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A Final Paper, or, A Generic Experiment [version 1]

One Student's picture


May 21, 2008

(The last line makes me laugh. No, no, don’t skip ahead. But speaking of genres. And if you don’t think it’s funny, it’s because of all the things you don’t know.)


            Elyn R. Saks is an eminent professor of law and psychiatry in the field of who has suffered severe symptoms of schizophrenia for years. She received an advanced degree from Oxford in Philosophy during the worst period of her disease, and attended Yale Law School. She didn’t tell her fiancé that she was schizophrenic until he suggested that she might have Asperger’s. She never told ‘came out’ professionally until the age of 51, with the publication of The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness. Her mental illness had been a secret, and only when she had tenure, her scholarly reputation was established, and her disease was better controlled by new medication has she made this fact public. The reason Saks is a legal scholar specializing in issues of mental illness is because of her own experiences with mental illness and with the medical institution.

            A few hours ago, I had one of those crying jags where I end up muttering about how I wish I were dead. Those are the only times, nowadays, when I address god (and the only time when I’m maybe not quite as stone-cold an atheist as I usually am, because a deity might make sense of what I feel). It’s not likely that I’ll actually kill myself, not under current circumstances or in the near future, in any event. If I were going to make a suicide attempt, I would have done it some time last year. By this point in my life, I have ridden out so many sad, bad, ugly moods that even under the sheer misery and hopelessness, I know that whatever reality really looks like, this isn’t it. And I wait for it to pass.

             My moods come and flux and metamorphose and shift, but they never go. For years, I have experienced pathologically strong emotional reactions to minor daily events (eating alone; an energetic class; a sad story; not getting a prompt reply to a text message); I’ve regularly fought through an overwhelming stream of negative thoughts; I wake up knowing that this will happen yet again. I only realized recently how weird and unhealthy it is that I experience, however fleetingly, suicidal ideation on a regular basis: it’s all become normalized to me.

            Over the past three weeks, the symptoms of my disease changed. On account of working through the issues which caused my anxiety, but not those which cause my deeper rooted depression, I became apathetic. The difference is that instead of trying to walk on a broken leg, I was paralyzed from the waist down and was trying to drag myself forward with upper-body strength alone, which it turns out is much harder. I have become used to gritting my teeth and bearing it, but my metaphorical upper-body strength is no more developed than my physical. I saw a psychiatrist for the first time in over a year (last time was an incredibly negative experience, but that’s a story I haven’t got time for). I wrote in my livejournal: ‘The Quest for the Right Drug is just as unpleasant as I feared, and I was right to be reluctant to start it in the first place. There is something peculiarly nauseating about these chemically induced moods, even when they feel more good than bad, like yesterday. It's like a loss of free will, a loss of self. I woke up this morning, and felt a familiar kind of depression, my own kind of depression, and it was a tremendous relief. I fucking hate this. I really fucking hate this.” Today, a low dosage of a medication for ADD caused a crying jag, because my system really is that delicate. I haven’t got the words to say how much I hate this. And I haven’t got the words to say how tired I’ve gotten of daily symptoms of mental illness.

            This is why I want to be a scholar. I question reality, I don’t trust reality; the things I’ve been taught to trust let me down. I need to figure things out for myself. Humans are pattern-makers, and I pattern-make out of desperation. I need what I feel, these years of feeling, to mean something. And this is why I am interested in postmodernism. My sense of reality is fractured. There is no certainty, because what I see depends on my mood. Postmodernism resonates with this splintered perspective. Technically, depression and anxiety are classified as mood disorders, while diseases like schizophrenia are classified as thought disorders. But my moods have governed my thoughts, as long as I can remember.

It is tremendously invalidating to realize that the source of my pride, the center of my life, is in large part an attempt to compensate for a crippling disease. I feel foolish and transparent. I’m sure that everyone can see.

            I have written a paper about emotions – the wrath of Achilles in the Iliad, the madness of Yossarian in Catch-22. I am about to write a paper about reinventing re-inventing identities, queer identities, something like that. I am doing them so my grades in those classes are only a little worse than they should be, rather than a lot. These will not be proper, full explorations. These will not be what I want them to be. This isn’t even an example of what I called ‘dishonesty’ in my last web paper. This is a compromise, the result of desperation. I’ve lowered my academic standards, because I’ve gone very low down in a direction I’ve never sunk before. I hurt much more this time last year, but I got everything done on time, and done well. What’s happening to me?

            I was going to do something else for this final project. But I can’t. I just can’t. I need this semester to be over. I need to concentrate on three things, in this order: finding the right medication; doing the research I got a grant to do; and doing my job in the serials department of Canaday. I can’t keep negotiating with my dean (who has veto power over deadlines, and who has been the most unhelpful person involved in this process). The thought of dealing with more sources, the thought of engaging in conversation with scholarly books again, the thought of cobbling meaning together out of them and my own thoughts – too much.

            How can I make this useful? I can I use this experience explicitly to make my arguments stronger? Is there a way? Will I merely compromise myself, as a scholar? Susan Stryker, a historian whom I admire, is out as a kinky lesbian transwoman. I will be out as genderqueer; can I be out as mentally ill, as well? And it is a coming out, I assure you. How can I make this relevant to you? A piece which has been incredibly influential for me in more than one way over the past seven or eight months has been “My Words To Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix -- Performing Transgender Rage” by Susan Stryker. Her intention in writing was in part to “harness the intense emotions emanating from transsexual experience -- especially rage -- and mobilize them into effective political actions”. In what direction can I mobilize my experience with pathological emotion? Because I must. I can’t keep quiet about what may well be the single most influential experience in my life to date. But as Susan Stryker said, in person, to my class Feminist Critical Theory last semester, (I paraphrase) “My Words” is an auto-ethnography, which means that it’s about her, but it’s her personal narrative made generally relevant. I ask again: how is this relevant to you?

This time, you do the work. I won’t mediate. I’m too clouded by the chemical roller coaster of the past two weeks, by the fear, by the weight of what’s past and what’s to come. I can’t make meaning out of this yet, I can’t weave orderly patterns. Right now, I’ve let go, I’m not fighting the current, I’m in some kind of limbo, between places, disconnected, far away and way too close. You do the work. Think about your mind. Think about emotions and identity. Think about reality. Think about all the things you don’t know, and never will.

            I’m done.


(This is not a suicide note.)