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Mental Health at Wheaton: Pt. I

This week, The Tide will publish a series of three stories from and about Wheaton students regarding their experience with mental health. The goal of the series is to bring light and conversation to a topic that is often associated with shame. We hope that these pieces will demonstrate the hurt and potential for healing experienced by many students on Wheaton’s campus. If you would like to add your own story to this series, click here

At the beginning of this school year, I plugged an unfamiliar address into my maps and ended up in a parking lot surrounded by red bricked and dark brown shuddered buildings. The second building on the left, with the address engraved in gold lettering right next to the heavy wooden door, would become my most visited location of the semester. But stepping into the counselor’s office each week, sometimes more than once, would also become my most well kept secret of the semester.

I agreed to see the counselor not against my will, but under certain conditions: First, it wouldn’t be a counselor on Wheaton’s campus, as I felt uncomfortable risking the chance of running into familiar and comfortable faces in such an unfamiliar and uncomfortable context. Second, I was not obligated to discuss any of the content matter with people unless I initiated the discussion, which was not about to happen because I’m not a fan of talking about myself even when things are going swell.

I had no idea what to expect when I sat down on the couch in that office for the first time and, I have to admit, I did an excellent job of keeping up the guard I frequently construct in new situations. But, during the second visit, once the small talk was done and basic introductions over, my head, heart, and entire being sunk as low as my body sunk into the floral couch as the counselor looked me in the eye and said with gentle directness:  “Based on what you’ve told me, the test you filled out, and from what I’ve observed, I’m going to tell you that you have severe anxiety and moderate depression. And it’s something that’s been around for awhile, that you’ve gotten very good at ignoring.”

On that October afternoon, as I drove back to campus so as not to be late to an improv rehearsal, a lot of things changed, the most important and obvious being that I walked into this counselor’s office to continue treatment for an eating disorder, and walked out with a double mental health disorder diagnosis.

I did not fit the typical anxious and depressed mold that circulated in the context of my surrounding cultures and conversations. At least on the outside, that is. Humor, sarcasm, energy, and optimism functioned as stellar facades that sheltered an inward distance, dissociated, sullen, and nervous existence. Because suddenly, I realized that I was now part of a category that carried with it stigmas, stereotypes, and connotations. Suddenly, there was something fundamentally wrong with me, and if people knew, it would make them see me differently.

Being an extremely curious individual who deeply dislikes living in self-ignorance, I began to explore, voraciously and secretly, what all anxiety and depression meant. Even more than the scientific explanation, I wanted to know how the heck someone could live with anxiety and depression and not know it. Working both with my counselor and independently, I began to filter through various times in my life that might signal a red flag for anxiety and depression. Going back to age four, I began to see signs of different mental disorders clearly and blatantly. I saw anxiety transition from its nascent stages of periodic perfectionism, to slightly more developed and yet manageable stress, to its full-fledged state of continual and uncontrollable panic attacks. I connected the dots revealing the figure of the looming shadow of depression over my body, mind, and heart. I saw a kid skip into adolescence, an adolescent slide into teenage years, a teen step into adulthood, and an adult who could move no further. But through it all, and especially once coming to Wheaton, where the battles of perfectionism seemed to overshadow the desire for vulnerability, I did not say a word about any of it. Because to admit that I had anxiety or that I was depressed was the equivalent of admitting that beyond the brokenness inevitable of the average human being, I was somehow fundamentally disordered in a way that was unapproachable and unlovable.

At age 21, I’ve decided to finally say something about it.

Mental health is currently a subject that carries with it an immense degree of discomfort and awkwardness. So, most of the time, we do not talk about it at all. The subject comes up, and we are quick to change it, discounting its severity if we take the time to acknowledge the fact that, even at a place like Wheaton, it exists at all. Or, sometimes even worse, we call it what it’s not. Some of my favorite phrases that I’ve personally encountered are when we synonymize any mental disorder with, “a rough patch” or, “a bump in the road.” We live in a society in which the fundamentals of our culture are based in a human attempt to order creation. This attempt manifests itself in hierarchies, which become so naturalized that we do not question the foundations upon which they operate. The hierarchies empower those who fit the molds that society desires to display.

