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Narrating mental health struggles

The slog of picking through these events can be exceedingly difficult — but these are stories worth sharing
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

Content warning: this article contains mention of suicide.

A couple of years ago, I was a renowned documentary filmmaker with a mandate given from God to capture the way light bends. My singular purpose was to witness lamp beam particles dance in the vape cloud of a stranger who missed the last train. 

Unfortunately, days later, when my divine commission ended, I slept for 18 hours and let plaque build up on my teeth, absolutely certain of the fact that nothing mattered and it would all be over soon. 

Though a good chunk of me is defined by illness and my fluctuating proximity to its burning core, the above is among the first times I’ve ever written it down.   

This shift occurred recently, on a certain telecom company’s mental health awareness day. After reading oodles of essays, tweets, and Instagram stories detailing journeys with mental illness, I’ve started to question my commitment to secrecy around my experience.  

It should be easy, after all — psychiatry is chock-full of narrative. “When did your troubles start?” “Tell me about your childhood.” “Do you know why I’m keeping you here?” 

These questions are the basis of diagnosis, treatment, and hospitalization, and they all require us to tell a story. 

However, despite the fact that I answer these questions on a regular basis, I’ve found it impossible thus far to tell my story of bipolar disorder. In an attempt to shake this writer’s block, I sought guidance from members of the U of T community. 

Historic conceptions of mental health struggles

According to Andrea Charise, an associate professor in the Department of Health & Society at UTSC, “the widespread practice of writing about oneʼs illness is really a phenomenon that emerged in the mid-19th-century.” 

Prior to this conversation with Charise, I, perhaps naïvely, hadn’t imagined that the people in past centuries would write their own tales of mental illness. I certainly wouldn’t be sitting here typing without modern medicine.

Alas they did, and gracefully too. For example, in the book A Mind That Found Itself, early twentieth-century author Clifford Whittingham Beers described his mind’s unraveling as “a point where my will had to capitulate to Unreason — that unscrupulous usurper.” 

Later, at the start of the HIV/AIDS crisis, a slew of changes hit the illness memoir genre, moving it beyond the written form. As Charise explained, “Suddenly visual modalities like photography, film, and even theatre and dance became options for expressing the complexities of individual illness experiences.”

Storytelling methods have also expanded and will continue to expand with the progression of digital technology. As an example, Charise points to the “hospital selfie”: people posting photos of themselves, mid-illness or injury, on social media, for all to see. 

While the TikTok algorithm shows me quite a few psych ward tour videos — I’m still wondering how they know — my documentary filmmaking days are behind me. I’m set on fulfilling this task with writing, and luckily, a number of authors on campus are willing to divulge their secrets.  

Storytelling around campus

In 2019, Bao Li Ng, a fourth-year life sciences student at U of T, wrote a poignant essay about her time at university with bipolar disorder.

Ng wrote to The Varsity that bipolar disorder can’t follow a straightforward story structure, explaining, “It’s not that my illness can’t be a story — it just doesn’t have the rules I expect it to have. Putting it down into these rigid arcs doesn’t do your experience justice.” 

Instead, when writing, Ng advised to “focus on something specific — a moment, a feeling, a relationship,” as opposed to the disease as a whole. 

Another quality that renders bipolar disorder difficult to narrate, according to Ng, is that “there’s no foreseeable ending, no cureʼ, because it’s a lifelong disorder.” Ng wrote, “All we have is this constant middle — and that kind of ambiguity is terrifying.” 

Prior to being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was experiencing mania and depression and pegged them as natural, temporary byproducts of a youth properly lived. I saw myself 10 years down the line with a column, a nice sleepy dog, and the critical distance to write witty prose about my burning desire to do dangerous things. 

However, when I was diagnosed, these choices became fates. I entered, as Ng put it, the “constant middle,” where I look to the past and see myself barrelling through periods of sadness and delusion, and look to the future terrified I might repeat the past.

Narrating this jumble of events, psychological and physical, when my mind has been altered and my memory damaged, feels like identifying every light particle in a vape cloud. As such, Ng’s strategy, to focus on the “specific,” is advice I intend to follow.          

Daniel Scott Tysdal, an associate professor in the Department of English at UTSC, has written numerous works that touch on his experiences with depression.

A key piece of advice for capturing a complicated illness, Tysdal suggested, is to explore different written forms, as he has done himself. In his piece, “A MAD Fold-In Poem,” Tysdale addresses his depression directly, referring to it as “you,” and  describes its cruelty with accusatory venom.

By the end, the viscous force is perverted by “the magic of  bringing nib to page and penning life with urgency and patience.”

From there, the reader is prompted to fold the page over and read what has become of the mutated voice, echoing magazines with cover images that can transform with a “fold-in” feature. With that crease we find the same poem stacked with hate on the other side; however, most of the phrasing is erased and what remains is a handful of words plucked from the vitriol that serve as a hopeful reminder.   

Perhaps the only way to arrive at innovative structures, such as foldable depression, is to steer clear of them completely, at least at first. Tysdal wrote that “what matters most is not worrying about structure. Just get it out. Get those words on the page. Compose and explore without judgement or censoring.”

Sharing our stories

Even if I did write the perfect story, why should I share it? 

Ng believes that bipolar stories should be shared as “it’s part of the world the same way anything else, like lily-pads or the colour yellow.”

The decision for Tysdale to share his works and possibly be met with stigma wasn’t as clear cut. Eventually, dishonesty about hiding this significant part of his life crept in and though “that fear remained… this other feeling overwhelmed it.” 

Natalia Espinosa, a fourth-year anthropology student, didn’t have much time to mull over her decision to tell her urgent story. 

In October 2019, Espinosa was handcuffed by campus police officers at UTM while seeking help for suicidal ideation. Espinosa’s attending nurse told her to call the campus police, as per U of T protocol, for a 10–15-minute conversation.

However, once the police officers arrived — and despite the fact that she offered to leave with the police willingly — Espinosa was handcuffed and made to walk through campus, and for another hour in the emergency room, in restraints. 

“The experience changed me in ways I cannot wholly explain,” Espinosa said. She felt it was her responsibility to share her story to “keep other students safe,” recognizing that the injustice she faced was a systemic issue and might happen again. 

This decision to open up to the public was made more significant by the fact that for Espinosa, “the fear of stigma is something that I personally feel I have not fully overcome.”

That happy ending we said wouldn’t happen

Despite the potential snap judgements and the discomfort of vulnerability, in talking to these writers and professors, I’ve come to the conclusion that the slog of picking through manic, depressed, and antipsychotic-induced torpid state memories is worth it. 

I’ve also realized that capturing the whole truth of something so important and pervasive within myself is unnecessary. I’ll probably spit tales out, like rotten teeth, one at a time for the rest of my life.

One side effect of this exercise that I didn’t anticipate was that I’d thoroughly enjoy reading others’ stories of mental illness, from my peers here and from my peers spewing with the same symptoms as me in another century.

 

If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
  • Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
  • Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
  • Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
  • U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030

Warning signs of suicide include:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.