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Beginning My Exploration: The Intersection of Disability Studies, Mental Illness, and Literature

An Active Mind's picture

What brings me to studying disability studies and mental illness in relation to literature?  The summer after my freshman year I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD.  My journey with OCD has been a long one.  There was a time when my obsessions and rituals took up nearly every hour of the day, when I could barely leave my house, and when my parents thought they had lost their daughter forever.  When my ability to function was quickly declining, I decided to take a medical leave of absence from Bryn Mawr my sophomore year.  I enrolled in an intensive OCD treatment program, which gave me back the life I had lost and I was able to return to Bryn Mawr the following year.  

Since my diagnosis in 2008, I’ve done a lot of work with mental health advocacy.  I’m one of the co-presidents of Active Minds at Bryn Mawr, an organization that aims to increase the dialogue surrounding mental health and mental illness on college campuses across the country.  I’ve also started my own non-profit organization, which works to spread awareness about anxiety disorders among college students and counseling centers.  Back home, I also run my own teen/young adult OCD support group. Each of these involvements has been incredibly rewarding and I believe that by helping others I’ve enhanced my own recovery.

Despite the fact that nearly 1 in 4 Americans suffer from a mental illness, very few speak about their own experience dealing with issues of mental health.  I see stigma as a vicious and unrelenting cycle.  Because many individuals who are mentally ill remain silent about their illnesses, those who are suffering don’t always get the right diagnoses or treatment due to a lack of dialogue surrounding these issues.  My advocacy work hopes to break this cycle and I believe that “coming out” about my battle with OCD will help others realize the realities of the disorder and find the right help.

There was one point when I thought that I’d never be able to come back to Bryn Mawr, but because of my parents’ support and an excellent treatment program, I’ve been able to conquer most of my OCD symptoms.  However, I know that others are not so lucky.  Stigmatization from family members and a lack of financial means often prevent people from getting the right treatment.  And because I realize how grateful I am to be in the place where I am today, I hope to speak for those who are still struggling, for those who may not have gotten the right help, or—like I once was—are smothered by their illness.  My family also a history of mental illness; my aunt committed suicide and my grandfather suffered from social anxiety disorder and part of my interest in studying mental illness is to be able to give a voice to them, a voice to those who were voiceless, whose disorders robbed them of the powers of expression. 

Throughout the semester I hope to look at mental illness from both a personal and objective perspective and to examine the ways that society comes to exclude those with disabilities.  I believe that looking at issues of mental illness can come to illuminate the structures by which we come to organize our lives.  How is that these structures, like those that strive for health and wellness, are constructed in such a way that they’re made to feel natural?  How do they come to bring some individuals to the foreground and push others into invisibility?  In her essay “On Being Ill”, Virginia Woolf writes, “There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional), a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals” (13).  What is it that illness can come to expose?  How might the damaged and deluded mind bring new points of study into focus?  Illness is certainly a “disability” (in part because of the way that society is structured), but how is also generative and perhaps even freeing?

As an English major, I’ve been looking for a way to bridge my interest in English with issues of mental health and theory on psychoanalysis and essays by Freud don’t seem to cut it.  When I read a text, I feel that I approach it in a lot of ways from my illness.  I appreciate the depth of insight my OCD has given me, how it’s helped to situate me at the margins, how it's allowed me to read the world from the perspective of someone who lies on the periphery.  I think that literature, in particular, can help us explore issues of mental health.  Stories are both therapeutic (providing order to a world defined by chaos), but like mental illness are also disruptive, helping to problematize and trouble the structures on which we so heavily rely.

People ask me if I had it my way would I wish that I never had OCD.  There are days when I would do anything to make the symptoms go away, to have the anxiety lessened for just an hour or two so that I could find peace.  But no, I wouldn’t wish that I never had OCD.  The disorder enhanced my life in so many ways.  It’s brought me closer to my immediate family and has let me see an inner strength that I never knew I had.  I’ve seen the best and worst in people, lost friends and respect for loved ones, and I’ve realized what acceptance and true “liberal” thinking really means.  When I talk to some of my friends who struggle with various mental illnesses (especially those involved in advocacy work), they feel the same way.  For all the bad days, our good days are twice as good.  We’ve learned to relish simplicity and find contentment in what less “active minds” might overlook.  Being “disabled” has added a certain dimension to our lives, a multiplicity of feelings.  As a springboard to my new project, I’ll end with a quote from Michael Warner’s The Trouble with Normal.  He writes, “You learn that the people who look most different from you can be, by virtue of that fact, the very people from whom you have the most to learn” (71).  And for this purpose of this blog, perhaps it’s not necessarily the people who “look” the most different, but who think the most differently. 




