#StopTheStigma: How Writing Helps Me with Mental Illness (and How We Can Help Others, Too)

granaries quotesOne year ago today I went to my first therapy session. It wasn’t particularly noteworthy or powerful, it wasn’t at all comfortable or transparent. It was full of fear and anxiety and sweaty pits and clammy palms. It was fraught with fake, half-smiles because I was terrified that the therapist was going to think I was crazy. It was full of strange statements and incoherent ramblings because I was trying to be honest but did not know how to approach opening myself up to a stranger.

A year ago I stepped into a Counseling Center and approached my appointment with skepticism, a gross amount of sweaty armpits, a pounding heart, and an ungodly amount of shame.

I’ve thought a lot about what I would say if ever I were to write about this in a more public forum. It took years for me to acknowledge the reality of my situation, many months more to tell my family, my friends, the people in my life I cared most about, that my mental health wasn’t too great.

It had become such a detriment that I felt like I burned a lot of bridges, had become a poster example of “the terrible student.” My potential was being wasted, my irresponsibility getting the better of me, my reputation as a careless student and an inattentive, unresponsive, perpetually-tardy or absent friend becoming the defining feature of my character. It was something that primarily manifested itself and grew since I’ve been in college. And, for a long time, my sole response was “I never thought this would happen to me. Me??” Disbelief, denial–they both led to nothing but detrimental outcomes.

A year ago tomorrow, I sat down at a table in the library, in front of my friend, and sweated through my thickest sweater as a I panicked about figuring out how to tell my parents I was dealing with anxiety and depression. I was utterly scared to death, a deep-seated terror in my chest as my mind transfixed on what I would write, how I would possibly tell the two people in the whole world who loved me most that I was broken. That I was incapable. What could I write to cover the fact that my mental health had become an extreme detriment to my schoolwork, my friendships, my relationships, my job, and my well-being?

I ended up writing a 6-page, almost 4,000 word email to them. I rambled on for 6 whole pages, trying to defend or explain to the best of my ability and with the little knowledge of mental health issues that I had at the time what I thought was wrong with me. And then I ran outside and flipped out for a good bit of time about the fact that I had written a six page paper to my parents and sweated through a huge sweater in my anxiety-addled state. My friend, to her utmost credit, was on-hand for support.

Now that I’ve had a year to reflect, I am filled with worry about that experience. Why was I so utterly terrified to tell my beloved parents, the ones who raised me and loved me and sent me to college and gave everything, to tell my siblings–the three people in the whole wide world to whom I feel the most connected–that I wasn’t doing so well? Why was there such a fear? Why did I let the anxiety become such a detriment to my life that it took until the last, possible second to pick myself up from the never-ending, vast, engulfing hole in which I’d thrown myself?

There is something worrisome, extremely so, about the fact that I felt I could not tell those closest to me that I was suffering before it became too much.

“Anxiety is not logical,” is a phrase I have heard often in the past year. And it’s not. It really isn’t. And I do, absolutely, think the irrationality of it contributed to my overpowering fear to divulge, to be vulnerable, to be honest to myself and those around so that I could begin the “living with” process, start rebuilding and understanding and healing and dealing.

But I do think, too, that the stigma of it all shaped my actions in all this.

Even now, as I write this, I can’t get my anxiety–coupled with the stigma that is slapped onto mental health issues by society–to stop throwing words like “excuse” and “drama queen” and “looking for sympathy” at me.

My intent (if there is anything that can be taken from this account) by sharing this story is to provide an example of the ways stigma can effect our ability to get help.

I also write this to herald the simple ways in which talking about how I’m feeling–at the very least–aids in my improvement. Utter transparency and the God-given courage to be vulnerable and honest can be a combatant to the crushing power of anxiety and its tag-a-long pal, depression.

There are often days, even now (because, really, a year is not as long a time as it seems) when I feel as though nothing has gotten any better. Days where I feel like I’m back in that hole and all my efforts have been wasted. And then there are days, like today, where I can escape my mind and look beyond the present and reflect on things that have gotten better.

