Sharp Objects, Explained

I’m going to periodically dedicate some time to unpacking the relevance and reality of various media depictions of mental illness. For some folks, especially the younger generations, these depictions are the first exposures they have to mental illnesses. If I have anything to say about these portrayals, I’ll pass it on to you all!

“Is it on Netflix?”

For many (at least, for me), this is the first question I ask when someone suggests a TV show to me. “HBO?” is a common follow-up. Probing a new introduction or acquaintance’s brain for their favorite Netflix show is a good conversational crutch, and I often receive a pretty fascinating range of responses when I bring it up. Within the last couple of months, the most common response I’ve heard is the new HBO mini-series called Sharp Objects.

I don’t know if its success can be attributed most closely to Amy Adams’ or Gillian Flynn’s involvement, for I can’t think of many other reasons it would have become so popular. It was a pretty interesting book; Gillian Flynn, though a bit dry in style, is a gifted suspense builder. I read it when the show was first announced, and while it was gripping, I was certain at the time that the show would flop. If the dark premise was relatable to me, there was little chance it would be relatable to most, right?

As with 13 Reasons Why (which I will definitely be getting to, in time), I was surprised by how fascinated my generation was by the dark world of mental illness. Sure, it was a fantastical, TV-ready version of mental illness, but there was clearly something about the nature of the darkness that spoke to the vast audiences these two shows pulled in. As someone who’s really lived the main premises of the two shows, I hope that my perspective on the ailments depicted can help contextualize their offscreen reality for my fellow Netflix and HBO subscribers.

Finally, before I get into it, I am really only comfortable writing this because of how far removed I am from this particular aspect of my mental illness. I’m going to steer clear of a few of my issues because they are too current, dark and raw. My last sharp experience was around three years ago and my worst time period was around four/five years ago, an amount of time that I can recently say is robust enough to count as a former phase of my life. This distance, I think, allows me to objectively analyze the issue while still being able to provide an inside account.

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Amy Adams’ character uses a razor and other sharp objects (roll credits!) to self harm. Her “thing” is using sharps to carve words into her body such that when the wounds scars over, the words are still visible on her skin. Both scenes in which we see her scarred body and scenes in which she harms herself are shown on screen. I’ve been in my fair share of outpatient and inpatient therapeutic environments, and while self harm was nearly unanimous among my fellow patients, I never encountered anyone else who carved words with their sharps.

The most common sources of self injurious behavior are mood disorders and trauma. OCD, Borderline, and Anorexia/Bulimia are also often underlying. The most popular demographic of self harmers is adolescent females (although around 40% of self harmers are male), and approximately 15% of adolescents will engage in self injurious behavior. You have definitely met someone who has self harmed, and perhaps know someone who is actively doing it. The most common method is cutting, but hitting and burning oneself are also prevalent. Overall, Sharp Objects does a passably good job of portraying these circumstances in the amount of time it dedicates to doing so. Amy Adams’ character, Camille, is a young adult with scarring, meaning her self injury likely started in adolescence (in the book this is clearly established).

Other than myself, the fictional Camille is the only “person” I’ve heard of who self injured by carving words into herself. While I certainly wasn’t raised by a (spoiler alert!) murderous, poisoning and verbally abusive mother, Camille’s apparent underlying motivations are similar to what mine were, with her methodology echoing mine as well.

In 8th grade, freshman year, and some of my sophomore year, self harm was a notable part of my life. Like Camille, I’d use various sharp objects(!) to carve meaningful words into my legs. My words of choice were selfish (the most common), fat, slut, and bad. Unlike Camille- who selected dozens of words and spread them across her body- I mostly stuck to these four words, over and over on my thighs. Though this wasn’t understood at the time, my OCD selected these words from my deepest emotional insecurities and necessitated their bleeding into the physical world. Cycling through these words in my head, over and over, wasn’t enough. I needed a release, and seeing these words blare red on my skin did the trick.

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Both in the book and show, Camille spends time in a psychiatric hospital. Given that self harm, while not inherently linked, is a good indicator of potential future suicide attempts, her stay in the hospital is realistic and a welcome inclusion. It’s unlikely that a doctor would hospitalize a patient purely because they are self harming, but self harming is indicative of deeper emotional suffering that can escalate to suicidality if untreated. I have only met a small handful of psychiatric patients who’ve managed to exclude self injury from their mental illness journey.

I was lucky; my entry into intensive therapeutic treatment more or less ended my self-harming stint. Faint scars of these words are only barely visible on my thighs, now, all former rosiness faded. It’s been theorized that Excoriation serves a similar function for me, but they are diagnostically and technically very different and I have found many useful ways to resist any urges that have arisen since I stopped. Like Camille, many people who self harm find it exceedingly difficult to stop, and continue the behavior into young adulthood and beyond. Self injury sticks as a coping mechanism, albeit one of the worst.

