Content/trigger warnings for mental health and some of its associated demons. Not very explicit, so feel free to continue reading if you’re not extremely sensitive.
It is dangerous and destabilizing to be deprived of something or someone identifiable to blame. This is the kind of problem that gives birth to itself, and one that often serves to protect, rather than re-examine, the system from which it emerges.
The journal entry that would eventually turn into this essay was composed on my third day of suffering from a headache that had consistently followed me into unconsciousness at night and been the first thing to greet me in the morning. The headache had rendered nearly all my sleep for the past two nights ineffective and continued to resist every dose of painkillers I threw at it. My brain felt like what I imagined sentient bacon would experience as it sizzles in a frying pan. My hands had lost the ability to be still, trembling as if I had recently overdosed on caffeine. Hyperactivity is so far the severest way my body has learnt to express extreme exhaustion, so all my symptoms on that day were a clear indication that my wellbeing was in the danger zone.
On the second day of suffering, my headache had been bad enough to incapacitate me for half a day. Here is a sketch of what my incapacitation looks like: I am locked in consciousness, yet unable to do anything with it. Sleep refuses to claim me, and I am stuck with the pain. I toss and turn in bed, and my mind is a mess of interfering signals. The ability to concentrate on any task is beyond me, and an action as simple as keeping my eyes open is impossible. It is particularly during moments of incapacitation that I see the tragedy of how micromanaged my life in college is; being unable to work for half a day screws me up for at least a week. But on that second day, I could only think about how screwed-up I was. It was only on the third day of suffering, when my brain could at least make space for other things alongside the pain, that I began to truly feel it.
The feeling came in the form of an anxiety attack, like a psychological cyclone that my body didn’t know how to process. Its only physical manifestation was a heart rate that reminded me of the thundering of a helicopter’s wings, and even that description doesn’t feel like nearly enough to do justice to what was occurring within.
I don’t often have identifiable triggers for my attacks, but this was one of the few times the triggers were clear as the most cloudless Californian sky. For one thing, I had expected my headache to disappear by the morning after its arrival, yet it had not. Then, the next day, I had been incapacitated. By the third day, it still hadn’t let me go, and my academic progress had been stagnated, causing me to panic because I couldn’t afford that stagnation in the face of a growing backlog of incomplete assignments. With every second that I remained non-functional, my to-do list loomed larger and more menacing in my mind, as did the fear that I was in danger of failing school outright. This was it, then: the headache that would destroy my future, and I was powerless to stop it. The cycle this produced was maddening: the paralyzing panic increased the panic levels, because my inability to work due to paralysis was the cause of my panic, and so on and so forth.
It was only the fourth week of the semester, but I already wanted to die. Again. This was neither the first, second nor third semester of my life where my will to live had plummeted into the negatives on a hypothetical scale. I disintegrated into tears.
Sometimes, when I am in intense emotional pain, I feel as if I am in danger of cardiac arrest – and in those moments, the unlikeliness of that occurring to a mere teenager is irrelevant to me. Nothing and no one can convince me that what I am experiencing so tangibly isn’t real. Out of concern for myself, a couple of weeks prior to the headache, I went to see a doctor for a physical check-up. When he asked me to explain why I’d really come, I told him only the amount of truth I believed was presently relevant. Even so, what he heard was enough to prompt him to tell me to consider returning to regular psychiatric counselling, and that there was a chance I would be prescribed some medication. Of course, to save time and trouble, I told him certainly, if my situation demanded it, I would recommence therapy, and if necessary, I would take the meds.
In truth, I had no intentions of sending myself to a therapist’s office anytime soon and wouldn’t even dream of conceding to medication. I couldn’t say this out loud, because I’d have had to justify why, and I didn’t yet have the words. Only later, on that third day of suffering, would I acquire the tools to articulate the roots of my antagonism.
