Convention

a meeting or formal assembly, as of representatives or delegates, for discussion of and action on particular matters of common concern

a rule, method, or practice established by usage

“So L. told me you do creative writing?” my coworker said/asked.  I looked up from my lunch in the workplace kitchen, slightly startled.  This coworker had always scared me a little.  But I’m always happy to nerd out a little about creative writing.

“Yeah, I want to be an author of long-form fantasy novels.  And maybe some historical fiction.”

She nodded, “That’s awesome,” and suddenly I found myself answering a lot of questions.  What was my writing schedule?  What podcasts did I listen to?  Who were my workshoppers?  What was my plan for getting an agent?  What was my timeline for finishing my novel?  What conferences had I been to?

“Actually, I’m going to a conference next weekend,” I said, and described it.  She waved a hand dismissively.

“Too many academics there.  You want to network at WorldCon or something like that instead,” she said.  “That’s where L. and I met Professor T. and A. B. – you know who that is, right?”  I could only shake my head as she barreled onward, completely overwhelming me with instructions as to how to make writing my career.  By the time she was done, I felt utterly hopeless.  How on earth was I going to educate myself on all these aspects of the publishing world?  And how had I ever thought I could be a writer when I was so ignorant?  I needed to catch up!

Then last weekend I went to that conference I told my coworker about.  My coworker probably wouldn’t have thought much of it.  I didn’t get any business cards, and I didn’t pitch a book idea to any agents or editors.  I had lunch and sat through panels with friends I had made the year before.  I chose seminars based on where I am in the writing process (very, very early stages).  I asked questions about things that interested me.  I nerded out about Anne Boleyn with a historical fiction writer.  Perhaps it didn’t do anything to greatly benefit my fledgling career, but the conference definitely benefited me.

Since announcing my intention to stay in our Small College Town and work on my writing while the Engineer finishes his degree, I’ve received a lot of advice about how to network (a terrifyingly vague term that still makes me cringe) and “start a career” despite my remote location.  But that’s never been what writing is about for me.  Yes, I’d love to write a bestselling novel, because it would mean other people wanted to read the same kinds of stories I’m interested in writing.  Taking time to write every day is more about seeing what I can do than about building any type of career.  I want a network of fellow writers and readers more than I want to memorize a roster of Who’s Who in Writing.

I do understand and appreciate the intentions of the people who ask me about my networking plans.  In many industries, connections are vital, and the earlier you make them, the better.  I realize it must seem like I’m approaching things a bit sideways.  This isn’t how convention says progress is made.  But I’m starting to value progress in my own head over progress on a society-based timeline.  At that conference, for example, one panelist said that his own shift in perspective came when he started calling himself a writer, even though he still had another full time job.  “Writer” was who he was, not just what he did.  That makes sense to me.  That is a step that feels concrete and real to me, even if my coworker might give me a pitying smile and say that until I can put it on my resume, I’m not really a writer.

I know that I am.  And that knowledge will give me the energy to keep working so the world can know it too.

So today I bought my ticket for NerdCon: Stories in October.  I’m going to meet up with the Commodore and talk about stories – written, filmed, recorded, sung, pantomimed, or any other kind of story – for a weekend.  And I’m extremely excited.  Maybe I’ll meet a future employer.  Maybe I’ll just have a really good time.  But I’m okay with either outcome as long as I can come home and write about it.

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Succulents and Stress Spirals

I potted some plants the other day.  I pulled on my brand new neon orange gardening gloves, scooped Miracle-Gro into an azure blue pot, and settled some spiky purple blooms around a central plant with trumpetlike white flowers.  Promptly forgetting the names of the plants, I have dubbed the spiky purple ones dragonsbane after a plant described in Dealing With Dragons.  I haven’t come up with a name for the white ones yet.  There’s also an adorable tiny succulent on my windowsill, which I have named Junior after the asparagus from VeggieTales.

