Writers on Mental Health gives a window into real experiences to paint a picture of mental health without taboo, stigma or caricature.
Topics include therapy, medication, depression, anxiety & more. Each installment takes the form of an essay or interview.
Episode XII: An interview with Grace Montgomery
In this installment, Grace Montgomery talks anorexia and the treatment of mental illness in our education system.
Today I’m here with Grace Montgomery, a writer and student at Interlochen Arts Academy. Grace won a Scholastic Art and Writing award for an essay she penned called “Notes on Recovery”. It beings: “Gaining weight and losing weight are just different parts of the same binary. Both are satisfactory because either will prod me towards an extreme — sickness or recovery, both of which are acceptable in their own way (as anorexia will please my diseased mind, recovery pleases my body).” I found this fascinating, and I’d love for you to elaborate on the phrase “anorexia will please my diseased mind.” How did you mean when you wrote this?
When I wrote that line, I was thinking about how anorexia is often written off as a fad—some phase of being a teenager lots of people go through—but it's truly a mental illness. Anorexia is a whole mentality that's deeply obsessed with food ("How many calories are in this?" "How much have you eaten today?"), and in a way, it's rewarding to please this part of yourself in the same way it can be rewarding to please any other part of yourself.
Was that essay the first you'd written publicly about your struggles with anorexia?
Yes, it was.
I imagine the experience must have been somewhat cathartic. Were you nervous? Did it feel like a weight had been lifted?
I've been struggling with mental illness for years now, and there was a time when I was unable to talk about it at all. Since I've been progressing through recovery, I've become so much more educated on the illnesses I struggle with, so much more aware of how many people I know are struggling with the same things and feel alone in their experiences. When I began to find a voice allowing me to articulate my experiences, I make a point of being brutally honest about what I've been through. So I've been pretty adamant in conversation about my struggles and experiences, but "Notes on Recovery" was the first time I wrote it down. I was a bit nervous, but I felt this strange duty to share my experiences as much as possible, in the hopes that maybe they'll reach someone going through the same thing, someone who is unable to talk about their experiences, asking, "Does it ever get better?" I guess I didn't write that piece thinking about myself, more about the people I hoped it would reach.
That's wonderful, and also the very point of this series. What would have you wanted to tell yourself in the depths of the illness?
What I now tell my friends daily: that it does get better, sometimes even as soon as tomorrow. That at some point, life is so lit, you'll be so glad, so thankful, that you didn't let your illness defeat you.
I love that, "life is so lit". How else would you describe that feeling?
Haha yeah! It's a weird slang term I've sort of latched onto, particularly to describe that exact feeling. It's a sense of weightlessness, I think. A sort of "everything that was torturous is calm now, and we have plenty of time before the next disaster." A perspective that life—at its basis—is good. And worth it.
So not just a happiness, but a happiness as truth? As in, this is a real feeling, and it can be found again?
Yeah, like there's a hope to it -- an optimism that mental illness generally is so quick to take away.
Before this interview, you noted that you’d like to talk about the nature of education, and the ways in which our educational system “perpetrates (or at least accentuates) mental illness”. I’m eager to hear more: How did you come to this conclusion?
Our system of education isn't for everyone. Even systems that aim to include everyone aren't going to work for every type of person. In a lot of western countries, America included, education is seen as the epitome of everything; that you can't lead a successful life without a degree. But mental illness is, and should be seen as, a valid hindrance when competing in the same field as people who don't suffer from it. This isn't to say people with mental illness can't compete with others in education, in the job market, but that we shouldn't be afraid to ask for accommodations when we need them. Sometimes my anxiety keeps me from being able to focus on studying, or my depression keeps me bed-ridden for a few hours—and that's okay. My mental health needs to come before any exam, any grade, which is something I don't think our education system teaches.
And you feel that our current system isn’t accommodating? How do you envision one would have made your experience easier?
I mean, it's a tricky thing. I don't think there is a perfect system, as mental illness will undoubtedly cause its sufferers to have unexpected bouts of instability. I think a better system would have softer deadlines, and teachers of different subjects would communicate to make sure they aren't bombarding students with seven tests and four essays in the same week, and students would have time to step outside and take a breath and remember that the world is so much bigger than classrooms—but I also understand it isn't easy for teachers, either. I think most largely, we need to teach our students how big the world is. That if education doesn't work for them, the world is a massive place, and there is most definitely a place for them, regardless of any shit grades or missed deadlines. For example, most Canadian colleges don't even require standardized tests in their college admissions, but do any Americans know that? Are we teaching any of our hyper-stressed students that there are places where standardized education isn't the end all be all? No. And I think that's what needs to change.
Because absolutely, some of the most brilliant kids I know have given up on school—the pressure, the intensity, the stress was just too much—and since they were never taught about a world beyond standardized education, they think their lives are already over. So they're getting in trouble, becoming addicts, because no one told them they can be successful without graduating. And maybe this sounds dramatic, but I've watched it happen. We're losing some of the best minds of my generation, honestly.
We've really just got time for one last question, so let me ask this: How do you define mental health? Obviously, getting A's shouldn't be the only way someone defines self-worth—what does it mean to you for someone to be a strong, healthy individual?
Loving themselves—or learning to. Really, I think that's it.
Thanks for your time Grace, and your words.
Thank you so much, Andrew.