Having Mental Illness…Can Be Good?

In this closing post for Mental Health Awareness Month, Kristen reflects on what she’s learned during a month of posts by people she knows. And in that time, she discovers that having mental illness isn’t always a bad thing. 

Suedle of Kristen in green t-shirt shaking with hands up, sue and Kristen hugging each other in the middle shaking together, green dragon with STIGMA on its shirt roaring at them - this is what having mental illness feels like

Hatching an idea

Sometime in March, when we started planning for Mental Health Awareness Month, Sue had this idea to tell a story with our posts – just one story of one person experiencing mental illness. In true Committed fashion, we began brainstorming what this might look like, and so it grew. What if we told this person’s story through the voices of the people around them instead? So many of our posts for Committed are first person experiences of mental illness. What if we showed what it was like having mental illness from the perspective of someone who knows or even loves someone else with it?

The idea comes to life

And so my mind immediately started churning. Who would I ask if we were going to my story for this? And I came up with a number of people that could provide something. Maybe they could do a blog post, a podcast or a video. These could shed light on what it was like to know someone with mental illness – to know me. At that time, I was purely in idea-generating mode, so I got excited – this could be really cool. It could also be a great way to show that even if mental illness doesn’t affect someone directly, it can still have an impact. I immediately shot off an email to about fifteen different people to see who would bite, and then went on about my business, considering that part of my work done for the month.

“What have I done?”

Then the first blog post came back. Before I even opened it, I thought to myself, “What have I done? I don’t want to know what people think of me and my depression and anxiety! This was a horrible idea. This was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad idea.” I waited almost an entire day before opening the document to read it. And then, once I did, I started breathing again. This was, well, it was frankly one of the most accurate descriptions of me that I could have hoped for. Then again, this was my best friend – it would make sense that she would be so on the mark while still being supportive. What would happen when my boss sent me hers? Or I talked to my son?

Having mental illness…can be good?

And then another post came in, and another. Soon I realized what they all had in common – besides me and mental illness, of course. These posts were less about me, and more about how knowing someone with mental illness – and more importantly in some cases, someone who was open about their mental illness – had changed their lives. And they had all been changed in some way – for the better. Some found it was easier to be open about their own illnesses. Some used what they learned to help the people they work with and supervise. And some were just more aware about the challenges of others. But all of them gained from me sharing my experiences.

Now what?

Now that Mental Health Awareness Month is over, what do we do? How do we take what we’ve learned and apply it? We are educators, after all. Well, here’s a few ideas:

  • Print off The Committed Project Toolkit and use with your co-workers or staff
  • Try doing the Spoon Theory activity yourself or with others to gain a better understanding of how it feels to have mental illness (password: GiveMeTheSpoons)
  • Use one of the posts from The Committed Project blog to start a conversation – the more we talk about it, the less the stigma can hurt us
  • Continue to read about mental illness and talk about it – all year long. It doesn’t go away for those of us who have it, and we can’t contain our experiences to one month.

We hope you’ll continue to check out The Committed Project for more great stories, resources and information about mental illness in higher education professionals. Mental illness affects us all the time – we need to keep discussing it.

About the Author

Kristen Abell is one of the two co-founders of The Committed Project and is our Executive Director of Awareness and Advocacy. Kristen blogs frequently about the issue of mental illness, especially her depression, and this month The Committed Project featured her story during Mental Health Awareness Month. She is extremely relieved that this microscopic look at her life is over. She’ll continue fighting the stigma around mental illness in higher education as long as she can.

We Work Best When We Are Whole and Healthy

by Caitlin (CJ) Jones

Each October we celebrate Careers in Students Affairs Month. Countless professionals plan programs and host sessions to spur top leaders into considering the path so many of us chose. Then we move into November, an overall tough month. We are nearing the end of the semester: faculty are preparing for finals, staff are intentionally connecting to those with various post-midterm alerts, undergraduate students are anxiously awaiting a break and second year graduate students are nervously preparing for the upcoming job search. Continue reading

The Anxiety Chronicles: Confession 1

by P.L. Thomas

Have you ever felt anxious? Right before giving a talk, or waiting on news that could be bad or good, or minutes before a first date?

