Discover more from Sarah Fay
🎧You’re Being Schooled
You can start reading ‘Cured’ anywhere.
Enjoying ‘Cured’? Read the prequel, ‘Pathological’ (HarperCollins):
🎧 Listen to Sarah read this installment of Cured:
At the start of the spring quarter, I stand in front of a room full of students. It’s a general education class and the most popular course I teach: The Art of Conversation from Plato to Fallon to Facebook. Gen Z’s have a reputation for being socially inept and conversationally illiterate. They’re accused of being social-media junkies who spend their time staring at their phones and won’t look people in the eye. That may or may not be accurate on a grand scale (I suspect it’s not), but the students who typically enroll in this class aren’t like that at all. They’re talkative and engaged—with me and each other.
On the screen behind me is projected the syllabus. I guide them through it, explaining what they’ll be expected to do to get an A in the class. “That’s the goal. I want you all to get an A.”
They stare at me—some of them with eyes askance, doubtful. Others are visibly dumbfounded. I’ve gotten this response from students before.
They may not know about the bell curve, but they’ve been at the mercy of it. The idea is that some students fail, most get C’s, some get B’s, and a few get A’s. This has never made sense to me. Shouldn’t the measure of my success as a professor come down to how many of my students earn A’s, showing they’ve done the work and have a working knowledge of the material?
Not so in academia, where the bell curve is often expected and maybe even a self-fulfilling prophecy for everyone involved. If I taught with the bell curve as my model, that would be the result. Education researchers call this the Pygmalion Effect: positive expectations create positive results; negative expectations produce negative results. Assuming that most students won’t perform exceptionally well creates a culture of failure.
“You’re smart,” I say, “much smarter than you may think. And talented. And fully capable of getting an A. Here’s how you get an A in my class.” The students still looked puzzled or mystified or suspicious.
I walk them through what I expect (attendance, participation, discussion posts that show they’re doing the reading, lots of revisions of their essays showing the steps they took to complete their work, attention paid to topic sentences and structure). They have to meet specific standards.
More importantly, they have to know what to do when they can’t meet these standards, i.e., tell the professor, ask for help, or use the university’s resources. They also need to understand that struggling and failing aren’t the same thing. Struggling is part of being in school, part of being in life; it doesn’t mean something’s gone wrong.
When the class ends, a business major says, “I’m excited. I didn’t know what to expect. I like that you’re so…honest.”
As the students leave, they thank me, looking me in the eye, already defying the stereotype that Gen Zs also have no manners and can’t express themselves and can only scroll on their phones.
In my tiny, windowless office after class, I sit at my desk. I seem better—more mentally healthy, whatever that means—but how will I know when I’ve recovered from serious mental illness? Has it been long enough? Is my psychiatric temperature “normal”?
Some definitions of recovery from mental illness present prohibitively difficult standards. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the following standards go along with “a full restoration to mental health:”
“Recovery encompasses an individual’s whole life, including mind, body, spirit, and community. Recovery embraces all aspects of life, including housing, employment, education, mental health and medical treatment and services, complementary and naturalistic services, addictions treatment, spirituality, creativity, social networks, community participation, and family supports as determined by the person...Recovery focuses on valuing and building on the multiple capacities, resiliencies, talents, coping abilities, and inherent worth of individuals. By building on these strengths, consumers leave stymied life roles behind and engage in new life roles...with others in supportive, trust-based relationships.”
I love this, but it’s daunting. Does anyone meet this standard? Do the people who wrote the report? Do the clinicians and therapists who diagnosed me?
One Canadian study published in 2019 put forth a model of recovery so unrealistic it borders on absurd. It defined full recovery from generalized anxiety disorder as “excellent mental health,” which required “respondents…to achieve…almost daily happiness or life satisfaction in the past month.” Life in Canada must be amazing because 40 percent of participants attained this seemingly unattainable goal.
Who will get to determine if I’ve recovered? My psychiatrist? A researcher unknown to me? Some other mental health professional?
How will I be scored? Is there some sort of grading system? How many points would they have given me today? Will I get points for having prepared for my class and showing up to teach and connecting with the students? What points would I lose for being nervous before teaching? What about the dread I felt and wanting not to show up? How many points were lost for the pit in my stomach and lack of enjoyment while teaching parts of the class? How many points will be deducted when the inevitable post-first-day-of-class excitement wears off and the emptiness rolls in?
I know mental illness. I know crippling anxiety and panic attacks and mania and depression so deep they take over my body. I understand not being well enough to live on my own. I know suicidality. I know racing thoughts so powerful I feel as though there’s a chorus of people in my head. And depersonalization and derealization so intense my body seems to disappear, and the world has a film around it.
So maybe I’ll know when I’ve recovered, too.
Powerful organizations have been trying to tell us that recovery is possible for at least a decade. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is one of the most powerful government agencies dictating policies and public health efforts that influence how we think about mental illness and substance abuse. In 2011, it released a definition of recovery: “A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.”
They outline four dimensions of recovery: health, home, purpose, and community. Health is defined as “overcoming or managing one’s disease(s) or symptoms…and….making informed, healthy choices that support physical and emotional wellbeing.” A home is outlined as a safe, stable place to live. Purpose doesn’t mean having a job you love or believe in, just that you’ve found meaning somewhere in your life. Community entails having positive relationships.
Two popular notions of recovery trouble me. One says that recovery is an ongoing process, the other that we somehow (magically) return to an emotional and mental state we experienced before our struggles started. The first positions recovery as an ongoing battle—a battle we never get to win. It’s an ongoing process. Healing won’t last. The next manic or depressive episode or panic attack lurks in wait.
The second describes it as a “return to normal”—whatever normal is. That would demand time traveling to an idealized version of a life we supposedly had pre-diagnosis. But the past is irretrievable and that idyllic, pre-sickness, pre-distress state an illusion.
I’m in my office, trying to envision my future. My office hours are about to start, and the students who take advantage of the extra help and mentorship will be here soon. I want to be ready, but I also want to get my thinking about recovery straight.
It seems that if I can set and achieve a certain goal, my recovery will be certain. I click my pen and hold it to the pad of paper on my desk.
Nothing comes. I’ve never set goals before. My future was made up of more symptoms and episodes and deterioration—at least that’s what my clinicians and WebMD said. With that kind of future, it’s tough to consider attaining anything years or weeks or days ahead.
I stare at the bulletin board above my computer monitor. On it is a laser-printed image of the author Flannery O’Connor. She leans on crutches, which she relied on because of her long struggle with lupus. Around her are peacocks, their stunning tails plumed behind them. She lived on her mother’s peacock farm for the last years of her life before dying at thirty-nine of complications from lupus. Knowing she’d die young, did she set goals? Was she able to imagine a world with her incredible stories in it, even though she wouldn’t be?
There’s a knock on my office door. One of my students has arrived. I write quickly: Finish and publish a book.
Go to Chapter 18.
 Like many authors, O’Connor is a controversial figure primarily because of her racism, yet I consider her to be a product of her time (early twentieth century) and location (the deep south), and she remains one of my favorite writers.