DSQ > Fall 2008, Volume 28, No.4

Instructor's Statement

Margaret Price
Spelman College

Timile and I had worked together in several other classes when we sat down to discuss her impending graduation in the spring of 2008, and how she might successfully complete her English major. I knew that her depression had been greatly affecting her that spring, and that she had recently had to drop a class, which caused her to fall short of the last few credits needed. In consultation with the chair of the English Department, I agreed to design an independent study with Timile, basing the course loosely along the lines of my creative-nonfiction writing workshop. Hesitantly, I asked if she would be interested in focusing the course thematically on depression. I recall qualifying this suggestion with a great many disclaimers, such as "this is just an idea" and "we can do something completely different." Somewhat to my surprise, both Timile and the department chair agreed heartily, and English 452: Writing and Depression was created.

During the course, which was compressed into about eight weeks (due to our late start in early March), Timile wrote over 60 pages, read about 600 pages, and met with me about once a week for one to two hours. Readings were drawn from Disability and the Teaching of Writing (Lewiecki-Wilson & Brueggemann), Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression (Casey), Illness in the Academy (Myers), Hypatia, and the Encyclopedia of American Disability History (Burch). We also read Meri Nana-Ama Danquah's Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman's Journey through Depression. Our main goal for the course was completion of an autoethnography, which I defined by drawing upon Marshall & Rossman's Designing Qualitative Research: "presenting one's own story with the implied or explicit assertion that the personal narrative instructs, disrupts, incites to action, and calls into question politics, culture and identity" (167). I specified that the autoethnography had to be at least 20 revised pages; Timile's final draft was over 30 pages.

Accessibility was the issue most on my mind as Timile and I traveled through our improvised independent study together. Some days, when she appeared in my office, Timile was so obviously exhausted that I hesitated to initiate discussion; it felt almost cruel, although I always deferred to her judgment, and if she said she was ready for discussion, I took her word for it. We communicated extensively by email or text message when Timile could not get to my office; I recall one particularly stimulating conversation about Danquah's memoir that took place entirely via text message. I kept a teaching journal throughout the course, noting again and again how grateful I was that we could use alternative media and adhere to "crip time" in order to keep the work moving forward. In a conventional classroom setup, I could not have said so easily, "Sure, let's just 'do class' by phone"; but the amount and quality of work Timile completed shows me that the freedom we had to redefine her "presence" in the course had a great deal to do with what made it a success.

Given Timile's success in "Writing and Depression," and the unusual structures through which she achieved this success, I am left asking: Do we need to rethink our notions of what "attendance" means? Of what "participation" and "productivity" mean? These questions are still very much on my mind.

Drawn Out of Dejection

Timile Brown

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing Eyes —
I wonder if It weighs like mine —
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long —
Or did it just begin —
I could not tell the Date of Mine —
It feels so old a pain —

Emily Dickinson

"I find that pretty hard to believe," she said to me. Ms. Betty Collins.1 Why would she say that to me? I'm not a liar. Do I look like a liar? Maybe I do. I told her that I hadn't been able to get out of bed the last two weeks. I didn't feel well. I told her that I even went to the doctor several times. But they'd always tell me that they didn't know what it was. And she said to me, "I find that pretty hard to believe."

I was a freshman in college, and I wanted some help. I wanted to know why I was feeling this way. Why I couldn't get out of bed in the morning. Why I cried for no reason some days, out of nowhere. Why I couldn't cry at times when it made sense to cry. Why I felt sick all of the time when I didn't have a cold or the flu. Why I couldn't concentrate. Why it made me physically ill when I thought of having to sit in the classroom around other people. Why? What is wrong with me? I find that pretty hard to believe. Those words chime into my thoughts at random, even years later. Those words make me cry, even years later. Those words make me feel worthless, even years later. I didn't reach out for help again for three years.

I've been best friends with Emily Dickinson since I was nine years old. I met her in a book of poetry I borrowed from the library. I was drawn to her. And together, for years, we measured every grief we met. Her poem became my anthem. My silent song. Like Emily, I've met some friends through words on a page. They've taught me some things about my Depression. My wretched companion. I met them through their words. Their souls poured onto the page.

I met Jamison yesterday. Kay Redfield Jamison. She's the one who introduced me to the others from Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression. She prepared me. She told me of William Styron, how his relationship with Depression gradually progressed to a stage where he experienced "a fidgety restlessness" and "an immense and aching solitude" (2). But Jamison told me that it doesn't always work that way for everyone. Sometimes people fall into relationships with Depression. It seems to happen overnight. This is what Virginia Heffernan, another author in Unholy Ghost, experienced. The fall.