I was proud of this attempt at gardening.  I was adding life to my home (and the plants seem like they’ll probably survive!).  That burst of productivity even extended to vacuuming, cleaning the kitchen, and balancing my budget.  It was a good afternoon.

Then the next day I came home from work and didn’t move from my couch for the entire afternoon.  Dinner was forgotten.  The dishwasher did not get unloaded.  Nothing happened except that I sat on the couch, coloring, until Netflix asked, “Are you still watching?” (a message I can’t help but read with a judgey inflection, even if Netflix is truly just concerned for my wellbeing).  Even my mindfulness coloring book didn’t seem to help my mood.

And all I could think about was, “I never do anything anymore.  I am so unproductive.  I’m going to completely fail this year” – and there I went, slipping and sliding down a Stress Spiral.  Basically, when I get into this self-overwhelming mindset, I use my current mood/emotion/situation to build illogically dramatic visions of the future.  In this case, it went something like:

I’m not feeling productive today ⇒ I’m falling behind on all the things I wanted to do today. ⇒ I’m going to fall behind on all the things I wanted to accomplish this year. ⇒ I won’t get any writing done. ⇒ I will be a failure at achieving my dream of being an author.

Looking at this through a logical lens, of course, the extrapolation falls apart.  For one thing, this year is not the only year I have in which to become an author.  I have my whole life to do that; this is just some time I happen to have set aside to work toward that specifically.  Scaling it back down, the dishwasher could conceivably be unloaded the next day.  And a bout of unproductive-ness one day does not mean I’m that way all the time – just the day before, I’d potted plants!  I’d budgeted!  I’d been an adult!  But the funny thing is that on those Good Adulting Days, I never think to myself, “I am always like this.”  Those thoughts only come on days when I am not being who I want to be.

IMG_20160714_121549My favorite counselor once told me, “Emotional states are not personality traits.”  It’s a helpful thing to repeat to myself when I’m scrabbling for a toehold in a Stress Spiral (and not just because it rhymes).  At some point I developed the habit of mistaking my darker moods for reflections of my Core Self, and as painful and overwhelming as that is, it’s a difficult habit to break.  So I journal, because sometimes just identifying the twists and turns of the Spiral helps me unravel it.  I talk to the Engineer, whose belief in my abilities is dazzling and unwavering.  I text my friends, who tell me I’m putting too much pressure on myself.  And I stand at my window and see that Junior seems to be doing just fine.  So odds are I’ll be fine too.

Review: The Transcriptionist

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

Mom sometimes says that when I type, it sounds fake, like someone is just smashing the keys randomly to sound as though they’re doing work.  My speed is mostly due to practice – we took “Computer” every year in elementary school and it was always the same.  When I’d finished all the lessons (my least favorite was alternating between L and the semicolon key over and over), I’d try out the Freetyping section until I found a sentence that seemed to flow for me, then repeat it relentlessly until I could do it fast without mistakes.  I first broke 100 words per minute with 100% accuracy on the bizarre query, “Did you know there is a curious creature called the Platypus?”  (Even as a 6th grader, I doubted the capitalization of the creature’s name was correct.)  After that, I quickly realized that in order to keep up with my own thoughts, typing out my stories was much more effective than trying to scribble them down on paper (though I still take notes and journal by hand).

It is this love of typing that led me to pick up Amy Rowland’s debut novel, The Transcriptionistsince the title implied a theme of words and the channels we use to convey those words.  And I was right, in a way.  The eponymous transcriptionist, Lena, works at a New York newspaper, transcribing articles and interviews on tape and sending the words on their way.  She frequently describes it as being a mere conduit and letting other people’s words run through her.  Even in her conversations outside of work (which, initially, are few and far between), Lena quotes from literature she’s read rather than create her own sentences.  She worries that she is dissolving, drowning in Other People’s Words.

The book is a chronicle of Lena’s reaction to one “story so shocking” that it drives her to begin pricking, then ripping, holes in the bubble of words that suffocates her.  There are other characters who can be divided into two camps: those who do not understand what is so wrong with a comfortable, even easy, job, and those who acknowledge her fear and support her in getting unstuck.

