon, and fear about acquiring AIDS make for a deeply unsettling combination alongside the usual rigorous four-course load at Swarthmore.

It is unsettling to imagine what it is to be Wortmann, who asks the reader to “imagine the worst thing in the world.” While most of us can escape these negative thoughts, Wortmann collapsed, entrapped by his thoughts, and could not turn away.

After an earlier diagnosis and medication for depression, Wortmann spiraled into an anxiety disorder called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) but remained undiagnosed. In spite of his illness, he graduated from high school and chose Swarthmore because of its “reputation for academic badassery.” His disorder manifested itself in intrusive, unwanted thoughts about the worst things that could possibly happen, rather than the frequent hand washing that is commonly associated with OCD behavior.

Wortmann endured insidious suicidal thoughts. Hyperaware of the mildest slights, he overreacted. Every day he imagined the worst, most inappropriate acts, and those thoughts stayed with him.

While obsessing over the worst things in the world, going to classes, studying, and breaking up with the girlfriend he wished to save, he also tried to be well. He saw a therapist, discovered meditation, and addressed acid reflux. Eventually, he was able to self-diagnose through the Internet. He worked hard to be well. But it was not enough.

When Wortmann’s mother discovered him during a college break in the midst of what he calls a “lame suicide attempt,” he was whisked to McLean Hospital. With the steadfast support of his family, the hospital staff, and doctors, he learned how to qualify for the McLean OCD Institute (OCDI).

In Triggered, Wortmann brings his sardonic humor to bear on the unbearable panopticon of the mental hospital. At OCDI he learned about Exposure Response Therapy—deliberately exposing oneself to a situation that triggers, in Wortmann’s case, the worst thoughts. He then learned to endure those thoughts. This required unlearning years of maladaptive behaviors as well as daily practice of new tolerable behaviors.

For four hours a day he practiced a new kind of seminar on saving one’s life. When Wortmann figured out, with the help of a therapist, that he was now obsessing about obsessing instead of about sex and violence, he had to learn about the chronic aspects of a chronic mental illness. When Wortmann accepted that he would never be fully healthy, his healing became more possible.

I urge every college professor and dean to read Fletcher Wortmann’s compelling memoir, because learning how to unlearn and relearn is a serious metacognitive feat required of students with chronic illnesses. In Wortmann’s case, in spite of the burden of this mental illness, he learned humility and new habits of mind, how to be socially engaged enough at McLean to qualify for the OCDI, and how to live with his illness and its manifestations.

He eventually learned how to be a student with OCD at Swarthmore by taking a lighter academic load and making time for stress reduction and maintaining the perspectives that the OCDI provided. To live in wellness and to thrive academically, students like Wortmann who carry The Fifth Course must learn how to balance their course loads, and learn, as Wortmann did, how to do Swarthmore.

—Diane Anderson, associate dean for academic affairs and associate professor,
Department of Educational Studies

Editor’s Note: Diane Anderson did not know Fletcher Wortmann when he attended Swarthmore.


Ed Ayres ’63, The Longest Race: A Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case forBOOKAyres.jpg Human Endurance, The Experiment, 2012. Ayres takes readers on a journey though a physically and mentally strenuous 50-mile race, while tying his story to the need for a sustainable society. (To read an essay by Ayres, click here.)

Christopher Castellani ’94, All This Talk of Love, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013. Castellani creates a story of conflicts between loss and love, myth and memory, and sacrifice and hope in his third novel, which brings readers on the journey of an Italian-American family’s attempt to reconnect with their native roots in the Old Country.

F. Harlan Flint ’52, Hispano Homesteaders: The Last New Mexico Pioneers, 1850–1910, Sunstone Press, 2012. Flint shares the never-before-told story of New Mexico’s last pioneers, who still dwelt in the Hispano homeland when New Mexico became an American state, despite accounts that Hispano homestead expansion had ceased.

Laura Morgan Green ’85, Literary Identification: From Charlotte Brontë to Tsitsi Dangarembga, Ohio State University Press, 2012. This book seeks to account for the popularity of the novel of formation, from 19th-century through contemporary Anglophone literature.

Michael Henle ’65, Which Numbers are Real, Mathematical Association of America, 2012. Henle explores several number systems that exist outside of the real number system while being similar in property to these real numbers. Each system discussed has applications, and some are the topic of mathematical research.

BOOKFurchtgott_Roth.jpgDiana Furchtgott-Roth ’79, Regulating to Disaster: How Green Jobs Policies Are Damaging America’s Economy, Encounter Books, 2012. Furchtgott-Roth provides an account of how green jobs threaten the American economy, including outsourcing jobs overseas and creating impractical investment ventures.

Ray Jackendoff ’65, A User’s Guide to Thought and Meaning, Oxford University Press, 2012. Jackendoff details language’s role in thought and rationality, among other topics. His theories about this relationship have been praised by psychological and linguistic experts and are explained simply enough for the casual reader to understand.

Pablo Mitchell ’92, West of Sex: Making Mexican America, 1900–1930, University of Chicago Press, 2012. Mitchell’s book draws from court transcripts and criminal cases to examine Mexican-American sexuality at the turn of the 20th century. The relationship between sex, ethnicity, and power is explored in this account of inequity and injustice.

Arlie Russell Hochschild ’62, The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times, Metropolitan Books/HenryBOOKHochschild.jpg Holt & Co., 2012. Drawing on many interviews and original research, Hochschild describes how the business world has invaded our personal lives.

Rachel Neumann ’92, Not Quite Nirvana: A Skeptic’s Journey to Mindfulness, Parallax Press, 2012. Neumann’s personal and often humorous story traces a skeptical, fast-paced New York writer’s work for a world-famous Zen teacher and what she learns about mindfulness.

Darius Ornston ’00, When Small States Make Big Leaps, Cornell University Press, 2012. Ornston examines the ways in which the historically low-tech Denmark, Finland, and Ireland have reinvented themselves as leaders in technological innovation.

Morrison_Cover.jpgJoan Wehlen Morrison, Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing up in Wartime AmericaChicago Review Press, 2013. Susan Signe Morrison ’81 edits her mother’s diary entries, written when she was a teenager during World War II. Home Front Girl is featured here with photos in The Christian Science Monitor. To read an essay that Susan Morrison ’81, the College’s Alumni Council president, wrote linking the book to memories of Swarthmore student days, click here.

Susan Jo Russell ’68, Deborah Schifter, and Virginia Basable, Connecting Arithmetic to Algebra, Heinemann, 2011. This guide for teachers, primarily at the elementary level, lays out strategies that build the arithmetic foundation of general mathematic rules and properties for students to effectively work up to more difficult concepts, including algebra.

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