Illustrated by Minji Reem
Suspension. Expulsion. Leave of absence. Time off. Or a simple evaporation.
As the rhythm of classes resumes, as the vacuity left by the student’s disappearance refills, a certainty niggles: he couldn’t hack it. She was weak, and their weakness was some failure of personal constitution.
Soon after Adam Lanza’s name appeared in the news during the fall of 1L, mental illness was dragged once again into the spotlight. Less a dialogue than folks on both sides of the church aisle screaming their own right-ness. We were supposed to have a vocabulary for discussing these things. Where was it? The years prior had made me sensitive to issues centered on mental health, and I found myself withdrawing from the discussion, not because I felt I had nothing to add, but because the futility of contributing overwhelmed me. Nothing I could say or offer, no morsel of my own experience, nor any piece of a friend’s, would get at the why, which is always the point of these howls against the void. The opacity is what frustrates and deranges us who are left.
Suicide is said, by the left-behind, to be selfish, the most selfish thing the deceased could have done. And it is said with tears pooling in eyes, in recognition of the precious and necessary person the abandoned have lost. Murder, too, is the most selfish act a person could commit, the undertaking of being alive an affirmative right, a godly, otherworldly thing; and our tampering with it, our vicious and terrestrial aggravation of cosmic order, is a celestial affront. Murder is to create a ghost prematurely.
Without the ‘why,’ the transgressor is an incomprehensibility. An affront.
The culminating act is, among these other things, a reminder of our own impotence. We control so little.
Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the nation’s most popular depressive, a stovepipe hat taller than David Foster Wallace, believed suffering was medicinal. That it educated us. If we are born broken, to paraphrase playwright Eugene O’Neill, the project of life is our mending. And the grace of God is our glue. One day, Lincoln returned from the War Department in the shadow of a dark cloud, throwing himself on his couch and covering his face with one hand. Later, he reaches for a Bible perched nearby and begins reading. His countenance brightens and Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker, curious as to what pulled Lincoln from his despair, discovers that he was reading from the Book of Job.
Winston Churchill called the clinical depression he’d endured throughout his life the “Black Dog.” It is possible that the lack of a name for his affliction, the lack of its conceptualization as a singular condition, an isolated illness, precluded any discourse.
Mental illness torpedoed George McGovern’s hopes for the Presidency in 1972. What gutted his campaign was the admission by his running mate, then-U.S. Senator of Missouri Thomas Eagleton, that he had undergone electroconvulsive therapy to treat his depression. Presidential candidate McGovern told the public that he would back Eagleton 1000 percent. Upon subsequent consultation with psychiatrists who indicated that Eagleton’s depression could recur, McGovern requested that Eagleton withdraw. Eagleton obliged.
In a TIME Magazine poll taken during that time, 77 percent of Americans indicated that Eagleton’s medical record would not affect their vote. Largely as a result of the press, a national conversation about depression surfaced. But a vocabulary to suit the occasion failed to materialize. Eagleton left the ticket 18 days after he had joined it.
Nixon won that election.
Coda: In 1974, the State of Missouri returned Eagleton to the Senate with 60 percent of the popular vote.
William Styron writes, in “Darkness Visible”: “That the word ‘indescribable’ should present itself is not fortuitous, since it has to be emphasized that if the pain were readily describable most of the countless sufferers from this ancient affliction would have been able to confidently depict for their friends and loved ones (even their physician) some of the actual dimensions of their torment, and perhaps elicit a comprehension that has been generally lacking; such incomprehension has usually been due not to a failure of sympathy but to the basic inability of healthy people to imagine a form of torment so alien to everyday experience.”
Towards the end of my first semester of law school, cosmic choreography put that book on my bookshelf.
Reading Styron’s story of his bout with depression was very much like walking through a forest one had formerly occupied alone, in search of an exit, when suddenly you hear someone up ahead, reciting a poem, leading you towards an exit and are filled once again with the affiance of eventual deliverance from the forest and the chance to see, unfettered and glistening above you, the stars. The indescribable described.
There’s the proposition that the dominion over which mental illness governs is captured in its very moniker. It is localized in the mind. But all day, all night, the body is co-opted. The mind hacks the meat and the meat hacks the mind.
Virginia Woolf writes, in her essay “On Being Ill”: “The creature within can only gaze through the pane—smudged or rosy; it cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife or the pod of a pea for a single instant; it must go through the whole unending procession of changes, heat and cold, comfort and discomfort, hunger and satisfaction, health and illness, until there comes the inevitable catastrophe; the body smashes itself to smithereens, and the soul (it is said) escapes. But of all this daily drama of the body there is no record.”
