Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Tahirah Alexander Green
On Friday, February 25, 2011, a nineteen-year-old college sophomore lost her shit. She was usually a responsible person. Too responsible, even. The kind of person who made a plan for how to plan. As a freshman she’d created a detailed chart of requirements and course options for her next three years at university. Her preparation wasn’t completely absurd: She was the type of person who tripped up stairs and forgot what it was that she’d forgotten.
On the day she lost her shit, her body, which swung like a pendulum from a size eight to a size twelve, was in mid-swing at ten and a half. This meant that none of her pants fit properly. As a logical response to this, she wished she had a bigger ass. She also wished that her chemically relaxed hair would grow long and healthy. Instead, it was breaking off for the third time since she was thirteen, leaving a frizzy, chin-length mess sprouting from her scalp.
It was winter, so her brown skin was running high yellow, meaning it was getting closer to the “light, bright, and nearly white” side of blackness. She preferred her skin to be darker because she associated the tone with summer. She preferred summer. The gray skies and cold temperatures of winter debilitated her.
Nearsighted, she wore sienna wire-framed glasses. She lost them regularly, as she lost most of her things. Her cell phone, her identification card, her planner. It was a tendency she counteracted with early preparation for everything, an attempt to give herself enough time to find whatever item she would inevitably misplace along the way. As a backup strategy, she would tell her friends where she put things so they could remind her later.
That Friday night, though, she lost something intangible. She tried to understand it, explaining the loss through lengthy text messages to one of her best friends. Variations of the sentence “I don’t want to feel anymore” transformed into “I don’t want to live anymore.” Her friend had heard these sentiments before, but tonight was different. Tonight the messages came rapidly, with vivid descriptions of the kinds of harm she’d like to do to herself. Her friend tried to calm her down, even rushing over to her dorm room late at night to watch over her. Her friend tried to remain calm as she explained to the 911 operator that something was wrong with Tahirah.
“Wouldn’t you like to take a leave of absence?” Shernell, the student affairs representative, asked, hands folded in her lap. She was a plump black woman in her thirties, with a hair tie stretched thin over the long braids that hung past her shoulders. She stared across a small, round table in her dimly lit office at Tahirah, whom she called variations of Tah-har-ah no matter how many times she was informed that the correct pronunciation was Ta-here-rah.
Tahirah shook her head and prepared the words in her mind before speaking. She was terrified of being inarticulate. Being inarticulate led to nights of insomnia, the poorly chosen words playing on repeat in her mind. Sometimes she thought of better, more precise words and berated herself for not having said them.
“No,” Tahirah answered. “It’s easier to stay here.”
Shernell looked at her, incredulous. Tahirah understood her confusion. Two weeks ago, on her way back from the dorm’s laundry room with the friend who had called 911, Tahirah had stepped out of an elevator to see two campus police officers loitering outside her door. She walked past them into the small, cluttered square that was her dorm room. The wood floor was covered with shredded yarn from a crochet project she’d abandoned a few hours ago, when distraction had stopped serving as a suitable coping method. Shreds of white paper also covered the floor; she’d chosen to slice them instead of her skin. Jewelry, crochet patterns, coins, medication, half-empty Gatorade bottles, and tissues upon tissues were strewn across her desk.
“So, how’s it going?” one of the officers, the younger of the pair, asked her. His hands were in his pockets and he seemed optimistic, even cheerful.
“Is everything okay?”
She avoided eye contact, said “Mmhmm.”
“So what’s going on over here? Want to explain this?” the older officer asked curtly. He stood with his arms akimbo, nodding his head towards a neon-orange knife skewered into a paper towel roll.
“So . . . umm . . . you draw those?” the younger officer asked, gesturing to the chibi illustrations on her closet door.
“My brother did,” she answered, her voice whispery and low.
“Oh, cool. What do your parents do?”
“My dad works at an airport.”
The officer continued to attempt small talk while Tahirah stared at the floor. She hoped they wouldn’t start searching the room. Her roommate would hate that. She’d already be pissed by how much of a mess Tahirah had made.
His attempt at small talk failing, the officer sighed. “We’re not really trained to do this. I’m sorry.”
“We’re going to take you to Western Psych’s ER,” said the older officer. “If you don’t go voluntarily, we’ll have to make you. Then they’ll have to keep you for a while.”
She shrugged. “Okay.”
“Okay?” the older officer asked.
When she arrived at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, she passed through the metal detector, and security took her cell phone away. The rest of the night was spent doing paperwork and waiting to be seen by a doctor. The obnoxious laugh track of a ’90s sitcom played intermittently from a television in the corner of the room. As time passed, she became increasingly uncomfortable. Hospitals were creepy, smelling like death and bleach.