There are animals in Lena’s world, too – a pigeon that never leaves the balconette outside her Recording Room window, and a lion that becomes depressed after eating the woman whose death becomes the shocking story that jolts Lena out of her torpor.  She also frequently dreams of a mountain lion from her youth that terrorized her farming community.  Lena’s relationships with these animals reveal as much about her as her relationships with other humans, yet not in a sappy or heavyhanded way.  The pigeon’s true significance is withheld until the very end, and the two big cats’ effects on Lena are far from straightforward.

I was riveted by the idea of someone’s agency suffocating beneath too many words, seeing as my own relationship with language has been one that allowed me to discover aspects of myself rather than bury them.  The only weakness in Rowland’s prose was her tendency toward verbose dialogue that didn’t seem real – but then again, given Lena’s propensity for letting Other People’s Words slip into her conversation, perhaps it was appropriate to the character, if a bit distracting for the reader.

Lena’s long-ignored fears bubble to the surface and carry the plot swiftly along in a brilliant example of how the struggle to change one simple life can be just as compelling as a sweeping drama.

4/5 stars on Goodreads


Have you read The Transcriptionist?  What did you think of it?  What is your relationship with words like?

Sifting Through

Tidy as I have always believed myself to be, sorting through my belongings at my parents’ houses as I prepare to move to my Small College Town full-time has resembled an archaeological dig.  Each layer of stuff reveals a piece of someone I used to be.

There are the comics, only four panels long, because I didn’t realize how much longer drawing took than writing and it turns out I can’t really draw anyway and the jokes really weren’t that funny.  Bird laughs at one Cast of Characters list, where I have drawn passable cats and labeled them with their names: Ringo, Fluffy, Sophistikitty…and Tracey.  Which she thinks is hilarious.

There is the blue dolphin lamp on its springy stand.  It probably came from Limited Too, where all the cool kids shopped among the clashing neon colors and dyed fake fur.  In middle school, dolphins were cool.  I remember the texture of its almost sparkly, rubber skin under my fingers and I can picture the room I wished I could build around this one piece of décor, one that would have bead curtains and one of those bowl chairs.  It would have been the epitome of coolness.

There are the meticulously labeled sketches and stories in fits and starts that never got fleshed out because I lost them until this moment.  One is about elk with bizarre sounding names.  According to the date, I was 11 years old when I wrote this double-spaced paragraph.  My keysmash phase for coming up with names, where my strategy was to pick something cool-sounding out of gibberish.

There is the pass to the front section of the football game where the Engineer saved me a seat freshman year, before we were dating.  I forgot I had saved it, but I remember now, how I tucked it away before he ever asked me out, just to savor the giddy feeling of having a cute guy sit next to me at a football game.  (Bird says I have to keep this forever and starts making a pile of Engineer-related memorabilia.)

There is an absurd amount of fuzzy slipper-socks stuffed in a drawer, ones I’m not certain I ever wore.  I set these aside to keep my feet warm in the Small College Town winters, which are unforgiving on that side of the state.  And there are the t-shirts from my Jesuit high school homecomings and special events.  Bird holds up the one from our Candyland-themed dance, the one with “Welcome to the Candyshop” across the chest.  “I still can’t believe they let you guys make this,” she says.

There are the letters I wrote, filled with too much angst to fit in my normal journal, speckled with capital letters and places where I wrote so heavily the pen made holes in the paper.  Skimming some of these, I want to go back in time and give my past self a hug.  She had no idea how things were going to turn out.

I don’t keep all of it.  I remember, looking through all of it, how big everything felt.  Yet, “You don’t necessarily need to feel those emotions again,” Bird points out.  I won’t try to gloss over the unpleasant stages of becoming who I am now – but I won’t get bogged down in them either.

I’ve quoted William Morris before: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”  At this point, as I start to build my own life beyond school, I get to choose to keep only the things that are useful in reminding me how far I’ve come, and beautiful in showing me that some part of myself has always been good.

