Search for self leads to a book
BAYPORT—A bumpy road sometimes can push you towards a better life.
Bayport native Elliot Gavin Keenan, a Ph.D. student in human development and psychology at UCLA, has written a memoir, “On Being Insane: In Search of My Missing Pieces.” His book was picked up by Dreaming Big Publications, a traditional small press publisher that specializes in mental health books.
The young author, 21, chronicles his first year at SUNY Purchase in Westchester, where he had a mental breakdown.
“In freshman year in college I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and my book is about what happens after that,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s written after I got out of the hospital and I [kept a journal] about it.
“Some days I slept for 23 hours; most times I would take walks at night,” he said. “People made me anxious.”
Some youths have honed perceptive skills early, and Keenan lucked out with one college freshman that noticed his anguish and helped him. They remain friends.
But so did a psychiatrist on campus who urged Keenan to read “An Unquiet Mind” by Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a leading expert on bipolar disorder. Jamison has the disease and wrote about her experiences.
“She has been the biggest inspiration for me, that book, and to go for a Ph.D.,” he said.
Keenan transferred to Stony Brook University in his sophomore year, graduating this year with a bachelor’s degree in psychology with departmental honors and a minor in creative writing.
Matthew Lerner, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, psychiatrics and pediatrics, taught a course in autism at Stony Brook that Keenan took; he hired Keenan as a research assistant in his lab. Keenan worked on an independent project via an undergraduate research grant he was awarded from the Autism Science Foundation.
Lerner commented that Keenan stood out immediately. “It was his passion and excitement for this topic with individuals with ASD (autism spectrum disorder),” Lerner said of the reason he hired him. “He’d been a student in a couple of my classes and would always light up with interest and ideas more advanced for someone his age, and thought deeply about these issues. He’s also astonishingly bright as well.” Lerner gave an example. Keenan forgot about a second exam of the semester and commented he was worried about not being prepared. “He wound up getting close to a perfect score,” Lerner said. “That, plus reliability, are the best features I could possibly hope for.”
The bipolar diagnosis wasn’t Keenan’s first challenge.
At age 7, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, now called autism spectrum disorder. “It really stays your whole life,” he said. “I had difficulty understanding other people and their intentions. For example: if you said, ‘wow that’s a wild shirt,’ kidding, I wouldn’t know if you were serious or not. I had very few friends, and when I was younger, I was bullied.”
Reading was a comfort; he also immersed himself in a world of fantasy using the Internet to play-by-post, an online role-playing game. “It’s interesting what I chose because it’s not only a form of escapism, but also a way of developing social skills and writing skills,” he said.
He is also transgender and has had a double mastectomy, his voice is lower, and he takes some medications. He had come out to his friends and family at age 14.
“I think I knew at an early age, but didn’t have a word to describe it,” he said. “I didn’t know those feelings had words and found out on the Internet what it was at age 11.”
Already dealing with autism, it was a tough decision.
First, there’s the struggle, accepting who you are; then ‘how will my friends react?’ ‘My family and teachers?’; and ‘what happens after it’s out there?’ That was already on top of the insecurities adolescents and teens deal with.
The group he played Dungeons & Dragons with every Friday night, “nerdy but straight,” were kind and had his back when he opened up.
“I had some teachers in the Bayport-Blue Point School District who were amazing and supportive, and some who took credit in making my life difficult,” he recalled.
His parents support him, he said.
Lerner describes Keenan as “unique, in both the scope of his ability and the prodigiousness of his interest.”
“This is pretty compelling that he’s going directly into a psychology Ph.D. program at UCLA, one of the best in the country,” he added. “There are a few students along the way you really know will stick with you, and you want to follow their career. He’s one of them and I know he’ll make a difference.”
“We always knew he was very bright,” said his grandmother, Susan Keenan, who lives in Islip. “He has a brother and cousins and the four of them got along. We took him to church with us and saw a lot of him. He slept over our house and would come over for supper on the weekends.”
Susan Keenan is proud of her grandson’s role as class speaker at Stony Brook’s Lavender Graduation. Elliot has also sat on a panel on transgender mental health at the Northeastern LGBT Conference at Stony Brook and at the Hilibrand Autism Symposium.
Keenan secured his book contract in January on his own. He also paints and produced its cover. “Since it’s about my own life, the publisher felt it was pretty good,” he said. “I did it in oils.” The book will be available through amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.
“I’m getting a research psychology degree,” he said in his new L.A. home. “My research focus is in autism, and I plan to pursue an academic career in autism and expanding knowledge about it.”
Not sure about where he’d like to settle, he’s been a Suffolk County resident most of his life. “I would like to see some other places before I make a decision on where I want to live,” he said.
Keenan made this wise observance. “Sometimes it’s hard to see it, but I totally believe all these situations you go through have some advantages. Or you can turn it into an advantage.”
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