Eventually she was summoned for her assessment. She did not make eye contact with the doctor, a white male whose face she wouldn’t remember. The doctor asked her a series of questions she’d been asked already. Why was she here? How did she get here? She was sure that someone had already told him her earlier replies. She answered as concisely as possible.
“Are you taking medication?” he asked.
“No. Not now,” she mumbled.
If she’d been honest, she would’ve told him it was because she resented needing a little pill to function “normally.” That even though she worked two part-time jobs, she was still pretty broke and couldn’t always afford the Celexa. Her father’s insurance was inconsistent with its coverage, and her family wasn’t financially stable enough even to ensure shelter, let alone healthcare. She didn’t want to talk about money, though; if she did, she might cry. Any sign of weakness might give them an excuse to keep her there.
“I was feeling better,” she lied.
She’d read somewhere that it was common for individuals with mental disorders to discontinue their medications when their symptoms improved. She figured it would make her incident more justifiable. It’d be an easy fix: all she needed was to be drugged again.
“What triggered you tonight?” he asked.
Maybe it was residual disappointment from having to return home for winter break. Tahirah had been accepted into a program to build a library in Ghana, but in the end she couldn’t afford to go. Instead, she got to remember that the past summer’s foreclosure on her parents’ home had actually happened, forcing her parents and siblings into a cramped apartment. Now she got to see her mother throwing tantrums, peeing herself and sobbing. Nothing about her mother resembled the woman she was before her stroke two years ago.
Maybe it was the guilt of escaping when her family couldn’t. Maybe it was because of the Shittsburgh Gray—the persistent, sunless sky that Pittsburgh endures for months.
“I don’t know,” she answered.
The doctor explained that he thought it was because she’d gone off her meds. He let her leave.
Shernell drove Tahirah from the emergency room back to her dorm at four in the morning. Shernell was chosen for this task, Tahirah assumed, because she was the housefellow for her dormitory, Morewood Gardens. The housefellows were full-time staff members who were supposed to enrich the living experiences of residents in campus housing. They usually functioned behind the scenes, except when they provided free food, spammed students with emails, and in Shernell’s case, served as amenable transport.
That night, Shernell convinced Tahirah to take a week off to regroup. Tahirah was hesitant to take her advice. She had already been sick with the flu and missed some classes, and her coursework remained one of the few things that hadn’t slipped entirely out of her control. She didn’t want to fuck that up. But Shernell seemed so calm, so confident. It’ll be fine, Shernell assured her.
Before the week ended, Shernell would call to inform Tahirah that she was failing three classes. She hadn’t failed a single assignment she’d completed prior to the call.
Before her trip to Western Psych, Tahirah had thought the spring semester was going well. She finally felt comfortable opening up to her psychiatrist, Dr. H, which meant that their sessions were no longer awkward silences during which Tahirah memorized the pattern of the office’s carpet. Eight months of happy pills, an antidepressant called Celexa, seemed to be paying off.
She was working two campus jobs, which meant she rarely had to go through the guilt of asking her father for money he didn’t have to spare. She could afford to buy some of her textbooks, for once, although she still acquired the majority through libraries and copyright-violating photocopies. More important, she was able to buy food and no longer had to mooch off her friends as she’d done the previous semester. Back home, food wasn’t always guaranteed.
She shared a room with Michelle, an industrial design major who had also been her suitemate during freshman year. Their room was small, with every piece of furniture crammed next to the other and leaving only a small space in the center of the room. She’d previously lived in her grandmother’s house—her mother’s mother. This meant that when she cried, she was asked, “Why are you doing this to yourself?” Living with grandma meant she was supposed to suck it up and go to church. That, of course, was preferable to living with her parents.
Her parents and siblings—Taylor, twelve, and Jamal, seventeen—had recently moved into a two bedroom apartment after their home was foreclosed upon. Stuff that the household of five had accumulated over the years was piled into the narrow apartment. Her siblings each got their own room, while her parents shared a sectional sofa in the living room. Her cramped dorm room was certainly more spacious than her family’s new home.
Her crowded room was where she spent the majority of her time, which was split between self-loathing and studying. She was enrolled in six academic courses and one student-taught course. This was considered an overload. She overloaded that semester, as she would every semester after her freshman year. This wasn’t considered overachievement at her university; this was common practice, and it suited Tahirah just fine. She preferred to keep busy. It kept her mind off of things at home.
She’d believed she was doing fine, academically. She’d missed a few days when she caught the flu, but had otherwise done far better, attendance-wise, than in any other semester. Yet here she was, mid-semester, with three of her professors claiming she was failing. Failing so badly, in fact, that they thought it wise for her to withdraw from their classes. It was an option she resisted not only because it would delay her graduation, but also because it would relegate her to part-time status, thereby risking the loss of her financial aid and housing.
