Monday, August 15, 2016

"I'm Worried About Your Participation Grade." Mental Illness and Education

I am becoming such a bitter, bitter person.

I've always been, well, pessimistic. But I've always worked hard. Always made good grades. Always went above and beyond even when I didn't have to. Read the whole textbook instead of just the assigned section. Did extra credit even though I already had an A. Became the teacher's pet because I always had something interesting or unique, because I always did my work on time, because I was a good student. Missing a ballet class was incomprehensible to me, not just because dancing was life to me, but because I couldn't imagine what I would miss on that one day. What would my peers think? What would my teacher think? What would I do during that time anyway?

That all changed when the mental illness attacked.

Freshman year in college I was still doing great. Went to every class (even the 8:00 AMs), always did homework, practiced hard, everything. Even showed up to my 8:00 AM the morning after I got sexually assaulted.

I wouldn't consider myself a perfectionist. Maybe just an overachiever. I enjoyed school and enjoyed learning and always wanted people, especially teachers, to think well of me. I'd been told my whole life that I was smart and talented, and I felt like I had to prove it.

Second semester I got sent to the psych ward, where the psychologist was astonished that I'd been attending every class and doing all of my homework despite such major depression and suicidal plans. Before she said that, it'd never even occurred to me that I could skip class because I was feeling "sad" or "down."

I spent a week in the hospital. Missed a week of classes. The head of the dance department made sure all of the absences were excused, and my mom somehow got a hold of someone important who made sure that my non-dance classes would also be understanding. So I went right back to all of my classes, still wasn't late, still didn't skip. I contacted all of my professors immediately asking what I could do to catch up. Most of them were understanding, and didn't even want to look at my doctor's note. Most of them didn't add those absences into my grade or treat me any differently.

Then there was my Wellness teacher. The lady who'd been telling us that if we ever felt we needed help, we had to get it. Health is more important than grades. As soon as I was out of the hospital, I emailed her asking what I could do. She replied saying that there was a quiz I had missed that I could not make up. And as soon as I got back, we had a test. That I hadn't been able to study for. Because I'd been in the hospital.

That was, perhaps, the first time I lost a little faith in the education system.

Fast forward to junior year. My life goes to complete crap. I miss classes, I bullshit homework, I can't sleep, can't do anything. Can't stand to go to class and be around people, can't stand the disappointment in my teachers's eyes that may or may not actually be there. Even with my disability letter, my grades suffered a lot. Even with more allowed absences, I wasn't able to focus in class or do good work. And all of this despite the fact that I was trying so hard.

One professor in particular was very concerned, bless her heart. I love her to death, she's always been one of my favorite professors. But she can be very nitpicky about rules. I must say that I missed her class far more than I wanted, because hers was my first morning class and I always felt worse in the morning. She was very concerned for me and my grades and felt it necessary to also notify the Honors College since it was an honors class. This led to a series of emails where I would try to explain that I was doing my best and they would continually say that they would do anything they could to help me.

Well, except for that one email I got by accident. Where the Honors College lady said, "I for one am beyond frustrated with her."

Me, The teacher's pet. The golden child. The smart and talented, the hard-worker. To put it bluntly, I immediately burst into tears when I read the email (which was embarrassing because I was in the dance building, luckily among friends).

Yes, yes, I very quickly got an apology email from the lady. But this was perhaps the second time that some of my faith was stolen.

Junior year second semester. Still haven't gotten my act together. One teacher is trying to quit smoking and tends to let her emotions get in the way of teaching. The environment she creates only adds to the stress and anxiety and sense of hopelessness that I carried with me. So I started skipping her class. She knew about my disability, so I thought it would be okay. I went as often as I could and kept up with material. I had just started to believe that "my health was more important than my grades." I wasn't making superb grades in her class, but not many people do. She's a hard, and very good, teacher.

One day she asks to meet with me. Tells me I should withdraw from the class. That she's worried about my participation grade. That if I don't make As on every single assignment for the rest of the semester (and she'd never given me an A on anything before), I would fail. She told me this on the very last day to withdraw the class, so I had to make a huge decision in less than 24 hours.

Another of my favorite professors assured me that one withdraw on my grade wouldn't affect it too badly. That a W isn't a big deal on a transcript, that it's not to be ashamed of. She was very understanding and encouraged me to make sure I don't end up in high-stress classrooms again, that it's okay to have a problem with certain classes because of my disability. So I withdrew from the class, and instantly a huge weight passed from my shoulders.

Not that I'm not bitter towards that teacher. Believe me, I still am. Not only because she forced me to withdraw, but because she turned a subject I loved into a dreaded hour and half three times a week. What used to be life for me, she somehow turned into death. And it's not all her fault.

After I had calmed down, I realized that I had not kept her as informed as I could have. When I missed, I should have told her that I was absent because of my disability. Maybe it would've made a difference, or maybe it wouldn't have. But either way, the experience taught me that I needed to stay in better communication with teachers that I have an especially hard time with.

The problem is that when I feel so bad and hopeless and dark and I wake up feeling like there's no point to anything, the last thing I want to do is email someone I respect and tell him or her that.

Oh, and that W in my grades? Got me put on scholarship probation. If I don't pull my grades up this coming semester, I lose my scholarship, which means I can't go to school anymore.

There are only nine days left until my senior year starts. I guess I am a little excited. But I'm not exactly hopeful. Because even when I feel good, I still know that I'm going to have a bad day sooner or later. And there's no telling if my professor will be understanding or not, or if I'll even be able to tell them that I'm struggling.