Because they have.

Number one: my parents know. My family knows. This was always the biggest fear that clenched my chest and made those moments of despair all the more unbearable. But being reminded of the support system that exists and has always existed–no matter the lies my anxiety told me about its nonexistence–from my parents provided so much. I had placed my parents’ and family’s image of me on such a high pedestal that I had forgotten their love and support trumped all. There was no such thing as non-support in their eyes. There was never any hesitation on their part to not reach out and offer their help. And that touches me more deeply than I can say.

Number two: perspective. Perspective–so many different perspectives–have been provided to me because of the courage I found in prayer and in Christ to speak my story and to be honest with people, with myself.

It’s been a long, long year. So many things have happened beyond just coming to terms with my mental illness. So many complete and utter, shit things. And certainly, it has been anything but easy. It’s been one of the most trying years of my entire life, incredibly exhausting. I feel stripped bare, exposed, like everyone in the world is finally seeing what I have tried the hardest to hide, to deny to myself. And that’s a devastating feeling. It leaves nothing but waves of inadequacy, irrational thoughts that grow to despair.

Denial is a tricky bastard. Sure, I could sit at my computer for hours and hours and empty my brain into someone else’s story–whether in a movie or a television show or a book or an article. I could focus on their problems and their worries and their fears and forget, for just a moment, my own. But then the sun would rise and I would still be awake and all the obligations, the homework I had not completed, the work I had to go to, the sleep I wouldn’t be getting for another 12 hours, would come crashing down and I couldn’t hold it up anymore. I had (and often still catch myself having) a constant need to project an image of “she has her shit together,” and that made me paranoid of what others thought. Paranoid that the projection would crack, even for a second, and the facade would be lifted, the truth thrown out into the world.

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#StoptheStigma

But what I’m realizing more and more–beyond the results of my anxiety leading me to those thoughts–is that the fears were also manifested from the stigma.

And that has got to change. I was (and often still am) afraid that “The truth”–my truth–will be “thrown out into the world.” What? Is the truth really that bad? Is it really so terrible, so incredibly terrible for the world to know that I have struggles? The answer to that, it seems, is yes. And it should be no. It should be, “No. No, Kelsey, everybody has their shit.” But there are times where I believe that the answer is yes, because there exists the belief that mental health sufferers create their own problems. The issues that I face, it seems, are something either easily fixable or made up because I’m being dramatic.

It’s not okay to group mental health problems in the hierarchy of “which sickness deserves real attention.” It is not okay to wave off my negative feelings as self-manifested, insignificant, unworthy of help. It is not okay to look at someone’s life and deem them careless, irresponsible, wasting their potential simply because what is shown is surface level. It is not okay to push further guilt on a brain that may be doing nothing else but reminding a person of all of their faults.

The screw-ups are not intentional, by any means. The real struggle is internalized, it’s hidden–and maybe that person does a damn good job of hiding it, too. But that does not mean it does not exist. If anything, I am made more and more aware of the absolute need to check up on those around me, see how they’re doing, ask if they want to talk, be a presence, an outlet for support.

That’s what I would want, even if I don’t express it or want to talk about in a specific moment. Even if I don’t know how to convey my feelings, share my scars. Empathy is everything. Empathy is everything.

Let’s help people understand that they are not crazy, or incapable, or making it all up, so that they don’t wait as long as I did to get the help they deserve. Let’s help #StopTheStigma.

writing godward quoteSo, in telling my experience, in sharing my story, in being vulnerable in the best way I know how to be–through words, in sentences, alongside paragraphs–I am holding my hand up with the masses of brave souls who have done so before me in contribution to my pushing back on that stigma. To saying no to the assumption that mental illness is self-manifested, illegitimate, dramatized, hyperbolized, not worthy of worry or concern or support or professional resources.