Another aspect of Camille’s portrayal that I appreciate is the contrast between her self injury and how she is seen by the local town-folk of Wind Gap. Camille Preaker was, especially in her teenage years, seen as the most beautiful and popular girl of her age group. Smart, rich, and well liked, few in the town would have suspected that she took a blade to her skin. Why would she? She was gifted in every way. There is a common stereotype of people who self-harm as “emo,” dramatic, unpopular, weird. In reality, while some of the people who self harm may fit into these categories, in my experience, self injury is non-discriminatory in who it affects. Its underlying issues of mood disorders, trauma, OCD, eating disorders, happen to nearly every demographic: wealthy and poor, young and old, all races, genders, and sexualities. By writing self harm into the Perfect Camille Preaker’s story, the audience is exposed to the radical opposite of the self-harming stereotype. Hopefully this wedges a bit of perspective into the popular stereotype of the self injurious person.

Truly, the only commonality self harmers share is the suffering they endure that leads to their behavior. Typical reasons for self harming include a desire to feel in control, to punish themselves, release intense emotion, or visibly cry out for help. For myself and likely for Camille, the words I carved were a way to release the painful intensity with which the words blared in my head.

If there’s a main takeaway to be gotten from the show, I’d like to think it’s that all kinds of people can experience inner pain, and that self harm is not an uncommon way for folks to cope with that pain. Not only that, but there is a way out of that pain. Camille entered into treatment and moved away from the most direct source of her pain (her familial conflict). This pain haunts her but in a distant way, and it’s only when she comes back to Wind Gap that her wounds, in both senses of the word, are re-opened. Disclosing her suffering to loving people in her life (her editor and his wife) proves crucial to her health and recovery. Self harm is present in the lives of people around you whether you are aware of it or not, and it may even be present in yours. Let my story and the story of Camille serve as examples of how self injury can be de-programmed and circumstances that lead to it can, and will, improve.

In the meantime, if you discover that anyone you know is self harming or know currently of anyone who is, make sure that a trusted adult (counselor, doctor, etc) knows- for self harm is a legitimate and potentially acute safety concern and therefore should never be kept quiet- and try your best not to judge the sufferer. They are enduring a difficult inner battle, and until it inevitably improves, it deserves your patience and sympathy.

Stay tuned for a somewhat differently toned take on 13 Reasons Why!

I’m so OCD: Excoriation

I’m so OCD is going to be a recurring article theme. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is my primary diagnosis and I’ve noticed that there are many circulating misconceptions and misunderstandings of the disorder. I’ll be writing about different compulsions and areas within OCD’s jurisdiction, in the hopes that discussion of it will help foster understanding and compassion.

“Oh, I have that too! I pick at my nails all the time.”

There’s nothing unforgivable about those sentences. The people who say that to me are usually just trying to forge a connection through a shared quirk, or make me feel at ease in a moment I likely appear to be uncomfortable, or validate their own understandable frustration with a bad habit of theirs. I’m guilty of those things, myself, in other ways. Despite my understanding of it, those sentences nip at me every time I hear them. I wish I knew more people who had Excoriation disorder. Excoriation, or picking as I usually call it, is rare and uncomfortable, and by nature it alienates the sufferer from their non-picking contemporaries.

Excoriation disorder, or dermatillomania, is characterized by the sufferer’s inability to stop picking at their own skin. A few key elements of the disorder separate it from a layperson’s nail habit (and other body-focussed repetitive behaviors). Among other things, the picking must cause significant, function-impairing distress and persist despite repeated attempts to stop. Like any disorder, the thing that really sets it apart from a slump, bad habit, or personality trait is the degree to which it hurts and the degree of helplessness that’s involved. There is a suspected strong relationship between OCD and dermatillomania, with picking often conceptualized as a compulsion.

I’ve suffered from dermatillomania since eighth grade. In the two years preceding the dawn of my disorder, I suffered from trichotillomania, which describes the inability to stop pulling one’s hair out.  My hair part- split down the middle- was almost two inches wide, for I’d pulled out nearly every strand of hair along it. I’d sit for hours atop my bed, plucking blonde strand after blonde strand from my scalp before glancing briefly at it and tossing it behind my bed. Balls of hair accumulated under my bed, and my dog was once spotted munching on one, much to my humiliation (and his delight). There was little to no pain involved, and with each pluck! came the most brief, intimate sense of relief that was quickly replaced by an insatiable desire to do it again. My eyes would glaze over and I would pluck deep into the night, every night. I was twelve. This is the glamor of OCD.

Come the end of seventh grade, my interest in maintaining my looks spiked and I was too ashamed of my bald patch to continue the habit. I bought droves of makeup, begged my mother to take me shopping at Hollister and Forever 21, and renounced trichotillomania! I wish it had been that simple. My OCD didn’t stop, or even lessen. I immediately replaced my hair plucking with something more concealable and insidious. It started with my upper arms, outward facing. I’d keep my nails long and sharp so I could dig them into my skin, forming perfect circles, making just the right scratch, achieving just the right pick. Come the middle of eighth grade, I was glancing down to my arms dozens of times a day, sneaking in a quick pick to tide me over, and when night fell, I’d almost always be found huddled on my bathroom floor, lights bright and blaring overhead, scratching and picking away. I didn’t wear tank tops, and if I did, I’d apply face concealer to my most obvious, often still raw, picked spots. I was fourteen. This is the glamor of OCD.

