Category Archives: Mental Health

Guest post: “Sometimes You’re Santiago”

When I first read The Old Man and The Sea, I hated it. I truly hated it. I do not think it is fair to make junior high aged students read Ernest Hemingway. But even though I hated the book as a 7th grader, I constantly find myself coming back to that story over and over again in my head. And I think as I started graduate school I found myself relating more and more to the Old Man, Santiago.

I am sure you are wondering how a twenty-four-year-old Black woman can relate to a character written centuries ago by a white American man; however, have no fear I am going to explain.

It is only right that I use a classic novel to explain my struggles as a graduate student. I would even call it ironic because at the age of twenty-three I found out I have a reading impairment, along with two other learning disabilities.

In my first semester of graduate school I had hit a wall so to speak. It seemed like week after week I was unable to pass a quiz in class or even write a decent enough paper for my professors. I literally felt like Santiago who had not caught a fish for eighty-four days. Nothing seemed to be going right.

I knew that I had general anxiety disorder before I moved from Texas to Iowa City, Iowa; however, I really had not had too many anxiety attacks until I started graduate level classes. I even began to question who in the hell told me to sign up for this shit; however, I knew I had goals to reach so I pushed through.

And even with all of my personal perseverance—again much like Santiago—it really did not matter. It actually made me feel like I was not good enough to even be in this program. And to make it worse, I was the only black person in almost all of my classes, so I felt like they were just calling me the stupid black girl in their meetings. (I later found out that they weren’t calling me stupid, but they were saying that I was incapable of doing their work—that’s a story for another day).

I do not know if you have ever had that feeling of something being so close but yet being so far away at the same time. Like Santiago fighting with the fish to get it shore and with every mile he got closer but the struggle also got harder and harder. That is how I felt in every class and even after finding out there was a reason behind why I had been struggling so much, it still felt like I still had so much further to go.

How was a I supposed to process this information about these learning disabilities when I literally have a processing disorder? It honestly makes no sense and if you have the answers, please let me know. All I am trying to convey is that I really did not know what to do even though I was happy I received some answers.

But what does having a learning disability look like in graduate school? Will professors think I am making it up? Will they care? Will they work with me? How do I talk about it and not make it sound like an excuse? Obviously you can see that this new diagnosis caused quite a bit of anxiety in me—and I already had enough. The questions just kept coming of how and what I should do. I finally just had a complete breakdown; and to be quite honest it felt amazing to the tears to flow down my face because it was some sort of release.

Even after that release, I still did not have the answers; however, I knew that I could find them and that it may take some time.

Santiago was very prideful and that is why he did not give up with the fish and I can relate to that; however, I the fight he had with the fish just to bring it to shore left not just the fish but him as well, extremely mangled and broken. I knew that I did not want my graduate career to leave me like that. I did not want my pride to end up breaking me just to prove a point. And that is when I realized that I was going to have to reach out for help and that meant letting the university know about my diagnosis. If I did not tell them, I was going to fail out of school just to not disclose learning disabilities. Honestly, I do not want to pressure people reading this to disclose your personal business; however, people cannot help you if they do not know what is going on.

Learning this lesson was hard to learn. I am not a person who likes asking for help. It felt weird to make a conscious decision to be vulnerable when it came to my schooling. I can write a blog about my struggles with depression and anxiety but I liked people thinking I had school under control (because I had for so long).

I have written about my learning disabilities on my personal blog and I even allowed the university to use me for an awareness campaign and I even was interviewed for the school website. I realized that my pride was not going to not only hinder me from achieving greatness in my academics but it also was not going to stop me from being a voice for others.

I do not think that I will ever read Old Man and The Sea again, but I never knew a book that I read in 7th grade could later be used as an analogy for my life—I guess that is why it is called a classic. I guess the moral of my story is that the struggle has a purpose and that pride can really hold you back.

I hope that this story helps someone and if it doesn’t, it helped me to write about it once again.


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Joy Melody Woods, masters student at the University of Iowa studying sociology of education and sport. She is a native Texan and loves all things southern cooking. She is an advocate for mental health and learning disabilities. Her writing can be found on withoutaspace.com and her podcast Morning Joy.

morningjoypodcast@gmail.com

Twitter @smileitsjoy

Week 14, or Believing in the Path

A friend called me yesterday and wanted advice about grad school– finding programs, applying, doing the work, staying sane, etc.

A part of me thought, I am probably the least qualified person to give him any advice, and another part thought, This is probably a good moment to think critically about my grad school experience so far. It was a bad moment to ask me because this past week I’ve been walking around with my disdain for grad school coming to a boil. I contemplated quitting. I was told by a different friend that if one of us quits, both of us quit– and she’s not quitting.

If we’re being real, a little bit of everything is getting to me. I’m lonely; I feel isolated in my pursuits; and I have a nagging feeling that at least one of my professors thinks I don’t know what’s going on. There’s a part of me that wants to give into this nagging fear and accept that I don’t know, but there’s a fighting part that is disgusted with myself for believing myself to be stupid for even one moment. I find myself walking that strange tightrope in grad school of trying to speak up so as to be heard and not speak too much, because speaking too much can come off as self-indulgent and not speaking seems to imply ignorance. Still, I want to make a space for myself, I want to be heard, I want to be seen, almost as much as I want to just be still and listen because there’s so much I have to learn.

