Care of: the void

TW: mention of suicide, overdose

I’m writing this post as part cathartic time filler, part explanation. It seems easier to write about personal topics when it’s aimed at the void rather than at any one person. This is probably similar to being able to speak to a crowd of 1000 with ease, but struggling when in a conversation with one other person.

For the past couple months, I’ve been dealing with a relapse of depression. I say “relapse” because it’s not that I was ever 100% healed, but because certain periods of time are easier to live with than others. I’ve already come to accept that this is something I’ll deal with for my entire life. In my experience, mental health is a constant balancing act, back and forth between waves of clarity and fog that I can’t control, but can sometimes anticipate if I’m careful, observant, and gentle enough with myself. I think I am just coming out of a particularly dark period, and I’ve been stable for about a week, but after this morning, I am a bit doubtful that it’s over.

After sleeping for 10 hours two nights in a row, I woke up today, bright and early – I showered efficiently, dressed neatly, and did one of the best jobs of grooming my eyebrows in recent memory. Unfortunately, the eyebrows went to waste because after putting on my boots, coat, scarf, and mittens, I sat down on my bed for a minute. Three hours later, I was still sitting on my bed, slumped over, skimming Hegel After Derrida, fully dressed. (It takes me awhile to admit when I’ve been defeated, okay?)


(image via soundness)

I’ve been hospitalized a few times in the past month and put on suicide watch, which is a funny-sounding term for a funny process, in a dark way. It’s absurd to think about having to drag oneself out of bed, get dressed, and walk over to the hospital, and in the moment when the nurse asks “and the reason you’re here?”, force oneself to say “Uh yeah hey, I kind of want to kill myself right now, can I just chill out for awhile so I don’t?”

(I’m trying to stifle my sarcastic tone but it just comes so naturally to me, and additionally, I am very aware of how exhausting it is to non-depressed people to hear about depressed peoples Daily Adventures in The Depths of Despair, so I’m trying to make this shit readable for you, Void.)

Mental illness is often near-invisible, so no matter how desperate I am, there is usually a bit of fear when I go in that they will reject me. Imagine a nurse saying “You, missy, are clearly not missing any limbs or organs and you just need to stop feeling sorry for yourself! Go home! There are people with real problems in the world!”

Thankfully, that hasn’t happened yet.

The first time I was put on suicide watch was in grade 8, and then, most recently (before this month), in my third year of university, which is a clearer memory in my head.

Part of my mental illness has involved becoming irrationally irritated with small things in my daily life – missing the bus, sleeping through my alarm, having to walk into a classroom late (which I touched on in an earlier post) – these things feel like unacceptable failures, and it takes a lot of work to not let one ruin my day.

I missed my bus one morning and had an anxiety attack and decided to go back to bed (anxiety attacks are exhausting) and try to make my second class in a few hours. When I woke up, I wasn’t feeling any better, so I decided to take some Dilaudid (very strong opioid painkillers) to relax and make the experience a bit “easier” on myself.

This wouldn’t have been a horrible decision on its own, except that over the course of that week, I had doubled my dose of Wellbutrin (antidepressant) because it wasn’t working, so I was taking (2 x 300) 600mg a day. This day I had taken an extra pill on top of that. (For anyone keeping score, the max daily dosage is about 450mg.)

Even this probably wouldn’t have been a horrible decision on its own, except that these drugs build up in your system.

Within about 10 minutes this cocktail took effect, and the room began to spin. I was lying on the bed, and when I tried to move to stand up, I couldn’t. My body felt so heavy. I didn’t feel peaceful though – this wasn’t the feeling I was used to from Dilaudid, and I could tell something was wrong. I remember thinking “I will die if I stay in this room” (I’m sure I wouldn’t have, but the thought was pretty traumatic), so I rolled myself off the bed and collapsed on the floor. I could hear my mom watching TV in the living room, but it sounded like she was at the end of a long tunnel.

At the hospital, I was given activated charcoal and a saline drip was put in my arm because on top of everything else, I was dehydrated and hadn’t eaten anything substantial in days. I was kept under surveillance for 24 hours and then released.

I remember walking into class the next day, and the professor, an amazing Cree woman, poked my side and said “well where have you been!” I responded that I had slept in. I wonder if she saw through it, and if not, I wish that she had.

One of the most painful things about depression for me is when it renders me unable to write, read, and concentrate. Since I was very young, I’ve always kept journals, and generally, I have write constantly throughout my life. I have binders and boxes full of writing on scraps of paper and in notebooks. When I try to write while I am depressed, my thoughts come out incomplete and unclear, not at all, or all at once, like a sputtering fountain pen. This post is an example of the latter. When I have a window of clarity, it usually lasts 30 min to half a day, where I try to accomplish as much as possible before I lose it again.

