Don’t cry in class, I wrote in my notebook. Then I underlined it six times, the lines getting thicker and thicker, my hand growing unsteadier. I kept adding more lines even as I felt the first tears running down my face.
The rain was so heavy it caused flash-floods last night and between that and the sinkhole on the bypass that got it shut down, my professor delayed the start of class. Discussion of our papers first, then the quiz, then the mid-class break.
We didn’t use to discuss our papers at all. I don’t like the change. I never feel confident handing them in, even if I’ve received full marks on every one so far. When we go around the room and discuss what we chose to write about, mine never seem to be about the content; I tend to focus on the stylistic choices and the reasoning for them. (At least with this book. I guess I don’t feel comfortable analyzing character motivations in a memoir.) This week I couldn’t even manage that—I found myself so affected by the book that I wrote a far-less analytical paper.
I liked Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, but the last third wrecked me. There are long sections about fighting depression, about sinking into a hole, about fights with the other part of her, about her suicide attempt, and it all hit too close to home. When I was at my most depressed I remember writing a post here about feeling as though there were two of me, one weak and pathetic and the other acerbic and cruel, and I couldn’t be sure which one was seeing things clearly. I was the target of my own scorn. It was unceasing.
So when it came time to talk about the papers, I talked about mine, and a little part where Winterson refuted this idea that I loathe, this mythology of art being the work of the tortured, as if it is owed to that. And then this became a larger discussion about depression, even if she rarely calls it that. My professor pointed out her own sort of theory of overcoming it, which is to sort of let it run its course and your mind will reboot itself, and asked us what we thought. And I hesitated before I raised my hand and said I thought it was a little naive—that it worked for her, but she survived her suicide attempt, and for plenty of people the process ends there. That’s it. They’re dead. And though she never says it outright, she clearly thinks very little of medication, and for some people that’s a real thing. There is a component to this, a chemical imbalance in the brain, and that’s not imaginary.
One of the boys—men, I should say, these are people all around my age or older, he’s a man—said his piece after that, that he questioned the necessity of medication, and I felt a little tense, but then he gestured at me and said, “But you raise a good point” about the suicide, about how some people don’t get that second chance. He talked for a little while and he talked in circles, and I felt good about that, because I knew he had never thought of it the way I had until I said it, and I knew that he wouldn’t forget it either—that he would think about it and come to his conclusions, even if they weren’t mine, long after that moment. I like this man, W. I feel like he’s always aware there is a world larger than his own.
Then the boy—man—next to him spoke, and this is when I felt myself get sick, could no longer look at anyone, began to scribble intensely in my notebook. “I don’t think medication helps people,” J began, and it only went worse from there, because he explained that when people go on medication, they grow dependent on it, and that makes them lazy, and they stop trying to help themselves. In my head I thought of one of the presentations from the week before on Margaret Thatcher, how we talked about Reaganomics and socialism and welfare. He went on like this for awhile, and mid-way through was when I began to cry. My face grew wet. My nose started to run. I thought of rummaging through my purse for a tissue that I knew wasn’t there. At the beginning of his speechifying I held my hand up, but at some point I told myself not to make it about me, and took it down. Instead I concentrated on straight-line doodles, lines intersecting and perpendicular, all while feeling more and more upset.
When J stopped talking, my professor asked me if I still had something to say, and I didn’t even look up because I was so afraid of telltale mascara lines on my cheeks, just said from where I scribbled, “I take back what I had to say,” and the ones who didn’t know better laughed, and I felt good that I had apparently hidden it so well.
Then we took the quiz. I always finish first—it’s only ten questions, they’re always multiple choice, the first five are there to establish you did the reading (one correct answer, three things that absolutely aren’t if you even skimmed the book) and the rest basic vocabulary in sentences lifted directly from the work. My professor came to retrieve it, but knelt beside my desk. “Are you okay?” he asked. “Do you need to talk?”
"No," I said as bright as I could. "I’m okay. Thank you. No, I’m fine."
I waited for a moment to consider if I should get up and walk to the restroom to check my eye make-up, but then decided I had to, and crossed the room trying to seem as though I was fine. G, the girl who sits directly across the room from me—the student sit in a U of desks and we are the two points of the U, though neither of us was initially when the class started because we’ve had the people who were drop out—walked ahead of me, held the door when we left the classroom, held the door when we circled to the restroom, and I smiled and thanked her, before she slipped into a stall, and I turned on the faucet, wet my hands, then delicately touched at the faint black streaks leading to my chin.
I was just finishing up when she joined me at the mirror.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
"I’m fine," I said. I paused for a moment, trying to think of what I wanted to say, and then I took a deep breath. "I’m anti-depressants," I said slowly, "and I hate the stigma."
