Sharing Grief

It’s difficult to explain depression to folks who have no frame of reference for it. My dad was the one who came home first when I locked myself in the bathroom when I was 14, and I still remember the way his legs and fingers twitched as he sat down and tried to talk to me about what was wrong. (His body twitched the same way three years later when he sat me down to tell my mom had cancer.) Over a decade later, it’s still difficult for me to explain depression to my dad—not because he doesn’t want to understand but because he doesn’t know how.

I feel similar despair when I try to explain depression to partners, to friends, to colleagues. Depression seems more difficult to explain as an academic because there’s an unspoken sense that you shouldn’t talk about it, but it’s there. It’s difficult to make yourself vulnerable in a culture of higher education that preys on (or at least seems to prey on) vulnerability—particularly vulnerability of the mind.

I was recently invited to make myself vulnerable (or not) by a kind colleague, and it was nice to know that I could talk about it (or not). It was nice to switch from academic conversations about rhetoric to how completely consuming anxiety and depression can be—how one day you’re teaching and grading and writing and researching, and the next day you can’t convince yourself to get out of bed.

It’s difficult to explain depression because it never operates the same from day to day. Sometimes, it’s just there. And sometimes, something specific triggers it. My last post was courtesy of a range of triggers that all culminated within one week. Today, I’m thinking about depression (but perhaps am not drowning in it thanks to that act of kindness) because it’s Easter Sunday.

I feel displaced at Easter every year because my family didn’t really celebrate it. When everyone else went home to visit their families, I stayed on campus. 2009 is the last time I drove home to visit my family, winding through snow-capped mountains to spend time with my mom in our house for the last time. The week after Easter, she was re-admitted to the hospice (where she stayed for the next month).

I spent that weekend taking awkward black-and-white photos of my mom lying in bed in her faded black sweatshirt and flannel pajama pants. I took photos of the clothes in her closet, which my dad bagged up and donated shortly after she died. I took photos of the plastic, heart-print water glass that she kept on her bedside table. I took photos of the handwritten notes for the memorial service that she planned herself, sprawling cursive letters indicating that “My Home among the Hills” would be the last song played.

It’s difficult to know whether or not I feel isolated at Easter because it’s a religious holiday or because of the depression or because it’s always time of year when academic expectations to perform are at an all-time high. It’s much easier to manage that isolation, though, when someone reaches out to you to let you know you’re not alone and to assure you that how you’re feeling isn’t shameful. Particularly in academic environments where all things depression, anxiety, mental health are kept under wraps, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re alone and to allow yourself to self-consume.

I used to end these reflective blog posts (see tags: grad life, PhD student) with bullet lists of reminders or action items for self care. Things like “Ask for help when you need it” and “Celebrate every step along the way—no matter how small it may seem.” These are simple reminders, but when you’re really and truly struggling, even the most simple things seem so difficult to do. So in the spirit of reciprocity (because sharing grief is deeply reciprocal) and in gratitude to a colleague who reached out to me in a time of despair, a reminder:

Time spent grieving and building support networks is always worth it. Grabbing lunch or coffee with a colleague is more valuable than an extra hour spent grading (or writing a few more pages, reading another article, tweaking that presentation, or staring at the wall trying to convince yourself to work).


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