The tools were unexpectedly handed to me through an assignment for my psychology class, contained in an excerpt of William Ryan’s book, Blaming the Victim. When we think of blaming the victim, what usually comes to mind is a more extreme manifestation; the kind that most remotely conscious people would be able to spot the logical faults in. An example of such is on Ryan’s first page: a suspicious inquiry as to what exactly Pearl Harbor was doing in the Pacific in the first place, anyway – because obviously it wouldn’t have gotten bombed if it hadn’t been there when the bombs hit, right? But the real subject of Ryan’s writing is later shown to be the more insidious, perhaps even more entrenched version of victim blaming that goes largely ignored; the kind that is so normalized that we are nearly blind to it. The quality that I think makes it most dangerous is how apparently well-meaning it is; it is devoid of malice and claims the betterment of individuals in society as its goal. Unfortunately, its ultimate flaw is that it is, in Ryan’s words, “a perverse form of social action designed to change, not society, as one might expect, but society’s victim.”
Blaming the victim works something like this: Akotowaa’s competence and resilience in handling the pressure of being a college student in an American higher-ed institution is faltering; it is affecting her ability to function like her normal peers. We could help her by providing her with psychiatric counselling or setting up a meeting to discuss support with a dean. In this framing, I am the victim, and no matter what good intentions there are behind it, it makes me the problem to be solved. The problems that caused mine automatically get a free pass when it is decided that I am the thing about which something needs to be done. Consequently, the conversation that is not happening here is the one that questions how healthy it is for an educational institution to demand so much from any single human being, to place so many requirements and responsibilities on anyone’s head. Surely, there must be a difference between creating an atmosphere of adequate challenge and overwhelming students to the point of rendering them dysfunctional.
I have never been drunk, and I have never been high. I do not even use substances – so it alarmed me slightly when I found myself suddenly wanting to abuse them. I have been almost desperate for something – anything – that at the very least can turn me off, shut me down, suspend my consciousness. I am aware that these thoughts are self-destructive, and probably should not occur to a mentally sound mind. I do not, however, believe that these thoughts occur to me because there is something internally wrong with me. I know that I often feel like I am living a life without adequate agency; people tell me where to go, what to be, how to use my time, try to get me to follow instructions robotically, and dump responsibilities on me seemingly without regard for my humanity. After all, isn’t the life of a college student in a prestigious institution meant to be rigorous? And don’t all low-income members of its society have to work their sanity off trying to make money to support themselves as well? And God help you if you’re an African international student, no less, and heavily dependent on financial aid. Heaven rescue you if you have a naturally rebellious, wildly creative, and usually uncooperative brain to top all that.
Once, I had a discussion with a fellow African international student who made a point about how it’s almost as if you need to have the excuse of being unwell – for example, presenting professors with a doctor’s note after having gotten into an accident – just to be treated as human. The point I am driving at is that sometimes it feels as though harm (both self-inflicted and otherwise) is the only way to snatch back, for a moment or for permanence, the agency, or even the humanity, that the rest of the world has been wresting away from you.
I care deeply about mental health issues and every individual affected by them. Nevertheless, I have begun, after perhaps three or more years since I was first diagnosed with depression, to reject being considered mentally ill. There are far too many circumstances outside of myself that are provoking my reactions, and most of the time, I just can’t see how the causes of many of my psychological problems are personal problems of mine.
Sometimes, when I talk to friends, the reassurance they try to give me is some variation of “You are not alone.” And I always want to reply, “Well, isn’t that the issue, then? That everything we are experiencing is so widespread and occurs so frequently that we’ve come to regard it as normal?” When they try to respond to my complaints with suggestions they honestly believe are helpful, I can’t help but notice that all the suggestions still involve doing something about me.
It was almost – but only almost – shocking to me when I discovered in a psychology class two years ago that for ages, mental health medicine hasn’t really known what it’s doing. Explaining away depression as a serotonin problem is something I would call a crutch – and for those who need scientific explanations like this to believe in, I suppose it is comforting. For me, it has been primarily destructive.
For at least five years now, I have internalized so much blame. My first instinct, whenever I am struggling, is to start from the point that I am the problem. I tell myself that I am struggling because I am not as intelligent as my peers, and that I am weak. There’s lots of evidence if I’m looking for it: my mates are Resident Assistants and athletes and STEM majors with rigorous schedules, who get internships in Silicon Valley and attend conferences whose titles alone humble me intellectually, and they have stellar GPAs. I don’t do even half of what they do, so why am I still constantly exhausted, overwhelmed, and in pain?