I’m trying to think of a way to end this positively, or with some sense of closure, but there’s not really a moral to the story. I could say, “Don’t Take Drugs, kids!” but that would be disingenuous. Since that episode, I have a mark on my record that means I can’t have potentially addictive drugs; this means that I have to cope with anxiety attacks as best as I can on my own. Usually, trying to sleep is the only option, next to reaching out to my amazing partner of 6 years, who is such a bright and unconquerable beam of light that he usually has me laughing within 10 minutes. But it’s not fair or healthy to rely on him to stabilize me every time.

Generally, I try to avoid talking openly about my struggles with mental health too much, because I don’t want it to define me in the eyes of my friends and colleagues. Over the past weeks, however, as I’ve found myself returning to my friend Jae’s online journals chronicling a chapter of his journey, and reaching out to friends who have been vocal about their depression, it reminds me how important it is to be open about how many of us struggle daily, for the sake of ourselves and countless others who face the exact same thing.

I talked to a good friend about my hesitation in posting this, and she reminded me that “a lot of the time, we don’t talk about it until it’s too late”. So talk about it. Write about it. Scream about it. Any embarrassment or awkwardness you feel is nothing compared to the cost of staying silent.

I hope the next time the fog creeps in, I remember to read this. Maybe I wasn’t really writing to the void, after all.

Good Enough

One way that colonization manifests in our bodies is through a sense of inferiority, incapability, unworthiness, and vulnerability. Oftentimes this occurs regardless of how much evidence and logic we possess on the contrary. A constant, pulsing siren in the back of our heads telling us that we’re not good enough, and that we might never be good enough.

(And of course, this is true in one sense; as Indigenous people, even our greatest achievements will never win us validation in a colonial system. That’s a condition built into the foundation of the system.)

This is something I experience, particularly when I’m at the university, with the daily reminders that even the presence of my body in certain spaces is still considered an aberration. Some days these reminders are more intense, blatant, or difficult to dismiss than others.

Living in bodies that transgress (equipped with beautifully transgressive minds to match) gives us access to experiential knowledge that others may never grasp, but it’s also physically and emotionally exhausting.

I’ve found that a lot of sleep and hugs can counteract some of the exhaustion. I also accept donations of pumpkin pie.

“We must be generous with ourselves, and kind as well… We must patient with each other as we learn to live in a decolonized way.”
– Patricia Monture (“Thinking About Aboriginal Justice: Myths and Revolution“)

Good Philosophers Don’t Have Anxiety Attacks: on mental health, race, and belonging in the classroom

“When Canadian society says we’re sick that’s like a psychopathic killer complaining to someone he’s tried to strangle repeatedly that she should do something about the marks on her neck and see a psychiatrist about her recurrent nightmares and low self-esteem.” – Richard Bull

Last term, I confided in a professor that I was struggling with anxiety attacks and depression. She seemed understanding.

A few weeks after the class ended, I learned that she had brought the issue up at an informal departmental gathering, telling grad students and professors that anxiety is often an “excuse” used by students who want an easy ride.

I’ve been treated for depression since I was 13 (I’m 23 now), but I had never dealt with panic attacks before last term. Before I had a panic attack, I didn’t understand how they worked. I assumed that a panic attack was something attributable to not having enough discipline over one’s emotions, or something that only occurred during particularly traumatic events.

Seemingly out of nowhere, I had trouble going in to her classroom. I would stand outside the door, pacing back and forth – working up the courage to enter that I knew would never come – sometimes for nearly an hour. Inevitably, I would get upset with myself for not being able to do something as stupidly simple as opening a door and walking into a classroom. “Just do it”, I told myself aloud, but my body would not move. How comical and strange for any onlookers, or for the students on the other side of the door who had no idea of the struggle taking place right outside the classroom. My inability to overcome this predicament using the “rational” part of my brain (a mortal sin for a philosopher) left me frazzled, and though I tried to stop it, I would always start crying.  It was obvious then, as soon as my inner turmoil had manifested on my body in the form of smudged eyeliner and puffy eyes, I absolutely could not enter the classroom. At this point I would give up, go home, and be entirely useless for the rest of the day.

I would never feel comfortable entering a classroom, or meeting, where I can’t afford to show any extra vulnerability if it was visible that I had recently been crying. It is important to me to feel “put together” at school. I take pride in my appearance; it helps me feel confident and capable when I think I look confident and capable. Tanisha C. Ford has an in-depth discussion on the politics of style for women academics of color here. It is apparent that as Women of Color in universities, even as students, we are held to rigorous standards where we are expected to constantly prove that we are worthy of being academics. Presentation, performance, and adornment are certainly a part of this.