My friend then asked me for a general piece of advice about grad school. After a beat, I told him to know when to sit down. Know when to get off your soapbox and listen. Keep your ears and mind wide open. But you also have to know how to stand up for yourself. Know when to fight back, know when to lay down your arms. Fight the good fight, but protect your energy. My dwindling energy tells me I’m not taking my own advice. I’m fighting, but not protecting myself. Despite having been worthy of admission, I still feel like I’m fighting to prove that I belong in this Academic space.

After an hour long conversation which explored every way I felt hindered, I started to feel a weight settle on my soul. If I was this unhappy, I had to ask myself– why am I still here? Why am I still doing this?

Ultimately, my answer is the same as it’s always been: I want to be a Black professor. I want undergraduates to have more Black professors. I want Black people to represented in the Academy. I want to be proof that you can be whatever you want to be. I never got my 40 acres and a mule, so I’ll happily take my free education from the state of Virginia instead, an education that worked hard for. I want to teach. In my mind, very few things are more political than helping shape young minds. And I don’t want to teach my students to regurgitate what I’ve taught them– I want to teach them to think critically and for themselves, so they can make the final call on what to take with them when they leave my class. I never want to stop learning– I have too many questions. I love the idea of getting to spend my life in a career where I will be constantly inspired to explore intellectually– and to write about the process and results.

I’m still doing this because I believe this path was meant for me.

Sometimes, I think I just need to remind myself of that.

Week 12, or The Mental Health Project, Part 2

Last semester, I wrote about my mental health struggles and how I would be working through them, convinced that, after a few months of dedication, I would be on top of my mental health and the picture of emotional stability.

The truth is that I have a mood disorder, and no matter how much I want to con myself into believing it can be conquered, the best I can do is regulate myself as best as I can to minimize the damage of a mood episode. It’s the mental equivalent of batten down the hatches, because my mood, like the sea, is really going to do whatever it wants to do, whenever it wants (usually when I’m least prepared for it) and all I can do is be ready and vigilant.

Now, stress is the enemy of so very many people with mood disorders. Unusually large amounts of stress are likely to trigger a mood episode. (Mood episodes are honestly like weathering the worst sea storms imaginable for days, weeks, sometimes months at a time. You’re being controlled and beaten by your own emotions, and all you can do to save yourself is hang on for dear life.)

As you can imagine, the added stress that comes at the end of the semester is no good for me but I do my best to take care of myself. Here are just a few of my self-care techniques:

  • Bulletjournaling. I love the ability to track everything– food, medicine, sleep, gratitude, dreams, goals, to do lists, etc. I especially love the freedom of getting to create and organize my own planner/diary exactly how I want.
  • Therapy. Sometimes, you just need to talk it out and your usual chat with your girlfriends won’t cut it.
  • Hydration. Kelsey pointed this one out to me, but sometimes if you’re more tired than usual, you might just need to drink some more water. Try to hydrate a little more before jumping to any illness related conclusions.
  • Healthy Eating (or just eating, generally). I am a terrible eater. I blame my mom– she’s a bad eater, too. Anyone that knows me, knows that during finals season I pretty much exist on granny smith apples, popcorn and hazelnut lattes. Cooking in bulk on Sundays ensures that I have food at the ready the whole week and no reason at all to avoid eating a real meal.
  • Playing with my dog. Playing with Genghis or taking him for a walk for thirty minutes, with my phone off, is a great way to reset if I don’t want to take a nap and just need a little boost of happy energy.
  • Pleasure reading. This seems impossible, particularly in graduate school, but I find that I actually can make the time to read a little of what makes me happy every day. During hard times, I read a chapter of a Harry Potter book every night before bed, but now I’ve been slowly making my way through We Were Eight Years in Power.
  • Knitting. I’m a serial binge watcher and I always tell myself I’m going to do something productive while I catch up on my CW superhero shows, so knitting is the perfect way to do something with my hands while enjoying a relaxing few hours of entertainment.
  • Essential Oils/Aromatherapy. Lavender Stress Relief essential oils are the plug. They’re also amazing for helping me fall asleep, too. I put a few drops on my temples and on my wrists before bed, and on my soap for my morning shower. (You can get oils in packs of 3 or more at TJ Maxx for about 10 dollars, and if you have a little more money to spend, you can always try Bath and Body Works’ Aromatherapy line!)
  • Reaching out to friends. I have about five friends who I can always count on to make me laugh during the most trying of times and a couple grad school buddies who have always got my back.
  • Meditating. It’s a hard habit to get into, but once you start meditating consistently, it’s so worth it. Start your day with a five minute meditation, and you’ll feel calmer and ready to take on the day.

As often as you can, I think it’s worthwhile to list out things you can do to pick yourself up when you’re sad, things that you love doing because it feeds your soul, and just things you need to do to feel like a functional human. When it feels like nothing will make you feel better, just looking at list of things that make you smile reminds you that, at some point, all of this made you happy. During finals season, I’m going to make sure I come back to this list, so I can do things that center me and bring me a little peace. I deserve to have a quality life, and I am the only one who can ensure that for myself.