Adventures in Depression

About this time last year, I wrote a blog post about passing my oral exam defense, how it feels to want to share good news with someone who has been dead for five years, how it feels to be a Ph.D. student with depression so bad you can’t leave your bed.

And in some ways, this post is and is not like that one.

Every year I’ve been in my Ph.D. program, things feel radically different. My first year, I worked to adjust to four rigorous courses a semester in a new departmental and university culture. My second year, I scrambled to adjust to teaching a new curriculum,  finishing coursework, and studying for comprehensive exams. My third year, I passed my comprehensive exams, developed a prospectus, and began dissertating. My fourth year, I dissertated, applied for jobs, and starting prepping my dissertation defense. Each year, things are very different.

Things are different this year than they were last year. This past year, I applied to dozens of assistant professor positions, did interviews, and recently accepted a TT position. I also wrote a dissertation, revised chapters as I applied for jobs, and submitted a full dissertation to my committee. I co-edited a special issue of a journal and got an article accepted for publication.

Things are different, but depression is constant. It ebbs and flows, building up like the piles of snow that towered outside of my house for months. It accompanied me as I wrote, applied for jobs, interviewed, waited to hear about chapters, revised chapters, waited to hear about jobs.

As always, I am thankful for so many things. I’m thankful that I have a great dissertation committee who have been wholly supportive. I’m thankful that I didn’t have the terrible job market experience that you hear horror stories about. I’m thankful to have been offered a position that really interests me in a department full of people who were nothing but kind when I visited.

Ebbs and flows.

Now March is almost over and the snow is almost gone and the days are getting brighter. But it’s almost April, and then it will be May. And it’s that time of year when I can’t catch my breath because all I can think about is my mom who, 6 years ago, was in a hospice as I finished up my senior year of college. I think of my graduation ceremony, receiving the handwritten note from her as I crossed the stage even though she died 9 days before that. My doctoral hooding ceremony will take place the day she died. My commencement ceremony will take place on Mother’s Day.

As I’ve delved further into my work on disability and accessibility and advocating for students, I’ve had to come to terms with my own mental disability. I started by mentioning it quietly on this blog, and I made my first formal academic disclosure within the pages of the special editors’ introduction to Reflections.

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson describes disability as “the most human of experiences, touching every family and—if we live long enough—touching us all” (5).  For Allison, disability has always been a lens through which I’ve viewed and understood people and environments, my family, and myself: growing up with an autistic older brother who my mom tirelessly advocated for, helping my mom when she was sick with cancer and couldn’t get out of bed or drive to the store, negotiating my own depression and anxiety. Disability shaped my family and was thus very personal. It wasn’t until I was in my Master’s program and had Jay Dolmage as a teaching mentor that I realized disability could be something more. As a Ph.D. student at Syracuse, I took classes in the Disability Studies Program that made me start thinking about what rhetoric and composition can learn from disability studies, what we as instructors can learn from non-normative literacies and disabled composing processes, what we as scholars can learn about rhetoric and writing from cultural, historical, and disciplinary representations of disability.
academic disclosure

As I wrote my dissertation and tried to make sense of students’ survey responses about disability and accessibility, of interviews with students who have internalized rhetorics of overcoming, I had to come to terms with my own internationalization of overcoming. I had to come to terms with my positionally as an instructor and researcher of disability as someone with a mental disability. It was hard, and the days were short and cold, and it felt impossible to get out of bed. But it was also really good because I channeled what energy I had into ensuring that I was representing students fairly and accurately, into nuancing my arguments about disability disclosures in the composition classroom.

A few days ago, after a particularly difficult week, I was accused of “playing the card” of depression. It was difficult to process then and even more difficult to process now. When you self-harm, you get accused often of playing a card (often, the attention card). It’s been a very long time since I have been accused of playing that card. Every time I write and publish one of these blog posts, I wait for someone to call me out for being unfit for academic life or for an accusation that I am not disabled enough to claim a disability identity. Across the board, I have received nothing but support and kind words.

Ebbs and flows.

Disclosures can be so incredibly dangerous (personally, professionally). Within the past year, I have decided to be more vocal about these disclosures because it is healthier for me to be clear about my needs than it is to hide them. And I know I can’t advocate for others if I can’t advocate for myself. I know this accusation will be the first of many.

Indeed, I was also recently asked to disclose this information for someone’s academic gain, and I realized that folks who don’t have depression don’t understand depression. It’s sensationalized and becomes a warped image of inspiration and overcoming, of “how good” it is that you’ve moved past that. But you haven’t moved past it. You’ve grown with it. Depression is always with me, and sometimes it’s the worst thing that has ever happened to me, and sometimes it allows me to be more thoughtful and reflective than I could be without it. It allows me to listen more carefully when colleagues or friends or students articulate what they need from me in a particular moment and to acknowledge that what they need the next day may be completely different.

Whenever I think about how to explain this, I think about Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and Half. I teach “Adventures in Depression” and “Depression Part Two” in my composition courses because they capture depression in such clear, tangible ways—particularly for folks who are unfamiliar with depression. In the first comic, she delves into what it’s like but then tries to end the comic by tying a nice bow on it. Brosh didn’t post again for nearly a year and a half. When she finally posted “Depression Part Two,” I was so happy and so sad. I both laughed and cried because she’s such a funny writer and also because her words are so, so true. It’s hard to explain depression to someone who doesn’t get it but really wants to help. She writes, “So they try harder to make you feel hopeful and positive about the situation. You explain it again, hoping they’ll try a less hope-centric approach, but re-explaining your total inability to experience joy inevitably sounds kind of negative; like maybe you WANT to be depressed.” Every time I get caught in that situation, I think about the fish:

It would be like having a bunch of dead fish, but no one around you will acknowledge that the fish are dead. Instead, they offer to help you look for the fish or try to help you figure out why they disappeared.

A stick figure with a blond ponytail and pink dress holds an orange goldfish in her right hand. Action lines indicate that she has just launched a goldfish with her left. Her mouth gapes open, and the words "Why can't anyone see how dead these are??" fill the white space of the page.
explaining depression (

It’s been a long time since I got caught in a dead fish conversation.

One of the simplest arguments from my dissertation is that we need to listen to the needs that students articulate—both students who disclose diagnosed, documented disabilities and those who do not. There are lots of reasons students may choose not to disclose, and a student’s request to access course notes or to receive content in multiple formats or to listen to music while freewriting should not be any more or less valid if that student discloses a disability or presents an accommodations notice with that request. Disclosure should not be demanded (& then called into question) in order for someone’s needs to be acknowledged and respected.


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