We live in a different time. Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, growls/whines/wails on “Junkhead,” “What’s my drug of choice?” We have witnessed Nicholas Cage’s cataclysmic hurtle towards oblivion at the bottom of a bottle in “Leaving Las Vegas.” We have David Foster Wallace’s epic “Infinite Jest.” We have Michael Fassbender furiously ejaculating his demons in Steve McQueen’s “Shame.” “The Bell Jar,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Temple Grandin,” the list continues.
But for every incisive, non-caricatured interrogation of mental illness on screen or on the page, there are a dozen stereotype-reinforcing illustrations. Exhibitionist portraiture that paints the mentally ill in the broad brushes of medical non-compliance, extreme violence, and histrionics. Intellectually deficient by biological nature. The grain of truth is fertilized with several doses of gamma radiation and we get Hitchcock’s Norman Bates. We get Tony Soprano. If you are mentally ill on television, violence is very likely the outcome.
On the other end of the spectrum, for lack of a better word, is the savant. The mentally ill are Russell Crowe’s schizophrenic mathematician, John Nash, Jr., in “A Beautiful Mind.” They are autistic Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.”
Morally reprehensible or morally illiterate.
The stigma surrounding mental illness is often why students are expelled or commit suicide on campuses ostensibly flush with mental health resources. The sufferer wears a brighter public self, so that others will not have the sufferer’s shadow fall across their circle of sunlight. The sick are made mute. The response of universities to the ubiquity of mental illness on their campuses has ranged from accommodating and generous to benevolently incompetent to malicious and clinical. Though progress has attended the passage of time, horror stories are a Google search away.
The silence is a lie agreed upon, an unspoken bargain. You will say nothing of your unspeakably complex suffering, which we are unable to cure. Until we have the perfect solution to your problem, you have no problem. If we tell you we have bipolar disorder, you will not hire us because you cannot possibly know if you were one of the factors, one of the ingredients in our perfect storm, that eventually gets us to ride one last binge off the cliff. If we tell you we suffer from schizophrenia, you will break off the engagement because what tools could a spouse possibly carry to take care of that extra portion? Our suitcase is too heavy. And the schizophrenic, the manic-depressive, to avoid that disappointment and heartache, tells you he’s fine, that she’s getting better, all to manage the anxiety that their suffering brings onto the people around them. You know, in the end, that they will not be there to catch you. They never will be. And if they were, they couldn’t possibly knit together a net strong enough to stop your fall.
When that fall does occur, mystery weaves itself over the smoking barrel of each unanswered question. It fills the space between the dangling feet and the floor where the stool once stood. It soaks in the bathtub and spills over its lips onto the tiles.
Silence wraps itself around the mystery, and eventually, we learn to walk around that tainted space. Maybe if we ignore it, we can let it be an anomaly, a singular happenstance. If this is a more pervasive thing than that, if it is indeed more widespread than our immediate orbit of hurt, then it is perhaps unavoidable. And maybe we are complicit in this cataclysm, and in so many others. Maybe we are complicit in this waste.
Coda: I’d started reading “Darkness Visible” early the morning of December 12, 2012. By the time I had finished it, twenty-eight people were dead in Newtown, Connecticut.
At the beginning of 1L, when everything seemed bright and possible and when we were still convinced of our own individual prowess, the Dean of Students entreated us to remember who we were, who it was in that application that made it to that seat in that auditorium. There are always the rumors: that law school will sand your edges, that it will dull your shine, that it will rust your sword and your shield, that it will infect you with psychosis and rot your insides. And during finals period, it is terrifyingly easy to believe that such is the truest reality, that behind the jokes and the smiles and the camaraderie that attend the greater part of the semester lies the selfish competitiveness and the myopia and the exclusionary focus that is our realest nature. Perhaps this is inevitable. The cream of the high school crop becomes the cream of the college crop becomes the student body at an esteemed, elite law school. How many clerkships were won with compassion and empathy?
Trauma is not guaranteed during one’s time here. But what is guaranteed is that among us are those who suffer and who, by virtue of the demands placed on them—on us—by so rigorous a program endured among such competent and highly motivated individuals, suffer in silence. If this is any sort of call to arms, it is simply to invoke the need for an embrace.
By virtue of being law students, we are control freaks. The next step needs to be readily apparent because uncertainty is anathema. But, the important stuff? We control so little.
Whether Dow Chemical wins or loses their arbitration suit. Whether or not that Salvadoran adolescent fleeing the MS-13 in their home country is granted asylum. Whether or not the inventor of [insert awesome futuristic technological innovation here] successfully wins their patent case.
What is all of that in the face of helping a colleague, a classmate, wrestle their leviathan? Standing in their corner where, in between rounds of boxing with that bear, they can be offered solace and a reminder that, despite all evidence, they are not alone.
Coda: We graduate. We make it to the end, having learned the lesson, and having learned it from each other.