A series of unfortunate injuries:The invisible cost of mind and body illness

In elementary school, one of the most popular book series to read was A Series of Unfortunate Events. Well, I never read it, and I guess the universe decided that if I hadn’t read it, I would just have to live my own. My first 19 years were relatively uneventful, but in the span of two years, I have had a steady stream of one freak semester-uprooting accident after another: concussion one (hit my head on Tyler Annex’s cinderblock wall, sophomore spring); mono (junior spring), concussion two, complemented with neck and shoulder injuries (hit by another car on the highway, senior fall); and, if you count abroad, a broken ankle while learning to surf Australian-style (first week of study abroad, junior fall).

Although these experiences have been frustrating and painful, I recognize how fortunate I am to have injuries that I can recover from, unlike many in our community who follow a longer – or lifelong –  path to healing. But as someone who understands what it is like to be injured on this campus, I think that we need to pay more attention to wounds that are harder to classify. An injury can be physical – you can see the cast over a broken limb or the ice taped (with what seems like an entire roll of plastic wrap) on the hurting joints of athletes. But sometimes you don’t wear your injury; instead, it is carried with you, often silently, and can only be categorized under the umbrella term of “mental health.” Injuries like concussions, or illnesses like mono, are not visible, yet are still physically challenging. And, they are also mentally and emotionally taxing, especially at the College, where daily academic and social stresses can wear on you even when you are feeling 100 percent.

I write this not to complain about my experiences, but to use them to highlight what I have learned about dealing with these kinds of unclassifiable injuries and to call attention to others who are facing similar challenges. With injuries at the College, one of my primary concerns is how to keep up with my work. Every accident I had forced me to take an “incomplete,” extending my workload – and stress – from my semesters into summer breaks and winter study. Forcing myself to read even when it caused headaches or trying to rally enough energy just to get to class were the unavoidable consequences of trying to keep going. But the emotional exhaustion of feeling unable to fulfill my most important role, being a full-time student, was the most paralyzing. Of course, the deans and my professors were kind and flexible with my assignment deadlines, but even this did not alleviate the feeling that scraping by as a student was just not possible.

In addition to the academic struggle, there is the social one. Although the College has resources for students struggling with mental health issues, these kinds of invisible injuries aren’t addressed fully by these resources. I have learned about myself through these injuries: that I need to see other humans throughout my recoveries; that I need to stay busy to the extent that I can; and that I need to have a heightened awareness of what my body and mind need. But injuries are isolating by nature. These “hidden” injuries are fatiguing, making it hard for me to muster the energy to be with other people.  At times, I found myself getting angry with people who didn’t seem to notice my absence or who noticed, but didn’t take the time to reach out. Although I realized that I needed to seek out others for help, I found it exhausting to explain what I needed or that I was not, in fact, “doing well, thanks!” After the car crash, I isolated myself because I didn’t have the energy to tell people that I needed extra support. This took a powerful toll on my emotional health and slowed my physical recovery process.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the mind and body are absolutely connected. We hear this all the time but not with the vocabulary that describes experiences like these. Because I did not have any visible signs of injury, my suffering did not invite extra care. Several people on campus have told me that I must be okay because I didn’t break a bone … or that I was “just shaken up.” Such kinds of comments only worsen these situations. Moving forward, we would all do well to be more aware – a reminder that you can’t judge a book (maybe The Series of Unfortunate Events) by its cover. The College  has a lot of structural support, but to truly make a “campus of compassion,” we need to open our minds to the overlapping experiences of mental and physical struggle and take a few extra moments to snap out of our own wild whirlwinds and tune into others.

Deanna Segall ’17 is an anthropology major from Potomac, Md. She lives in Prospect.