Review: The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

When I was younger, I went through a phase where my storytelling strategy largely consisted of taking a set of ridiculous characters, throwing them together in an absurd situation, and seeing what happened.  (This may have been triggered by my first reading of Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which I mostly focused on the Improbability Drive and the falling whale it generated.  Also the depressed robot.) Since this was middle school, the dialogue was primarily one-liners and bad puns, and most of these plots ran out of steam after a few pages.  I was a novice writer who hadn’t yet discovered the process or genres that worked for me, so these bits and pieces of stories just sort of haunt my Documents folder and provide occasional hilarity when I rediscover them.  (My personal favorite is ambitiously entitled, “The Story of a Forwarded Letter, a Post Office Worker, and a Mailbox.”  The mailbox decides to break as many laws of physics as it can.  It’s a gem.)

Though my own attempts at this sort of thing have (mercifully) fallen by the wayside, I still have a special place in my heart for books that truly test the limits of fiction with style and absurdity, like the masterful Hitchhiker’s Guide.  In this vein, Jonas Jonasson’s The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden is one of the most recent additions to my library, and a phenomenal read.  It’s not quite magical realism or fantasy, because it doesn’t contain anything that couldn’t physically happen in our world, but definitely includes plot points that set it apart from mere contemporary fiction (I mean, how many other books about South Africa’s nuclear arms development include the king of Sweden being kidnapped in the back of a potato truck with a bomb and a twin, neither of which officially exist?).  But I could believe every word of it, because it was the sort of book where I wanted the delightful characters (and even the irritating ones) to be real.

The eponymous girl, Nombeko, is definitely going on my list of Heroines I Want To Be When I Grow Up.  She reads everything she can get her hands on and actively seeks out knowledge about anything and everything.  This intelligence serves her well, whether it’s letting a bumbling engineer think he’s running things or negotiating a nuclear arms exchange with two agents who want to kill her.  In confrontations, she behaves exactly as I always pretended I would: shrugs and pours the bad guy some tea, thoroughly discomfiting him.  Nombeko is also snarky, compassionate, and hardworking.  She’s not perfect, of course, but her distrust of happiness is not only understandable, it made me relate to her more.  She is unwilling to make plans for the future, no matter how much she and her companions want them, until their current problem (the itty bitty matter of the bomb in the potato truck) is solved; Nombeko does not skip ahead.

Though I obviously took its representation of historical events with a grain of salt, I also enjoyed the way the book expanded my cultural horizons.  Nombeko is born in a slum in South Africa, a country I know almost nothing about.  Her adventures bring her (and the reader) into contact with such people as the prime minister, an ambassador from China, and engineers in charge of building nuclear bombs for South Africa.  The book spans some thirty years, touching on events I’ve heard of but never really learned about, and describing international relationships I had never considered before.  Recently I’ve realized how Eurocentric my reading tends to be (especially given my penchant for old English novels and the depths of academic English literature), which has left me with a disproportionate understanding of world cultures, so fiction like this might be a good way to start learning more.

I gasped, laughed, and mumbled, “Nonononono” – causing the Engineer a little concern.  An excellent book, from style to character development to plot.

5/5 stars on Goodreads


Have you read this?  Share your thoughts!  Or go read it and tell me what you think!

Binge-Reading

Ever since my graduation a week and a half ago, I’ve been staying up way too late.  Not partying.  Not playing videogames.  Not even as a mild form of continued celebration that I no longer have to get up for class in the mornings.

No, I’ve been staying up late to read.

I’m reading old-fashioned books filled with madcap hi-jinks, nonfiction books about introversion and vulnerability, contemporary fiction that makes me think, fluff that requires no thinking at all, and old favorites that I’ve already read a few dozen times.

It seems that my brain, overexcited by the realization that I am allowing it to read whatever it pleases, instead of using up all its energy on schoolwork, is getting carried away.  Even if a book isn’t really that exciting, I can’t put it down until the words are swimming before my eyes.

