This post was written by Nate Sawyer, one of our 2017 Emerging Scholars. Over the course of the next few months, Nate’s “Dear Emory” project will focus on the investigation, and artistic presentation, of student oral histories of mental health experiences at Emory University. You can read more about his project here.
Hi everyone! My name is Nate Sawyer—an interdisciplinary studies major focusing on critical studies of mental illness at Emory University. For a figment of a fragment of a snippet of myself, I imagine these facts will suffice. I grew up in a Taiwanese-Jewish household—a mix of cultures producing a passion for food and family that is truly unparalleled. With the same sense of wanderlust as both my parents had when they were my age, I have spent as much time as possible in my college career abroad. I lived in Shanghai for a semester and spent a summer studying with Tibetan monks living in exile in Dharamsala. Ever since meeting him, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been a personal hero and inspiration of mine. If you saw me walking on campus, you would probably see me with my headphones in, guaranteed to be listening to some sort of film score on my iPhone. A music composer myself, I genuinely believe that the way that music affects us is magical—and for the wide range of human experiences, mental illness related or not, I find myself returning again and again to music as a bridge that helps communicate the otherwise-unintelligible-through-words parts of life that move me.
These artistic impulses are perhaps what led to the inception of my project. I am primarily interested in building an artistic community at Emory that establishes community-based platforms that give voice to mental illness experiences of college students. I imagine that the network reading this blog post is well aware of the extensive mental health challenges that contemporary students face in today’s college setting. In light of these trends, this project takes to heart the Active Minds’ spirit of elevating student voices to generate performances that speak out against stigma, discrimination, and a larger system of normative structures that marginalizes the experience of mental illness.
For me, this project really began (informally) way back at the beginning of this year where I was asked to help out with a group at Emory called Issues Troupe—a theater troupe consisting of various undergraduate students who develop monologues and various short scenes to highlight the ways that certain identities confront daily realities of social injustice. Honestly, I’m not sure why I agreed: I had never done any theater before and the group performs annually at Orientation and I wasn’t particularly excited about the prospect. Nevertheless, my good friend who was in the group dragged me in and I ended up performing my monologue about my experience with depression in front of Emory’s entire incoming class.
It wasn’t about providing some inspiring story of recovery or hope. Nor did I “feel good” or somehow more whole after doing so. But it was an act of reclaiming my right to my own story—to cut through the representations of mental illness as pathological, as “broken,” as the object of moral fault when all of a sudden you’re not “normal” anymore in a society that doesn’t like it when we misfit. Since then, with the incredible help of other students, we have collectively worked together on an arts collective that we call Emory Dark Arts that focuses on producing performances, exhibits, and platforms whose explicit mission is to help students reclaim their voice (yes, we do use the acronym “DA” for all you Harry Potter fans out there). And through these reclamations of our own stories, I am interested in listening compassionately and deeply to what students have to say about their mental illness experiences at Emory to work towards actively constructing a better system.
This process has been challenging, disruptive, and impactful. No two individuals relate to their experience of illness in the same way, yet each experience that is shared holds immense value for us as listeners and learners, as all of us are working towards challenging stigma and carving out a place of belonging for those of us who have been deemed as “misfitting” or “unfit” to be here. Seeing other students—many who have never taken the stage before—find their voice entirely of their own bravery and volition has been perhaps the most rewarding aspect of this project so far. Together we are finding not some mythical “recovery,” but empowerment. And above all, that none of us have to face these challenges alone.