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Winter 2017. My mother photographed me with picking spots painted inside of hearts.

My picking quickly spiraled into something worse than just spots on my upper arms. As I entered high school, nearly every spot on my body was fair game. The most popular locations were my upper chest, outer arms, face, shoulders, and knees. Some days I’d be able to limit my quick picks to a dozen or so occasions and simply an hour spent in the bathroom nightly, but if I had a lot of homework, had a nasty fight with my parents or sister, was particularly worried about a social event or relationship, I could spend up to four hours in the bathroom, my shirt spotting with blood, eyes glazed over, music playing and the shower’s steam clouding the mirror over the counter. My bathroom “sessions” stole away time that would otherwise have been spent sleeping or doing schoolwork. These sessions would end deep into the night, and I’d be exhausted and miserable, but I’d be satisfied in a way I didn’t understand. If I didn’t pick for long enough, my body would begin to buzz, so to speak, and the itch would grow until I satisfied it. After “snapping out of it,” I’d douse myself under the showerhead for ten minutes or so before dashing to bed, able to sleep soundly only then. This is the glamor of OCD.

Throughout my high school years, the amount of time I’ve poured into stopping myself from picking and into concealing my picking would be astronomical, if a tally was kept. I’ve bought nearly a dozen bottles of body makeup, many dozens of cheap, CVS stockings, boxes upon boxes of one-inch-by-one-inch band aids. I bought the paid version of the app Facetune to blur out my spots from any picture I would post on Facebook or Instagram. I’ve spent hours perusing the internet for a fashionable, long sleeved swim shirt to conceal my upper body from others in the summer. I’ve basked for many dozens of hours in the hot summer sun, not a drop of sunscreen on me, in an effort to “burn off” my picking spots. Nothing stuck. I’m perpetually scared of the judgement of people around me, especially in the warmer months. I’ve fielded questions like “are those bugbites?” (yes, damn mosquitoes! I’d eagerly say) and “eww, is that some kind of disease?” (yes, damn spattergroit! I should have said). This is the glamor of OCD.

I’ve tried nearly every method I or anyone around me can think of. I wore gloves, taped my fingernails, clutched onto hand-held games (none worked; I’d put the game down, take the gloves and tape off). My parents took me to a specialist at Yale who couldn’t make a dent in it. My psychiatrist put me on a fringe medication that had been shown in a study or two to possibly reduce picking urges. I kept my bathroom door cracked while my parents timed me- fifteen minutes maximum- in the shower, at night. I recruited my friends and family to exclaim “picking!” when they noticed me doing it. One year, I religiously got a very mild spray tan every three weeks based on a theory that if I just wanted clean skin more, as I might when I’d spent good money on a flawless glow, I would be less likely to engage. I didn’t understand that my behavior had nothing to do with what I wanted. If it did, I’d never have started it. I was powerless.

In his book Brain Lock, author Jeffrey M. Schwartz presents a few dozen cases of OCD patients he has treated throughout his career. Each case was different, but one of the threads that ran through them all was a deep sense of shame. The OCD sufferer knows full well that their behavior is ridiculous, unnecessary, a distraction, that it is unsettling for others to watch. Though they desperately want to, they can’t stop performing their rituals. The brain composition of the OCD sufferer is chemically different than that of a neurotypical brain. OCD is not a lost cause, and therapy and medication have been proven to have profound healing effects upon it. It is, however, far more complex than “just stop!” It, and both of the “mania”s, are so much more than just a bad nail habit.

I still struggle with dermatillomania. It’s much less severe than it has been at multiple points in my life, and I understand it far better than I ever have. However, it’s a chronic disorder, and there is a chance I’ll be struggling with this compulsion, to varying degrees and perhaps in different capacities, for the rest of my life.

For me, recognition of what my disorder is goes a long way. I’ve only ever met two other dermatillomaniacs, which speaks to how rare it is. As goes for the other criticisms of the trivialization of OCD, the simple acknowledgement that the disorder exists and is extremely difficult- compassion, in essence- goes a long way. As weird as it seems to you, compulsions are many times more scary for the person who’s chained to them. If you couldn’t relate to my story, I hope it at least helps you reach a better understanding of the various futilities that the people around you engage with. We all want to feel as if we’re in the driver’s seat of our actions, and some people’s brains aren’t wired to feel that way.

We all want to feel as if we’re in the driver’s seat of our actions, and some people’s brains aren’t wired to feel that way.

If some part of my story resonates with you, and/or you suspect you may suffer from a “mania” or OCD, bring up your concerns to your doctor! Social media, socialization and general insecurity make this disorder particularly difficult to speak up about, but doing so is the first step towards ridding yourself of it. Unlike some disorders, OCD is very treatable, or at least manageable.

