I tutor a number of students from my local high school, which offers a remarkable English course called Psychology and Literature. What an idea! Although I’d never heard of such a course at any other school, Psych and Lit is extremely popular here, and I’ve been very impressed with the concept and the content.
My favorite assignment has students researching one of a selection of mental illnesses, and then writing a fiction piece from the perspective of a person with that illness. I worked with one of my students (I’ll call him Joe) on this amazing project.
I loved the idea right away. Getting young people to think deeply about mental illness, and gaining some appreciation for what it must be like, sounded so valuable. But I also wondered what students might make of this experience. Could they “get into” the head of a person with mental illness in any meaningful way?
I was also quite aware that because I don’t have a mental illness, my own capacity for understanding and relating was limited. I was excited to hopefully gain some insight, myself. But I was also worried about helping Joe treat the subject in as accurate and respectful a manner as possible.
Joe selected bipolar disorder as his topic of interest, which gave him effectively two mental states to study: mania and depression. Joe’s initial assumptions about both conditions were the predictable, common knowledge misimpressions. Joe figured that mania was like “being hyper,” and depression was like “being really sad.”
We spent a lot of time talking about depression, with me pulling from information I hoped Joe could relate to. I found this wonderful quote from a woman with chronic fatigue and depression:
Imagine you are wearing a suit of armor and the floor is a magnet.
This got Joe’s head working. It was an image both he and I could savor. We sat quietly and really felt that heavy pull of gravity. Imagine moving through life feeling that! Depression, Joe began to understand, is not simply Big Sadness.
The single best resource was Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon (I wish I could make this book assigned reading for the entire human race, so as to give everyone some inkling of the devastating seriousness of this disease). We read Solomon’s descriptions of his own depression and his vignettes from people he interviewed. Here are two that Joe and I found especially powerful:
One day last week I woke up and it was really bad. I managed to get out of bed, to walk to the kitchen, counting every step, to open the refrigerator. And then all the breakfast things were near the back of the refrigerator, and I just couldn’t reach that far. When my kids came in, I was just standing there, staring into the refrigerator. I hate being like that, being like that in front of them. (p 61)
At the pitch of my anxiety, my friend in Berkeley and I set out for a bit of exercise and we walked on and on and then I couldn’t go farther. I lay down, fully dressed in perfectly nice clothes, in the mud…For an hour I lay in that mud, feeling the water seeping through, and then my friend pretty much carried me back to the car…I felt as if my head had been encaged in Lucite, like one of those butterflies trapped forever in the thick transparency of a paperweight. (p 66)
After each reading, Joe and I would sit and let the words sink in and evoke feelings in us. We were both shaken by the experience. I could see the dawning awareness on Joe’s face. He was shocked and a little bit frightened.
And then Joe began writing.