The following piece was written by Megan Connell, TAM Class of 2019.
Several months ago, on a perfect North Carolina spring evening, I sat in my car practicing my faces in the mirror. One block down, my classmates and favorite professors were gathering for happy hour. I adored them, and I wanted my face to resemble their faces. No one is depressed at a happy hour.
The initial emotional high of my acceptance into the school of my dreams had long since eroded. The tepid response of my family and the outright icy response from my partner had left me with little social support for my decision to pursue my graduate degree. Early successes in the program were quickly upstaged by the tumultuous end of my long-term relationship, the loss of my pet, and many of my new-found friends moving abroad. Elation had slowly and surely been diminished by depression, isolation, and anxiety.
As I sat in my car, practicing my faces, I did not believe I belonged in this program any more. The incredible pictures from abroad, the wonderful internships, and the gilded lives of my friends all resembled the program website. My life, full of quiet failure, felt to me like a wine stain on a white carpet.
In comedian Hannah Gadsby’s recent masterpiece, “Nanette”, she explores the role that mental illness played in Van Gogh’s art. Importantly, she rejects the notion that mental illness is a key ingredient of genius. She points out that today we have the art of Van Gogh not because he was mentally ill, but because his brother supported him.
I am not the Van Gogh of academia, nor would I like to be. However, her observations offer insight to the struggle I and many others face in academia. As depression and anxiety invaded my life, my work suffered. I submitted poorly written, terribly organized papers; my proposals were unstuck from any semblance of the practically possible. My life was a mudslide. Early on in spring semester, it looked to me as though I would wash out of the program entirely.
My ability to remain in the program and work my way through the impacts of mental illness ultimately depended on the support of others. A kind and patient professor had faith in my ability to pull it all together and produce better work. A perceptive classmate reached out and offered her help. Mid-semester, I was finally assigned a therapist through the campus psychological services, CAPS, who fit my needs.
I wish I could say that I have won, that I’ve beaten my depression, and that my life looks like the program’s website. I will not lie. Mental illness does not magically disappear. Recovery from it, such that it exists, is rarely linear. I still practice my faces in the mirror.
I will be able to move into the next year of my program, though I am not doing it with the strength, conviction, and confidence I hoped I would. Depression isolates us, it tells us we are not worthy, and it discourages us from reaching out. It told me the world was for the rest of you.
Hannah Gadsby says, “Do you know why we have the sunflowers? It’s not because Vincent van Gogh suffered. It’s because Vincent van Gogh had a brother who loved him. Through all of the pain he had a tether, a connection to the world.” I am thankful for the people in my life who have acted as my tethers, the people who were patient and kind and perceptive. The world is for me, too, even when I don’t believe it, and it is their actions that help me see through to that.
If you are affiliated with University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and need help, you can find information on Counseling and Psychological Services here:
If you are in crisis and need to talk to someone, the National Suicide Hotline can be found online here: