I’ll start here: I don’t talk enough about how mental illness affects me.
I don’t talk about how I’ve learned to tell when an anxiety attack is coming on, and have left the office (or house, now) on more than one occasion to walk around the neighborhood, calming my breathing and willing my hands to unclench. I don’t talk about how, in the years before I could quantify the signs, I spent these moments under my desk with the lights off, feeling powerless to move or answer the door when someone knocked mid-meltdown. And I certainly never talk about how my mindset of near-certain doom effectively kept me out of any positions requiring on-call responsibilities.
To be clear, the fact that I speak minimally about any of the above is, in my eyes, a problem.
But I recognize where I’m getting better. In a separate conversation with a friend a few weeks ago, he was telling me about the trouble he was having writing a joke about a situation he was dealing with. My response: “you might be too close to write that joke. It’s hard to joke about it, when you’re in it.” And I will say, that’s the area in which I’ve made the most progress. For such a long time, anxiety and panic weighed on me so heavily that I couldn’t joke, couldn’t find anything funny because the world was just too heavy. The comedy of other people was what helped pull me out of it- once I realized I couldn’t laugh and worry or panic at the same time, I was hooked. Ever wonder why comedy’s so important to me? Now you know.
Two seemingly unrelated, but at the same time wholly related, events have brought me to a place of talking about this. First, I spent much of last weekend glued to Maria Bamford’s profoundly revealing and incredibly funny Lady Dynamite (streaming now on Netflix). In it, she tells a multi-layered fictionalized story about a return to working in Hollywood after a breakdown and institutionalization for bipolar disorder and OCD. I’m starting to notice that while I have spent a few of my 100 days writing jokes about the things that make me anxious, the idea of an entire show dedicated to chronicling a breakdown and subsequent return to form is still terrifying.
I’m not sure what it is about Netflix that they’ve decided to tackle the “humor and mental illness niche” – perhaps something about those affected already being in the house? I have no idea. But in any case, I suspect that a lot of things I love so much about the dark but hilarious BoJack Horseman, and hear I’ll like about Flaked (haven’t watched it yet, but it’s on the list!), draw me to Lady Dynamite. Even as I laughed through many of the jokes about common situations that I’ve felt (there’s a joke about faking a personality at a party that includes an out-loud proclamation of “I’m a natural extrovert, and so this is a pleasure” that I was standing when watching…and then was almost on the floor I laughed so hard), there was an ever-present level of awe that came from the realization that I was watching someone tell an incredibly personal story with a level of distance that left it feeling both deeply personal and relatable, while also making it really really funny. I don’t know if I’ll ever make it there, but I am forever grateful to Bamford for doing so. Watch it if you haven’t yet.
Second, and closer to my professional home, was the public disclosure of University of Cincinnati’s president Santa Ono that he’s struggled with mental illness, and attempted suicide twice. In a field that advocates strongly for student well-being but often balks at being open about struggles its own professionals face, this was a major event. I am incredibly appreciative of Kristen Abell’s response to his admission, applauding him for speaking up about how mental illness has affected him but also calling upon our colleagues to help the people that make these disclosures. She makes a distinction between an understood support for those struggling, and active support in those moments when they need help:
Here is the challenge for me: I believe that in higher education we are conditioned to say the right thing – whether we really believe in that thing or not. This is why I believe that it is easier for us to stand up and advocate for our students with mental illness – because we actually believe that is the “right thing” – than it is for us to advocate for our coworkers and colleagues. It’s one thing for students – it’s another thing when we realize we have to work with someone who has a mental illness. And while we might say that we support someone with mental illness, it’s another thing entirely when we have to figure out a way to work with that person.
In defense of higher education, we are likely far from the only field that is having trouble reconciling these two ideas. But I speak about it here because (a) we’re more vocal about it than most, and (b) it’s where I work, so that’s how I’m speaking about it.
This pair of events, at first glance, may not seem connected. But I believe they are. For those unfamiliar with Bamford, Lady Dynamite is not the first instance of her speaking out about how mental illness informs and affects her career. It is, however, the most mainstream and comprehensive conversation she’s had about it. It also highlights how her relationship with coworkers and employers, as well as family and friends, played into her breakdown and eventual return to a “normal” life. President Ono, as he discusses with The Chronicle, very nearly made this speech without any nod to how the topic at hand affected him- but chose to speak up and let his story be heard. And that shift in approach matters.
I had the opportunity to speak with Kristen, as well as the other two founders of The Committed Project (designed to reduce the stigma around mental illness in student affairs and higher education), and asked what they saw as being the ultimate vision of the initiative. My favorite answer of the three provided? In the best version of the future, the brightest of timelines, The Committed Project won’t be necessary. An initiative won’t be needed to draw attention to the legitimacy of mental health days for sick time, or time taken to ensure that depression and anxiety can be effectively managed, or that there is no shame in taking medication to manage symptoms. Whether that acceptance comes from more people speaking up, or more people being able to make their experiences accessible through humor, we have to keep working toward that brightest version of the future. By writing about it, talking about it with students, and even by joking about it, I’m committing to playing a part in that- how about you?