Well, you don’t understand then; you don’t and probably can’t understand what suffering from anxiety is like because individual events of anxiousness or worry would be a relief to those of us who suffer the unwanted psychological cocktail of anxiety, depression, OCD, and ADHD (among others).

Colleen Flaherty has recently detailed the stigma of mental illness within the academy:

Railton’s topic? His battle with depression, which he says he’s hidden for too long.

“As academics, we live in its midst,” Railton said, according to a draft of the John Dewey Lecture he delivered last week at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association’s Central Division in St. Louis. “We know how it hurts our students, our colleagues, our teachers, our families. Of course, most of us are ‘educated’ about depression — we like to think that we no longer consider it a stain on one’s character. We’ve gotten beyond that. Or have we?”

In the same way that don’t ask, don’t tell policies implied that being gay was something shameful to be kept private, Railton said, the social codes surrounding mental illness prevent many who need help from seeking it. He encouraged those who have struggled with depression and related conditions, such as anxiety, to come out and share their experiences, rather than conceal them for fear of judgment.

October of 1999—my lifelong battle with anxiety (I’ll use that term for the cocktail noted above) became nearly debilitating. For almost 40 years, I had managed it, masked it so powerfully that when I was rendered unable to sleep due to some invisible force that gripped me every time I tried simply to lie down and then relented to visiting my doctor, he was completely unable to diagnose my condition.

A new partner in the medical group noted immediately that I was having panic attacks (although I reject the “attack” part in that it suggests incidences over the pervasive weight of anxiety).

Like Railton, I admit that possibly the greatest challenge with anxiety is that it becomes a vicious cycle of masking to hide the most embarrassing weakness of all: anxiety is completely irrational. In the rational world of academia, few things are worse to admit.

So my life within academia, higher education especially, is a constant but unenjoyable Merry-Go-Round of trying to explain the irrational to the rational.

“I don’t fly,” I explain calmly.

“You don’t fly?” the person always asks, as if this is unfathomable.

“I have flown,” I add, anticipating where the conversation is going. “And in part, that is why I don’t fly.”

“Just take something,” comes the next round.

“It is not the flying,” I continue diligently. “It is the entire concept, and thus, I would have to be medicated from the moment I knew I was going to fly and then until I returned.”

But virtually no one who ventures into this with me understands. Go back to the opening above.

There is nothing rational about a 54-year-old man with a doctorate and successful academic and scholarly career not flying but driving his car every day and cycling 9000-10,000 miles a year (and having been run over by cars twice during that 30-year hobby).

Nothing rational at all.

But if you are interested, I can detail that anxiety: I hate any sort of formal situation (generally they make me want to run to anywhere else), I hate not knowing (and this isn’t about control; it is genuinely about not knowing), and sleep is both the most wonderful thing ever in the human condition (during my collapse in 1999, I was on sleeping meds and cannot explain the joy I discovered at 38) and a constant struggle (I often wake in the night with one or both hands gripping the headboard, white knuckled).

And just as it took decades for me to recognize my anxiety, I have been forced lately to see that my daughter likely shares some of these challenges (although I had been fooled into thinking that she is quite unlike me) and that my granddaughter, fists always clenched and feet crossed and flexed, will soon carry on this unwelcome family tradition.

The Zombie Apocalypse and Other Stories

If I wanted to be a jerk about it, I’d say, “Clench your fist. Now hold that for 54 years and then get back to me.”

While that is entirely fair, it really isn’t helping for those who sincerely wonder what this anxiety is like. So as I mentioned above, my anxiety is a pervasive condition, a fact of life from which I basically never have any relief (except for the cycling, which appeases both my OCD tendencies and creates durations of pain that nearly shut off my mind).