Everyone deserves the right to be happy, and everyone’s negative emotions are valid to them, in their moments, too.

I will say, on my end (because these experiences are all personal and entirely situational), the Lord has shown me immense patience, undeserved kindness, and extreme favor. He has placed support in my life and hope in my heart. And love on my lips even in the dark days.

It’s still a struggle. It’s still a daily exercise of “Will you?” or “Won’t you?” relating to going to bed, getting out of bed, doing my work in a timely manner, being healthy, exercising respect in my relationships, reaching out to others.

One of the greatest gifts, though–and I suppose, yes, even gifts have come out of this–is the humility and patience in others’ shortcomings that I have developed in seeing their own patience in my many, many shortcomings. We’ve all got to help each other out, right? There is no room, absolutely none, for judgement from any sides.

I’ve written about a hundred drafts of this piece–stressed over whether to put it out in the inter-webs or not, to be vulnerable worried about what people would think. But writing is what makes things better, for me at least. Writing gives me agency, gives me clarity, gives me time to step back and look at the words, mull them over, think them through before I spit them out.

In writing workshops, we’re told that the more truthful we are in our writing, the more appreciative the reader will be. We’re taught that the more we share, the more “real” we seem to the reader, thus the better chance we have at gauging their trust, being “relatable.”

But transparency, true, complete transparency, for some strange reason, is seen as somewhat taboo. It’s seen as classless, distasteful, unnecessary, unrestrained, adolescent, inappropriate. “TMI,” we say, to those who give us a glimpse of their innermost corners in their bravest moments. And yet the writings that most effect us are the ones that seem the most real. Everyone’s got their junk.

So, here’s to the ability to be vulnerable, to “over-share.” Here’s to the ability to be honest to myself and others. Here’s to the mantra that I repeat often, that it’s okay to not feel okay sometimes. Here’s to the complete obliteration of the belief that it’s NOT okay to not feel okay. Here’s to the annihilation of society’s incessant need to label ailments of the mind as unworthy of help. Here’s to future smiles and hopeful hearts. Here’s to sunshine (though, lo and behold, the sun set yesterday at 4:30 p.m.)

Here’s to you all, for being so kind and patient and generous. Here’s to you all for making it to the end of this lengthy post, all 2,304 words of it. (Especially after I lost the draft and had an epic meltdown with many tears and way too much swearing. But God is good and He reached down into the depths of cyberspace and found the draft for me.) And here’s to you all for being undeserved friends, family members, co-workers, mentors, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, and support systems this past year, and hopefully for many more to come.

I’m inviting you to help me #StopTheStigma of mental illness. We can do it together.

-Kelsey XD

What We Can Learn From Emma Thompson

I’ve decided to start handwriting all of my first drafts.

Emma Thompson does it.

I. Want. To. Be. Her. Best. Friend. (Okay, okay…I’ll calm down now.)

Indeed, my idolization of the amazingness that is Emma Thompson–writer, actress, comedian, mother, wife, fierce advocate for gender equality, strong, independent woman, two-time Oscar winner (and only person (and woman!) to win an Oscar for both acting and screenwriting), and a deeply funny, humble, genuine human being–knows no bounds. Or shame.

Did I mention she’s British? And has been in some of the most touching films I have ever seen, and part of some of the most fascinating and moving creative projects.

How can I make all these assumptions about her character, you ask? No, you’re right to question. It’s the sad true that I have never met the woman. I’m not sure I ever will–I think about it, a lot, though! What do we say to our esteemed idols, those pseudo-humans that our mundane lives have urged us to place on a pedestal atop which not even the most superhuman human can realistically sit. How can we make ourselves look intelligent when all we can do is stand there in front of them and blubber on and on about how much we love them?

These people are still, after all, people.

And yet…and yet…

Go watch her Actress Roundtable discussion, from her 2014 awards season nomination for her role in “Saving Mr. Banks” (and while you’re at it, go see that movie, too, for God’s sake.) Find the entire roundtable here

And another hour-long, multi-actor/actress chat with the fabulous Emma Thompson here, too.