One way I’m taking control back is by eliminating my habitual Facetune blurring of the pictures I post. It’s a scary leap for me, but it says to my followers, and most importantly to myself, that I’m not ashamed. I used to be, and I may be in the future, but right now I know I’m doing the best that I can. I’m tackling my picking compulsion with my doctors, a medication targeted towards OCD. I’m experimenting with replacement behaviors and reading as far deep into my ailment as possible. As I do those things, I slowly but surely wrestle back control from OCD. If there’s any physical ailment, disfigurement, or similar that you wear, give posting it, unedited, a try! You can always take it down, but I’m willing to bet you’d feel a bit more powerful if you let it out.

What to Expect When You Ask for Help

I can think of a handful of powerful reasons for my not wanting to ask for help with my eating disorder. I was afraid of what losing my vice grip on my body would mean for my other disorders. I was afraid of admitting that my obsessive exercise and restriction was not strong, after all, but a weakness in need of healing. I was afraid that my doctors would demand I gain weight. I was afraid of entering into residential treatment; what would that mean for my schooling, and how would my parents afford it? Above all, I was afraid of dissolving my known, meticulously controlled, eating disordered world in favor of reality, as rife with unknowns and question marks as it is.

Some of my fears were rightfully realized and some turned out to have been way off the mark. Until I sat in front of my doctor and said the words “I think I might need help with this,” I had no idea what to expect. Even now, I can’t promise anyone who’s thinking about reaching out for help that their outcomes will be the same as mine. My particular circumstances may substantially differentiate your experience with eating disorder treatment from mine. However, when I factor my observations of fellow patients in my residential treatment center into my knowledge of the process, I think I have a pretty good handle on what you can expect.

Unless you head to the emergency room due to a physical incident, your first experience with treatment will likely be a consultation with a nutritionist or general practitioner who is specially trained in eating disorders. However, in order to get to those specialists you’ll either need to reach out to your general doctors or allow your doctors to reach out to you. Some eating disordered behaviors are more easily spotted than others. A drastic weight loss or an extremely low body weight are likely more apparent than internal damage due to binging and purging or tooth decay, but neither set of behaviors is more dangerous than the other. It’s very possible that the onus of getting help before your body is seriously hurt will be on you.

I was very unmotivated to seek help. My psychiatrist had noticed my drastic weight loss and was bringing it up in sessions casually. He gave me a nutritionist’s number to call should I ever decide I “couldn’t do it by myself.” If he hadn’t done that, I likely would have gone longer without seeking help, but the fact of the matter is that I didn’t even want to give up on anorexia when I sought help. None of the cliched motivators spoke to me; an eating disorder is just a distraction from the real problem, you are beautiful just the way you are, this isn’t sustainable! chased me as I ran for up to three hours every day on my local hiking trails, dodging what I thought were just branches and puddles. I listened to rap music on as blaring of a volume as I could in my earbuds, and even as I ran for three hours in the middle of a blizzard, the power out on the surrounding streets and the white night sky falling onto me, I thought that I was so powerful, on top of the world, for being able to push past normal boundaries. The real reason I sought help?

My bones had degenerated so drastically that I could barely walk, and I wanted to be able to keep going on my three hour runs without sharp pains, dull aches, and collapsing joints. I didn’t want to hear that I needed to gain weight, or change my lifestyle, or find out why I refused to eat, why I ran so much, why the sight of my bruised legs made me smile, why I weighed myself three times a day. I wanted a quick, cheating fix to my achy bones so I could sustain my eating disorder indefinitely.

That’s not what I got when I finally picked up my phone and called the nutritionist’s number, but she didn’t give me a higher weight I had to reach, either, nor did she tell me I had to completely transform my lifestyle that day, or insist on a change of heart and total commitment to healing. In fact, when I walked through her door and gingerly sat myself down onto her furry, grey couch, she barely asked a thing of me. She let me talk, explain what I’d been doing and why I thought I’d been doing it, even as I expressed clearly sickened ideas like “it’s not really that bad, maybe I’ve gone a little far but I can handle it, I think.” Her responses followed along the lines of “I understand,” “that makes sense,” and “I know that must be hard.”

Then she dropped the “residential treatment” bomb. In truth, I desperately needed it on that day, but I was even more desperate to avoid it and was therefore not ready for it. My shrunken stomach sunk and I burst into a frantic, babbling monologue about how I just couldn’t go into residential, that I thought I needed, deserved, a chance to do it outpatient, first. My vital signs, when taken the next day, were stable enough that I could just barely win my nutritionist’s skeptical go-ahead for outpatient treatment. Emboldened by the wake up call of the “r-word,” I vehemently promised to all of my medical professionals that I was better, I was committed, I understood the risks of an eating disorder and would henceforth be stopping it!

