Columns, Opinions

Julianne Center: Dreams and diagnoses

Guest Columnist
Friday, May 24, 2019

I joined The Brown Daily Herald because I wanted to be Rory Gilmore. It was as simple as that. I was a small-town-girl from Southern California, and I knew no one who had navigated the brick-patterned halls of the Ivy League beside my dear friend Rory.

I thought there would be an interview. My school had no newspaper and I had no experience, so instead I packed a black pencil skirt and blazer for the occasion and carted it across the country in my family’s Subaru. There was no interview, and for my first meeting, I wore jeans just like everyone else.

I didn’t know much about journalism at the time. I knew my father had the Los Angeles Times delivered each morning. I could still feel the snow melting in my slippers as I trudged across the driveway to fetch it for him on cold winter mornings. I knew I hated Bill O’Reilly, that man who shouted through my father’s TV — but I still thought he was a journalist.

The Herald taught me otherwise, and they taught me by doing. Ethics training, workshop and practice article completed, I received my first real article. It was a snoozefest that only my mother and the editors of The Herald read. Looking back, I don’t think any of my (otherwise, very supportive) friends have ever really read an article I wrote for The Herald. Looking back, I’m not sure I blame them.

But I was hooked. I was going to become a journalist, I told my on-and-off hometown boyfriend, and that would bind me to the East Coast, to a wild life that could not include him. Everything else fell behind this dream.

I loved the hours I spent in the office writing headlines, covering breaking news and laughing with fellow Heralders. I loved the way my friends sighed when I said, “I’m off to The Herald!” I loved editing articles, mentoring writers and interviewing people. Even though I hated cutting each and every Oxford comma, I loved that 195 Angell St. was home.

The next summer, my life fell apart. And it wasn’t just because I didn’t get the big-time journalism internship I craved. I walked in and out of the San Bernardino County Crisis Clinic and straight to the pharmacy next door. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression alongside my sister, with whom I walked in and out of hospitals and offices and pharmacies for her own crises. Not only was I responsible for keeping myself alive, but my sister, too. Luckily, I did. We did.

But my identity was split. This new self, who had trouble getting out of bed in the morning, seemed irreconcilable with the editor who stayed up until 2 a.m. to finish a newspaper, then hit the library and still made it to her 9 a.m. the next day.

Luckily, I didn’t have to grapple with this much. Junior fall, I studied abroad in Barcelona, soaking myself in sangria, siestas and Spanish poetry. I was so immediately happy I forgot to be depressed. When spring rolled around, I assured myself I was healed enough to serve on the 128th Editorial Board. As I would learn, mental illness doesn’t work that way.

A little known fact about The Herald: Serving on the editorial board, you spend three to five nights a week on production, which spans from 5 p.m. to whenever the paper is finished, probably somewhere around 1 a.m. on a good night. That’s anywhere from 24 to 40 hours a week. Now add on at least — at least — three meetings a week, which are probably two hours each, reporters’ training on Sunday mornings, emails and late-night phone calls and other ship-running responsibilities. You’re looking at more than a full-time job on top of being a full-time student, never mind a full-time human being.

But I was ready for the commitment. At the end of my first semester on the editorial board, that official half-year mark, I stood atop the counters with other Herald leaders I admired to give a toast. I looked out at the sea of faces that made a daily newspaper possible: writers, photographers, copy editors, designers, videographers and more. I said some sappy words about family. My favorite copy editor teared up. I did, too. This was home.

Another summer passed and when it was time to begin my second and final semester on The Herald’s editorial board, I was less whole. There were new marks upon my wrist. I should have taken a step back then, should have stepped down from my position, but I felt as if I couldn’t let this family down.

So I continued on until I couldn’t anymore. I was three-quarters of the way through my dream when my mental health forced me to step down from The Herald. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. I’d like to think that, under the same circumstances, Rory Gilmore would have done the same.

The ship, of course, sailed on. The Herald hasn’t weathered 129 years to go down when one sail tears.

Still, the decision did teach me a lot about family. Like most Herald members, I sat through many workshops about mental health. But when I stepped down, I did not do so with the support I wanted from my fellow editorial board members. They said the right things, but there was little behind their words. I entered a new period of silence, with very little follow-up, from the people with whom I had once spent 40 hours each week.

I did not receive an invitation to the end-of-semester toast I had given just one semester before. I was in bed when a member of the new editorial board called. They asked that I come, and I did. I almost cried tears of joy on the way there.

But as I listened to the toast that I had given just months ago, I noticed those standing on the counters, my old family, avoided my gaze. They made no mention of my presence. Nothing was said as I walked out the door.

To some extent, I expected this. There were expectations of me that I could not fulfill, and disappointment is natural.

But this story might be broader than The Herald. As far as this campus has come, we still struggle to navigate mental health well. We may say we are progressive. We may say mental health comes first. But it is hard to know what to say when actual people in our lives experience mental illness. So often, we say nothing.

The Herald gave me a home, but it did not give me a family. And when I could no longer live in that home, it was my real family — those friends who waited up while I spent long hours at production — that picked up the pieces.

I do not mean to single out an organization that has brought knowledge, awareness, professional skills, community and even love to this campus. But I do mean to tell those suffering that it’s okay to take a step back. It’s okay to disappoint some people. It’s okay to save your life. And it is worth the empty stares, the empty words and the empty silences that may follow.

I mean to say that we should build homes where there is family. And I mean to say that we need to do better when we talk about mental health. Here’s a shot into that emptiness.

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