Writer stereotypes, self-isolation and mental health

Janet Song/The Miscellany News

[CW: This article discusses depression and mentions suicide.]

If you are an English major—and therefore, by default, an aspiring writer—the shutdown should be a gift from Matthew Vassar himself. Here is an opportunity to live as Emily Dickinson supposedly did, confined to your home with all the time to spend writing masterpieces. But you may even find yourself imitating not only Dickinson’s isolation, but also her depression. As your mental health wavers, you may be  bestowed with power, because what better time to make art than during your Blue Period? 

Alright—as I know, genius and confinement mix about as well as vinegar and bleach. My depressive episodes have not helped me at all with writing. After leaving Vassar, I feel that I am suffering the fate of the protagonist in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” descending into madness as I isolate myself from the world for the sake of my health. (Writing did not save her when she went insane.) Since Vassar shut down, I lost my one resource for mental health care—without Metcalf, I have no counselors to visit or group sessions to attend. And so I’ve lost the network I had where I could describe my mental health in an honest manner. 

Instead, describing my mental health is like that scene in Parks and Recreation where Ben dons his grubby Letters to Cleo t-shirt, holds up his handmade doll and cries, “Could a depressed person make this?” I am trying to prove to my family that my mental health has gotten better at Vassar and continues to be better at home. Yet whatever I do accomplish feels like I am trying to prove some stereotype wrong, only to fall into another. With self-isolation, I have the freedom to focus on personal writing projects. With every written page I destroy the notion that depressed people are lazy. But by contrast, writing these pages seems to make me the proverbial starving artist, producing the most emotional and inspirational work during my depression. 

In reality, I don’t see writing as a symptom of depression or a symptom of the starving artist—it is merely a part of my life. When I came home, I realized that there were so many abandoned projects in my room—a sewing box with a headless Baymax plush I never finished, a sketchpad with pages left blank and my red cello case gathering dust in the corner. Writing was the only activity I had kept up with throughout my life, evidenced by my childhood diaries and awards I had won from competitions. It is still a part of me, integrated with my academics as an English major and my extracurriculars as an editor for The Miscellany News. 

My neglected hobbies were a reminder of old passions left to collect dust. In the past, I had been constantly discouraged by peers for investing my time in these hobbies. My love for them didn’t matter because I compared my skills to others and realized I could never match up to them. My depression—instead of acting as a motivator—kicked in as self-doubt that instilled me to let them go as soon as I could. Yet the one thing I haven’t let go of and managed to improve, writing, is the one I’ve had the most scrutiny towards.  Sometimes I think it’s the only skill I have. 

Writing came out of my bilingual upbringing and my desperate need to make sense with my peers. Whenever I was told that I phrased words incorrectly, I sought to fix it. I improved upon writing out of fear that I would sound like my immigrant parents, my English sullied by an accent and the mispronunciation and misinterpretation of words. Writing has become ingrained with my identity, something that resulted from my Asian American experience. I am following the narrative of Asian Americans who are lost in both worlds of their parents and America, struggling to find the in-between.

Hence why I became conscious of narrative in my first-year writing seminar. I needed to represent what was visible, my Asian American identity. But I also had to represent what was invisible: my mental health. I remember my classmates’ reactions to a piece by David Foster Wallace after we found out he died by suicide. “I just find it fascinating,” someone said, “how he was able to write something so beautiful out of his depression.”

I commented something along the lines of how it wasn’t right to romanticize suicide. “I guess then,” she responded, “that it’s interesting how even though he had depression, he still could write something so beautiful. Even though he killed himself, he still created this.”

I was reminded of that class months later, after a conversation I had in the Deece. “Is this story,” my friend said, referring to a piece I wrote for “Portrait,” “is all of it true?” Yes, I told him, all of it—the Barbie dolls, the girl I crushed on in pre-K, my bisexuality—it was all true. That he found interesting, and he referred to Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” As O’Brien says in his book, what is important is the “higher and nobler” meaning, not “Happeningness” or what actually happened. My friend thought I had devised my “Happeningness” so that I could execute a “higher and nobler” meaning.

In trying to create said meaning, I later wondered, I wonder if any of my writing—even if the “Happeningess” is real—is still genuine. Is suffering merely marketable? Has depression become a technique rather than reality? If I write about how I went from happily continuing my old sketchbook to crying in my bed, is that just a diegesis rather than my life? I seem to be solely a story now, all my experiences created for some “deep” message. 

I had been able to express these insecurities at Metcalf before campus shut down. In those cozy, lavender scented rooms, my sessions there allowed me to recognize that I am not my thoughts, nor was I alone in them. Therapy is no cure, but it provides an outlet for your brain to recharge and release its negative buildup. My mental health has improved at Vassar not because Metcalf conjured the magic formula to happiness, but because it gave me a community to bond with and reach out to.

Through my discussions in group sessions, I’ve come to realize that depression and creativity may be correlated, but not causally related. I am still battling my mental illness, even if I feel better after writing.

It would be a “higher and nobler” meaning if I ended this reflection with the lie that I am better now. The “happeningness,” however, is that I am only continuing the rollercoaster of highs and lows, hoping the ride moves forward. Self-isolation has left me without my go-to resource for mental health, and I’ve found myself having more depressive episodes these past few weeks as I adjust to staying indoors. What I can only tell myself is not to give in to the pressure of creating something spectacular, and that this shutdown is for me to protect my own health. So I make do, writing when I can, drawing strawberries in my sketchbook and just existing in my solitude.

[Editor’s note: The Vassar College Counseling Service continues to provide resources for students during the distance learning period. If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health and in need of professional support, email counseling@vassar.edu or call 845-437-5700 for more information. Resources include virtual counseling via BetterHelp, self-help modules via T.A.O. and local provider directories via Thriving Campus.]

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