After that go watch her 1996 acceptance speech for her Golden Globe win for adapting “Sense and Sensibility” (watch that movie, too!). Take a look at her entertaining, creative take on the acceptance speech here.

And please, please, if you watch any of these, be sure it’s this one. Here she talks with her son, Tindy, whom she and her husband adopted in 2004. Tindy fled from Rwanda and wound up at a refugee camp in the U.K. The two participated in the United Nation’s High Commissioners for Refugees’ video as part of this year’s World Refugee Day.

I want to share, too, this nice quote on Emma Thompson and Tindy’s video: “Heartwarming to see them together. Tragic that there are so many refugees and so few Emma Thompsons.”

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Last night I listened to an hour long lecture given by Emma Thompson as part of this year’s BAFTA/BFI Screenwriters’ Lecture Series.

She spoke about her writing style and her experiences pursuing different forms of writing–sketch comedies, adapting books (she wrote 17 drafts of “Sense and Sensibility!”), original work. She discussed her influences–her father, her mother (both of whom were writers and editors), shared some quotes of inspiration, some anecdotes. She spoke about her writing processes and frustrations and what to do when you’re stuck and how to know when something is good.

And that sometimes even the best writing is still not good enough.

And the lecture–it was more of a conversation followed by a Q&A moderated by fellow screenwriter and Brit Jeremy Brock (Last King of Scotland)– was funny and witty and honest and inspiring, as only can be offered by Emma Thompson.

Download the entire lecture (and keep it around!) Scroll to the bottom of this article to access the mp3 file of the lecture.

Here are a few highlights from my initial listen. I hope this convinces you to give it a turn.

1) Emma on the screenwriting process. “Dramatize the whole book, and then see which bits work. And then take everything else away, and try and make those bits, then you have to write your bits. Adaptation is both distillation and a kind of imaginative invention that you have to use to create your own skeleton. Because you can’t put a whole novel onto the screen, it’s not possible.”

2) On how she came to “know” Jane Austen and her fierce hatred for people who get rid of archival documents (I understand this!! Just another thing good ole Emma and I have in common..but I digress): “I read all of [Jane Austen’s] letters. Well, all the ones that Cassandra bloody well left us. She burned an awful lot of her sister’s correspondences…I want to kill her.”

3) Sharing a quote about writing: “It’s by a choreographer actually. And she was called Agnes de Mille. She said, ‘Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what’s next or how. The Artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.”

4) Jeremy and Emma’s discussion of how vital it is for a writer for come to the realities of bad projects and failed ideas.

Jeremy: There’s the elephant in the room. [referencing that some writing is bad].
Emma: [The writing] might not be any good is my point. And I think it’s very important to recognize that, because sometimes what we write isn’t very good–sometimes what I write isn’t very good. And I do think it’s worth remembering that. Most of the screenplays I’ve written have not been made. And the ones that haven’t been made I’ve worked very hard on, believed in and loved. I’ve handed them in and somebody, years later, has made it with a different script and said, ‘Oh yeah, we just left yours.’ I don’t get very well treated as a writer either. So that’s comforting.
Jeremy: And also forgiving yourself when it doesn’t work.

Beautiful.

5) Emma’s response to an audience member asking her how to write dialogue for a man vs. a woman: “You’re making men and women into sort of sylos who always talk in a particular way, and this is something I think you should have a think about. Because you don’t want to do that. We started this discussion talking about the science of the brain and the fact is that our brains are not appreciably different. They start to express themselves differently as education slowly beats the imagination out of us. And then nurture–the nurturing of the male and the female in all sorts of ways–starts to twist us into impossible and sometimes deeply painful and inappropriate shapes. So I would look at that if I were you.”

6) About her editing process: “I’ll write a draft and then leave it for a few months, and then go back.”

