Writing and Teaching with Mental Health Issues

On the days that I get out of bed late, poetry comes by so easily pouring from the crevices of my mind onto the page. But on some days, like today, when I have woken up in the morning, taken a shower and sat back to write, prose comes uncalled. It is this uneasy distinction between both that I think defines each of them. Poetry arises like some intercranial glue, a waning moonlight that shines onto the page unwillingly, involuntarily; prose writes itself like the borders of a country after war, defines itself in neater terms and takes shape willingly. I keep this distinction in mind and tuck it away for future reference. It is what, in my head, defines my work.

Ever since I left traditional office jobs to accommodate my mental health and emotional well-being, I have been thinking more about the nature of work itself. It is important to note here that in my last teaching job, I suffered like no other person, from high levels of anxiety and a crippling depression that resulted in not having enough numbers to go on to teach for a second year. I could not get out of the bed five days in a row, for two weeks straight. It was as simple as that. While working, I experienced spurts of energy that let me type like a maniac, but when I wasn’t working, I was a blue human under a blue quilt. That blue quilt still remains in my life as a token of all the suffering I underwent during those days.

The signs of suffering from mental health issues are numerous. You tend to go glassy-eyed. You do not tend to register the goings on around you, you numb out. Later, I would realise that these symptoms were also mixed with the side effects of the medicines I was taking at the time, that it was all not me. I remember crying about taking medicines itself; why did I have to go through that? Was there a reason I was suffering from all this?

The truth is, even when I got the job at the prestigious Department of English at St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore I was unwell, and hardly reading/writing enough to do my job well. I took it upon myself to get better while on the job. This not only made matters worse, but built a bad reputation among colleagues. I was perennially the sick one, the absent one. The truth is, that it was my first tryst with mental health issues, and Bangalore being Bangalore had seen a lot worse before me. They tolerated me, like I was a necessary evil, even showed kindness when I hardly expected it. But they could hardly be expected to keep me going for more than a year when my numbers did not show how well I was doing towards the end of the second semester. I even had some wonderful classes that I will remember, but my teaching was not to last. It was a demanding job, including syllabus-making and college-level teaching, but it was a great introduction into the real world after the bubble of University of Hyderabad.

Where does poetry and prose come into all this? Poetry and all kinds of writing had deserted me when this episode came about. I was roaming the world, taking walks and trying too hard to birth that moonlight, but it just was not happening. It was only months later, when I started feeling like myself that poetry appeared. And yet, I was writing – academic writing with no soul, only facts and interpretations. When poetry appeared again, I was a mess, a recovering mess. It came with the rush of suffering, with tears, with so much sadness.

Prose still took time. I was not able to articulate what I felt, even after. I remember crying to my then-boyfriend, now-husband that I was a medicine-taking maniac who could not control her talents anymore. I remember asking my younger sister for advice on teaching. I remember my therapist telling me that I face the second greatest fear of humans – public speaking – everyday with gusto and that I should be proud. It did not feel that way. My students were alternatively kind, sometimes rude, sometimes helpful, sometimes uncaring, as students are wont to be. I remember almost every single one of them and would probably be teased or ignored even now for everything I blurted out in class. It was not a good time, but I can look back and say that I made it through that storm.

Teaching and writing with anxiety could have been better. I could have been more honest with my students for what I was going through. I could not, because I experienced a misplaced sense of burden to behave and act like a teacher, and was nervous like any first-time college professor. But in the end, I am left with the regret that I did not share my burdens with them, even as I know that there might have been one or two, I could have identified with or saved from similar worries. This is what it feels like to teach with mental health issues. This post is late by months, even years, but I’m glad to get it out there. Peace.