I wonder if I fell into my relationship with Depression, or did I nurture the relationship until we became exclusive? Jamison told me that, to Jane Kenyon, Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, Heffernan, and the others in the book, "Being writers, their struggle to define and describe depression is perhaps the most important process for the reader" (1). The reader. Jamison introduced to me the idea that to bare one's soul through words on the page is not done only for the benefit of oneself, but also for those who encounter those words. The reader. I am their reader. I encountered their words, their souls on the page. And yes, it was important for me to be present as each of them described their Depression — their wretched companions — because I have one also.

Meet my Depression. My Depression is an angry, masculine soul sometimes. He is intoxicated with disappointment and subdued by frustration. Understand his pain. Sometimes he is a frail, innocent little girl, untouched by fury but saturated in sadness. Trapped in a limbo between child and adult. Understand her confusion. Afraid to talk to the other children, terrified that someone will think she isn't good enough. My Depression believes that no one loves him. That he is not worthy of love. He believes that he must be perfect in order to be happy, that life must be perfect. Perfection fails him. Understand his grief. He fights and screams when he wants to weep. He runs away when he desires to be held close. Understand his vulnerability. He is mean to those who love him and ignores those who believe in him. Understand his weakness.

School. It is the place where expectations and rules, measures and merits are introduced. This place, far away from home. Where Mommy's eyes cannot be my direction when I'm lost. This place, colorful like crayons and markers. Not like Mommy's soft peach sofa pillows and mauve curtains. Those are colors I know. "Sit in your seat and raise your hand when you want to speak or if you have to use the restroom." What do you mean? Mommy doesn't make me do that. I just go when I have to go. I got the answer wrong. All the kids are looking at me. There were no kids to look at me at home with Mommy.

What I am learning is to be obedient. To walk the way they tell me to, in line, to speak when they say I can, to do my work the way they teach me and for as long as they say. I am good at appearing normal. I don't want Mommy to see that I am not like the other kids. I want her to be proud of me. I always get good grades, but she wants me to have friends. And I want to make her happy. So I pretend that I have friends.

The kids won't let me play with them because I am different. I'm not really sure how I am different. I do look different, I guess. They ask me if I am adopted because I'm "so white" while the rest of my family has brown skin. My hair is "weird," my nose is "pointy," and I don't talk like them. My mommy says Ain't isn't a word. They don't know that. They say ain't all the time. I ask them politely if I can play and they say, "No." Outright. Without giving it any thought. So I respect their wishes and stay away. I watch the kids on the playground like I watch TV. I can laugh at the jokes they tell each other, I can gasp when they fall, and I can silently cheer them on when they dodge the tagger and make it to home base. I am content with that. It is the best I can do.

The first time I woke up in my dorm room at Spelman College and not in my white canopy bed with pink flowered sheets at home in Hampton, Virginia, I was not sure what woke me. Maybe it was the heavy traffic outside my open window from the highway just beyond the gates. Or maybe it was the birds singing too loudly. Those birds. My eyes opened without me telling them to.

The walls are cement. Blocks. That's what it looks like. Like prison walls. Cold. I'm cold. But it's summer. Those birds! Why don't they shut up? Where am I? Sitting up slowly, looking straight ahead. There's the girl whose name starts with an A. I don't remember. She's the one who said she believed God is a woman. I'll find out her name later. Kristin is on my left. And Sophia is on my right. They're all cuddled up warmly in their new comforters. Their spaces decorated like a little patch of home. Those birds! Why are they singing?

It made me angry that the birds were singing. It made my heart beat fast and hard, pounding against my rib cage.

Angry! I'm angry! Take a deep breath, Timile. It doesn't smell like home. It's Saturday, but there is no Mommy, and no Saturday Lifetime movie to watch. No snacks to eat or sofa to sit on. Do they have Saturday movies here? Where am I? Suddenly terrified. Nothing is familiar. My mind is racing with questions with no one to answer them. I want to scream and cry! But I can't because they will hear me.

My heart hurt. That's the way I described it. I told my mom that my heart hurt. She looked at me with her brows scrunched, making the "H" shape between them, her eyes slightly squinted as if she was trying to make out some fine print written on my face.

"You're always saying silly things," she said. "Your heart can't hurt like your arm or your stomach, or your head would hurt."

I guess so. That was freshman year sometime, of college I mean. I don't remember the day specifically. I don't remember a lot of days, but I do remember the things that happened on those days. I always wondered why. Why do I have such a patchy recollection of time? It's like how I remember learning to ride my bicycle for the first time. But I could have been five years old, or twelve years old. I don't remember.

What I learned later on was that saying that my heart hurt was my way of articulating that I physically felt — in that region of space — what I felt emotionally. It doesn't make sense, I thought. But I can't ignore that it hurts. Pain is real. Isn't it? I'm not imagining my pain. Am I?