Of course, those declarations weren’t real. I lasted a little over a month before brutally tanking again, my vitals at dangerous levels and my mouth exclusively used for sobbed mutterings. I was sent to a residential treatment center at my lowest weight since sixth grade. I had not been truly committed to recovery and had done no actual work to challenge my eating disordered thoughts and behaviors. Eating disorders are typically conceptualized as addictions, and are thusly generally treated with inpatient first, followed by tapered outpatient. But my doctors let me do it my way. They understood that there is no use in forcing someone into ED treatment who doesn’t want to be there, unless that person is in acute physical danger. If you approach a specialist and are honest with them about where you are, they will return the favor and try to meet you where you are. That’s a constant I feel confident in stating; if you can get help, you will be heard.

“If you can get help, you will be heard.”

Eventually (after about a week and a half), I fully embraced my treatment center. I faced head-on the trauma that induced my anorexia and I laid my deepest fears, angers, and compulsions bare for all to see, doctors and disordered peers alike. It was terrifying, brutal, and exhausting. The pain of it was indicative of the growth I was undergoing. I now recognize that it saved my life, but before I surrendered to it, I saw it as a red line not to be crossed; I was not leaving home, my boyfriend, my school, my friends, all to get rid of my perceived best friend: my eating disorder. My eating disorder was always there for me, at all hours of the day and through any tumult. I needed it, I would not let go!

My doctors listened to my not!s. They gently coaxed me, but were willing to take necessary measures to save my life and help me build a life worth living. Every hard decision was made while care and love oozed out of its seams, even if I resented it at the time. I didn’t want to have a nighttime snack; the word snack so obviously implied to me an extra amount of food. I won’t eat extra! I didn’t want to have a morning snack; if I ate extra in the morning I couldn’t work out as well in the afternoon, I insisted. They negotiated me down to just the night snack. My complaint about morning fullness was heard and validated, and they responded by upping the amount of food in my night snack while helping me confront my irrational emotional aversion to snacking. I was unwilling to give up exercise, so they worked with me to come up with ways for me to gently exercise that my bones (now permanently brittle) would be able to handle: swimming, biking. Doctors know well that an eating disorder is centered around control, and if the disordered patient feels powerless in their treatment, it simply won’t be effective in the long term.

So, what would I say to you if you told me you were nervous to seek help for your eating disorder? Of course you are.

Reaching out is scary. Surrendering is scary, but nothing will happen without your consent unless you’re in immediate danger. Ultimately, the most powerful, controlled, and brave thing you could do is to surrender to the unknowns of doctors and treatment. You’ll have a say over your treatment, but most importantly, you’ll learn how to have a genuine say in your body and mind. Eating disorders, though they’re adamant otherwise, snatch control from you and endanger you. Ask for help, release yourself from the disorder, and you will win it back.

3 Things I Learned from Graduating High School in 6 Years

Four years of high school, four years of college, maybe a couple years or so of grad school. It’s a progression most high school students I know don’t spend much time considering the necessity of, as unspokenly expected as it is. It’s a progression that my deviation from has resulted in a painful degree of internal strife. It’s also a progression that, as I approach the end of my six year high school career, I now understand to be unsuspectingly formative and fortifying for me.

The average student can make it through high school in four years. They all do it differently and to varying degrees of academic and personal success, and there’s no denying that being able to get through high school in the typical four year time allotment would be ideal for almost any teenager. So both times I found out I’d have to stay back a year are permanently embedded into the shameful part of my memory. My first missed year was the result of a cumulation of mental health issues I was struggling with and my second missed year was the result of a severe concussion. In between, I’ve had periods of weeks and months where school was the only place I wanted to be, and I’ve had periods where merely the thought of getting onto my bus in the morning made me want to throw up. As tumultuous as my journey through high school has been and as much as part of me wishes I’d been able to do it in four years, the lessons I have learned about myself and others from this extended journey have been invaluable. Without further ado, here is a sampling of three of them!

 

      1. No one’s paying that much attention to you.

 

I’ve learned this lesson in a lot of ways, but none more strikingly than I did when I finally got around to admitting my academic delay to my peers. A common source of anxiety is catastrophizing, which is when one assumes that an outcome will be dramatically worse than it likely will end up being. It’s a phenomenon central to an anxious person’s experience, and leads to a great deal of unnecessary suffering for the individual.

I was absolutely convinced, especially when I realized I’d be delayed the first time, that everyone in my grade would be gossiping about it. In my head swirled images of my friends cross-checking with each other the facts of my vacancy, scenes in which casual acquaintances or random strangers whispered and giggled to each other about my unintelligence, craziness, or general inadequacy. I was certain that my peers would actively deem me stupid, lame, a failure. I refused to re-enter my public school in any capacity, for I decided that the moment I sat down in a class with students who’d been a grade below me my entire life, not only would the folks around me assume the worst about me, but they’d be right.

I needed no facts to support my fears, for they weren’t based in any experience I’d had. No one my age had previously accused me of those things. I’d never observed my peers whispering or gossiping about me in that way, nor had I been denigrated by them for possessing any of the aforementioned qualities. However, the intense catastrophizations persisted, for they weren’t based in reality. They were based in my internal fears about myself and what I was afraid a school delay said about my character. The work to be done was not in avoiding my peers or leaving my school; my work was in tackling my core beliefs about my intelligence and the meaning of success.

