The Canary in the Coal Mine

#depression #selfharm #suicide

At some point in college–years ago, now–I remember finding some of my old poems on DeviantArt. I wrote a lot of poetry in high school, but after I went off to college, the ability to do it mysteriously disappeared and I haven’t written a single poem for at least six years.

Whatever ideas you may have in your head about poetry written by teenagers, I was fairly good at it. I preferred to write structured, rhyming poems, and even tried sonnets and villanelles. It was fun. I gave them to partners sometimes.

As I looked over those old poems, I didn’t feel embarrassed or silly about them. Actually, I felt a little terrified, because I noticed something I’d never noticed before: they were completely full of suicidal imagery.

I don’t mean vague metaphors, although those would also be concerning. I mean lines like “I laid down on the railroad tracks / And waited for my train to come.”

Where did that come from? In those years before I ever consciously felt suicidal, why was I putting that stuff into my poems?

And then I felt even more spooked because I realized that dozens of people had read those poems. My partners read them. My friends read them. My teachers read them. They were published in my high school literary magazine.

Nobody fucking thought to ask why the fuck I was writing poems about willingly getting run over by a train? Or falling from a great height? Or going to sleep and never waking up? Really, nobody found that in the least bit concerning?

And then I thought, of course they didn’t. Because that’s Just What Teenagers Do. Because Hormones and Angst. Because They Don’t Know What They’re Saying. Because They Just Want Attention. Because it’s #JustTeenageThings to graphically imagine killing yourself and then put that in a poem that dozens of people read.

And look, I don’t know, maybe plenty of teens wrote poems like that and then went on to have absolutely no mental health problems whatever and live happily ever after. Or maybe they did have mental health problems but they had nothing to do with the thoughts that led them to write those poems.

All I know is, it could’ve actually made a huge difference if someone had noticed that and asked me about it. Maybe a few years later I wouldn’t be contemplating where the best place on campus to kill myself would be. Maybe by the time I was sitting on the couch in my dorm suite, looking over those old poems on DeviantArt, I wouldn’t be on antidepressants (there is nothing wrong with being on antidepressants, but it’s still nice to avoid it when you can). Maybe all of my friendships and relationships wouldn’t have been tainted by depression in some way, maybe today I wouldn’t have laid in bed till 1 PM trying to get myself to give a fuck about anything at all, because years later, I’m still not actually “recovered.”

Maybe I would be giggling as I tell this story to my friends: “Can you believe that back in high school they sent me to therapy over some dumb poems I wrote?” and everyone would say, “Wow, that’s so ridiculous, they make such a big deal out of nothing!” And I would never know what a bullet I dodged, and this, despite all my irritation, despite the money my parents would’ve spent, despite the embarrassment I would’ve felt, would be a victory. This is better than spending years wanting to kill yourself and then living the rest of your life in that shadow. Trust me.

We need to start thinking prophylactically about mental illness. It is easier to help a teenage girl who says, “But what’s really the point of life if I don’t have a boyfriend?” (yes, this is what I said, who’d have thought I’d grow up to be so gay) rather than an adult woman who says, “All of my relationships have been failures, I’m never going to get a job I actually like, I’m going to spend the rest of my life regretting all of my mistakes and also everybody hates me because I’m so sad and pathetic all the time.”

See, the time to unlearn all of these awful ways of thinking would’ve been then, not now.

But it didn’t happen that way, because not one of the dozens of people who read those poems stepped up and took them seriously. “Teenage angst” is a fucking punchline in our culture.

