A traumatic brain injury changed this graduate’s life forever

Julia Miller

Julia Miller proudly walked across the stage to receive her Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in Humanities & Culture at the Union Institute & University National Commencement on July 10, 2022. A degree that studies the human condition, explores creative ways to advance social justice and acknowledge differences among individuals and social groups.

The scene looked very different in 2015 when driving to work, a car barreled into her driver’s side. The accident resulted in a traumatic brain injury that would leave her spending the next 18 months learning to speak and regain physical abilities.

“In a split second, my world as I knew it was gone,” Miller said. “I had to learn the alphabet again, how to read again, how to physically navigate the world.”

The doctor’s prognosis was grim.

“After eighteen months, the final diagnosis was that I would never recover the full use of my right-brain. I felt very sorry for myself.”

Then she got mad.

“I decided if I didn’t try then nothing would change. My left-brain was relatively untouched. My hope was if I used my left-brain, it might compensate for the loss of some of the right-brain functions. Getting a Ph.D. was on my bucket list. I was familiar with Union because in the early 80’s it was known as a university without walls. That title always fascinated me.”

She found Union to be a magical place.

“When I started at Union in 2017, I couldn’t sit and talk for very long. Listening was excruciating. I had to check and re-check class assignments every day. However, my professors and cohort supported me. They became my cheerleaders. I contacted the UI&U writing center and they helped me with early writing assignments.

I started to believe in my intellectual abilities again. Momentum built. As I forced myself to focus on the academic work, I found I could do it. I decided to focus my research on my family’s long history with bipolar disorder.”

Her work became socially relevant and personally relevant. On her 60th birthday, she defended her dissertation, “Speaking in Bipolar Tongues: a memoir of intergenerational bipolar disorder and analysis of madness and memoir.”

The thesis is an examination of bipolar disorder, creativity, and self-narrative. It argues that people with bipolar disorder are stigmatized and excluded from societal narratives when mental illnesses are solely defined by medical diagnoses, news headlines, and popular culture. These limited definitions are countered by an exploration of memoir and autobiography as genres well suited to self-definition because they allow one to claim one’s own story. As an example, a collection of fourteen of Miller’s own semi-autobiographical works and memoir are included in the dissertation.

The grandmother of three sees the future brightly. Her career as a professor of creative writing is thriving. Her future goal is to share the story that bipolar illness is treatable and provides a valuable perspective on life. She plans to share her integrated findings at conferences with physicians and social workers.

“My life has been transformed. I think I can shed light on bipolar mental illness and help people who live with this disorder. Union’s mission is to engage, enlighten and empower. I plan to live that mission every day.”

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