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.
Here’s the depression section of Joe’s essay. (If you’d like to read Joe’s entire essay, click here for my blog post, which also shows the positive feedback Joe received from a number of Psych Central readers.) And, yes, he got an A!
I make my way to my car, open it and sit. I sink into the cushions and feel enveloped like I was molded into the seat. I look at the key in my hand and get a weird sense. Unsure of what it is at first I check myself. I run through all the items I should have on me. Work shoes, nice socks, pants (wet but manageable), shirt, tie… I figure out the sense was one of remembrance. I forgot something. I have my keys in my hand, phone in my front pocket, and my wallet is molded in the seat cushions. I look to the passenger seat of my beat up Neon and see that it is empty. MY BAG! I left it all the way up in my apartment! Ah man, now I am not even going to be on time to work! I sink further into my seat.
Is it even worth it to go back up and get it? I’m sitting and contemplating this to myself. Is it even important? I mean, I don’t even use it that much; it just looks good to walk in with one. I’m not going to get that promotion anyways, my boss hates me. He will fire me, it doesn’t matter if it is tomorrow or next month, it will happen eventually. So what does the bag matter? A few missing papers won’t effect the outcome of anything.
So it is decided to go without the bag because honestly no one will care about it. I look out to the road and see traffic… moving … fast… why is everyone speeding? They’re all blurs. The world is moving too fast for me. They should slow down… there is no way I can keep up with that sort of velocity. Well I should turn on my car and try from there.
Put the key… into the ignition. I look at my hand loosely held onto the key. I cage the key with my fingers, one by one, to ensure that it does not lose my grasp. My head is stationary in the mold as my eyes watch my keys… carefully. I start to try raising my keys to the ignition… since when have these keys weighed so much? They don’t seem to budge from its immobile position. I can move them with my fingers, but my arm refuses. It’s like someone chained me onto my seat… I am not motivated to do this whole moving thing.
I move my eyes to my other hand to take a look at my watch. The sleeve covers the hour digits, but the minutes read fifty eight. Whatever the hour actually is won’t matter because I know I’ll be late… well, who cares. This is just one more day that I will be tardy, and a few dollars less that I will receive on my paycheck. It’s not even worth the energy to turn on my car.
Surely Joe didn’t completely capture what it’s truly like to be depressed. But I am convinced that he learned a great deal from this exercise and that he will now go through life with a heightened sense of awareness and respect for depression and all forms of mental illness.
What if this assignment became part of every high school curriculum? Might it make an important step toward mental health awareness?