Except I never grew out of it, and eventually nobody was laughing anymore. Least of all me.

~~~

This is not something I’m willing to discuss privately with anyone, no matter how well I know them. If you have a response to make, please leave it as a comment rather than contacting me in some other way.

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The Emotional Performativity of Social Work Education

For me, the most stressful thing about social work school has nothing to do with homework, exams, or internships. It’s the constant demand that I share my emotions with near-strangers for everyone’s supposed educational benefit. And if I’m not experiencing emotions at the given moment or about the given topic, I must invent them, because nobody believes me if I say I don’t have any emotions. Moreover, that’s the wrong answer, because if I’m not having any emotions, then I cannot engage in the required “processing” or “reflection” and complete the assignment.

I understand why this is such a large component of social work education. Most people lack self-awareness, and therapists without self-awareness can do a great amount of harm to their clients–for instance, by subconsciously using the therapeutic encounter as an opportunity to get affirmation and then lashing out at a client who fails to provide it.

By nature, I have too much self-awareness. Without intervention, I am too aware of every slight emotion and reaction, every passing thought, every potential reason for those emotions, reactions, and thoughts. I’m constantly weighing possible sources of cognitive bias in my head. I’m constantly modeling how I must look and be perceived by others, physically or psychologically. In its worst excesses, the self-awareness leads to unstoppable rumination, which leads to depression.

The way I have been able to survive depression is by learning to ignore, postpone, or shut down my emotions.

But of course, this is not The Right Way. That would be to just “learn how to sit with the emotions as they come” or whatever, or methodically talk myself out of them every time. Quite frankly, I have neither the time nor the energy. My way works. I am (mostly) happy, I am productive, I am attentive to others, I am (mostly) focused. So what if my methods are unorthodox?

Other helping professionals really dislike this. If I’m distracting myself from my emotions, or–worse yet–not having them to begin with, surely they will all suddenly come back and crash down on me like a collapsing building because I have failed to properly do the work of Processing and Reflecting upon them?

But it’s been years of me successfully managing emotions and that still hasn’t happened. I truly don’t think that it will. The idea that it will is probably a vestige of psychoanalytic thinking.

And yet, my professors and supervisors seem to think we’re either “resistant,” lacking in self-awareness, or else just cold and inhuman if we’re not constantly experiencing a lot of emotions connected to our work.

Something happens with a client and my supervisor asks, “How did that make you feel?”, and I can’t just say that it did not make me feel anything. My supervisor simply wouldn’t believe me. Either I’m repressing it, or I’m being withdrawn and not participating in the educational process like I should, or something else bad.

But I really didn’t feel anything. I generally leave my feelings at the door during therapy sessions. Sometimes I have some feelings afterward, but rarely, and when I do, they’re usually gone by the time I come back to the office the next day.

So I have to perform emotions. “I felt sad.” “Why do you think that is?” “Because it made me think of times when I have experienced _____.” “Well, you know, it’s very important not to overidentify with our clients.” “Yes, I know.” All lies, except the last part.

“Please write a five-page essay about your own experiences with _____ and how that may impact your practice.”

“How did it feel when ____ dropped out of the group?”

“How did you feel when ____ terminated counseling?”

“I’m wondering if that session brought up any feelings for you.”

“How did you feel after watching this video?”

I can’t wait till I graduate and my emotions can finally be mine again.

“I’m wondering if this brings up any feelings for you.” Yeah, I’m fucking pissed off because I want my fucking privacy back.

“How might this impact your practice?” I dunno, maybe I’ll respect the fact that there can be many different effective, “healthy” ways of managing your emotions besides venting them.

“Please reflect on this topic in terms of privilege and oppression.” It is a privileged position to have feelings that are “acceptable” to share. We simultaneously marginalize and pathologize the feelings of women, mentally ill people, people of color, queer people, etc. Our feelings become something to be analyzed and “fixed.” Excuse me if I don’t feel comfortable sharing mine with an authority figure.

Further, the cultures of dominant groups determine which methods of coping we consider “healthy” and which we do not. According to the dominant frame, if I am not willing to share my private thoughts with a supervisor or professor, I’m the one who needs fixing, because there is something wrong with a person who is “distrusting” or “resistant.” No, my ways of managing feelings cannot possibly be healthy or effective for me personally, because they are not what people with authority over me are used to.

And if I’m really not having any feelings, that’s even worse. Then I don’t care. I lack empathy. I’m repressed. I’m pathologically numb. I can’t possibly be cut out for this work, because being a therapist means constantly feeling things on behalf of our clients, doesn’t it?

I don’t think so. I think my ability to keep a clear head in session is actually an asset, not a deficit. Of course I express empathy for my clients, because I have a strong sense of justice and fairness and I know that the things they go through are wrong and unfair. I know that they deserve better. I know that it must be very hard for them. I don’t need to feel anything to know any of that.

And because of that, I never get caught up in seeking reassurance or affirmation from my clients. I don’t need them to get better quickly so that I feel good about myself. I don’t need them to tell me I’m the best therapist they ever had so that I feel competent. I don’t need them to open up immediately, be polite and deferential, stop being so upset because that makes me sad, keep their voice down lest they hurt my feelings.

I’m able to actually just be there for them rather than mentally swimming around in my own issues.

But that doesn’t make any sense to anyone, so I sit in class and in supervision and perform emotions like a good social work student.