Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Day 321- A letter I will surely regret writing

Dear Mr. President,

This morning my American Indian Law class had a guest lecturer from our University's law school. He gave an interesting talk on local water rights disputes, and I asked several questions, trying to place the local issues in context with the international water disputes I study in another class. After the bell rang and students lined up to shuffle out, I thanked him for the lecture. My professor began speaking to him and, before I was totally out of earshot, began telling him about me. As much as my ego enjoys overhearing complimentary descriptions of my academic abilities, I hurried out, knowing exactly what would have to come next. This professor, who has encouraged me to consider law school and who has praised my engagement in her class, does have a significant reason to be disappointed in me. I'm often absent from class for no legitimate reason. Her class is not unique in this respect- I have skipped many of my classes this quarter (and over the course of my long college career.) While I have often formed a close bond with professors, or at least a significant rapport, all of the most encouraging and supportive instructors have had the same complaint about my attendance.

For years, for probably my entire life, I have struggled with anxiety and depression. I won't blame my poor attendance entirely on illness, mental or otherwise, because there have been plenty of times when I just sleep too late to make it to class. More often, however, the idea of getting out of bed, or leaving my apartment, or even going through the doors of the classroom has just been too much for me. I will stare at my ceiling, or the door, and I will give myself permission not to go. I will try to rationalize this behavior, claim that I'm not prepared, or that I don't need to go because I've done the reading, but the truth is I often just can't get past the physical anxiety or despair.

As it is now, missing class is pretty much as bad as it gets. There have been times in my life, especially as a very young person, when my depression got so out of hand that I was not functioning at all. I've tried therapy and medication, finding little success with either. One constant, however, has been my inability to discuss these problems frankly, even with professionals. I'm usually the type of person who can narrate the struggles in my life like they happened to some one else. I'm pretty comfortable telling a perfect stranger about my last awkward crush, (partially because it makes for such a good story) but I won't talk to my closest friends about the way depression can paralyze me, make me withdraw and unable to do something so simple as get out of bed.

Part of my reluctance to talk about it is certainly related to cultural stigmas about mental illness. Once close friend who used to struggle with similar problems now works for the defense department and was refused a post outside of the US on the basis of her mental health issues, despite years of very successful treatment. Celebrities who come clean about eating disorders or suicide attempts are called brave, while a politician must carefully hide any hint of similar problems in their past for fear of being viewed as unstable or unqualified. I say I'll regret writing this letter because, even more than my radical leftist politics, revealing this aspect of my life to the unending memory of the internet is damning to any future in which I might wish to be taken seriously.

This isn't to say I feel I should be held to a different standard. Getting out of bed this morning may have been more of a personal victory for me than it would be for most people, but that's not all I'm responsible for, now that I'm awake. I have goals, and I have expectations for myself that have nothing to do with being depressed or not. I don't think that depression is an excuse for me to be satisfied with an ordinary life. Similarly, I think it is completely unfair that any one else would change what they think of me or my abilities because of it. As humans we all have our own struggles, our own challenges to overcome and our own disadvantages. If one of my challenges is to keep depression from affecting my academic performance, it certainly isn't my life's greatest, only the one I have been taught I must be the most ashamed of.

Respectfully yours,



Our guest lecturer this morning mentioned that your administration, while more ambitious and better at communication than the previous administration, has failed to live up to your promises for improving Native American rights and addressing the social, economic and environmental concerns of many tribes. The Bush administration, he said, wouldn't give tribal leaders a meeting, flatly refusing most requests. Your administration shows up to the meeting, hears the concerns, and then says no. While this may represent a small kind of victory, it sounds to me like you're giving yourself too much credit for making it out of bed. Being better doesn't mean much when the bar has been set so low for so long.


  1. Stigmas related to mental health are getting better, but we still have a long way to go. There's an Active Minds RSO at UW:

    I'm not involved with them, but somehow I'm a member of their facebook group. They promote mental health awareness...always a good thing in my book.

  2. Thanks, Matt! I wasn't aware of that RSO, I'll check it out.