“Like All Great Writers, I Have Known Suffering,” or, A Timeline

Mary Alice Stewart '18

Mary Alice questions, considers, and offers her experience of mental illness, suicidality, and Snoopy. --Editors’ Note

The Beginning

I don’t know if the aged pussy willows behind my house resembled headless guinea pigs, like how a draped coat at nighttime can look like a person in the doorway, or if, to me, they were actually so, moving toward me as I walked past. Could that have possibly indicated the beginning of a psychotic process or was it just a young girl and wind? What strikes me now is that those dried up stalks disturbed me even in daylight and that the image has stayed in my body for so long.

At certain stages of mental crises, we look backwards. All of a sudden, it is not just you sitting there—there are generations to consider and questions of biology and environment unravelling and happening upon you. It is not just how are you feeling today. It becomes how can I help you stay in one place. Seemingly, it works upside down. I am trying to find a beginning when there isn’t one.

I do not know how to normalize talking about mental illness. Here are the facts. Within five months of graduating high school, three horrible things happened and they’re none of your business. I bulldozed through freshman year at Bennington College. In fall 2014, on the first day of house chair training, I recognized that shit had started hitting the fan. I started hearing a voice that was hard for me to identify as a voice because it felt so much like my own thoughts, except amplified and heard as though this entity was standing beside me. This voice started as an odd parrot, repeating itself and rhyming, but developed quickly into a type of evil twin that told me to hurt myself. I quickly found out that somewhere inside me I had already wanted to do these things, that the voice was just an encouragement. I started therapy. I didn’t like it because I became inescapable. Things became gross pretty fast. I was pulling out my hair, I rarely left my room, my thoughts were rapidly cycling, daily suicidal ideation. I became afraid of the shower because I couldn’t stand pulling the curtain back, paranoid about what image my brain would create in that vulnerable space. My writing became nonsensical. I attempted suicide. This brought me to a week stay at McLean Hospital. I came back to school. Bad idea. I agreed to take a medical leave from school. I spent almost a year in a medicated murk. On a specific antipsychotic, my thoughts were fleeting and I almost always had a spinning sensation. I was enrolled in a partial hospitalization program. I attempted suicide. (I’ve only written “I attempted suicide” twice but pretend that each time I say “I attempted suicide” indicates more than one suicide attempt, like a map drawn according to a certain scale so one may see the entire landscape at a glance.) I spent a week at a program called Spring Harbor. Fall 2015, I came back to Bennington College. Everything was the same, maybe worse. I barely finished my first sophomore term (round two!) and deferred my FWT to the summer, attending instead a seven-week program at the Menninger Clinic in Texas. After two days of exiting the program, I started my second term as a sophomore, which I completed. I am now entering my junior year.

 

Stating facts about your life sometimes doesn’t help stories or even help people understand––this is just a timeline. If I was trying to make any point, the point would be that this timeline is ordinary. I know, and am comfortable with, my ordinariness because of the people I’ve met. I hope my timeline can mean something, but I know it won’t mean anything without images. One time Alec misplaced a sock in my room and I sat on top of my dresser sobbing until he found it. When he asked me why I was up there I told him that I couldn’t get down. I thought I saw a dead body in the shower and screamed loud enough that someone called Campus Safety, and the same officer later asked if he needed to take my scissors away. I thought I was dying in the library so I called psych services. My cell service was so bad that I was not sure what was said but what I gathered from the conversation was that there was a chance that I wasn’t real. Most nights I will not sleep because I think I will die in my sleep, so I stay up and exhaust myself and trick my body into sleeping.

Images are the hardest part. The physical space of Bennington is a constant reminder, a placeholder, of the number of times I have attempted to kill myself, and of death in general. In this way, Bennington College is not a safe place for me. But somehow Bennington is the place I need to be. Bennington College is the place I have found that convinces me of my place and makes me excited, not terrified, that my place is ever changing.  

