Author’s note: The interview subject’s name has been changed to a pseudonym on request.
You probably think you know John Donaldson ’13. You might recall his 2011 run for WSA president, when he railed against the revised housing policy and publicly called President Roth a “snake-oil salesman.” Maybe you know of his involvement with Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish fraternity he co-founded in 2009. Or maybe you swam in the Dead Sea with him on Birthright.
But you don’t know John Donaldson. Not the new John Donaldson. Not John 2.0.
In 2011, Donaldson publicly admitted his struggles with alcoholism and bipolar II disorder, decided to quit drinking, and abandoned his longtime political aspirations. Rechristening himself the “Wounded Healer,” he set about making mental health support his life’s work, blogging about his struggles on a daily basis. I trekked over to Donaldson’s single in 156 High to talk about mental health awareness, the WSA, and stripping naked at the top of Mount Killington.
Argus: What makes you a WesCeleb?
John Donaldson: I anticipated this question and tried to think of a clever, punchy answer, but nothing came to mind. Freshman year I got involved in the WSA. I was also one of the guys involved with founding AEPi on campus. Also, while on the WSA, I took on as my main project creating the bike rental program, WesBikes. If there is one thing I am known for, it is WesBikes. In the past year or so, though, I’ve become much more interested in mental health—blogging about it and communicating about it however I can.
A: Many students on campus know you from your campaign for WSA president in 2011. What inspired you to run?
JD: At the time, I was very actively involved with most issues that the WSA was working on. I was working on an effort to increase the standard of proof that was used in the SJB process. I closely followed the whole Beta housing policy debacle. I just thought I could be an active voice for students when it came to the administration pushing students around. But the student body spoke through the WSA voting page, and I was soundly defeated.
A: Do you have any regrets about the way you ran your campaign?
JD: I think a problem that I have with WSA campaigns since my freshman year and through last year’s presidential election, is that they were very impersonal. Candidates are not focused on building genuine connections with students or even hearing their opinions on issues.
A: Was your campaign different?
JD: I tried for it to be. I created a video, the “I Support John Donaldson” video. I feel that one of the reasons that I didn’t win is because I wasn’t willing to make bold claims like “I saved financial aid” or things of that nature. But I still enjoyed my time serving and working on projects. I learned that even if you have good intentions and good ideas, they won’t always make it through by the nature of the bureaucratic process.
A: Before the election, you were living with [current WSA president] Zach Malter ’13.
JD: Zach and I are still friends. He’s a good guy. We agreed leading up to the election that we would part ways so we weren’t each running a campaign out of the same one-room double in the Bayit. I think that was a good decision on both of our parts. I moved to a single in Hewitt and he stayed in that room. It was amicable.
The thing I regret more housing-wise is the fact that I completely forgot to sign up for GRS last year and was subsequently locked out of the system. But a single in 156 High—it could’ve been a lot worse.
A: Tell me about your blog.
JD: I started the blog two summers ago, and it has the original domain name. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but I had never had any experience with setting up a domain. I really like writing and trying to connect with people through that medium. I had the idea of the blog, which is kind of a hybrid of recovery philosophy and transcendental Emersonian philosophy. I had the idea of choosing a certain activity for a month based on life improvement—be it exercising every day for a month or sleeping better. The first was just writing and blogging every day for a month.
A: Was it hard?
JD: Yeah. But the idea was, if you do something in a steady routine day after day, it may not be completely ingrained in your life, but it’ll at least be easier to do than when you started; eating healthy foods, not skipping a day of exercise.
A: What’s the most radical experiment that you’ve taken on?
JD: I had the idea of trying to join the Wesleyan Varsity Baseball team, having not played baseball in over ten years. Little League was the last time I played. But I’ve always liked baseball. I didn’t even make it to tryout. There was a preliminary gathering with the players and coaches. It was like, Can you identify the color of a dot on a tennis ball before you hit it with a tennis racket? My general athleticism was so low that I didn’t even pass the preliminary tests to get a chance at making the team.
A: You once posted about climbing a mountain naked, right?
JD: Well, I didn’t actually climb the mountain naked. I hiked to the top of Mount Killington, which is the third highest mountain in Vermont, and then took a nude picture at the top. It was just a fun experience, very liberating, although I’m glad I’m not in politics anymore.
