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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Effects of Trauma: I Was an Underachiever

Here I sit with my Ph.D., forty years in education, and with accolades and awards, I would dare to make such a statement? Yes, it was on my report cards as a child. “I enjoyed having Jeannie in my class this year. She is not working up to her potential.” No, I never did. I wanted to, but could not.

This week while scrolling through Facebook, I ran across an article about Charles Haddon Spurgeon that detailed his struggles with mental health and depression. It was fascinating that he was so willing to discuss mental health in an era when little was known about the causes. When did the church and society attach stigma? Then, almost at the end of the article the author said, “Spurgeon’s depression didn’t hinder his ministry – in fact, it helped it.” (Source) Good to know that when he wrote, “I pity a dog who has to suffer what I have,” it was actually at all helpful to his ministry.

I understand the point—it made him sympathetic to those who also suffered; but seriously, how can we say over 100 years later that his mental illness helped his ministry? I just can’t believe Spurgeon himself, on the really dark days, thought it was at all helpful. In Spurgeon’s writings, he mentions Sundays when the depression kept him from the pulpit. This was not helpful.I am sure in many ways, he grew close to God as he struggled, but in his day-to-day life, it didn't seem at all helpful.

Let me just say right now, to anyone, who in 100 years wants to say that what I suffered helped my ministry or profession—stop! I was an underachiever. Has God enabled me to live my life and use my suffering to help others? Absolutely! But there is so much I would have done if I had not been crawling out of the darkness on a daily basis.

As I began to unwind my story, I realized the great effort I had expended to simply live. The complexity of my dissociative system that allowed me to appear to be living like everyone else was a thing of beauty but had as many functioning parts as a well-crafted Swiss watch. I always knew I needed more sleep than the average person—now I understand why! (See: The Parts of a Watch—between 130 and 1728?)

I know, without a doubt why teachers said I was never working up to my potential. I was gifted with a most excellent brain, but everything I did required so much effort because of the constant buzz in my head. I was never going to be Valedictorian! Memorization was nearly impossible. I read more slowly than almost everyone I knew. There were dozens of scripts and conversations running in my head that were horribly distracting. Retaining specific information for any length of time was nearly impossible. (Also remembering rules—like where commas go—my editor knows this issue and my blog readers have surely noticed.) I lived for essay tests. I could wax eloquent and eventually hit on the answer!

I worked very hard for every ‘A’ I received—and didn’t always live up to the potential that every teacher, instructor, and professor saw. Even my own mother lamented that I appeared to just be average. Like many, she could not see beyond the effects of my trauma. I am thankful for my dad who never accepted it and called me genius every morning.

Yet it would appear to most that my mental illness never affected my professional accomplishments or life. I lived a truly wonderful life; but what of the books I never published? Or the remarkable doctoral research piece my committee applauded and begged me to publish? What about the research universities where I never applied to teach? What about the research studies I dreamed of but never started because it wasn’t within the scope of the places where I chose to teach (and hide)?

It is easy to look at a life and be amazed at what he or she did accomplish while never seeing what wasn’t accomplish because of mental illness. Think Vincent Van Gogh. Also think of so many other gifted individuals who have tragically ended their lives. We really have no idea what the human potential of any individual actually might be. This applies to our gifted students who are not challenged and it applies to our traumatized children who achieve below average despite the glimmers of pure intelligence that amaze us.

Yes, in some ways my mental illness did help me achieve great things. My story, hidden even from myself, made many a student feel safe as they poured their broken hearts out to me in my office. My determination to laugh and brighten the world brought great levity to many. My tenacity served me well in my educational endeavors. The creativity, which enabled my child-self to create a world an inner world in which she could survive, carried over to being a very creative teacher and my students reaped the rewards.My need to be stellar really did propel me--but not always in very healthy ways. Yet, there is so much I accomplished!

No, I have no regrets.

But please don’t say my struggles did not affect me or anyone else who suffers from mental illness. The loss of not addressing and healing mental health issues affects our families and society every single day. It arrives inside the children when they come through the classroom door. It lives in their homes. It lives in our churches and society. The effects are everywhere, even when every effort is taken to keep them hidden.

And next time we think a child is an underachiever, we must stop and realize he or she may be achieving far more than we could ever even imagine!

I did.

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