On mental health and education: failures and triumphs

“…what does having a continual sense of wonderment mean? To hope against all hope that there is still much to be done with the world.”

My first few distinct memories were that of learning. My love for words, and later on, for stories, were awakened by education. I learned to interact with and situate myself among other people, people not necessarily like me, people who don’t necessarily like me. I learned to make friends despite differences. I learned to recognize and follow authorities besides my parents and elder relatives. However, there were things I couldn’t seem to learn. I didn’t understand what “stop” meant whenever we would draw or write something; as though driven by something I could not comprehend, I wanted to keep going. I didn’t understand why my playfulness sometimes translated into hurtfulness. I didn’t understand why whenever I did something “bad” I would get the silent treatment from my teachers and instructed my classmates to avoid me as similar punishment, or if not the silent treatment I would get excluded from playground time for days. I didn’t understand why that was the case with me, but whenever boys in my class became too boisterous and rough for their own good they would get a verbal reprimand, end of story. I saw all these and as a result I became, for the first time in my life, acutely aware of the differences in expectations with respect to sex set by the same authorities I recognized and tried my best to follow. I just couldn’t seem to grasp nor understand why.

My parents were probably not aware that some things were just too difficult for me. I have always been regarded as an overachiever, and adapted quite well academically during my transition to a bigger, same-sex school. My previous experiences with discipline compelled me to consciously adapt, and I did it quite successfully. I remained seated on my desk for hours inside the classroom, but acquired a habit of fidgeting with my hands. I was painfully shy but found no difficulty relating with others, perhaps because I could pick up on emotions very easily and knew when to pry and when to give people the luxury of silence. Although my marks were excellent in primary school, I found it hard to express myself. It seems as though the concoction of words in my head so beautiful, vast, and boundless could not be uttered as well or as accurately by my inadequate mouth. I just had so much to say, and more often than not my train of thought was not as easy as point A to point B but a series of trains sometimes disconnected, sometimes intersecting, sometimes both going nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Still, these obstacles didn’t deter me from learning as much as I could, never mind the grades. I read voraciously with wide-eyed wonder. I marvelled at the skill required for authors to keep still for more than five minutes and write hundreds of pages — I wanted to write like that, too. I passed an advanced placement test for English and was under a merit program until the end of my secondary education.

Despite my continued interest in excelling at English, I regarded myself as “average”. I didn’t mind, even though my parents did. How could I tell them that there were just too many things I wanted to know? That somehow I couldn’t preoccupy myself with things that both confounded and bored me such as math and physics. I tried. I wasn’t failing, but I was by no means an excellent student based on my school’s qualifications and their call for students to be consistently excellent in all academic subjects. I never felt it was enough to just be good at the things I was passionate about, because by the school standards set upon me and everyone else, I was not enough. I started doubting myself. Later on, I started having difficulties with my favorite subject. I think all other failures seemed relatively surmountable when I realized I was no more special than other people who didn’t love that subject as much as I did, that I was not good at something I am extremely passionate about. There were days I wouldn’t go to school because I couldn’t finish my English papers, never mind my other subjects, I thought, just let me be good at this.

High School graduation, March 2014.

My grades and entrance test scores made it possible for me to enter an honor’s program under the Political Science department at one of the most top universities in my country. I was enrolled in advanced placement classes for English and Literature subjects that target higher learning objectives. I did not last a semester. I was diagnosed with depressive disorder. I retreated into loneliness and avoided my best friends, I didn’t communicate well with my family, and worst of all, I believed with every fiber of my being that I was a failure.

I stopped wanting to go to school, but I couldn’t find it in me to give up on trying to learn.

I navigated through most of sophomore year in college unmedicated and unable to go to therapy partly because my parents didn’t believe in medication for depression, partly because I began to doubt it was something I couldn’t manage alone. I remember my ex-boyfriend, my previous teachers, my previous friends, and the unifying sentiment they all had on my persistent and debilitating sadness: It’s all in your head.

Project LAAN appointed me as an Associate Vice-President for Community Health Research for 2016–17. Through health advocacy and health literacy initiatives, we strive to make Health For All a reality. Visit projectlaan.org to learn more.

Still, my deep-seated frustrations didn’t stop me from committing to advocacies and pursuing my personal interests. I wanted to help make known the plight of farmers and contractual workers in an effort to promote social justice. I wanted to take part in a massive student effort to curb underrepresentation within the student government of my university. I wanted to join an advocacy that seeks to lessen the burden on families who can’t pay hospital bills through health literacy and other health-related initiatives. I wanted to do several things, things bigger than me, and though I was struggling with my focus inside the classroom I knew I had to keep striving so I could keep doing the things I love outside the classroom.

