I believe I am the second-oldest freshman within the Clemson family. I am a 62-year old, disabled, dual British-American, disadvantaged, low-income senior citizen, and yet, I made it into the Clemson family. After a long and arduous wander through my very own tunnel of oppression.
You may be wondering why the language about ‘tunnel of oppression.’ That’s because this article was originally one of the scripts chosen for the Gantt Center’s 2019 MLK Celebration Tunnel of Oppression performance. I’m posting it now inspired as I was by Liza Hunter’s wonderful piece about anxiety in the February 2019 printed edition of The Tiger.
Anyways, back to the narrative, it was 2018, and I was applying for disability due to certain physical ailments. Some kind soul, in whichever government agency it was, asked me if I had mental health issues.
What?! Me?! Nah. I’m British and I went to boarding school, you know, like Harry Potter. We don’t do mental health issues in Great Britain, stiff upper lip, hold in those tears and build character. Right, came the less than convinced response.
I told my sisters about the question and answer, and wondered why they were collapsing in hysterical laughter. Go back, they said, change the answer to ‘yes.’ And start taking care of yourself.
I did, and so began a long, painful journey into the interior of my psyche, my very soul. Along the way, I learned what it meant to have to stand in front of strangers, strip myself naked – in a metaphorical and psychological context – and admit to having ‘problems.’
It is not easy, not at any age, and certainly not at age 62. When one feels one has led a perfectly ‘normal’ life up to that point. For me, the tunnel of oppression began with myself. My admission to myself that I had these ‘problems.’
After that, it was learning to face other people. More importantly, it was realizing that ‘mental health,’ ‘anxiety disorder’, and ‘panic attack’ are not expressions of weakness.
We are all fragile creatures. Science, with all its advances, is still unable to reproduce the grace of a ballet dancer. A computer can’t write poetry, paint a landscape or evoke laughter with an original joke.
Yet, the human ability to do all of this can so easily be waylaid by a blood vessel clogging or a synapse breaking down. We are wondrously complex, yet infinitely fragile, and in my case, I have the triple whammy: I am old, I have PTSD (as I discovered after a year’s intense psychotherapy), and I have next to no income.
All of this might have been negotiable, except for having to apply for disability. I speak no ill of the folks who manage the process. They have forms to fill, supervisors to please, and policy to comply with.
But, it is a grueling process, and one that strips away any sense of dignity and pride. I got through it, only then to find myself with nothing to do. I did not want to become the old geezer (sorry, British slang!), sitting on his own, in a dark room, staring at a wall.
Someone suggested taking classes, and I knew of Clemson‘s reputation, so I applied. I love being here at Clemson, within its family. But even with Clemson, there is process, and at age 62, with disability, and little income, it can be daunting – even though the Clemson folks went out of their way to make their process as easy as possible. At least all this bureaucracy taught me not to be too intimidated. By pretty much anything!
But this is not always the case for individuals facing their own tunnel of oppression. It is a hard fact of life that the very people facing the longest and most difficult tunnels are very often those folks with the fewest resources, natural and monetary, with which to negotiate their own tunnels.
And another lesson? Everyone has a tunnel of oppression. There is little value in comparison. To the individuals concerned, the level of fright is the same for everyone. Tunnels of oppression are never far away from all of us. Even at Clemson, even with the person sitting next to you, even in your own future, be on the lookout, be sensitive, be gentle, and remember that fragility can come to all of us. Any time.