The best way to assuage catastrophizations is to face the fear head on, for once it is experienced, the likely underwhelming outcome will re-train the anxious brain to be more comfortable facing uncertainty and fear. I obfuscated the explanation of my academic situation to most people, at first. Inevitably, I simply had to explain to administrators, adults, and even friends why I wasn’t in their class. Everyone I explained my situation to was unfailingly either supportive or unflinching. Neither of those reactions were what I expected, and neither affirmed any of my fears about my intelligence or social standing or adequacy. Everyone was caught up in their own worlds; most of my friends were poring over SAT prep books, attending debates and MUN conferences, waking up early or staying out late for sports, or otherwise experiencing their own worries and fears. I was the last thing on their minds, and it was only when I chose to disclose my journey to them that they seemed to spend time considering it. The considering that they did do was empathetic and casual. In general, people are much less worried about your life, your successes and failures, than you think they are. They’re generally most consumed by their own successes and failures, as are you. If I’d allowed myself to understand that all along, I would have saved myself a significant amount of suffering.

 

       2. Academic success is subjective.

 

Most kinds of success are subjective, but this specific noble truth is one that I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with. I was raised on the praise of being the “smart one” or the “academic one,” both comparably as a twin and more broadly as a little member of my community. I was pretty athletic and did passably well socially, but the way I really shone was by getting better grades than everyone else, by reading faster than everyone else, by being the teacher’s pet. I remember emerging from my fifth grade math placement test in inconsolable tears because I was convinced that not having gotten around to the last question within the allotted time would disqualify me from being placed into the highest math track for sixth grade. At age eleven, I had no concept of the valid implications of tracking for college admissions; I thought I would objectively cease to be smart if I didn’t get into the highest track. Not being “a smart kid” would have marked the end of my identity, and external, standardized measures determined my “smart”-ness. I ultimately qualified for the highest math track and have stayed on it ever since, but that memory has stayed with me, too. And I don’t even like math.

Particularly in affluent, homogenous, competitive communities, there is a specific version of academic success that is commonly touted, and it’s tantalizingly simple; the higher/more the better, everywhere, always. Those who take the most AP classes, have the highest GPA, go the most hours without sleeping, win the highest number of academic/class awards, are the successful ones. They’re the “smart” ones. To be fair, there is often correlation between academic success and intelligence. The rigidity, however, of the model of “more is better” leaves painful damage in its exponential wake.

A core belief I had about myself- that I had to be a “smart kid” according to others in order to be of value as a human being- was brutally challenged during my high school career. Though I took four AP classes (already far fewer than I’d ever expected to), I never sat for an AP exam. The special needs school that I attended for my sophomore and junior years only offered a sparse selection of AP and honors classes. Even in those, I would struggle to show up and hand in homework that I could do in my sleep, had I been mentally healthy. The most common phrase uttered to me during high school was “There’s no question that you’re smart enough for these courses, Olivia. It’s the emotional piece that gets you.” My academic potential was always such that I’d be enrolled in the highest level of courses the school allowed for, on principle. I took the most AP’s out of anyone at the school. Despite my presence in the courses and the truth being that I was doing all that I could, I was miserable. My friends in public school were taking six AP classes in a year and getting A’s in them. They were getting to soccer games, debate practices, FBLA conferences and volunteering for dozens of hours on top of it, all while managing to keep it together, so to speak. Instead of being comfortable in the knowledge that I was smart enough to do the same and simply was not emotionally able to, rather than taking comfort in the thought that I was doing the best I could, I saw the fewer AP’s and lower GPA and took that to directly mean that my character was actually lesser than that of my peers.

My model of academic self-doubt is specific to my own internal fears, but it can be felt by a wide range of people who are not at the top of the academic food chain for a wide range of reasons. All kinds of mental illnesses prevent students from peak academic performance. Perhaps a student must work in order to help support their family, or take care of siblings to allow a parent to do so. Perhaps a student is so enamored by and dedicated to an extracurricular activity that academics naturally fall by the wayside. Perhaps science and math are simply not interesting to a student, and AP Calculus BC would bore them to tears. It’s easy to judge a student by how many, how high, how much. It’s easy to assume those who aren’t at the top are lazy, less intelligent, unmotivated, short-sighted. It’s much more difficult, but ultimately fairer and more fruitful, to judge a student in a nuanced, holistic way.

Do they put forth the highest degree of effort that they can? Are they actively participatory in the classroom? Are they kind, cooperative and inclusive among their peers? Do they demonstrate effort to push academic boundaries relative to their own abilities? Do they engage in academia (and the world, more broadly) with eagerness and an open mind? The answers to these questions are much more likely to give you a true picture of the kind of student someone is.