All of these thoughts and questions raced through my head many times a day. I thought them while I was in my class, African Diaspora and the World. Dr. Mantage was a great teacher, and I wanted to give him my undivided attention. He deserved that. But I just couldn't. My mind had a mind of its own. It wouldn't let me concentrate. I missed the lesson on Marcus Garvey! What is it that he did? He…

Now my heart is pounding. It's getting warm in here. Why am I so tired all of a sudden? It's as if something is touching me. I can feel it drawing the energy from my limbs. My head hurts. Now a migraine is coming. I hate it when I get those. We have to write a paper on Marcus Garvey by next class. It's not a big paper, but if I don't learn the lesson in class, I won't understand the reading and then I can't write the paper, and if my migraine gets worse I'll see spots in my eyes and then I won't be able to read at all…Panic. The room is spinning. Ringing. Loud ringing in my ear. What is that? Does anyone else hear that? Oh no, I can't breathe. Take a deep breath, Timile. Maybe you're just having an asthma attack. You got just a little worked up and it triggered your asthma. You are okay. No, I'm not. It's getting worse. That pain in my chest. Maybe I'm having a heart attack. But I can't. I'm only 18. I hope no one is watching me. Please God, don't let anyone see me like this. Please let me make it to the end of class. Where's my phone? What time is it? Only two minutes left in class. Oh, no! I missed the whole lesson. Where was I? How did I miss 48 minutes? What day is it? Gasping for air. I have to go! I have to go! I speed-walk back to my dorm room. Terrified that there is a witness.

I'm so angry. I wish that someone would ask me how my day went. To actually wait and listen for my answer, even if it is not a cheery one, and truly care about what I say. Is it okay for me to be angry with those who didn't take the time to see me? Those who saw my eyes welling up with tears in the middle of class and pretended not to see, those who saw me not get out of bed for weeks and said nothing, those who would call me for help on their essays, or to ask what the assignment was, but would never ask me if I wanted to sit with them at lunch, or go to a movie on the weekend? Should I not expect so much from people? Should I just know that everyone is going to disappoint me?

My mom called them my hankty moods. When I would isolate myself in my room, away from everyone else, or when I didn't feel like talking to anyone, I was being hankty. But hankty wasn't cute or funny here. Not in college.

I find that pretty hard to believe. I didn't reach out for help for three years after that. I would just ace all of my tests and papers, and take whatever grade the teachers would give me after missing classes. I just didn't know how to force myself to go to class when I felt that way. I couldn't do it alone.

The first time I felt like something in college was in Dr. Hughes's class. Junior year. I loved that class. And I loved Dr. Hughes. She had feelings. She wasn't solid and cold, not a robot instructor like many others. She was warm and real. She was a real person to me. The first real person I have seen in such a long time. I've been in college for three years.

Dr. Hughes told us of some things that she went through personally when she was in college. Things that hurt her. Things that were hard to deal with. I loved her for sharing. I needed to see that other people hurt too. I was desperately searching for someone who was as sad as I was. I didn't want to feel crazy anymore all by myself. I wanted to break down and tell her how terrible my hurt was. I wanted to cry on her shoulder. I wanted to tell her who and how they hurt me. I wanted to tell her how I even hurt for her. For the Dr. Hughes before she was Dr. Hughes. And I wanted to offer some piece of my life to her in return for her sharing. A piece of my loyalty. A piece of my love. I wanted her to tell me that I could be like her. That I could come through my circumstances, through my hurt and be happy one day. I wanted to have her rosy cheeks and her jovial demeanor. I wanted to be her. I saw it finally. What happiness looks like. I mean happy from someone who has been low, like me, and made it through. But I couldn't tell her this. She was still my teacher and there are boundaries.

Depression is an entity. My entity. My Depression belongs to me. It has been my wretched companion — forever. I don't remember when we first met. As Danquah said in Unholy Ghost, "There are times when I feel like I've known depression longer than I've known myself. It has been with me since the beginning" (174). When I think back and remember all the times I had no words to describe my companion, the place he occupied in my thoughts and in my heart, or the role he has played in my life, I realize that Danquah's words have now put the language to explain on my tongue. They feel exact spilling from my lips. As if they were my own words. Her words fill a space in me, a crevice buried deep inside me that no one knows about. I just now discovered it. My crevice. You will not find its location in an anatomy book because it only exists for me. You see, my wretched companion only exists beneath your reality. My special and horrid gift.

I met Depression, my wretched companion, when I was young. Maybe I met my Depression when I started school. Is school the cause of my Depression? I don't know. But what I do know now, what I didn't know at six years old, is that you should never get involved in a relationship with a companion who is trying to change you. I watched the playground as if it were a movie or my favorite television program. My special and horrid gift. As I grew up, I learned to watch everything and everyone in life this way. Sometimes, now, Emily Dickinson visits me and we create peoples' lives as they pass by. I've lived many lives through the stories I imagine as I observe people.

