Depression Screening Day
Reduce your stress—don’t get dressed!
Early this winter I led a writing workshop where students presented stories meant to demonstrate the narrative building blocks of conflict, crisis and resolution. One story featured a conversation between a young woman and a ghost. The class debated whether the ghost was indeed a supernatural presence, or a manifestation of the young woman’s internal conflict. “Is this story about ghosts,” one student asked, “or mental illness?” In another story a young man took a coconut to brunch with his parents, and introduced the coconut as his girlfriend. You can’t have a relationship with a coconut, his mother said. Don’t be racist, the young man replied. The class debated whether the story’s central conflict was between the young man and his family or the young man and himself. “This may be another story about mental illness,” a student remarked.
Five years ago the university where I teach assembled a President’s Task Force on Student Mental Health, designed to gather information about the mental health of the campus community and create support services for those in need. Action groups, webinars, focus groups, presentations, community consultations, surveys and training ensued. Peer Health Educators and the Reducing Stigma Action Group held a pajama day campaign (“Reduce your stress—don’t get dressed!”), and on National Depression Screening Day the president of the university sat cross-legged on a colourful patterned rug in the main hallway, popping bubble wrap with students to create the sound of a crackling fire. Ever since the Task Force presented its fortyone “Recommendations for Mental Health” to the campus community, the topic has remained highly visible. Bulletin boards once relegated to advertising intramural sports and upcoming campus gigs now remind students how to access Breathing Room: an online resilience tool, and feature tips on getting a good night’s sleep.
As the workshop went on, our discussion of each story kept returning to the question of conflict. Did the child possess a sixth sense, or was she just seeing things? Did the ninja warrior flee after slaying his master because he feared retribution, or was it guilt that haunted him? Was the man changed by his mother’s advice, or did he simply regret the way he spoke to his lover? I listened to my students debate the cause of each character’s struggle, and I wondered if the much talked-about subject of mental health on campus had found its way into my fiction workshop—or is the question of where external conflict ends and internal conflict begins a legitimate storytelling conundrum? Perhaps the boundary between our interior and
exterior worlds is more permeable than we like to think.
Midwinter in Calgary is a season of extremes. In February, 80 centimetres of snow fell and the temperature dropped to −33°C. The following week a chinook arrived, and the temperature rose to +16°C. A current of melted snow streamed down our street, and outside the kids stripped down to T-shirts. The pressure change hurt my head, made it hard to think, while the accumulation of winter had already taken a toll. For months I’d struggled with low energy, and the collective unrest and despair following the American election had got hold of me and hung on into the dark months. By February I was ragged. Sunk.
Having exhausted an extensive list of self-care strategies, I walked the three blocks to Lukes Drug Mart, a prescription for anti-depressants folded in my pocket. The pharmacy was at the back, and on my way through the store I passed a display for a 10,000 LUX Full Spectrum Light. The pamphlet featured an image of a woman with her eyes closed and her arms outstretched. Her face was serene as she basked in a golden glow. It’s an image I’d expect to see in a leaflet for religious salvation, but here I’d found it at Lukes Drug Mart. Reluctant to fill the prescription, I decided to try the light instead.
I took it home, unfastened its jacket of bubble wrap and placed it on my desk. It was the size of a small cereal box. When I plugged it in, there was a brief flicker followed by a brilliant, steady brightness. The rectangle of light looked like a door into a bright new world. I sat at this door for thirty minutes every day, and after a week I felt as though the curtains had been drawn in my brain. I could see again. While I’d been focusing on remedies for my insides—nutrition, exercise, meditation, medication—it was the light outside that restored me.
Back in my fiction workshop the last story we discussed described a tropical storm—a straightforward example of Person versus Environment. In the story, the air grew thick and humid. The main character nailed plywood against the windows before the wind could throw the patio furniture into the glass. When the storm passed, she emerged from her house to find everyone assessing their own damage. Much was said about the story’s excellent use of imagery: “I could feel the wind and the chaos,” one student said. “I felt like I was in this storm too,” another remarked. I turned to the student who wrote the story and asked if she had any questions for us. “Yes,” she said. “The storm is a metaphor. How can I make it clear this story is actually about mental illness?” At this point I realized we may not have found our resolution. Jill Boettger writes stories and poems in Calgary, where she lives with her husband and two kids. She teaches writing and literature at Mount Royal University. Read more of her writing at geist.com.