But these hierarchies also operate in such a way that the categories, or rather, the names, are everything. To name is to empower, because to name is to understand. When God created the world, He did not merely create and call things good. He created, He named, and He called the named creation good.

It seems to me that we have not been acclimated to discuss the subject of mental health in a way that warrants an invitation to understanding. When we tack on the term “disorder” to the phrase “mental health,” we reinforce the cultural constructed binaries of right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy, order and disorder, insider and outsider, superior and inferior. When we lump all that “otherness” into the term “mental health disorder” and refuse to call a diagnosis like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and the list continues, by its proper name, we delegitimize others, because we refuse to allow them a name. In that refusal is an implicit suggestion that something is fundamentally wrong and broken that, only when fixed, will allow them an equal place in our hierarchy of mental and psychosocial well-being.

For me, as an unrecognized “other,” this resulted in mental health being a subject of ignorance because I constantly attempted to force myself into a mold I clearly did not fit. I did not know most people did not nearly faint when called to speak aloud. I did not know most people did not automatically shut out memories because of the possibility that they might be painful. I did not know most people did not live life trying with every fiber of their being to be present even in situations that bring them joy. As a recognized “other,” this resulted in mental health being a subject of fear, shame, and secrecy. Who was I to challenge the hierarchy by trying to prove to others that just because I have anxiety, depression, and an eating disorder does not mean I am still human, just like them? Who was I to try and explain the unexplainable? Nobody will be able to understand fully the feeling that arises far too often when I am sitting in class or talking with friends and anxiety kicks into high gear. All I can say is that my ears start ringing, my hands start shaking, my heartbeat races, and I see spots that look like lightning bugs. Nobody will be able to understand fully the way that my mind warps and distorts reality when food enters the picture. All I can say is that whenever anything edible is put in front of me, instead of seeing nourishment, tastiness, and hospitality, I see danger, fear, and a shameful loss of control. Nobody will be able to understand fully the juxtaposed ironies that I can use to paint a picture in words of what depression feels like. All I can say is that while I feel physically in a certain place, I also feel socially dissociated and emotionally absent, like a slow motion scene in a movie; and while I feel like I’m failing at everything, I also feel that I have no will power to be productive; and while I feel like doing nothing but sleep, I also feel more weary with each passing day; and while I feel like everything of value is being robbed from my hands, I also feel so paralysingly numb that I cannot find the strength to fight back. And just as nobody will understand fully my own experiences, neither will I understand fully theirs.

But this does not mean we ought to ignore others or ourselves. This does not mean we ought to minimize others or ourselves. This does not mean we ought to remain silent about others or ourselves. Especially in the context of Wheaton, I have found that both finding the people and being the person who embodies solidarity with others is excruciatingly difficult, because it requires a sacrifice that is uncomfortable: that we challenge the preconceptions that deem it unacceptable to say that we are not ok, so that in turn, we may empathize, listen, and be present even when we do not completely understand. And, especially as it concerns mental health, this sacrifice is entirely necessary if we are to care for one another and care for one another well. We have to be willing to acknowledge and engage our ignorance, rather than suppress and deny our ignorance, if we hope it can be a productive force for change. For in the simple and yet daring act of genuine presence, we validate one another at the very essence of our existence, all diagnoses aside. And in the tough and yet courageous act of honest conversation, we create a space to wrestle honestly and boldly with the fact that life is, yes, hard, but yet it is somehow still beautiful.

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About the Author

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Abby is a junior at Wheaton College studying Anthropology and Spanish, and is also a part of Wheaton's Human Needs and Global Resources program. She finds deep joy in what others have labeled a "granola" lifestyle: the outdoors, trail running, wool socks, and granola. In her spare time, Abby will most likely be found doing improv, watching documentaries, or making hypothetical travel itineraries for trips she hopes to one day take.

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