Give The Kids Plato (How Books Saved My Life)

It would not be entirely hyperbolic to say that it is something of a small miracle that I am here today. I am incredibly, unspeakably grateful to be here. The following is an edited and expanded transcript of a speech I gave at Carleton University, during the twenty-year anniversary celebrations of the Humanities program, in which I describe how books essentially saved my life. You can see a recording of that nervous speech here.

I’d like to tell you how I came to find the humanities, and to do that, I have to tell you about my experience with treatment-resistant mental illness. And to do that, I kind of have to tell you my whole life story. So there are lots of details left out, but hopefully I get all the important bits.

Something we often forget when we have conversations about mental illnesses like depression and anxiety is that there are plenty of legitimate reasons for anyone paying attention to the state of the world today to feel persistently sad and afraid. I think when we try to understand mental illness we have to also try to understand the world we live in. Most of us are able to cope and react in a healthy way to the madness out there, but many of us find ourselves fighting the madness in here, too – in the prisons of our minds, the torture chambers of the heart, the crucible of the soul. For some, therapy and medicine can lead to a normal, healthy life, almost as if there were no madness at all. But for others like me, who fall through the cracks of the medical model, what do we do?

When I was about eight years old, I couldn’t sleep. My parents say I always had trouble sleeping. A night owl from the day I was born, what I remember most vividly is being about eight years old, lying in bed unable to sleep, and finding my mind wandering toward the strangest questions. I began to ask, what is sleep anyway, and what is a dream? When I’m dreaming, I think that I am awake, so how do I ever know? What if my entire life is the dream of some other being? What if death is like waking up? I wondered what it meant to be alive, to be myself and no one else, but in wondering that, I also felt a pressure to be something, as if I lived in a world which would only accept me if I were like other people. But I didn’t feel like other people. All of these questions made me feel alienated from the completely unrelated questions I was being told were so important to investigate in school. So in wondering why the world felt so hostile to my budding and inquisitive sense of individuality, I also began to wonder why I should feel possessed by questions that no one else seemed to bat an eye at. I began to wonder if maybe I was the problem.

So here I am: eight years old, unable to sleep, too curious for my own good, and on top of that I had really started to hate school. I was always a good student but all the same school and I never really got along. I was bored, and from the beginning the whole idea of being forced to learn, of not ever being offered a choice of how or what I was going to learn, just seemed unquestionably wrong to me. But we all want to fit in, and to make the ones we love happy. So I went to school just like everyone else, just like my family expected of me. It’s not that I didn’t want to learn. I just wanted to have some say in when and how, and I wanted to be able to learn something interesting, something that I felt was meaningful. I felt as if I were constantly waiting to be given permission to live my own life instead of someone else’s.

By the time I started to hit puberty I had begun to feel that what I wanted had been determined for me already, and I didn’t have a say in it. I was supposed to finish school, get a boring job, and start a family who I would hardly ever see lest I go bankrupt. So the questions began to change. Why does everybody work all day to survive? Why am I being taught at school and not at home? Who is making these decisions? Who has the power here? Am I being trained and subdued just to be a good worker? Am I worth anything more than an eventual pay stub?

I became afraid of these questions, but they wouldn’t stop eating at me. Just as I was interrogating the value of my life in this world, the twin towers fell on 9/11, and in the aftermath of that day I saw a world consumed by its own self-destructive ignorance, its fear, its own broken sense of humanity. And I saw myself as someone who might have something of value to offer, but without any opportunity to do so. As I began to see a world at war with itself, I started asking myself questions about death. Deeper questions about death, harder questions about death. What would it be like to die? What if this dream ended and I woke up in another world, another life? What if that life, that world, was better than this one?

In a sense I was training myself, making myself sick without knowing it by spending so many hours on so many nights filling my head with dark thoughts. I didn’t like school but I had to go. I felt alienated by desperately burning questions that no one else seemed concerned with. The world seemed crazy to me but I figured, by comparison, I must seem crazy to the world. I wanted to fit in but felt fairly confident that doing what was expected of me, what everyone else seemed to be doing, would make me hate my life. So what was the point?

We tend not to think of mental illness as rational, and it most often isn’t, but it certainly felt that way when I was in the middle of it. Medical science still has a precariously loose grasp on what, exactly, mental illness is, and how we treat it in its various forms. We try to end the stigma by drawing comparisons with physical illness, and trying to tease out at least the kind of compassion and sympathy evoked by a person on crutches, or in a cast, or in a hospital bed. But for me, a major part of the stigma has always been to be perceived as broken or ill in the first place, when instead I often see in myself and others who suffer with these conditions a resilience and courage in the face of a suffering world.

Of course we know that mental illness is very often a case of being the victim of one’s own biology, and medical science, though far from perfect, can and does help some people tremendously. I don’t ever want to detract from the experience of anyone who has been helped or saved by medicine. My own mother enjoys a quality of life only afforded to her by medical science. I am eternally grateful for this. So naturally, when she told me about depression and suggested that a bottle of pills might help make me happy again, I was excited. I was twelve years old, miserable, hating school, unable to relate to my friends, so I thought, sign me up!