Engaging in the rhetoric on campus assigned to individuals with mental illness is difficult for me to stomach. Spaces are especially difficult to exist in when I feel as though I deviate from the language or experience normally associated with them. I want to be messy because I am learning and becoming but there doesn’t feel like there’s space for that either. Or a space to not be romanticized. The mentally ill on campus must be extraordinarily high functioning to be at all listened to and that’s almost impossible when you’re in the mud of it. I feel like I have to pretend and make believe for the comfort of everyone around me, even for other individuals with mental illness. I wanted to write this article as a way to more closely observe some of these spaces and attempt to put words to why it sometimes makes my stomach flop to exist in them.

 

Becoming Well

Once a day, for seven weeks during treatment, I attended a class on wellness, composing something the Menninger Clinic called a “wellness plan.” It was a lengthy document you must complete, and present, before discharge. Most of the document was emergency information, who to contact, available information to aid in situations in which you might not be able to produce conclusions in your mess mind. The tricky part was figuring out what you look like when you are well. I thought and thought and thought. The last time I was, what I understood to be ‘well,’ I was in high school. Others were as young as six. As a twenty-one-year-old woman, I did not want to match and determine my personal wellness to when I was sixteen. That’s terrifying. So I had to play make believe. I found wellness in a hospital setting. How can I be well outside of a hospital? What is a well person? After discharge, I entered this make-believe world, where I was told to do yoga, and drink hot water with honey, and do coloring sheets, and sniff lavender, and journal, and, for a second, this worked. A little. After all, those are the activities that people call self-care, right? Well, days passed, and I found doing these things made me feel like I’m putting a soggy band-aid over a hole in my head while someone says, you can barely see it.

Conversations of wellness I find superficial. The language of self-care has begun to act as a silencing mechanism. The promoted idea behind most well-intentioned advice I’ve received, and seen actively distributed, is to “take time for yourself.” I have no idea what this means! Is it something you can stop doing or have ever stopped doing?!

An example: One of my more ugly symptoms are intrusive thoughts. To combat my mind processes, I might watch a movie or take a bath, but to become well it involves processing the intrusive thought which would be a process that involves accessing resources and spaces that are commonly unavailable and also looking back into the ground, my ground, and saying Hi, I see you there. The processes do involve practices of kindness towards one’s body and mind but they are also ugly and require many unsexy things to work. To suggest otherwise only feeds back into the romanticization of mental illness.

With the rhetoric of self-care, the entire burden of wellness is placed on the ill, when in reality wellness and its process is something I see as requiring spaces, support, and resources that are exterior to the ill individual. This is not to say that the ill are not at all responsible for themselves; rather, it is a cooperative effort between the individual and the resources available to them, resources that are tragically not available to all. Even at Bennington College. All ambiguous wording that may mean nothing, but it is a type of work we’d like to make cute and simple when it’s obviously not.

You cannot be well. It is becoming well, not being well, because wellness is not a state of permanence, it is not an arrival, it is a constantly fluctuating thing.

 

Let’s Laugh About It

“People had no tolerance for your particular hardship unless you knew how to entertain them with it.”—Don DeLillo, White Noise

This past April, my best friend and I put on a comedy show advertised as a comedy event about “sadness.” I guess we were tired of being girls who liked to think we were funny but who instead entertained each other by passing traumas back and forth with a ba-dum-da grin in situations that made everybody around us uncomfortable. I think we were finding that we were less charming than we wanted to be. So out of a deep, deep selfishness, we gathered a group of remarkable people that shared a similar impulse––to laugh at a special, yet ordinary, kind of horror-—an impulse that is not new or exceptional but often overlooked as an opportunity of process, both individually and collaboratively. I told a story about how, after a suicide attempt, one of the psychiatric wings’ guards was a man from my high school’s graduating class. Let that sink in.