7) A charming little snippet of her humor: An audience member was talking about how her daughter and herself discovered they have the same idol, and so asked Emma who her inspirations were, and this was Emma’s initial response: “Oh! I was hoping you were going to say me! Terribly disappointed. I really had to control what I was gonna do with my face, though! I was all ready to go ‘Oh how lovely. Thank you so much! I’m so glad I’m your role model and your daughter’s role model.’ And then I had to do something completely different with my face.”

8) On why she writes her first drafts by hand. “If you keep rewriting [each new draft] by hand you will rewrite it as you write, automatically. You’re not copying. Whereas if it’s all there on the screen, and it’s neat, you can be fooled into thinking it looks good.”

9) What you hear from every single successful writer but it never sticks (but now it will since Emma Thompson told me to!) “Just write. Because you can dive in later. But you’ve got to create the shape, you’ve got to have the stuff to work with, because it’s raw material. You’ve got to create your raw material first, do the knitting, spin the wool. It’s spinning the wool! It doesn’t matter whether it’s bad, because you can make it better later. But if you’ve got nothing to work on, then it’s neither bad nor good. It’s just nothing. So just write. It doesn’t matter what you write! It does not matter! Just sit at that desk and write. And then the next day you may come down and think, ‘Oh, actually that sentence is quite good. The rest of it isn’t, but that’s okay. I got that sentence, I can work with that.'”

10) And finally, “William Wyler said this, which I think is worth passing on, ‘If you want to make a great film, your screenplay needs to be all good scenes, no bad scenes, and one great scene.'”

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So no, no I do not know this woman. Who am I to make assumptions about her character? Well, even from the little I’ve seen of it, it’s pretty damn amazing.

I think I can safely and respectfully and rightly say, then, that I have in fact a pretty accurate view of who this woman is–I can say that she is a writer (and a damn great one at that!). I can say that she is a strong woman. I can say that she is a loving mother. I can say that she is funny and deeply humble and generous and uplifting and brutally, compassionately honest.

She is my inspiration. I draw great pleasure in watching her perform. Just a few weeks ago I caught the PBS “Live from the Lincoln Center” broadcast of “Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” in which she killed (pun intended) as owner of the macabre pie shop, Mrs. Lovett.

I feel incredibly lucky to be able to access her wisdom on writing, her charity in being willing to share her craft. She does it not in a snooty, egotistical, my-way-is-the-best-and-all-my-work-is-legend type way that many authors I have encountered project.

Instead, she offers her own experiences–her faults and her failures–in the hopes that we might learn. And, more importantly, that we might come to accept and appreciate our own faults when they do happen in our writing career–and they will, she says.

Chisel out for yourself a little time this weekend. My midterm break is coming up next week, so I plan on warming a nice, steaming mug of hot cider, curling up on my couch overlooking the window illustrating a perfect, sunny, 50-degree Fall day, snuggling in a comfy sweater and listening to the lecture again.

XD

The Writer’s Workshop: Senior Year Perspectives

Senior year is upon me.

One of the many things one hears upon entering an undergrad program is “College is the best 4 years of your life!” and “It’s gonna go by so quickly.”

Well, it certainly went quickly. Very quickly.

I overheard a friend the other day say this about her college experience: “The worst things happened to me here. But also the best things.”

I can somewhat concur with that. Some bad things have happened, some fantastic things have happened. If anything, at the most basic level, college has been an enormous growing experience for me–and one which was often difficult but never ever hated! Indeed, it has been a fantastic ride. I would not trade it for a single thing. And, as bad as the bad things seemed during the time, the good things always outweigh them.

But now I have to think about “the future.” That fateful, hated F-word that creeps up around October of everyone’s senior year, ever looming and always approaching, faster and faster.

It’s already Autumn for God’s sake! How did that happen?

So much, too, has happened between my last post before last Easter and now. (I think it’s safe to say I am a terrible blogger. Maybe one day I’ll get ahead of this consistent posting thing.)