I don’t really mind this.  During the school year, I felt as though the “reader” part of my identity was only active when I sped through novels assigned in class.  I missed being the sort of person who had a book in her purse, and another one waiting at home, and a third one for reading at bedtime.

I won’t be able to read a book a day forever.  But for now I am a happy little bookworm.

Gonfalonier

When Saturday dawned, though I’d slept poorly from nerves, I was honestly more anxious and emotional about my friends’ graduations than my own.  I was proud of them, and excited for them, and a little bit sad, but my own arrival at this academic pinnacle didn’t quite seem real.  I got up early to see the Southern Belle and the Commodore (who carried the gonfalon!) at the 8 a.m. ceremony.  I teared up several times, and I clapped and cheered wildly when my two best friends walked across the stage to receive their diploma covers, and I took many blurry, zoomed-in pictures from my faraway seat because I was determined to capture the moment.

I met up with the Engineer and his family, who were in town for his brother’s graduation (having earned a master’s degree) at the next ceremony.  I walked back to my apartment in the sun, meeting soon-to-be graduates in their regalia going the other way, and I still couldn’t quite think, “Me too.  I’m graduating.”

For most of the day, Bird and I read quietly at my apartment, with brief flurries of activity when the Commodore’s and my own family descended for visits and hellos between events.  Rather than wrapping my head around my own reality, I escaped into the adventures of The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden (highly recommended, by the way).

Then it was time to start getting ready.  Rented gown, a stolen stole (borrowed from the Commodore, signifying that I had studied abroad; I didn’t get my own because I never bothered to get my Fancy Summer Institute in Nottingham credits transferred to my own university), honors cords for my major, honors cords for a national honors society, a medallion from the Honors college, and the rented yoke.  Cap pinned in place (I had finally decided on a C.S. Lewis quote the day before – appropriately, the Commodore’s hat featured a J.R.R. Tolkien quote…in Elvish).  Tassel draped to the right.

Dad drove us to the coliseum and dropped us off, where I headed in through the behind-the-scenes passageway because I was carrying the Honors gonfalon.  What exactly is a gonfalon, you may ask?  Basically, it’s a banner.  A flag.  The standard behind which I will amass my armies as we ride forth into battle.  By virtue of my carrying this 10-foot-tall piece of fabric on a stick, my family was seated in the VIP section.  Bird, Mom, and my cousin all took pictures when they spotted me standing in the back.  I looked around the coliseum, all decked out in university colors, and took pictures with the deans in their regalia as my co-gonfalonier and I stood next to our banners.

When the band played “Pomp and Circumstance,” the Engineer caught my eye and made a swimming turtle with his hands.  “My turtle swims sideways, your turtle swims upside down…” were the lyrics he and his brothers sang to the graduation march.  Naturally it was stuck in my head all day.

Once all the other graduates had filed in, we hoisted the gonfalons overhead and strode down the center aisle.  I had expected, seeing as it was the whole College of Arts and Sciences graduating, that I would barely know anyone in the graduating class.  Instead, my friends and coworkers shouted out to me as I walked by with the gonfalon.  They made me smile, a realer smile than the one I had directed at the cameras lining the aisle.

The ceremony proceeded apace, with speakers and applause and occasional technical difficulties.  We gonfaloniers stood to be recognized and tried not to smile too awkwardly while the cameras stayed on us.  Eventually, an usher pulled us out of the front row to join our respective groups, and I squeezed in between two of my friends from English.

Had my picture taken with the prop diploma cover.  Handed my name card to the announcer.  Smiled into the camera as he said my (thankfully phonetically simple) name.  Walked forward.  Shook with my right hand, took the diploma cover with the left.  Walked across to the center.  Shook hands with the university president, who wished me luck.  Slipped out of the receiving line to return to my front row seat.  Smiled and posed for the Commodore, who had gotten a great seat and was snapping pictures.

