Mental Musings: A good enough excuse


Hannah Agpoon

Graphic by Hannah Agpoon.

Millie Peck, Opinions Editor

Hacking up a lung in class isn’t such a great look post-pandemic. Nonetheless, when the doctor uttered the word bronchitis, I flushed with relief. The incessant cough and trouble breathing were a small price to pay for the label I needed to provide me with a “good enough excuse” to take a break. For almost a week, my body had been in fight-or-flight mode, plagued by insurmountable anxiety. In one week, I had a fellowship application due, a cross country meet, my first essay of the semester, the first layout for the newspaper, plus my parents were flying into town to celebrate my birthday. There just simply weren’t enough hours in the day. My cortisol levels were so high that my body vibrated as I crawled into bed after finishing work at 2 a.m. — far too anxious for sleep. I knew I had overloaded, but I told myself it was just one hellish week, not a pattern. 

Going to class the next morning seemed pointless. I would simply sit there with my leg twitching, my mind racing from one obsessive thought to the next. I wouldn’t learn a thing. I went anyways, of course, because anxiety has never felt like a good enough excuse. Since the pandemic, I have had so many professors tell me not to come to class when I am sick, but what about when the illness is in our brain? 

Recently I have found it crucial to acknowledge that my mental illness is a disability because disabilities aren’t something that are “cured.” They are something that we live and cope with every day. When I started therapy ten years ago I believed I’d find the right cocktail of medication and therapy and I’d be cured. That hasn’t been the case. What I have found is that I am capable of feeling good, and I am capable of functioning at a baseline level now without engaging in disordered behaviors and insomnia or panic attacks. But maintaining my mental health takes a lot of work, and if I’m not careful, it can creep back in an instant. 

Recently I have found it crucial to acknowledge that my mental illness is a disability because disabilities aren’t something that are “cured.”

I am tired of feeling guilty for making lifestyle adjustments rather than week-by-week ones — for feeling like my mental illness isn’t a “real disability.” As a Grinnell tour guide, I found that people were often surprised when I told them 23% of students qualify for disability accommodations. Most accommodations for mental illness come in the form of extra time on tests, notetakers, breaks or preferential seating. These are very basic and necessary accommodations that are crucial to leveling the playing field academically, but I think the culture surrounding mental illness has made people feel guilty about needing any extra help at all — that we should be able to do it all without help is constantly reinforced. 

During my worst period of suicidality in high school, a teacher wrote on a psychiatric testing form that she thought giving me accommodations was unfair, that the material was probably just too hard for me. Despite hours of grueling clinical tests and months spent in psychiatric care, there is still this little voice telling me that I shouldn’t need extra help. While I haven’t heard as blatant of an accusation at Grinnell, I have heard rhetoric of students wishing they had accommodations because they could have done better on the test if they had more time. If we can’t recognize classroom accommodations as “fair,” then how are we ever going to make the larger adjustments we need to live with these disabilities?

A guidance counselor gave me an analogy that helped me to reframe: if everyone looked over a fence and someone was too short to see over, we would get them a box to stand on. No one would protest that it was unfair because we would all understand that they needed that box in order to have the same view as everyone else. Sometimes I feel like when I am asking for a box, when I need an extension on an assignment or I need to take a nap instead of going to practice, I feel ashamed. And sometimes I am outright denied. I’m told to just stand on my tiptoes, which I can do, but it leaves me so very tired.

The college environment doesn’t cater to our mental health. I received pushback from professors when I wanted to drop credits because, well, we are here for an education. Coaches aren’t always understanding about missing a practice for mental health unless it’s an absolute emergency. I don’t know why preventative care and accommodations aren’t just as important. Perhaps it’s because we view mental illness like bronchitis; we think that just taking some time off or getting some medication might fix it, but that’s not really the case. Taking care of our brain and mental health requires constant adjustment and attention. I roll my eyes when professors and coaches and administration tell us to “rest more” because it isn’t like those things aren’t also important to us. The average Grinnellian doesn’t choose to avoid sleep and meals; when the demands of academics and work and extracurriculars become too much, our mental health becomes the only thing that we can sacrifice. There seems to be this perception that we signed up for this, that we chose this and therefore we should be able to do it all.

