Paper Eyes

This is an essay I wrote years ago during a coming-of-age moment in my life. I recently found it and realized that this might have been the moment when I decided to plunge full-on into the world of mental health.


It’s ten o’clock on a Thursday night, and I remember sophomore year all too well. There was a classroom at the end of the hall, one with an empty desk, an empty box of tissues, and fifteen students who sat there like paper dolls, faces frozen. That day, our counselor followed that empty desk from classroom to classroom with a brave face, but in the privacy of bathroom stalls, the rest of us had panic attacks—everything that they told us, all the signs and the warnings and the things we’re supposed to do to help, flashed through our heads. There are rules, you know. Pamphlets.

The pamphlets say the suicidal are supposed to be more irritable. They should show signs of serious depression and lose interest in things that they used to love. They should have trouble sleeping. They might become angry or have mood swings or get involved in drugs. At the very least, they’re supposed to lose their smile. But as hard as I try, I cannot imagine the girl who sat in that now-empty desk without a smile on her face. She had a slender mouth. Poised, corners up.

There are rules. She should have known the rules.

But you know what? It’s ten o’clock on a Thursday night, and I’m staring at a mirror, thinking of that empty chair. My eyes begin to burn, but nothing—not a flicker of emotion, of my thoughts, of the world beyond—flashes across my face. I don’t know if it’s natural or if we have been taught to don a mask of repose, but I do know that, oftentimes, that’s all our expressions really are: masks.

How could we have ever believed that the complexity of the human consciousness could be displayed in the finite world of two eyes, one nose, a slash of a mouth, and thirty-two teeth that are never straight enough anyway? We are master actors, con men. We paint our faces on every morning and tell ourselves that we can somehow see past the stoic masks and paper eyes that everyone else wears. But we can’t. Masks don’t mean anything. Even the suicidal smile.

We understand very little about our own mind, but it’s not people like me who suffer—it’s those whose souls have been hooked and twisted and battered down until they live their everyday lives in more pain than any human being should ever have to endure. There are people in this world whose brains have decided to malfunction and make the world into a much more dangerous place than it really is. These are the people who look in the mirror and see nothing worth a life on this earth, people who cannot make it through the day without dragging a blade across their arms. We pass these individuals in the streets and never think twice—they look perfectly happy to us, just regular passersby whom we’ll forget in only a moment or two.

We cannot help because we do not notice. We think that suicide and depression come with black eyeliner and skinny jeans, but in reality, it comes with golden hair and slender smiles. It comes with the best laughs. It comes with beautiful families and good grades and loving friends. We’ve turned mental illness into some distant issue that we can ignore, something that happens to someone Somewhere Else. Yet, one in five adults have a mental health disorder. Mental illness is NOT distant. It’s in our homes, our families, our workplaces, our schools.

Why does my generation need to seriously address the way we view and treat mental illness? Because there are rules, and there are lies. Because my high school experience has taught me that books and grades don’t matter if the person sitting next to you won’t live to graduate.

Because it’s 10 o’clock on a Thursday night. My neighbor just fell asleep crying in the lap of someone on the verge of a panic attack. There’s a girl on the couch ridden with her mother’s guilt and a girl in the other room who counts the seconds until she turns eighteen so that she can starve herself without intervention. This is my world. Sophomore year a beautiful golden girl shattered any belief I might have had that someone Somewhere Else is suffering. And living on-campus among my peers showed me that there are more of us who suffer than I could have ever imagined.

If we don’t talk about it, nothing will get better. The best therapy in the world can’t help the girl who whose family refuses to get her treatment. Inspiring blog posts cannot help the boy who is told at every corner he turns that mental illness makes him weak, broken, untouchable. The best medicine can’t help those who are left to rot in the street because they see a different reality than we do. We don’t just need mental health reform.

We need a mental health revolution.

But there’s no revolution right now. It’s ten o’clock on a Thursday night. Soon we’ll go to bed where maybe in our sleep we can find the peace we’ve spent a lifetime looking for, the peace which we’ve dared to pray for in the liminal space between consciousness and our dreams. If we cannot sleep, we’ll whisper our pains to ourselves, and, if the walls have ears, we’ll murmur to the paint and the plaster and the posters and the tacks. The walls hear everything. The golden girl’s empty chair says everything. But until we gain a better understanding of our own, impossible minds, our eyes are paper, and our faces will say nothing at all.


Photo credit: Abecedarian Gallery via / CC BY-ND



3 Comments Add yours

  1. So well said and true. The more people who are talking the more we can’t be ignored.


    1. julieryanhuff says:

      That’s a perfect way to put it. Thank you.


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