Everyone’s level of achievement within the typical academic model is going to be different, so expand the model! You can’t control how a top college interprets success (though there is a recent, slight shift in this, top colleges generally adhere to a strict “more is better” model), but you can control how you interpret it. If you allow yourself to understand success not only as a nuanced concept that is relative to every individual’s abilities but one that does not reflect definitively on the moral character of a student, you will save your peers, and most importantly yourself, a whole lot of judgement, criticism and suffering. If I ultimately succumbed to my automatic interpretation of fewer AP classes and less expediency being indicative of objective underachievement (and let that underachievement reflect on my character), I’d be a non-functional, self hating mess. At the end of the day, such judgement and suffering are likely to stunt any metric of success, anyway!

 

         3. Time is an illusion!

 

Sorry, I had to. Low hanging fruit… in what capacity time exists is a debate for another day. Specifically, I mean that some deadlines only serve to induce judgement, as opposed to serving as a metric of the quality of work done. While it’s important that you file your taxes by April 15th and that all of Santa’s presents be in place by wake-up, they are only important because their outcome relies on the deadline. If you don’t file your taxes, you will be fined. If the presents aren’t placed, magic is lost and tears will need to be wiped. The amount of time it takes you to get through school is arbitrary and does not dictate the outcome of the years spent in school. While cliche, the adage “it’s about the journey, not the destination,” (or, as Miley Cyrus most succinctly preached, “it’s the climb”) rings true.

When my brother graduated from preschool and into kindergarten, I remember asking my mother why some of his friends didn’t follow him into his class. Several remained for an extra year of preschool, despite having made it through with seemingly the same level of ease as my brother. My mother explained it to me as the parents of those children had explained it to her; being older in a grade was an advantage, and their kids were among the youngest, so they wanted to hold them back in order to place them at the older end of their group. While at first this came off as a bit shady, it makes sense strategically. Their kids, previously destined to be the smallest and most immature, were now going to be the biggest, strongest, and most developmentally advanced in their grade. This would likely boost their standing in the grade in all kinds of ways, ranging from academic to social comparisons, and even in terms of their own internal confidence. They’d have a needed extra year of schooling to mature and grow, and would be better off for it. It’s a common practice, as it turns out, but it is usually only applied to students at the cusp of new academic stages; namely, kindergarten and the freshman year of college.

The application of this concept- delay for growth and better outcomes- isn’t commonly applied to the in-between years. How often is it that you hear “Oh, Josh? His parents kept him back, he’s still in 7th grade. His birthday was, like, at the end of July.” Usually, if a student stays behind from an in-between year, it’s assumed that they’ll be worse off for it because it was not intentional. If the reason isn’t that they’re entering a private school that requested they repeat, or “red-shirting” for freshman athletic eligibility, taking a gap year, or something similar, the blanks that are filled in are rarely done so generously. Before it happened to me, I assumed that kids who were held back were either troublemakers (disciplinary issues) or less intelligent (failed all classes). Before it happened to me.

Staying back a grade is neither punitive nor the end of the world, and is almost always the best outcome for the student. I stayed back because at the end of my freshman year, I was hospitalized for a range of mental illnesses and remained so for part of the summer. My illnesses persisted past my hospitalization, however, and I wasn’t able to attend more than a month or so of school come the fall of my sophomore year before I was usually unable to get myself through the front door. Come April, it became clear to me that my grade advancement was in danger, and my parents and I scrambled for an explanation of how I could advance, after all. I was told by school administrators that I had two options. I could either cram many hours of academic tutoring in at my local library every day, with teachers I’d never met and work I hadn’t seen for months in order to earn merely passing grades, or I could surrender and repeat the year. If I hadn’t repeated, my sophomore year would look wholly unimpressive and rushed, and little if any education would have been internalized.

My choice to repeat was vehemently reluctant at the time, but I’m grateful to my sixteen year old self for making it. I grew a lot during my repeated sophomore year, a year I completed at a special needs school designed to get me through the door. Given my mental/emotional struggles, I needed an extra year at a time when most of my peers didn’t. In fact, it wasn’t “extra” at all. It’s exactly what I needed to advance from sophomore to junior year. For a football player or a young preschooler, an extra year is exactly what is needed to be able to perform on par with, or better than, their peers. There is no actual logic behind high school being a four year endeavor. Any pressure for it to be so blossoms from a generalized fear of being different, but if that difference is what gets you to the same destination- high school graduation, making the team, comparable maturation, etc-  is there all that much difference, after all?

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Welcome to Millennial Girl, Interrupted!

I was inspired to make this blog, believe it or not, by the National Walkout movement in the wake of the Parkland shooting.

I attended a school for students with special needs: academically capable, but emotionally disabled. Most of us suffered from generalized anxiety and depression, as well as a smattering of other illnesses like bipolar, PTSD, borderline personality, OCD, schizophrenia, and many more. We shared our converted office building with our sister school for cognitively disabled students. We were the demographic that was getting blamed for shootings, rather than the guns themselves. I watched the news roll in, day after day, seemingly unendingly, portraying the epidemic of school shootings as one that really was just about mental illness. Parents, keep a closer watch over your crazy kids!

