Your hands have always needed help. Sitting in Mrs. Palmquist’s elementary school art studio, you choked back tears as you watched the kids around you make neat figures out of clay as yours turned to mush, as you watched them paint perfect shapes while you struggled just to grasp your paintbrush. Still, you loved the studio. It was located in a smaller building next to your small schoolhouse; you and your classmates walked from one to the other in the cold before bursting inside, ripping off your coats and boots, and sitting on stools that teetered too high for your feet to touch the ground. You were incubated in the smell of paper and pastel, the warmth of John Mayer’s croaky voice soothing you as it crackled from Mrs. Palmquist’s small radio in the corner. Despite your comfort, you hated what she made you do – or maybe you just hated that your hands could never do what she asked.
Even your eyes could not take your own handwriting. They drifted to your friend Nelle’s perfectly round penmanship, each letter smoother than the last. Your handwriting, in comparison, was scraggly and disjointed. Your nervous hands often left droplets of sweat on the paper, and your writing became even more incomprehensible as the ink blotted and oozed. Math quizzes were a breath of fresh air; writing legible numbers was easy enough and you breezed through them with excitement. When being told to write, however, your throat went dry and something gnawed at your gut as your hands began to quake.
You were grateful when your class started using computers because you no longer had to battle both the fear of having nothing to write and your inability to write it. Your hands graze keyboards with confidence because you know the words are readable. Yet the fear you get before writing has not changed. A demand for self-expression often makes you freeze. You sit at your kitchen table facing a blank page on an open MacBook, feeling the familiar lump in your throat. You often close it with the page still blank and pray that the next time will be different. Finding words to match what you feel in your body is simply too hard. And it’s always been that way.
Your psychologist told you last week that it’s common to feel helpless when trying to ascribe words to things that happen to you when you’re young, before you have the gift of language. When your only ability to process information comes from feeling, the physical reactions are what you carry. Even after you learned to speak, to think in a common language, to write, the feelings of trauma are what you carry. Writing hasn’t been enough to let them go.
Mrs. Palmquist once showed you how to make human figures out of wire, one of the only art projects you enjoyed. Even your feeble hands could hold onto small pliers, carefully crafting delicate metal bodies. The tools allowed you to create something while hardly touching it. In time, you also learned to process emotions through some sort of proxy. When you feel something in your gut you can’t quite explain in words, you don’t return to the clay studio or force yourself to sit in front of a blank word document. Instead, you run or you dance or you spend time with people that make you laugh until you cry. Words still tend to fail you, so you grasp for meaning in action. And maybe that’s enough.
I wrote the above essay in an English class when asked to consider “Why I Write.” The prompt felt like a trick question; all the reasons why I typically shy away from writing immediately flooded my thoughts. I wrote in the second person, trying to stay a foot away from the emotions I unearthed. Still, writing this piece offered me an interesting lens to confront my lifelong journey with PTSD, a journey that has undoubtedly guided me here to my work with the Yale Layer today.
In the fall of 2017, in the inaugural edition of the Yale Layer, I wrote: “my experience dealing with mental health at Yale is unique… no two stories are the same,” and “dealing with mental health is an intensely personal matter.” Now, nearly two years later, I feel compelled to share that my opinion has changed.
“Why do you care so much about mental health?” often also feels like a trick question, because the answer is that I was never really given a choice. I know the ongoing ups and downs of emotional fragility and self-destructive thoughts like the back of my hand, because they extend as far back as my memory reaches. For me, it’s been the process of growing up that’s given me the most joy in my life.
Most importantly, perhaps, I learned to contextualize my experiences, and understand how both differences and patterns of similarity appear in relation to others. What my work with the Yale Layer has taught me is that while mental health often feels intensely personal, it is oftentimes, in fact, collective.
Trauma, though potentially the most mentally isolating of experiences, is often shared. Even when we don’t experience trauma ourselves, it can be inherited from our families and our communities. And we can share it with others. For me, it was the realization that I was projecting my trauma onto the people around me that propelled me into getting help. I saw relationships around me deteriorate as I yearned for help from others that I didn’t know how to describe, and they didn’t know how to give. I remember feeling trapped alone in a box nobody seemed to know how to open.
By connecting me with other people who were so bravely willing to share even the darkest facets of their experiences, my work with the Layer has allowed me to feel less alone than I ever thought was possible. It taught me that healing need not happen in isolation; it happens with the support of peers, friends and loved ones. It can be communal.
And what a community the Yale Layer has become. I am beyond grateful for everyone who helped me bring this into fruition after receiving my text on a random summer afternoon, for everyone willing to share their creations, for everyone who has admired the work and participated in a building conversation about the way that mental health intertwines itself with our lives here at Yale.
Conversations about the way we bring our identities, our experiences, and our mental and physical health to Yale have already been ignited. I hope that as the Yale community continues to adapt and grow, these conversations grow too. Most importantly, I hope that this building dialogue sparks changes in our interactions with institutions and our interactions with each other. I’m not sure what could be more meaningful than that.
By Anna Hope Emerson. Anna Hope will be stepping down as President of the Yale Layer at the end of this Spring 2019 semester.