I’m ending my fall 2017 semester with a 3.8 GPA; all A’s in all 5 of my classes, save for a B in math, which I’m not mad about because math has never been my strong suit anyway. On top of keeping up with my schoolwork this semester, I became assistant editor for the editorials section of the Hofstra Chronicle, began the process of co-directing a production of The Vagina Monologues, started booking DIY shows at High Hopes, continued to contribute to Nonsense Humor Magazine, and maintained a committed relationship, as well as an active social life. My friends and family back home say I’m thriving; to a certain degree, I am.
Also over the course of this semester, I started taking psychiatric medication for the first time and spoke to a therapist every week. I had days, sometimes stretches of days, where I didn’t go outside; where I didn’t get out of bed until 3; where I forgot to feed myself until the physical and emotional symptoms of starvation hit; where I, against my will, completely mentally detached from my body, one time to the point where I forgot how to sign my own signature.
I’ve been struggling with mental health issues for the entirety of my adolescence. I’ve been regularly seeing a therapist since my junior year of high school, but I was only professionally diagnosed this past summer. Previously, I had been hanging onto my academic career by the skin of my teeth, but I was still doing slightly better than average, and because I was doing slightly better than average, the notion that I needed help was impossible. I was intelligent, after all; any deficits were the result of laziness. Even my old therapist believed this, despite the fact that I would tell her all the time that I was struggling just to get by. So I too convinced myself that that was the case; I was slothful and unmotivated and I chose to be that way, even though the feeling that I wasn’t living up to my full potential was persistent and pervasive.
The first semester and a half of my freshman year of college went fine–great, even. I was living right next to my dream city; I was in a new relationship; one of my best friends from high school was living in a beautiful apartment in the heart of Brooklyn for the semester, just a short train ride away from me; I was writing for a music blog that was gaining some pretty significant traction; I went to parties and shows left and right, including my friends’ album release show at the infamous McKibbin Lofts in East Williamsburg, which all of my friends have agreed was the best party we have been, and probably ever will go to. My life was reckless and wonderful in the way I’d always hoped it would be in high school, and it was so wonderful at times that it was hard to believe that it was really happening to me.
But after spring break my mental health took a sharp nosedive. This had been a long time coming, especially considering that I wasn’t even seeing a therapist at the time, let alone taking medication, but there were also several other factors that hastened the onset of this decline. I was living on my own for the first time, 3,000 miles away from home; even though my new relationship was wonderful, I had also just broken up with my girlfriend of four years a few months prior, and we weren’t speaking; Trump had officially taken office. As a lesbian of color just coming into adulthood, I was (and am) terrified by the many implications that his ascent to power had for my future. I felt helpless, small and scared, and had to constantly fight the battle against the nihilistic side of me that said that I should just completely abandon care for my future because it was so bleak. But I didn’t always win that battle.
Once I got back to school after spring break, I barely left my dorm except to go to class, and there were many days when I was in such a bad way that I skipped class altogether. I thoroughly convinced myself many times over that all my friends hated me and were out to get me, and hardly interacted with people other than my new girlfriend and a select other few. They were the ones who understood what I was going through, who brought me shitty pseudo-Chinese food from the student center when I was too depressed to get out of bed, who waved it off when I apologized for cancelling plans because of a random panic attack, who continued to reach out to me anyway, who didn’t treat me any differently just because I was crazy, who could not just sympathize but empathize because we shared similar experiences, who edited this piece. I couldn’t have done it without them, and all the words in the world can’t express my gratitude. You know who you are.
I scraped by with a 3.15, which may not seem that bad, but achieving this required multiple all-nighters, taking an incomplete grade in one of my classes so I could finish my work over summer break, the good graces of some wonderful professors who were sympathetic to my obvious struggles, and above all else, the intense fear of losing my scholarship if my GPA dipped below a 3.0. I spent the first month of summer break mostly in bed, consumed by pre-existing depression that was exacerbated by my perceived academic failures. I was disappointed in myself and I knew that my parents were disappointed in me, even though they would never say that.
Then I decided that I couldn’t live like that any longer, I saw a psychiatrist for the first time, and the rest is history.
My academic performance pre-diagnosis and pre-treatment was never the result of laziness or lack of care, which is something that I still have to continually affirm to myself. I am ill, and I need to take care of myself to get better, just like the mechanism of a common cold. Of course I wasn’t performing at my peak; I wasn’t being treated for that which was incapacitating me, in the same way that a cold might incapacitate me. This process of recovery and self-care just takes a little longer and is a little more intense than recovery from a cold.
It was only with a careful new regimen of medication in addition to resuming weekly therapy that I was able to accomplish all that I did over the course of the fall semester, that I was able to heal, that I was able to “thrive.” It has been only this past semester that I have felt for the first time that I am living up to my full potential, not just barely scraping by incapacitated by untreated mental illness. This semester marks the first time since middle school that my grades have been this good.
But something interesting happens when you start “thriving.” You realize that your “thriving” is some people’s “normal”: no medication needed, no therapy needed, and so the people who don’t have your high school self as a frame of reference assume that this is your normal as well. They make one-off jokes about “crippling depression;” they scream “I’m triggered!” with gleeful irony; they refer to having songs stuck in their head as “intrusive thoughts;” daydreaming during class becomes “dissociating;” snorting Adderall becomes edgy and a point of pride. The language of psychiatry has, bafflingly, made its way into mainstream millennial vernacular and humor, and while such jokes are occasionally made by people who know that they’re talking about (and probably originated from these people) the nature of Internet memes has made it such that this language has become increasingly misconstrued.
Many of the same people who make these jokes, who have picked up terminology that I’ve learned in therapy from Twitter, seem to find it inconceivable that anyone among them could actually be struggling with mental illness. I’ve had to leave open mics because people made PTSD jokes under the assumption that no one in the room could possibly have it. People have quipped to me about mentally ill people committing shootings while looking me directly in the eyes. Professors who praise my contributions in class have talked about some of the symptoms I experience and attributed them to “crazy people.”
Few see neurodivergent people as three-dimensional beings. In the public imagination, we exist only in extremes; we’re either Norman Bates or inspiration porn. The other night, I saw a clickbait video feature on Facebook about an autistic couple, and the message essentially boiled down to “Incredible — Against All Odds, Developmentally Disabled People Can Also Experience Love.” Things like this are always incredibly jarring to me, especially when they’re shared by people who also make jokes at the expense of neurodivergent people, especially when they’re shared by my friends.
To me, the idea that I can have a happy, fulfilling relationship goes without saying. My girlfriend and I are both developmentally disabled. We have been together for 11 months, and we certainly have a healthier relationship than many couples comprised of neurotypical people. But videos and other media like this operate under the assumption that neurodivergent people experiencing an emotion as basic as love is a rarity to be celebrated. Quite frankly, it’s dehumanizing.
I don’t want to be your Norman Bates, and I don’t want to be your inspiration porn, especially not if you’re going to use the fact that I’m “high-functioning” as leverage against me or as a way to put down other mentally ill people. I don’t want people to scrub clean my neurodivergency from their perceptions of me either, in favor of focusing on the nicer, more palatable aspects of my personhood. To erase my neurodivergence is to erase the way I interact with the world and with others. It is an integral part of me, and it is not an inherently bad thing.
What I want to be seen as more than just the sum of my parts. I want to be allowed the same kind of nuanced, complicated and flawed existence as anyone else. Yes, I am a successful, motivated, intelligent person. Yes, I am mentally ill. These two statements do not contradict each other, and they do not happen in spite of each other. That is what I want people to realize.