A: You also had a series of posts about a road trip you took…
JD: Last year I spent my Spring Break driving down to Florida to visit somebody I’d never met before but was put in contact with through a mutual friend. Needless to say, that will be the last time I take a road trip for a while. There were miscommunications about intentions. Taking the road trip solo was probably the first mistake.
A: What made you decide to major in the College of Social Studies?
JD: I was originally thinking I wanted to continue in the WSA, probably go on to law school, and then go on to an actual political career. But I’m kind of thankful to CSS because it ultimately proved to me that that’s not the direction I want to go in, that I’m actually more interested in helping people in a personal face-to-face way.
A: How did you come to that realization?
JD: Probably just starting to address some of my own personal issues—alcoholism and bipolar disorder included. I realized that, with conditions like this, personal connections and group support are much more helpful than impersonal, broad-scaled policies. So I’m actually interested in switching into medicine with the goal of becoming either a psychiatrist, an internal medical doctor, a pediatrician, or a family practitioner.
A: Tell me about your thesis.
JD: It’s about spirituality as a complimentary therapy for mental illness and addiction. I’ve had my own experiences with that and I was curious to investigate questions like, “what is spirituality?” How does it assist people in their recoveries? How can people maintain their faith facing the continual challenges of these conditions? And if spirituality is an effective therapy, how can it be better incorporated into the treatment paradigm?
A: You spent your summer doing research for this. What sort of work were you doing?
JD: I was in New Haven over the summer and spent a lot of time interviewing people. There were three groups of people I would interview: medical professionals (psychiatrists mainly, also psychologists and social workers), the religious sphere (the clergy), and patients themselves—people who have faced issues with alcoholism, addiction, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety. It draws upon psychology and religion as well.
A: What got you interested in spirituality and mental health?
JD: Just my own personal experiences confronting them both. I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder about a year and a half ago. That coincided with when I stopped drinking as well, because I was doing a lot of self-medication of symptoms, hypomania, and depression with alcohol.
I just realized through writing about this stuff, talking about this stuff to peers, that not everybody cares for it, and that’s fine. But students have come to me and said, “I really appreciated what you wrote or said because I’ve been confronting similar issues myself.”
A: Last year you threw a party to celebrate having been sober for one year.
JD: That was a big milestone for me. Even though it was just a year, it felt like an eternity. Prior to that, I had made alcohol a real staple of my life in college. Learning to live without it and have social interactions sober was a difficult experience. I wanted to just show that, by having a sober party, people could have a perfectly fun time without substances.
A: You had quite the schedule of events at that party.
JD: It started off with a rap by Will Feinstein [‘13], which was really awesome. Then there was a juggling show by my friend and AEPi brother Eli Halperin [‘15]. We were supposed to have a reading of The Giving Tree, which is one of my favorite books, but there was dancing going on, people were having conversations, I didn’t want to interrupt. Oh! My close friend Hannah Monk [‘12] made a root beer float cake, which was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever had. There was actually root beer in the cake. I don’t know how it was done, but it blew my mind.
A: Best part of being sober?
JD: It’s just allowed me to make progress in things that I set my mind to, like remembering what I learn in my classes. I took Foundations of Contemporary Psychology my freshman year. It was ironic that I was learning all these things about how my brain was looking, and then just basically erasing that knowledge every weekend with the damage I was doing to my brain and my body.
A: What is a fact most people on campus don’t know about you?
JD: I learned to swim last year. Now I participate in triathlons. I want to create a Wesleyan Triathlon Club, or WesTri. Currently it has a membership of one, and that’s me. But I’m hopeful that we can get together some students.
Another fun fact is that my mom, who is 49 years old, just gave birth to my little sister Zoe. So that’s been pretty cool, having a little sister around. It’s kind of piqued my interest for pediatrics and learning more about children.
A: What is your dream goal as a doctor?
JD: To set up mental health clinics around the country that are staffed by professionals, nurses, psychiatrists, internists, secretaries, and receptionists who have dealt with these issues themselves and have had some struggles with their own mental health that they’ve overcome. So there’s a greater amount of empathy and relation with their patients rather than just sympathy and an attitude of the doctor being completely well while the patient is sick and out of their mind.
A: What’s the next step for you after Wesleyan?
JD: I think it’s going to be a post-bach, where I’m going to have to slog through the four pre-med courses. I’m looking forward to concentrating those science courses in that one or two years and then hopefully moving on to medical school. Maybe doing some traveling in between, but certainly no road trips—alone at least.