It is a constant (and I mean constant) internal dialogue not of a split mind, but one singular mind that functions simultaneously in the irrational and rational worlds.

Exhausted yet just thinking about it? Sorry, but that is getting you close.

Michael J. Totten, writing about the popularity of zombie narratives, explains:

The fascination with the zombie apocalypse, I believe, is a cultural reflection of the new age of anxiety that opened on 9/11, with its fear of social collapse. As Penn State professor Peter Dendle puts it, the zombie is a “barometer of social anxiety”—and we’re plenty anxious. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America claims that anxiety disorders are now the most common mental illnesses in the country, affecting more than 40 million people.

And for me, The Walking Dead (graphic or TV series) is exactly that—a recreation of living under the weight of anxiety. Rick Grimes and his band are under the relentless fact of zombies, forced into an irrational world of the living dead.

With Season 5 and episode 12, the power of this TV series to portray anxiety is now in full view.

Safely behind the walls of Alexandria and apparently among new friends, the primary characters have a different challenge:

Much of the episode “Remember” deals with the group learning to live in a new place surrounded by strangers. Although everyone can have a new house, the survivors sleep together, play it safe. They have every reason to worry, every reason to find safety in numbers.

Living during the zombie apocalypse is never being allowed to live in the moment, existence dominated by the glaring light of the next moment.

Living during the zombie apocalypse colors everything, as Rick tries to explain:

Rick’s interview with Deanna is the most important. He keeps telling her—and everyone else—not to trust him. Not to trust anybody.

“You should keep your gates closed,” he tells Deanna. “Why?” she asks.

“Because it’s all about survival now, at any cost,” he replies. “People out there are always looking for an angle, looking to play on your weakness. They measure you by what they can take from you, by how they can use you to live.”

“Are you telling me not to bring your people in, or are you already looking after this place?” she asks him, but he doesn’t answer.

And I think this is why so much of the TV series focuses on night, as viewers watch Rick, Michonne, and Daryl sitting awake or suddenly waking in this new safe haven.

Anxiety as a disorder is relentless as the zombie apocalypse; it fosters an irrational response to the world that feels completely rational while you are inside it.

Just a couple days before The Walking Dead episode above aired, I read “Sleep” by Haruki Murakami from his collection The Elephant Vanishes.

“This is my seventeenth straight day without sleep,” the narrator, a wife and mother, begins, adding: “I’m not talking about insomnia.”

Like The Walking Dead, this story can be read as a story of anxiety about a woman who admits, “It was literally true: I was going through life asleep.” Reminding me of Kafka (Samsa lives a bug’s life before the transformation into a bug), Murakami transforms metaphor into the literal.

The power of this story, I think, is the careful and gradual blurring of the narrator as rational and then irrational due to sleep deprivation, all the while maintaining the ability to narrate in a reasonably controlled tone (a narrative mask).

The main character also echoes Meursault from Camus’s The Stranger, who admits one can adjust to anything (prison or not prison is no difference): “Without noticing it, I had become accustomed in this way to a life without books.”

Murakami’s story details a woman who can no longer sleep but believes that condition allows her to live life more fully, although as readers we watch as she becomes more and more isolated from the world, notably her family:

No one noticed that I had changed—that I had given up sleeping entirely, that I was spending all my time reading, that my mind was someplace a hundred years—and hundreds of miles—from reality. No matter how mechanically I worked, no matter how little love or emotion I invested in my handling of reality, my husband and my son and my mother-in-law went on relating to me as they always had. If anything, they seemed more at ease with me than before.

“Sleep,” then, falls into an existential tradition of literature in which the human condition is portrayed as starkly alone: Samsa as bug in a human family, Meusault as heartless murderer and social pariah, and this sleepless woman who loathes the faces of her sleeping husband and son.

“In other words,” she explains, “people live in the prison cells of their own tendencies.”

