Beginning My Exploration: The Intersection of Disability Studies, Mental Illness, and Literature
What brings me to studying disability studies and mental illness in relation to literature? The summer after my freshman year I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. My journey with OCD has been a long one. There was a time when my obsessions and rituals took up nearly every hour of the day, when I could barely leave my house, and when my parents thought they had lost their daughter forever. When my ability to function was quickly declining, I decided to take a medical leave of absence from Bryn Mawr my sophomore year. I enrolled in an intensive OCD treatment program, which gave me back the life I had lost and I was able to return to Bryn Mawr the following year.
Since my diagnosis in 2008, I’ve done a lot of work with mental health advocacy. I’m one of the co-presidents of Active Minds at Bryn Mawr, an organization that aims to increase the dialogue surrounding mental health and mental illness on college campuses across the country. I’ve also started my own non-profit organization, which works to spread awareness about anxiety disorders among college students and counseling centers. Back home, I also run my own teen/young adult OCD support group. Each of these involvements has been incredibly rewarding and I believe that by helping others I’ve enhanced my own recovery.
Despite the fact that nearly 1 in 4 Americans suffer from a mental illness, very few speak about their own experience dealing with issues of mental health. I see stigma as a vicious and unrelenting cycle. Because many individuals who are mentally ill remain silent about their illnesses, those who are suffering don’t always get the right diagnoses or treatment due to a lack of dialogue surrounding these issues. My advocacy work hopes to break this cycle and I believe that “coming out” about my battle with OCD will help others realize the realities of the disorder and find the right help.
There was one point when I thought that I’d never be able to come back to Bryn Mawr, but because of my parents’ support and an excellent treatment program, I’ve been able to conquer most of my OCD symptoms. However, I know that others are not so lucky. Stigmatization from family members and a lack of financial means often prevent people from getting the right treatment. And because I realize how grateful I am to be in the place where I am today, I hope to speak for those who are still struggling, for those who may not have gotten the right help, or—like I once was—are smothered by their illness. My family also a history of mental illness; my aunt committed suicide and my grandfather suffered from social anxiety disorder and part of my interest in studying mental illness is to be able to give a voice to them, a voice to those who were voiceless, whose disorders robbed them of the powers of expression.
Throughout the semester I hope to look at mental illness from both a personal and objective perspective and to examine the ways that society comes to exclude those with disabilities. I believe that looking at issues of mental illness can come to illuminate the structures by which we come to organize our lives. How is that these structures, like those that strive for health and wellness, are constructed in such a way that they’re made to feel natural? How do they come to bring some individuals to the foreground and push others into invisibility? In her essay “On Being Ill”, Virginia Woolf writes, “There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional), a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals” (13). What is it that illness can come to expose? How might the damaged and deluded mind bring new points of study into focus? Illness is certainly a “disability” (in part because of the way that society is structured), but how is also generative and perhaps even freeing?
As an English major, I’ve been looking for a way to bridge my interest in English with issues of mental health and theory on psychoanalysis and essays by Freud don’t seem to cut it. When I read a text, I feel that I approach it in a lot of ways from my illness. I appreciate the depth of insight my OCD has given me, how it’s helped to situate me at the margins, how it's allowed me to read the world from the perspective of someone who lies on the periphery. I think that literature, in particular, can help us explore issues of mental health. Stories are both therapeutic (providing order to a world defined by chaos), but like mental illness are also disruptive, helping to problematize and trouble the structures on which we so heavily rely.
People ask me if I had it my way would I wish that I never had OCD. There are days when I would do anything to make the symptoms go away, to have the anxiety lessened for just an hour or two so that I could find peace. But no, I wouldn’t wish that I never had OCD. The disorder enhanced my life in so many ways. It’s brought me closer to my immediate family and has let me see an inner strength that I never knew I had. I’ve seen the best and worst in people, lost friends and respect for loved ones, and I’ve realized what acceptance and true “liberal” thinking really means. When I talk to some of my friends who struggle with various mental illnesses (especially those involved in advocacy work), they feel the same way. For all the bad days, our good days are twice as good. We’ve learned to relish simplicity and find contentment in what less “active minds” might overlook. Being “disabled” has added a certain dimension to our lives, a multiplicity of feelings. As a springboard to my new project, I’ll end with a quote from Michael Warner’s The Trouble with Normal. He writes, “You learn that the people who look most different from you can be, by virtue of that fact, the very people from whom you have the most to learn” (71). And for this purpose of this blog, perhaps it’s not necessarily the people who “look” the most different, but who think the most differently.