This semester’s writing goals include:

Researching for "Lucia and Me."

Researching for “Lucia and Me.”

-Blogging more frequently (an ever-present nag in my head).

-Working on my Lucia manuscript (which has since evolved quite extensively since last we spoke about it. More on that later).

-Bringing you along as I fret over what jobs to apply for post-grad and my “life” plans thus far. Don’t get your hopes up too much on this account. Things are in flux! And you know what? Oddly, I feel just fine with that.

-Bringing God more into my posts as I bring Him again more in my life. This is crucial, I think, in maintaining my sanity about the above three goals.

-Being more attentive as a friend. Not to brag, but I have the best friends and family in the whole wide world. And I want to be more supportive and present in their lives, as they have been in mine.

Now, down to business.

As some of you may know, I’ve been appointed the Editor-in-Chief of my college newspaper (I have a co-EIC, who is a gem). This is such a growing experience, such a challenge, such a commitment, and such a blessing.

I’ve been discovering more and more lately that running a newspaper is so much more complex than I ever thought possible. And one of the most challenging aspects is involvement. Soliciting writers is difficult in any environment, I think, so I won’t say that Beloit is unique in that aspect at all. But apathy, when trying to fill 8 pages (around 25 articles a week), is frustrating in any situation.

But there are good things, too. We have successfully revitalized our printing process. We print the paper at a different venue than in previous years. We’re printing in full color, too, which just looks fantastic. And we publish solely online every other week. So our content is still weekly but our medium under which we publish, along with our circulation, is a bit different.

I think the Round Table needed some change, though. We’re looking forward to the rest of the year. If you feel so inclined, head over and visit beloitcollegeroundtable.com and take a look. 🙂

On a completely different note, I’ve been realizing more and more that I really enjoy writer’s workshops. I had another great one this morning–not my own writing, just workshopping other students’ pieces. Workshops are, perhaps unarguably, one of the best ways of garnering discussion about a piece of writing. Hearing feedback and discussing characters, plots, writing styles, tones, settings in a respectful yet intentionally critical way does wonders for one’s writing. (Also, does wonders for the writer’s ego, which I’m constantly being told by my Creative Writing Professors is a character trait of all us word-nerds, and–for a successful publishing rate–necessary to shrink every so often.)

I’d like to run workshops, I think. Encouraging young writers and manifesting and growing their habits and confidence is such a vital thing. I know it did wonders for me as a young writer.

I’ve probably discussed this before, but I went to a Writing Camp for 5 years of my life when I was in grade school. Though my writing was probably terrible and would provoke intense cringing now, back then, I couldn’t get enough of it.

When I was at Writing Camp in the summers, we would go on hikes and do peer review workshops and read our work aloud and free-write and conduct writing exercises and write poetry and short stories. I think I wrote more on a daily basis and more unabashedly than I have ever done in my life. Certainly now I often struggle getting past pressures and worry that my writing isn’t good enough. And, most of all, not writing as daily as I would like.

But when you’re young, and people tell you your writing is great, it encourages fearlessness. And I think we need more of that in our writer’s workshops today. Of course, a thick shell is always necessary when having your work critiqued, and one mustn’t go around thinking they know all there is to know about writing, and the pieces they create are masterful.

But a healthy confidence is always wanting.

The Writer’s Workshop offers an atmosphere of engagement. Participants are encouraged and demanded to look at the piece of writing–whether they like it personally or not–and think of it as real and of having publishing potential.

That is so vital for a writer. For someone to be able to look at a piece of writing and give it the time of day is everything to an early writer, a young person starting out with little confidence and facing the terrifying odds that are publishing statistics nowadays.

So to say that I would enjoy encouraging young writers and running workshops is sort of an understatement. I would love to do that. If only from a self-desire for young writers to receive the outstanding experiences I had.

Until next time. Thanks for stopping by.

XD