When I was attending the community college I went to here in Florida back in the 90's, I was in the trenches of horrible depression to the point that I constantly thought about suicide, and I was still anorexic. I can't say I was "living with depression and anorexia", because they were mostly ruling my life. But then I took an English composition course. And, as you may have noticed, I like writing. So I loved that course. I had never had a course I loved that much before. The professor was this rather serious looking poet who was extremely knowledgeable about literature and who proved he was laid back by playing his guitar in his office for all the other professors to hear, and riding his motorcycle to work. I liked him immediately. When I would get my papers back after he graded them, there would be all these detailed comments about what he liked in them, and my favorite was when he told me, "this is really Funny!" on a paper I wrote that I thought would only be amusing to me. He would underline the parts that he wanted to emphasize in the paper. I mean, you could tell that, unlike some other professors I have known, he sat down and actually read every word of your paper.
A lot of the other students thought he was tough. He wasn't an easy professor who gave out A's to everyone. But I never found his classes too difficult, just challenging in a good way. His classes made me work harder to be a better writer, and that was something nobody had ever really challenged me to do until that point. And then I would go, brooding, into his office, to say, "Could you please look at this paper, because I don't want to fail your class", and he would say, "Sit down. Let's talk about it." He was always a professor with an open door policy, so you could approach him about ho w you were doing in the class, and get extra help. He never seemed to think I needed extra help, but I thought I did because my self esteem sucked. And also, I just liked talking to him because he was always giving out tidbits of information about writers and writing and great literature. I mentioned in my last post my difficulty with reading, but I read quite a bit for his composition course and also for his American literature course that I took after that.
One of the things he had us do in his Composition course was keep a journal. Mine was always going off into the dark side of my mind, and sometimes it would talk frankly about depression. He never looked down on me for that. He told me once about having taken antidepressants, and all the people he knew who took them, and I was so relieved at this person who I respected being so down to earth to tell me that was human too. He didn't stigmatize me or anybody else with a mental illness, which is a lot more than I can say for most people I've come across in my lifetime. At one point, he told me, "I think you're bored here. Why don't you try going to (a good local, liberal arts college) or someplace. I think you'd be a smaller fish in a big pond there rather than the big fish in a little pond like you are here." But I didn't really think I was smart enough to go to that other college. After his encouragement, however, I decided to take the SAT. It was 1997. I was 22 years old, and I had never taken the SAT because neither one of my parents ever cared if I went to college nor encouraged me to go. He said, "Why don't you take the SAT and just see how you do. I think you'll blow away the verbal section". I went and got an SAT study guide book, and I would sit late at night in fast food places, where it was easier to have peace than it was at my mom's house, and I would study that book. I took the SAT. I got a perfect score on the verbal section. It was absolutely astonishing to me, and the first thing I did was email Dr. Byrd and tell him, "Thank you." He made me believe in myself; he gave me hope when I lacked it.
In American Literature, he encouraged me to study the Harlem Renaissance, which I knew nothing about, and I studied it vigorously and came to love that time in our history in this country. I remember when he passed out Edward Arlington Robinson's poem, "Richard Cory" to the class, and I said, "I don't need one, I know it". He put me on the spot and said, "Okay, if you know it so well, tell us what it says". I recited it. It was a poem about a man who committed suicide. I was for whatever reason, always comfortable sharing my dark thoughts with Dr. Byrd. Now, years later, I can feel embarrassed about that and sorry that I bothered him so much with my depression, but he never made me feel embarrassed about it.
Once when I moved from Florida to Baltimore by myself, I stopped at the home of Dr. Byrd and his wife, in North Carolina on my way. I had car trouble, and he helped me get my car fixed and looked at it for me, because besides being brilliant about literature, he knows how to fix cars. I remember feeling so welcomed in their home. I stayed overnight and went on to Maryland the next day.
When things started to really fall apart because the center could not hold, it was Dr. Byrd who I confided in. I wrote to him when I thought I had multiple personalities. This is hard even now to talk about, because I still don't fully understand what happened in my head at that time, but I became convinced that there were other parts of me with names. Somehow, this idea made sense before I knew what delusions or hallucinations were, and before I knew I suffered from those. So I made a complete idiot out of myself, sending people emails written like they were from a little girl named Jenny, or from my sleazy persona named Amber. Most of my friends, the few that I had at the time, freaked out about this, and then ditched me for life. Dr. Byrd didn't. He was never one to say, "You're really f'd up, get the hell out of my life", like some of my other supposed friends did. He was one who had some kind of super human patience to put up with my craziness.
Dr. Byrd got his PhD and published chap books of poetry. I kept in touch with him when I was suicidal, when I was hallucinating, when I was in and out of hospitals, when I was homeless. He usually always wrote back. I appreciated that greatly. I then went on to get a bit better, and that is where this blog started. I got diagnosed, and I got treatment, and I left full-blown, 24/7 HELL for a better if still slightly imperfect version of mental illness. I began to live. One day, I was at the Unitarian Universalist church, which is the only church I'd go into, and Dr. Byrd, his wife, and their daughter were there. I had no idea they went to that church, and I hadn't seen him in years. It was so surprising and yet it made so much sense that they would be in a place for people who are open-minded, socially conscious folks.
When I got a job at the community college where he teaches, Dr. Byrd told me that he went into the faculty lounge and said, "One of my former students is now working here and she is smarter than everybody in this room". He would tell me things like that, and even though I couldn't really believe it myself, he made me have more reason to believe in myself than I ever had before. Whenever I have needed a letter of recommendation, it was Dr. Byrd who was happy to help. He told the admissions department at my university when they didn't want to let me in because of all the classes I had dropped years before, that he would personally come and talk to the Dean on my behalf (he didn't have to actually do that). A couple years ago, Dr. Byrd received a Fulbright grant to go and teach English in Albania. By this point, his wife, who is super-friendly and also smart, had gone through getting her Master's Degree to become a therapist. I went to the party that they had at their house to celebrate her graduation and his Fulbright, but I was too uncomfortable amongst rooms full of professors to talk to anyone. So she sat down next to me and talked to me. I deeply appreciated that. When they left town, Dr. Byrd created a blog, and his wife created one too, where you could keep; tabs on their adventures. I enjoyed reading their experiences living abroad and their insights into the difference in culture they found there in Albania.
A few months ago, Dr. Byrd told me he had cancer. Hodgkin's Disease. I was shocked because it never seems fair when life strikes against good people who don't deserve to suffer. I was impressed, however, with his attitude towards it. Even through chemotherapy, he rides his bike up to 37 miles a day, and he never feels sorry for himself.He told me he is going to recover, and he told me that he is not going to die. I believe that. I think he will recover. I think he will go on to keep teaching. And I think one day, when I finally write a book, he will be the main person I acknowledge in it and who I say, "thank you" to for helping me get this far along. I hope that he knows how much I appreciate everything he has done for me, and I hope that he knows how admirable he is as a human being. Last year, when I started at the university I attend now, and became psychotic, Dr. Byrd sent me a video clip in email from the movie The Edge, where Anthony Hopkins directs Alec Baldwin to "kill the bear". I posted that video on this blog. In a book I made full of little, basic instructions to follow when I feel like I can't get out of bed, I have a page that says, "kill the bear". Thank you, Dr. Byrd for helping me through the muck.