The Life of the Other Mind

For a school that prides itself on emphasizing the life of the mind, there seems to be remarkably little discussion here at Swarthmore about the mind misbehaving, or acting in off or unusual ways.

I suffer from General Mood Disorder, which means that my psychiatrist doesn’t have an exact diagnosis for me, though there are certain severe symptoms of several mental illnesses present; pardon the alliteration. Let me give you a glimpse into how this plays out at Swat.

I’ve had the privilege of crying into my pillow and then screaming into it over and over again for no reason whatsoever. There was also some minor self-harm, but what would venting be without it? And since Mertz, though a lovely place, isn’t as private as one might want, I visit Old Tarble around three to four times a week late at night just because I need a place to be alone. Not necessarily to cry, scream, or harm, but simply to have a spot to myself.

Another example.

I had missed Arabic one morning so I could finish an essay and I ran into my professor later that night on my daily walk in the Ville. He informed me that there had been a test that day – of course, I had no clue – and though he assured me that it was alright, that I could take the test whenever I wanted, and that there would be no penalty, I walked away and broke down in the little alley next to Hobbs. I saw a woman walking her dog about to enter, but when she saw me she wisely passed me by.

I was compelled by my guilt to take the test ASAP, in spite of having not known there was a test and, therefore, having not thoroughly prepared.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not sharing these stories to bare my soul to the community or to encourage pity. I’m taking it upon myself to ground the reality of mental health issues and emotional disabilities on this campus. If these are two relatively benign stories from only one person, just imagine the untold others.

In actuality, it’s quite surprising how few stories any of us hear. I was surprised coming here by the lack of public discourse about mental wellbeing, especially considering how many resources are available to us. CAPS is free to every single student. And should CAPS not meet your exact needs, they will speedily refer you to someone off-campus. There’s the Speak 2 Swatties program that allows anyone to speak to trained students if they don’t feel comfortable going to CAPS, and not to mention the many, many programs the Wellness Center provides for students.

So if all these resources are here for us, why do students feel embarrassed to admit that they need help, that they’re actively pursuing help in an attempt to reclaim their health? Why should I feel uncomfortable telling people that I go to the oddly placed doctor’s office every week for therapy? (It’s near the Qdoba on the Pike, if you were curious.) Why do we think seeking help implies that we are weak?

In reality, there is nothing stronger than admitting we need help. There is no prize for doing it alone.

This October passed by at Swat with barely a mention that it was Depression Awareness Month. Suicide Awareness Week came and went in September with a simple, bare poster displaying some statistics and a hotline number. It angered me that a fact of life afflicting so many of us went without address.

But forget about designated months, weeks, or days – that’s not the core problem here. Let’s start inserting awareness in conversation. At Swat, let’s both acknowledge and discuss depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and the host of other mental illnesses that impact millions upon millions of people everyday.

When I told people about this article during the writing process, I subsequently would hear their stories about either their own mental illness or mental illnesses that have afflicted those they love. Some initially expressed reticence in sharing these stories, but when they finally let it go, it was as though a weight had been lifted. There is a strong instant connection, in my experience, between those who have been personally affected by emotional disability. The fact of the matter is that many, many people here have these stories. Support, in one form, is already present, but it often remains silent.

So ultimately, the onus lies upon each and every one of us to start these difficult conversations. But there is a caveat. Starting conversations doesn’t mean we need to or should start revealing every part of our inner lives to everybody. We do need to begin feeling comfortable talking about our emotional issues though. For most, this means speaking with those to whom we feel close, the people who will not judge us for feeling a certain way and who have a vested interest in our health. It means talking to the people who will listen.

We need to make it so that those who seek out help are not embarrassed to do so. And if it’s you who needs help, please don’t hesitate to speak and to speak out loudly, without risk of embarrassment.

To paraphrase a line I heard at orientation, “no matter what the world, or Swat, may say or do to you, you are still a worthwhile person.” Don’t forget that.

 


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0 comments

  1. 0
    Leonie says:

    Thank you so much for writing this, Rafi! Such difficulties should not be taboo, and yet they are. I’m rather open with the fact that I have Tourette’s, depression/anxiety, and ADD. I acknowledge that mention of such disorders may make some feel uncomfortable, and I apologize if this is the case. Though I refer to these challenges as disabilities, I am not seeking pity; what I seek is understanding and empathy. Of course I do not wish it upon others, but it’s rather relieving to meet someone who understands what I’m going through, or who has faced similar challenges.
    I am also aware that not every one wishes to share such private emotions and may have their own ways of dealing with their demons. I’m only asking you to share if you feel that it will benefit you, as I feel that it benefits me greatly. So, I’d like to offer my ear to anyone who wishes to express their emotions or tell their story. I’ll gladly tell you mine if you’d care to listen.
    Be well.