Serendip Visitor's picture

Stigma and literature

Dear Active Mind how is your project on disability, mental illness and literature going? I was thinking of studying the same thing but maybe you have made some progress since the blog in February 2011. Meg

Annie's picture

I found this page after

I found this page after googling "mental health and disability studies."

You articlate many things that I've been thinking about recently.

I also have OCD, and I'm also taking time off from (graduate) school because of it.

Sadly, unlike in your caes, my family is very ignorant about mental health, and I've basically stopped communicating with them since I tried to live with them after my OCD started (it was a negative experience).

Anyway, my OCD and experiences trying to live.... in society with it have also led me to learn about the field of disability studies, as well as the fields of mental health and oppression, mental health stigma, and related subjects.

I'm happy to have found your post, and I think it's awesome you've been involved in mental health advocacy.

I also appreciate that you recognize that you are lucky to have a supportive family and access to treatment, things that many people lack, and that you are speaking up for people with mental health issues, including those who have little voice in this area.

Anyway, I agree with everything you write and have little more to say. I'm happy to have found a kindred mind in this area.

Maybe we can be in touch if I pursue work in this area as well, which I may in the near future.

Thank you for writing this and pursuing this work!

Anne Dalke's picture

Past and Future Conversation about Mental Health

One of the reasons I'm so eager to participate in this conversation with An Active Mind is that gives me an opportunity to think back on--and realize the extent--of my reflections in the intersecting arenas of mental health, disability studies and gender studies. I have been a fellow traveler for years in the multiple sites, sponsored and archived by Serendip, which have been Exploring Mental Health. It was on Serendip that I first wrote publicly about my own deep depression and the "web of affiliation" that pulled me out of it.

Of particular significance in my own feeling-and-thinking about this cluster of questions have been, most recently,

* my work as faculty advisor to the Bryn Mawr chapter of Active Minds, the student mental health advocacy group

* the conversations of the Slippery Brain Soldality

* the course I offered last semester on Alice James (and her brothers, but

* it was really Alice who got us going on the possibility of the brain talking to itself, and monitoring itself

* a number of other courses that have highlighted the fragility (and consequences) of our category-making

* particular educational for me was working with Kristin Lindgren in the core course in Gender Studies, where she instructed both me and the students in

The Hegemony of Normalcy

* The Intersections, Overlaps and Collisions between gender studies and disability studies; perhaps of particular interest to you, An Active Mind, given your probing question -- last one on your long list of questions -- about how we might apply queer theory (which has done so much work looking @  what it means to be 'strange, odd, peculiar, eccentric,' or not 'normal') to mental illness: can we expand the definition of 'queer' to include the mentally ill?

* and (stll cataloguing Kristin's instruction here!) On Seeing (and Not Seeing) Disability

*All this led to a pretty amazing panel of student work on "Cripping Sex and Gender," which Theresa Tensuan, Kristin and I hosted @ the Society for Disability Studies @ Temple last spring.

Looking further back into my archive, I'd also highlight as significant 
* the Working Group on Mental Health and the Brain

* multiple brown bag conversations on topics such as
Family Issues and Mental Health and
Breaking the Silence: Mental Health Issues at Bryn Mawr College
(also perhaps of particular interest to you, An Active Mind, as an archive of what it was like here a few years different now?)

Another particularly powerful experience involved an evening spent on a panel with Dan Gottleib: The (Continuing) Evolution of (My) Mind, and reflections thereafter; equally important was an earlier panel on psychoanalysis and neuroscience, and conversations on the uses of literature, continuing therefrom.

So: feeling quite well positioned, I'm ready for more! Let's get talking!