And as inadequate as words may be, I have to confess that this captures well what anxiety is, the prison cells of our own tendencies.

But prison cells we did not choose, do not deserve, and like the haunting lyrics of the California rock of my teenage years, prison cells where we can check out, but never leave.

Originally posted on The Becoming Radical on March 2, 2015.

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He is currently a column editor for English Journal (National Council of Teachers of English), series editor for Critical Literacy Teaching Series: Challenging Authors and Genres (Sense Publishers), and author of Beware the Roadbuilders (Garn Press). NCTE named Thomas the 2013 George Orwell Award winner. Recent edited volumes include James Baldwin: Challenging Authors (Sense, 2014) and Becoming and Being a Teacher (Peter Lang USA, 2013). His teaching and scholarship focus on literacy and the impact of poverty on education, as well as confronting the political dynamics influencing public education in the U.S. Follow his work @plthomasEdD and the becoming radical.

Committed: A Note to My Savior

by Sylvester Gaskin

Hey you,

I had a long day at work, and I’m glad you’re finally home. I’m happy you had a good day at work and you had fun at your new yoga class. You’re sitting on the couch, eating your dinner, and I can’t stop thinking about how you saved me. You’ve heard me talk about it many times, and you don’t believe me. But it’s true; you’ve saved my life more times than I can count. And I’m thankful.

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Time to Accept

by Carly Masiroff

medicine bottle with pills spilled out around it

Acceptance.

This word keeps popping up in my life like one of those moles in the whack-a-mole arcade game. But why? What does it mean?

It’s no secret my mental health has never been on the straight and narrow. I try to hide it as much as possible and pretend my two friends, Anxiety and Depression, are not sitting on my shoulders at all times asking me to come out and play. But they are there. I’ve accepted they will always be a part of my life. But that doesn’t mean I have to accept their offer to play.

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Today, I Called in Sick to Work

by Sue Caulfield

Today, I called in sick to work.

I don’t have a doctor’s note (although I could probably call my therapist to get one). I didn’t really give a concrete reason, just, “I’m not feeling too hot.” When my boss says, “It’s quiet here, don’t worry,” it should make me feel better.

Instead, I feel guilt. I feel shame. I feel weak. I feel useless.

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My Mental Illness is Not Your Fault

by Alexandria Pizziola

The task of creating a life for oneself is hard work, and it’s a task that I and people my age are faced with on a daily basis as we move to make the world view us as adults. The stress and pressure that accompany this act of finding our footing are large and unrelenting factors, and when I get together with or phone my friends, a variation of the following is nearly always uttered:

Why do I feel this way? This isn’t how I should feel; my life is great! Maybe I just need to try to be happier. I must be doing something wrong.

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Treatment

by Lisa Latronica

If you’re like most people, you have a picture in your head of what treatment for mental illness looks like. Maybe that image is a counter full of pills. Maybe it’s lying on a couch talking to a doctor with a clipboard. Maybe you think of stark white walls and people in hospital beds. And successful treatment means you don’t need medication or a therapist any longer.

There’s a whole list of stereotypes when we think of mental health treatments, and just because we’re in higher education doesn’t mean that we don’t have assumptions, too. I’ve been in treatment for anxiety and depression for four years and for an eating disorder for almost a year, and even I fall victim to jumping to conclusions about my own treatment. Like a lot of people, I thought that once I started medication and talked to a therapist a few times, I would be magically better and back to “normal.”

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Committed to Super Powers

by Sarah Wilson Merriman

There is a fine line between efficiency and mania in my book. I want to think that all I do is efficient. The shakiness in my hands and feet tells me that it’s sometimes mania, though. My body literally cannot keep up with my brain. I spend my days exhausted and unable to sleep for longer than a few hours at a time. On the other end of the spectrum, I have been described as the melancholy to a colleague’s sunshine. It was said with kindness and truth, as I am often melancholy, but is this the image that I want projected of me?

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