These are the things Tahirah thought about as she tried to explain to Shernell why she didn’t want to take a leave of absence. She didn’t know how to properly articulate that she was choosing between a bad option and a worse one.
After it became clear to Shernell that Tahirah wouldn’t be leaving, the list of individuals involved grew considerably. Discussions and emails culminated in a meeting with Tahirah, two professors, and the dean of her college.
She entered the Academic Advisory Center and sat awkwardly on a couch next to the two professors. One of them happened to be her academic advisor for creative writing, a thin woman with short and wavy brown hair. Her advisor was composed, as always, and today she seemed a bit cold, especially in comparison with the other professor. The other woman was chubby, with a loud voice, stringy reddish-brown hair, and thinning eyebrows that made her look perpetually annoyed.
Together they waited for the dean, who, Tahirah had been informed, would advocate on her behalf. Eventually the dean, a slim, bespeckled woman with round glasses and hair cropped close to her scalp, greeted them. She led them into a meeting room, where Tahirah sat beside her and across the table from her professors. The meeting, which Tahirah had thought was intended to reach a compromise, soon became a rather one-sided discussion of the reasons she would not be able to keep attending her classes. The professors presented a united front, both steadfastly assured that Tahirah’s withdrawal from their courses was the best option—for them, at least.
“The withdrawals from the classes won’t be listed on your transcript. We’ll erase them completely,” the dean explained, a laugh in her voice.
Tahirah wasn’t sure why this was presented as if it were a favor; the withdrawal deadline hadn’t even passed yet. Her mind filled with questions, making it difficult for her to prepare her words. Why were the professors in the creative writing program unwilling to work with her? Her professors in the international relations and politics program had agreed to let her make up the work she’d missed during her regrouping period. They had even agreed to give her extensions on her assignments, should she have an episode that would impact her ability to complete them.
“The creative writing program is structured differently. Class participation is more important,” the professors each explained. So it didn’t matter that she completed her assignments; if she was too depressed and anxious to be vocal, she was doomed. It was a line of reasoning that would’ve been easier to accept if she hadn’t taken a screenwriting class the previous semester and silently earned an A.
“Your attendance hasn’t been good,” a professor added. While it was true the she had missed classes because of the flu, those absences that had already been excused with a note from health services. It was the time she’d taken off for her mental health that was inexcusable. Apparently, taking off that week to regroup hadn’t been as okay as Shernell had believed it would be.
“The quality of your work has gone down,” her advisor added.
So the checks and check pluses she’d received on her assignments —a maddeningly vague grading scale used in the creative writing program—had actually denoted failure.
“I can’t even tell if you’re doing the work,” the other professor complained.
When she said that, Tahirah started to cry. She had stayed up late on so many nights to read and complete exercises for her classes, even during her “break.” So much for control. This was what her illness meant: failure. It didn’t matter that she was taking medication and seeing a therapist. The fact that she still panicked when she had to speak in front of a group meant she would never succeed. Soon she was crying because she was crying. She knew she was making a great case for herself, teary eyed and inarticulate.
“Okay,” she said. She had to get out of the room.
The meeting being the epic failure that it was, Tahirah refused to let the semester end similarly. She added a mini-course to her schedule, giving her enough credits to still be considered a full-time student and keeping her financial aid in order. She researched the university’s policy on financial aid for summer courses and convinced her advisor in international relations and politics to approve her taking classes at a university near home. This kept her graduation plans on track. She ended that semester with a solid GPA.
Her mental health remained far from stable. She feigned stability as best she could, so as not to arouse concern from professors and administrators, but in fact she’d grown more ashamed and despondent. She spent the majority of her free time sleeping, unconsciousness often being the only way she could bear to be around herself. She didn’t socialize. The friend who had called 911 worried that Tahirah resented her and kept her distance. Michelle, her dorm mate, was kept frustratingly unaware of all that had happened. Tahirah had been too scared to tell her; what if Michelle would want to get rid of her too? And she shared with her family as little information as possible. They had enough to worry about.
Dr. H was beyond irritated; to her, Tahirah had been “punished for depression.” Tahirah disagreed: it was her own fault. It was her own fault she was sick and her own fault she wasn’t getting better. It would take a long time, but eventually she’d recognize that her illnesses weren’t the problem. Those could be managed. But the stigma that came with them—the discomfort that mental illness evoked in others and the complex measures that people took to distance themselves from those feelings—was beyond her control. This was the real problem.
Tahirah Alexander Green is the author of one of the essays in the book Writing Away the Stigma.