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Teaching with a Mental Illness

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, I had to face each day with the genuine possibility that my depression and anxiety would seep and creep out in front of my students in some form or fashion. I could always tell how bad it would be when I heard my alarm clock go off in the dismal hours before the sun even started to give a damn. I should note that my alarm is the warning siren from Silent Hill[1]. The reason I am fond of this alarm is that I feel that it is very fitting for all the frightening uncertainty that comes with waking up and wondering whether or not my mental state will be a minor hindrance or major annoyance in my daily struggle to try to look like a functioning adult and a bipedal mammal.

In both the game and movie franchise, the siren often signals the transition between the Fog World and the Other World. In the “real world,” the town of Silent Hill is ironically a fictitious ghost town in West Virginia[2] that was abounded after a fire broke out in the coal mines beneath its rural streets. The Fog World is a manifestation of a child named Alessa, the niece of a local religious cult leader. Unfortunately, she was born with supernatural abilities that gave her everything from telepathy to the ability to create good-natured replicas of herself, and perhaps most impressive, she could spontaneously give birth to alternate dimensions. This version of the town is populated and enshrouded in an eerie, pewter-colored mist with random flurries of ash trickling down from the sky. In this dimension, she holds the town occupants and religious occultists responsible for her daily torment as a child, eventual rape, and attempted murder by fire in a Mexican stand-off/hostage situation.

The townsfolk and the religious zealots hide from her rather Carrie-Esque wrath by taking refuge in a church, which is the only place Alessa cannot enter. She continues to get her revenge by creating something called the Other World to catch and kill any of them that dare to wander too far from their holy sanctuary. She does this by turning the town into an even darker version of itself that is depressingly industrial, rusted, full of dead bodies, and home to sadistic demonic figures loyal only to Alessa. The church members sound the alarm to let everyone know that the Other World is coming.

This alarm reminds me that when I open my eyes, I don’t know how the world will present itself to me or vice-versa. There were days when I was emotionally numb, and I didn't feel anything, but surprisingly I was okay to teach on those days. I just needed the right amount of SSRIs and caffeine to shift into an automation-like state where I had just enough power to move my limbs and the bare amount of brain function to drive to work and deliver my pre-composed lessons. I knew myself well enough to have those lessons arranged ahead of time. They required nothing but a functioning projector with my detailed notes that I read and repeated accordingly, or I assigned a convenient group work assignment that left me relatively out of the equation unless they had questions. My biggest tells on those days were that I moved and spoke considerably slower than usual.

Then, there were days where my anxiety, for lack of a better and more accurate term or phrase, hate fucked my depression. I woke up, most likely from a nightmare that slipped through the grip of my nightly anti-psychotic, and I was on the verge of crying. I saw everything as a pointless and severe waste of my time, and I got frustrated that no one else agreed with me. My mind ran down a list of existential questions, like what’s the point if they are all going to try to

plagiarize their assignments? What’s the point when my paycheck barely covers anything? We are continually eating into our savings due to my husband’s job loss! And this was and still is my personal favorite: What is the point if I am going to end up dying in some horrible and dramatic fashion like many members of my father’s family tend to do? That particular side of my family tree looks like a well-played death pool with checkmarks on everything from over-the-top suicide to painfully lingering after a heart attack, until enough bodily systems shutdown. It seems like our hearts can’t withstand too much emotional or physical strain.

Ironically, I had more energy on those days. However, it was a strange, dark kind of energy that was obsessed with maintaining appearances and lowering everyone’s suspicions that I was not “that crazy creative writing lady.” Those were my students’ words, not mine. My noticeable tells on those days ranged from speaking in a speedy and outlandish manner to overdoing it with my usual sarcastic sense of humor. What was weird is that those days could always go one of two ways. Sometimes when I was trying so hard to fake it and not cry in front of my students, I directed an ungodly amount of energy into the individual lessons. I ended up reaching them on subjects ranging from why learning to write formal poetry was not a waste of time to anthrax grade grammatical errors that have plagued my English 1101 and 1102 classes for years.

However, there were days where I knew they could see what was going on and were humoring me for the sake of their GPAs. It was something about the way their eyes would gloss over, and they would become extremely acquiescent. They would even go as far as following basic directions in order not to call attention to themselves. For the record, even in college, that last part is still a pretty big deal.

I hated those days simply because I couldn't believe that's what it sometimes took to get them to focus. I was a T-Rex, and they were my plucky, little tourists that had figured out that if they didn't move, chances were high that I would not be able to see or fail them. On those days, once the adrenaline wore off when I got home, I usually fell asleep for hours trying to recover my strength.

Of course, this was not an everyday occurrence. There were many days that were not foggy or dark. Yet, I should note that the Silent Hill movie franchise characters can sense their loved ones if they are close to them on the other side of Alessa’s diabolical and somewhat dichotomous dimensional rift. On those calm days, I would be lying if I said I did not sense my depression and anxiety, which were and very much still are as much a part of me as my loved ones. I can sense them trying to feel their way through the medicated darkness and listening for the sirens to guide them home.

[1] Silent Hill, the videogame, was originally published by Konami and developed by Team Silent, a group in Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo. [2] This location is mainly in the 2006 movie version directed by Christophe Gans and written by Roger Avary, Gans, and Nicolas Boukhrief.


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