The cultural dialogue surrounding mental illness has increased. We constantly see messages that tell us to sleep more and take better care of ourselves, but I know I’m not the only one who feels like mental health issues don’t hold the same weight as physical diagnosis. There seems to be a belief that we have more control over our mental health — we can take care of ourselves in a way that makes it so that we function. I acknowledge that I am the one responsible for my well-being. I chose this college and this lifestyle, and yes, I could be managing my time better. My goal is not to complain about the workload, but sometimes mental illness means that anxiety rises without a particular reason. That’s why it’s an illness. 

The funny thing is, our bodies are smart. They understand when we need a break, which is likely why my hell-week ended in sickness. But what if rather than running my body absolutely ragged trying to do everything through the anxiety and depression and OCD until my body forces me to take a break, I could just take one when I needed it. What if I titled my email “Mental Health” instead of “Bronchitis” — shouldn’t that be equally valid?

But what if rather than running my body absolutely ragged trying to do everything through the anxiety and depression and OCD until my body forces me to take a break, I could just take one when I needed it.

Last fall was my first semester back to full-time school, after both the pandemic and since residential care for my eating disorder, so I decided to give myself some grace. I took less than a full course load, I ran cross country but didn’t race and I let go of leadership positions. My mental health was better than ever. I viewed it as a successful trial run and decided to get off the bench and join the game. 18 credits, two jobs and another varsity letter later, my mental health was back in the gutter. Turns out mental illness is a full-time job — a job arguably more important than many of our other commitments, but because we don’t get graded or praised or receive a paycheck for it, it becomes the one we neglect. 

Last spring when old patterns of mental illness crept back, I asked my boyfriend why everyone else seemed to be able to do everything I was doing, but they didn’t curl up in the fetal position sobbing every night because they were dreading sleep, because sleep meant waking up which meant starting a new day, and that quite honestly felt like too much to bear. He told me that maybe they did. Maybe every person on this campus goes to bed feeling that way.

Why is taking care of our mental health the first thing that we drop? Why is it okay to skip out on therapy or a meal or sleep, but God forbid we miss class until we are on our deathbed? I do all the things I do because I love them. I don’t want to miss class or practice or work. Taking a step back or setting boundaries is hard for me, especially when we have created a culture in which we aren’t very supportive in helping set those boundaries. Overloading isn’t cute, and getting less than 8 hours of sleep certainly isn’t sexy. We should have time to watch TV, and we shouldn’t feel guilty about saying no when we want to eat lunch rather than attend a convocation. I am still learning how to carve out space for myself, but it’s been extremely hard to do in an environment that constantly tells me that I can do it all. Because I can’t. I’m not ashamed of that anymore. It’s time for us to learn to say no. 

You know your limits, and in case you haven’t heard it recently, I’m telling you that your happiness matters. I know it’s hard, and most days I don’t do a good job at it, but it’s time we take a little more responsibility for the role we play in managing our mental health. We do have a choice, we do have a say in the boundaries we set, and I think we can do a much better job creating an environment where we don’t participate in destroying our mental health.

I guess what I’m asking for is a little more trust and understanding for ourselves and our peers — for invisible disabilities to be taken seriously. I’m not asking myself to get so anxious that I make myself physically ill because I don’t think anyone will believe how bad I’m suffering until then. What I do want is to be validated and accepted when I say I’m not okay. Instead, we should look for a response like one of my favorite writers, Mellissa Febos said: “thank you for taking care of yourself.” Because even if we’re taking responsibility of our lives and acknowledging that we do hold ourselves to a high standard and college here isn’t going to be easy, we need the occasional grace to make the decision to protect our mental health.