‘We’re all bad’: one scientist’s radical approach to health | Well actually

‘We’re all bad’: one scientist’s radical approach to health |  Well actually
‘We’re all bad’: one scientist’s radical approach to health |  Well actually

Mimi Khúc began thinking about «disease,» or the idea that we all struggle to be «well,» more than a decade ago. At the time, she was a student and a new mother struggling with postpartum depression. She didn’t have the knowledge or the language to talk about what she felt – she just felt like a bad mother to her daughter Elia.

Khúc is now an Asian American, gender, and disability studies scholar who explores and questions the forces that contribute to our malaise. Her new book, Dear Elia: Letters from the Asian American Abyss, brings together many forms—scholarship, essay passages about her own pain, and creative exercises—to stimulate readers’ own reflections on the malaise.

«When you start with the recognition that we are all unwell, that our unwellness is shaped by the structures around us, that changes everything,» says Khúc.

The book continues Khúc’s creative work on mental health topics by referencing a collaborative project called Open in Emergency, which includes a «hacked» Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for Asian Americans and a tarot deck reimagined to reflect the experiences of Asian Americans.

When we first tried to schedule a call, I had to postpone because I had a cold. «Discomfort is calling,» Khúc wrote back to me. And it is, for many of us – more than we know or feel allowed to admit. Ultimately, we came together to discuss the structural nature of the disorder, how to recognize and correct it, and care in the community.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why the term malaise‘?

It doesn’t come with the same baggage as «disease». I’m fine with the word «sickness» – as someone with PTSD and depression, I identify as someone who is sick. But I wanted to move away from individual pathology. I also wanted a term that was big, broad, voluminous, so that it could cover everything we wanted. The nature of what hurts for all of us is gigantic and we are still finding language for it. The existing vocabulary of health or mental health does not always help us.

How dear Elia aim to fight the malaise?

Dear elia is a hybrid project that I call «creative-critical» because it is both scientific and creative. I wanted to use the methods and tools I learned and teach in the humanities to provide people with an expanded mental health vocabulary so that we can better engage with our own illness.

I also focus on universities as a place of malaise. Universities embrace the language of wellness, but defined by hyper-productivity and achievement – ​​take care of yourself, but only so you can be the best worker you can be. It’s a wellness imperative that puts pressure on you to pretend you’re okay and frames not being okay as some kind of personal failure.

What most people don’t realize is that this construct of wellness actually leads to malaise. We are forced to be «fine», to pretend to be fine, to never have needs, to never be sick, because all these things would mean that there is something wrong with us and we don’t really belong. This constant pressure can be deadly.

When you talk about discomfort, you often refer to a specific context, such as being Asian American or working in an academic setting. Why is specificity important when talking about an ailment?

Not that we need to be specific about individuals. But we are social beings within social structures, and these various forces shape our lives.

In mental health or health, when we say «universal,» we don’t really mean that—there’s always an imaginary, typical person. For example, the «universal» person is usually able-bodied, which shows the expectations and assumptions we have about people and their abilities. When it comes to mental health, we tend to assume and expect ‘normal’ levels of health. Once we have specifics, we can trigger this wellness imperative. The next step is how do we create care that matches how we feel bad? Because the goal is care, not health. It begins when we first give ourselves permission to admit that we are not okay, and permission to not be okay.

You have a line in your book: “The professor is sick. The Asian American professor is sick. The professor of Asian American studies is sick. What do each of these degrees of specificity mean to you, and what do they add to your understanding of your own disorder?

Each of these sentences points to different structures and different experiences of discomfort. The university can be an incubator of malaise, encouraging hyper-productivity and compulsory health, and professors sit on both recipient country and delivery of this system. I point out the way in which the idea of ​​the «model minority» shapes even the experiences of professors. And I call out to my colleagues in Asian American studies because even in a field that critiques inequality and injustice, we still hold to mandatory health and perpetuate harm against each other.

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When you started talking to your Asian American Studies students about malaise, with these different exercises and concepts, what did that unlock?

In Asian immigrant families, there are these ideas of filial duty, of owing your parents for their sacrifice. Asian children of immigrants don’t want to feel like they’re cheating on their parents. There is an idea that your success is the best way to show that you are grateful. All of this begins to intersect and accelerate at university. I heard from my students that they all thought they were playing catch-up; it felt like everyone else was doing better than them. They all had an individualized sense of failure.

Add to that the expectations of the able-bodied that faculty and universities often have, and model minoritization—it can be a lot. It feels like a matter of life or death for college students, and when you look at things like suicide rates, you see that it often is.

How do we connect the recognition of discomfort with the need or desire to be ambitious, to continue participating in things like school or work?

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My students often ask me this. They want to know how to let go of systems that are killing us, but still be able to navigate those systems. They have to finish, right? They have to find a job, pay the bills. My answer isn’t necessarily to drop out of school or not work – although if you want to, that’s OK!

But don’t internalize what these systems are telling you. Don’t believe that when you struggle, when something is difficult, when you «fail,» it’s your fault. Don’t believe that something is wrong with you because you need rest or care. We all deserve rest and care – and joy and meaning and safety and belonging – whether we achieve things or not. Whatever spaces you move through, make as much space as possible for your own humanity and the humanity of others. And find others to do this work with you.

How do you recommend people begin to recognize their own malaise?

Recognizing your own malaise is hard, never-ending work. The first step is finding people who won’t bounce harmful health messages back at us. We need to create spaces where it’s safe to admit that you’re not okay and that life is unbearably hard sometimes—perhaps all the time—spaces with others who aren’t afraid to witness your discomfort. I call this «staying by my side at the edge of the abyss.»

You need people who will stick with you, because only then can we begin to build the care we really need. We recognize our discomfort together and then together we figure out what we need. And then we build it together.

Let’s say I’ve identified and acknowledged my own malaise…then what?

This is always a big question: “how do I fix it?” Unfortunately, most of us cannot make major structural changes in a university or other institutions. But we can campaign for them and start asking for them. If you are a university student, you can individually request accommodation by assignment or you can organize with other students to collectively request accommodation.

Even just talking to other people about what you might need can help – we often can’t imagine the things we’d like to ask for. We need to build communities where people feel safe to ask what they need and ask for the help they need. Every space you move in is a place to recognize an ailment, and every space is a place to ask for care.

Since struggling with these ideas, how have you changed your approach to teaching, work, or life?

I have changed my teaching quite a bit. I’ve always tried to focus my students, but when it became clear to me that my students weren’t doing well—and the pandemic made that much more clear—it forced me to rethink and re-prioritize. A colleague of mine once asked this question: what if caring was the first goal of training? What if the purpose of a classroom was to create care as a core part of learning?

Thinking about discomfort, studying it, being in it has fundamentally changed my approach to everything I do. And if the malaise is structural, then the care should be so. Self-care is an individual solution to an individual problem, completely detached from the social context. We need structures of care that address the actual forces that make life feel unbearable.

So what should these structures look like – in everything you do? In the classroom. At the work place. In public spaces. In the family and home. Asking this question in every space you walk through changes every space you walk through. And I realized that this is the only way we can live and maybe get through this thing called life.

dear Elia is now published through Duke University Press.