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My Well-Kept Secret

I’ve been an adjunct writing teacher at a major university off and on for more than 25 years. I teach the freshman-level classes — College English I and II.

In College English I, students learn how to organize a variety of essays around thesis statements. The reading for this class consists of essays from a nonfiction anthology. In College English II, the students learn how to incorporate outside sources into their own persuasive documents. The reading for this more advanced course consists of a number of full-length texts organized around a particular theme.

One year, the theme was banned books. Students read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou; Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck; Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger; and The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison.

For many years, I used the theme “disability literature” — novels, plays and memoirs about characters who deal with their own mental or physical disabilities. Examples of books I used in that class are Born on the Fourth of July, by Ron Kovic; Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey; and The Elephant Man, by Bernard Pomerance.

Although I frequently teach writing using the disability theme, I make it a practice never to speak about my own disability — bipolar illness. I don’t disclose my mental illness to my students (or to the staff, for that matter) for multiple reasons:

  • I might lose my credibility. People might think I have bad judgment or am out of touch with reality.
  • My disclosure might encourage students who need real psychiatric help to rely too heavily on me. I might give students bad advice.
  • Disclosure would cause me embarrassment. I am not the only person who feels embarrassed when grappling with my illness.
  • Students don’t need to be encumbered with my problems and issues. They are in school to learn the material, do the work and move on.
  • People can use the information against me. I am not so naïve that I don’t know that university politics can be awful.
  • People are prejudiced, and the stigma is just too great. Even though it is almost 2016, mental illness is seen as a negative character trait.
  • It’s no one’s business. Enough said.

I have been tempted many times to break my own rule. Once, a female student revealed to the class that she had been suicidal. She confessed that she’d tried three times to throw herself in front of a bus. Thank God she hadn’t succeeded. She was obviously suffering.

It took everything in me to keep from commiserating openly with her. I know how bad depression hurts. What damage would it have done to tell her that I knew the feeling? Still, I resisted the temptation; I just couldn’t risk revealing this very important aspect of my life. For her sake, I kept quiet.

Another time, I had a student who had recently been diagnosed with anxiety disorder. I could tell she wanted to talk about this with someone, but I knew it shouldn’t be me. One has to establish boundaries as a teacher. One needs to maintain some distance from one’s students.

Am I positive I’m doing the right thing?

Yes.

College photo available from Shutterstock

My Well-Kept Secret


Laura Yeager

Laura Yeager has been writing for over 35 years. Some of her favorite topics include mental health, writing, religion, parenthood, dogs, and her day-to-day life. She is a mental health writer for PsychCentral.com. Her articles about writing have appeared in The Writer Magazine, The Toastmaster Magazine, writersweekly.com and authormagazine.org. Her spiritual writing has been featured in several venues including Aleteia USA, Busted Halo, The Liguorian Magazine, Canticle Magazine and Guideposts Magazine. A graduate of The Writers' Workshop at The University of Iowa, Laura teaches writing at Kent State University and online Creative Writing at Gotham Writers' Workshop in New York.


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APA Reference
Yeager, L. (2018). My Well-Kept Secret. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 14, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/my-well-kept-secret/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 21 Dec 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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