I’ve earned a reputation of competence around my school as a senior level undergraduate, but my earlier years were different. As a young Woman of Color (and a visibly Native woman, to boot), not much was expected of me. At my school, 50% of Aboriginal undergraduates drop out in their first year. As the Native woman in a classroom full of white students, studying a white, male dominated discipline, I am aware that my presence is constantly scrutinized. I become the representative for all Native people, and anything I do wrong is attributable to my genetics. If I enter a classroom late, if I answer a question incorrectly, if I misspeak, if I don’t speak, if I speak too much, if I get a bad grade, it’s not just a personal failure but a failed responsibility to break stereotypes and represent all Native people everywhere in a positive way.

…No pressure, kids.

Working with high school and first-year undergrad Native students, I know this pressure is a common source of stress. I, like many others, am the first in my family to graduate high school, and go to university. I am proud of this achievement, but it makes me fear any type of perceived failure to the point where it is often paralyzing. This fear was a major source of my discomfort in the classroom. Well, that, accompanied with a healthy dose of racism.

One of the risks about being in a philosophy class is that you have to be ready to talk about personal, political issues – particularly in an ethics course. Generally, I am not someone who is afraid of standing my ground in these discussions. However, I lost count of the times I felt alienated during discussion in this particular class. I got tired of being the only one challenging casual racism in the pseudo-anthropological musings of my peers on issues of cultural relativism, ex. “Well you know, for the tribal people of X, cannibalism and Female Genital Mutilation are morally acceptable practices. Do you still agree that morals are culturally relative?” that became a near daily occurrence.

At the end of the class, our final essay assignment was based on the following thought experiment by Bernard Williams, from “A Critique of Utilitarianism”:

Jim and the Indians

Jim finds himself in the central square of a small South American town. Tied up against the wall are a row of twenty Indians, most terrified, a few defiant, in front of them several armed men in uniform. A heavy man in a sweat-stained khaki shirt turns out to be the captain in charge and, after a good deal of questioning of Jim which establishes that he got there by accident while on a botanical expedition, explains that the Indians are a random group of the inhabitants who, after recent acts of protest against the government, are just about to be killed to remind other possible protestors of the advantages of not protesting. However, since Jim is an honoured visitor from another land, the captain is happy to offer him a guest’s privilege of killing one of the Indians himself. If Jim accepts, then as a special mark of the occasion, the other Indians will be let off. Of course, if Jim refuses, then there is no special occasion, and Pedro here will do what he was about to do when Jim arrived, and kill them all. Jim, with some desperate recollection of schoolboy fiction, wonders whether if he got hold of a gun, he could hold the captain, Pedro and the rest of the soldiers to threat, but it is quite clear from the set-up that nothing of the sort is going to work: any attempt at that sort of thing will mean that all the Indians will be killed, and himself. The men against the wall, and the other villagers understand the situation, and are obviously begging him to accept. What should he do?

After the professor read this aloud, I sat there with every muscle in my body tensed, wishing for the class to be over so I could leave. The worst part, of course, was that no one objected or even questioned the use of this thought experiment – not even me. I didn’t have the patience to explain why it’s messed up to teach an unnecessarily racialized, stereotypical story that deprives Indigenous people of autonomy, in a classroom where you have one Native student, in a discipline that struggles with inclusion of People of Color and women at all levels.

I had become convinced that I was not welcome and that I did not belong in this classroom, maybe not even in philosophy, and “Jim and the Indians” solidified that thought in my mind. I was rendered voiceless. This is a feeling I wish I could share with the professor who told my peers and colleagues that my anxiety was a made-up excuse; who believed that I just wanted it easy.

The rate of suicide in Canada’s First Nations youth is ranked among the highest in the world. Regardless of intelligence, effort, or rationality, I found myself incapable of finding a place to belong in this classroom, as many school-aged Indigenous youth and youth of color do, and furthermore, I was shamed for my depression and anxiety. I still struggle with anxiety, and though hopeful, I recognize that it is something I will likely have to work on for the remainder of my life. I know I will be in situations in the future where I am faced with more “Jim and the Indians”-style content, and I hope I will not be afraid to challenge it.

I choose to share my experience because as Native youth, we need to be open and supportive of each other regarding our struggles for wellbeing. We need to take initiative to recognize and correct unsafe educational environments, and constantly remember that we belong at the university, regardless of the violence that tells us otherwise.