And I’m not ashamed, I thought. I am not ashamed of this.
G stopped washing her hands. “I understand,” she said. “It all hit really close to home for me. Two of my family members committed suicide.” Her voice cracked, and I put my hand on her shoulder. “It’s not just something you can get over or think through. I had a hard time holding it together in there.”
"And that kid, when he talks sometimes…" She made a face of disgust. "It’s like he has no idea—"
"—how humanity actually works," I said. "I know! God, I know. I was thinking of your presentation on Margaret Thatcher when he was talking, like the language was exactly the same as the reasoning to not believe in welfare and I was just thinking like ‘God, can you not even see the parallel’" and she nodded vigorously and I felt so, so relieved, and not alone.
When I got back to my seat, as she went outside to take a call, I wrote in my notebook, You are much too quick to judge.
I told this to my therapist today, and she said, “Some people just don’t know, and you have to just step back and realize they have no idea what they’re talking about.” She said this with a sad, accepting smile, her palms open and raised wide. But all I could think was, Why do I have to take that? Why aren’t we angrier?
At the end of class, I struggled to get everything into my purse, fell behind, and only managed to get out of my seat and lay my paper on the desk to hand in after everyone else had made their way to the door. I wanted to catch up with the woman I sit next to, but instead my professor looked at me when I meant to say good-night and spoke.
"I want to talk to you, sometime," he said.
"Oh, okay!" I started, thinking it was about the paper due next week. I am stumped with this paper.
But he continued, “I want to know how you got here, what you’re doing here.” He sounded like I had been conjured out of the mist, and I admit I felt a little pleased to be unique, to be rare.
"I have time now," I said with a look to the clock. We let out early last night. "I have twenty minutes before my ride gets here."
He said that was fine, told me to take a seat, and I did, sitting across from him, but with a gap that felt much larger than its three feet between us.
"I just want to know how you got here," he asked, looking at me from what seemed so far away. I felt small, even though I am much taller than he is even without the heeled boots and wedge sandals I tend to wear to class. "I don’t usually get students with your level of verbal and analytical skills in my class, and I just want to know how you came here, what you’re doing, where you want to go in the future."
So I gave the basic facts: this is where I went to high school, this is where I went to college for a year, then I had a mental breakdown and dropped out, this is where I worked retail for awhile, then I went back to that breakdown, then I started seeing a therapist and taking medication, then I got a job in retail again, then I took a class at this college (“English 100? With [old teacher]?” and he shrugged to say he had no idea who it was and I said, “She was wonderful. She yelled a lot and my class really responded to that? It’s not really my style of teaching—” “Mine either” “—but it really worked, I think that class needed it”), then I stopped taking the drugs and seeing the therapist and went back to the breakdown again, then I saw a new therapist and got back on the medication again, then I started this class, I am still working that retail job, I am only taking this class, I hope to take more classes, then maybe transfer to Temple because it is close by and not expensive.
I said this all as calm as I could manage. Maybe even with a hint of detachment. I felt good saying it. I felt honest. And we talked about it for a few minutes, about what I want to do with my life, about a professor he recommended I take a class with whose name he wrote down on a corner of his legal pad for me and ripped out, about a trend piece about “grit” he read—“I haven’t read it, no, but I read something about ‘gumption’ in high school and I suspect they’re the same thing” “Probably”—and how stupid that idea is. We talked about a lot in fifteen minutes, actually, but what I will remember is this: when he stood up to put on his coat, and he said to me that he wanted to talk to me because, “when I see a student who doesn’t think highly of their abilities or isn’t aware of their capabilities, I want to disabuse them of that notion.”
And I felt like—I don’t know how I felt, just that I felt special, that I felt like something shining that had been roughed up and someone saw that part of me sparkled and still had value and I wanted to cry but I couldn’t. I said thank you though, a lot. I’m much better at thank yous now, and I imagine I sounded crazed with every time I said it, but I didn’t know how else to say to this man, You don’t know how much this means to me, you could never know how much this means to me, I am sure I am boring you keeping you here talking about things you don’t care about but I just want this conversation to never end, tell me I am better than retail some more, tell me I could easily manage graduate work again, never let this end, I want this moment to never let me go. Isn’t this what we’re all looking for, to be told we’re valuable? Maybe you already know you’re valuable, I hope you do. I didn’t cry then, but I am crying now.
I told him about Maria, who saw Jeanette Winterson do a reading of this at AWP, and we both admitted we’ve meant to read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit forever but haven’t gotten around to it, and then we parted ways in the hallway and said good-bye, and as I stepped through the lobby, saying good-night to the receptionist, I couldn’t stop thinking, Thank you, thank you, thank you.