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The Risk of Revealing the Secret of My Mental State

America doesn’t really take mental disorders seriously. Look at the case of Creigh Deeds and his son. In November, the Virginia state senator’s son stabbed him multiple times before shooting himself to death. This came one day after the son, Gus, was mentally evaluated at a hospital, but wasn’t held overnight because, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “no psychiatric bed could be located across a wide area of western Virginia.” So they sent him home.

This is an extreme case, and it has kicked the dialogue about mental illness up a notch. Now Virginia is going to make sure that beds are available. But that’s just a bandage. That’s how the country works much of the time: quick reactions. We should be more proactive, but we don’t have the proper mentality about mental health. We have couch-jumping celebrities telling the world that you can exercise instead of taking medication because psychiatry is a “pseudoscience.” We have some parents who let their children fall off the rails because they don’t believe in ADHD, while others overmedicate so they don’t have to regulate.

We say things like, “You’re depressed? You just need a good pick-me-up” or “You have anxiety? Relax for a while.” If only it were that easy. If only these weren’t often deeply rooted mental and physical problems.

And we have seemingly regular folks who are too embarrassed to get help, and their loved ones suffer, or they are afraid that getting “help” might hurt their job performance.

That last sentence—the whole thing—was, and still is in many ways, me. Life has thrown some changes my way in the past few years, and the anxiety began to consume me. It started slowly, probably three or so years ago. Recently it got worse. I became irritable and unfriendly, at first just when I was at home, then at other times. My wife has probably borne the brunt of the effects, and she’s a saint for dealing with them. I’ve tried hard not to let my children notice. I didn’t tell anyone at my college how I was feeling.

Every semester, I get documentation of students with this or that disorder, and I have to accommodate them, and rightfully so. But what about my accommodations? I fear the possible perception that others may have—”How could he possibly be performing adequately with his condition?”—and the repercussions. A tenure-review committee comes to mind. Administration comes to mind. Students, and students’ parents, are also in the mix.

I don’t have the protection of tenure, and I assumed (I still assume it, on some levels) that my colleagues and bosses would look down on me as a professor if they knew what I was dealing with. I had a few anxiety attacks early this semester (not while on campus), and I have been going to counseling since then, but I’ve still been hesitant to tell others about this. Recently I learned of my official diagnosis: adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood. This is good and bad news, because it means that my symptoms could be temporary but also could be signs of more-complicated underlying issues.

In short, when I get anxious, I have trouble concentrating, sometimes even breathing, and I either struggle to make decisions or I make them too hastily. On paper, that wouldn’t bode well for an English professor. Add Prozac and Klonopin prescriptions to the mix, and one might assume—might perceive—that I have become useless as a guy who is supposed to use his brain and to communicate for a living.

If one did assume so, one would be wrong. I’m actually still quite energetic in the classroom, giving me the ability to try to impart some knowledge (or what could potentially become knowledge) to students. I can still talk, in depth, about literature, and I can still analyze the written word as well as I ever could. Work—the classroom and writing—has actually been a saving grace for me. This and my family are all I have in the world. I like to think that my students benefit from having me there, even now in my unusual mental state. I know I need the classroom now more than ever.

I have misgivings about this piece appearing on The Chronicle’s website, because I could suffer ramifications, personal or professional (or both), but millions of people suffer from anxiety and/or depression, and the odds are that some of them are teachers. This is something that should be talked about more often.

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