When my depression hit me again, crippling as ever, it brought its sister — anxiety. The tightness in my chest, the ineffable headaches, and the irrational feeling that I was about to face my death hit me as if all my other hardships weren’t enough to knock me off my feet. My physical health started to deteriorate, and that’s when my parents took heed. My parents love me, that I’m sure of; it’s hard to blame their initial doubtful attitude towards mental illnesses when they had lived through an older generation not quite invested in it. I am more than grateful to have parents who are willing to go past the culture of “toughing things out” and do their best to give their daughter the professional help she needs. I started therapy and medication for my anxiety and depression, and though it was still difficult I felt I wasn’t alone in my journey anymore.

I was asked in freshman year college if I wanted my professors to know about my condition by signing a waiver form. I refused. I said, no this will not be my excuse for failing to meet requirements and standards. In sophomore year, my attitude towards my condition began to change. For the first time I started becoming less fearful of the next bout of depression or the next panic attack because I know it’s not just all in my head.

My story, however, does not end with that. I sometimes wish it did, but as I look somewhat astonishingly at the paragraphs I have managed to write while I have been sitting (without fidgeting, an accomplishment) in front of my laptop for about an hour now, I think about all the obstacles I had had to go through to get to where I am, and I am immensely thankful.

A few months into my psychiatric assessments, I was diagnosed with ADHD at 19 years of age, more than a decade too late for any child therapy and more than a decade too late for advanced notices addressed to my educators informing them of my distinct condition.

The inattention linked with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder has affected me severely, especially in my college years where rigor and discipline become predominantly the individual’s initiative. It took a long time for me to accept my diagnosis. How was I supposed to react? I could be angry; that was a rational response. I could be angry for all the years spent internalizing how irrationally incompetent I was despite my God-given abilities and all resolute attempts at trying to cultivate them. I could be defeatist because this condition had permeated in other aspects of my life. Not only did it result in marks too low for any student enrolled in an honor’s course, but it also began to affect my personal life. Listening to people became challenging, I couldn’t stop fidgeting especially when I’m anxious, I avoided talking to authorities due to an irrational fear for them, and I especially found it challenging and heart-breaking to try to express myself to my family.

I can’t say my narrative is exclusively and entirely about the failures of institutions and systems I had had to navigate throughout my life.

My condition allows me to live out the word resilience, a word Filipinos like me are all too familiar with. In storms and waves of overwhelming emotions I tried to find it in me to keep living, if only for one day at a time. In all learning obstacles I tried to stay kind to myself and remain patient and steadfast in my attempts at making the most out of my education. In relationships with people I tried re-building what’s worth keeping and leaving behind what’s worth abandoning.

My condition allows me to be very much aware of how others feel, and though I fail to find the words sometimes my condition still allows me to be there for them. I have seen the worst of things, but I have also seen miracles accomplished not only by the hands of someone all-powerful and not-of-this-world but also astonishing feats realized through the works of people described to be ordinary and “average” but beautiful through and through.

My family, my friends, and all the people I have met throughout this journey taught me that education isn’t just confined within the walls of a classroom, but extend beyond it through living among and being-with people.

From left to right: My brother Carl, my sister Cloie, my mom Whena, me, and my dad Eric. Taken July 2016.

In the end, I have a lot to be thankful for in terms of my education and the encounters I had had with the health system. I met educators who went above and beyond to not only teach me but learn about me and understand my difficulties as best as they could. Even though it takes massive strength to get rid of anxiety towards authorities, they are part of the reason why though I had been so close to giving up more than a few times, I never stopped trying. I met counsellors and doctors who didn’t just say I had a condition that they could help me with — they restored my sense of self-agency, the feeling that though there are things beyond what I can control and manage on my own, there are also things that can be done to make life easier and better, things that I can do for myself and for my own betterment. Because of them, I hope and pray that everyone else who suffers from mental health conditions meet good doctors who don’t only diagnose and prescribe but also help remove a sense of learned helplessness people like me can so easily fall into.

However, I am acutely aware that several aren’t as lucky as I am, and the realities of unequal opportunities for people with learning infirmities, lack of available and effective mental health support in university and local settings, and financial and socio-economic impediments to receiving adequate mental health treatments move me to tell my own story.

With more urgent emphasis on improving health systems to provide adequate psychiatric care to all, developing awareness and building support by engaging key community members such as teachers and local health officials, and lobbying for inclusive and collaborative education for all regardless of one’s condition, people like me can hope for a stop to the innumerable brilliant individuals lost to mental illnesses.

I once told a group of students that the best thing about being a student is learning to live with a continual sense of wonderment. But what does having a continual sense of wonderment mean? To hope against all hope that there is still much to be done with the world. Then, turning that hope into action. If wonderment means having a certain respect or awe with respect to something, then having a sense of continual wonderment with the world is the best kind of respect I can give it. To know that although the systems so intricately linked to our day-to-day lives are broken and imperfect, yet through the hands of miracle-workers — ordinary people like you and me — continue to evolve and respond to the needs of the changing times, that is wonderment in action.