In the fall, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after months of having debilitating panic attacks. These panic attacks, or dissociative episodes, often prevented me from functioning in the “typical” way that a student at the College was expected to function. I couldn’t attend class regularly, and when I did, I was a passive presence. Maintaining friends was difficult, because I didn’t possess the energy to leave my room, or the drive to go out on the weekends. Besides, my mental illness immediately labeled me “high maintenance,” so a lot of people drifted in and out of my life. After people left, I was usually followed by slurs and whispers about how I was “crazy” and “nuts” and just “too draining to handle.”
After hearing those things, I realized that one of the main reasons that individuals with mental illness are considered “other” in our society is due to the capitalistic expectation of assigning value and worth to human beings based on what, when, where and how much they produce. What we are expected to produce is not necessarily material, but the exact levels of the expected “production” that we as individuals are supposed to meet are defined by various institutions in society, such as the College.
As friends to other college students, we are expected to offer support and a “good time,” and, in this society that deems worth on efficient production, “good” is typically equated with “easy.” As a woman suffering from PTSD, I was not able to offer either of those. I could not bring myself to be a supportive presence when I could barely get out of bed in the morning, and I could not offer an environment conducive to having a “good time” when I was crying through the night or having panic attacks throughout the day. On the flip-side, however, I demanded emotional commitment. I asked for support from my friends that was exhausting and difficult for them to give. My relationships became capitalistic commodities. Because I could not provide other students with what they expected me to produce, and because I needed them to produce more than they were able or wanted to give, I was often deemed as (to use economic terms) a “lesser” investment. What a capitalist society does not allow for in friendships and relationships is that there are times when you are going to have to give more than you get. That does not make the relationship less worthwhile. We all go through difficult times when we need our loved ones to give more than they might be used to giving.
Because my academics began to suffer, I was essentially asked to go on medical leave. I was temporarily kicked out of the institution for which I was expected to produce (good grades and credibility). I was supposed to leave to “get myself together.” While I recognize the validity of this argument, because the College had invested with certain expectations of production, I had become completely reduced to my capacity to produce. The College made it clear that while on medical leave, I would not have access to any of its resources. I told them that I would not be able to get better at home, for various reasons, and so that in order to heal, I intended on staying in Williamstown. But the administration would not allow me to access the health center for any reason, including the College-mandated therapy. The College would not pay for my therapy or allow me to use dining services. They would not allow me to work with professors for the summer months and would not allow me to apply for the alumni grants that were necessary in order for me to obtain any kind of summer internships outside of Williamstown.
My health as a human being was not a worthwhile investment for the institution, because I was no longer able to produce for them. The worst part, however, was that they encouraged me to come back when I was “ready” (to produce), but they had no interest in helping me, as a human being, to earn back my place in the institution itself. What angers me most, here, is the definition of “production.” I am a financial aid student and a minority student who does not play sports and does not have rich parents. I sometimes wondered if I had been an athlete or a student whose parents donated a lot of money each year – if my last name produced “credibility” and “respectability” for the College – whether I would have been able to stay. In that case, after all, despite my academic performance, I would have been “producing” something positive for the institution. But then, the College is not unique in the ways it insists upon capitalist productions, but only one of a number of institutions in our society that expect the same thing.
This is my problem with valuing individual human beings based on their levels of production. In every case, there are discrepancies in experiences and ability to produce from the start. Additionally, the production of certain things like athleticism, money and respectability are valued above others. As a woman suffering from mental illness, I constantly felt like I was already only on the periphery of accepted society. When getting out of bed seems like lifting an 800-pound weight, when being out in public is exhausting and terrifying, when completing homework or going out with friends seems impossible because of the overwhelming sadness and anxiety, society should not tell me that I am “lesser” because of it. In capitalist environments such as these, individuals who suffer from mental illness will continually feel as if they lack worth. Moreover, we are punished for our inability to meet those levels of production, called slurs like “crazy” and “lazy” and “too draining” or a “negative presence” – all of which are ways of telling us that, in the system that we operate in, we are not enough.
Emily O’Brien lives in Williamstown, Mass.