Whenever something has gone wrong in my life, I have tended to be the first to jump to the conclusion that I am clearly deficient in comparison to “normal”. Now that I have decided that I am not, I refuse to settle simply for words of self-empowerment and affirmation, as important as they are for people who have truly internalized the idea that they are damaged. For me, nothing short of structural change – change in the societies that produce such ideas in the first place – is ultimately satisfactory. Those other solutions, though they may be easier, still commonly fall into that benevolent victim-blaming category of proposals that seek to change society’s victim rather than society itself.
I have said before that it is dangerous and destabilizing to be deprived of something or someone identifiable to blame. This is how my misery transformed into anger: in my personal quest to identify some target, I finally arrived at a semi-satisfying abstraction of people to blame: everyone who was trying to blame me. That is how, on the third day of suffering, I began, furiously, to write.
There are fires being lit under me, and I am getting burned. The whole world tells me to go and get such-and-such ointment for the burns. It does not seem to occur to anyone that if there were not a fire being lit under me, I would not be suffering from severe burns. It does not seem to occur to anyone to turn off the fire. Nobody believes they have the power, or the power to find anyone that has the power, to turn the fire off. It’s so much easier to blame, for instance, an individual’s serotonin deficiency, or call me ill for wanting to do something to/for myself that makes me feel less like a mindless marionette.
I do not understand why it took me so long to truly comprehend that it isn’t my weakness that is responsible for the skyrocketing suicide rates at many of the most reputable higher education institutions. I’m not at fault for my school’s mental health facilities being so overbooked that the only options given to the remainder of the student population seeking counselling is outsourced therapy. What is absurd is that the sheer number of students breaking hard each semester hasn’t yet seemed to spark an active, seismic revolution. The very foundations upon which these problems are built needs to be shaken up, but I’m not sure many others see this as an emergency.
Maybe we are scared that a revolution might cost much more than anyone is willing to pay, because the closer you get to the roots of some problems, the more colossal and impossible to tackle they seem. For example, if I am not the problem, maybe it’s my school. But how can my school be to blame, if it’s forced to be as “competitive” as other high-class schools to be considered in the same league as them? Maybe the problem is that there’s something institutions these days are pressured to live up to. But how is that anyone’s fault but the corporate, capitalist, promiscuously meritocratic societies the institutions want to keep up with? And can we really blame these societies for having become all these things, when, maybe, this is just “how the world works”? And more “correct” we get, the more abstract we get, and furthermore, the harder it is to pinpoint anyone we can call responsible for anything. In just this paragraph, I have gone from zoning in on an individual (me) as the problem, to the vast an abstract problem of “the way the world works”, and it is difficult to see this, at first glance, as a useful approach to solution, because of how impossible the task of overturning “the world” sounds. So, it becomes that much more appealing, for instance, to blame individuals for serotonin deficiencies. This is exactly how we fall into the damaging cycles: as long as our targets of reform are wrong, the problems will never go away.
One might say I am irrationally optimistic, but I genuinely believe the right kind of change is possible. The status quo’s primary weapon of self-preservation is the ability to make humankind forget that the status quo itself is human-made. What human made, I firmly believe human can unmake. Unconsciously, we end up perceiving the status quo instead as “divine,” so to speak, and beyond our control or influence, thus resigning ourselves to thinking there is nothing that we can do about it, so we redirect our energies towards its victims. It’s like sprinkling a healing substance on a diseased tree’s leaves even though the source of the tree’s sickness is the very soil upon which it’s planted. Any system designed to get you trying to “fix” the wrong thing is a problem that gives birth to itself.
I will generally agree that I am depressed and have been for years. I insist, however, that I am not mentally ill — at least not in this regard. I should not be faulted for dying when something outside myself is killing me. To begin the process of generating useful solutions, I’ve had to train myself to start from the premise that I am not the problem. It has been important for me to write all of this because, until enough people come to similar conclusions, and finally decide collectively and individually to do something about it, things are either going to stay in these miserable states or get far, far worse. (In both cases, the capitalists win. And, especially since the depressed, suicidal billionaires don’t seem to be having much more of a good time than I am, I am certainly not here for that.)