  2. 0
    A Reader ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    Wonderful article! I completely agree that mental health should not be as stigmatized as it is. People are perfectly willing to describe the depths of their misery at Swat, as long as they assure you that, overall, “it’s not clinical.”
    I know so many people who have struggled with mental illness at one point or another, and dealing with it here is harder because they feel like they have something to hide.
    So many others claim that they haven’t been happy since freshman year, if even then. Whether this be melodrama or serious cause for concern, statements like that should not be thrown around lightly. To be well in every sense – physically, emotionally, academically, socially – we have to be willing to speak candidly about not only our emotions, but their root cases, whether it be mental illness or otherwise. It’s easy to admit to despair at Swat. It’s more difficult to admit that despair shouldn’t be the norm, and doesn’t have to be.

  3. 0
    Sam Zhang '14 says:

    A good ground for a discussion is what Speak 2 Swatties are doing with their columns. They are sharing the emotional side of the picture–the side that matters–and leaving as much painful imagery aside as possible.

    That isn’t to say panic attacks and other stressful and potentially triggering things should never be described. They are very powerful IF they are used in the context of an emotion or a story. I don’t think it’s fair to share the physical, exterior side of a breakdown without grounding it in your life’s context.

    Swarthmore can be so frustrating, but I am curious about what aspects of it in particular force you out of your dorm into Old Tarble. Is it the culture? The schoolwork? I don’t know, but I’d like to hear about it.

    Also speaking out can be incredibly difficult for some people, and I don’t think lowering the stakes for having a discussion is necessarily that easy. For some people, their demons are their lives, and to say “speak up, everyone else is doing so” comes across as condescending unless you share your demons yourself. You say people aren’t obliged to “bare their souls”, yet you encourage them to speak out. Of course you’re not going to dissuade them from doing so, but it’s hardly consolation for someone in pain to hear that this person is simply “willing to listen”.

    I wrote an article last year in the phoenix about my frustration with this sort of “discussion”, where the facilitator asks everyone to share and doesn’t really go into the trenches themselves: http://www.swarthmorephoenix.com/?p=3160

    Discussions should be hard to come by. They should be hard and painful. Instead of saying “don’t hesitate to speak out loudly, without risk of embarrassment,” I think the only thing we can say is, “I have had this experience. It was painful and embarrassing. I am ready to discuss it with anyone who wants.”

    So what was your experience?

    1. 0
      Rafi Ellenson ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      Hi Sam,

      Thanks for commenting. I have a few responses to what you wrote.

      My personal experience is not the focal point of this article. This piece is not about me. In fact, I wasn’t even planning on telling my own personal story until my editor asked me to in attempts to make the article more “real” and clarify why I was the one writing this. I feel no obligation to you or to any other reader to tell my life’s story. My life is only the business of me and those who I want to speak to.

      With that in mind, I want to agree with you! It is hard to come to these conversations, no one would ever contest that. It wasn’t easy for me to write these stories and, in fact, I fielded them by experienced Swatties, family, and staff before I published them. I ask people, just as I ask myself, to, not-so-simply, push through the immense difficulty and speak up only to those people they know will help. There is never an obligation, nor should there be, to speak out to everyone. Speaking up is different that speaking out.

      Speaking up requires self-determination and the knowledge that going through these problems alone will not benefit you and will, in the long term, only hinder healing – this does not necessarily mean telling everyone. And yes, again, this is difficult, extremely difficult, it’s one of the hardest things in the world! But I have met people who attempted to manage serious mental issues alone and it didn’t end up well for them. Their healing only began when they recognized they could not always help themselves, by themselves.

      I’ll close by this. You say that it’s not consolation to know that someone will listen, but I fundamentally disagree with you. The comfort in knowing that people care about you, want to listen to you, and want to help you can be one of the most wonderful feelings and one of the most important facts to know when one is mired in the dark, ugly pit of mental illness.

      -Rafi

      1. 0
        Sam Zhang says:

        Hi Rafi,

        Thanks for the clarification. I can get behind that any day. I hope to clarify that what bothered me wasn’t that you didnt share your experience, but rather how it was conveyed with a trivializing, self-deprecating attitude (“the privilege” of crying into your pillow, the rhetorical question about self-harm). It struck me as disrespectful to the experience.

        I hope I can clarify my question from last time to sound less aggressive. What aspects of Swarthmore trigger panic attacks? From there we can start looking at cultural and institutional fixes.

        I am heartened by your response very much, and appreciate you taking the time to answer.

        Sam

  4. 0
    Miriam G. says:

    Thanks for writing this, Rafi. I agree completely that, more than lectures and fliers and symposia, we need more conversations about mental health among friends and acquaintances. It’s so hard to know how to get these going, though! Hopefully articles like yours, and Speak 2 Swatties’ new Insider Stories column, will encourage people in our community to speak up about their minds’ experiences and will foster respectful and compassionate responses.

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