It was maddeningly familiar. The national attention was appreciated, but it wasn’t genuine. Mentally ill students were mostly in the news to be used as a timely distraction from the weapons used to slaughter hundreds. When the news cycle ended and gun sales had risen satisfactorily, the national fascination with the mentally ill melted away. Children who lived with mental illness every day and somehow found it within themselves not to shoot up a school were left in the dust, and the shame, stigma, isolation and under-funding of their predicaments became the narrative again.

I organized a Walk Out for our school. Featuring a population of only around forty students, there was no anticipation that this would be a visible event of any sort. I sent an email out to all students and staff a few days before the date. I wanted to empower my classmates to a semblance of a position of control over their story. You’re a part of this, too! I insisted. They’d all been reading and hearing adults refer to them derogatorily for weeks. Lost in the stampede of coverage was the acknowledgement that they, too, had to attend a school day amidst the fear it could be their last, and that they were much more likely to be victims of gun violence than perpetrators of it. Lost was their persistent need for care, attention, and funding for their illnesses, a need that existed long before Nikolas Cruz stormed Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, before Adam Lanza stormed Sandy Hook Elementary School. Whatever your interpretation of gun violence and appropriate preventative measures, mentally ill people needed (and need!) much more help than they were getting. While I couldn’t march into Paul Ryan’s office and hand him a mental health reform bill draft, I could help the kids around me feel a little more powerful and participatory as we held hands in a circle in our parking lot and observed seventeen minutes of silence.

I’ve learned a lot throughout my six year journey with mental illness. The most striking thing I’ve learned is that so little is generally known. Down the chain of command from the most researched and educated doctors in the nation, you’ll find a stream of information so sparse by the time it reaches the public that not even those who suffer from mental illness are terribly well informed. I find this to be particularly true in the student population. My peers who managed to make it to our school, specifically designed for us, were lucky. Many students in public school suffered alone, awash in stigma and pressure to perform and at a loss as to what to do about their struggles.

I saw this during my time spent in public school, both before and after my time at my special needs school. I saw this at the special needs school, as shell shocked former-public-school students rolled in throughout the year, struggling to adapt to the “world of mental illness,” as those embroiled in it (mostly) fondly refer to it. I saw this in multiple mental health hospitals I spent time at, as overwhelmed parents engaged exhaustively with doctors while their children wanted nothing more but to get back to school, back to class, not miss work, not prompt too many rumors, all while not knowing what any of their prescribed meds even did.

Mental illness is messy, complicated, and scary. It is especially these things for those who experience it. A combination of medication, therapy, and self direction can bring anyone back into the light, as any trained professional will be the first to say. But the dark, so to speak, needn’t be so dark at all. The journey to recovery and mental health is one many children and their adult selves will brave, and the shroud of secrecy and stigma that surrounds it is unnecessary. As with any struggle humans experience, our camaraderie in the face of it can be particularly empowering. The more information and connection is shared between those who are struggling with mental illness (in a helpful, therapeutic spirit), the closer we come to bringing this struggle back into the light, too. This is an especially powerful imperative for students, who struggle in a period of their life in which socialization is crucially formative.

Put simply, if you have twenty students in your English class, a chunk of around five of them are likely currently struggling with at least one mental illness. You certainly have friends and/or family who are currently struggling, whether in solitude and silence or in treatment. You want to be the best friend, classmate, brother, sister, cousin, etcetera, that you can be to those people.

More than anything, though, you deserve readily available resources to deal with your own emotional journey. It doesn’t have to be so intense as to require hospitalization in order to be worthy of help. Lots of us have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, or get too anxious to make phone calls. More of us than you’d likely suspect ponder what it’d be like if we never got out of bed again. Those thoughts and experiences are okay and valid, but they can get better, and they don’t have to solely with older doctors, or completely alone.

The first step, of course, is to seek assistance from a doctor, therapist, or similar figure. I’ll talk about how to take that first step, and much more. But there’s a fair amount to the journey that is harder to pick up from your doctors. What’s it really like to suffer from things the other kids don’t understand? How scary is a mental hospital, really? How can you balance social media with your mental health? How do you actually talk meaningfully to a classmate or friend who’s depressed, or has survived trauma? Why are so many kids self harming, and what can you really do to support those kids? What do you really need to know about what an IEP is? What resources are available in your community?

Oftentimes, these questions are answered late in life via a combination of age and experience. I don’t pretend to have the former, but at just 20 years old I have the latter in abundance, and feel passionately about sharing my story and what I’ve gleaned from it with anyone who cares to read it. I’ve been all over the mental health spectrum, suffer from a wide range of things, have engaged in many therapies and, crucially, am well along my recovery path. But at the beginning of my journey, all I had was Google and my middle school guidance counselor until I got in touch with a solid treatment team. Even then, however, they were all at least triple my age. Hopefully I, a millennial myself, can provide more nuanced insight into what it’s like to grow up, today, with mental illnesses. I’ve done it for a long time, and continue to do it every day.

Browse around, check out all of the pages and resources, and attend your next appointment!

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” — David Foster Wallace

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CREDIT: The Spire School on Instagram (@thespireschool)