Here’s what I learned––it’s surprising how many people don’t talk to you after you perform a stand-up set about suicide. Sure, seconds after––yes––but after that it’s dirty. Maybe it’s romantic to think that people will, or that something dramatic will happen. Doing comedy about trauma made me realize how desperate I am. Desperate for what, I’m not sure, but it’s definitely desperation. It wasn’t like how the slow clap forms in movies because it’s fucking lonely. And maybe it will always be.    

 

Working and Making

I am not my work. This realization was the hardest to come by, to actively practice. I’ve found that Bennington College inspires in everyone a hyper-involvement with their work, but in this inspiration, there is a conflation between that practice and drive with personhood. There is a physical proximity between my identity and work just like there’s a close physical proximity between where I sleep and where I work and take classes. There are no lines. This conflation isn’t unique to Bennington and perhaps is one of the larger reasons that college is generally unhealthy, but in the much talked about Bennington exceptionalism, I guess, this distinction is often lost. The idea of daily acts of self-care, to me, is not nearly as radical as the idea that you are just as important as your work. “I think it’s essential for the artist to carve out a place for life and work because your work doesn’t exist without you,” Isa Coleman said. She spoke to the very fine distinction of involving yourself in your craft instead of being your craft.  

Isa Coleman and I both went to the same inpatient program. Our time overlapped only one day, but I was so grateful to know that, in even the smallest capacity, my world of hospitalization won’t be entirely separated from my world of school. When we talked, I asked her if she missed it. I was a little embarrassed to ask, but she met my timidness with an enthusiastic yes. “It’s that constant validation that is so easily addictive.” The transition from inpatient to school is weird. Isa and I talked about how much better we are, and that we are, to a certain extent, supported, but somehow we still miss it. It’s an odd thing. I think inpatient is a particular space you are allowed to be ill, in every manifestation, which has a strange magic to it.

Immediately out of inpatient, I started school, and was promptly punched right in the gut with an uglier side of that self-advocacy that Bennington excitedly promotes. Disability accommodations aren’t standardized at Bennington College, meaning that it changes course to course to what “increased time on assignments” means. To understand how your disability accommodation will be considered in a course, you have to have a conversation with your professor. You are never supposed to explicitly state what your disability is, but you will have to learn how to justify your illness in order to get the things you need. Because of the way Bennington is structured, I can’t imagine how this process could change.  

Julia Herrera described this process of asking for help to me as “heartbreaking.” In conversations about disability accommodations with even the most empathetic professors, she says, “you constantly have to justify something.” The obvious tragedy is trying to justify something that is so unjustifiable. Work isn’t less serious––Julia says “poetry is my love,” folding her hands toward her heart––but the extent we over extend ourselves, in the name of work, to avoid these justifications of illness is concerning--“If I’m bad, and still doing well in class, it’s okay.”

    Separately, both Isa and Julia talked about not wanting to talk explicitly about illness in their work. Julia cleverly described it as “hiding” and Isa described it as “always being there.” I wholeheartedly share this impulse, but the problem is I can’t seem to not wear it like an obvious, neon unitard. I kind of hate myself for it.

 

Conclusion

My favorite piece of art is Charles Schulz’s single paneled comic where Snoopy is sitting on top of his doghouse writing on his typewriter, his thought bubble reading, “Like all great writers, I have known suffering.” In a 1997 interview, Schulz said of Snoopy, "He has to retreat into his fanciful world in order to survive. Otherwise, he leads kind of a dull, miserable life. I don't envy dogs the lives they have to live." Snoopy cannot talk; he may not even be aware that we have access to his thought bubbles, or knowledge of his personas, The Red Baron or Joe Cool or the brilliant novelist that receives rejection letter after rejection letter. There is something inside me that really and truly hurts knowing that Snoopy’s novels were never published. In Schulz’s conception of him, Snoopy can only survive living because of the world he inhabits. I wonder if my illness is similar. In the end, it’s hilarious. It’s funny because Snoopy is a dog.