There's not a solution to this. There's no way for the school or the teachers to just "know" that I'm a hard worker and that my disability is as serious as it is. The office of disability accommodations can't make teachers change their attendance policy, which I agree would be a bad idea. They can only ask for special consideration to be given to my situation. I don't really blame my professors for not instantly believing that the super quiet, timid girl that isn't even there half the time is actually doing her best and is capable of doing good work. And of course they don't believe it if I don't try to tell them.

I don't know what's going to happen this coming year. I don't know if I'll graduate. I don't know what will happen after. I don't know if I'll ever be able to hold a steady job and support myself. And I'd make a shitty housewife, let me tell you.

So what does that leave for young women with chronic mental disabilities? I wish I knew. I wish I could believe in the future. I wish I could hope for better days. But it feels like I just get more and more bitter.

Friday, August 5, 2016

I'm Alone, But I'm Not, And That Makes It Worse

Have you ever Google searched "self-abuse"? "Self-harm"? "Cutting"? No, why would you? I hope you haven't had a reason to. But if you do, you'll find a lot of websites detailing self-abuse. Symptoms, treatments, causes, and common misunderstandings are usually included. But if you search "self-abuse forum," you may find some websites that are a little different.

Most of these forums do not promote self-harm in any way, but it does provide a safe, anonymous environment for cutters to talk and share their stories without the judgment that non-cutters often have. Whether it's sharing that you're three months clean or asking about good excuses for your cuts, the forums are there for you. You can find all kind of stuff there. You can find hope through people who have recovered, and you can find dread through the people who haven't. You can learn coping methods such as the Butterfly Project or ice and you can learn what to do in the summer, when you can't always get away with long sleeves and trousers (especially in Mississippi).

For obvious reasons, I have been on a few of these sites. I've never posted or commented, but I've read a lot. When I was in therapy, my therapist told me to research cutting, and for whatever reason I didn't bother to tell him that I already had and that knowing more about it didn't help me stop. But anyway.

Sometimes, when things are rough and I'm on the verge of relapse, I go through those forums. Websites, blogs, pictures. There's a tiny shred of hope inside me that thinks that some day I'll find the miracle cure. The coping method that is long-lasting and fail proof. Let's just say, I haven't found it yet.

For me, the best coping method is my friends. On the very bad days, I'll make myself ask someone to come over. I don't say why, and usually we just sit and do nothing. I have no idea if any of my friends realize just how much of a difference they have made.

But all of my friends are gone. They moved away. I've never made friends easily, and I especially don't understand how I'm supposed to make new trustworthy friends as a senior in college, when I already know everyone and they all know me too. "Hey, good to see you again. Btws I used to slash open my arms for fun."

Since all my physical confidants are gone, I've roved through plenty of forums and blogs in the hope I might find someone to talk to, but it just makes me feel worse. I've only known a few cutters in real life, and only a few more people who have serious mental illnesses, and I fear that talking to them will trigger them. Not to mention that I never know if they're actually doing okay or not. Maybe they're in a worse place than I am, and here I am barging in begging for help with my problems.

I'm not sure what I'm trying to communicate through this blog post. I feel like I should have some powerful message or mission for anyone who reads this. Like, "Raise Self-Abuse Awareness" or "Love Your Friends" or something. And yeah, those things are good too. It's the stigma of self-abuse that keeps so many of those anonymous forum posters from getting help. It's the fear of their parents' reaction that keeps them from confiding.

Yes, cutting is horrible. Yes, no one should ever do it. But that doesn't mean those who resort to it should be shunned and avoided. Self-abuse is usually a symptom of another mental illness that can usually be treated. Once that is treated, it becomes easier to manage the self-harm as well. Not EASY, but easiER.

Again, I'm not sure where I'm going with this. I guess I'm just trying to be brutally honest or something. Maybe this is my way of sending out a cry for help, I don't now.

--Dexter
a recovering cutter

PS. In the spirit of being brutally honest, I have a few funny/interesting/scary stories about cutting. Once a friend asked about the bandaids on my arm and I told her it was my cat. She replied with mock seriousness, "No, I think you're cutting yourself, so I'll have to report it." Maybe that was her way of trying to approach the subject, or maybe she really was just kidding. Either way, she obviously didn't report me.

I wrote a short story about a cutter and submitted it to the class workshop, and one person said, "A friend of mine is a cutter, and she cuts her thighs because it's easier. So maybe switch the cuts from the stomach to the legs for more realism." I had never considered that before she mentioned it because, as a dancer, my stomach was one of the few places that I could always guarantee would be covered. Tights and a leotard don't hide my legs too well -- but normal people wouldn't have to worry about it. I was more than a little shocked by this revelation.

Way back in high school, I remarked that a dance company audition required you to admit any mental illnesses such as depression. A friend replied very sarcastically, "Yeah, cause you totally have to worry about that." I laughed because it turned out she didn't know me at all.

And then there's the very, very few people who ask me directly about it. I laugh it off or have a panic attack, no in between. So even when people do notice and do try to talk about it, I can't say anything.

Life is funny that way.

PPS. I do encourage you to go read up on self-abuse, on the myths and the facts. ESPECIALLY if you know someone who self-harms. If you prove that you understand, or at least that you're trying, it will be way easier for the other party to talk about it.

PPPS. I'm not sure exactly, but it's been about two months since I last hurt myself. Yes, this is an accomplishment.