When I got back to my seat, I held the diploma cover in my lap.  Never mind that it was empty, that I will get the real thing in the mail a few weeks from now.  All of a sudden it hit me.  College was over.  I did the Thing, the Accomplishment toward which roughly three quarters of my life had been aimed.  It was finished.  All done.DSC_6072

When I took this picture, I stepped up onto a cement barrier (in heels, no less).  Looking out over the campus, I had no visual cues to reassure me.  It seemed as though I were at the immediate edge of a cliff, even though the drop to the flowerbed below was no more than a foot and a half.  Logically, I knew I was safe.  Irrationally, I felt like I was about to fall.

But for a moment, buried in the jolt of fear, it was exhilarating.

This feeling returned as I looked down at the crimson rectangle in my hands.  But I couldn’t cry, not really, not in the front row, not as several hundred others made their way across the stage.  So I smiled, blinked away the welling emotions, and looked around for the friends I knew would be coming up in line.

Stood back up.  Moved the tassel.  Cheered as the confetti rained down.  Slipped a few pieces into the diploma cover, hoping my bittersweet tears wouldn’t dissolve it later.

IMG_20160507_191312

23 Days

Senioritis has hit many of us hard.  It’s difficult to continue caring about homework and exams when you’re steeling yourself for a Major Life Change.

The Southern Belle is leaving, heading back across the country for grad school.

The Commodore is leaving too, for Colorado and her own advanced degree.

The Engineer and I are staying here, in our little college town, until he graduates (yay, switching majors and having to go back and take a bunch of prerequisites), but this is only a year-long reprieve until we also leave, and a year suddenly seems very short.

Graduation is supposed to be the end, the part where nostalgic music plays as the credits roll and you are led to believe that everyone lives happily ever after, immediately and effortlessly finding themselves in the job they were always meant to do, meeting the right guy/girl.  That’s how it’s marketed to us.  College wants us to go out there and make it look good, so we’re supposed to focus on all the Magical Opportunities that await us as we start the Rest of Our Lives.

Except this isn’t necessarily the Rest of Our Lives.  It’s just another stage.

The Southern Belle and I were talking about this, about moving and making decisions and planning ahead while knowing that any number of things could change those plans.  She said it’s going to take courage.  She said doesn’t know if she has that courage.

“I don’t think you have courage going into something,” I said.  “I don’t think anyone honestly looks at the Big Scary Thing in front of them and consciously decides to flip some switch and just have courage.  I think courage is finding yourself in the middle of it and going, ‘Well, fuck.’  And you just plow ahead anyway.”

We have 23 days left until graduation.

Well, f…

“They John Boy-ed Him!”

Because my mom enjoyed The Waltons, Bird and I occasionally ended up watching her DVDs of the eponymous family and their neighbors on Walton’s Mountain.  Usually it was just the early years, the ones before Ma got sent to a sanitarium for tuberculosis (because the actress quit) and Mary Ellen got married.  The later episodes just weren’t as good, according to Mom, for multiple reasons.  But one day we found The Waltons on TV and decided to watch it.  Other than the actors all looking a bit older and dealing with somewhat more dramatic issues, it seemed pretty normal.  There was a stranger living with the Waltons now, but we figured he was a cousin or something.

Except everyone kept calling him John Boy.  The narrator.

“That’s not John Boy!” we exclaimed.  Mom laughed.  Apparently the role had been recast between seasons at some point.

We couldn’t believe it.  They were just asking us to believe that this was John Boy, the aspiring writer through whose eyes we saw everything on Walton’s Mountain?  It was clearly a completely different person.

“Yeah,” said Mom, “one season he went off to fight in the War and when he came back, it was this guy!”

“Wow,” said Bird.  “War really changed him.”

Once we recovered from our laughter and agreed never to watch those later seasons again, this experience gave rise to a new phrase in our household. “John Boy” became a verb, meaning “to recast a character without warning or transition and simply ask the audience to go along with it.”

I was home on a break from school one day when Mom and Bird wanted to catch up on the season finale of a show we were currently watching.  Bird, who was texting a friend who had already seen the episode, suddenly burst out laughing at her phone.

