Last semester, I got to learn what it means to have an anxiety attack. The feeling of your chest constricting and imploding in on itself, the gradual numbness that blooms in your limbs and becomes worse the more you linger on it. The sure sense that you are having a heart attack, a stroke, a seizure, something. That this is not an anxiety attack, not this one, not this time, because it is all too immediate and real and bodily to be anything but a malfunction of your flesh, rather than a chemical imbalance in the brain. I went on for weeks, months like this, sure that I was dying at least twice a week at around 10pm. Cardiac problems don’t operate on a schedule, my physician told me, they don’t keep in tune with the sun. She gave me a prescription for an off-brand version of Celexa, an anxiety medication, and I wondered all the normal things one wonders, about whether it would turn me into a zombie, like my brother-in-law suggested, or change my personality by tweaking my brain chemistry.
A few semesters ago, I went to an administrator’s office to talk about Wesleyan’s decision to shut down the first-generation, low-income (FGLI) dorm. I had made a post on WesAdmits about the issue. She suggested that I not make nasty posts about Wesleyan online again, it was bad PR. I inadvertently got all weepy, the thing I had hoped not to do. She met me with sympathy and asked me to explain my weepiness and politely suggested that I go to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) with my problems. Later, I spoke to someone in the financial aid office about concrete ways Wesleyan might improve and make its transfer application process more accessible, its non-custodial waiver, and its independent status appeal. All the problems I presented were tangible, all the examples I gave tangible, all the solutions I offered were tangible. Again, I was dismissed and told to visit CAPS or make use of other campus resources, as though the problems and solutions existed, simultaneously, within the abstract space of my head, my body, my psychology, my chemistry.
This semester, CAPS is hosting a special group therapy session on Fridays from 4pm-5pm for FGLI students. I find this invitation, however good and necessary and mindful it may be (which it is all of those things), a curious phenomenon. A group therapy session for students of any demographic recognizes something like mass, shared trauma. The group therapy for sexual assault survivors, for instance, acknowledges that sexual assault is a violation of ones body and self, that it causes trauma. Yet, sexual assault is neither a Wesleyan specific nor a college specific issue, though colleges and their climates can certainly contribute to it. However, acknowledging FGLI students as an identity group with shared trauma implies something else altogether, since the identity groups are inextricably bound to the context of college. While it is true that one may be low income outside of college, being low income within the context of Wesleyan is something else entirely and comes pre-packed with a Wesleyan specific bundle of difficulties. The same is true for first generation students, who would not be considered such without first being inserted into the context of a college. Group therapy, then, implies not only trauma, but University-inflicted trauma. It is an acknowledgment that these groups are not simply traumatized by nature of their being a part of that group, but instead that they are traumatized by nature of attending Wesleyan. There is something ironic, then, about Wesleyan-supported group therapy.
When I attended therapy at CAPS for my anxiety this semester I went through an extensive list of things that might be causal: the fact that I sometimes work up to forty hours a week, that I have a constant fear about money and not having any, that Wesleyan, on occasion, sends me emails indicating that I will be charged an extra $3,000 for something, or that I may not be offered financial aid next semester if I do not immediately correct some mistake on my iDoc, that I have a food hoarding problem, that I had to report a family member to Department of Health and Human Services this winter, and the list goes on. At the end of the session, my therapist asked, “So what would you like to work on this semester?” I felt confused. These factors were almost all external, things that were happening to me or things that I had to do out of necessity. The framing of my mental health as “something to work on,” as though it were a self-help goal, seemed strange to me. I am by no means dragging my therapist (who I very much like), or the concept of therapy. But I believe that language around mental health is often so disembodied, so abstract that it begins to feel as though it is all just in our heads, that reciting a few mantras in the mirror and jotting down feelings in a journal might solve it all.
When I went on medication, I had to reframe my thinking about my anxiety attacks. I no longer dismiss them as just in my head. They are not a heart attack, not a stroke, and I can reassure myself of these things. But they are a medical issue, they are real, they are manifest in my body. My unbalanced brain chemistry is just as physical as any other health concern and taking medication is an appropriate response. Similarly, the waves of dread that occasionally washed over me when I had, only a second before, been sitting perfectly still and feeling perfectly fine were not disembodied from my reality. The feeling that my position is unstable, the fear of having things taken from me, the stress of over work are all real concerns that arise out of real things that have happened to me.
Mental health is not an abstraction. Going to CAPS, however good and ultimately necessary and important, is not a treatment for Wesleyan’s system of inequality, only a response to the trauma inflicted by it. Admin should not respond to students who bring up concrete issues with “Go to CAPS.” However much it might help them individually, it will not change the systematic problems that their anxieties arose out of in the first place. Wesleyan, as a whole, should acknowledge that these group therapy sessions are not the ultimate solution to the problem, but only a piece of it. And students, like myself, who suffer from mental health issues should go to CAPS, should take medicine if appropriate, should take care of themselves, and should also be reassured, it’s not just in your head.
Katie Livingston is a member of the class of 2021. Katie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.