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Phillips: Stop romanticizing trauma and mental illness

Ruby Phillips, Assistant Opinion Editor

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Yesterday, I found myself on the Greyhound bus at 9 a.m., openly crying reading Junot Díaz’s new article in The New Yorker entitled, “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma.” I have loved his writing for a long time, but unlike his other work, this essay wasn’t fictional. Díaz normally paints complicated images of the lives of immigrants going to new places and returning home. He takes you into his stories and makes you reevaluate what your real home is. His stories show real people and real problems, and yet the reader can always take comfort knowing that maybe they weren’t written from his perspective.

I’d like to first encourage you to read the article, with the strong warning that it describes sexual assault and depression vividly. In it, Díaz revealed in a raw and authentic way his traumatic past experiences of suffering from depression and being raped at 8 years old. This article was very meaningful to me because it reminded me that I had become complicit in the romanticization of trauma.

There is nothing particularly enticing about sadness. Sometimes, society tells us that a sad story has to have a beginning, middle and end, with an introduction to the characters and their problems, an arc and a resolution. We think sad stories are something to be learned from and that make us strong rather than the ugly, neverending experiences they can feel like. Díaz’s article reminded me I shouldn’t feel comfortable when hearing about pain and sadness.

2017 was a hard year for me. I lost months that I’ll never get back and I still can’t understand why. Like Díaz wrote in his article, “Then darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell.” Sadness doesn’t look the same for everyone. For me, it changed the way I thought. My brain literally created new lines of logic that I thought made sense. I started sleeping less and prioritizing my work over everything. I soon became mean to my friends and to myself. I became obsessed with LinkedIn, resumes and internships. I compared myself to everyone I saw on Sheridan Road.

It felt like my career and my entire life were dictated by how I lived on this campus. That’s the problem with how we define and value logic and thinking: When you can’t even delineate what is true, everything is logical if there is even the most insignificant piece of evidence to back it up. The truth becomes subjective, and everything turns into Post-it notes all over a cork board with pieces of string connecting them.

I’m sure hundreds of students at this school and across the country deal with this every day. I told myself that I wasn’t the first millennial to attend an elite private school, and learn they weren’t special, so I convinced myself my problems didn’t deserve to be taken care of. I didn’t want to unload on my friends because I knew they were navigating their own issues, and I felt like my feelings would consume our friendship and burden their lives. But then I read Díaz’s story yesterday, and I was reminded that just because something is normal doesn’t mean it is OK. More importantly, my friends deserved all of me; that would be how I was going to get better.

It can be difficult at this school to admit when you aren’t as smart or as durable as you thought you were. The ways we perceive sadness and depression make us think that asking for help is weak. But our conceptions of mental problems cannot be limited to the corporatized and patriarchal narratives that we see on TV and in books — narratives that tells us it is sexy or twistedly hot to be “messed up” or sad. We see so many examples of relationships that begin on the premise of one partner saving the other. These ideas can make us think that to be interesting or loved, we need to have gone through something profound. Moreover, it seems like the only way to find salvation from those feelings is through love, romantic or otherwise. I internalized this myth for so much of my life that when I actually started facing problems with my mental health, I was surprised when no saved me.

I used to think having an illness would make me special until it became real and, when I tried to ignore it, it became worse. I’ve been the luckiest person in the world because I have the most amazing friends in the world. They don’t romanticize my feelings or expect me to defeat them. They waited with me, sat with me and helped me take back my moments, millisecond by millisecond, when I needed to. I learned from Díaz and from all the amazing people who support me that to explore your feelings and your sadness, to look at the ugly parts, is to find out how you can get better. Even though it was scary, I was able to trace the distorted lines of my logic and I had people who followed them with me. They never let go.

Ruby Phillips is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at rubyphillips2020@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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