The results were disastrous. After a half hour meeting with the family doctor I had my name on a prescription for Prozac, which would be the first of many different medications. At this moment in my life, I felt inside that I was on the edge. Rather than pulling me back, all attempts at treatment just seemed to push me further into the deep end. Soon after the Prozac I started physically attacking myself, studying and experimenting with ways to take my own life. Within three years I would be diagnosed with depression, general anxiety, bi-polar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosis… The list probably goes on, I don’t even remember. The medical model just couldn’t make sense of me. No one could. By the time I finally found the will power to stop destroying myself, I was in a rehab program at the children’s hospital where all we did was math, english and therapy. I certainly hadn’t found any greater autonomy in my education. I had missed so much school I had fallen back about two grades.

I knew I was going nowhere, and I felt at the time so sincerely that I wanted to end it all, even after all of those years, but eventually I had to accept that I just didn’t have it in me. I was afraid of life but I was more afraid of death. I was afraid of hurting those who cared about me. I wished they would stop caring, that they would let me go in peace, but they held on, and so I was forced to hold on too. Self harm and suicidal tendencies, though at first equal parts cries for help and genuine attempts to end the suffering, became eventually like bad habits, addictions I had to give up. To be completely honest, it was kind of a revelation.

The last time I was preparing to attempt suicide, I heard a voice say ‘whatever happens, happens.’ Sounds pretty simple. It wasn’t god or anything mystical, it was just a part of myself I hadn’t been in touch with for so long that it sounded completely foreign. Essentially, my will to live piped up and said “Yes, there is cruelty and evil in the world. Yes, there is corruption and greed and violence and death, and yes, school is awful and these doctors don’t know what they’re doing to you, and there is nothing you can do to change that. Dying certainly isn’t going to change that. Whatever injustice happens, will happen regardless, and yes, it hurts. It hurts so much and you will feel that hurt for all of your days but all the same you might as well stick around for the ride. You might as well see what happens, for better or worse, while you still have the chance. We’re all going to die. And maybe, just maybe you can make some kind of a difference while you are still alive.

I told my doctors I wouldn’t take any more medication. I started learning to play the guitar. I started writing short stories and poems. And most importantly, before any of this could happen, I had been exposed to books I had never known existed. I had begun to choose for myself what kind of an education I wanted. I was able to rediscover a joy for life in the simple curiosity of having no clue how we got in to this mess, and wanting to search for some kind of a solution under the assumption that maybe I could help. I didn’t know it yet, but I had become a student of the humanities. The same things that I learn here at this college are the things that allowed me to feel that my life might be worth living, that I might have something to contribute.

Books about world history and religious studies showed me that we never do seem to get it right, but we keep trying, and things do change. The attitudes and belief systems that govern the way we live suddenly appeared dynamic and up for negotiation rather than rigidly oppressive. Books about the environment showed me that there were alternatives to exploitation and degradation of the natural world. Books about philosophy showed me that politics, in theory, could operate according to virtue rather than capital. Literature, music and poetry gave me a voice, and put the idea in my head that maybe I was not so hopelessly sick, maybe I was in fact human after all.

I think the arts and humanities, and particularly in my case philosophy, have critical roles to play in our growing understanding of mental illness. The great thinkers of antiquity were deeply concerned with human nature and our pursuit of happiness, and what could be more relevant to understanding mental health than an understanding of the mind, of what it means to be human, and how that understanding has changed throughout time. For me, finding out that intellectual cornerstones of western civilization like Plato and Aristotle lay awake at night asking questions like what is virtue, what is good and evil, what is love, what is the highest end of human life, the role of good government, how should we treat our friends… knowing that these questions had been asked thousands of years ago was like finding my ticket of admission into the human race.

I often wonder what my life would have been like if my doctor, rather than prescribing me prozac, had offered me a book recommendation. What if I had found this program at sixteen instead of twenty-six? What if my middle school had introduced me to Plato? It’s obviously too late for all that now, but somewhere out there a child is struggling with their humanity. Maybe they don’t need therapy or medication. Maybe they just need a really great book, and someone to talk to about what they think that book is saying. Maybe if you give that kid Plato, he will finally feel like a member of the human race.

All I know for sure is that it’s a crazy world out there. When we are dealing with mental illness, we cannot afford to treat it like any other kind of affliction. I deeply believe that to properly understand mental illness, we need to try to understand the world we live in, and the humanities is key to this. When it is not absurd to say the world is mad, that the human race is destroying itself, that our leaders have lost their minds, we cannot be surprised that some of us reflect in our lives what we have been shown of the world. For me, this is what an education in the humanities has offered. An expanded view of the world, of humanity, of myself, and with it a reason to be brave. If I can learn to confront the madness in here, maybe I can help us all confront the madness out there, too. Whatever happens, happens. I’m just here for the ride.

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