“They replaced the brother!” she gasped.  “Oh my gosh, they John Boy-ed him!”

Sure enough, toward the end of the episode, the family entered their home to find a strange boy leaning against the kitchen table.  Gasping, they all embraced him, addressing him by the brother character’s name.  Apparently he had been at boarding school (because the old actor was in rehab or something).

“Well,” Bird deadpanned, “John Boy’s home from the War.”

Shell Shock

When my professor called on me, I couldn’t contain an inarticulate growl before proceeding with my response to his question.

“Wow,” he said.  “The rage is strong with you today.”

It was indeed.  We were discussing the two doctors who “treat” Septimus Warren Smith in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and which of the two was worse/more destructive in his treatment of PTSD.  If you never read Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus is a character suffering from “shell shock” – hearing voices, seeing his dead friends, believing himself the recipient of a grand message from the universe, and feeling suicidal in the aftermath of serving in WWI.  The first doctor, Holmes, literally pushes Septimus’s wife, and therefore her worries for her husband, aside in order to lecture Septimus about how there is nothing at all the matter with him and how he should just get a hobby and go outside more.  The second, Sir William, agrees that Septimus is ill, but his focus is on normalization – that is, getting Septimus back to being a Contributing Member of Society, Back to Normal, and if he can’t do that, then letting him stay in an asylum rather than burden society any longer.

Grr.

These two delightful characters undoubtedly spring from Woolf’s own experiences with medical professionals while struggling with manic depression.  And even though Mrs. Dalloway was published in 1925, these doctors are still representative of social reactions to mental illness.

Setting my rage aside for moment (difficult as that is), I can understand the outside perspective.  It’s difficult to “believe in” an affliction we can’t see.  It’s not like a broken leg or a bleeding wound – there’s nothing visibly wrong, so a tiny doubt wriggles its way in.  He seemed fine two weeks agoIs she really that sick if she’s still getting all her work done?  He’s always been so reasonable – is he really thinking of suicide?  We base our assumptions on what we’ve seen and known of people up to this point, and sometimes it’s difficult to overcome that desire for them to “prove” that they’re “really sick.”  Similarly, I can see why, once we realize that something really is wrong, we want our friend/family member/classmate to Get Well Soon.  We want them Back to Normal, because isn’t that what they’re supposed to want too?  Our society often views healing as a process with an end point, a time in the future when the sick person will have Gotten Over It, whether It is a cold or the flu or the death of a loved one.  Of course, we are not completely callous.  We know that some things take longer to heal from than others.  But we’re still envisioning an end point rather than the possibility of “living with” the thing.  “Living with” seems to suggest an uneasy compromise, which we don’t like, because there’s the underlying possibility of another upset where the Bad Thing takes over, and of course we don’t want to see this person go through that again.

So I can understand these viewpoints.

But people who hold these views usually cannot understand me.

Both Holmes and Sir William fail to recognize and validate the reality of mental illness.  Yes, it’s difficult to “see” sometimes, but that doesn’t mean the person is making it up.  Visibility does not equal proof.  And, while there are sadly a few individuals who do make things up to get attention, why should that be our default assumption?

As for the push to Get Better Soon, while it usually comes from a place of genuine care and concern, it forces the sufferer to “take responsibility” for their illness – a problem that is actually beyond their control.  It may make the person feel as though the longer they take to get Back to Normal, the more irritated or fed up their support system will get.  Believing that the people around you think you should be over something makes you question yourself and begin devaluing the reality of your experience.  Also, prioritizing Back to Normal-ness denies a major fact of mental illness: it doesn’t always go away.  Balance can be achieved.  Strategies can be developed.  But when there is something chemically awry in a person’s brain, it can’t always magically be fixed.  So in that case, “living with” it instead of being crushed by it is actually a victory.

We have progressed significantly since the days of Septimus Warren Smith and his two horrible, horrible doctors.  But there is still room for improvement and understanding.