Jamison said, "Depression force[s] a lasting change in perspective, in friendships, and in an understanding of the self" (6). My Depression never allowed me to have friends, never allowed me to perceive life optimistically, and never allowed me even to see myself. I've met so many people in my 22 years, but I have yet to meet myself.

I met Jane Kenyon recently. I am learning her. I'm learning that she has a space like mine. A crevice buried inside. I'm learning that she is "Having it Out with Melancholy," and because she is baring her soul on the page, she seems to be winning. That's how you win. Pour your soul onto the page. Words on a page. More than just words. I'm learning that Kenyon met her companion at birth, or so she suspects. Did I meet mine that long ago? Did he stand over me as an infant in my cradle, as Kenyon describes, and press the weight of his dread upon me? Into me? Leaving the stench of dejection on my body, as it seeped into my pores. Pours. He poured misery into her soul. And she poured it back out onto the page. Words on a page.

What happens after graduation day? Spelman's gates have housed me for these last four years. How can I exist somewhere else? A worry I hadn't considered before. What if I lose a job because my Depression does not allow me to get out of bed? In school I could just lose a few points off of my grade for missing class. That option does not exist in the real world. There are no papers to turn in. There are no participation points to earn or lose; I must participate. Not like watching the kids on the playground. I must participate. That wasn't my reality before. But it is about to be.

I'm left with few options: I could continue to hide my Depression, my wretched companion. I could try to hide him in my purse and leave him under my desk when I go to work every day. Terrified that he might find a hole somewhere or even create one, get out and attack me in front of everyone. But I'll be to blame because no one will see him. Only me. They'll only see me. Why? Because he doesn't exist in your reality. You can't see him. Only those who have one like mine can see — my wretched companion. I find that pretty hard to believe. Or maybe I can figure out a way to abandon My Depression. Maybe I can just leave him somewhere and walk away — run away. Maybe on a street corner, or in a park. Or in a noisy place so I won't be able to hear him beckoning me to return to him, to take him home again with me. Or maybe I can flush him down the toilet where other soiled things go when we don't want them anymore. Maybe I can expel him from my body. But how do I know he won't find me again and follow me home? Like a lost puppy. Would I take him back? Maybe I can never get rid of him.

Or maybe I can expose him. If I draw a picture of him in my words. Maybe I could catch his soul on the page. He won't be able to hide then. If I describe him. Draw his criminal sketch. I'll broadcast his image and the bad things he has done for everyone who will listen and see. I'll tell everyone what he did to me. How he took my life from me. How he stole so much time. I will pour him out of me. Spill him onto the page. A spill. A mistake. A mess to be wiped up and thrown away. That's what I'll do. I will draw him in my words. I will pour him out of my soul and spill him onto the page for as long as it takes until he is all gone and there is only me. Only me. Then maybe you will see him. You won't misidentify him anymore. You won't have to trust my attempts at explaining. I find that pretty hard to believe. I won't leave that burden up to you. I will expose him unashamedly in front of your face. What you could never see before. What you may never truly understand.

I will bring him to your attention. Vividly. Blatantly. You will hear his words, charming and deceitful. You will smell his malice, putrid and foul. You will witness his exposure, transient and final. My reader. Understand my weakness. Be my support. Hear my sorrow. Let me share. Believe my strength. I find that pretty hard to believe. Give me a chance. Read my Depression. See his figure exposed. Splattered on the page. Drawn out. Drawn out of me. I will pour him onto the page. I will expose every curve and traceable feature. I will draw him from my body, from my mind. I was the victim, and he the criminal. Traced in white tape. Drawn out of me. I have accused him of murder. He murdered my time. I can't kill him, so I have captured him on the page. Sentenced him life. The duration of my life. Sprawled out. Limb and life sprawled out. Do you see him? Can you see him? The black bile drawn out of me, traced, drawn out onto the crisp, white page. He is me on the page. I am the criminal this time. He is the victim. He is me. A part of me. Don't you see him? Do you see me now? He is exposed. I accept him. The other part of me. Can you see him now? My wretched companion. Drawn onto the page.

Works Cited

  • Danquah, Meri. Willow Weep for Me: a Black Woman's Journey Through Depression. New York: Norton, 1998.
  • Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1924; Bartleby.com, 2000. http://www.bartleby.com/113/. 25 March 2008.
  • Heffernan, Virginia. "A Delicious Placebo." Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression. Ed. Nell Casey. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. 8-20.
  • Kenyon, Jane. "Having It Out with Melancholy." Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression. Ed. Nell Casey. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. xi.
  • Nicki, Andrea. "The Abused Mind: Feminist Theory, Psychiatric Disability, and Trauma." Hypatia 16 (2001): 81-104.
  • Redfield Jamison, Kay. "Introduction." Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression. Nell Casey ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. 1-7.


  1. All names in this essay, except my own and published authors', are pseudonyms.
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